10 Years of Preaching, 10 Lessons: Lesson 1

(NOTE: This blog is part of a series of posts I’ll be doing on lessons I’ve learned on preaching over the last 10 years)

If you pushed me and said, “Andrew, what is the single biggest, the single most important thing you’ve learned about the craft of preaching over the last ten years?” at first I’d bluster about for a bit trying to tell you that there are all sorts of important things and it’s really hard to artificially say which is more important than the other, since in so many ways they all rise and fall together… and then if you were really persistent and kept pressing the issue, I’d have to answer this:

You’d better, at an absolute minimum, have a clear idea of what it is to preach… what a sermon is, what it does, how it functions within the life of the community of faith.

Failing to have a clear grasp of this, your preaching is likely to careen wildly between motivational speech (for those so inclined), theological or biblical history lecture (for those so inclined), angry rant (hahaha, also “for those so inclined”–you know who you are), pep-rally talk (they’re so exhausting, aren’t they?) or insipid, cliche, Christian greeting card drivel (ouch, and once again, you know who you are).

In my early years of preaching, I’d say that my sermons tended to be some combination of theological lecture and angry rant. Though the sands of time have largely eroded my memory on this point, I have a vague recollection of patting myself on the back in congratulations for being “prophetic” in my preaching, when in point of fact I was an immature egghead with a chip on my shoulder who had no idea what a good sermon actually was. The result of this was preaching that didn’t help people very much, and often wore them out. And though I didn’t realize it at the time, when folks would come up to me after messages and say, “Man, I love your passion” or “Wow, you really are smart”, as often as not that was simply their way of being nice to a kid who had a long way to go (and was probably the only person in the room who didn’t realize it… ugh).

Over the years, time, experience, and some measure of study have taught me that at its heart, the sermon is none of the things I listed above.

  • Though it includes motivational elements, it is not a motivational speech
  • Though it includes teaching moments, it is not a theological or biblical lecture
  • Though there are times when prophetic passion erupts, it is not an angry rant
  • Though here and there you will need to do a little “pep rally” talk, it is not at its core a “mobilizing the base” moment
  • And do I need to say anything about Christian greeting card drivel?

Instead, I have come to the firm belief that at bottom, the sermon is this:

It is a WINDOW into an alternative reality–one based on the claim, and all that goes with it, that “Jesus is Lord.”

When I get up to preach now, I stand there knowing that what the community of faith demands of me are words that will remind them of how the world really is now that God has established his reign in the world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The reason the community of faith demands this of its preachers is that more often than not, this is difficult to see, and therefore our lives tend to slip into other narrative construals of reality–that Death has the final word, that America is God’s chosen nation, that God doesn’t love me, that reconciliation is impossible, that justice will never be realized, that my guilt will never be assuaged… etc etc etc.

These narratives, you understand, literally PULVERIZE people’s lives, trapping them in stories that are fundamentally unlivable. What the preacher does, then, is the preacher stands up, and out of the vast resources of the Scriptural tradition (which provides the fundamental linguistic elements that the preacher will creatively construe), tells the truth that it’s all false. In announcing the kingdom of God, the preacher is exposing the lies that are driving people’s lives, ripping them to shreds, sapping them of strength and energy. With great love and passion, the preacher is saying, “Peer into this alternative reality. Imagine yourself into a world that is saturated with the goodness and justice of God. Know yourself afresh to be one who is loved, called, chosen, bought, forgiven, and promised an indestructible future in God’s good world through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. You don’t have to live in the lie anymore.

That, brothers and sisters, is preaching. It is standing up in a tradition that reaches back to Moses and Isaiah and finds its consummation and climax in Jesus of Nazareth and saying, “The reign of God is here. Change your mind, and believe yourself into this shocking good news.”

The thing that I think we must grasp as preachers is that in the economy of salvation, God does very little, arguably almost nothing, apart from the verbal announcement of his reign. Amos 3:7–“Surely the Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.” God, whose Son is literally called his “Word”, his self-expression, makes worlds available through words. He overthrows empires, brings down kingdoms, frees the oppressed, and liberates slaves, all through human speech. As Walter Brueggemann puts it so well, in discussing the oracles of salvation in Isaiah chapters 40ff:

The news is theological, but it is world-changing, with both a permit and a requirement implied. Note well, that if the Jews go home, it will be because they accept the world that is available to them only on the lips of this messenger… (Cadences of Home, 47)

We messengers are called to this–to employing all of the resources our speech to construct alternative modes of understanding for the people of God so that they can leave every dehumanizing Egypt and Babylon they find themselves in. Week after week, we summon them saying, It is time to go home!

This, of course, will help put all the other bits of preaching in their proper place. We will often motivate, we will frequently find ourselves needing to instruct on the finer points of theology or biblical history, we will sometimes kick into a passionate rant, we will on occasion find ourselves rallying the troops… but all in the service of and within this core call: to open up a window into another reality.

