Preaching really isn’t all that much. It’s one person talking to a group of people. It happens all the time. In board meetings, during elections campaigns, even at family reunions, someone speaks to the group what s/he thinks and hopes will meaningful words. So what makes preaching different? In danger of being guilty of over-spiritualizing things, it’s God.
No. It’s not the Bible. I’ve heard lots of good sermons with very little Bible. And it’s not preparation, word-smithing, the preacher or delivery (all of which we’ll talk about). These are all manipulatable variables which while terribly important, won’t make or break a sermon. I’ve had more than my share of talks, sermons, lectures, etc…which would have been better served by more preparation, crafting, and rehearsal, but nonetheless, the hearers (I try not to use the word “audience”), have been blessed.
What matters is God. To be sure, God doesn’t always draw a crowd, but God is what makes preaching preaching. However, too many preachers ignore the role of God and His Spirit in the sermon preparation.
Here’s how it goes:
- Identify a text or topic.
- Take a cursory view of the text, gleaning what “will preach.”
- Jump into a few books on the shelf or glance over what others have preached using an online sermon catalogue or check out what some of the “celebrity pastors” have done with the text.
- Put together an online and begin writing.
If you’ve been in church more than 10 years, you’ve likely suffered under this type of preparation. The damnable part of it is that some of these sermons actually do “preach.” People will like them, congratulate preachers for them, ask some lives will – through God’s power acting in spite of us – be transformed. But here’s the problem: You don’t actually need God for that!
The questions every preacher needs to ask is this: Does my preaching require God?
God is not required for a preacher to be eloquent. He is not necessary to highlight a point most people miss when reading the text. God’s presence is not compulsory to affect the emotions of hearers. Men and women, Christian and not have done that since the beginning. For this reason, a good sermon must be rooted a devotional reading of the text. That is, the text must be entered into by the speaker not as a tool, means, pathway to the sermon, but to seek the God who is behind the text.
When asked about her approach to preaching, Barbara Brown Taylor once said, “I read the text and then go for a long walk.” She was highlighting the need to create space for the preacher to receive a word from the Lord before presenting a word from the Lord. Type A folks – as preachers tend to be – can find this uncomfortable. We want to get something done. To make progress. After all, there are only 6 days to Sunday. In fact, the tendency to jump toward getting something on paper, most preaching books don’t even discuss the devotional reading of the text. Yet without it, our preaching can be unique, funny, well-studied, and crafted, but lack power. We will spend months if not years preaching and our congregants will be ultimately unmoved by it.
As a preacher, if you find yourself abandoning God in search of a good sermon, I want to suggest that you redesign your workflow to include a devotional reading of the Bible in the hopes that God will be first be made known to you. Here’s what I do:
- Get Ahead of Yourself. You should be AT LEAST 4 weeks ahead of what you’re preaching. That’s only a month. On Monday morning, you should be devotionally reading the text that is a month away from being preached. Even a period this short allows the text to marinate inside you, for the language and rhythm of it to get inside you a little and for you to live with it. You need to spend time with God in order to preach.
- Adopt A Devotional Method. I graduated from ACU with an undergraduate degree in Bible, but no one taught me how to study the scriptures for myself (not that that was their job). In the time since, I have come to learn and practice what is called “Lectio Divina.” This, as Craddock points out, turns sermon preparation into spiritual discipline. Much of my sermon content doesn’t come from books, history, etc…but from what God has said to me during lectio divina. It works this way: (1) Silence, (2) read the text, (3) silence, (4) and asking questions about what the text means for me. One session means doing the above 3 times in a row. I look for a word or phrase, I ask what it means to me, and finally ask what God wants me to do. That’s it. It’s my version of a long walk.
- Pray. After you’ve got a sense a what God is saying to you, ask God what He wants you to say. In addition to being a Senior Minister I frequently speak to teenagers. Hardly ever do I feel that what God has given me is what He has in mind for teenaged hearers. What’s more, it’s been a while since I was a youth minister and my kids aren’t teenagers. Therefore, I am more disconnected from adolescents than I have ever been. God must tell me what to say if I’m going to have anything.
- Go To Lunch. One of the best ways to unearth what God wants spoken into your congregation is to spend time with your congregants. I am dumbfounded by the number of pastors who infrequently seek out their members. No preacher who shares coffee or goes to lunch weekly with congregants will stand in the pulpit and verbally assault them on Sunday morning. Not after listening to their burdens, their hurst, their insecurities, and their successes. Nor with s/he fail to pray for them. Pray with them, for them, and near them.
Preachers spend a great deal of time preparing sermons that their fellow preachers would enjoy and respect and that their seminary professors would approve of. But congregants have a different concerns. A congregants primary role for their preacher is that s/he is a spiritual person, that they are and stay connected to God. They want to know that what they hear each week isn’t merely from a book or lecture, but that the person speaking has sought and connected to God.
If you’re preaching doesn’t require God, stop right now, and completely reconfigure how you move from text to sermon. Simply put, if your sermon preparation is anthropomorphic you’re doing it wrong!
Preachers: How do you endeavor to ensure God is necessary in your preparation? Congregants: What systems in your church allow your pastor to spend time seeking God? How can you help him/her spend time with God?