Mark Labberton, director of the Lloyd John Ogilvie Institute of Preaching, Kate Bruce, chaplain and research fellow in preaching at Durham University, and Keith Drury who teaches ministry courses at Indiana Wesleyan, suggest the best ways to improve preaching.
Give Pastors Time Alone
Sermons stumble when preachers do not know the God they are proclaiming, the text they are preaching, or the audience they are addressing.
But here's a less obvious reason that sermons falter: when preachers don't know themselves. If John Calvin was right, that we cannot know ourselves for who we really are without knowing God, and that we cannot know God without reconsidering ourselves, then the preacher and the sermon inevitably reflect the presence or absence of this self-knowledge.
Let's consider, for example, how a preacher knows himself in relation to the basic affirmation that Jesus Christ is our Savior. Does the pastor live and preach as one who knows he needs the Savior? If the preacher loses track of the inescapable fact of his own real need to admit sin, mistakes, inadequacies, and inner and outer battles, then his preaching suffers.
The pastor needs to be gripped by the fact that he stands on the same ground as anyone and everyone to whom he preaches. If he doesn't know this to his very core, sermons can easily carry a tone of superiority, distance, and pretense, or simply fail to identify with those they are addressed to. If the fundamental honesty, not perfection, of the preacher is in question, his sermons will fail. After all, if the preacher seems dishonest about his own need, it's hard to trust him to offer us grace for ours.
Likewise, does the pastor live and preach as one who knows he has the Savior? The self-knowledge of the pastor needs to admit his need for the Savior, but also to embrace and show he knows the liberty, joy, and hope of the Savior's love.
Do pastors know themselves, in all their fallenness, to also be forgiven, chosen, and called? If they have failed to internalize this knowledge, then the sermon becomes yet another occasion for trying to make themselves worthy, to find redemption by their preaching, their personality, or their power. Then the gap between what they are experiencing of God and what they are encouraging others to experience of God can be disingenuous. Such preachers need the favor, the approval, maybe even the adulation of their people, and nothing cripples their proclamation faster than that.
Jesus Christ as Savior holds up a mirror for self-understanding. The preacher can then stand in the pulpit knowing who he is and who he isn't. By grace, we pastors are becoming more and more like Jesus, but on any given day we have much more in common with those to whom we preach.
When we know this in our hearts, and when we can appropriately express this to our congregations, we are simultaneously standing with our people and with our Savior. Then the sermon and the preacher are proclaiming the same message, and the impact is strongest.
Give Pastors Prep Time
I once heard the comment, "The average person would sooner stick pins in their eyes than listen to a sermon." A strong opinion—but I don't buy it.
Sure, no one wants to listen to endless, tedious, poorly delivered, unscriptural waffle. But I think we all long for a word from the Lord, be it a loving embrace or a kick up the backside.
CODEC, the research center connected to Durham University where I work, just completed a small survey on preaching. By "small," I mean 16 churches and 193 respondents, so universal extrapolation would be unwise. Nevertheless, 193 people have a right to be taken seriously.
A staggering 97 percent said they either "frequently" or "sometimes" look forward to the sermon. The million-dollar question is, why? My best hunch is that people once heard a word from the Lord in a sermon and deeply long to hear another one.
Congregants give different reasons for why they find the sermon important. Many (62 percent) said the sermon provides them with a sense of God's love; God is touching people at a very significant level through the preaching office. The survey showed a strong connection between sermons and people's perception of God improving, and 73 percent of respondents said they read the Bible as a result of a sermon.
Sermons are helping people relate the Bible to everyday life (49 percent said sermons do this "frequently," and 47 percent said they do this "sometimes"). The survey also reveals a positive affirmation of scriptural preaching across all the denominations we surveyed (Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, and nondenominational). The survey showed that people want to be encouraged, challenged, and motivated by the sermon.
