The craft of preaching

Up late tonight, thinking about the craft of preaching… obsessing a bit over the, well, “craft” is the best word for it.  Dang I love preaching.  And it is indeed a craft.  A habit of the mind, and heart, and tongue.  An art form.  And man, when it’s at its best… I hear people these days talk a lot about how real transformation doesn’t happen during the preaching moment, that it only really happens in small groups and such, and I think to myself, “Then you’ve never sat under really good preaching.”  Some of the most transformative periods of my life… when my faith was alive and expansive and sharp… those periods were so at least in part because of really good preaching I was around.  And some of the worst periods of my life were times when “the word of the Lord was rare”, as one prophet said.

So I listened to a few of my messages from the past few months tonight.  I kind of hate listening to them.  Its so artificial.  The “moment” in which a message is delivered can hardly be reproduced just by listening to the audio.  The myriad of things that the Spirit was doing in the moment with the people… when its you and the people and your real life lived among them, and the Spirit speaking in all of that… it feels weird to put that under a microscope.

Nevertheless, I did that tonight, asking myself the question, “As a preacher, when am I at my best?”  I came up with a short list, based on what I heard and remembered of my most recent preaching.

I am at my best when I am…

  • Biblically focused
  • Pastorally precise
  • Comfortable within myself and effortlessly exposing the “core” of what God has done in me over the years, and
  • Patient

The phrase I wrote on my whiteboard to summarize what I think good preaching is was, “Deep, precise biblical insight stitched together with the very stuff of life.”

Then, in thinking more about those things, it occurred to me that what I was describing when my preaching is good is that “less” really is “more.”  The words… “focused”, “precise”, “patient”, etc., imply fairly high degrees of comfort with eliminating, attenuating, reducing, boiling down, narrowing, stripping away.  A laser is powerful not when it is wide but when it is focused like the head of a needle.  A scalpel is sharp and able to do good work when its edge is infinitesimally small.

So with my preaching… it is at its best NOT when it is “wide” but when it is ridiculously “narrow.”  When what is spoken from the Scriptures is done so on a razor’s edge of precision, and when the pastoral insight is fired off at specific targets like a sniper picking off his opponents… and then all of it “stitched together with the stuff of life”, including but not limited to the vast reservoir of all God has led me into and through.  Stories and tales of fidelity and failure on the road of following Jesus.

And there you have it.  I love preaching.  I take it WAY seriously.  Because I am utterly convinced that the “Word” of God always is creative… always makes alive… always nourishes and sustains and inspires and convicts… always twists oaks and levels forests… always separates and divides… and is ever capable of bringing new and ever more faithful and robust communities of faith into existence out of the very dust.

So I’m gonna keep working at this… : )

How about you preachers out there?  What have you found?  When are you at your best?

10 thoughts on “The craft of preaching

  1. I appreciate what you have to say here, and I agree with it. I find too, that when I am able to bring the scriptures to light in view of my own struggle with them and in wrestling with the truth of them, that is when people are most likely to hear. I enjoy telling stories, but I don’t enjoy being vulnerable, however when I am able to weave these together, and tell and show people this is how it looks in real lives, and this is what it looks like in my life they are much more likely to listen. Authenticity is very important, and when the people making up the church where I serve see how I am applying it and wrestling with it, it gives them motivation and realization that they can do it too. Christian pastors/priests for far too long approach their congregations as wholly other, and appear wonderful, obedient, and almost like they don’t struggle and that is a huge mistake. It is easy to hold ourselves up as models and good examples, but on the advice of some wise preachers, I have pretty much quit using myself as a positive example in preaching, and if I use myself, it is to say how I have struggled or failed at something. That makes me more humble, more approachable, and it makes even hard, stinging words from the scriptures easier to stomach and assimilate into our lives. When God is working on me with the text, I am much more effective sharing it with others.

    • Good word bro. It is a marvelous thing when preaching is part of the organic life of a community (of which the preacher is a part) struggling to faithfully live into all that God is and has made known… Thanks for commenting!

  2. Preaching is a bit different for me, as my role is primarily as a teacher who facilitates & fuels conversation. A core value for us is that the community of faith is the primary context in which we read the Bible and discern and apply its implications for discipleship. This doesn’t negate the importance of personal study & meditation. And also still spend many, many hours in prayer, study & preparation. However, I don’t often preach in the singular speaker mode of preaching.

    That being said, I also find that my preaching is at its best when it is narrow. When we go through text, we have around an hour of conversation and it takes of months to go through a few chapters.

    • Jamie… any reason in particular you go more for dialogue and less for “announcement” (thinking of Fitch’s views here)?

  3. I enjoy the diversity of preaching from all genres of scripture. Intentionally changing scenery keeps the task new – “narrow” for the individual message (agreed), but “wide” for the long haul.

    I was reared in an Anabaptist tradition that primarily focused on the Sermon on the Mount, secondarily on the Gospels, and lastly on the book of James (and 1 Corinthians 11 was acceptable Pauline literature!).

    • Petar! Good to hear from you… I love the thought on the diversity. Any particular method for how you do that?

      Also, love your website… Cloversites I see… Looks familiar 😉 (That’s what Bloom uses)

      • It’s more madness than method. In the words of Wendell Berry “As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it.”

        If I’ve been in the Gospels for some time, I’ll start thinking about wisdom literature or minor prophets. If I’ve been in an epistle, I’ll start thinking about narrative. If I’ve been doing a survey (5 parts in Isaiah), then I might look for a shorter passage (5 parts on Romans 8). Etc

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