I’ve written before about preaching without (or with less) notes (here and here). Here’s some more advice from Jerry Weissman on how to disconnect from your notes and connect with your hearers.
One CFO showed up for his coaching session at my company with his presentation written out in full sentences. I asked him to reduce each sentence to a four-word bullet and to speak from that. He did and it flowed. Then I asked him to reduce each four-word bullet to one word and to speak from that. He did and it flowed. Then I asked him to speak without any text. He did and it flowed.
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.
Jack Dorsey has 200 million customers. At least, that’s how many use his product, Twitter, every day. He is also founder of Square, a new way for everyone to accept credit card payments that financiers are salivating over.
Two multi-million-dollar technology start-ups in a few years! How lucky can you be, eh?Unless it’s something other than luck.It is.Both start-ups have been based on the idea of simplicity. As this interview with Charlie Rose reveals, “Dorsey’s accomplishments have little to do with luck, and more with his focus on creating the purest products by throwing away any unnecessary flourishes.”Dorsey says, “My goal is to simplify complexity.” How about that as a motto to hang above every preacher’s desk! In fact, read the following quotes and imagine that Dorsey is talking about preaching rather than credit card payments.
It turns out it’s really complex. It’s really complex to make something simple and especially when you started addressing the financial world.
We have a number of things — in order to accept credit cards you have to talk with a bank. Normally when you’re a small merchant or a business or individual you have to get a merchant account, which means you have a one to two year relationship with the bank, and then there’s always these fees and setup costs and monthly minimums. It’s a mess.
And it’s never really been designed in a beautiful way and that’s what we’re good at. That’s really hard to do.
Dorsey believes the most powerful technologies are those which disappear, like the iPad disappears:
When you’re using the iPad, the iPad disappears, it goes away. You’re reading a book. You’re viewing a website, you’re touching a web site. That’s amazing and that’s what SMS is for me. The technology goes away and with Twitter the technology goes away. And the same is true with Square. We want the technology to fade away so that you can focus on enjoying the cappuccino that you just purchased.
Is that not the aim of every preacher too? That they and their sermon would fade away, leaving the hearers to enjoy the Christ that was just preached!
If you want to drive yourself crazy, read the live twitter comments of an audience after you give a talk, even if it’s just to ten people.
You didn’t say what they said you said.
You didn’t mean what they said you meant.
If the data rate of an HDMI cable is 340MHz, I’m guessing that the data rate of a speech is far, far lower. Yes, there’s a huge amount of information communicated via your affect, your style and your confidence, but no, I don’t think humans are so good at getting all the details.
Plan on being misunderstood. Repeat yourself. When in doubt, repeat yourself.
How much more prayerful should we be in preparing and delivering sermons.
How much more dependent we should be on the Holy Spirit.
How much more thankful we should be when anyone does understand.
Some readers have asked me for a step-by-step plan for sermon preparation. A few years ago, a younger (and rather “wooden”) David Murray made a couple of 30 minute videos on this subject. They flowed out of “Moving from Text to Sermon,” an address I gave as a visiting lecturer at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. (BTW the videos were shot inside a small, wooden garden shed on the Isle of Lewis – figure that one out!)
There is no secret behind powerful preaching – apart from secret prayer. The biggest mistake we can make as preachers is to think that we can learn to preach powerfully from books, from seminars, or from lectures on preaching. No, for preaching to be powerful it must be preceded by, accompanied with, and followed by prayer.It is prayer that imparts reality to our sermons. It makes God real to us – His holiness, His power, His love. It makes sin real to us. It makes heaven and hell real to us. It makes eternity real to us. Such reality transforms mere lectures, talks, and Bible studies into living and life-changing sermons. This cannot be learned from books, manufactured or imitated.It’s an awful experience to stand up to preach knowing that you have hardly prayed about the sermon; that you have spent too long on preparing the sermon and not enough on preparing yourself. Few things drain the power from a sermon as much as prayer-less preparation and delivery.I’m sure we all pray to some extent before starting our sermon preparation, and hopefully at regular points in the preparation process. But what about praying when we have completed our preparation. I’m afraid that we often just pick up our completed sermon and run to the pulpit with it. Pray before preaching I would suggest spending a decent amount of time (maybe begin with 15-30 minutes?) praying over your finished sermon before preaching it. Go over every section, applying it to yourself.
