Some Thoughts On The Genre Of Sermonette

For at least three periods of my adult life (first, from 2004 to 2006, then from 2011 and 2012, and from 2015 to the present-day), I have been a writer and a speaker in an obscure genre of religious writing called the sermonette [1].  Within the liturgy of the Church of God tradition, the sermonette is the shortest of three types of message which are differentiated based on their length.  The sermonette is supposed to be about ten to fifteen minutes in length.  The next longest message, the split sermon, is supposed to be about half an hour or a bit longer, while the sermon is generally around an hour in length, although in the hands of some it can be considerably longer.  As the sermonette has a worthwhile and interesting history, I think it merits a longer investigation than it typically receives, not least because it presents us with a case study when it comes to various questions of history as well as homiletics.  And whether or not someone is familiar with the genre, there are certainly some insights that can result from becoming familiar with it.

At least as far as the church of God is concerned, the origins of the sermonette spring from the time of the 1960’s or so, when efforts to build up congregations presented the ministry with both a concern and an opportunity.  Given the growth of congregations, there became a need for people who were qualified to speak, who were knowledgeable about the Bible and competent to teach it to others in church services, who were able to organize a message and who had enough confidence and poise to deliver the message in a thoughtful manner.  To be sure, ten to fifteen minutes is not a very long message to give, and this very small size to work with has presented some of the most important limitations of the genre as a whole.  Given the small space of time, one has to be very focused with one’s message since one only has the time to discuss a few scriptures and none in a particular degree of depth.  Writing and delivering sermonettes in many ways is like working with very restrictive poetic genres like the haiku or the sonnet, where one’s very strict confines provides the opportunity to create elegance through elision and concise writing.  At least it provides this opportunity; it remains for the skill of the speaker/writer to bring this out.

Within the sermonette, there are various sub-genres that are worthy of our attention.  Among them is the offertory, a message that was far more common in the past, and a message that served as the introductory sermonette on a holy day.  Many people who give offertories focus on the same very small set of familiar scriptures that deal with the giving of offerings, but when I was tasked with giving this sort of message when I lived in Thailand, and at the Feast of Tabernacles in various locations, I have sought to provide offertory messages that were tailored to the specific Feasts in mind, based on the stories of offerings that the Bible provides that are not familiar to many people, thus putting a bit of life into what many people think of as a played-out genre.  Other sermonette types can be defined based on what they do.  There are some sermonettes that are structured around various passages–for example, the “difficult scriptures” sermonette that takes a single contentious scripture, or even a single word within a single scripture, and then proceeds to explain it and set it in its proper context over the course of a single short message.  Still other speakers attempt to cover larger topics by putting sermonettes in a sequence to be part of a series, although given the fact that in many congregations people only give sermonettes infrequently–in Portland semonette speakers usually have five to seven opportunities to give a message over the course of a year, this is not often a good solution since few people will remember a sermonette by the time the next part of the series comes along.

For many people–and this includes both audience members as well as ministers, the sermonette serves as the warm-up or introductory act.  A good sermonette can provide a tie-in that the sermon speaker can use as a hook to get the attention of the audience.  It can provide a topical reference that can deal with mundane doctrinal concerns over the interpretations of messages or can provide some biblical discussion to increase the knowledge a congregation has of the scriptures in a short and appealing package.  Often sermonette speakers are encouraged to warm up the audience through humorous and appropriate jokes and stories, although admittedly I have frequently given messages whose serious nature and content has precluded a great deal of levity, even if I endeavor to always give messages with a sense of energy and enthusiasm that keeps things from being too dark and gloomy most of the time I would hope.  Generally speaking, as long as the sermonette speaker is aware of the narrow scope that can be addressed and manages to keep a good focus on something sufficiently small, the message can work very well.

As someone who gives sermonettes (and the more rare split sermon) relatively frequently–not only in my home congregation but occasionally in other congregations I visit as well as the occasional Feast of Tabernacles, especially abroad, I tend to find that keeping sermonettes fresh and interesting requires a great deal of effort and study, not least in seeking to find stories that are not often mentioned that can provide something worthwhile to the listener, and eventually to the reader.  What I find personally is that what is not said can be just as important as what is said, as one can allude to there being far more that could be mentioned (which provides suggestions for other people to read the Bible on their own or provides the opportunity for later messages that explore a given subject further).  At times one can simply remain silent about a certain relevant aspect of a given message and see whether and to what extent people show themselves aware of the repercussions and consequences of a message.

For example, I gave a sermonette this past Sabbath that included at least two such massive implications that I chose to leave unsaid, one of them pointing to the future and the other pointing to the past.  At least a few of the listeners of the message understood in my comments about the sorts of trials and difficulties that can come to believers to be a reference to times of tribulation that believers may yet suffer in the future, providing a bit of a polite and subtle warning to people not to be complacent and assume that they are in a safe place.  I was pleased that this implication was understood.  The other implication was that there are many terrible things that believers have suffered in the course of their lives and such terrible things bring with them a great deal of difficulties in recognizing and appreciating the goodness of God’s providence.  Given my own life experiences I wanted to leave this as a gentle implication of a very harrowing and unpleasant scriptural passage that has rather deep personal implications for myself and others.  I am not sure whether that implicit point was understood, but I hope at least a few people understood that I was not aiming for cringy but rather a subtle form of encouragement and understanding.

Far more than other forms of speaking, the sermonette requires a great deal that is implicit.  There is simply not enough time in ten or fifteen minutes to go through every implication verbally to make it plain.  One cannot cover all of the parallel passages to a given verse that one is talking about, nor cover all of the layers of meaning that are present even in a given verse.  There is simply not enough time.  While someone who provides a longer message has the struggle of maintaining the interest of someone listening for an hour (or longer), someone who is giving a sermonette can keep the rapt attention of an audience, but does so in a way that requires a certain hermeneutic of charity on the part of an audience, who can fill in the gaps as to what a sermonette speaker has to leave unsaid because there is no time to go down all the possible rabbit holes that an investigation of the scriptures can involve.  In that sense a sermonette is like a personal essay, narrowly confined by constraints of space and time and deliberately partial and incomplete in nature.  This would suggest that those who wish to hone their skill at giving sermonettes need to acquire at least some understanding of essayism, at least the knowledge of incompleteness as being an inherent part of the genre that one is working with.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Christianity, Church of God, Musings, Sermonettes and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Some Thoughts On The Genre Of Sermonette

  1. Pingback: On The Creation Of Genres | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Catharine Martin says:

    Sermonettes have often been a springboard to deeper Bible study. As you stated, something within the message peaks interest that necessitates looking into with greater depth. It’s important to listen for those things; God’s spirit picks up on them.

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