10 Years of Preaching, 10 Lessons: Lesson 7–Less is More

(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:

IMG_20150920_133730560

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Grace,

Andrew

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10 Years of Preaching, 10 Lessons–Lesson 6

(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.)

Hey friends–

Sorry it’s been a few weeks since I’ve written. It’s been a zany season.

Alright. We’ve spent several posts now talking about some of the more conceptual and formational matters related to preaching–i.e., what is preaching and what kind of persons do we need to be to live into this calling well. I’ve put forth five lessons related to those questions that 10 years of preaching on a more or less weekly basis have ingrained in me. To wit:

  • Lesson 1–Know that a sermon, whatever else it is, is a window into an alternative reality.
  • Lesson 2–Overcome the false conceptual distinction between “biblical” or “theological” truth and life itself.
  • Lesson 3–Understand that the first call of the preacher is to live in the depths with God, and then (and only then) to bring to the congregation a fresh word out of those depths.
  • Lesson 4–Cultivate the discipline of whole-life attentiveness.
  • Lesson 5–Approach preaching as a subset of the general call given to all believers to “take up the towel” on behalf of others.

It’s my belief that if you do those things, your ministry of preaching will find really firm footing–fertile soil to thrive in and produce good fruit for the kingdom. Still, there are a number of practical things that if you don’t come to grips with, you’ll find yourself repeatedly tripping over, despite all your good intentions. I want to begin to address some of those more “practical” items now. And with that, here’s the next lesson–one related both to prep and to delivery:

Lesson 6Know your stuff.

It’s taken me awhile to realize this, but at the end of the day, 8 minutes of me talking with a firm grasp of what I’m saying and where it’s all leading is FAR better than 30 minutes of me talking with an unclear and poorly refined idea of what I’m saying and having only a vague notion of where I am going. The quicker we preachers realize this–that clear and compelling ideas are better than unclear and not-very-compelling ideas, the better.

I realize that this has the potential to sound so mundane and obvious that it hardly needs to be said, but the truth is that not nearly enough preachers practice the discipline of figuring out (ahead of time, please!!) both…

  1. What they are saying, and
  2. How all the pieces of their message are related to one another, and thus to the more general goal they are trying to achieve with their message

Let’s take each of those in turn.

What are you saying?

By the end of the week, you honestly should be able to state in 15 seconds or less (maybe even in 15 words or less), to a totally non-theologically educated person, what your message is fundamentally about. What’s the core concept, moment, shift, whatever, that will be guiding the rest of your comments? Such clarity of understanding is the foundation for whatever else you will be doing in your message: every story, every quote, every statistic, every biblical reference revolves around, sits on, speaks to, or informs your elucidation of whatever the “core” of the message is. To put to use a metaphor we’ve been working with here–everything you do is part of how you “open the window” to help people see the new reality that you have seen with your own eyes and heart.

But even then, one needs to take it a step further. For at its best, preaching is not just about exchanging information, but about letting the Christ who calls out to each of us have his way in the local church. So it is not just a matter of “what am I saying?”, but also “what am I doing with what I am saying?” Preaching is a speech-act that at its best moves us in some way, shape, or form. If you do not have a clear idea of what you are saying and what you are trying to do with what you are saying, you won’t have a good message.

Additionally…

How does each piece of my message relate to the other, and to the whole?

Never say anything just for the sake of saying it, or because you thought it was neat, or because it happened to tickle your fancy during the week. Say it because it helps. Say it because it amplifies. Say it because the window gets cranked open a little wider through it. Say it because unless you say it, you will not be able to say the other things you need to say…

But FOR THE LOVE OF YOUR LISTENER… don’t say it just for the sake of saying it.

If you think this way about each of the pieces of your message, it will form in you a sensibility that will really, really help your actual delivery–namely, you’ll begin to conceive of your message less like a monologue and more like a sort of “show and tell” that revolves around a single focal point or leads the listener on a single journey of discovery. And then, whatever your method of delivery (manuscript, outline, or note-free), you’ll find yourself far more fluid, natural, and therefore also more inviting and compelling.

What really did it for me was coming to serve as the primary teaching pastor for Bloom years ago. Up to that time, I was basically a manuscript preacher for the excellent reason that that was the only method I had ever seen used with any real success. I would sit down with my Bible and Microsoft Word during the week, and start writing. When I felt good about what I had written out, I was done.

Till Sunday… when I would preach and the gaps in my own depth of understanding were exposed.

