“I hope these are God’s words, not only mine.”
“May you hear God speaking directly to you today, through me or in spite of me.”
“May they remember the things I said that are from You, God, and allow the rest to fall away.”
If you’ve heard things like this from a pastor at your church (or if you’ve said them yourself), you’re familiar with the delicate balance necessary for someone who climbs into a pulpit and attempts to offer the congregation a “Word from the Lord for today.”
Preachers try–in examining the biblical witness, exploring the cultural background, listening to the lives of our congregation, and playing imaginatively with words in building the sermon–to be faithful to what God says in Scripture. But as closely as we may try to stay, none of us can “just preach the Bible,” (though you’ve likely heard people claim to do so) without allowing our sermons to emerge from our own experience.
That can be a gift; after all, the best sermons are well-aligned with the pastor’s “voice,” partly because the Scripture works its way into the congregation through the preacher’s own engagement with God through the text. But sermons that emerge from the pastor’s voice also require honest acknowledgment of where her perspective may cause her to “miss” parts of the Gospel. Self-awareness is crucial for helpful sermons, because the most dangerous biases are the ones we leave unaddressed.
For preachers, then, part of the “listening” process has to include listening to ourselves; examining how the direction of our curiosity will be shaped, by (among other things) our cultural location, experience, and assumptions about the passage we’ve been given to preach. Otherwise these biases will seep into the sermon without our intention, sometimes causing us to preach our own story as if it were the Gospel, perhaps even making our own experience the focus, rather than God’s invitation for His people.
To practice self-listening in your sermon process is to refuse to leave your own interpretive prejudices unexamined.
As you prepare your next sermon, here are a few ways of beginning the practice of listening to yourself:
Acknowledge your Assumptions
If you’ve read a passage before (or heard it preached before), you carry with you into interpretation assumptions from your previous readings. Before approaching the text, write out some of the assumptions you have about the sermon you think will result from the passage. What kinds of questions will it answer? What life situations might it speak most clearly to? What have you heard said about this passage before that you’re struggling to get out of your mind? How have you heard this in various stages of your life? How does that concern you?
After you do that, close the document, set those formalized assumptions aside, and start writing down questions.
Follow Your Curiosity (Into a Narrow Focus)
Part of helping your congregation be interested in Scripture is having freshly explored the Bible yourself. There are parts of your passage that interest you, and parts that likely don’t. Being aware of that can help you be a better interpreter of Scripture (and can lead to productive self-awareness). Read back through your passage. What words or phrases cause you to linger? Where do you become bored? Where do you find yourself resistant to what the passage is saying? What “tone” do you imagine the writer conveying? What leaves you bewildered? Write down questions you’ll explore through research later.
After you explore commentaries and other resources, ask, “Which of these seems most central to the text and most useful to my congregation?” and “Which interesting insights might I need to save for later, since they don’t serve my sermon?”
Then write a focus statement for where you hope the sermon might go; insofar as your points of interest detract from the focus statement, you can exclude them from the sermon.
Write in Community:
Whether because of our family of origin, level of income, neighborhood location, or exegetical approach, our perspective on our passage is different than others who read the same verses. By sharing our sermon process with others (especially those who are different from us in their race, gender, income level, social circumstances, educational perspectives, and denomination), we can enrich our preaching while also gaining valuable perspective on how one passage can give rise to diverse interpretations.
Beyond all these weekly tips, we can’t emphasize enough the importance of living and interpreting Scripture in a diverse community–some local, some through books, and some across distance–who remind you with their friendship (and their words of challenge, encouragement, and rebuke) that all of us approach the Bible from a particular angle, and have much to learn from each other.
© 2019, Ethan Linder
Ethan Linder is the Pastor of Hospitality, Collegians, and Young Adults at College Wesleyan Church in Marion, Indiana, and the Editor of The Wesleyan Church’s Education and Clergy Development writing staff.