Television Cliffhangers and Sermon Writing

As a fan of good television, I look forward to the end of May with a sense of anticipation. It is during this time that television shows will traditionally end their season. (Now with some broadcast shows doing shorter runs, modeling their cable counterparts, this tradition has been lessened in recent years.)

Each show, especially if it is coming back for another season, will follow some basic storyline techniques for this final episode, especially if the show is one that follows a storyline arc for several episodes. It will either close up the main storylines for the season or the show will set the stage for what the next season will focus on. The latter of these options is called a “cliffhanger.”

Some cliffhangers have been more popular than others, such as the classic cliffhanger from “Dallas” that led to the “Who Shot J.R.?,” hysteria in 1980. Since then, other shows have been strategic about how to do use the plot device whether by bringing in a new romantic interest, have you thinking about who might be dead, or if the show will continue without “jumping the shark.”

Regardless of how they are used, cliffhangers are meant to produce an emotional response. Writers use them to get you excited about what is coming next in the storyline or the upcoming season. You come back to watch, because “you have” to find out what happened to the characters. Are they in line? Who died? Did the show improve?

Cliffhangers are an effective communications strategy. But, what if we used them in preaching? What if are preaching was done in such a way that enticed people to come back and hear how the story of Christ’s love will continue? It would seem that many of Jesus’ parables were expressed in ways that left you waiting for the “big reveal.” Jesus’ preaching made you come back for me not just because he is the Son of God, but because he led you to wanting to know “what’s coming next.”

In much of our rational discourse of ideas, which includes much of how we do preaching, this concept seems to be ignored. We often craft sermons (and I am just as guilty about this) in ways that ties everything together in a nice little bow. Each message becomes a “one off” sermon or a “how to” description of applying some aspect of Christ’s teaching to our life. By this, preaching becomes devoid of the grand narrative not just of Scripture but of our lives. Even more, we do not give a reason for someone to come back and hear “what’s next” when we tie things together nicely.

Preaching should reach appeal not just to our minds, but also to our hearts. We do injustice to the gospel and to our congregations if we suggest that preaching is just a head matter that has no connectivity to our heart. It is in the depths of our soul, our heart, where we first find connection to our story with Christ and only later is that heart connection matched with the mind.

As we craft each sermon and pray over the text, perhaps a question we should be asking are these: How does this reach into a person’s soul? (And as Ellsworth Kalas would suggest, how does it reach into my own soul?) Does it lead someone to want to hear more about Christ?

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