Sermon Review: Amanda Drury, An Other Greatness

Preacher: Dr. Amanda Drury

Sermon Title: An Other Greatness

Sermon Link: https://www.collegewes.com/sermons/anotherway/

Amanda Drury is a professor at Indiana Wesleyan University and widely received as a highly gifted preacher. Her teaching and preaching ministry crosses cultural, geographical, and denominational boundaries. From time to time, though, she preaches at her home church, College Wesleyan. Her preaching is fresh and calls us to new levels of obedience as we consider the dignity and value that Christ places on our children. We can learn from her in any number of ways, but here are a few.

The Gospel she preaches is counter-cultural.

Sometimes God’s Word is exactly what we want and need to hear. We are loved. God is faithful. God is our shield. God hears us when we pray. All of this is true and of course important to redeeming the image of God in us. Yet sometimes Jesus says things like “blessed are the meek,” or “you should forgive not seven, but seventy-seven times.” Sometimes Jesus steps on our toes. He embraces the sinner we despise. He validates the worshiper we would like to keep out. He ignores the rule we hold most dear. The Gospel is not always easy to hear. Yet it is always good news for those who have ears to hear.

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

“Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

Dr. Drury knocks on the door of our private board meeting and asks the room if we will allow a child to enter and speak at the table. While this Gospel is counter-cultural, it’s still good news. God loves and values children as whole persons, whereas we often patronize their thoughts and desires. This God is gracious and kind to those whom the world would push aside. We do sometimes need to preach things the practically minded adults will say seem ridiculous.

The Gospel calls for engagement (and sometimes it is even fun).

Dr. Drury engaged the congregation with a fun exercise. The Mosquito Tone is a series of sounds, Amanda tells us, that only the young can hear. The second tone could only be heard by those 49 and under. The next can only be heard by those 30 and under. The last can only be heard by those 18 and under. And, of course, we all wanted to know if this was really going to work; this is fascinating stuff. “Can you hear that?” Amanda asked. . Dr. Drury engaged the congregation with an exercise that asked for (but did not demand) participation. That exercise was critical in helping us understand this portion of the Gospel. You have to watch the sermon video to experience it. There are things that children can hear from God that perhaps, as we grow old, we cannot hear. The engagement of the congregation was clear, and it was fun!

The Gospel is fresh.

Often the texts and concepts we preach are familiar. They should be, we have studied long and hard to become biblically literate and theologically well rounded. At other times the topic or the text or the doctrine is relatively new to the preacher. Either way, the challenge is to keep the gospel fresh for the listener so that the gospel is news not just good. This passage before might be one we avoid because it is difficult to hear, and difficult to understand. But preaching a fresh message does not only mean talking from a less common passage. Giving a fresh Word means the preacher has leaned in to listen to what the Holy Spirit says. God has given the preacher a Word for this season, this day, this congregation.

How can we follow Amanda in faithfully communicating the Word in a way that makes sense to our hearers today?

  1. Embrace the counter-cultural nature of the Gospel.

You don’t need to look long or far to find aspects of Scripture that are counter-cultural. What aspect of your passage for next week makes little sense in the eyes of the world? What part of the passage honestly does not make sense to you at first? Are you asking your people to have faith in that which is unseen? To give generously when the world’s tendency is to hoard and protect wealth? We embrace the counter-cultural nature of the Gospel because we first belong to God; the nature of our fallen world means that God’s way often is different than what seems natural in our world. We belong to a higher kingdom. When you land on which aspect of your message is counter-cultural, then ask: why is this good news? The Gospel is always good news. It may be counter-cultural; it may be difficult to hear and live. But the Gospel is always good news. If it remains shaming, condescending, judging or pressure-filled the gospel has not yet been re-released. How does your sermon run cross grain to the cultural tendencies you have? How can God’s alternative way be good for you and those you serve?

  1. Ask them to participate.

The more we study the Word of God (and preach it), the more we find that it is even more captivating than we first thought. God continually surprises us, why shouldn’t the scriptures do the same? How can you engage your congregation in an active, participatory way this Sunday? This should not be complicated or gimmicky. Beware the forced participation that causes many to groan. Dr. Drury’s example is audio. Silence can be engaging as well however. A break in the sermon for reflective thought, journaling in the bulletin, or simple prayer can engage the listener making them more than mere listener.

  1. Face a new passage head-on.

As you read Scripture personally, do you ever come across a passage that intimidates you? One that follows you around, rubs you the wrong way, or one you just cannot figure out? Take time this week to begin to engage a text like that. Ask questions. Make observations. Begin your process of studying that passage. Don’t preach on it right away. Take time to learn from it yourself. In a few months, preach that passage. This is a great way to begin to incorporate lesser-known (but still important) passages of Scripture. Allow the time. Don’t be afraid. And keep a lookout for the Holy Spirit’s subtle ways of communicating. Remember a fresh Word isn’t just about coming up with something to say—a fresh Word comes from the Holy Spirit alone.

So Many Good Preaching Sources, Where to Start?

