Every couple of months I sit down with a new cohort of gifted, aspiring teachers from City on a Hill for the first of what will be many hours – for some I pray a life-long endeavour – of preaching training.
The first question I always ask is: ‘what is the best talk you ever heard?’. The responses usually go something along the lines of: ‘I was at a camp, and the preacher spoke so powerfully about the gospel that I wanted to run out of the room there and then and share Jesus with my friends.’ Or ‘My church did a series in Judges. I remember this one sermon … I don’t really recall what was said … but I just remember being so struck by how bad our sin really is.’
The reason I ask this question is because the answer can help us think about one of the most vital aspects of a talk—what it’s actually doing. A good talk does what the Word itself does. It brings transformation.
A good talk does what the Word itself does. It brings transformation.
So what is required of the preacher, as a communicator of the Word, to be part of this transformation process for the people of God?
Here’s a few ideas:
If the transformation I seek to bring out in myself and my listeners is one which is intended and brought about by the Spirit of God himself, then there is nothing more useful and necessary I can do than to give the preaching process to God in prayer. I Pray. I pray, expecting God to hear and do something different in response to that prayer.
2. The Word … Then
What is incredible about the Bible, is that its meaning wasn’t only relevant to people then (that is, whenever the text of any given passage was originally spoken, written, or compiled with an original audience in mind), but it is relevant for all people now. Where I want to get to in my talk is a point where those listening can see the significance of this Word for their life and person now. But this can only happen if they first see the meaning and significance of the Word then.
With this goal in mind, first, I write down anything I know about the passage. For example:
- Who is involved, and what is going on for them at the time?
- Is this passage part of a larger argument or narrative? If so, what is it?
- Where does this part of Scripture fit in the progressive revelation of God?
- What promises of God have been made and fulfilled that are especially relevant to this passage, and what fulfilment or hope is still awaited by the people of God?
Next I create a flow chart of the passage: I indent anything that is not a main clause, I underline verbs, I bracket prepositions, I highlight repeated words, I look up certain key words and their meanings.
Many people are afraid, at this point, to go outside the given or chosen passage to understand such things. But I don’t want to read this passage in isolation from the rest of the Bible. Scripture is a united witness to Christ, so we seek to read Scripture in light of Scripture. The whole informs the parts, and the parts inform the whole.
And so to interpret this passage as holistically as I can, I ask myself the following questions:
- What repeated phrases or words come up? What do I know about those phrases or words from the rest of Scripture? How does this help me understand what’s being said here, or not being said?
- What are the primary doctrines being presented or engaged with in this passage? How does this particular passage help me understand this doctrine in a more comprehensive way, and how does the doctrine help me understand this passage in a more comprehensive way?
- What references—direct or indirect—are there in this passage to other parts of Scripture or moments in the history of the people of God? How do those references help me understand what is going on here?
Once I have done this, I am then better positioned to answer the following necessary questions:
- What is the speaker or writer wanting their hearers to understand, or to do, or to be?
- Why is what’s said or written important or relevant for its original hearers?
- What difference did this Word make (or should have made) to the life of God’s people as individuals, but also as a corporate community?
3. The Word … Now
Once I’ve given some thought to the Word then, I need to think about its significance for the people I will be speaking to now. When the preacher of the Word gives thought to this question, they are giving thought not only to the significance of this Word in their own individual life, but in the lives of each and every member of their congregation. That is a lot of lives (hopefully), and a lot of different life circumstances. We need to help our people see how the preached Word is to land in their lives in a very real and practical way.
This is no easy task, but here are some questions I ask myself as I work towards that end:
- What are the points of similarly and what are the points of difference between the people of God then, and the people of God now?
- What truth does this passage call us to believe, and what is stopping me and my listeners from believing it?
- (Related to the above): What are the counter-beliefs to the truths presented in this passage that my listers and I hold? Why do I/we hold them? (For example, if the truth presented in the Word is that I am secure in Christ, what are the forces or beliefs at play that cause me and my listeners to believe otherwise – to feel insecure? How does this play itself out?)
- Why is the truth of this passage better than whatever other truth I and/or my listeners believing? In what way does it satisfy or meet my inbuild desires and longings and needs in a way that my listeners’ and my counter-beliefs do not?
4. Work Out a Structure
By way of transferring the above reflections into some orderly piece of communication, the next thing I do is open up a new Word doc and list these three headings: ‘INTRO’; ‘BODY’; ‘CONCLUSION’.
I leave the introduction until last. I start with the body of the talk. Before I start writing, I need to work out what structural approach I am going to take:
- Am I going to make three points, two points, or just journey through the passage verse by verse?