If you are teaching a virtue, pray for that virtue in your own soul.
If you are preaching on a sin, confess your own sins in that area.
If you are teaching about the person of Christ, spend time praising Christ for this aspect of His character.
Pray for the right spirit and manner, for each section. (Try to feel the sermon in your own soul.)
Pray for courage in sections where the fear of man might intimidate you.
Pray to be spared from anger if you are condemning a certain sin in the congregation.
Pray for specific people you are aiming parts of the sermon at.
Pray that God will help you to foresee how some people might misunderstand what you will say.
Pray for help with timing.
Pray for help with complicated sections.
Pray for help to know what to leave out.
Pray for help to remember your message.
Pray that the Spirit of God will give you extra thoughts and words which you had not prepared.
Pray after preaching It’s a good habit to go apart to pray as soon as you come home and before other duties distract you. Your prayer may be one of thanksgiving or of confession. It may be more for humility or encouragement for yourself. However, it should also be for those who heard it, that the seed sown would be protected and watered and bring forth fruit. Why is it that our prayers before preaching are usually longer and more common than prayer after preaching? Partly it may be natural tiredness after our exertions. But sometimes it may be simply because our own ego and reputation is no longer at stake!Pray during preaching We should cultivate the practice of not only praying before and after preaching, but during it. After every main point, or perhaps even after every sub-point, the preacher should briefly pause and silently pray for God to bless what has just been said and to guide in what is yet to be said. If you use notes then why not insert the word “PRAY” between each point in order to remind you. It will soon become an unconscious and unprompted habit. Prayer during preaching reminds us of our need, but also that we are not alone.
I started a lecture this week on “Electronic resources for sermon preparation.” That could be a never-ending lecture. However I tried to limit the resources to what would be most useful to first-year students and those just starting to preach. I have Logos and Bibleworks software on my Mac, and I use both for different purposes. However, if I was just starting to preach and I had to choose between the various Bible Software packages, I would go with Logos, especially now that Logos 4 Mac has been released.
I read many more blogs, but these are the ones that best serve the five purposes outlined above. Some others that I find beneficial, and that would also be especially helpful to beginning pastors and preachers are:
Yesterday on Reformation 21 Paul Levy offered some helpful comments on the need for preachers to accept criticism. But how should sermons be critiqued?
Puritan Reformed Seminary’s Practice Preaching class begins again next week. In this class a student preaches in front of his professors and fellow students, then receives a critique from his listeners. Here’s some of the advice I’ll be giving to students who may be new to this experience of critiquing a sermon. Some of it may be helpful to others like elders, co-pastors, and pastors’ wives who may be called upon at times to offer critiques of a sermon. 1. Pray for the student who will preach. Keep the rota in your Bible so that when you come to pray each day, you will be praying for the next preacher. If you have not prayed for the preacher, you forfeit the right to criticize.2. Listen for your own soul. Do not listen primarily to find fault. Try to hear the sermon as God speaking to you. 3. Look at the big picture. Don’t get sidetracked by minor issues like pronunciation. 4. Don’t repeat what has already been said. Only say something if it is something new. The student does not need to hear the same thing ten times.5. Say one thing. You do not need to tell him every fault. And remember the student has already received significant critiques from the professors.6. Try to be constructive and positive, especially if you are going to offer a criticism. It is easier for someone to hear criticism if they know you have goodwill towards them. Can you say something good about the introduction or the conclusion? (Don’t say “the best bit was the end!”) Were important words explained and illustrated? Was the structure based on the text and memorable? Was there good energy and eye-contact? etc.7. Try to be objective. Ask yourself if what you are saying is just personal opinion and reflects your own preaching preferences and prejudices.8. Be brief.9. Do not mock or belittle. Be humble in your criticism. Realize that in most cases the student has poured himself into the sermon and poured himself out in it also.10. Consider private critique. One of the reasons we have practice preaching class is so that everyone can learn from one another. Though I’ve never preached in this class (thankfully!) I’ve learned so much about preaching in it by listening to the critiques of others. However, if your criticism is very personal and not likely to benefit the whole class, then consider if it might be better offered privately. 11. Have regard for the stage the student is at in their education. Do not expect a first-year student to preach like a fourth-year student. Be very gentle in criticizing those who have just begin to preach. 12. Vary your focus. Some students only mention hand gestures. Others highlight deficiencies in gesture or posture. Still others may have a laser eye for grammar. Try to look at different aspects of preaching each time, and don’t become a broken record (that shows my age). 13. Pray for the student afterward. Often students will be licking their wounds a bit for a few days after practice preaching. Make a special effort to encourage such students in these sensitive days.Perhaps those who have been on the receiving end of “critiques” might want to supplement this list?