Homiletical Resources

Exegetical vs Homiletical Resources

I once heard a craftsman who was working on a house job with only a tool or two in hand say, “I don’t use every tool every time. That’s why I have the big truck. It holds the ones I might use.” Preaching tools are just that, tools. Some you use every time, some you do not.

Every pastor builds a tool kit of resources to turn to again and again in developing sermons. There is widespread disagreement about which of those sources are best, most faithful, or even ethical. The universal experience for preachers is to find some highly recommended resources unhelpful, and unmentioned resources critical. If many preachers are honest, they have used sources they wish they had not.

Beginning preachers have a lot of questions about sources. Maybe this is because they feel the confused conflict between the advice of the experienced preachers who mentor them. Or maybe they just are not sure about all the big name books their bible professors seem to love. The questions preachers have surrounding resources often include some of these:

  • Is it okay to get illustrations from stock sources or internet pools for preaching ideas?
  • Is it faithful to use others’ outlines and sermons resources?
  • Is it ethical to use someone else’s story? How much credit must be given?
  • What if I don’t know any greek or hebrew?
  • Which books are the most important to buy if I am going to buy some?
  • What about commentaries? Which ones should I use? Which can I trust?

Those questions are important and we will cover most of them in coming articles. Hopefully it will help experienced preachers reflect more clearly on the resources we have become accustomed to using as well as clear some things up for beginning preachers at the same time.

Today we want to outline a critical difference between preaching resources in general, and exegetical resources for preaching in specific. There are thousands of endless millions of resources for preaching. That is not an exaggeration when you consider that all of life is a sermon when you have a well worn passage tucked away in your mental pocket. Exegetical resources are more countable, more easily categorized. Exegetical sources are more tailor made for the task of interpreting the Bible.

Here is the difference in a nutshell. Exegetical resources are those tools and sources used to understand and interpret the biblical passage in its own voice and time.

Preaching sources are the wide array of content inputs preachers use to add meaning and creative vantage points to their interpretation of the text. A book on friendship during the single years can be a preaching resource, whether it is particularly Christian or not. A lexicon defining the meaning of the Greek word friend, or the word for sibling-like love phileo, is obviously an exegetical resource.  

Why is this distinction so important?

It is tempting to prepare an entire sermon quilted together from patches of other people’s insights and interpretations.

A quote here, a borrowed illustration there, a set of teaching points and voila a sermon is born. When life is busy and pastoral duties squeeze out the luxury of reflective time with scriptures this can happen. Few pastors of very may years can judge another minister for the occasional sermon in this category, at least not without hypocrisy. If it happens consistently however, preaching becomes stale. Sermons seem canned. The energy and verve is drained from the preaching moment when the sermon is not born of the preachers’ flesh, blood, and soul. More importantly, the ongoing spiritual formation and spiritual vitality of the preacher is undercut. Preaching forms us, strengthens us, deepens us, if we take the time to use the right resources, tools, and give them good reflection.

The following are good exegetical resources most sermons should engage before deciding on the “main point” or “big idea” or “central claim” of the sermon:

  1. Multiple English versions (NIV, NRSV, NKJV, NASB, CEB, etc.)
  1. Interlinear version (freely available online of course, if you have not yet noticed biblehub.com or blueletterbible.org). Of course if you can translate, by all means do. But 99% of pastors are no longer able to translate even if they once could.
  1. Concordances. Strong’s and Englishman’s are the traditional combo. Again, though, the same material is now available freely online. Most Bible study websites hyperlink English words to the original language.
  1. Original language dictionary/lexicon (Brown/Driver/Biggs, Holiday’s Concise, etc.)
  1. Exegetical, critical commentaries (Word Biblical, Anchor Bible)
  1. Historical, geographical, and theological reference tools as needed (maps of the time period’s geopolitical spaces, theological dictionary references on key concepts or terms, etc.)
  1. Optional: homiletical commentaries (Wesleyan Biblical, Interpreter’s Bible, anything with “Preacher’s” or “Pastor’s” or “Homiletical” in the title). These are sort of boundary dwellers. They have some exegetical material, and others’ homiletical thoughts all mixed into one. I rarely find them terribly helpful for a particular sermon. I read them from time to time to “soak up” preaching in general. Many pastors find them helpful on specific sermons. Pastors seem to use them most often in one of two ways: plagiarizing or quoting. Phrases and sermonic moves are outright lifted from the commentary which is of course not the ideal. Or the pastor simply quotes them, “as one great preacher put it…” Rarely do these sorts of resources seem to spawn fresh interpretations of scripture in the new wine skin of the preacher’s personality.

Every preacher has to find her own way. There is no plug and play formula for a step-by-step guaranteed solid sermon. Just like any craft, each craftsperson finds a personalized way to achieve excellent results. However, preachers will not find consistently solid and gospel-centered sermons without holding themselves accountable to the right tools used the right ways.