Up until I came to Bloom, for the most part I could cover over those deficiencies in understanding by virtue of preaching to a large room (big crowds are easier to preach to, IMO–and I typically preached to crowds of several hundred prior to moving to Denver) and having enough bravado and innate giftedness to think on my feet and make a bad sermon a success. Or at least not an abject failure… ha.

But when I came to this community, standing up with a 10 page manuscript and trying to preach it to a group of 60 or so 18-23 year olds exposed all my weaknesses. No longer was there a large crowd to yammer at loudly in order to cover over my deficiencies in understanding. I had to find a way to genuinely connect–head to head and heart to heart. And in order to do that, I was going to have to become much savvier BOTH in my delivery AND (far more importantly) in my preparation. It was a frustrating season–knowing that my preaching could and should be better, but unsure of how to get there.

I stumbled along for awhile trying this or that method of preparation and delivery without a lot of success, until one day it dawned on me that all genuine conversation is really an exercise in fluidly making connections between things we already know. SO, when I’m sitting across the table from you over coffee, I don’t have a manuscript in front of me to remember how precisely to tell this or that story, or even better, prompts letting me know exactly when I should tell those stories–I just have my story. It’s in my head and my heart. And when the time is right, I tell it to you and then easily and naturally make the point that I want to make. It’s not perfectly cerebral so much as it is tactile and intuitive. I can tell you about this or that thing because it is IN me, I KNOW it, and I UNDERSTAND how it relates to whatever we are talking about.

For whatever reason, I had totally ignored this in my sermon prep process. But when I started treating my messages as conversations that swirled around a single theme or focal point, intending to DO something very specific, my whole agenda during the week shifted from trying really hard to come up with clever or compelling words that I would write down on a sheet of paper, to trying really hard to know what I wanted to say and then using what was in front of me to construct an experience that drew people in. Again, when sermon prep became about “knowing” and “understanding”, sermon delivery changed from trying to remember lots and lots of words to keeping in mind what I would need during my little show and tell and how it was all related (mind-mapping became a hugely important exercise here) to get done what I needed to get done. And my sermons improved.

So I’ve been noteless for about five years now. It was one of the best moves I’ve ever made as a preacher. The point here, however, is not to inspire you to become noteless. For some of you, going noteless scares the living bejebers out of you. And that’s fine. I get it. For me it works because I’m a very tactile and visual person with a more or less photographic memory. It’s a natural system for me. You’ll find a natural system for you, too–whether that be a manuscript, an outline, notecards, or something else. Who knows.

But whatever system you use, you’d better fight hard during the week to get a clear sense of what you’re saying, what you’re doing with what you’re saying, and how each part of your message relates to the other, and to the whole. Fight for deep, intuitive understanding, and you’ll be a better preacher.

Peace.

10 Years of Preaching, 10 Lessons–Lesson 5: Taking the Towel

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

This past Sunday night I celebrated my 6th anniversary as the primary teaching pastor at Bloom. It’s been quite a ride. When I think back over these past six years of (almost) weekly teaching, one of the things that stands out is how completely the orientation of my heart has shifted in terms of my spiritual understanding of what I do… what my preaching means to this community and how it functions within the community.

In perfect honesty, I came into this job six years ago holding at least a partial hope that my preaching every week would launch me out into “next big deal” status in pop Christianity. It’s embarrassing to admit, but it’s true. And every time someone would listen to one of my messages and compare me to some bigshot preacher out there, it would only fuel the flames of vanity.

Maybe the best thing that could have ever happened to me is exactly what DID in fact happen to me. The hoped-for “next big deal” status never arrived. And I think I got something better in return: I got to learn the joy of week-in and week-out service to the people of God in the pulpit, without the distraction of having to think about what some mega-audience out there was thinking about my preaching.

One of the things that we (preachers) sometimes lose sight of is how local and specific the work of preaching is. We’re talking about lives here. Actual lives, lived before the face of God, in all their pain and joy and beauty and complexity. And the absolute BEST way to make a difference in those lives is by holding them lovingly in your heart, and then from your heart bringing a fresh word to them, FOR them specifically, based on your knowledge of who they are and your discernment of what God is saying to them.

And with that, we have the 5th lesson: preaching will always lose its mooring when it is divorced from the call to serve the Body of Christ in love.

By the same token, it will be all the better for being anchored in a more general pastoral call, and all the disciplines pertaining thereunto.