We have over 20 students in our first-year preaching class at Puritan Reformed Seminary. They come from all over the world. And they all want to excel in preaching. They are keen and enthusiastic to learn.
One thing they do not want to hear is that it will probably take them about 10,000 hours of practice to achieve expertise in preaching (hopefully that includes preparation time!). While of course some people are blessed with more natural gifts than others, all the scientific research demonstrates that excellence in any area is not determined by our genes, but by systematic and disciplined practice – 10,000 hours of it to be precise.Anders Ericsson, arguably the world’s leading researcher into high performance, has constantly insisted that it’s not inherited talent which determines how good we become at something, but rather how hard we’re willing to work. That’s very encouraging to theological students and pastors, especially to those who feel their lack of gifts. But it’s also rather daunting. Because although practice is the most important ingredient in achieving excellence, it is also what we least enjoy and always try to put off.Tony Schwartz, author of The way we’re working isn’t working recently published on the Harvard Business Reviewthe six keys to achieving excellence that he’s found most effective for his clients in all walks of life. But before I give you these keys, and apply them to preaching, let me just issue a few caveats.First, it is essential that a man be called of God to preach. Second, the Holy Spirit can and does equip with gifts beyond those we have by nature or nurture. Third, absolutely essential pre-requisites for excellent preaching are a holy life, prayer, and faithfulness to God. Fourth, God is sovereign and at times He overrules all human rules/keys. These principles are all basic and foundational. And they are covered at length in standard works on preaching. So Schwarz’s six keys to achieving excellence assume the foundation and are in addition to it:1. Pursue what you love. As Schwartz says, “Passion is an incredible motivator. It fuels focus, resilience, and perseverance.” If you don’t love preaching you will never be good at it. If you don’t love preaching, get out of the way and let someone else in who does.2. Do the hardest work first. Preachers, like all people, are drawn towards pleasure and avoid pain. But to excel we must develop the ability to delay pleasure and take on the pain of the most difficult work first. In other words, sermon preparation is best done first thing in the morning when we have most energy and least distractions.3. Practice intensely. Schwartz argues for practicing without interruption for short periods of no longer than 90 minutes and then taking a break. He says that ninety minutes seems to be the maximum amount of time that we can bring the highest level of focus on any activity. He also says that we should practice no more than 4 ½ hours a day. Although I’ve preached for 18 years without knowing this, when I look at my practice, it is pretty close to that pattern. Mornings for preparation, afternoons for pastoral visitation. Wish it had produced more excellence than I presently see.4. Seek expert feedback in intermittent doses. I’ll just quote what Schwartz says here. “The simpler and more precise the feedback, the more equipped you are to make adjustments. Too much feedback, too continuously, however, can create cognitive overload, increase anxiety, and interfere with learning.” That’s certainly been proven in our practice preaching class at the Seminary. I’ve found focusing on one thing at a time for a few months really helps: introductions for a month or so, then conclusions, then illustrations, etc. 5. Take regular renewal breaks. This is something that students especially need to hear, but so do pastors. Research has shown that people learn better who sleep well and also play sports or enjoy hobbies outside of work. And no matter how much we love preaching, we need a few weeks a year with none to really rejuvenate our preaching.6. Ritualize practice. Schwartz says that the best way to insure you’ll take on difficult tasks is to ritualize them. He says “build specific, inviolable times at which you do them, so that over time you do them without squandering energy thinking about them.” I found it useful to sit down at the beginning of each week and block out sermon preparation time. If I just waited until I felt like it or had all my admin done then I would never do it or wait too late.Obviously, the Christian student and pastor has more than genes or scientific research and process to rely on. It is one of the great blessings of preaching that the Holy Spirit gives us what we do not have and even have not worked for – at times. But most of the time, God works through ordinary means. He communicates his extraordinary grace through the ordinary means of grace. And for preaching, that includes hard work!
