Last month I had the opportunity to attend a dinner honoring Karl Hochreither, who was the first music director of the Grand Rapids Bach Festival. The Bach Festival, founded ten years ago and held every two years, involves both professional and amateur musicians in concerts celebrating the music of my favorite composer, J.S. Bach.
Coincidentally, Karl Hochreither was my organ teacher in 1974-75, when I studied church music in West Berlin, Germany. Herr Hochreither was a master at organ technique. He taught me how Bach intended his music to be played, including articulation, phrasing and registration. But Karl understood that musicians are not meant to be technical robots. It’s not perfection we seek; it’s passion. Once we learn the notes, then we have to make the music our own. Karl’s greatest gift to me was that he empowered me to develop my own style. Through his mentoring, Karl gave me a voice.
On the night we honored Hochreither at St. Cecilia Music Society in Grand Rapids, I happened to pick up the March/April 2007 issue of Making Music. An article by Scott “The Piano Guy” Houston caught me eye. It was titled, “Are You a Creator, or a Re-creator?”
Houston says that there are two types of musicians. Re-creators attempt to restate exactly what is on the score. Their goal is to perfectly reproduce the notes on a page. When re-creators perform, however, music is often boring, unemotional and sterile.
What lends excitement to music is non-perfection, Houston claims. Developing our own self-expression and giving our unique interpretation to an already composed musical piece creates a one of a kind performance. When creators perform, music comes alive and touches heart and soul.
In the same way that music is filtered through the musician, so God’s Word is filtered through the preacher. Are you a creator or a re-creator in your sermons? Just as we arrive at originality in music by how creatively we interpret notes on a score to a live audience, so originality in preaching results from how creatively we interpret the Scriptures to our congregation week after week.
It’s important to know that J.S. Bach did not always compose original music. On occasion, he would use his own previously composed music to write new music. But Bach would also borrow snippets from other composers or use secular tunes to create something entirely new.
So you and I rarely write completely original sermons. We are always borrowing stories, ideas and thoughts from books, commentaries, journals, the newspaper and the sermon of others. Did you read Thomas Long’s article, “Stolen Goods” in the April 17, 2007, issue of Christian Century? Long writes about the impact of the Internet on contemporary sermon preparation and how easy it is to steal entire sermons on line and pass them off as our own. We all know that plagiarism is unacceptable. Ethically, we are called to cite references whenever we borrow or quote directly from others.
Excellence in sermon preparation, however, will never come from preaching verbatim what someone else has written but from creating our own style. The Word is filtered through the preacher. You and the Word are inseparable. You are the medium. People receive the word through you, whether you intend it to happen or not.
As the writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is nothing new under the sun. Millions of sermons have been preached on every text I have ever used for a sermon. Our preaching may not be original, but what makes preaching creative is the fact that no one else but we have ever preached on John 14:23-29 on May 13, 2007, to our particular congregation. We make a sermon our own by addressing the individual needs of a congregation at that time and place. That’s why, when we come up empty on a Saturday night, we can’t even retrieve a sermon from our own sermon barrel unless we adapt it for our current context.
Your congregation doesn’t want to hear Billy Graham, Fred Craddock, Will Willimon or Adam Hamilton on Sunday morning. They want to hear you, for the Word becomes flesh through you every week. They don’t want perfection, either. They want passion. They want you to create a living breathing work of art as you allow God to speak through you. They want to be touched, inspired and motivated to be disciples of Jesus Christ. Most of all, they want to become creators themselves.
Karl Hochreither taught me that good technique is only a means to an end. He liberated me from thinking I had to play the organ perfectly. That lesson freed me to create my own style, not re-create someone else’s style. I’ve tried to view preaching in the same way. May God empower you to preach with passion, creativity and non-perfection.