Preaching Question: “How do I stretch myself and avoid ruts in preaching?”

A fellow pastor asked how I stretch myself and keep from falling into ruts in preaching. It’s a great question. A predictable preacher is a boring preacher. I know I fall into predictable routines at times. It’s helpful to identify some of the ways to get out of those and continue developing.

Four practices have been most helpful for my continued development:

1. Lots of reading and lots of listening to different speakers and preachers.

When I’m keeping up with my reading plan, I rarely run dry, especially when I focus on critical / analytical reading (paying close attention to the main points and the structure of the story/argument).

I’ve also begun trying to watch TV shows and movies with that same critical awareness, especially noting structure. For what it’s worth, that hasn’t felt like it turned TV watching into “work.” I think it has enhanced the experience. Robert McKee’s Story is a great place to go for beginning to see some of those elements of story more clearly (if you don’t mind a big book).

I’ve noticed the same with listening to other speakers and preachers. I preach better, and with more variety, when I’m listening to others. I listen to Tim Keller and think about precision in structure and delivery. With just a few words, he can help me put language to something I’ve always known was there but couldn’t describe.

I listen to Jessica LaGrone and think about narrative and delivery. The way that she weaves a story together keeps me engaged every time. And she’s maybe the gentlest “power-preacher” I’ve ever heard because of the warmth and presence in her delivery.

I used to listen to Rob Bell and love how he would take me on a journey through his own exegesis. He was able to bring me to the “aha!” of the exegesis, even sliding in some Greek and Hebrew, and yet never made me feel like I was listening to a scholarly exegesis paper.

If I listen to one person long enough, I catch myself sounding more and more like that person—which is okay with me for seasons. But varying the preachers I’m listening to has helped me appreciate and try to imitate some of what each of them does best. Right now, I’m wondering if I could find a way to listen to more of Bishop Fairley’s preaching.[note]Leonard Fairley, Bishop in the Louisville Episcopal Area of the UMC[/note] I’ve heard him preach a few lectionary sermons now (lectionary! a Bishop!), and each one was riveting—deep, steeped in biblical thought and language, gospel-centric, powerful delivery.

The same goes for other speakers—paying attention to how they structure their content and how they deliver it. I love watching Jerry Seinfeld for the way that he builds something and the way he transitions. If you haven’t, you should watch the documentary Comedian. It gives a good behind-the-scenes look at his preparation.

2. Pastoral visitation

I preach better and with more variety when I’m spending more time with people. Specifically when I’m spending more time in spiritual conversations with people. I start to read the text differently and imagine different ways it can speak to people when it comes right after talking to someone about a miscarriage, or about how they’re struggling to find time for important self-care things, or how they’re thriving in something they didn’t expect (baby, career change, etc.)

Without that variety of what I’m hearing from other people, I tend to stay in my own, more limited life experience and catch myself repeating the same themes a lot.

3. Varying series

Some variety between scriptural and topical series has been helpful for me. A series that starts from a particular text sends me on a deep dive in that text first. One that begins with a topic sends me on a wide survey of that topic in Scripture and historical theology. Both kinds of series merit both kinds of study, but the starting points differ.

Within these, the larger series creates natural variety, too. We’re preaching through Exodus and a bit beyond right now––the OT lectionary passages. Because the series covers the big narrative, it seems to demand more than just a deep exegetical dive into each Sunday’s passage, but lots of awareness about the context. (All exegesis demands context work – but the nature of this series has made context a much bigger piece than at other times. We’ve been living with Moses and the Israelites for about 9 weeks now.) Then we go from this fall’s huge narrative arc to really tight and focused in January when we have a 5-week series on the Lord’s Prayer.

And of course, following the liturgical year adds natural variety, too. Take, for example, the Exodus 17 passage about Israelites grumbling for water to drink. That looked much different as part of our Exodus series compared to how it will look in Lent next year, when it’s an OT lectionary passage.

If you forced me to choose one way all the time, I’d choose to preach lectionary year-round. And there’s still plenty of variety there alone. But the occasional topical series or lectio continua series has been great to force me to think and prepare differently.

4. Varying preparation

I have a pretty defined preparation structure (seven 75-minute blocks) but I’ve left a lot of intentional variety in it. So I don’t handle the exegesis the same from week to week. After several readings of the text, I’ll choose one or two ways to start digging deeper into it, depending on what seems like it will be most helpful that time. Sometimes that’s Lectio Divina, sometimes it’s inductive Bible study, sometimes it’s doing a really wide contextual survey, and other times it’s focusing on a deep dive into translation. Each of those methods makes me think about the text differently. I know people who swear by one of them. For me, if I leaned on one every time, my sermons would end up having less variety. (And if I tried to do them all, I’d spend way more time on sermon preparation than I have to give.)

I also don’t handle the move from text to sermon the same every week. Sometimes I do an outline, sometimes a mind map, and sometimes I manuscript it. I had a good season where I used PowerPoint to story board my sermons like 3- or 5-act plays. I’ll occasionally do more than one of these, but again … time and other priorities. When I mind map, I notice that I tend toward a more narrative approach. When I manuscript, I tend to be more precise and nuanced and more linear.

Also, I keep a list of questions to ask that I reference each week, but I never reference all of them. There are too many. So picking different questions leads me in different directions. Some of those:
Doctrinal: What doctrine from the Echo catechism or a creed most relates to this?
Liturgical: What from our baptismal covenant, confession & pardon, Great Thanksgiving, or Lord’s Prayer most relates? Or from other liturgies (UMC Social Creed, marriage and funeral rites, songs, etc.)?
Moral: Which of the capital vices or virtues, beatitudes, or fruits of the spirit relates here?
News: What happening in the world right now relates to this?

At least once a month, I go back to Tom Long’s list of potential forms for sermons in The Witness of Preaching. I try to imagine how my sermon would fit in a few of those different forms. Even if I end up not choosing one, some of that imagining expands how I’m thinking about the sermon. And this keeps me from falling into a rhythm of always preaching a “hook – exegesis – application” sermon, or whatever other form I could fall into.

For me, it has been important to ask questions about delivery, too. “What if I don’t use any slides for this sermon? How would that change it?” Or “How can I get people actively involved –– engage some sense other than seeing and hearing?” I keep thinking about PechaKuchas — 20 slides, 20 seconds apiece. I’ve used these a few times in other settings. Would it ever be possible and make sense to do a PechaKucha-styled sermon? I don’t ever want to do something like that just for the novelty. But when I have to engage with a different set of rules, I think it helps me get more creative than if I just keep doing what’s most comfortable.

I can’t say that I’ve built all this in specifically for the sake of growth and staying out of ruts. I think some of it has been out of my own sense of restlessness. Follow the same routine too long and I get bored. Hopefully it keeps me from getting boring for others, too, and keeps me from being content at my present point of development.