(NOTE: this post is part of a series of posts I’m doing reflecting on the task and calling of preaching on this, the 10th anniversary of my own preaching ministry… hope you’ve enjoyed them so far!)
In the last post I contended that one of the most basic practical tasks of the preacher is knowing your stuff, and knowing it well. That is, a good deal of the work during the week of preparation is not just coming up with great content but also seeking to understand, and understand deeply, the manifold connections between the various bits of content, so that you have a more or less “global” sense of how your first story is related to your last story, how that quote you’re going to read from at around minute 8 ties into that bit of Pauline theology you want to expound before you make your final invitation, how the statistic you mined aids and abets your gentle critique of pop culture later on in the message, and so on and so forth. There are as many ways of doing this as there are preachers, I suppose, so the critical thing is developing your own method.
My “method” (if it can be so called) looks something like the following: As I’m looking at the text of Scripture for the week, I make sure to have a legal pad handy. I write down whatever thoughts, impressions, stories, quotes, etc., that come to mind. I mean seriously–anything. As I’m reading over the text, I’m also making use of the original languages, noticing interesting words or turns of phrase that release something of its potency. Eventually, I start playing with sentences or phrases of my own that capture this potency or release it into the congregation in clear and concise and memorable ways. I keep jotting down thoughts, impressions, stories, quotes, etc. As I get closer to preaching on Sunday, I start working the connections between the text and the things I’ve written down, a process that includes, by its very nature, whittling that pile down to its barest elements. I’m also, in the midst of this, developing something of a “narrative account” of what my sermon is going to be about. What’s the story, the flow, the movement, the journey that I’m going to take these people on? By the time Sunday rolls around, I’ve reduced the entirety of my message to a dozen or so key “elements”, arranged in a more or less logical/intuitive fashion, that frame out the journey we are going to go on.
What I’ve posted below I almost hesitate to show you at all, for fear that it will either mess up your own process or make you think I’m a total idiot (haha). So as a disclaimer here, I want to say that I’m showing you this NOT to encourage you to do it just like me but rather to illustrate the point I’m making above and set up the next lesson. Here she be:
This is my little “map” of my message from last week (a message on the call of Jesus to come into the community of faith not with an agenda to have our star rise but rather with an agenda to abandon ourselves in the service of others). All of the elements have a very “tactile” feel for me (the previous week’s talk, the Gospel reading and its central thrust, the “two ways”, captured beautifully in the John 13 and James 3 passages, etc etc.), and are arranged in a very intuitive, “narrative” way. The “story” here, if I can call it that, is about how Mark 9:30-37 speaks to our life together as a community, challenging our prejudices and fears along the way, and drawing us into a life far richer and better than the one we would have had if this text had not come along and opened up a new window of possibility for us.
The important thing I’d like you to notice here is the relative scarcity of “elements.” And this speaks to the 7th lesson:
Lesson 7: Less is Usually More. Sometimes, rarely, “more” is more. There are times that you just have a lot to say and you need to say it. That’s fine. But in the normal flow of congregational life, usually, I have found, less is more. Too many sermons have too many elements. Five great stories instead of two, eight amazing points rather than three, ten shocking statistics rather than one to ponder deeply. The result of this is the congregation is left with the horrible feeling that they were “drinking from a firehose” rather than lovingly led on a patient and deliberate journey of understanding.
The really tragic thing is that lots of preachers, particularly the inexperienced ones (although I’m aware that there are lots of experienced and wildly popular preachers who haven’t figured this out yet) take the layperson’s comment “boy I felt like I was drinking from a firehose” as a huge compliment. Self-satisfied in their ability to generate that much (often quality) content, the inexperienced preacher fails to see the disservice they do both to themselves, their listener, and the congregational as a whole by carrying that much luggage into the pulpit.
I can speak with great confidence and authority on this point because I have spent a good deal of my ministry as a preacher pummeling people with content. Hard experience has taught me that this is a disservice…
To the listener because it tends to bewilder and/or amaze rather than focus
To the congregation because it pulls the corporate liturgy out of shape by making it about a single “main attraction” rather than about the whole sweep of the people of God’s weekly ascent to Zion, a sweep that includes preaching, and much else besides: singing, confession, creed, prayer, communion, silence, etc…
To the preacher because having to generate that much content each week invariably puts excess strain on his or her creative ability (not to mention spiritual capacity)
And the truth is that it’s just not necessary.
That is, it’s not necessary if we see our messages as (as I have contended) rhetorical acts that open up a window into an alternative reality and invite the listener to taste and see that the Lord is good in all kinds of beautiful and compelling ways. It IS necessary, however, if you see your sermon as a sort of corporate theological or biblical lecture intended primarily to inform or educate. If that is your understanding, your sermons will probably need to be long and (usually) cumbersome. The problem here is that viewing people as walking heads to be educated rather than whole beings needing to hear and heed the call of Christ truncates the person and invariably leads to a preaching ministry where your listeners are loaded down each week with intellectual burdens they can hardly carry, while you yourself, even if willing, are unable to lift a finger to help them. It’s generally too much.