Rule 1: Know thy audience Here Morgan lists a number of helpful questions to ask before even starting to type the first Powerpoint bullet. Preachers could profitably ask themselves a version of these questions too. Thankfully, as we don’t preach to inebriated audiences too much, we probably don’t need President Reagan’s after-dinner speech rule: 12 minutes, a few jokes, and sit down before the audience stands up!
Rule 2: Tell them one thing, and one thing only Though in the business of public speaking, Nick Morgan admits that the oral genre is highly inefficient:
We audience members simply don’t remember much of what we hear. We’re easily sidetracked, confused, and tricked. We get distracted by everything from the color of the presenter’s tie to the person sitting in the next row to our own internal monologues.
So you’ve got to keep it simple. Many studies show that we only remember a small percentage of what we hear — somewhere between 10 – 30 percent.
Unfortunately, we can only hold 4 or 5 ideas in our heads at one time, so as soon as you give me a list of more than 5 items, I’m going to start forgetting as much as I hear.
Against this dismal human truth there is only one defense: focus your presentation on a single idea. Be ruthless. Write that one idea down in one declarative sentence and paste it up on your computer. Then eliminate everything, no matter how beautiful a slide it’s on, that doesn’t support that idea.
John Stott argues for something similar to this in Between Two Worlds. He says the preacher should isolate the dominant thought of a passage and organize his whole sermon to support that one thought. Jay Adams has the same idea in Preaching with a purpose.
This is perhaps one of the hardest rules for preachers to follow. When we start preparing sermons, and God’s Word starts opening up, we discover vast riches of wonderful truth. We look out on our congregations and see that Joe needs this truth, and Julie must hear that truth, and Ben must get this, and…etc. So we gather all these truths and throw them out at all these people. And we’re surprised that no one seems to hear anything! Hmmm. Wonder why?But if you need more motivation to clarify and simplify, how about Morgan’s great closer:
Follow these two rules and you’ll find that audience will remember — and maybe even act on — your speeches. After all, the only reason to give a speech is to change the world.
The New York Times seems to have a developed a remarkable new love for pastors. Two articles in one week have expressed compassionate concern for pastors’ health. Last week I commented on the article that encouraged pastors to take sufficient rests and vacations. Then, on Saturday’s Op-ed page a pastor, Jeffrey Macdonald, made the case that there is an even more fundamental problem at the root of increasing pastoral burnout and ill-health, “a problem that no amount of vacations can solve: congregational pressure to forsake one’s highest calling.”
Although the article was rather excessively headlined, Congregations gone wild, Macdonald makes a convincing case that the 50-year trend towards consumer-driven religion has re-written pastoral job descriptions with a knock-on effect on pastoral health:
The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them… As a result, pastors are constantly forced to choose, as they work through congregants’ daily wish lists in their e-mail and voice mail, between paths of personal integrity and those that portend greater job security. As religion becomes a consumer experience, the clergy become more unhappy and unhealthy.
Macdonald says that pastors who continue to faithfully preach the whole counsel of God are coming under huge pressure to compromise, and he’s speaking from personal experience:
In the early 2000s, the advisory committee of my small congregation in Massachusetts told me to keep my sermons to 10 minutes, tell funny stories and leave people feeling great about themselves. The unspoken message in such instructions is clear: give us the comforting, amusing fare we want or we’ll get our spiritual leadership from someone else.
Instead of pressurizing pastors to tone down their messages with a constant diet of amusing and comforting sermons, Macdonald urges churchgoers to ask their pastors to challenge them to higher and holier standards in their faith, worship, and daily lives.
When such an ethic takes root, as it has in generations past, then pastors will cease to feel like the spiritual equivalents of concierges. They’ll again know joy in ministering among people who share their sense of purpose. They might even be on fire again for their calling, rather than on a path to premature burnout.
I think Macdonald’s article tells the truth but not the whole truth. Congregations bear some responsibility for this sad situation. However, I don’t think we pastors are entirely blameless. We have feared people more than the Lord and wanted people’s smiles more than the Lord’s. We have re-written the old proverb to: “The smiles of people bring blessing, and he who trusts in his salary shall be safe” (not Prov. 29:25).
As we prepare our sermons this week, let’s ask ourselves, “Why did I choose this verse? Why did I insert that joke? Why did I remove that challenge? Why did I delete that application?”
If consumer-driven religion is your Master, don’t be surprised if you end up being consumed.
