It’s coming, just like it always does, ready or not: the moment when the congregation becomes quiet and everyone’s eyes turn toward you. The moment when you take a deep breath and then do your best to unfold the mysteries of Scripture. The moment when you find out whether the sermon that seemed so compelling in your office can compete with this week’s episode of The Office.
Every preacher faces that pressure. But different preachers may take very different approaches.
Pastor Sherman already knows how she will approach this week’s sermon. She always follows a very structured, step-by-step method of sermon preparation. Her goal, following 2 Timothy 2:15, is to “correctly handle the word of truth.” Each week she carefully identifies the objectives for the sermon and then begins to lay out the key points. From these points she organizes a detailed outline to provide structure for the material. She uses this outline to draft a complete manuscript of the sermon. Having this manuscript helps her not only stay on track but also enables her to make careful phrasing and word choices. Although she brings the manuscript to the pulpit each week, she finds that as she grows as a preacher she depends on it less and less.
Pastor Sherman’s listeners would tell you that her sermons are well-crafted; they’re rich with clear scriptural teaching and background information. You know you’ll get something from her sermons, they’d say. And she always ends on time.
Pastor Spencer, on the other hand, approaches his sermons with a very different method. In fact, he’d hesitate to call it a method at all, since it varies so much from week to week. Pastor Spencer is a strong believer in the power of the Holy Spirit to communicate God’s Word through willing servants. He immerses himself in that Word and prays deeply, listening as much as he speaks. He allows God to speak to him through various situations and through the promptings of his heart.
During the course of his week, Pastor Spencer will often sense a growing certainty of some biblical theme or message he needs to communicate, but he resists the temptation to try to pin the Spirit’s prompting down on paper prematurely. He points to Jesus’ words in John 3: “The wind blows where it pleases.” Although he usually brings some outlines and supporting materials with him to the pulpit, his goal is to step in front of God’s people each Sunday with a heart that is free to follow in whatever direction the Holy Spirit may lead.
Pastor Spencer’s listeners could tell you about Sundays when God clearly spoke through their pastor’s sermon, inspiring in them a rich sense of awe and a contagious desire to be transformed. Other Sundays . . . not so much. While his congregation would acknowledge that his sermons rarely end on time, they’d also agree that punctuality in a preacher matters less than inspiration. And Pastor Spencer is often inspired.
Two different preachers, two different approaches to sermon preparation. One offers God the most careful planning and research she can give; the other offers a heart that is quiet and responsive to God’s leading. Both emphases are important. But how is a preacher to decide how much time to devote to both “head” and “heart” preparation? Should Pastor Sherman pray more? Should Pastor Spencer commit more time to study?
Some might shrug these questions off as mere differences in style or giftedness. Some pastors have an academic bent, others have a gift of prophecy or a rich pastoral heart, and each of these factors leads to a different approach. Each preacher is unique, they would say. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to sermon preparation.
But this still leaves us with questions. How does someone like me figure out how I should approach this particular sermon? When have I done enough—and enough of what?
How exactly can I tell the difference between playing to my strengths and plain old laziness? Do I preach a certain way because of my gifts and temperament, or simply because any other approach seems too hard?
There must be some way to figure out what kind of preparation is appropriate. But how?
Classical Music, or Jazz?
Perhaps an analogy can help us here. Think of the relationship between classical music and jazz. Both are musical genres; both can be played on many of the same instruments. Listeners may own recordings of both kinds of music or listen to both on the same public radio station. Both genres can showcase the beauty of remarkable virtuosity or the paint-peeling noise of novices.
But despite these similarities, no one would ever confuse the two genres. They are very different from each other, as anyone who listens to both can tell you.
Some of these differences are technical: differences in how specific instruments are played, tonal variations, changes in rhythm, for instance. Other differences are philosophical, having more to do with the way a particular piece of music is transcribed or communicated.
In classical music the notes are the smallest and most basic building blocks; they are what the musical pieces are made of. If a piece of music tells a story, in classical music that story is found in the notes. Play the notes correctly and the story will be told.
Jazz, on the other hand, relies on broader musical outlines such as melodies or chord progressions. Jazz musicians often use the term riff to describe a certain musical feature that repeats throughout the song. A riff isn’t simply a collection of notes; it’s the basic building block in a jazz piece. A jazz musician will insist that if she tells the story the way it needs to be told, the notes will follow.