The Ordained Preacher is a Craftsperson

stock vs custom cabinetsImagine going to a friend’s house who had custom cabinets installed at a custom cabinet price. Now there is a wide variety of difference in materials and workmanship on custom cabinets. Still, you look inside his cabinets and realize as happy as he is about them, they were purchased pre-fab and pre-assembled. The so called cabinet craftsman had sniffed naiveté. The craftsman could have used hardwood, or softwood, or hardwood veneer plywood. The craftsman could have even used medium density fiberboard and not been out of professional standards of honesty as long as it was communicated. Instead, the craftsman took pre-assembled cheap materials (pressboard and manufactured veneer) and passed it off as custom cabinetry. He picked them up at Home Depot or Lowe’s, added some filler pieces, painted over it all, and called it “custom.”

The cabinets will work. They will hold things, conceal unsightly things, and house possessions. They will cover the wall and the doors will open. It will “work.” But over time it will not satisfy. The veneer will warp and peel. The press board will eventually crumble and disintegrate. More importantly, perhaps, anyone who hears the name of the craftsman and knows cabinetry at all, will lose respect for that craftsman.

Cheap Cabinets PeelingThat friend would rightfully be outraged at the loss of trust. It is not that pre-assembled cabinets are wrong or worthless. Far from it. If you or I (hobbyists) were to install some we might very well use them happily. But for a craftsman to use them? Someone whose job is supposedly to offer custom fit cabinets? That is a disappointment.

Preachers are custom craftspersons. We write our messages for particular people and times. We round out the corners of the sermon to fit the geography and culture of the people. And we intend to give them sermons that will be satisfying for quite some time to come. The depth of the sermonic work provides strength for the content well beneath the veneer of a first hearing. When a layperson fills the pulpit, no one faults them for piecing together bits and pieces of material they have picked up along the way or discovered in preparation for the sermon. They are hobbyists so to speak. A full time preacher, particularly an educated and ordained one, is a different matter.

Preachers have a wide variety of materials and craftsmanship expectations. No one will fault a busy preacher for an MDF board sermon on a rough week. No one will fault the preacher for purchasing a few trim pieces already shaped and pre-primed. However, very few will be satisfied with preachers who purchase or re-use pre-assembled cheap sermons in order to fill the space, hold the attention, and cover the opening.

We want to know the preachers whose job it is to shepherd the flock with personalized care are doing so in sermon preparation. They might use any number of different tools for the job of the week. They might make a wide array of choices for materials. They might use more materials and greater personal cost to themselves. They might use less or thinner materials. Still, we expect a custom job.

Here are some things I have found helpful for me, for my students, and for preachers I occasionally help strengthen their preaching:

  1. Keep a standard list of your most helpful resources. The ones you use. The ones you like. The ones that help you build your own sermons with substance and care.
  1. Put that list in a step-by-step order of what resources to use first. Exegetical resources should always come before homiletical resources. You choose the number and the kind, but put them first.
  1. Put the most crucial resources for crafting custom sermons on a checklist. Make this a list you check before you read any other type of preaching resource.
  1. Use those sources with enough lead time. You need time for your spiritual engagement and preaching creativity to take hold. A rush job, up against a deadline, almost always causes us to use lesser materials without the right tools because we simply do not have time or energy left to do otherwise.

Sermon Review: Amy Biegel, This Is Me

Preacher: Amy Biegel

Sermon Link:  http://theriver.cc/watch?id=1261410

Sermon Title: This Is Me

Amy Biegel is the children’s pastor at The River Church in Marion, IN. In a recent series, The River communicated truths of the Gospel that can be found in the movie The Greatest Showman. Though at times, movie series such as this can feel like a little bit of a stretch to remain faithful to Scripture, Amy communicated the truth she found in The Greatest Showman in a way that was faithful to God’s character and faithful to the message of the text (John 4). She also communicates the truth of the Gospel with a peaceful conviction that we can all aspire to.

A movie series done well.

We didn’t listen to every sermon in this series. Still the message of God showing up in the middle of the Samaritan woman’s less-than-perfect life correlated well with the story being told in The Greatest Showman. A series on movies’ has its greatest danger in the nature of the series. it is a series based on cultural reference points. Those cultural reference points can become so dominant that the counter-cultural nature of the gospel is submerged. Worse, the message of the movie can become the primary message and the scriptures the assisting voice. Certain movies lend themselves to the message of the Gospel in more direct and concrete ways. The classic example might be Les Miserables. Others provide more temptation to the preacher to submerge scriptures and theological concerns to cultural connection. If we’re going to do a movie series, it ought to feel unforced and correlate well with the text being used. We never want to force a text to match a movie. Amy did a great job of bringing these two together— the story of Leti helped us understand the Samaritan woman in a new and fresh way. The Greatest Showman and the story of the woman at the well together lead us to the intersection where we ask what God might be saying to us on this day.

Intersection— three stories.

One word Amy used to describe where we were going over the course of this sermon was an ‘intersection’ of three stories— our story, the story of the woman at the well, and the story of The Greatest Showman. By the end of the sermon I clearly understood where these three stories intersected. She didn’t leave me a mile up the road from reality, there was no need to hitchhike or translate her words into the present day. She brought us directly into the intersection and  then asked us how God might have us to respond. This image of the intersection is not only one that’s helpful for understanding this sermon, but one that’s helpful for us as preachers to consider for future messages.

