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preaching on the past in the present; an interview – viv coleman

An Interview with Viv Coleman about using History in preaching:

What made you decide to focus on characters from Christian history this summer?

I was slated to preach twice at a small parish near where we holiday. For the first one I repackaged my Why Luther Matters sermon from October; we had been on a Reformation tour in July that had resourced that. But we had covered many other key movements in church history and I felt I could get more mileage out of what I had learned.  The season was moving into Epiphany, which prompted me to think about Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf and the Moravians, whose contribution to global mission was significant long before William Carey.  My working title was Why Zinzendorf Matters but because of the New Year application the message morphed into “A Moravian Manifesto”.

How did you decide the level of detail to include in the message?

Telling a story in an engaging way grabs people by the imagination. I wanted my listeners to feel they knew what life was like for this 18th century German nobleman/pastor, but not be overwhelmed with historical minutiae. So I often left out names, dates and specific details. Telling the story of the young student’s encounter with a painting of Christ asking  “This I have done for you;  what have you done for me?” doesn’t need specificity of time and place to have an impact. However the revival among the Moravian refugees housed by Zinzendorf had taken place over a year or so, so I did need to make it clear the work of the Holy Spirit was gradual as well as decisive.

What kind of framework did you use for the memory points?

Over fifty years of preaching, I’ve tended to follow a linear outline. I find it gives coherence and memorability. I do know postmoderns don’t mind a scattergun approach to information, so I also try to use visuals that cater to the imagination in a less structured way. In this sermon I used four points, because there seemed to be four aspects of Zinzendorf’s life that have relevance to followers of Jesus today. For each point I told a story from Moravian history, explicated it with Scripture, and connected it with a contemporary parallel to that theme.

The four headings were: Welcoming the Stranger, Nurturing the Young, Upholding the Unity and Sharing the Faith. I had distilled these for myself on long walks after reading about Zinzendorf.

How did you include something from your own “corner” or experience?

The whole idea to do the sermon came from my own experience – a two-week Reformation Heritage Tour in Europe in 2017. So at a couple of points I was able to say, I’ve been to that village, or that castle, or that church, and use my own photos. But I also found that the application of each theme to our life today connected with a personal experience. The Scripture about welcoming refugees had come up in the 40th anniversary of the arrival of Vietnamese boat people, some of whom had been sponsored by our old church. And I had also recently visited Auckland’s refugee resettlement service at the Mangere campus. The point about nurturing the young is very dear to my heart as a parent and grandparent, but I was also able to use a local example of how the church at which I was preaching that day has been involved in supporting and resourcing ministry with kids. The third point about unity was one I left more open, because every congregation will be experiencing gossip, conflict and bigotry at some level in its own context – and the holiday audience represented churches in many places. However Zinzendorf’s story makes it clear that the key to overcoming these divisions was prayer, humility and the unity of brothers and sisters; the Moravian principles of living with godliness, gentleness, patience, and love for enemies have impacted church and society in amazing ways. Finally, the point about world mission was a worked example of the Epiphany theme and a good reminder of the missional imperative to all of us today.

How did you connect with the listener’s world?

After each point I asked a probing reflective question – a what, how, or where? – to connect the historical illustration with what is going on in our own life and faith. All four questions were projected on the screen during the communion that followed.

What was the feedback from the congregation?

Most people I spoke to were grateful and enthusiastic. However one listener told me in no uncertain terms that I had failed to connect with his daily life. That is always a risk with a teaching sermon, and one that has to be carefully judged in each context. That sort of response keeps me humble!


The content of the sermon is available in a series of four blog posts here.

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