When performing jazz, musicians create something spontaneous based on the framework of the riffs or melodies they begin with. So a popular jazz song may never come off exactly the same way twice, even when performed by the same musicians. For a classical musician this might represent an astonishing lack of discipline. But for the jazz artist, the music springs from a depth of creative expression. The classical musician plays notes; the jazz musician follows a general pattern.
Classical and Jazz Preaching
This distinction between playing notes and playing riffs can help us understand some of the mechanics behind preaching and sermon preparation. Just as there are different kinds of clarinet solos, so there are also different kinds of sermons. Each kind requires a different kind of preparation.
Some sermons require exactitude. They need careful, consistent exegetical and verbal precision. The sermon may contain many fine points that need to be captured just so, like a good piano sonata. In-depth expository sermons and many apologetic sermons require this level of precision. One needs to be very clear and precise when discussing worldviews and identifying inconsistencies.
Some sermons may require this kind of precision for artistic reasons: perhaps the sermon hangs on sensitive use of subtle imagery, or leans upon careful use of a recurring phrase or refrain that needs to be woven seamlessly into the homiletical content. These sermons require an approach similar to classical music: careful precision is needed for their themes to emerge powerfully. The message needs the words like the sonata needs the notes.
Other sermons require a different approach: they rely on developing a central idea like a fine jazz riff. Narrative preaching is a good example of this. When presenting a familiar Scripture story, verbal precision is less important than making the story come alive for listeners. When was the last time you heard a great storyteller read from a manuscript? Storytelling requires a visceral, instinctive passion that can’t be contained in specific words. The message doesn’t necessarily rely on specific words, just as jazz doesn’t rely on specific notes. Instead, the message fills the words, just as a skillful jazz artist fills the notes of a song.
Some sermons require taking a familiar concept and expressing it through a familiar but unexpected metaphor. For example, perhaps you’re looking for a fresh way to portray Paul’s warning in Galatians about the futility of works righteousness. You decide to use the image of fresh-cut flowers, beginning with some brief comments about the curious custom of giving cut flowers as gifts. In spite of their beauty, they don’t accumulate value over time. Perhaps you could invite the congregation to consider the irony of someone saving all the dead bouquets given her by a loved one. Even though we know they won’t last, we give fresh flowers as a way to communicate important messages.
From there you could go on to describe God’s delight at being blessed with our acts of obedience: seeing us resisting temptations to which we might otherwise succumb, or striving to embrace God’s mission for our lives, or cultivating the fruit of the Spirit. It wouldn’t be hard to picture God grinning at those moments, like a sweetheart receiving a surprise bouquet.
Then you might invite the congregation to imagine the puzzled, wounded look in God’s eyes when we begin calculating the number of merit points we might accumulate with each small act of obedience. This illustration would help listeners feel the same chill God must feel every time one of his loved ones presents a self-serving calculated blessing.
A sermon like this would present little, if any, new information. People might not learn anything they didn’t already know. But presented effectively, such a message could help listeners realize what they’d known all along: we are saved by grace alone, and the only real value our good works have is to express our gratitude to God.
Some sermons help us learn something new. Others help us experience something familiar.
Which approach is better? Which should pastors take when crafting a sermon?
A number of factors are involved in this decision. We’ve already mentioned the pastor’s mix of gifts and abilities. Another factor is the preaching context. One congregation may relish a steady stream of exegetical content and practical applications; another may thrive on the breeze of fresh metaphors and images. In addition, the purpose of each particular sermon is also important. Some sermons present new material; others bring a fresh discovery of something long familiar.
The point is not that one approach is better than the other. Rather, we preachers need to choose which approach is more appropriate for a particular sermon. We need to be able to prepare and deliver both classical and jazz sermons. Setting our homiletical default to one or the other limits the range of our preaching.
Intuitive “jazz” preachers can sharpen their conceptual and verbal precision by experimenting with classical approaches to sermon development. Occasionally drafting a manuscript could noticeably expand their use of language. Preachers who favor a “classical” approach will find themselves deepening their delivery and making their authenticity more apparent as they are challenged to communicate more from the heart and less from the intellect.
Cross-training is difficult. By definition it involves doing something familiar in an unfamiliar way. The slow, steady grind of drafting a manuscript can tax the patience of the intuitive speaker. The risk of stepping before a congregation without a manuscript or extensive notes will terrify the careful Bible teacher. Each will be tempted to abandon the exercise. But the only way to expand our range is by disciplining ourselves to develop the skills that don’t come easily to us.
Cross-training for Preachers
For “Jazz” Preachers
How does a preacher beginthe discipline of cross-training?
