WHEN PREACHING JUST FEELS RIGHT
Kenton C. Anderson
I am one of those preachers that play golf. Most of the time my golf game is a lesson in humility, a kind of willing mortification of the flesh that reminds me that for all my supposed spirituality, my conquest of the physical world is tenuous at best. Preachers don’t have time to learn to play great golf. The time it would take to master the game would come at the expense of time spent with people or with God’s Word. At least that is what I tell myself when I card yet another double bogey.
Still, there have been moments, rare though they may have been, where I felt that I could do no wrong, crushing my drives, sticking my irons, and dropping my putts. Sports psychologists call this being “in the zone,” that place of confident performance and seeming invincibility.
I’ve known those moments in the pulpit. You know them too – those times it seems we have a perfect connection to the mind and heart of each listener so that everything we say is registering exactly as it should. In times like these we can do no homiletic harm. God’s presence is known and his Spirit is at work. We are in “the preaching zone.” These are the sermons we send for publication. These are the moments we remember when the sermonic cupboard seems bare.
The truth is, I don’t find the zone on every Sunday. Like my golf swing, I think I have it one week, but the next week it goes missing. I wonder what I’ve done or where I’ve left it. I don’t seem to be able to find the zone at will. I have discovered, rather, that there are things that encourage preaching in the zone and things that discourage it.
Things that help: Assimilation of the Message
It helps if the preacher takes time to assimilate the message. The sermon needs to be taken off the page and written into the preacher’s heart and life. Our messages need to be less hypothetical. We need to look for ways to actualize our messages in life before we preach them so that these are no longer words to be spoken but a way of life and faith that bubbles up and spills out from inside us. Our preaching needs to come out of the overflow of our life lived with God and with his Word.
Assimilation requires intentional effort on the part of the preacher beyond the exegetical and homiletical preparation of the sermon. Once the text has been studied and the sermon constructed, the preacher needs to intentionally work to sense the sermon’s language, pray the sermon’s truths, and live the sermon’s implications.
We preach a lot of sermons and so it might not be possible to do this in depth every single time. Nevertheless, we would do well to invest at least some of our preparation time in the work of listening to and obeying our own messages. Sometimes we will be able to respond right away. If, for example, we are preaching on forgiveness and realize that we have a grudge against someone, we could pick up the phone and deal with it immediately. Other themes are more deeply rooted and will take a deeper engagement. We might not be able to get to the bottom of things, but we could at least prayerfully intend some kind of beginning. Other times we may be speaking of things that are not currently “front-burner issues” but which may have been at some time in the past. We can recall those times, reflecting upon the emotions and intentions of that period, bringing back a sense of consequence that may have lain dormant for a while.
The zone is reserved for preachers who are intimate with their messages. This intimacy seldom comes by accident. It is the intentional result of preachers willing to engage their own preaching.
Things that hinder: Time Pressures
Good preaching takes time. There is just no way around it. It is hard to imagine any sermon that could not be improved if the preacher had more time. Unfortunately, time is limited and preachers seem to have less of it than most.
Part of the problem might be where we are spending our time. Perhaps a little homiletical time management might be in order. Powerpoint is great, but it might not be the most important investment of your time. Gettting the exegesis correct is essential, but sometimes we keep on parsing long after we have got the meaning of the text. Obsessing over every word in the manuscript might help if you want to get your sermon published, but if you really want to find the preaching zone, that time might be better spent assimilating the message, or spending time with God in prayer.
Things that help: Anticipation
This is a faith thing. Preachers in the zone believe that God is working. They understand that preaching is not a sterile consideration of ideas and concepts but an active engagement with a God who is present and who is at work. Preachers who want to find the zone anticipate God’s action and work to cultivate a sense of his presence.
Preaching is worship. Contrary to appearances in many of our churches the worship does not end when the preaching begins. Preaching is simply worship in another key and the good preacher has been building up to it for some time.
When we are preaching in the zone we have given our sermons back to God. We sense that he is the preacher and that we are simply providing service so that God can work through what he has to say. We anticipate great things to happen. We are looking for the doorposts to shake like they did for Isaiah in the temple. Something is happening here and we are privileged to share a part.
Things that hinder: Spiritual Weakness
Preaching is spiritual work but sometimes we just don’t feel very spiritual. It is usually our own fault. We are not praying. We’ve let sinful attitudes take root in our hearts. The spiritual truth we are preaching has become hypothetical to us because we have let ourselves get too busy to tend to our hearts. God has become a stranger to us, so it is little wonder we have trouble helping people hear his voice. One can feel a little guilty standing in the pulpit, trying to muster up a sense of spiritual consequence when there has been little spiritual substance in our recent lives.
The antidote, of course, should not surprise us. The spiritual disciplines were made for times like these. Perhaps a day or week of prayer and fasting would be in order. A session could be spent with a spiritual director to discuss one’s attitudes and state of heart. Spiritual passion will ebb and flow. Good preachers know this, and so they invest energy in keeping their spiritual life in tune.
Things that help: Trusting the Gift
Good preachers are gifted. God has given these people a special ability to use language to communicate his truth. It is difficult to hit the zone when we read our sermons to the people. Effective preaching is experienced as an event in God’s presence. It is a unique moment in time when people hear God’s voice and respond to what he is saying. It is difficult to script such a thing.
In no way would I want to downplay the value of careful preparation. Still, once we have a faithful message and have assimilated it well, we could relinquish our manuscripts a little and trust the gift that God has given. Gifted preachers don’t need to fear whether something will go astray because we have not locked down every word. Rather, as we work with the people in the sermon moment, the gifting works to empower the message from God’s Word, carefully discerned and intentionally assimilated.
Things that hinder: A Bad Attitude
Preaching is an act of love – at least good preaching is. Preaching is a way of blessing people by helping them hear from God. This is very hard to do when we don’t like the people very much. Sometimes it is difficult because these people say some nasty things about us and do some terribly hurtful things. But it isn’t going to help if we are angry with them. Bitterness and resentment are not going to help us find the preaching zone.
Few things empower a sermon like love. Not only do we need to love our listeners, but we need to make sure that they know we love them. We actually have to tell them. There is vulnerability and humility in this kind of expression that heightens the moment and deepens the sense of consequence that preacher and listener feel.
We could consider this a kind of checklist. If it’s been a while since we have found the zone we could ask ourselves whether our spiritual life needs a tune-up, whether our attitude needs adjustment, or whether we are investing our time in the right kind of things.
Still, we could do everything right and still come up empty. John of the Cross described a sense of spiritual greed we experience when we become more attached to the feeling of spiritual attainment than the actual substance of our devotion. Perhaps God is working a kind of “dark night” of the homiletic soul in order to work something wonderful later on.
The truth is, preaching is God’s work and he will use it as he sees fit. Golfing in the zone leads to lower scores. Preaching in the zone usually leads to more powerful responses, but whether it does or does not is a matter of God’s inscrutable will.
I am incurably optimistic when it comes both to golfing and to preaching. Every time out I expect a lower score. Every time in the pulpit I’m looking for that holy zone. It is wonderful how God works through us when we’re faithful. This coming Sunday’s going to be great!