1. Preach to make a point not to reach a time limit.
Vigorous writing (preaching?) is concise. ~William Strunk Jr.
2. Help another edit their preaching.I try to leave out the parts that people skip. ~Elmore Leonard3. Write something every day that you do not intend to shareThis is a bit strong. However I think it is worthwhile, especially for students at Seminary, to regularly set apart some time to prepare sermon themes and outlines, even when they may have no opportunities to preach them.4. Outline before drafting your sermonIf any man wish to write (preach?) in a clear style, let him be first clear in his thoughts; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe5. Don’t get caught up in re-stating the obviousThe role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say. ~Anaïs NinI want to be a bit careful about this, because one task of the Gospel preacher is to keep re-stating the same truth (2 Peter 1:12). However, we don’t need to re-state the same truth the same way every time.6. Befriend a dictionary
The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug . ~Mark TwainAgain, care required here so that we do not start using words that no one else understands. But, we can refresh our vocabulary with simple words also.7. Keep a little notebook for moments of inspirationWrite down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable. ~Francis Bacon8. Not having a pen in hand does not mean that you are not writing The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes. ~Agatha ChristieOr as the writer of this article put it: “There’s no such thing as writer’s block. But there are times when washing dishes is a better use of time than staring at an empty screen!”9. Be kind to yourself Every writer (preacher) I know has trouble writing (preaching!). ~Joseph Heller
My friend Jerrold Lewis, Pastor of Lacombe Free Reformed Church, has written a great article on preaching without notes. As this is one of my own passions, I asked Jerrold for permission to re-post it on Head Heart Hand, which he kindly agreed to. The original post is here.
OK, so I have been reading three books on extemporaneous preaching. The subject has always intrigued me, and frightened me at the same time. Up to this point, I have preached about half of my sermon from a manuscript, and half “from the moment” (that is what extempore means). However, recently I have begun to wean myself from my notes. The best I have done is 2 pages. We will see how it goes. So far I like it very much, because it gives me a larger contact point with my congregation. I’m not sure if they have noticed any difference in my preaching, which could be a good thing, or a bad.
I have found out recently that whenever you mention extemporaneous preaching to others, especially to others in the ministry, you are often met with some serious cautions such as, “Extemporaneous preaching lacks direction. It is less doctrinal. You will find yourself falling into the same rut, saying the same thing over and over”, etc. But what I have come to discover is many people confuse extemporaneous preaching with impromptu preaching. There is a big difference. Impromptu preaching is preaching on the spot, off the top of your head with no preparation, relying on the Holy Spirit to guide you. I am opposed to this practice as a model based on 2 Timothy 2:15, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth”. I think this is mysticism plain and simple. However extemporaneous preaching is not of this species, not at all.
In each and every book I am reading on the subject, the message is the same: a sermon with little or no script notes needs to be as well developed and meticulously crafted as the full writ sermon. It will require the same amount of original language work, commentary discovery, and direct application as any other sermon, week in and week out. I have discovered, both by research and practice, that there is no substantive difference in preparation of an extemporaneous sermon than in a written. Dispel the myth! The difference is in the delivery.
So what are the advantages of preaching in this way? Here is what I have learned so far.
Augustine’s dictum about the gospel sums it up well: Veritas pateat, veritas placeat, veritas moveat. “Make the truth plain, make it pleasing, make it moving.” When Christ preached, it is said that the common people hear him gladly (Mark 12:37). There was something warm, engaging, and true in Christ’s words that made Him compelling. If history has taught us anything on the subject it is this: that the best extemporaneous preachers were popular, not just because of “what” they said but “how” they said it. I think people are naturally drawn to someone that is not reading, but is looking. Why is it that President Obama uses the TelePrompTer? Because even the world knows that a speech that is spoken to the eyes, is more believable and engaging that one read from notes.
At this point one will say “but not all extemporaneous preachers were as successful as these men.” True, but the same can be said of those that preach from the full manuscript. Both sides can produce monuments of disaster. But this does not remove the benefits of the practiced discipline of note-less sermons. Dr. Webb, in his book Preaching Without Notes insists, “One can move people by reading or speaking from notes, but one cannot move them very far.” I am in no way arguing that everyone must preach this way. I don’t even know yet if I should. But why is this aspect of homiletics no longer encouraged in our seminaries when it reflects such a large portion of preaching successfully in the past? As Dr. Carrick of GPTS points out in his wonderful lecture The Extemporaneous Mode of Preaching, it was the moderates or libertines in the Church of Scotland that began to preach from full manuscripts in the 1700′s, making the sermon more academic and less applicatory. The conservatives, or evangelicals resisted it as long as they could, but eventually the full manuscript became the new standard.
