Just caught up a bit with Pete Mead’s splendid blog Biblical Preaching and was so impressed with his summer series that I thought I’d pop it here in one go. For me, numbers 10, 16, 20, 22 and 44 look really useful that I will aim to work on.
As we are all about to head into a new (school) year of preaching, how about a big collection of little tweaks for effective preaching? In no particular order, here come the fifty summer tweaks to sift through and prayerfully consider:
1. Be mastered by a book. Whether you regularly preach through whole books or not, make sure you spend enough time soaking in a book that it can truly grip you. Be saturated so that when squeezed, you ooze the content of that book. Then prepare a series to invite others into that blessing.
2. Invite others into the preparation process. We all tend to go solo on preaching preparation. Invite some folks to join you. Perhaps in a group, perhaps a series of conversations, perhaps ask for help on facebook or twitter. Perhaps talk through the message, perhaps ask for help on support material, perhaps find out where others think the points of tension lie. It will probably be better together.
3. Lean less on your notes. If you are a manuscript reader, take only an outline. If you are a notes user, experiment with note-less. Be as prepared as you can, but make the message simpler in structure, stick in a passage and run through it several times. Going noteless is not as hard as you think, and the benefits might mean you never go back!
4. Stay put, dig deeper. If you are a concordance freestyler, try preaching a message where you stay put. You will find that you will tend to dig deeper in the passage and apply more fully in the present. Both are good things! Only cross-reference if there is a genuine need to do so.
5. Craft the main idea a little bit more. Take an hour at some point and work on the main idea of the message for an hour more than you normally would. How can it be more precise, more memorable, more relevant, more text specific, more encouraging, less wordy, less historic, less theologically phrased?
6. Target relevance in your introduction. Try to plan an introduction that demonstrates the relevance of the preacher, the message and the text. How can you make sure, in those first two or three minutes, that people lean forward because they know you are not out of touch with them, the message will make a difference to them, and the text is going to be on target?
7. Call on the REF as you conclude. When you come to your next conclusion, call on the ref for a simple and effective wrap-up. R stands for review – take a moment to survey where you have come together in the message. E stands for encourage – end with an encouragement rather than critique or guilt. F stands for finish – land the plane first time, don’t keep circling, and saying a bit more, and continuing on, and reinforcing your earlier points, and adding new materials, and . . . ok, enough.
8. Slow down through the curves. Specifically evaluate the transitions to make sure they are not too sudden or brief. Make sure your listeners can come with you and not suddenly wake up and wonder where they are!
9. Read a preaching book. If you haven’t read a book to help you as a preacher lately, make the investment. If you click on “Review” in the right hand column, you’ll find a selection on here, or ask your friends for a recommendation on facebook. Books to help you preach better are typically not tomes, but usually beneficial.
10. Get some helpful feedback. Ask certain people for certain feedback. Ask about your content. Ask about your personal warmth. Ask about your delivery and mannerisms and gestures and so on. Make sure they know they can be honest. You will improve as a result. Practice makes permanent, but evaluated practice makes for improvement!
11. Watch yourself on video. If you have never done this, maybe now is the time. It does not need to be Hollywood quality filming, but I guarantee you will learn a lot when you watch yourself preach. There really is no alternative that will achieve the same value.
12. Go somewhere different in the Bible. Are you an epistles preacher? Always in the gospels? Push the boat out and try wisdom literature or a minor prophet. Try a Psalm that isn’t an obvious one sitting up ready to be preached. Pick a book you have never preached from. You will enjoy, others will be helped, and you will grow as a result.
13. Avoid the moral finish. And so the moral of the story is . . . don’t finish messages this way! Wrestle with and recognize the insidious danger of moralism in preaching. It is the most tempting option to get the most affirmation and feel most Christian in your ministry. But moralism is not the gospel. Moralism is not what we are called to bring to society, or to the community of believers. Try finishing a message with a warm invitation to respond to the Christ offered in Scriptures (and watch the moral fruit!)
14. Add vocal variety. Watch a great communicator and you will see more pauses, more pace variation, more pitch range, more volume extent. Listen to yourself and see where your voice freezes into a certain zone. Vary there.
15. Prune that distracting mannerism. Most people have slightly distracting mannerisms. That includes you. Ask or watch until you discover it. Shoot it. Preach without it. It will just be better that way.
16. Smile. If you know you do this, move on (but only if you actually know, not just if you think you do). There are a surprising number of preachers that never seem to smile. Implication? Either there is no good news (we are called to preach good news), or no love for listeners (we are called to love listeners), or no delight in God (no comment necessary).
17. Use your preaching space effectively. You may have a vast platform area, or a small cluttered space, but are you using it to maximum communication value? I remember preaching Pilate with Jesus (one side of the pulpit) and the Jewish leaders (on the other side of the pulpit). The use of space helped the message to be visualized, simply by my deliberate movement.
