The Last Sermon

Every writer is shaped by the major elements of their past.  In my case, I spent a great deal of time at church, partially because it was the only real side activity my dad ever took part in.  The best part about dealing with church was the annual Vacation Bible School.  As a kid, it was a fun activity where I got to see other kids and play during the summer.  When I was a teenager, I volunteered to help run things, since it got me out of the house for a week.

In 1997, Pastor Jensen decided to take a much more direct hand in how Vacation Bible School worked.  Jensen, more than anything else, could be described as a hardliner.  He wasn’t a stubborn man, just one who thought the term “tradition” was a little too flexible.  As well as he meant, he had a reputation for knocking out the congregation with his sermons.

The biggest thing he did by taking control of Vacation Bible School was instituting a two-part miniature church service each day.  No collection or assigned readings of Scripture, but he still had hymns and, of course, the sermon.  Since the bulk of the congregation for these services were little kids, Jensen was knocking kids out left an right with his dull, collegiate manner and scriptwriting.  The kids who hadn’t passed out were all playing and paying no attention to what Pastor was saying.

In the middle of the week, Pastor Jensen pulled me aside and mentioned he had a conference to attend starting Friday.  As the eldest male working with Vacation Bible School, I was asked to take over the miniature church service.  Once I got over my shock that I was being asked to do this, not the ladies who had decades of teaching experience, I agreed.  As polite as it was, this really wasn’t a request, but an assignment.

When Friday came around, I stood in front of the kids and ran through everything Pastor Jensen had already decided.  There was an order of how every word of the service had to be said, as well as who would say it.  At the assigned time, I stood at the podium and gave a short, off-the-cuff sermon about the value of Jesus and why it’s good to always remember Christmas and Easter.  Kids don’t give a crap about Jeremiah or Jonah or Saul, but they love Christmas and Easter.  Unlike with Pastor Jensen’s sermons, the kids paid attention to what I was saying.

I didn’t possess any miraculous skill or divine technique.  I just looked at the kids and realized I needed to talk about what mattered to them.  And they listened.

As a writer, I have to always keep in mind my audience.  My writing has to appeal to them enough where they feel its worth their attention to read it.  As good and kind of a man as Pastor Jensen is, he never really mastered the basic notion that should have driven all of his sermons: Know your audience, since all writing, regardless of the format, has to speak to their needs and beliefs.

Malcolm X didn’t quote the Koran in most of his speeches, but he did make use of Bible passages.  John F. Kennedy used Cold War nationalism to inspire scientific and social innovation.  Jesus of Nazareth spoke often to the political plight of the Israelites.

If speakers like these can take the time to know their audience, we should too.

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