Years ago my mother purchased her first microwave oven. I was impressed. To be able to cook hot dogs in mere seconds seemed a wonderful innovation in culinary technology. Around the same time, however, she bought a crock-pot, an instrument that baffled me entirely. Why would anyone delilberately buy an appliance designed to do the job slowly? It could take all day to do dinner in the crock-pot. The microwave would do it in seconds.
Of course, as any decent chef will tell you, some things taste better when cooked slowly. Time can be a useful ingredient in deepening a rich and full-bodied taste. You don’t always want to rush things in the kitchen. You don’t always want to rush things in the pulpit.
Let the sermon simmer.
Fast food never nourished anyone. Fast food may be better than no food – maybe. Still a homiletical diet of a burger and fries is not what is going to sustain congregations. Listeners notice when sermons are thrown together late on Saturday night. Good preaching requires time, both in quantity and in duration.
I”ve found that my best sermons are developed slowly. Like my mother’s crock-pot chili, slow cooking makes for a more appetizing fare. I need time to contemplate a text in Scripture. I may schedule a couple of hours into my Palm Pilot for sermon preparation. That doesn’t always mean those hours will be productive.
I have found it helpful to begin preparation several weeks in advance. This doesn’t add any time to the process, but it does require some planning. In any given week, I can have three different sermons cooking, each at different stages of preparation. This has two primary benefits. One is the enrichment that comes from a longer duration. I’ll admit that some of my best sermon ideas don’t occur until I’ve had a couple of weeks to stew on the text. This isn’t to say that the sermon is a constant presence in my mind. But I have found that if I take the sermon off the front burner and turn it down to simmer some interesting things can develop over time.
The second benefit is that working on more than one sermon at a time allows for a greater sense of unity among the sermons being prepared. Like the crock-pot stew, the carrots flavor the meat, which flavors the potatoes. I have often been surprised while working on one sermon to discover an insight into a different sermon that had been quietly deepening on the back burner.
Let the listener savor the message.
I come from a long line of slow eaters. I spent the better part of my childhood listening to my mother encouraging me to “hurry up” and to “eat faster.” Now I tell her that slower eating aids digestion. It is healthier, or so the experts say. Whether for reasons of health or reasons of necessity, listeners consume their sermons slowly, more slowly, at least, than preachers want to serve it.
Most preachers are good writers. Having been through years of university and seminary education they have been well trained to communicate in complex literate constructions. The problem is that sermons are not term papers. Many of the sermons I have heard would make for good reading, but as an oral product, they are difficult to process. In a written piece (like this one) the consumer can take her time. She can reread difficult sections. She can compare and contrast issues from various stages in the presentation. She can pause to ponder or reflect. The listener to a sermon can do none of these things. An auditor must take it as it comes as quick as it comes. For many, it is just too much.
My wife and I recently attended an Asian wedding -10 courses of mostly unidentifiable seafood, painstakingly presented. Every dish was put together like a work of art, served individually and placed before us. We had no choice as to what we were going to eat. We just kept eating because the plates kept coming. Eventually some around the table were forced to surrender due to the relentless conveyance of food.
The problem is the rate of delivery. We preachers take hours in preparation chewing on the text. By the time we”re ready to preach we want to offer everything we’ve gathered and serve it to our listeners in one gigantic meal. We feel we are doing the listener a favor by loading up their plate. What we don’t understand is that while we have had the advantage of hours in the study, the listener has to digest the whole thing in 30 minutes. It is just too big a serving for many. A lot of good food goes to waste.
Charles S. Mudd and Malcolm O. Sillars put the put the problem well in their book, Speech: Content and Communication,
A listening audience . . . has no such opportunity for leisurely consideration of the ideas presented to it. Listeners cannot go back to rehear. If they pause to reflect, they break the tightly woven chain of the speaker’s organization, lose connection with the speaker’s development, and are left behind. (261)
Preachers ought to slow down, not dumb down. Rich food is served in smaller portions. The truck stop on the highway will pile your plate with whatever slop they have on the menu, but a fine dining establishment will be more sparing with their servings. Good preaching offers a rich gastronomical experience. Exposition is rich fare. We need to let the listener savor our sermons. Force feeding platefuls of propositions will only leave the listener with indigestion. Too many meals like this and they will soon search out another restaurant. They may even opt for the junk food that is so readily available in our time.
Preachers can help their listeners hear the message by fleshing out the cerebral content with examples and stories that both feed the listeners heart even as they give the listener”s head an opportunity to catch up with the flow of the sermon. Preachers can ‘signpost’ the sermons more effectively, making sure that the listener understands where the preacher is in the flow of discussion. Mostly, preachers ought to assume less of the listener. This is not to say that the preacher should disrespect the listener. It is to say that the preacher should not assume that the line of argument is communicating as clearly to the listener as it is to the preacher. Preachers and listeners tend to operate at separate rates of speed. The onus is on the preacher to discover how much their listeners can handle in one sitting.
Generally speaking, preachers would say a lot more if they said a lot less. Slowing down the rate of delivery will help listeners digest the sermon more satisfactorily. Preachers need to slow down in order to say more
One of the more bizarre programs to emerge on television is The Iron Chef. This is a program that puts chefs in competition to see who can cook the most elaborate meals in the least amount of time. This is the ultimate in fast food -as if Emeril was a game show. The program may be entertaining, but it doesn’t serve as a way to learn to cook.
Let me tell you what your grandmother has been telling you for years. All that fast food and fast eating isn”t good for you! The same goes for microwave preaching. Take time for better preaching. Cook your sermons in a crock-pot.
Sermons that nourish require slow cooking.
Charles S. Mudd and Malcolm O. Sillars, Speech: Content and Communication. 3d edition. (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1975), 261.