The survey reaffirms what we have known for a long time: that there should be a strong connection between preaching and contemporary issues—events in the news. Preaching remains both a pastoral and a prophetic office. It is pastoral in the sense of providing comfort, encouragement, and nurture; it is prophetic in the sense of offering what scholar Walter Brueggemann has called "a poetic construal of an alternative world," drawn from the Scriptures and applied to our context. Good preaching challenges hearers to do our part in ushering in that alternative world. It is courageous, vigorous, and robust.
Given the importance of the sermon to parishioners, then, pastors are right to schedule and defend their sermon preparation time. People have a deep hunger for what the sermon can deliver. Pastors more than anyone else know that you can't nourish famished people with a hastily thrown-together sandwich; people are looking not for a snack but a full-course meal. Congregations need to give the pastor the space to prepare that meal each week.
To the jaded preacher, aware of her own frailty and failure, I hope this comes as a welcome encouragement and a source of renewed confidence in the God who is still using preaching to accomplish his work.
Give Pastors New Tools
New technology has provided the church with changing ways to do unchanging things. When the printing press emerged, the church was quick to incorporate printed Bibles and curricula into its teaching ministry. And few preachers resisted installing sound systems upon learning they helped congregants hear their teaching better.
The same is true of recent technologies. We are absorbing and using them, but sometimes without thought.
A hand-held video camera and inexpensive projection technology can make any pastor a movie producer and enable a return to personal testimonies in some churches. At a strategic point, the preacher turns and a first-person video testimony lends real-world confirmation to his teaching.
E-mail is providing new ways to call for decision and to follow up on sermons. In a recent sermon in my church, the pastor challenged us to "pass the baton" by mentoring the next generation of Christians. A few hours later, we received a next steps e-mail calling for mentoring volunteers and including hyperlinked e-mail addresses—an electronic altar call.
Laity may now participate in sermon development. Pastors post their topics and Bible verses on Facebook or a blog, inviting questions, ideas, discussion, and personal illustrations as they prepare for the coming Sunday.
Tape recordings of sermons once took hours to duplicate and distribute. Now, preachers post their sermons online as MP3 downloads before parishioners get home from church.
Print-on-demand publishing allows every pastor to become a publisher. A preacher with a computer and an Internet connection can publish an attractive paperback collection of his or her sermons and make it available to the world within a week.
Taking a risk, a few pastors are even inviting electronic participation while they preach. Recently, at Madison Park Church of God in Anderson, Indiana, the pastor asked the congregation to text-message questions to him using their cell phones as he was preaching. He kept his laptop open on the pulpit and was fast enough to work answers into the unfolding sermon.
With all of technology's blessings, though, it can also be a curse. Some congregations get obsessed with trendiness and forget that technology is only a delivery system—it doesn't thicken thin content. Churches that are obsessed with the razzmatazz of technology at first glance might realize that some technology is just too gimmicky and shallow for use. Lay participation in developing a sermon is a wonderful idea, but the preacher has to avoid heated arguments. And no sermon's message should be decided like a vote on American Idol.
There are also some rites of our faith that cannot be reduced to zeros and ones—I, at least, will never be satisfied with an electronic Eucharist or baptism by webcast. Technology is a useful aid in communicating the message, but the medium should never become the message.
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Mark Labberton is director of the Lloyd John Ogilvie Institute of Preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary. Kate Bruce serves as a chaplain and research fellow in preaching at Durham University, United Kingdom. Keith Drury, who teaches ministry courses at Indiana Wesleyan University, is a former pastor and has written on pastoral ministry.
Previous Christianity Today articles on preaching include:
Preach. The. Word. | Still, says Charles Swindoll, the best sermons are wrapped in stories. (April 7, 2010)
The Blind Spot of the Spiritual Formation Movement | Let's not forget the spiritual discipline of choice for the masses. (September 24, 2008)
Reflections: Preaching | Quotations to stir the heart and mind (July 8, 2002)
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