Sunday, February 28, 2010

Lessons from a Year of Preaching (Part 2) - Some Thoughts on Preparation

As I said in Part 1 I set out to write a post about lessons I learned from my first year (now, almost two) of regular preaching. The first point became its own post. So did the second.

With the disclaimer in mind from part 1, preaching quality, on the whole, bears at least some relationship to preparation. While preparation does not assure quality, neglect of preparation nearly assures unhelpful cliché and shallow reflection.[1] Here are three major ideas I have come to believe about preaching and preparation (and a few fragmentary thoughts to round the post off).

1. Quality takes time.

I am not just talking about the rule of thumb of 1 hour of prep for each minute spent talking[2], though this is approximately what I experienced. I don’t just need time to study. I need time to marinate. I need time to meditate. I could have absolutely no other responsibilities for a week and I am convinced that the results would still be inferior to a talk I spent less time on but worked on consistently, over the course of several weeks, crafting it non-sequentially, one sentence at a time, while you are doing other things.[3] While casually thinking about a talk, I tend to come up with one to three valuable sentences a day. Working 40 hrs on a talk[4] the week before it happens is not equal to working on it 10 hours a week for the 4 weeks before it happens. This means that at any given time, I have three to eight talks in various stages of study, outline, draft or editing. But this allows me to write based on insight rather than necessity. I am FULLY CONVINCED that necessity is the enemy of profundity. Necessity is a ticket to the shallow end of the pool.[5]

2. Study on purpose.

One of the consistent challenges that I have faced is how to recall the important fragments from previous study when they are appropriate. I have a few basic skills (more later) but my preaching partner, Dan, recently said that his most accessible study is always what he is currently studying. I agree with this. Good preaching can not live very long on stored up insights. It requires a steady diet of reflection.

John Stott suggests that the minimum annual study a regular preacher should commit to amounts to should look something like: “Every day at least one hour; every week one morning, afternoon or evening; every month a full day; every year a week. Set out like this, it sounds very little. Indeed it is too little. Yet everybody who tries it is surprised to discover how much reading can be done within such a disciplined framework. It tot up to nearly 600 hours in the course of a year.”[6] I have to say, I was surprised. A modest but regular study pattern is surprisingly productive.

But this is why having my passages/topics a year in advance is so important. Because If I know my topical schedule with substantial notice I can study generally with a number of pre-established topical ‘buckets’ already in place. As I encounter insights, instead of filing them away in a place I hope to recall them from, I can simply file them under the appropriate talk.[7] Each talk gets a file six months to a year before it gets a draft.[8] My talks (and blog posts for that matter) start out as a series of fragments[9] and ideas in a word document. Over time, the space between them is narrowed by other fragments and ideas until I just have to write a few transitions.

However, reliance on contemporary study still seems a little sparse, particularly with respect to illustrations (which are indisputably the hardest preaching component to execute well). So, I keep an ‘open’ file[10] of movie quotes, comics, news stories, survey and the like that do not obviously fit into an upcoming talk. Then I review the file every couple months to see if anything suddenly jumps out as newly salient in light of my study for upcoming talks. As Spurgeon says: “Work hard every available moment. Store your minds very richly, and then, like merchants with crowded warehouses, you will have goods ready for your customers, and having arranged good things on the shelves of your mind, you will be able to hand them down at any time…”[11] The shelves of my mind are way too cluttered to be accessible, but a good file can fix that.

3. Rigorous study can become the enemy of clarity and utility if it is unaccompanied by humility.

The hard work of the study is vindicated by the discipline of the cutting room. Violating a specified time limit is bald pride and diminishes credibility. Think about it. If there are 150 people listening to me I am illicitly dominating 25 hours by every 10 minutes I go over. Stott says that the hardest part of preaching is to NOT tell them 90% of what you know about the passage. The good is the enemy of the best. Becoming overly attached to material is a function of pride and does not deserve patient hearers but a repentant speaker. Cut it.[12] If half of the listeners remember two things from the talk next month and 5% remember 1 thing in 5 years, it has been a tremendous success. So streamline. I am constantly repenting of self-importance in the editing process. My enemy is not the 30 minute time limit. My enemy is my dark heart and self importance.[13]

4. Fragments on Preparation

Finally, here are a few brief thoughts on study and preparations

Pastors should have an unlimited book budget. These are the tools of their trade. It is silly to short them by a few hundred bucks (a very small percentage of our financial commitment to them) when it could double their productivity.

Of course, who reads any more? (Pause for the sound of my English professor friends scowling.) As was apparent in my 2009 book review, a substantial portion of my ‘reading’ comes through MP3 content.[14]

Speaking of MP3 content, If Keller, Chandler or Driscoll[15] has preached a passage I am going to preach on, I listen to it (even if I have to pay for Keller)…AFTER I have written my first draft. Let’s face it, Keller is better at this than I am, and if I listened to him before I had a talk, blatant plagiarism would undermine my capacity for original, spirit led, thought customized for the pastoral needs of my community.[16] But, by turning to our generation’s best preachers after my talk is formed but not finished, I can garnish it with a few sublime quotes or stunning insights, without being unduly influenced.[17]

Once I knew the Acts passages I was going to preach this year I volunteered to lead a series of studies in my small group on them ~ 7 months before I had to teach them. This was valuable in two ways. It forced me to think intentionally about the passage well in advance and it exposed me to a dozen other perspectives and readings. Some weeks I picked up 3 profound sentences other weeks I emerged with an outline for a whole point. Sometimes it was content, other times it was language, but community interaction with the text never failed to improve my understanding and presentation.