She stayed at the intersection for several minutes.

The end to this sermon was much more than a half-baked prayer— she spent several minutes at the end interceding for those who might respond to this Word. “Lord, you are speaking and may these people be faithful to what you have been saying to them.” Amy took the time to convey the importance of the moment— the importance of taking time to respond to the Word of God. Because what is the Word of God if it’s not meant to be lived?

How might we implement some of Amy’s helpful practices?

  1. Consider a series based on story.

Film is one of our world’s favorite ways to tell stories. Many people in your congregation connect deeply with the characters and stories they see told on the screen. If you have never tried a movie series, perhaps now is a good time to start brainstorming! As with any other sermon, this is not something that can be whipped up quickly— this takes considerable time, planning, and thought. Not just any movie should be used, and not just any text will fit any movie. What movies have you seen that are congregation-appropriate and tell a compelling story (or have a particularly compelling character)? Or perhaps if you’re not a movie buff, you could do the same with a book series. Once you have a few movies in mind, consider starting a vision board for a movie series. Ask yourself if this story lends itself to one sermon or several.  Ask yourself what section of Scripture might resonate well with the themes of the movie. Then re-interpret the movies according to scripture rather than the other way around. To ensure a better theological priority – find passages or Christian themes first, then look for the movies that resonate.

  1. Ask where the intersection lies.

When we preach, we spend a considerable amount of time digging around in the text, asking good questions, observing what the text says and how it communicates that. We study, ask more questions, consult commentaries and wise friends. As we study, we also attempt to ask how this very old Scripture reaches out of its own context to talk to our present reality.  Most preachers are better at one than the other. Some speak eloquently about present realities, while others seem to have more finesse in storytelling from biblical reality.  As you consider your next sermon, ask yourself where the intersection lies. Where does the text meet today’s reality? And how can you help your people get there?

  1. Stay at the intersection.

One age-old practice of preaching, a pause for pastoral prayer inspired by the sermon, has diminished in use over the last fifty years. Consider allowing time and space to pray over your people during the sermon? Spend several minutes prayerfully petitioning God to move on behalf of your people. Because as much as this proclaimed word matters, the One who has been speaking to them long before we ever showed up matters more.

Simple Steps for a Good Sermon

Simple Conditions for a Great Sermon

Simple Sermon PathOne of the great joys of life for many parents is helping coach children through their chosen sport. Calling out splits for my track running daughter as she sets her personal best, or watching from the dugout as my son’s baseball team manages a come-from-behind win is a joy. We spend hours together working on their sport outside of practice and games because every human endeavor is filled with complexity. Often in order to help the athlete get to the next level, they have to learn a new degree of complexity. Eliminating wasted movement from each step. Judging the pitcher’s delivery and the probability of a good pitch. The components of velocity in a good throw.

But in the heat of the moment, when the event is on the line, simplicity trumps all.

You have heard what seem like nearly meaningless things to say come out of coaches’ mouths. You may have even thought, is that all a coach does? Say the same things anyone could say? But during the meet, or on game day, it is often too late to make complex changes. So, if you listen to the coaches you hear them call out again and again, “just breath”, “stride out”, “see it and hit it,” “play is at 1,” “this is the final lap, dig deep.”

Track coach on the sideIt is not that the athletes are poorly trained, or clueless to the game. And it is not that these mantras are all the coach understands. There is just too much going on. Simplifying helps the athlete focus on the most important component and trust hard work and practice will make everything else automatic.

When you are in the middle of the heat of a heavy ministry week it is too late to change your entire view of preaching.

There is too much going on during that kind of week for a lecture on preaching. What you need is to simplify things and trust your hard work and training over the years has made the rest automatic. This article will not transform your view of preaching. It will cut through the noise, point you to a few key simple practices, and clear your mind of the rest. The truth is, in those heated moments of ministry, it is the simple things that often go by the wayside. It is the simple things that cause us to be off our game.

Here are a few phrases a preaching coach on the sideline of your life might say in the heat of an overwhelming ministry week. The pressure is on. Time is limited. The finish line is coming. The coach sees you a touch off your game so simplicity becomes the name of the game. See if you can find the ones you need to hear. Perhaps you can coach yourself through the next difficult week, or ask someone you love to call out the simplest of truths from the sideline…over and over again.Uconn Coach

  1. Find something new to you in the passage

In a busy week of ministry it is all too easy to bring out stale bread, slather it with illustration butter, and call it a sermon. Preaching old thoughts is part and parcel of preaching. We proclaim an ancient faith, a timeless gospel. Still, preaching what we already knew in ways we already knew often leaves our sermons flat, dull, and lifeless. Much of preaching will be reminder. That is good. But every sermon needs a spark of new insight. Even if it is something an eighty-year-old saint in your congregation has noticed before, if it is new to you it will add energy and life to your preaching. Besides preaching is not just for the congregation. It is also for the preacher. It must be something that is actually there. It should not be a leap of your imagination, or a twisting of the passage to fit your needs. A genuinely new and meaningful insight will bear fruit throughout the sermon process. Reminding yourself to keep studying until you see something new in the passage will prevent you from many preaching ills: lack of intellectual interest, flat energy in delivery, know-it-all demeanor, and more. Most importantly, it will force you to “see” the passage again with faith God is always doing something new. Keep studying until you have something new.