What makes this all really difficult is that many of our churches, built on the assumption of the long message, are training younger preachers to think of their sermons along “more is more” lines. And that’s not just evangelical churches that aim at 45 minutes of education. It’s also charismatic/pentecostal churches that aim at 45 minutes of fire-breathing prophetic harangues, and more or less “pop” evangelical churches that aim at 45 minutes of inspiration or “practical” instruction. Whatever the case, it really is a lot of talking, a good deal of it unnecessary.
Again, we must ask: what is it that we are trying to do with our messages? Stated as simply as I know how, we are trying to call people, week in and week out, to put their whole trust in Jesus. This involves BOTH stimulating the mind AND speaking to the heart. And when our preaching is good, it will do both, in a way that takes the listener by the hand and guides them into the presence of Christ, who lovingly challenges us, disturbs us, and finally heals us. (Perhaps the best compliment I ever received about my own preaching was from a lady in our congregation who said to me “What I like about your preaching is that when I listen to you, I find my intellect stretched and then all of a sudden I’m crying…I don’t know how you do that but keep it up.”)
The best way that I know of to do that is by LIMITING the amount of content you bring with you into the pulpit. This is especially tough for the young preacher, who feels like they have a lot to prove to people. I remember one friend of mine in my early years of pulpit ministry saying to me, “I love your messages, but they’re like four messages all piled into one…why don’t you just do one at a time?” He was right. Though I wouldn’t have admitted it then, my insecurity as a young preacher drove me to bring WAY too much content with me into the preaching moment. The result was that instead of leading people on a single, well-developed journey, I was leading people on three or four inadequately developed ones. It wasn’t until I started listening to preachers like Will Willimon (who does more with 17 minutes than most preachers can do with a month’s worth of 45 minute talks) that I started to see the truth of his comments and with it, another possibility for my preaching.
It takes time and patience with yourself to grow into this, and above all, I think it takes great courage to believe that the handful of “big things” you’re carrying with you into the pulpit are sufficient for the Holy Spirit to do his work. The challenge is learning to recognize the potency of the few things you do in fact hold in your hands–something that many preachers really struggle with, myself included (I still find myself preaching unnecessarily long messages here and there). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in my preparation process and knew that after expounding this or that text, I would need to tell a good story to open up its riches for contemporary life… and then somewhere along the line feelings of insecurity about that story would grip me and I would think to myself, “Golly, maybe if I had one or two more stories right there to help bolster the first one.”
What I did not realize was that as often as not, the “excess” would not only NOT bolster what came before, it would distract and fatigue. Did it actually add anything? Not usually. Far better than adding would have been subtracting and trusting the potency of what remained.
Whenever I talk about these matters with other preachers, I’m often reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s advice to his young preachers at the Finkewald seminary, where he said, in essence, “The first few minutes of your message are the most favorable…do not waste time with long introductions…get right to your content…and trust the Word!” It’s an interesting mental exercise to ponder how much of our sermon content is content we generate because we are fundamentally insecure either about our own ability or, frankly, about the power of the gospel to woo and draw and finally unmake human hardheartedness.
What I have found is that when I trust the potency of the few things I know that God has put in my hands and in my heart for the week, it creates a simplicity and clarity that would not have been available otherwise. It creates “white space” in our messages, “margin”, where the risen Christ can walk among us, tapping us on the shoulder, whispering to our hard and wayward hearts. Maybe the hardest and best thing for the preacher to do is find a way to use words to get out of the way. “He must become greater, I must become less” should be the cry of every preacher’s heart.
My guess is that most of you preachers out there don’t have trouble generating good content. You’re bright. You read a lot. You experience things. You see God at work in people’s lives. You’ve got killer stories. Where you struggle is in letting any of that stuff fall on the cutting room floor.
If that’s you, let me give you two bits of practical encouragement:
- Any good creative knows that an enormous amount of content is going to wind up on the floor. If you’re not ok with that, you’re really going to struggle. Keep an open hand with your stuff.
- By the same token, be aware that some (maybe a lot) of what winds up on that floor is really great content for some other fantastic message down the line. I can’t tell you how many times I had to take out some large chunk of a message because at the end of the day it either was too much or just didn’t fit, only to find that a month or two down the road, that “chunk” of content was exactly the engine that made another sermon go. Again, keep an open hand.
Ironically, in a blog post about brevity, I’ve waxed long. I’m interested to hear your comments or reflections.