18. Step outside your preaching mode to communicate effectively. Periodically drop the preaching mode and just be real. Actually, you are still preaching, and deliberately so, but it offers another ethos. If your normal preaching mode is too preachy, just drop it permanently and preach real!
19. Increase the vulnerability value. Speaking of being real, how vulnerable do you get in your preaching? Some think it is wrong to let any of you show in your preaching. That’s fine. You can continue to preach from another room via radio mic. But for those who recognize that preaching involves communicating God’s truth through your personality and life (i.e. an incarnational view of preaching), then evaluate how vulnerable. Where can you be appropriately, but helpfully, vulnerable?
20. Preach first-person at least once. It is so different, you have to give it a go. Pick a passage, study like crazy, write a message from the perspective of one character in the story or associated with the passage. Decide if the listeners have gone back there, or if the character has travelled through time to today. It is more work, but the impact is typically worth the effort (costumes and fake voices are not worth the effort!)
21. Stop settling for sermon prep as Bible reading. If you have fallen into the rut of accepting that your sermon prep is your personal Bible reading, stop. My wife and I talk every day about church stuff and parenting stuff and house stuff and finance stuff. That doesn’t mean we have a close relationship. That takes heart to heart time. Ask the Lord if He would join you on a date. Take your Bible. As a preacher, why wouldn’t you do this?
22. Make your points into sentences. Simple thing, but let’s move away from summary commentary titles as points in our messages. Paul’s Contrition. Paul’s Consternation. Paul’s Contribution. These are not message points, they are titles (and not great ones). Make the point into a full sentence that actually says something and then you’ll find it easier to actually be saying something when you are preaching.
23. Print and mark your preaching text. Option 1 – cut and paste the passage, double space it, print it out and have at it . . . mark it up every which way to help you know it inside and out. Option 2 – photocopy (and maybe enlarge) your actual Bible page. Graffiti that page like crazy as you prepare your message. When it comes time to preach it, you will find yourself leaning on the text more than your notes.
24. Adjust your proxemics. Can that be treated? Indeed it can. Are you raised above the listeners, on a level, or situated below them. Each one makes a difference. Are they close or far away? Is there an obstacle between you and them? Is it the size of a submarine? All of these factors matter. Don’t just treat your set up as a given, but ponder the possibilities and try something different and evaluate the benefits.
25. Mix up your illustration type. Are all your illustrations from the world of sports, or from your own children’s bedtime wit, or always statistics, or always the fruit of fast google search? Are you stick in the world of canned quotes from Napoleon and Winston Churchill? Do you always go to another Bible passage to illustrate? Is every illustration essentially explanatory, or supporting the truth of a point, or applying it to folks? Mix up your approach and avoid getting stuck.
26. Go on an illustration hunt for a week. Take a week when you are not preaching, carry a notebook and try to fill it with material for messages. It could be traditional anecdotes, quotes, etc., but also look for normal life observations that people will resonate with . . . an illustration does not need to sound like it comes from an anthology of illustrations (please).
27. Evaluate a masterful communicator. Pick someone you think is a great communicator and watch them as if they are preaching in your classroom. What are they doing well? Why does it work? What can you learn? Perhaps take a traditional and a contemporary communicator, maybe even one from another culture . . . watch and learn.
28. Preach through a prayerful rehearsal. If you think it is unspiritual to run through a message out loud, perhaps the time has come. Pray, and go for it. Some things will only become evident when you hear them with your own ears! If you can preach where you will preach, all the better!
29. Pray for the people in their places. You know where certain people sit. Pray for them and the effect of the forthcoming ministry on their hearts and lives. It will help them, and it will help your preaching to invest in them in this way. Bless the church is a bit more vague than any prayer you will find in the Bible! Take a deep gulp of Colossians 1:9ff and then pray for people in your church.
30. Preach a grain instead of a slice. We can get very stuck in the pattern of preaching a chunk of text. Consider preaching a grain instead – that is, a theme as it develops through a book or section. You could even do this beyond the borders of a book and give a biblical theology of something. Don’t over reach, but variation can be so healthy for listeners as well as preachers!
31. Add a Bible tip or two. When you preach, don’t just explain the text and make its relevance clear, take the opportunity to equip your listeners to handle the Bible for themselves. Don’t turn your message into a lecture, but reinforce the importance of understanding a text in context, the need to make sense of it “back then” before applying it to today, etc.
32. Express expectation and encouragement. It is easy to turn application of the Bible into pressure and burden. Mix in a bit of negativity and the hoped for life impact is quickly undermined. Take the temperature of your application and conclusion – see if it can be increased. Encourage and expect . . . perhaps it will help.
33. Learn the local lingo. It is possible to speak a generic form of English and get by in England, America, Australia, South Africa, etc. It is also possible to learn the local dialect and fit in so much better. Maybe the same is true in the Bible. Instead of just speaking Biblish, why not speak the Johannine dialect when preaching John, or Lukan when preaching Luke?