- Am I going to major on one or two verses or give equal weight to each verse (or go for something in between?).
- Will I apply as I go or leave application at the end? (To my mind, the most effective talks usually do the former rather than the latter. This is usually more achievable, however, for experienced preachers as it requires a sophisticated ability to integrate the ‘then and now’ throughout).
5. Helping Hearers Connect
One of the final stages of preparation is what I find the most fun: helping people connect. By connect, I mean—not just intellectually understanding the significance of the text (though that is also very important and no easy feat)—but feeling it; experiencing and believing it with their whole selves.
This is where illustrations and stories (and so many other options) are immensely helpful. It might be an image that unpacks a doctrine; a simile that helps them connect to the context; a personal story to relate to; real life examples of the transformation being called for.
This part is difficult to rush. I often find the best illustrations come in the same way that a good curry does: you throw in all the main ingredients, let them sit together for a while, and over time wonderful new flavours appear. The earlier in the preparation process I can get to this point, the richer my illustrations will be.
If you are a regular speaker, and want to get serious about illustrations, I suggest having some sort of depository of illustrations that you build over time. I have an app in my phone where I note down anything of potential interest: a funny story, a scene in a movie that struck me, a chat I had with my toddler about God that made me laugh, my personal reaction to a situation. Beyond the content itself, I make little effort when writing it down to articulate anything of spiritual significance. I just leave it there and tag it with words that may one day be relevant to a talk (e.g. ‘sin’, ‘identity’, ‘fear’, ‘faith’, ‘love’, etc). Then when I write a talk and I get to this stage in the preparation process, I type in the word, and up they come.
6. The Editing Process
I am one of those people who writes usually double the word count. This means cutting … sometimes a LOT. To me, this part of the process always feels like being awake in an operation where my arm is being amputated and I am both the patient and the surgeon. As the patient, I really want the arm, and it hurts to have it cut off. But as the surgeon, I have a job to do, and it is for the best.
To minimise the pain, I resave a new copy of the file every time I cut something that hurts. This way, I know I can go back to it if I really want to. I never do. But it is a psychological trick that keeps that knife moving. By the time I have finished a talk, I have about twelve copies.
Somewhere in this process I have to speak my talk out loud. People want to listen to me—not my perfect grammar. If it doesn’t sound natural, I might have to try again—imagining that there is a person sitting across from me at a café. (If you really need help here, literally do this. Chat to someone about the passage in a café, record your conversation, and write out what you said and how you said it. There is your natural speaking tone.)
The final stage for me is the internalisation process. I say ‘internalisation’ rather than ‘memorisation’ because a memorised talk is often a boring talk. It is sounds too carefully crafted and feels too staged. An internalised talk may in fact be memorised, but the listener knows it comes from within the preacher, and therefore feels as though she is connecting to something real and authentic.
For me, this process literally involves me standing up for around four hours (usually in blocks of two), speaking it over and over. I want to know every crevice and every shade of colour and every turn of phrase. When I have internalised my talk, I achieve freedom: I can deliver without notes, I can respond to the moment, I can read the room and adjust my tone accordingly, I can pick up or slow down the pace when I need, I can enjoy delivering God’s Word with confidence and joy.
When I have internalised my talk, I achieve freedom: I can deliver without notes, I can respond to the moment. I can enjoy delivering God’s Word with confidence and joy.
8. Deliver and Then Let Go
Preaching is like golfing in the dark. You line everything up, you go for the swing, you have a sense of how it felt when the ball was hit, but you have no idea where it landed. It may be on the green, in may be in a bunker somewhere. Sometimes you find out later, sometimes you don’t.
This can be very disconcerting for some preachers. It is especially difficult for young or new preachers who are desperate for feedback and who find it hard to detach their identity from their preaching ability. This is normal, and something that we all need to face at some point.
There are countless talks and events that I have come away from, thinking: ‘Well I have no idea how that went.’ That is not a comfortable place to be, but it is okay. It is not my job to know where the ball landed. Only God knows that.
People’s facial expressions aren’t much help. Sometimes what appears to be their ‘you are an absolute idiot’ face, is actually their ‘that is a very interesting point’ face. Or their ‘this is the most boring talk in the world’ expression is actually their ‘I am feeling deeply convicted now and am therefore too uncomfortable to smile’ expression. I just don’t know. So I try not to let the appearance of things throw me in the moment.
But I have found that it is useful to find one or two people whose opinion I trust. I know that if I don’t seek honest, detailed feedback from helpful and well-informed people, I will never grow.