There are times when preaching that I notice a shift. It’s slightly perceptible, perhaps not at all to the congregation, but I notice it. Every few years, I get a little bit better at it.
I intentionally work on my preaching. After all, it’s a rich and wonderful art form that takes a great deal of time, practice, and thought. I’ve preached with a manuscript, without a manuscript, short sermons, and long sermons. I experiment with all sorts of styles (depending on the congregation), and for now I’ve settled on long narrative sermons.
I don’t go to preaching conferences. I would love to, but the cost is usually too big to cram into my con ed budget. But each year, I concentrate on one way in which I can improve. This year I took voice lessons, which, I have to admit, didn’t do much for me. They were slightly humiliating, and, I still sound the same. I still have my nasally, flat, and not-quite-southern-enough voice.
Here are a few personal preaching goals that I’ve developed over the years:
Start on Monday. Okay, there are people who work six months out, and that’s great. I am not one of those people. But I do start on Monday.
Engage all five senses. Somewhere in the sermon, I try to make sure that the congregation can smell, taste, touch, feel, and hear the passage or illustration.
Cut out all “while I was preparing this sermon” prefaces. I try to avoid them at all costs.
Never get an illustration off the Internet. I did it once. It was one of those emailed stories. It was stale, and I felt cheap. And then, to remind me of the error of my ways, I heard about ten other pastors use the same illustration in the ensuing months.
Read the sermon out loud before preaching it. This is one of the huge perks of being part of a clergy couple. He has to listen to mine, because I just heard his.
Speaking of my pastor/husband, here’s a goal that I stole from him: I preach the sermon that I need to hear. I’m not sure why this works so well. It just changes the preparation process. Instead of it being about what they need to hear, it becomes about what we need to hear.
And the last one…hmmm…how do I say this?
I get therapy. Okay, so I’m not always in therapy, and good spiritual direction works too. I just make sure I engage in some level of honest self-reflection.
Preaching’s an intimate undertaking. I’m not a bystander in the process, and I can’t ignore what I’m bringing to the text. Many times it’s the pain and heartache of past experience that mingles in with the passage as I interpret it. I need to be able to locate that. And I need to make sure that I’m not using the pulpit as therapy.
Strangely, it’s usually during a time of personal hardship or crisis that the shift happens. When we learn to dig deeper at that moment, our preaching becomes different. Better.
It’s like the rock I saw on my hike this morning. It was smooth, gray and dull on the outside. And somehow it had broken in half. On the jagged side of it, I could glimpse at the inside, which was rich and beautiful, with swirling colors of rusty red, ochre yellow, and ocean blue. I was stunned as I studied it.
It can be like that when we preach. Even when we feel battered and broken, we can end up with something deep and beautiful in the midst of it. If we’re willing and able to dig around a bit, we can point out the wondrous things that God does within all of us.
What are your goals?
photo by John Koetsier