I love preaching.
Until I hate it.
Is that you? You have this unspeakable joy of bringing the Word of God week after week, and that joy brings energy and passion.
At least, until it brings despair and isolation.
And that second state leads to a host of clergy health challenges, including depression, anxiety, ulcers, and the bubonic plague. Well, I might have exaggerated that last one.
But what if I were to tell you that some tweaks in your message prep and delivery would not only up your preaching game but improve your physical and emotional health as well? Too good to be true? Not at all.
With all that in mind, here are some sermonic that might just improve your overall wellbeing in the process.
The Joy Of Discovery
The most rewarding thing about preaching is what I call the “joy of discovery” – the time spent in study when through scribbling and researching, the Scripture’s truth leaps out of antiquity and off the page and into the preacher’s lap. I love sharing that “a-ha!” moment with the congregation while preaching. If they can’t tell that you have been fascinated by the Scripture, why should they be captivated by you? Barely a Sunday goes by at Good Shepherd church without a mention, for example, that “Mark is a genius and Jesus is glorious” or “Luke is brilliant and Jesus is beautiful” or even “this inspired and anonymous author of I Samuel weaves his tale with such impeccable skill that I can’t help but shake my head in wonder and say, ‘praise God.’”
Be interestED in Scripture so you can be interestING when you talk about it. I encourage colleagues to become captured by the bible’s quirks, its art, its marvelously flawed heroes, and its raw power. When it captures you, you will be much more likely to capture your listener’s ears and hearts.
Make Change Your Constant
I am grateful I am not the same preacher I was in 1990. I am also grateful the internet had not been invented back then so that there are no digital recordings of those early efforts.
I have had three primary changes in the 30 years under question: 1) I have moved from “pointless” to “multi-point” to “pointed point” sermons. In other words, the early ones lacked focus, then from the mid-90s until 2006 they had multiple, stated foci, and for the last 15 years or so they have been reliably “one point” sermons. 2) With increasing age and experience, I have grown in the freedom to address sticky issues in people’s lives: addictions, compulsions, patterns, and complacencies. It is a high honor when people say, “were you a fly on our wall all week long?” 3) Within the last year, motivated by the work of Timothy Keller, I have learned to turn many sermons about life into concluding moments about Jesus. It’s a thrilling thing when the atmosphere in the room changes because the message has ceased to be about me or the congregation but about the Savior we share. When the sermon changes from exhortation to exaltation, people are moved & the Lord is magnified.
Is there a certain “style” or preaching that you often use and why?
I am a strong believer in preaching that leads to a singular “bottom line” – a biblically faithful, theologically accurate, and rhetorically compelling summation of the sermon’s journey and destination. Once unveiled in the sermon journey, the bottom line functions as a “refrain” or a “chorus” that gets repeated often in the last 1/3 of the sermon. Repetition implants the truth in the minds of congregants, and I hope to craft ways for them to “feel” or “experience” it rather than just hear about it. Examples of bottom lines that have stayed with people through the years include “What you tolerate today will dominate you tomorrow”; “Surrender your impulses so you don’t surrender to them”; “Why fight for approval when you can live from it?” and “Treat the people you LOVE as well as you treat the people you NEED.” Each of those sentences has exegesis and background and anecdotes behind them, but I offer them as examples of bottom lines with staying power.
You have to prepare a message every week … so you may as well be preparing one for several weeks from now. I am typically eight weeks ahead in my message prep, which as you might imagine makes it easier on those on our team who plan music and other worship elements. It ALSO makes easier on my nerves!
How did I get so far ahead? First, I left seminary with four sermons “in the hopper” so from my first week of ministry I already had a month’s cushion. Second, I prepare a message even on weeks when I’m not preaching. That message then goes into the file from which I will pull it out on the Monday before the next Sunday preaching. And that’s because my fourth suggestion for your wellbeing (and that of your congregation) is to …
Preach Without Notes
I have three foundations on which I build this principle in both my own preaching and the mentoring I do for others:
Foundational Premise #1: The Difference Between Memorizing And Internalizing
- I do not believe that sermons should be memorized. If that were the case, then only robots could deliver them.
- On the other hand, I very much believe that sermons should be internalized. That way, pastors can preach them.
- Memorization emphasizes word-for-word recitation of a prepared script. Because of the human impossibility of such a feat, memorization leads inevitably to frustration.
- Internalization, by way of contrast, is more thought-for-thought delivery of a designed piece. Internalizing a sermon moves it from the page to the brain and ultimately into the heart. Once a message settles into the heart, having it emerge from preacher’s mouth is almost effortless. (Though of course, the more effortless it looks, the more effort it took!) Far from leading to frustration, internalizing leads to liberation.
Foundational Premise #2: If you forget where you are in the sermon, the only person who knows is you
Let’s say you have accepted the challenge to preach without notes, have ascended to the pulpit, begun your message and … two-thirds of the way through, you have forgotten what is next. What to do?
Well, in that moment of internally high drama, you do well to remember: No one knows that I’m lost except me. No one! When this happens to me, I keep talking, walking around what I have just said, and without fail the next block of material appears in my mind (details on that below). All along I am remembering: they don’t know anything is wrong. The benefits of noteless preaching more than outweigh the cost of occasional forgetfulness.
In a recent Simplify The Message & Multiply The Impact preaching workshop, I led the group through this precise conversation. One of the group members offered this insight: “Letting go of my manuscript is like letting go of my ego. Sometimes I feel like the people MUST HEAR all these words I’ve so carefully prepared. But now I realize they don’t have to hear them all.”
So I told her: “THAT’S going in the book!” And our group marveled at the wisdom of letting go of your ego, trusting God’s Spirit, and connecting with God’s people.
Foundational Premise #3: Engage With People Not Paper
I suggest that any paper or memory aid (other than a bible) robs the pastor of his or her most significant currency of relational capital: eye contact. Even the briefest downward look, the shortest “um” as you try to locate your place in your notes or on your manuscript and you’ve lost the thing you most need, namely, the attention of the people to whom you preach. After all, in the 2020s people do not need much excuse to glance at their mobile devices for something more interesting.
This is why I discourage even a “cheat sheet” for those bold enough to preach without notes. If you’re going to have courage, then by all means, act courageously. Begin your message with heavy eye contact and, with the exception of the times you’re reading Scripture (when you want THEM doing the same thing), continue it throughout the sermon. You are preaching on behalf of God for the blessing of the people, not for the sake of the paper.
Celebrate the joy of discovery.
Make your change constant.
All that, and we’ll be looking at a generation of healthy preachers.