This post was written while listening to Absolution by Muse
[1] I would like to note, that, this simply puts a greater burden on the listener. I had a friend in Buffalo who used to say, ‘If you just go up there and read the text, you get a B.’ I think there is something to that.
[2] So, I have a common rant about chatty worship leaders that seems to fit here. I don’t have a problem with occasional, prayerful, spirit led exhortations by a worship leader (especially when you have the kind of wealth at the position that CL currently has in Nathan and Pearl), but, on the whole, that is not what the church gets. Generally, extemporaneous speech disproportionately relies on cliché. (Side note: this is why ‘spontaneous prayers’ are often more prone to ‘vein repetitions’ than their liturgical or premeditated counterparts). If the preacher spends an hour of preparation for each minute he preaches which, necessarily includes painful, gut wrenching cuts, to respectfully come in under time, it is a personal injury to hear a worship leader prattle for three minutes from shallow waters while ignoring his or her responsibility as the movement’s principal catechist (since most boomers, Xers and millenials sing their way to their theology).
[3] I was thrilled to find that John Stott seems to describe a similar experience: ‘My mind is usually eveloped in a faily thick fog, so that I do not see things at all plainly. (Says one of the clearest thinkers of our age.) Occasionally, however, the fog lifts, the light breaks through, and I see with limid clarity. These fleeting moments of illumination need to be seized. We have to learn to surrender ourselves to them before the fog descends again. Such times often come at awkward moments…however inconveninent, we cannot afferd to lose it. In order to take fullest advantage of it, we need to write fast and furiously.” Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today (Note: Those are not the study habbits of a man who writes his whole message the night before…and thus, he decidedly does not suck.)
[4] This is another thing I have wondered about. What do you call the product? Is it a sermon? That seems kind of grandiose and, honestly, moralistic and dull. Is it a talk? That seems trivial. And I will not even consider the word ‘speech’ for a range of reasons. And does context matter? Does the fact that I do what I do in a University lecture hall matter? Would the taxonomy by altered if I did it in a Sunday morning pulpit? What about if I did it in a rented bar downtown? And that’s just the noun. What about the verb? Am I preaching, talking, speaking, (or, as some of the emerging guys would derisively accuse, speaching)? I have tentatively zeroed in on ‘preaching’ as the verb (because of the rich history of the word despite its pejorative liabilities) and ‘talk’ as the noun but am open to suggestions.
[5] If I am still writing within 48 hours of the talk I consider it a breach of responsibility.
[6] Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today p 204
[7] An example of this is the quote from Steve Turner I included in the first point. There is no way I would recall this quote. But when I was reading the book a few months ago I already had a sparse word document named ‘Lessons from a year of preaching.’
[8] Incidentally, this only works because Dan, the pastor I serve under, has vision and can anticipate the content needs of our community.
[9] I really enjoyed riding with Doug Pennington (the senior pastor at my brother’s church and an excellent preacher) one day and finding his dash board covered with post it notes. He was constantly filling post it notes throughout the day with one sentence fragments and the messages take shape on his dash as he moves the pieces around (and, no doubt, discards the bulk of them). Different mechanic, same method.
[10] Both Dan and I tried the common practice of keeping a topical file where you have a separate folder for each topic and agree that this decreases the probability of filing an idea or recovering it. We are both proponents of a single open file system. Also, I only do digital. In the rare case that I want to keep something that I encounter in hard copy…I scan it.
[11] Letters to My Students 145
[12] I will often have to enlist help for this. I have no trouble making cuts in a talk I wrote six months earlier, but I often can’t make a good/best distinction close to the talk. I have had talks improved dramatically (even salvaged) by getting feedback from other preachers (Bronwyn is particularly good at this). This, of course, presupposes that a manuscript exists several days before the talk.
[13] Spurgeon has a great insight on length: “There is a kind of moral compact between you and your congregation that you will not weary them…(going over 40 minutes is an act of) practical dishonesty…If you ask me how to shorten your sermons, I should say, study them better, We are generally longest when we have least to say.” LTMS 135
[14] I am going to do a post in a couple weeks on my favorite sources of MP3 content.
[15] I will also often listen to Piper or a hand full of others.
[16] The basic rule of thumb I use for how much I will lean on a single source is: if I am embarrassed to cite someone yet again in my talk than I am probably over reliant on them.
[17] Also, I usually listen to these while in the gym rather than at my laptop. I figure, if an insight isn’t memorable enough to stay in my brain from the gym to the computer, it isn’t memorable enough to make the talk. This also limits the number of ‘garnishes’ I will lift.

1 comment:

Corrie said...

Steve and I were actually commenting today on how much your teaching/preaching has improved, since neither of us have really heard you speak since Lifebuilders (SEVERAL years ago) until recently when you popped up in the junior high group. After your talk today, Steve leaned over and whispered, "Dude, Stanford kicks [butt]." Except being Steve, he used a different word than "butt."