Some Thoughts on Preaching, Part One

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Several conversations this past year have had me thinking about writing something about the practice of preaching. I’ve sat with several folks from my church family and responded to questions about my preaching style and habits, and I suppose that what I want to do here is share some of that with you. This is part one of that effort.

Why share thus stuff?

Am I tooting my own horn or flexing my pretentious muscles? I really hope not. But, I think it’s important to talk about things from individual perspectives and experiences. When we do that we find out that we’re not nearly as unique or alone as we tend to think. So, I guess I’m trolling for kindred spirits as I do this, friends trying to make a similar path. I wasn’t trained to preach as I do, so it’s been an odd journey for me to do different things and attempt new methods. Sometimes it has soared with eagles and other times hidden in the mud with worms, but I find that experience far more authentic and life-like than the many idealized preachers of my youth who became more and more distanced from us and God because of a rigid preaching practice until they fell into the worst sins against which they weekly railed. As is probably the case for most church leaders, I am deeply concerned with the lives and souls of the people who look to me for leadership, but I’m also hoping to live the life eternal now and always for myself.

Here are a few things I don’t tend to do…

I don’t ever read a prepared sermon.

If you are trained to do this, and you enjoy it, and you minister with a church family that appreciates it, don’t change a thing! I found that I could not engage my listeners when I engaged the paper. My experience has been that younger generations, unless trained otherwise by seminary or church experience, tend not to respond positively to the sermons being read to them. I think it has to do with the way the younger gens interpret and recognize a couple of crucial things: authenticity and relationship.

Did I just say that written sermons aren’t sincere and authentic? Nope. I said that I’ve found the younger gens, and many from the older ones, are finding a prepared and read sermon to feel less engaging, and therefore not seeming authentic to the life of the speaker. That’s my experience when trying to encode messages for my listeners… and it resonates with me as well.

The idea of relationship is probably even more important and really impacts the idea of a speaker’s authenticity. Younger gens are way more relational these days, and they often hear you or don’t hear you based on their relationship or perceived relationship to you. I believe that to be a fairly true generalization. Many younger folks just aren’t looking for the “power” image in preachers, but instead want someone who can relate to and connect with them at empathetic levels.

Of course the kingdom still has plenty of room it seems for the styled hair, capped teeth and prosperity models who build some of our mega-churches. Cool. That’s no skin of my bald head, not so pristine teeth and jeans. I don’t go into Sunday mornings looking like a slob, nor a poster child, but just me. I’ve found the effort worth the dividends of trust and grace that my church family folks are willing to extend to me.

I don’t like to draw a closed circuit of conclusions.

I don’t think that what I have to say should ever be the final word on something, or that my conclusions are the necessary conclusions for each of my listeners. What? But aren’t preachers paid to think for us, study for us and tell us what the coolest theological trends might be for the day? Aren’t we actually saved by our rightness regardless of our lip service to grace and faith?

I don’t try to complete some of the ideas I’m preaching because I intend for them to be germinal in my listeners. My applications tend to be exploratory. I genuinely invite folks to chew on what I’m saying and give me alternative conclusions or ideas. I’ve been broadened many times by my church folks coming to me with alternatives and additions to what I’m talking about, and I often include those points or reference their thoughts on a following Sunday. The classical form of a sermon that has an introduction, three points and a conclusion is more of “take it or leave it” situation than one in which a person in invited to grow and take their time. Simply put, I don’t expect my listeners to accept everything I say in a message at face value or in the moment of hearing my words… I’ve had a while to play with my ideas and conclusions, digest them and throw them through some tests before any given Sunday morning. It would be un-neighborly not to allow my listeners some time to digest and incorporate the ideas, and improve on them in the effort.

Humility seems to call for a bit of openness and invitation to many of a preacher’s conclusions. After all, I am one person, and God’s Spirit lives in the many persons surrounding me. If I have faith that God’s Spirit is a present, convicting agent in peoples’ lives, then I carry no less of a burden as preacher, but a little different of a burden, one shared with my church folks, not imposed on them.

At the risk of making any comparison between myself and Jesus, which would be a huge mistake for me, I’d ask you to consider how many times Jesus threw some teaching out and then walked off leaving people scratching their heads, frustrated or confused, but also processing and deeply involved in what he had said, though maybe not what he concluded.