  1. Find good news for you

Wrestle with the meaning of the passage (not some other passage) until you find the good news in it for you. It must be news, but it also must be good. #1 above makes sure you have some level of “news.” This condition makes sure it is good news. In every passage there is a way to preach the good news of God’s gracious character toward those who love and serve Jesus Christ. Good news is not limited to a simplistic description of salvation. Instead, salvation reaches out like the nervous system in the body and touches every limb of Christian life. How does this passage directly, indirectly, subtly, or explicitly offer good news to God’s people? The places where it feels like bad news are often the very location of the good news if we study, pray, and wrestle long enough to find it. You do not need a rehearsal of all the exegetical steps at this point. Studying until you find something new and wrestling until you find good news will press you back to the resources of your training. These two simple commitments will prevent you from beating people up from the pulpit. Many sermons from tired pastors start to slip into what can be summarized this way: “You all know this already, why aren’t you living it? Try harder or you are not a faithful Christian.” Instead, we need to preach a gospel that is living, the Word that is alive and ever renewed, and a life that is grace enabled, not guilt driven.

  1. Seek your own change

Personal ChangePerhaps no other single coaching phrase helps preachers tap into all the automatic training and habits they need to preach well. Simply ask, “How can this passage change my life this week?” This forces the preacher to #1 seek something new, and #2 seek something that is good news…something not only worth living, but able to be lived. The freeing power of the gospel, not the guilting power of the law, is what is required. When we live with a sermon well enough, long enough to find it changing us all kinds of potential becomes unlocked. We can study the structure of “how” the passage helped us see ourselves more clearly, see others more graciously, align our priorities more faithfully, or act with more consistency. It also presents us from some of the most frustrating sins of preaching for most listeners: condescension, moralizing, and hypocrisy. When we preach our old repentance it is too easy to subtly look down upon those who have not yet “got it.” When we preach our past victories it is natural to start telling others to be as moral and well-formed as we are. When we cease to preach to ourselves, we cease to see our need for growth and change. The heart is deceitful above all things, and we begin to imagine ourselves not as flawed and sinning creatures in need of grace, but models others should follow. Find something new in the passage. Wrestle with the meaning until you find good news. Diagnose what is really going on in the gap between divine character and your own human condition. Pray, listen, and obey until it changes you this week in even the smallest of mustard seed ways.

  1. Imagine others’ deep needs

Empathetically engaging others’ lives (diverse contexts, different stages of life, etc.) and how the good news of this passage might meet their deep needs is crucial to keep preaching from subtle narcissism. The first three steps can leave a preacher stuck in their own world. We have to engage all of our selves in studying a sermon so it requires our world. Yet preaching is not for the preacher in the end (it is in the beginning), it is for the listener. Often the illustrations coming directly from a preacher’s life do not resonate with all of the congregation. Beware of trusting the positive feedback on how “relevant” your own personal illustrations are. They are only “relevant” to those whom they are relevant to. Illustrations from your married life, or your family life can subtly alienate single individuals or couples unable to have children. Glimpses into your young life or your aging years can alienate both those on the opposite end, and those in the middle of life. It is crucial to imagine the widow, the orphan, the refugee, the outcast, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, male and female, differing ethnicities and walks of life. How does this passage speak to a deeply felt human need that crosses over all of these life situations and contexts? Drawing on the resources of your new insights (#1), fresh good news (#2), and your own experience of what helps you overcome (#3), imagine how to guide your people into similar experience in very different lives. This is empathy work, and it is hard work…but in concept it is simple. See the people God has given you, and love them enough to understand their world, in their way.

I suppose there is another level of simplicity that needs to occur. Once the sermon is developed and the time for all of the above is gone, it is too late to rework all of those steps. And we need something a lot more condensed if we are ever going to remember it.

See the people. Love them. And show them the good news for their every day lives.

It is the equivalent of saying “see it and hit it.” Or “focus on your breathing.” But it might be exactly what you need this week. Wee the people. Love them. And show them good news for their every day lives. That is what we want from our preachers. It is what we need from our pastors. It is what we preachers easily forget in the heat of the moment.

See them. Love them. Gospel them.

And then again between services remind yourself: See them. Love them. Gospel them.

SERMON: The Next Wrong Thing | Ethan Linder

SERMON VIDEO:

(Can’t see the video? Click here.)


Ethan Linder College Wesleyan ChurchEthan Linder is the College/Young Adults and Connections Pastor at College Wesleyan Church in Marion, IN– a church that desires to send more and better disciples of Jesus Christ into the world. Pastor Ethan delivers weighty truth with playful precision. This is a difficult balance that we are excited to explore with you. Here are a few of the categories of the mix we enjoyed in Ethan’s sermon:


 

Wordsmithing

“The rich can’t buy it with their riches any more than the poor can buy it with their poverty….”

