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Some Thoughts on Preaching

Occasionally I am asked for advice on preaching — not very often, fortunately. I generally get evasive. I rarely give any advice at all. Most often I say: you really don't want to know what I think.

I am relatively comfortable with my current approach to preaching. I say: "relatively" because that's just the way I am — I always feel like things could and should be better. “Relatively comfortable" is the best to which I can arrive.

The reason I decline to give advice is because I feel I can't meet the expectations of the questioner. Questions about preaching are generally questions about technique. And, technique (at least from my point of view) is one of the least important issues to address. In fact technique almost doesn't matter. It matters — it just doesn't matter much. 

I think most preaching is over-thought. The time and thought put into it is killing it. 

Time and thought are good things — the deeper the thinking the better. But, where is the time and thought being invested?

My concern about preachers is that they put the time and thought into the wrong part of the process. Time and thought and prayer spent reflecting on Scripture, and life, and the issues of the day that directly effect people, is time well spent. If it doesn't pay off this week, it will some week. Time spent with the crafting of a sermon may not pay off at all.

Why is that? Because the number one rule for preaching (and public speaking, as well) is:
have something worthwhile to say! If you don't have anything worthwhile to say, no amount of sermon technique is going to save you. You are dead in the water.  On the other hand, if you've got something worthwhile to say — and you are excited about saying it — you've still got a good message. Good technique can make a good message better. But, it can't save a boring or pointless or vacuous message. That is still boring. (And, don't bother with the Power Point, either.) 

And, if even
you don't care it's not likely you will be able to inspire anyone else to care. 

The old
Phillips Brooks definition of preaching is still good (as far as I'm concerned): "truth through human personality." 

So, preaching brings together two things:
truth (in this case, the insights of the Christian faith re-appropriated by sustained reflection and prayer on Scripture and on life in general) and your personality

Any preaching technique you learn will be, in the nature of the case, somebody else's method. That's fine — we learn from one another. But, someone else’s technique may not work for you — or you may have only limited success with it. This is where it's nice to read books on preaching — but read several. And be sure to check out the Poets, Prophets and Preachers material. The advice you'll get will vary quite a bit. But, that is a good thing. It's because different people communicate differently. Effective communication will be in a style that fits who you are and what your values are. So, you will need to try out some different methods to see what works for you. And, then, think about the preachers who most impacted you — what did they say and do that made their preaching so effective? Are there ways you can incorporate these things into your own style of preaching? Don't copy just one. Learn from several. 

But, the truth part — the "have something to say" part — is so awesomely important that all other considerations pale into insignificance. And for the preacher this "something to say" must arise from Scripture and the Christian faith, and the experience and reflection of the preacher. Every Sunday the preacher is somehow telling the story of Jesus. Every Sunday the preacher is telling her/his own story. Just a little bit of each, maybe — but, if it matters, that's plenty. 

We tend to think of sermon preparation as a conscious, cognitive process. But, it isn't.
The best inspirations arise unbidden — they seem to enter the mind fully formed. How can this be? They arise out of the unconscious mind. There is a sense in which thinking is going on all the time. We even seem to work some things out in our sleep. I'm not a psychologist and I don't understand all of this, but I know its true. Feed your mind on good things, deep things, and your unconscious mind will reward you. It won't reward you on schedule — yes, that's the scary part — but it will reward you. And the more good stuff you give it the more it will reward you. 

This is another aspect of what I mean when I say that people over-think preaching. When we assume that sermon preparation is a conscious, cognitive process we short-circuit the inspiration that can arise from the unconscious. 

An illustration: you lose you keys. You panic. You look everywhere — fruitlessly. You can't find them anywhere. Then, you give up. You go do something else. You find your keys. Does this sound familiar?

Relax. It helps you find your keys. 

Study the Scripture. Give your mind good things to mull over. Read what other people have said about it. Think about how this intersects with life. Then go do something else. Watch a funny movie and laugh. Go weed out the garden. Take your spouse to dinner. Do something you enjoy. Take a walk through the woods. Go to the gym. Give your unconscious mind time to mull over what you've fed it. Let the seeds you've sown take root. When you've got something to say you'll know it. 

But, that means you are going to have to let go of some your control over the process. Trust your unconscious to come up with good things. The more you trust it, the more it will. 

Now — if I haven't scared the living daylights out of you already — I've got another thing to say:
preaching is an oral event. It is not a written essay. It's nothing like a written essay. It's you sharing something really important to you, with other people. You want them to get it. So, you do what you need to do to get the idea across. The point is not how much study you did or how many books you read. You are telling some part of the Jesus story — something you are excited about — so that other people can also see the significance it has to you. If the manuscript is getting in your way, get rid of it. If the notes are getting in the way, get rid of them. If I (or anyone else) gives you a piece of preaching advice that is not working for you — discard it. If the inspiration you need hits you Sunday morning on the way over to church — go with it. Look at people. Act like you've got something important to tell them — because you do. 

When people ask me what I do in Sermon preparation, I tell them (if I answer at all): I give myself options. I spend enough time with the Scripture that there is more than one way I can go with this. I trust that I'll find the direction that best suits that moment and that crowd. Sometimes I have a sentence — that neatly summarizes everything I want to say — and I expand on that sentence. Sometimes I have a series of images (that's really nice). If I'm working from a narrative passage, sometimes I'll just let the flow of the story move things forward. Sometimes I have (yes) a three point outline. Sometimes I take a running start — beginning at a point apparently distant from the theme — to see if I can surprise people with the thought I want to present. Some Bible stories are so powerful you can lean on them, people will make the connections on their own. Unfamiliar Bible stories — and in this day and age that would be most Bible stories — and the whole of the Old Testament — can be shocking and powerful on their own. You don't have to add that much. Or try this: take the standpoint of the Pharisees and argue against Jesus.  People will be shocked to discover that the Pharisees' case against Jesus makes sense. So, why did Jesus do what he did? How might we be missing the boat?

I could go on. The options are endless. The issue is: what grabs you? It's not going to grab someone else if it doesn't grab you first. What are you excited about? Why does it matter? How can you get it across?

It is possible that all the time and effort you've spent on sermon preparation is counter-productive — like over-fertilizing your plants. 

So, briefly, that's why I don't give advice about preaching.  Usually, I just say: believe me, you don't want to know what I think. 

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