Once you begin to understand preaching in this way, one of the “practicals” that you’ll likely notice is that your sermons will become cleaner, clearer, and often shorter. Though I’ll be getting into those items and more in following posts, for the time being I’ll just say that if and when your preaching is done in the service of opening up windows, as we’re saying here, you’ll find that there will be a lot of things you once thought (or were told were) important in preaching that no longer are.

As an example, my time in seminary had me convinced that really good sermons thoroughly “explained and applied” each and every item in a given text of Scripture. Because I was really committed to biblical preaching, I felt a profound weight of obligation to translate every passage, do thorough word and background studies, etc etc., and then bring the better part of that to bear on the message, explaining, illustrating, and applying every little detail. It didn’t take me very long to realize that because the text of Scripture is fundamentally inexhaustible, it was an unreasonable goal to think that my preaching should even adequately “explain and apply” each bit of text I was asked to preach on.

A better goal, when dealing with discrete bits of Scripture, I soon learned, was to try to understand the heart of God as revealed in this or that text… to ask how it throws open a door to the kingdom, how it’s unique vantage point flings wide one of the windows of eternity, letting the fresh breeze of God’s infinite love pour in. If I could connect with THAT, then all the other elements would find an organizing center.

Good preachers understand this and have honed an ability to execute messages that give people a glimpse of an alternative reality. People walk away having had their imaginations drawn, even if just for a few minutes, into the possibility that life under the reign of God in Christ could be different… and those moments hold the power to change everything. Change perception, change reality.

So the next time, preacher, you’re begin preparation for a sermon, do this: in the midst of all your study, brainstorming, mind-mapping, praying, and whatever else it is you do to get ready, ask yourself this question–“How is this text a window into the kingdom? What is it inviting people into?” If you can identify and articulate that with clarity and passion, you’ve at least cleared one important hurdle to giving a coherent and compelling sermon.

What about you? What have you learned? What kinds of questions does this raise for you?

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10 Years of Preaching: 10 Lessons

At the beginning of this year it dawned on me that 2015 marks my tenth year of preaching (more or less). That’s a funny thing to me, because, as I mentioned yesterday in my post about turning 34, I do feel like in so many ways I’m just getting started in life. And that applies to my preaching as well. The “ministry of the word”, as they call it, is one of the central callings of my life (so far as I can tell), and in my heart I feel as though I’ve only lately “left the Shire.”

But ten years of doing anything is nothing to sneeze at, and when I look back over those years, I realize that I’ve learned some really concrete lessons that guide how I do what I do on a (mostly) weekly basis now–with the result that I am able to hold this ministry with ever greater clarity, power, conviction, and most of all, joy.

Those of us who labor in this ministry know that for all the rewards it can give–seeing moments of insight erupt on people’s faces, watching lives transformed, seeing people set free, delivered, and enabled to more faithfully live the life to which they have been called–it can also be extremely disorienting, frustrating, and sometimes downright demoralizing.

Some of that, I think, just goes with the territory. One is reminded of the great prophets of Israel–fellas like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel–whose preaching, according to YHWH, was not likely to result in accolades but rather scorn. “Afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted” sounds wonderful in theory, but when you get down to it, it can really wear on you. Thus YHWH’s challenge to each of them: “Do not be afraid–I am with you.” The occupational hazard of preaching, which none of us can avoid, if we are to be faithful to God, is that the repeated exposure inherent in the task of preaching can leave us feeling raw and vulnerable. We need to know that God is with us, and then stand up, yet again, and speak in his name.

Some of the disorientation, frustration, and demoralization, however, boils down to a whole bunch of practicals. When I started preaching 10 years ago, I found that despite having a raw gift, which was affirmed often and by many, it was the practicals, which I had not yet grasped, and that for the most part only time and experience could really teach me, that were repeatedly tripping me up. Not having a clear grasp of what preaching really was, not knowing what kind of a life I had to live to hold the ministry of the word, not understanding what went into effective preparation, not trusting that preparation when I actually got up to preach, etc etc… my preaching was pretty “hit or miss” in those days, as it always is for those who are just setting out to preach, because of my failure to grasp those things and more.

My conviction is that this ministry can and should be both rewarding, and effective. As one who shares in it, I have a real love in my heart for those who labor each week in the service of the word and desperately want to help them. At its best, preaching is beautiful and compelling. At its worst, it is oppressive, confusing, and frustrating. I’d like to help those of you who feel called to this ministry come to a clearer grasp of what you’re doing so that your preaching rises to the level of the beauty of God’s kingdom–which, after all, our preaching is meant to open up a window into.

So what we’ll do is this…

Each week, I’ll write one or two short (500-700 word) blog posts on a lesson I’ve learned, and include along with each post a “practical” that you can think about or start to try to put into motion in your own preaching. I’d love to hear from you–so if you have questions, feedback, comments, or things you’d like me to weigh in on vis a vis preaching, I want to hear it. (Who knows? Maybe your own feedback will turn into one or two of the lessons.)