Any of us can improve the way we craft phrases as we write our sermons.  There are many standard suggestions to help preachers do this: examine the works of more seasoned authors, pore over our favorite narratives to discover how the story is told, practice regular writing even in journal form. The truth is some are more naturally gifted at this work. We all know good craftsmanship when we hear it. But word smithing is not as simple as writing phrases that sound smooth in our ears. Good word smithing cleans our glasses to increase our vision.

As you listen to the sermon, look for this quote and hear how it hits the ear, the mind, and the mind’s eye: “[I] wonder if the message of this text is that the kingdom of God is God’s gift to give to whom he chooses. The rich can’t buy it with their riches any more than the poor can buy it with their poverty. All that’s necessary is that you have hands that are free to receive it.” These few sentences employ imagery and action verbs to work against the gravity of our wealth and earthly concerns. It also works against a works righteousness created by glorifying poverty. In this moment, we are directed to lift our eyes to this sovereign Teacher who calls us to receive a gift infinitely superior to the bondage of hoarded wealth.

Pastor Ethan also believes that it is good to glean from other gifted wordsmiths. Barbara Brown Taylor’s quote, “Sometimes the opposite of rich isn’t ‘poor,’ it’s ‘free,’ is a well-crafted, one-two-punch. It instantaneously takes our preconceived notions about riches and our plans for them and replaces those notions with true wisdom about who God is and what God offers beyond this surrendered act. He could not say it much better, so he quoted someone who said it best.

Empathy

“It wasn’t obedience that was [the rich young ruler’s] problem. It was values.”  

There are four core virtues to preaching celebrated across Christian history: humility, empathy, wisdom, and justice. These make up the way we love our neighbor through preaching. This particular sermon is a good example of the importance of empathy. It impacts not only how we say what we say, but it impacts our interpretation of Scripture, ourselves, and our world. Pastor Ethan lets empathy inform his knowledge of the rich young ruler and of his congregation. Instead of oversimplifying, Ethan takes us beyond the ‘buck up, buttercup’ gospel that we often tell. These sermons often sound something like, “The rich young ruler just needed to obey.” Instead, he offers, “Perhaps obedience isn’t his problem; perhaps the rich young ruler’s values are the problem.” Instead of remaining in the abstract, Pastor Ethan offers a parable that is well-suited for his context– the story of Robert, a young man born into a Midwestern farming family. In both of these things, Pastor Ethan moves from surface-level judgment to cause us to ask deeper, more personal questions. What motivates the rich young ruler and, consequently, Robert? What are their desires, hopes, fears?

Storytelling

 The Parable of the Rich Young… Farmer.  

Human pathos is propelled to action not by platitudes and principles but by characters and narrative. I think most of us would agree that our illustrations serve (hopefully) as so much more than a time-filler. They expand on principles and Scriptural truth in ways that our words might otherwise fail. Pictures are worth more than a thousand words. Character identification is one of the most powerful functions of the parable. Ethan matches parable with parable, ancient and contemporary, and helps us identify with the story in new ways.

Once you’ve found a story worth telling, how will you tell it? Sometimes, the creation of a parable can be a great way to work out the kinks in our own understanding of a text. And if it’s helpful for you, the preacher, then perhaps it could be helpful for your congregation as well. Pastor Ethan’s parable about Robert hits close to home for all of us as he uncovers Robert’s hopes, fears, desires. Robert wanted to do the right things. Robert wanted a good life. As we hear Robert’s story, we slowly ease into to the idea that we are very much like Robert. We empathize with him. We understand him. From there, it’s not a far cry to realize that though we wouldn’t have admitted it at first, we are also very much like this rich young ruler.

This playful precision that Pastor Ethan speaks with is a difficult balance to find, but there are always steps we can take to grow in this discipline.

  1. Sharpen your focus statement.

How can you deliver your focus statement so that, like a well-tended sword, it cuts to the very heart of that one truth you want people to hear? Take your focus statement (the one thing  you want people to leave your sermon remembering) and spend no less than thirty minutes on just your focus statement.

Turn it over and over in your mind. Chew on it. Knead it. Bounce it off the walls or off your nearest friend. Employ action verbs. Try your hand at metaphors. Eliminate filler words. And be sure to keep it short. Less is usually more. This takes practice, but it pays off in clarity. Clear sermons create more life change.

  1. Engage with empathy.

Just as you cannot love God without obedience, you cannot increase your capacity for empathy without spending time with people. When you find yourself frustrated with a person, consider why she/he might act that way. Find motivations you can appreciate and understand even if the action is frustrating or unhealthy.  We do not want to project or assume, but think about what’s happening in their life Has work been frustrating this week? Does home feel out of control? Is he/she simply having an off day? Or is it possible that I’m projecting my own insecurities onto this person in front of me. Empathy also requires that we do not trip over our own emotions on our way to understanding others? Sometimes you should keep the question to yourself, but always ask why.

