Speaking with Melinda Cousins
I love getting the opportunity to hear people preach. I am also curious about how different people prepare sermons. So with that in mind here are some questions I asked Melinda.
Can you think of a sermon that had a big impact on you? Why has it stayed with you?
Quite a few! Over time, it is usually the big picture of the message and/or the type of communication that stays with me and continues to speak to me. One recent sermon that had a big impact was on Bathsheba as part of a series of the women in Jesus’ genealogy. It started with a first-person narrative telling the story of 1 Sam 11-12 from Bathsheba’s perspective, spoken by a woman who bravely took on the questions and realities of her experience. The message was then by a man who unpacked some of the ways Bathsheba’s story has been misinterpreted and powerfully acknowledged her experience of abuse and its resonances in our world today. He then used Nathan’s parable to explore the image of her as an innocent lamb as one that points forward to her descendant Jesus, and his role as the innocent Lamb who takes upon himself all abuse, violence, and suffering. It has stayed with me because the first-person narrative allowed us to enter into the story in a new way, raising questions and possibilities, and then the powerful confrontation of misinterpretation and acknowledgement of the realities of our world connected with my own questions, and the drawing out of its gospel resonances spoke truth and hope into our world.
What was your process preparing to preach at Seaforth?
I prayed and read through the passage multiple times a couple of weeks before and then tried to let it “sit” with me, just having it in the back of my mind throughout the day, seeing when it comes to mind, what sticks out, how pieces fit together, and how it connects to the world around me. I have a word document on my desktop that I can add notes, questions and thoughts to over this time.
When I sat down to write, I looked over my notes on Judges from having taught it in a theological college setting to refresh my understanding of how the whole book works and how these chapters function within it. I had a few questions from my own reflections, so I worked a good translation and commentary of the passage, as well as a theological overview of the book to summarise key ideas from the passage – both content and also the way it communicates. From all this, I had a framework or outline for the sermon, which I wanted to reflect something of the storytelling style of these chapters – hinting and dropping ideas without explaining everything. I also had some key phrases, ideas, and questions I wanted to include.
I then wrote out the sermon as a manuscript, which I don’t always do, particularly as it was going to be on Zoom and I find it harder to speak more ‘off the cuff’ when there is no live community to bounce off. I wrote using the outline and it generally flowed. I would often speak a section/paragraph out loud as I wrote it, and I try to include some poetic techniques in my wording. Once the first draft was written, I went back to my list of things I wanted to include and found ways to either integrate those I had missed that still seemed significant, or leave out those that no longer seem to fit.
I then read the manuscript aloud, making any changes from writing to speaking style that have crept in. I then spoke it a couple more times seeking to become familiar with it without memorising it. Then I prayed and set it aside until the morning of preaching.
Do you think sermons still have a role in a church’s worship gathering? Why/why not?
I do, as I think the spoken word is a powerful communication tool and our God is a God who speaks. However, I think we need to keep trying new things to make sure our sermons are being heard well and connecting with people where they are at – God communicates with people in their time and place, and so the ‘style’ of the sermon needs to adapt to the people we are seeking to communicate with. I am currently being influenced by the style of spoken word poetry, as well as by podcasting. This shapes the way I communicate the text in choosing words, structure, imagery. It has also led me to explore more collaborative preaching – both preparing messages in conversation with others, but also preaching together with another person in a more ‘podcast’ style.
The Bible communicates through many different genres, and so I am also exploring how my sermons can reflect these genres – for example using storytelling that is more open-ended for narratives/parables, using imagery and rhythm for poetry, spoken word style for the prophets, questions, reflections and dialogue for wisdom literature, and addressing individuals and their situations for the epistles.