What I’l ALSO do is host Periscope sessions here and there where I’ll talk live online about some of the stuff we’re discussing here. Which should be pretty fun.

(A DISCLAIMER: the “lessons” I’ll be posting will be more or less “at random”–stuff straight from my heart. I’m not going to try to impose an artificial structure on it; rather, I’ll just reflect on what’s become really important to me. So if you’re looking for a comprehensive “theology of preaching” or something, this ain’t the place :).)

I’m looking forward to this. If you know anyone who you think would be helped by these posts, make them aware of this conversation and bring them over. Hopefully we’ll all learn something along the way.

Peace,

Andrew

On Turning 34: A Birthday Reflection

I turned 34 yesterday. Weird.

There was a time in my life, not long ago perhaps, when 34 seemed old. A very long time away. I’m not altogether sure what I thought I’d be when I got there, but I would no doubt be old by then. I remember my parents at this age (I was seven or so). Mustaches. Poofy hair. Lax fashion sensibilities. Ford Tauruses. They were the definition of old. Am I that?

I constantly have the experience of meeting people who look old to me and then finding out that they graduated a year before (or after!) I did. It’s disorienting… do I look like that?? I must…

Mandi and I recently went to former Packers quarterback Brett Favre’s induction into the Packers Hall of Fame. On the way over, she said to me, “Do you know he has two grandkids?” I replied, “Do you know he’s only about ten years or so older than us?” “Noooooo….” she gasped, incredulously. Sure enough. Our childhood hero has grandkids, is getting inducted into Halls of Fame, and only has a decade on us.

Old.

When my mom was around my age, she asked my younger brother John, “Do I look old to you?” His reply: “Just your face…”

Ha. OLD.

I’m a romantic at heart, so the idea of letting go of childhood and coming into a full, ripe adulthood is an inspiring one for me. I’m not sure what exactly I thought it would “feel” like to be the age I am now, but this is what it feels like, to me… this is where my heart is:

I’m so grateful for what I’ve accomplished, and still feel like I haven’t done a darned thing. I think I thought at 34 I would be walking around with this sense of, “Man, look at all the cool stuff I’ve done.” That there would be more in the rearview mirror than in front of me. I don’t feel like that. What I do feel is immense gratitude for what I’ve accomplished and where life has taken me… and still feel like I’m just getting started. I hope that I feel that way for a very long time. Kierkegaard once said that the intersection between time and the eternal is not in the present, as many assume, but rather in the moment that is rushing upon us, in the possibility that constantly presents itself anew. Therein is hope. I want more of that. A heart full of eternal possibility.

In like manner, I’m so grateful for what I’ve come to know of God, but feel like I’ve only just begun to explore. That wasn’t always the case. There was a long period I went through where I could feel something like a sad resignation creeping around the edges of my heart, whispering, “It will never get better than what it was.” Those were hard days, and I am glad that they are over. God’s infinity eternally beckons us to more. He is the Far Shore we never reach. The Country we will forever explore. The Name whose mystery eternally unfolds itself. I love God. I want more.

My family is more important to me now than it has ever been. Mandi and the kids. My mom and dad, my siblings, their significant others, my extended family. The older I get, the more stabilizing and orienting and identity-shaping family becomes. Ministry in particular has taught me that firm, stable relationships can be really hard to come by. You fall back on what has carried you. My family has carried me. I love and trust them, and am so grateful for them.

I am less impressed with celebrity than I have ever been. That doesn’t mean I’m not still a little impressed with it :). Just that it’s not as important as it was to me. Knowing “so and so” and being able to say that you’ve met “such and such” a person, and even becoming the kind of person that people might name-drop in a conversation… blech. It’s meaningless. The older I get, the less impressed I am with it. And I’ve learned this: There is absolutely no correspondence between celebrity and truth. I know that now. I didn’t always. More and more, what impresses me are lives lived with full integrity, rooted in the truth.

Which is what I want my own life to be. I am bent on living now, in a way that I’m not sure I have ever been. I want to love my wife and kids. I want enjoy the life I’ve been given. I want to be a great help to the church I serve… and a blessing to those beyond it. I want to keep growing in wisdom and grace, and keep finding my life “hidden with Christ in God.” I want to know and gaze upon the Beauty, and find thereby that my own soul is beautified. I want to live.

Not too long ago I sat down for lunch with an older pastor (and by that I mean a pastor older than me; he’d probably be offended at being called an “older pastor”… ha). His encouragement to me: “You’ve got your whole life and ministry out in front of you. Enjoy it all. Spread your wings. Experiment. Don’t be afraid of living. This decade will be about a profound self-discovery. Soak it all up.”

Good advice. I intend to :).