Should we practice preaching?

Very few good preachers begin as good preachers. Of the twenty or so practice preaching sermons that I listen to every semester, maybe one or two students have it all together: good intro, accurate exegesis, clear structure, appropriate illustrations, personal application, voice variation, body language, etc. Most have a lot of practice preaching ahead of them (don’t we all!).

And that word “practice” sometimes sticks in people’s throats. Practice preaching? Is that not a bit unholy or unspiritual?

Or maybe, practicing exegesis and related disciplines is OK, but surely not the speaking part. I mean, I don’t want to be an actor in the pulpit, do I!

No, we certainly don’t want to be actors. And if we are only putting on a certain voice for the pulpit, then that is indeed unnatural and pretty close to acting.

So what’s the solution? How do I improve my public speaking without putting on an act?

The answer is to improve your speaking in every day speaking.

If you have a monotone voice, then try consciously varying it up and down in one-to-one conversations (that’s what I’ve tried to do). If you have a quiet voice, try experimenting with different volumes at the dinner table. If you tend to give every word the same weight, try emphasizing important words the next time you talk to someone. If you tend to talk too fast, practice slowing down and pausing in normal life, etc.

In other words, practice preaching, by practicing when you are not preaching. That way, over time, these changes become natural, they become part of normal you, and acting is kept out of the pulpit.

I know someone who carried this a bit far and eventually ended up preaching at people in ordinary conversation. That was extremely painful!

So, yes, there are dangers to practicing. We must also avoid turning away from dependence upon the Holy Spirit and trusting in gifts or “wisdom of words.”

I don’t go along with everything in this article, but Peter Bubriski captures the essence of what I’m trying to say here:

Think of practicing speaking skills as practicing a sport. With a sport, you’re not pretending to be someone else. You are training your body and your mind to achieve feats of skill — building your muscle memory with drills and repetition…

…We speak of some athletes as artists in their field because they exercise their skills with a mastery that appears effortless. That is where the art and sport of great communication skills come together. As either an athlete or an artist, you have to practice over and over and over again so that you’re not thinking about the people in the stands watching your brilliant shot, not thinking about the people in the audience hearing your brilliant words, but just thinking: here’s how I always use my instrument when the “ball” comes my way.

With preaching, practice will never make perfect. But it may help get rid of some of the imperfections that impair effective preaching. As a preacher, that’s my responsibility. The rest, thankfully, is up to God.

Can a to-do list make you a better preacher?

The most effective preachers and teachers have an ability to make the profound simple.

But how?

Tony Schwartz says that such “deceptive simplicity” is the result of:

  • Rigorous thinking
  • Skillful synthesizing
  • A commitment to clarity

And Schwartz persuasively argues that one of the keys to achieving this is a to-do list.

If that doesn’t entice you to click through, then try this:

To manage the storm around us, we need to quiet the storm inside ourselves. By doing that effectively, we can devote more attention to whatever we decide matters most.

4 ways to benefit from criticism

So, you’ve prepared for the criticism, you’ve distinguished the nature of the critic and their criticism, but now you have to respond. Will you be gored, injured, or with a flourish of your cape will you let the bull pass by and learn from the experience? How you deal with criticism will determine the whole course of your ministry.

Four steps to avoid
Reject: without a moment’s thought you simply dismiss the criticism, minimize it, and move on

Retaliate: again, often without even a pause, you attack the attacker or criticize the critic

Resent: while you may seem to accept what was said, you inwardly seethe and bitterly brood

Resign: you just give in, give up and run away

Four steps to follow
1. Receive the criticism
Whether it comes in verbal or written form, the first thing to do is pray for grace to listen to what is being said. If the person is in front of you, pray inwardly, look them in the eye, project calm, avoid hostile body language or facial expressions, and ask for time to think and pray about what is being said.

You may want to clarify the complaint by re-stating or re-phrasing it just to make sure you both understand the problem. Give a rough idea of when you plan to respond (within a week, say), and ask him/her what action they would like to see in response to their complaint.

End by thanking the person for coming to you in person and pray together. In your prayer set the specific complaint in the context of a wider relationship and experience of the Lord’s blessing.

2. Reflect on the criticism
Questions to prayerfully ask include:

  • Is it true? Is it even slightly true? Try to find the grain of truth in it if you can.
  • Is it proportionate? Is this making a mountain out of a molehill? Is it in the context of previous appropriate appreciation for the pastor?  Does the criticism extend beyond one sermon/incident? Is it balanced in its expression or does it become hostile and exaggerated?
  • Who is making the criticism? If it is a godly and faithful Christian, then you will pay much more
attention to it than to someone who is not professing to be a
Christian. If a particular Christian has an imbalanced theology or
some particular “theological hobby horse” then this too should be
taken into account when weighing the criticism’s validity.
  • Is there something else behind the criticism? Could there be stress or trouble at home or at work?
  • How many times have you heard this criticism? If it is coming from a number of independent sources, then it is time to sit up and take close note.

Sometimes it might be worth seeking advice, getting a second opinion from a trusted elder, fellow pastor, or friend, someone a bit more objective than yourself. Maybe also ask them to hold you to account as you respond to the person and relate to them in the future.

3. Respond to the Criticism
In your response, try to think of building a long-term relationship. It is easy to win a short-term victory but lose a long-term opportunity to do a person spiritual good.

If at all possible, meet in person rather than respond by email or telephone. Pray together then calmly explain what aspects of the criticism you accept (for which you thank him), and what you don’t. If you have admitted that you were wrong, explain how you plan to apologize to offended parties and put things right. In very extreme circumstances it may be appropriate to offer your resignation. Ask if your response is satisfactory. Close with prayer, asking the Lord to bless your relationship, not let the devil in, and grow in mutual love and respect. 

4. Repent of your error/sin
When a matador is injured, he will review film of the incident, learn from his mistake, and put things right for the future. Likewise the pastor should respond not just by accepting he said or did something wrong, but also by putting things right for the future. Repentance does not just include sorrow for sin, but turning from it to new obedience in dependence upon the Holy Spirit.

Cross Reference: Called Wonderful

Here's the eighth in our preview series of ten films on the Old Testament appearances of Christ in the Old Testament. This week we look at Christ's appearance to Samson's parents in Judges 13.

The first two videos will be permanently available online. (Episode 1, Episode 2). The remaining episodes will be released once a week for the next seven  weeks. Each of them will be available for online viewing for seven days.

DVD, HD download, and Study Guide available now from HeadHeartHand Media. DVD and Study Guide also available from Ligonier, and RHB.

CK2:11 What I’ve learned through my illness

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In our first podcast since my health problems, Tim and I talk about the massive lessons the Lord has begun to teach me through these tumultuous weeks.

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