How to preach to the occasion

  • David Martin
  • 25 July 2018

How do you preach at a wedding? How do you give a funeral message? How do you prepare a graduation or ordination address? Over the last few years I’ve had opportunities to speak at these special occasions. Here are some focus areas I’ve found that help get me in the right zone, rather than accidentally preparing another Sunday sermon.

As with all preaching, you must first remember that we are nothing but unworthy servants who are only doing our duty. Without Christ we can do nothing. We certainly can’t preach without him propping us up all the way. This critical reality comes before anything else.

1. The occasion

Special occasions are just that: special and important times for the people concerned. It’s an honour and a privilege to preach at them. Rule number one for speakers then is to treat them as special and get into the zone. We should take the responsibility seriously with thorough and thoughtful preparation.

Think about what the occasion actually is. Realize that that is the priority for the people attending, not listening to your preaching. Allow your thoughts to be dominated by the occasion. Relate everything you say to it. This will require the appropriate emotion: joyful at a wedding, sombre at a funeral, optimistic at a graduation, and so on.

Appropriate humour for the occasion is helpful for building rapport—but I underline appropriate. Your purpose is to speak to the occasion, not be a comedian. Relating everything you say to the occasion includes your humour.

2. The people

To speak well you need to think about your listeners. Who are the people at the centre of the occasion? Think about them, their lives, their character and personality. This can shape your address to be more authentic and engaging.

Who will be attending? What different groups make up the audience? Maybe you can categorize them and address them at one or two points in the message. Aim to transform the hearts primarily of the people at the centre of the occasion and secondarily those attending to support them. 

At weddings it’s obviously appropriate to talk about the love they have for each other, but speaking in generalities about love is dry. It shows a lack of preparation. Spend time thinking about how the couple met, how they demonstrate their love, their personality traits or interests. The same applies for funerals and denominational occasions.

Respect the wishes of the couple, the family, the denomination or organizing body—as long as you are not compromising the gospel. This may require being flexible with procedural matters or wordings of certain statements, but such flexibility will encourage people to listen. When you are giving a message, that’s exactly what you want: people to listen.

3. The text

Getting in the zone helps you select the text for the occasion. First rule: it must be short. This will help you resist the temptation to explain all the detail and speak too long. Remember that you are not just preparing another Sunday sermon. 

If it’s a wedding of a Christian couple you can ask them for a passage special to them. The same goes for a funeral—use a passage the Christian loved. This legitimizes what you say and gives you credibility.

When you have the choice of the passage, ask yourself: “What would I want to say to the people who are the focus to encourage them on this occasion?” Select the text that allows you to say those things most naturally.

Create a memorable structure for the occasion. I assume you want to avoid being dull and boring? Well then, that requires some creativity to make your message stick in people’s minds like mud to boots. Your talk is like a coat: it needs a hanger to wrap around so that it doesn’t fall in a heap on the floor. Your aim is to make people sit up and listen. A word of caution though; don’t be too radical and come up with such an overly clever structure that in the end is just so quirky and weird that people remember the hanger rather than the coat.

4. The timing

At a wedding, people have not come to hear you preach; they’ve come to witness the couple get married. Brevity is beautiful on these occasions. The same goes for a funeral. Part of “getting in the zone” of a funeral is realizing that people have come to support their family and friends in a time of grief. They have not come to listen to you talk for half an hour.

Ironically, the less you say at these occasions, the more is remembered! Aim to preach for a maximum of ten minutes. If you aim for ten and hit 12, its forgivable, but if you aim for 12 and hit 15, it’s probably too long. Worst still, if you aim for 15 you may well hit 20, and that’s definitely too long.

The same applies for denominational occasions like licensing, ordinations and graduations. It is expected that the Scriptures will be explained, but it’s still an extra service to attend in any given week. It’s also one of several that ministers especially will attend over the course of a year. Moreover, there are usually a lot of other speeches and procedural matters—a brief message will be a welcome relief.

Keeping in mind all the other components of the occasion is part of getting in the zone. Why do preachers feel the urge to preach for 30 and 40 minutes at these events? Is it because we love the sound of our own voices? Is it because we secretly want everyone to know how erudite a speaker we are? But long sermons on these occasions are counter-productive. If you get up early in the program and speak for a long time, I guarantee everyone will be looking at their service outlines, glancing at their watches, doing the maths in their heads, and thinking, “I might not get out of here before the Lord returns.” If you’re late in the program, people will go through a similar ritual—watch, maths, pray for the Lord’s return! Keep it short: less is best.

How do you get in the zone of preaching at special occasions? Think about the occasion and the people, choose an appropriate text, keep it brief, and go for it.

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