If you are naturally gifted as a “jazz” preacher, then focuson developing your capacity for detail. If you can muster the patience for thiskind of preparation, you will discover that you can complement your natural rhythmand passion with a fresh conceptual density.
Choose one sermon to start with. Identify the content thatyou feel will benefit from a classical approach. Is this a doctrinal sermon,exploring the biblical basis of an important belief? Or is it a practicalmessage, outlining important scriptural principles and applications foraddressing a familiar situation in everyday life?
Then practice some new disciplines. Carefully begin to outlinethe content of your message. Start with your objective. What do you want toaccomplish in this particular sermon? You probably know this instinctively, butstate your purpose in a single sentence.
Then move on to a simple outline. What are the basic“stepping stones” you will need to touch on in order to reach your goal? Whatwill you need to say first, second, third? As you develop the outline, try touse the kind of language you hope to use in the pulpit.
From there, continue to expand your outline. For each of your“stepping stone” points, you will probably need to make several sub-points. Ifthere is a brief tangent that you need to pursue, note that as well. Include eachof these in your outline so you can see the sermon as a whole.
As you review your outline, pay special attention totransitions between the various parts of your sermon. These can make or break aclassical sermon. Ask yourself, What is the best way to lead into each newsection, and how should the next part follow? Instead of a heavy transitionsuch as “Second, I want to talk about . . .” find a way to help people discoverwhy this next part is important: “Thisraises a question that’s just waiting to be asked: how can . . . ?”
You’ll also need to practice your delivery as you use thesenew materials. Use your written outline to preserve your structure andsequence, but learn to use it without losing eye contact with your listeners.
If you are naturally gifted as a “jazz” preacher, these stepsmay seem stifling, but they can help you develop your verbal and conceptualdiscipline.
For “Classical” Preachers
If you are naturally gifted as a “classical” preacher,then develop your capacity for simplicity. Complement your natural grasp ofdetail with communication that is intuitively “listenable.”
Choose a sermon to start with. Maybe there’s a basicscriptural concept that you want to help people experience in a fresh way, or ascriptural narrative you want to help your listeners explore. Identify in asingle sentence the point of your sermon, and tell it verbally to someone (orrecord yourself saying it aloud) without using notes. Force yourself tocondense your entire message into one natural statement. It’s important to dothis in spoken, not written language. Practice until you can explain thissimple but powerful summary freely every time.
Then carefully write down a basic outline for your message.Include the main points only—no sub-points yet. Practice presenting thesesimple points until you can present them fully, again without using notes. Yourgoal is to prepare a coherent two-minute version of your sermon that flows likea story, not a grocery list.
Then proceed to add your next level of sub-points and repeatthe process. Take the time to practice this presentation until you can presenta ten-minute version of your sermon in conversational language. Following thispattern continue adding content until you have a full sermon.
This process takes some time and effort. It may seemfrustrating to put this much work into the presentation of your material. However,if you stick with it you will end up with a sermon that “listens” much morenaturally. Instead of being a list of information to present, your outline willgive the contours of a story you are ready to tell.
Practice telling this story without using your outline, andthen use it in the pulpit only as a safety net, or don’t use it at all. You mayfind it less distracting to keep the outline in a folder where it won’t temptyou, but can be pulled out in an instant if you get stuck.
The Spirit at Work
How does the Holy Spirit fit into all this? At acertain point, your newfound homiletical discipline may feel like it isbeginning to crowd out room for the Holy Spirit to work without beingmanipulated or contrived by human scheming.
Ultimately any discipline of homiletical cross-training is anexpression of stewardship. Obviously, God has equipped each preacher according hisown design. Each of us has our own style, our own homiletical strengths andweaknesses. And over time, each of us develops a clear leaning toward either aclassical or a jazz style of preaching.
Like the investors in Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matt.25), we preachers have been entrusted with a combination of teaching andcommunication gifts. God has invested those gifts in us, looking for a return. Ifwe limit those gifts only to patterns with which we are comfortable, we limitthe return on God’s investment. However, if we continue to develop those gifts,increasing our preaching capacity, we provide God the opportunity to bring anexponential return on his investment in us.
Simply put, the more flexible we are, the more freely God’sSpirit can speak through us.
The Holy Spirit could easily work without us, but God hasgraciously chosen to work through us. As preachers, it is our responsibility tooffer for this task preaching instincts and skills that have been sharpened andtuned over time.
Let the music begin!