I try not to move in a linear fashion through points A to D, 1 to 5, etc.

Mostly, linear communication leads to two great evils: 1) alliteration, and 2) lazy listening. I’m doing my part to kill both practices in the world. Seriously, I can remember in one of my earliest preaching class experiences when the teacher was trying to help us grasp the finer points of outlining our messages and ended up with sub-points A) thru Q) on the board under his second main point. No kidding. It forever altered my perception of the job of a preacher.

Of course, I don’t think that everyone who practices alliteration is evil or dumb, I’m just wore out on the five P’s of this and sixteen J’s of that. Alliteration takes valuable energies that could be much better spent in service to the church and the world. I involuntarily tune out the moment I see sermon notes that have five blank lines all beginning with a capital “U:” because we’re getting the five great U’s of uber discipleship. OK, I don’t just tune out, my mind changes channels and rips off the tuner knob. And, though maybe not all preachers are crass enough to say it out loud, I simply preach the way I want to listen. That’s why not every preacher is right for every listener. I usually say it another way… if I’m not comfortable and enjoying myself, then I bet my listeners aren’t either.

And I think linear messages can lead directly to lazy listening. You know what lazy listening is right? That’s like when someone listens through a whole sermon, shakes hands afterward and compliments the preacher, and immediately moves on with life with nothing better than hopefully a subconscious plant to later haunt them. Lazy listening engenders no questioning of what the speaker just said, it engenders no curiosity or creativity, and it certainly never leads to interrupting the speaker during the message.

I think that classical American preaching set out to do two things, to inform and to convict. So my grandparents were trained to sit and receive information during a sermon and maybe be convicted to do something. These two movements were the meat and bread of persuasion. My grandparents’ generation really believed that they should listen to a sermon because it was good for them to do so, sort of like eating broccoli was supposed to be a good thing.

Later, some preacher with too much time on his/her hands decided to plant a joke in their sermon, and the modern preacher was born… now we’re going to inform, convict and make them like us, too! How liberating and exciting for a tired preacher! Critics of this new paradigm shift invariably call this the “entertainment” model of sermonizing. The more jealous they are of a preacher’s ability to be liked is directly related to their time spent calling it entertainment, even though that preacher is usually still playing the same old game of informing and trying to convict his/her audience. So, my parents were trained to sit and listen, but they really lived for the next humorous story or tear-jerking anicdote. They were willing eat their broccoli, but now demanded some melted cheese on top, because really!

Listen, I’ve done all that! I’ve laid out my points, I’ve brought the Reader’s Digest to bear on important topics, and I’ve tried to bring folks down front during fifteen verses of Just As I Am with tearful pleas between each verse. But these days I’m more interested in getting people engaged than persuaded. I would be just as happy if one of my sermons made someone go be a student of the Bible in an attempt to prove me wrong then because I was so eloquent. I’d love to think that our circular weave through paintings, scripture and life one Sunday morning caused an artist to think about writing a new song or putting brush to canvas. I would often rather one of my sermons leave you with a big question than a big answer. Why? Because I don’t fear God blasting you for something you don’t know more than I hope for you to seek God in a new way, a new question or a renewed period of reflection.

Then again, someone might do what I usually do when listening to a sermon… often I hear a word or phrase early on and disconnect because it’s sent me off on a grand chase down some rabbit hole of scripture or reflection. I’m always grateful to the preacher for kicking off that journey for me, though I probably didn’t hear their message’s conclusion, much less was I persuaded by it. But I did engage. Folks are welcome to do the same during my sermons.

Really… look again at Jeremiah 31:33-34, especially the second part: “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD.  “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbors, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” Sounds like the end of preaching as a profession, huh? Maybe it is, or maybe it is a reminder that God wants a lot more engendered in the hearts of all the people than in the pulpits and sermons of the churches. Maybe this new covenant hope has been stalled because we keep wanting folks more focussed on what we’re saying than what we’re releasing them to experience.

I’ll stop here. I’m almost ranting, and that’s not always constructive. Peace!

One thought on “Some Thoughts on Preaching, Part One

    Rhonda Thomas said:
    December 21, 2009 at 9:23 am

    Todd,
    Thank you for sharing this insight. It has definitely made me think.
    Rhonda

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