(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.)
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 6—Know 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…
- What they are saying, and
- 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.
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.