  1. Learn from the best.

“I am no storyteller,” may be the words on your mind right now.  Sure, you might not be C.S. Lewis or Madeleine L’Engle. Still the first words they ever penned were not the final drafts. Like any discipline, good storytelling takes practice. Do not count yourself out before you start.

Here is more fun way to grow in this avenue of preaching. Choose a movie or book that you have wanted to read/watch for a long time. That neglected story can be this week’s growth work. Watch your movie. Read your book. Enjoy it simply for what it is. When you are done, think back. What made this story compelling (or not)? Were the characters three-dimensional? What moved the plot forward? Humor? A relationship triangle? A villainous plan that needed stopped no matter the cost? Which details were helpful and why? What made the story really sing.

When you’ve studied your text for your next sermon, ask yourself: What story might I tell (whether it’s one you’ve created or someone else’s that you’ll cite) that will BEST illustrate this text? And based on my new storytelling knowledge ideas, how can I tell that story in such a way that it is both faithful to the text and compelling?


 

~ Dave Ward with Elyse Garverick

Preaching Better One Day at a Time

Preacher with bible and bagI was recently with about 100 full time preaching pastors for a one week seminar designed to strengthen their preaching. My usual mode of operation is to gather the struggles, questions, and concerns of the group before I throw content at them. I was glad I did. In our brief brainstorming and problem defining session it became clear a minimal amount of exegetical resources were being used, the preaching process started very late, and sermons were thrown together with almost last minute urgency.

Does this sound familiar?

The denominational leaders who asked me to come in affirmed the direction for our time during a brief break. So I pushed for these pastors to start their sermonic interpretation processes earlier, to use more substantive resources, and to resist the cheap content fillers too readily available for pastors. At first the teaching was met with fear. Anxiety. Discouragement. Polite smiles and responses of course, but private questions and easily read body language.

The challenge to start sermons earlier seemed impossible. Most preachers feel as though they start as early as they can.

The challenge to use more substantive resources for preaching felt burdensome. Most preachers already feel the dogs of burnout nipping at their heels.

The challenge to avoid cheap content fillers seemed like an unfair restriction. Most preachers thirst for any help, from any direction, for the demands of the content machine.

This is not the first time I have seen this reaction. I remember feeling it in my own preaching when I was writing two sermons a week for full time pastoral work. It took me quite some time to realize the truth that starting earlier, using better resources, and resisting the urge to grab cheap content actually made preaching easier not harder.

For the rest of this brief article I want to share a few adjustments of preaching rhythm with you that will seem impossible at first, burdensome after some consideration, and may even feel restricting if you think about it for a short time. But if you apply it, discipline yourself to it, I promise it will not only improve your preaching. It will also make your preaching easier, more fulfilling, and bring better feedback from the seekers and believers in your churches.

  1. The day after preaching

Preaching Calendar PlanMany full time preachers take a day off on Monday. I have been convinced Friday is better both for myself and by preachers who continually confirm it as a better pastoral day of sabbath rest. Delaying your sermon process by taking Monday off undoes the momentum from the previous day, and reduces the time between discovery and delivery. If the day off is Friday, and Sunday’s sermon is ninety-five percent finished the mind can rest as well as the body. On Monday, if the sermon is unfinished a nagging anxiety about the coming week is hard to shake. Consider scheduling a couple hours at least to read and study on Monday.

 

First, read the text for nearly three weeks from now. Read it in a relaxed way simply soaking in what comes to mind. The goal is to be a little more familiar with the passage and does not take more than ten minutes. This one single step on Monday (just reading) does more to jump start preachers’ preaching processes than anything else I suggest. This is why it is not burdensome or unrealistic. Anyone can accomplish ten minutes of discipline.

Second, open the passage for two weeks out, 13 days away. For this passage take the time to mark notes, underline, and ask questions to guide your interpretive work. This does not need to take more than thirty minutes. Once this becomes a rhythm in your life it will mean you encounter the text  a second time and in a contemplative way two weeks before you have to preach it. After questioning and observing the passage, your subconscious begins to write the sermon for you.

Third, the rest of the time you have allotted for sermon work can be spent on this week’s sermon. Open the passage for this coming Sunday you studied last week (see below). Review your exegetical notes, spend time in contemplative prayer, and seek to move the sermon forward. For external processors this usually means improvisational preaching then outlining and writing. For internal processors, this often means reflection, outlining, then improvisational preaching (out loud) or free writing. The aim is to craft the sermon in a way that flows for the ear not the eye. The sooner the sermon becomes “heard” the sooner it will flow and relieve the preacher’s anxiety. For many preachers a car, an empty house, or a lonely place in nature  provides space to test the sermon out loud. External processers will often start in these spaces, and then later outline and write.

Most pastors experience significant reduction of preaching anxiety, increase in scriptural insights, and more time for creative additions to their sermons simply by 1) making preaching preparation on Mondays non-negotiable and 2) adjusting the rhythm to include more than one week’s text.

