Lenten Sermons: Before You Preach, Mind the Gap

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There’s a lot of knowledge we need to preach competently—knowledge about Scripture, church history, ethics, theology, world events, and the lives of our listeners.

Lent is the season when our theological knowledge is particularly called upon.

Let’s do a pop quiz.

Imagine you’re at coffee hour and someone asks you to explain the following theological concepts.

In one sentence, and in plain English how would you explain:

  1. Forgiveness

  2. Grace

  3. Maundy Thursday

  4. Why Good Friday is called Good Friday?

  5. Sin

  6. The last shall be first, and the first, last

  7. Atonenment

  8. What it means that Jesus is God’s Son?

Now, write down an analogy for each that your particular questioner would grasp.

How’d you do?

Were you able to toss off a cogent, one-sentence summary?

Have analogies for each one?

Was it easy? Did you have to think about it?

For any of the examples above, if you didn’t state in one sentence a cogent explanation and analogy, then it might reveal an important truth: you don’t know as much as you think you do.

You just discovered something you didn’t know that you didn’t know.

And that, dear preacher, is a very good thing.

Mind the (Knowledge) Gap: Apply the Feynman Technique

Knowing our gaps is essential to truthful preaching. Knowing our gaps focuses our sermon prep so we’re always prepared to guide people to the truth – instead of fudge our way through and offer muddy theology.

When we discover what we don’t know, we discover the gaps in our knowledge.

The Feynman Technique is a simple, self-questioning exercise to discover not what we know, but what we don’t.

Although there are some variations, here’s the technique I think best suits preaching.

1) Choose the concept.

When you’re in the middle of sermon prep, notice how God is described and what God is doing.

What’s the theology?

We toss off words like “grace”, “forgiveness,” and “compassion” in our sermons so often we forget that they’re actually “big” theology words. These are all consistent actions of God that describe who God is.

Then there are also the really big theological words that we don’t say out loud in our sermons but are the theological bedrock upon which we stand (depending on your own theological bent).

These are concepts like like divine Sonship, docetism, or substitionary atonement.

Step one, then, is to slow down enough to notice what’s happening theologically in Scripture and our sermon drafts.

2) Write an explanation of the concept in one complete, plain-English sentence.

Once you notice the concept, be sure you know what you’re talking about.

Not unlike being able to offer a reference you relied on in your sermon, we also need to offer explanations for the concepts our sermons express. Can you?

Find out by writing an explanation in one sentence. And I suggest it’s a sentence. Phrases fool us into thinking we are clearer than we are. A complete sentence with a subject and verb requires clarity and true understanding.

3) Notice the blind spots.

If you wrote out the sentence, congrats! You remember your training!

But if you couldn’t, then you’ve discovered your blind spot.

And that’s great, because now you know where to focus your time during your prep. Now you know which words and ideas to brush up on.

Do the reading, research, prayer, and study necessary to fill those gaps.

4) Create an analogy or give an example.

The final step is often the most difficult, especially for big theological ideas. I often struggle with this myself.

We look for analogies to describe the event.

For example, what’s an analogous event to dying on a cross?

Dying in the electric chair after being tortured?

More importantly, we want to find the analogy that describes the relationship, because in the end, it’s the relationship between God and humanity we’re trying to foster.

For example, the cross is ultimately about forgiveness. God loves us so much God wanted to make sure that nothing—not our sin, not even death—could separate us.

What’s analogous to not allowing anything to get in the way of a relationship that’s had it’s share of hard times? And not just maintaining the relationship, but building the relationship—re-creating the relationship—so it courageously calls forth truth-telling about those hard times, but also expects a brand new, fresh reality, filled with possibility to be at the other end?

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa jumps to my mind.

What comes to yours?

When you can complete all four parts, then you’ll know you know what you know!

And that’s the best thing of all.

Want to learn more about this technique?

I learned about the Feynman Technique from the book, The Science of Self-Learning: How to Teach Yourself Anything, Learn More in Less Time, and Direct Your Own Education by Peter Hollins, at peterhollins.com, and available on Amazon. I like his explanation best because it includes finding analogies.

Two other sites with slightly different takes.

The Feynman Techinique Model

The Feynman Technique: The Best Way to Learn Anything

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