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Learning to Prepare to Preach

By Matt Allen

 

Matt Allen is Blackburn Centre Lead Tutor, at Emmanuel Theological College and Reviews Editor for The Preacher.

Pointless Information

 

I like to think that I am a broad-minded, generous kind of soul. It is true that I’m usually affable, peaceable and clubbable. That is until I find myself behind the wheel of my car. Something happens to me when I am driving. As a driver, too often I am short-tempered and short-fused. I’m irascible, irrational, and irritable. Because I work for a theological college spread across multiple centres in the north west of England, I spend a lot of time in my car. So, I am working on noticing what seems to irk me and reflect on what I see to gain a healthier perspective. One of those things is this: speed limit stickers. You will have seen these. For instance, you might be driving along and in front is a van. On the back of the van might be a sticker that says something like ‘this vehicle is limited to 56 mph’. There is nothing wrong with this, of course. Nor when the limit is something else like 50, 60 or 65 miles per hour. But sometimes the sticker says: ‘this vehicle is limited to 70 mph’. Now correct me if I’m wrong but aren’t we all limited to 70 mph? Isn’t that the law, the legal national speed limit. When I see these 70mph stickers it annoys me. They distract from the legitimate ones. They miss the point of having a sticker, putting on display information that adds nothing.

 

I am grateful for all the preachers and homileticians who have built on the work of Randolph, Craddock et al., contributing in the past few decades to a renewed understanding of preaching as an event. As I think about my own journey in learning to preach, I can recognise this as a threshold concept - something that transformed how I saw and approached preaching. However, I have not always given thought to how that might inform my sermon preparation. I still write too many things that add nothing. I waffle and, like the unnecessary 70mph sticker, this may distract from what is more meaningful. Approaching the sermon as an event helps to address this. One of the things it does is invite attention to the person of the preacher and what they can say meaningfully.

 

Faithful Preaching

 

Donna Giver-Johnston writes:

The sermon is not what is printed on the page; it is the performance during which the faithful preacher approaches the pulpit with humility and releases one’s words, trusting that God’s word will be heard through what is said and done, sometimes even in spite of what is said and done.[1]

 

What Giver-Johnstone highlights here includes the posture of the preacher. A humble posture seems to be more likely to be achieved by a preacher who is in tune with the different subjective forms of knowing which they have called upon in their preparation. This preacher is able to recognise that sermon preparation is ultimately a matter of faith – the faith that makes the preacher credible as a preacher. As someone heavily influenced by testimonial homiletics, I think this is the inescapable heart of preaching. I have nothing to say or display without faith. Attentiveness to faith conviction draws together both a focus on the event of the sermon and preparedness for faithful preaching. If what I say is not in tune with my personal faith it is in danger of adding nothing. My understanding in this area relies on my reading 2 Corinthians, particularly the importance of speaking with sincerity (2 Corinthians 2.17).

 

In The Present Preacher I highlight the importance of being present in our preaching – being preachers who show up and make themselves known. This means being preachers whose sermon preparation and sermon performance are marked by their presence. I argue the following:

We need the preacher to be present. When we put ourselves out there as a visible flesh and blood preacher, owning what we say, we offer our sermons as personal speech in the now, for the now, demonstrating faith that God will be speaking now.[2]

In light of this, I regularly ask myself some questions in sermon preparation that invite me to engage authentically with my own faith. They include these two questions: ‘How can I preach this?’ and ‘Can I own these words?’

 

‘How can I preach this?’

 

In preaching classes, I enjoy asking those there to notice what in a Bible reading makes the hairs on the back of their neck stand up. These things are often truths or convictions foundational to faith, questions raised, puzzles pose by the text, or things that seem timely or apposite for a particular group of people. This is an invitation to engage reflexively and grow in understanding of why we see what we see and focus on what we focus on in preaching. As useful as this exercise can be, when preaching in local churches the reality is that sometimes we don’t get to come to one biblical text with a blank slate. There might be other lectionary readings, there might be something in the liturgical calendar, or we might be in the middle of a preaching series focused on certain themes.

 

Recently, a friend told me about a sermon she was preparing. The theme was to be about God’s justice. She had also committed to highlighting to the church the work of a particular organisation in that talk. At the same time the congregation was working through Tom Wright’s Broken Signposts and expected that to be referred to. This was to be her farewell sermon as she moved on to a new ministry context. Finally, the text set for the day was John 5:22-27. Her experience was not untypical of many preachers. My friend and I discussed the challenge and concluded that the key question that unlocked the sermon at every stage of preparation was to keep asking herself personally why she wanted to preach what she wanted to preach. By keeping present to the task, she was able to approach the task with the emphasis on personal faith. That is ‘How can I preach this?’

 

‘Can I own these words?’

 

The second question flows from the first. Having recognised the ideas and themes that we can preach personally, our passion for the form of the words we choose ought to match the passion behind the choice of content. Part of my love for the English language is shaped by my training as a copywriter and my love of excellent dialogue in TV shows and films. One of my favourite screenwriters is Aaron Sorkin, probably best known as the creator of the best TV show of all time – The West Wing. Sorkin’s rhetorical skill is evident here as President Josiah Bartlet makes an important point about the spoken word:

Words when spoken out loud for the sake of performance are music. They have rhythm and pitch and timbre and volume. These are the properties of music and music has the ability to find us and move us and lift us up in ways that literal meaning can’t. (The West Wing, Season Three)[3]

This speech contains rhetorical devices. I like the example of polysyndeton in ‘rhythm and pitch and timbre and volume’; which builds to repetition and epistrophe, contrasting beautifully with the almost jarring contraction ‘can’t’ at the end. Whilst it is beyond the scope of this short article to explore this further, I have found it helpful to recognise which rhetorical devices I like to use and have reflected on why.

 

It is thanks to the New Homiletic that some preachers in the Global North have been challenged anew to use words to their full potential so that the sermon might be about more than what is said. I have come to learn that when we prepare sermons with words that we enjoy speaking, words which have a rhythm that matches the heartbeat of our faith, then we can own our words, offering them in the service and praise of God. When I ask, ‘How can I preach this?’ and ‘Can I own these words?’, my sermon preparation changes. I am steered away from displaying information, useful or otherwise, and directed towards using my words to faithfully witness to Jesus as the Word of God.

 


[1] Giver-Johnstone, D. (2021). Writing for the Ear, Preaching from the Heart. Fortress Press, Loc. 1987.

[2] Allen in Shercliff, L. and Allen, M. (2021). The Present Preacher: Discerning God in the Now. Canterbury Press, p. 23.

[3] Available here: https://www.quotes.net/show-quote/90855

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