  1. Two days after preaching

preaching preparationFocus on two elements of your preaching preparation for this day. One is for this week, the other is for the following week.

First, outline this week’s sermon in a detailed way. If you follow this pattern you will have studied the passage exegetically he week prior. It settled into your mind and consciousness and you have ideas coming to the fore. Try to discipline yourself to get at least a detailed outline done on this day (Tuesday for Sunday preachers). You can adjust it later. Having the outline done gives a sense of “I am okay, this will come together” and it also highlights the week areas of the sermon in your mind. That way your subconscious can work on them while you move on to other things. It also gives time for the Spirit to highlight things to add to your sermon you might not have noticed otherwise.

Second, set this week’s sermon outline or beginning manuscript aside. This is difficult to get preachers to do. Sometimes in creative processes however, walking away from the task gets you “unstuck.” Pick up next week’s biblical passage and do your exegetical work on it. Use multiple versions, word studies, and if you have the language capacity work with the Greek or Hebrew. Work directly with the passage. Many preachers find a three column interpretation model helpful at this stage (questions, observations, interpretative hunches). As one senior pastor in North Carolina recently told me, “The sermon after I have a week off is always better than the rest.” The reason may simply be, that sermon had more time to marinate.

  1. Three days after preaching

For this week’s sermon, finalize any materials you have to submit to a worship team or other supporting volunteers. This sort of deadline helps the rest of the ministry team work along with you and create all the environmental support for the service and discipleship venues. It also helps the preacher push past insecurities about whether or not it is “good enough” and commit to a direction.

For next week’s sermon, first write a few sentences describing what you think this text is trying to say and do. It wants to communicate some sort of content. The passage also wants to effect some kind of change. If you can name those two things (Tom Long’s focus and function) then you have made it to a huge milestone. Now you are free to read commentaries and other resources to see if your meaning is confirmed, complicated, or disconfirmed.

  1. Four days after preaching

For Sunday preachers this is Thursday. If you follow the advice I was given by my mentoring pastor, and the advice I give to pastors still, you will take Friday off. This means loose ends need tied up and the sermon needs to be close to ready. The only task for today in preaching is to find 30 minutes here or there between hospital calls, administrative work, and discipleship efforts to preach through this coming Sunday’s sermon from beginning to end. If you are an internal processor you may have to write it out first, but do not skip the preaching out loud step. The sermon can happen to you this way, not just be spoken by you. It helps you hear where the gaps are, recognize where the awkward moments are, and feel where the sermon drags or lulls. If you can preach through it beginning to end on Thursday one time, Friday will be a much more peaceful day.

  1. Six days after preaching

Saturday may hold prayer breakfasts, fund-raisers, special events, weddings, or other culturally determined ministry activities. These are hard to predict and the preaching requirements for the day must flex to the unpredictability. Some days, Saturdays can be mostly time for family and friendship connections. Other Saturdays require more. For multiple service congregations, Saturday may not be very free.

At some point in the day, find space to preach the coming sermon’s major movements aloud until they flow smoothly. Since three to five minutes at a time is all that is needed, treasure any moments to drive, take a walk in the woods, or be in your home or office alone and undisturbed. The only goal is to make sure each movement is internalized as its own unit. Personally I find this takes me two or three attempts to get it to where I am satisfied. That means I need three separate half hour times to practice-preach the day before. That may sound like a lot. But I have learned there are quite a few “dead” moments in any day. An early rise before the family gives me one gap. An errand across town gives me another gap. Then all I need is to slip away for thirty minutes (during halftime of my favorite game for example) to finalize the sermon in my mind.

If you follow this structure you will never be “behind” on your sermon writing even if unexpected funerals and conflicts emerge. The reason is you are always working two weeks ahead on interpreting a passage. So you have flexibility and room to catch up on the process at some other time. If you have to cut something it will not mean you have not even started the sermon by the Thursday night before Sunday. Some of the preachers in seminars I have led admit to repeatedly pulling a sermon together Saturday night using cobbled together resources from others’ work. This would never happen if three weeks out they read the passage. Two weeks out they began taking interpretive notes and engaging interpretive resources. If something came up the week-of, the only thing that would be delayed would be outlining and preaching it through.

If it seems too complicated to start doing this all at once simple change your preaching rhythm one day per week for the next few weeks. Start by adding two other passages of scripture reading to your Monday. This is not God’s way of sermon writing. It is not the 11th commandment. Every preacher needs to find their own way. I simply suggest to preachers to give it a try for a few months and see if it doesn’t improve their preaching. So far, I have not heard a pastor say it doesn’t. Instead I get emails from the pastors above saying “I wrote the best sermon of my ministry this week.” Or, “I have never felt so little stress about preaching. It is hard work, but it is way less stress. I’ll take the trade.”

Give it a try. If you have questions, email me at dave.ward@indwes.edu. I always love hearing from preachers who are working on their craft, and crafting their work.


 

© David B Ward, 2018 Some material excerpted from Practicing the Preaching Life, Abingdon Press forthcoming 2019