I taught a portion of a preaching class recently. One member of the class is a lay person who never intends to preach.
He took the class because, for sixty years, he’s been listening to overly long, unfocused sermons—and he wanted to find out why.
He took the class because, in his words: “Really—how hard can preaching be?”
I mean, it’s not like we’re summiting mountains or performing brain surgery, right?
I haven’t been able to follow up with him since the class ended to see what he discovered. But I’m confident he has a much better appreciation for the layers of theology, analysis, synthesis, writing craft, and oratory skill involved in the weekly offering of a sermon.
As one who works with preachers professionally for the express purpose of helping them improve their craft, I have some ideas of why so many parishioners find themselves listening to sermons that don’t connect.
Take a moment to do a quick evaluation of your own preaching life by deciding whether you agree or disagree with the following statements.
1) I believe preaching is a vitally important part of my ministry.
If you’re reading this blog it probably indicates you “agree” or “strongly agree” that preaching is a vitally important part of your ministry.
But do your actions reflect this value?
Do you (and your staff and your parishioners) respect your sermon prep time as sacred and essential to the health of your congregation?
If so, do you prioritize time for sermon prep each week? Or does it get squeezed into the space between budget meetings, hospital visits, and scheduling the HVAC repair company…or get left to the 11th hour Saturday night at the expense of your personal or family time?
Do you maintain your connection to God outside of your church responsibilities? In other words, do you make time to relate to God as a beloved child or bride in addition to connecting as a pastor and messenger of Good News?
I ask these questions not to issue judgment or condemnation but to encourage honest reflection.
What would your week look like if your church believed the Gospel preached is essential to those who enter your doors?
How might your sermon prep time be prioritized if your calendar lined up with the conviction that the people in your pews need to know who God is and what God does and how responding to the Good News with all our hearts, minds, and souls is the narrow road to life abundant?
What would change if, week after week, our increasingly biblically illiterate culture encountered engaging, compelling sermons that offer a clear message of Good News so that minds were renewed and lives transformed?
Of course, the Gospel is preached far and wide beyond the pulpit.
But since the sermon is a primary tool of preachers—and by far the most significant factor in whether someone attends a church—these questions merit consideration.
2) I believe it’s important always to be improving my preaching.
If the Gospel and preaching are vitally important, I, for one, want to keep getting better at it.
I need to keep getting better at it!
As a preacher, I can’t think of anything more important than continually improving how to offer the Gospel in ways people can hear, absorb, and say yes to.
Preaching is so complex it requires (and deserves) a life-time of study. It’s both science and art. Discipline and inspiration. Corporate and personal.
Consider the skill involved in writing and delivering a single sermon:
knowledge of scripture
knowledge of church history
knowledge of the cultural and historical contexts of Biblical texts
awareness of current events—global, national, local, and congregational
awareness of the needs, concerns, and hopes of our listeners
commitment to ethics
ability to connect the ancient words, lives, and contexts of Scripture to our current struggles and cultures
ability to craft an introduction that grabs listeners’ attention and a conclusion folks will remember after they leave the building
ability to organize a sermon’s content in a way that flows clearly and smoothly from idea to idea—from the order of ideas to the transitions between
ability to identify and articulate the Good News—even in confusing and unsettling texts
and of course, all the public speaking skills involved: pacing, vocal inflection, volume, eye contact, gestures, awareness of verbal of physical “tics,” etc.
Whew! It’s no surprise, then, that we likely will never feel we’ve “arrived” at preaching mastery.
We can always improve our ability to offer a sermon message succinctly and compellingly so listeners’ attention is held the first word to the last.
And why do these skills matter?
Because if our listeners tune out, they don’t hear the Gospel.
Or if they tune in only to get lost in a muddled, nebulous message, they miss the Gospel.
Or if they tune in only to hear a perfectly clear message devoid of Good News, they’re left with just another self-help talk. They could have found that on the shelves of Barnes & Noble.
And proclaiming Good News of great joy for all people is the whole point of preaching!
So, really, what’s so hard about preaching? Everything!
3) I have a plan and follow it to improve my preaching.
Knowing we are stewards of a craft that can always be improved doesn’t always mean we know how to grow and improve.
Sometimes it’s hard to know our own weaknesses. And even when we know what we’d like to improve, it’s can be hard to go about it alone.
What intentional practices have you developed to improve your preaching? We’d love to hear what works for you in the comment section below.
At Backstory Preaching, we’re big fans of establishing routines and a process you can rely on week after week. And we believe there’s no substitute for a preaching community for feedback, encouragement, and insight.
If you don’t yet have a plan to improve your preaching, here are some ways to get started:
Read one book per month that pertains to preaching.
Listen to and evaluate one of the sermons you preach.
Better yet, swap sermons with a preaching buddy and appraise each other’s.
Listen to someone who’s preaching you admire. Pay particular attention to the elements that compel you and try to emulate their techniques in your next sermon (not to be confused with copying the actual ideas or content of their sermon!).
Find a group of preachers for bible study on the lessons. You’ll encounter ideas and concepts you’d never have thought of alone.
Don’t have a group? Join us for Live Lunch-Hour Lectio on Mondays at noon CST (on our Facebook page) to prayerfully read through the week’s Gospel lesson.
Choose one aspect of sermon crafting and work on that one skill, one month at a time. For example, you could focus on storytelling, transitions, attention-getting first sentences, or conclusions people will remember.
Make plans for the preaching conferences you’ll attend in the next twelve months.
In preaching, as with all skills we hope to develop, doing something is better than nothing.
And any step toward growth will eventually yield fruit that surprises and delights.
January 16th to June 30th, 2019
If you’d like support & Structure to improve your preaching—and stick to it—the Backstory Preaching Mentorship was created for you.
We focus intensely—and individually—on your skill development and sermon prep process while integrating it with your relationship with God.
Working one-to-one and in a small group, your Mentor will guide you for six months to improve your preaching and keep you accountable.
Plus, your sermons will be appraised by your Mentor, small group, and listeners in your congregation.
Through this consistent feedback and intentional practice, you will be able to magnify the Good News with greater clarity, brevity, and interest.
Applications open October 1st
& accepted on a first-come, first served basis until October 31st.