Much more could be written on the subject. For instance, there are several different kinds of extemporaneous preaching (no notes, outline, partial manuscript, etc). But before I go any further, I have more to learn myself, both cerebrally and experimentally. I would encourage you all to listen to the lecture of Dr. Carrick linked above.
The books I am reading on this subject?
Preaching Without Notes by Joseph M. Webb.
Extemporaneous Preaching by W.G.T Shedd
Hints on Extemporaneous Preaching by Henry Ware .
Also read, My Heart for Thy Cause (Borgman), Preaching and Preachers (Lloyd-Jones), Lectures to My Students (Spurgeon), Thoughts on Preaching (J.W. Alexander), and Homiletics and Pastoral Theology (Shedd), Evangelical Eloquence (Dabney).
Bloggers are usually either curators or creators. Curators act like hi-tech museum custodians, scanning the worldwide web for quality content to gather, organize, and link to. One of the best Christian curators is Justin Taylor at Between Two Worlds. Curators like Justin save many of us lots of time as they search, filter, and organize the best Christian content on the Internet. Brief though helpful comments often accompany the links and steer discussion. In a world of information overload, this is an invaluable service.
Creators, on the other hand, create. They write articles, comment on trends, and pen reflections and meditations. Most of their posts originate in their own minds and hearts. There is often a freshness and originality about their work. A good example of this is Kevin DeYoung at DeYoung Restless and Reformed. Of course, there are many bloggers who are both creators and curators. The classic example is Tim Challies who writes tons of original content, but also posts his daily “A la Carte.” Trevin Wax does similarly at Kingdom People. But most bloggers tend to fall into one of these two categories.I think this distinction also applies to preachers. Creators are preachers who pour over the Scriptures, and think deeply upon them, prayerfully meditating and reflecting upon God’s Word. When they begin sermon preparation, they begin with their Bibles, not commentaries. And they don’t open another book (or Logos!) until they feel they have really exhausted their own minds and hearts.Curators, in contrast, are preachers who do very little of their own thinking and meditating on the Scriptures. They mainly read commentaries and theologies, and listen to others’ sermons. They then cut and paste it all together. Their sermons are usually sound and well organized, but often somewhat stale and predictable.I’m afraid that there are many more curated than created sermons today. We have so many accessible resources that can save us so much time and effort. If I punch my verse into my Bible software, it opens 15 commentaries at the right page, links me to other sermons on the text, suggests quotations and illustrations, and even produces sermon outlines. That is very, very tempting! Why struggle with the text? Why pray for light? Why beg for the Holy Spirit?Why? Because, eventually, God’s people can tell the difference between a “curated” sermon and a “created” sermon.Of course, we have to be careful not to overdraw this distinction. To avoid heresy and dangerous innovation, the creator should check all his conclusions with other commentators. And, of course, the creator is not averse to using commentators. However, he does not simply parrot the commentator. He distills the commentaries through his own mind, “makes the material his own,” and tries to express it in his own words. Also, when not preparing sermons, the creator should be reading good Christian books to keep his heart safe, his mind stimulated, and his thinking fresh.But, despite these qualifications, the general distinction still holds and produces a challenge. The next time you prepare a sermon, see how far you can get with just a Bible, prayer and the Holy Spirit. Keep resisting the temptation to open Logos, Accordance, Hendriksen or Henry. Keep searching the Scriptures, asking for light, meditating deeply, and writing out your thoughts on the text. And only when you are truly “dry,” open other resources to check, clarify, and contribute to your sermon. And see if your hearers detect a new life and freshness in your sermons.
How can “ordinary” pastors compete with the vast range of well-known and greatly gifted preachers who are just one mouse-click away from everyone in their congregation? I know this is a sore point for many discouraged pastors. They visit their flock and all they hear are comments about the latest Internet sermon by Pastor Faimus and Dr Bigname. The only sermons that people seem to get excited about are ones preached hundreds of miles away!