Paul’s words in Ephesians 4 ring true, and have a peculiar significance for the preacher:

29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Note the juxtaposition of verse 29: “unwholesome” is set at the opposite end of the spectrum from whatever brings “benefit to those who listen” and builds them “up according to their needs.” A failure to walk in this total orientation to the needs of others with our speech represents “grieving the Holy Spirit.” And then of course Paul goes on to spell out in more detail in verse 31 just what this “unwholesome” speech looks like and is driven by.

Let’s be honest here for a second. A lot (maybe most) of preaching is driven along by motives that come straight from the pit of hell. Can I list some of those motives? (Disclaimer: I have been guilty of all of them… )

  • The desire to be thought well-spoken, intelligent, educated, or gifted (vanity)
  • The desire to be more like so-and-so, secretly comparing yourself to them (envy)
  • The desire to show how you are right and others are wrong (self-righteousness)
  • The desire to divide the world up into who’s right and who’s wrong (factiousness, self-righteousness)
  • The desire to become a big deal one day (vanity again…)

We could go on and on here. The point, I think, is becoming self-aware of every motive that falls short of the call to “serve one another in love”, a command which is constantly repeated throughout the New Testament, and then, aided by grace, beginning to learn to say “no.” For the truth here is that not only is preaching driven by these (and other) motives generally unhelpful (and usually bad) for the local church, it is also a heavy burden for the preacher to bear. It does damage to the preacher’s soul–that is, his (or her) whole life.

When I think back to some of my early years preaching, part of the reason that the task routinely felt heavy to me was that I was determined that basically every time I preached, I was going to “wow” people with some new insight, some bit of novel biblical or theological knowledge, some really edgy illustration, some incredible rhetorical flourish or turn of phrase. In my mind, the pulpit was my playground to work out my ideas, refine my gifts, and build a platform.

Good God. I am so sorry for that.

After years of preaching that way and finding it to be just as empty as the writer of Ecclesiastes said it would be, I know better now. I know that just to the extent that the call of Christ is a call into the community of faith, a call in which the ego goes to die; so also the call to preach is a call to die to the ego for the sake of loving and serving others.

Just so, when I lay down my ego-needs, I find myself stepping into the “light yoke” that Jesus promised, AND… I find that my preaching “hits the mark” far more routinely than it used to. I rise to preach, give voice to what I think the Spirit is saying to our community, trying to do so with the utmost simplicity and straightforwardness, and then let worship continue. I am not trying to make a name for myself. I am not trying to impress. I am not the center of our worship. I am not the main attraction.

I am a servant. With Jesus, I wash the feet of the faithful. And my unique way of “taking up the towel” for the sake of this community is with my words. The moment my preaching becomes detached from the ministry of the towel, it is an exercise in futility.

Part of what is entailed in the task of approaching preaching in this way is that we anchor ourselves as preachers more deeply in a life of prayer for our people. For it will be out of our prayer (which is a deep expression of the agape we live in with others) that our best and most helpful preaching will come.

Now, when I prepare, I am not just thinking about the text of Scripture, and all the interesting words and phrases and intertextual connections and that thing I read in so-and-so last week and so forth… as wonderful and valuable as all of that is… as much as anything else, I am reading the Scripture and also, in my heart, scanning my congregation, over whom I “pray without ceasing”, trying to let the Scripture be part of my general pastoral discernment of the Spirit’s work among us. As I sit all week with the Gospel reading, meditating on its twists and turns, I find myself naturally thinking about this situation over here, or that coffee I had over there with that person whose life is a wreck… I find myself thinking about who we are as a community, stories that I’m hearing, feedback I’m getting from people on how it’s going following Jesus. I can’t help but ponder our past and our future as a people in light of who Jesus is and what he is saying. Once again–all of life, OUR VERY CONCRETE LIFE TOGETHER–brought under the gaze of the Almighty, subjected to his scrutiny and wisdom and boundless love.

If and when I prepare this way, my preaching gains a simplicity, focus, and clarity that it would not have had otherwise… I’m not getting up to do a song and a dance… I’m not getting up to try to wow people with my intellectual ability…

Instead.

I’m drawing attention to the Scripture

I’m relating a story or a situation that came to mind as I meditated this past week

I’m wondering out loud how that touches broader issues we all face

I’m calling us to yield our lives to Jesus Christ in the midst of that

Is there more to it than that? Sure. But at its core… this is what we’re doing.

Preacher–there is a better way. Be quick to identify driving factors in your preaching that are unrelated to the more general task of washing the feet of God’s people. Then make a choice: do you want life, or do you want death?

Because everything outside of the call to die and rise with Christ Jesus in the service of God’s people is death. But to “die before we die”, as CS Lewis put it… that is life.

And your people will thank you.