Last week I (along with a few others from Grace) "sat at the feet" of Lloyd Ogilvie as he shared from his experiences (most notably as Pastor or Hollywood Presbyterian Church and Chaplain of the US Senate) on what it means to preach with passion. Mark Labberton (Fuller Seminary) also shared his heart and wisdom.
There have been some great reminders of the lessons I've learned from the wisdom and friendship of voices that have shaped and sharpened my preaching over the year (especially Walt Gerber, Scott Dudley, John Ortberg and Doug Lawrence). I loved the quote from Richard Baxter shared the first day of the seminar:
I preach as a dying man
To dying men and women
As though never to preach again
As I preach each week here's what I'm constantly trying to remember.
I can only share what's in me. Scott loved to quote Robert Frost: "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.". When I preach out of my head or out of theory I share information. When I preach from my heart and life experiences I share convictions. Walt liked to encourage young preachers not to tell people what we know (most aren't that interested) but instead share with them what we are learning as we walk with Jesus. Lloyd has hammered that point home over and over again these past few days - we can't proclaim grace we've never experienced for ourselves.
I am preparing messages for the real people with real problems and questions. I've been called to "go and tell the full message of new life" (Acts 5: 20) in a specific context. To help me remember this I'm spending more time preparing messages in coffee shops than behind the closed door of my study. There's time I need to spend where I have easy access to my library, but when I spend all my time in my study I am tempted to write academic papers. By simply being in the real world as I write, I keep my messages more grounded in the real lives of people. Some homiletic classes are even doing this as an exercise for students - sending them out into the city to prepare their message.
Another great reminder has been to be in at least one intentional weekly discipleship relationship with a new believer or unbeliever. I began such a relationship last fall and it has dramatically changed my message preparation. It challenges my assumptions about what people know (and don't know) it reminds me of the questions people are asking and most of all inspires me by providing me a "front row seat" as Jesus transforms a life into a new creation.
The more I pray the better I preach. I am grateful that over the last couple of years God has blessed me with a deeper prayer life - a genuine hunger for prayer and for God's word. The time I spend satisfying that hunger has a direct impact on my preaching. I’ve also been blessed by some faithful “prayer warriors” who have been praying specifically for my preaching. I can feel the difference it is making.
And I’ve found that the more I pray the more I am immune to criticism and attempting to please the congregation. Time spent with God means that I am more and more only seeking His approval.
I need to remove any barriers between the congregation and me. Small group gurus for years have told us not to sit around tables when we meet together. Management gurus tell us not to sit behind desks. The well accepted principle is that tables and desks separate us a create barriers for connection. A little over a year ago I got rid of the lectern (at our contemporary service) and stepped out (permanently) from the pulpit (at our traditional). I learned from the "architectural wisdom" of John and had a thrust built out from the chancel so that I could be lower and closer to the congregation.
Losing the lectern and pulpit meant that I had to let go what I have (finally) come to realize has been the greatest barrier between me and the congregation - my notes. For 16 years I argued that preaching with notes was not only acceptable but also preferable - notes, even manuscripts, keep us on track and prevent rambling. I learned not to rely on my notes and taught myself to maintain good eye contact instead of reading.
Two event changed my thinking. I read Andy Stanley's "Communicating for a Change" and couldn't get his observation out of my head that "if after working on the message all week I couldn't remember it - what makes me think my hearers can. Secondly a trusted elder (thanks Bob) challenged me (in a way that only Bob can) to try. So on Christmas Eve 2009 I left my manuscript behind and I haven't used one since. Here's what I've learned: I have a much greater capacity for memorization that I realized (and it gets easier with repetition). It doesn't matter if I get something out of place or leave out something entirely. No one knows but me and if I forget it, it likely wasn't that important anyway.
Bottom line, the more barriers I remove the more I feel a connection with the congregation. Right now I am asking myself what other barriers might I need to remove.
Practice makes perfect. When I decided to put down my notes I made a commitment to spend more time practicing delivering the message. It begins on Monday, which I set aside for writing. On Thursday afternoons I do a message “run-through” with our worship leaders (Ben, Dave and Brian). Doug L. taught me years ago that gifted worship leaders have great insights into message delivery and today the Grace worship leaders always have good suggestions. I try to go to bed early on Saturday night and the last things I do before bed are to 1) read the message one more time (so I can think it through as I am falling asleep) and 2) have Kim pray over me. There is nothing more powerful than having your spouse pray over you and your message. On Sunday mornings I get in early enough to spend at least an hour in the chapel going over the sermon – aloud – again and again and again. By the time I step up to preach at the first sermon the message is inside me.
That's some of what I learned and was reminded of at last week's seminar. Most of all I was reminded that I love to preach! When 2011 began I experienced a renewed passion for preaching. It is both a joy and burden and I am more aware than ever how much I can still grow as a preacher. What a gift and a responsibility to Sunday after Sunday get to:
Preach as a dying man
To dying men and women
As though never to preach again