However, I want to remind pastors of a huge advantage they have over the “popular” preachers of our own day. That advantage is, simply, personal relationship.I was reminded of this recently when I was asked which preachers I would choose to sit under for a year of teaching. As I reflected on this question, I realized that the men I would chose are the men I know best, both in Scotland and in Grand Rapids. They include Angus Smith, Allan Murray, Foppe VanderZwaag, Joel Beeke, Maarten Kuivenhoven, William Macleod, and Kenny Macdonald. Apart from one of them, you’ve probably never heard their names, have you? Of course, I deeply appreciate and frequently benefit from the sermons of the well-known preachers of our day. But I don’t know them and they don’t know me. I don’t know their lives and characters, and they have no involvement in my life. We have no relationship. That significantly limits the long-term spiritual impact of their sermons.But when I have a relationship with a preacher; when I know him and he knows me; when we have wept together and rejoiced together; when I know he loves me and prays for me, then there is an added dimension to his words. They may not be as impressive words, or as well-organized words, or as well-said words. But they are empathetic words, and so they are powerful words.A recent study of the “placebo effect” by Harvard Medical School’s Ted Kaptchuk has demonstrated the power of empathetic doctor-patient relationships in medicine. 62% of patients receiving an intentionally fake treatment from friendly, empathetic doctors reported relief from their irritable bowel syndrome, compared with 44% of a group that got the same fake treatment from impersonal, businesslike doctors. “It’s amazing,” said Kaptchuk, “Connecting with the patient, rapport, empathy . . . that few extra minutes is not just icing on the cake. It has biology.”Researchers say it’s unclear whether the health care system can harness the biological power of physician empathy. But preachers can harness the spiritual power of pastoral empathy. Maybe, instead of spending a further ten hours on perfecting your blockbuster sermon, you should spend ten hours visiting your flock. That could give your sermons new power in your hearer’s lives. And remember, though we are blessed to live in a time with wonderful conferences and 24/7 Internet sermons, God primarily saves and sanctifies sinners through long-term pastoral relationships in the local church. And let’s encourage our pastors. Let’s tell them that we deeply appreciate their transparent integrity, their sincere empathy, and their sacrificial investment in our lives. Let’s value and cultivate our relationships with them. And let’s tell them how much we’ve enjoyed their sermons rather than everyone else’s!
“Screenwriting is one of the world’s most notoriously elite and inaccessible industries.” But, as Cal Newport notes in How to become a star screenwriter, that doesn’t stop thousands of wannabes making their way to Los Angeles every year. Most of them are following the standard career advice of:
1. Learn the basic techniques (by reading, conferences, etc.) 2. Persevere: get your head down and keep writing and re-writing your blockbuster. As thousands of wannabes do this every year, and most remain wannabes, Newport adds this further advice: 3. “Immerse yourself in the world of screenwriting, getting as close as possible to scripts people like, and the people who like them. Furthermore, continually extract lessons from your exposure to apply to your own writing.”Read Newport’s exposition of this advice below and apply it to preaching:
People don’t like this advice because it discounts their dream of writing the next Lethal Weapon during their lunch break. It requires, instead, a complete change of lifestyle and a risky dedication to mastering a tricky craft.
In short, screenwriting requires an apprenticeship, and this is why most working writers have stories that start, like Thomas, with an entry-level industry job — not the writing shelf at Barnes & Noble.I had lunch earlier today with some executives from Ford. (I’m penning these words from the Detroit airport, after giving a talk at Ford’s Center for Innovation and Research.) Listening to their insider take on the automotive industry, a curious fact caught my attention: It can take 15 years to master the skills necessary to work the equipment in the tool and die industry.I think this little piece of trivia provides an elegant way of thinking about becoming excellent in competitive industries, such as screenwriting: It’s not just hard work combined with some easily learned tips — “show, don’t tell!;” “use a three act structure!” — it’s a craft. And learning crafts takes not only time, but exposure to master craftsman.The more I encounter examples of people building remarkable lives by becoming excellent, the more I discover that this model of craftsmanship is alive and well in our modern age. This offers interesting food for thought. When contemplating your own field, ask yourself: are you the wannabe screenwriter reading how-to guides on the subway, or are you, like Thomas, throwing yourself among the masters, and proclaiming: I know nothing, but you do, and I’m not going anywhere until I do too?