34. Simplify the message. When we plan messages on paper we can easily make them more complicated than necessary. Try making the structure and shape of the message as simple as possible. This is not about dumbing it down, it is about helping listeners be able to follow, no matter how deep or weighty the content might be.
35. Map the message. In fact, instead of outlining the message as you would an essay for college, try mapping it as you would a journey. Where will we go first, and then, then after that? I often end up with a sermon map on the whiteboard, rather than an outline. Some people like to tie the landmarks to physical landmarks in the church space. Somehow the sense of movement and progression becomes stronger with this approach.
36. Preach a whole book in one. If you have never done this before, maybe it is time to try. Instead of preaching slice by slice through a book, give people the whole thing in one. Obviously Philemon is fairly easy, but why not try Mark or Romans, or even a major Prophet? Don’t just preach the study Bible introductory outline, that is dull. Grasp the book for yourself and offer it as a coherent and relevant whole.
37. Preach a tiny text in context. This is the opposite extreme. Grab hold of a tiny text and pull on it to see the whole of its context come into play. Perhaps “God so loved” or “I am the way” or “Before Abraham was born, I am” or something more unfamiliar. People may be able to walk away with a little truth drilled deep into their souls, with all the meaning and significance it actually has in its context.
38. Up the eye contact. Whatever you can do to increase eye contact, do it. Less notes. No notes. Overcome the habit of looking over people, or picking two points and “watching tennis” as you preach. Make meaningful eye contact for several seconds before moving on. Don’t flit and don’t stare, but do make the kind of connection that friendly relationship is made of.
39. Prepare your people for a future evangelistic message. If you are preaching an especially evangelistic message in the coming weeks, don’t just tell folks to bring people. Instead, tell them what you will be doing, how it will come across, how you will conclude. Allow your people to make an informed decision over whether or not to risk their relationship by bringing their friend to that particular event.
40. Evaluate your visuals. What people see communicates massively. Evaluate your expressions, your gestures, your posture, your attire. Also give some thought to your powerpoint – is it clear, is it helpful, is it necessary, is it clip-arty, is it grainy, is it coherent, is it exhaustive, is it distracting, is it turning the message into an information download? Good visuals make a huge difference, both you and your projected presentation. Never offer any visual without thinking it through first.
41. Come out from behind the furniture. Your whole body communicates, so why hide most of it? If you have huge pulpit furniture, just come out from behind it. This isn’t just about being contemporary, Lloyd-Jones removed the curtain at Westminster Chapel for the same reason (although he chose to wear a robe, which slightly defeated the logic).
42. Gesture bigger to look natural. Unless you are preaching to one person across a table, you need to gesture bigger than normal if you want to look normal. Make sure your gestures and movements are big enough for the room you are in, and then make sure they still look natural and not stiff or forced. Simple.
43. Discover your stiff preaching zone. Speaking of stiffness in preaching, what aspect of delivery freezes when you stand in front of a crowd? It is a typical and subconscious response to public speech. Find it and deal with it. It could be your voice getting in a certain pitch range, or a fixed volume, or a specific gesture repeated endlessly, or the direction your eyes look, etc.
44. Left to right and back to front. Make sure your gestures make sense from the perspective of your listeners. Left is right and right is left. Past is right and future is left. A bit of practice and your gestures will start to make way more sense to those listening with their eyes.
45. Practice storytelling at home. Whether you are preaching narrative or giving an illustration, you will need to tell stories. Some are natural at this, some are awkward in the extreme. Practice at home. Children are always ready to listen to a story (it doesn’t have to be biblical for practice time – what happened today while you were out? Be descriptive, engaging, suspenseful, etc.)
46. Read some descriptive writing. If all you ever read is biblical commentary and theological textbooks, it will show in your preaching. Find someone who can write effectively and spend some time with them. We need to be able to paint pictures with our words, not just offer precise abstractions.
47. Pray about improving your preaching. I too easily treat this as a given, so I’ll mention it again. If you are a preacher, you should be praying. Apart from me you can do nothing. So why not pray specifically for God to show you areas to improve and to help make those improvements happen?
48. Nail a landing. I’m always impressed when a preacher knows where he is going, gets there, and stops effectively the first time around. Why not make that the goal next time you preach? Even if you don’t write the whole sermon, at least write out the last couple of paragraphs and then nail it!
49. Schedule a break. Summer is coming to an end and it is probably all systems go, but why not plan now for a break? Find a couple of Sundays and book them off. Make an appointment with a B&B or with a church visit somewhere else and just go sit. If you always give out, you will not be serving your congregation well.
50. Prioritize a prayer list of preaching concerns. Just to reinforce the earlier point, maybe it is time to make an actual list of preaching prayer points. Maybe you track illustrations, maybe you have a preaching schedule. But why not have a page of specific prayer points related to your preaching – include matters of preparation, of delivery, of growth, of longed for goals, etc.
Thanks for thinking through these. Have any stood out as new? Helpful? Relevant to you?