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.


Preaching and the preacher’s soul

“Don’t let sermon preparation be your only Bible study.” or “Your sermon preparation doesn’t count as your devotional time. You need to nourish your soul, too.” I hear several warnings like that in pastor circles. I understand the point and don’t disagree. Don’t read Scripture only under the pressure of developing it into a sermon. Read for your own nourishment.

And while I read Scripture for more than just sermon preparation, I can also say that my greatest growth and nourishment have come from the texts I’m going to preach. The extra weight of asking what God has for us in this word––the extra time and focus that demands––bring me to my greatest wonder and awe and conviction.

Preaching is good, if nothing else, for the preacher’s soul.

Useless preaching (A note for Easter, and for every sermon)

I have a few standard questions I ask of each sermon before I preach. I have a few others I ask when I listen to a sermon—not for the sake of evaluating, but for the sake of recognizing what I need to take away.

My most important question on both lists: In this sermon, why does it matter that Christ has been raised? That is, what would be bad news, impossible advice or nonsense in this message if Christ hasn’t been raised?

The apostle Paul points me in this direction. “If Christ has not been raised,” he writes, “our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14).

If I can preach a sermon that could be left fully intact even if Christ wasn’t raised, it’s no sermon. It may be a nice philosophical treatise, a “teaching” on some piece of Christian doctrine, an important social justice stance, or some good self-help, but it’s not a sermon.[1. And to be clear, a sermon may do all of those things. They’re not excluded. But these alone don’t make it a sermon.] A sermon proclaims the gospel, the good news that has as its foundation our great mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

I don’t have comments here any more. If you’d like to discuss it with friends, share it with them and discuss. If you’d like to discuss it with me, send me an email. I’d love to hear from you.

In the Name of God, or Worship as Primary Theology

the LORDYou may notice that the Old Testament spells out “Lord” in all caps in several places. Other times, it uses “Lord” without the capitals. Why the difference? This is to represent a special word, the personal name of God: “jhwh.” The people of Israel considered this name so holy that they neither spoke it nor spelled it in full[1]—a sort of “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named,” but this out of reverence not dread.

This name has such significance throughout the Old Testament that when people do or say something important, they do it “in the name of the Lord.” The priests minister and pronounce blessings “in the name of the Lord.[2] The prophets prophecy and even call down curses “in the name of the Lord.”[3] David goes to battle against Goliath “in the name of the Lord.[4] And David, though he is king of a great and powerful military, writes songs about trusting in this name, not his military: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”[5]

Before we move further, let’s reconsider this word, Lord. When our Bible translations turn “jhwh” into “Lord,” it creates a different meaning for us. Most people who hear or read “the Lord your God” take it as two roles—Lord and God. This suggests something quite different than hearing it for what it is: God referring to himself by personal name. Because Jews refrain from speaking that name, they have used adonai as a popular substitution throughout history. Out of respect for that tradition and the Name of God, we’ll do the same here.

What’s in a name? Why does it matter that God should say, “I am adonai, your God,” and not simply, “I am your God”? God could even announce himself with more grand titles, “I am the Lord, the Creator, the King of all the Earth, your God!” Any of these titles command total devotion. So why “I am adonai”?

When we move from titles and roles to personal names, we change categories—from objects of devotion to subjects. A man named Martin Buber suggested that either we relate to others as subjects, as I and Thou, or we experience them as objects, I and It.[6] We speak about an object; we speak to another subject.

You’ve seen the ways that we treat objects and subjects differently. Doctors may speak about the diabetic patient being considered for surgery, an object of discussion. But when they speak to her as “Marjorie,” she becomes more. She becomes a real person, with a personal name. She becomes a Thou and not merely an It.[7]

And so God speaks to his people as adonai. A king is to be obeyed. A god to be worshiped. A deliverer to be praised. But someone with a personal name is to be known.

If we go only so far as to talk about God, to study God or think about what God must be like, we’ve done a small part of theology. If we go that far and stop, we may know about God as an object of study, even of devotion, but we will not know God, the Eternal Thou.[8]

Most “theological writing” can only do the objective work. It can serve only to point to God, to consider God in all his glory. It can help us to know more about God, a good and important pursuit, but a far lesser pursuit than real knowledge of God. For that greater task of theology, the church will help you more than any book.

In the church, we turn from speech about God and address the Eternal Thou in prayer and praise. In the church, we not only announce to each other God’s love, but we pray together, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” In the church, we not only proclaim God’s might, but we sing to God himself, “How great Thou art,” and “I’ll worship your holy name.”

When we worship and pray, we do primary theological work. All the rest––all the discussion about God––is secondary work. It can (and should!) enhance our primary work of worship and prayer. But it can never replace them.

Note: This is adapted from a larger piece I’m working on. It’s a portion I thought I could use your help with. I always enjoy hearing your feedback, but especially on this, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

[1] Thus no vowels. This is still the case for many Jewish believers today.
[2] Deuteronomy 21:5
[3] Deuteronomy 18:22; 2 Kings 2:24
[4] 1 Samuel 17:45
[5] Psalm 20:7
[6] See his brilliant book, I and Thou.
[7] As seen in Patch Adams (1998)––see the scene here.
[8] As Buber refers to God in I and Thou.