Five Things I Wish I’d Learned About Preaching Twenty Years Ago

I love preaching/teaching/sermonizing (or whatever the kids are calling it these days). I gave my first sermon as a seventeen-year-old, way back in 1998. That’s almost twenty years ago, and I can’t get my brain around that information as I type it. In the last twenty years I’ve experienced a lot of transformation as a communicator, and it’s mostly been for the better (I hope). The past few months have ushered in a season for me that has been more fun and energizing than any I’ve ever known before. So, in these past few weeks, I’ve been processing this renewed sense of fulfillment and enthusiasm, and trying to mine from it what I’ve learned over the last two decades that has led me to this point (Apologies to the men and women who were two decades in when I was in diapers. I still have much to learn from you, and your input and experiences are welcome and needed!).

Without further ado, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way. 

First, I’ve learned that less can actually be more. My first sermon lasted around eleven minutes. I’m sure it felt like eleven minutes going on eternity for my community at the time, but they were gracious, kind, and encouraging. So much so, that I’ve given my life to this work. These days an average sermon clocks in between 30-40 minutes. I used to preach sermons that length, in which I did all the talking and tried to share every single interesting fact that I could about whatever the text or topic was. I thought I needed to give my community everything I knew about the subject at hand, and being in my 20s and often hearing “You don’t seem old enough to be a preacher,” I was probably trying to subconsciously prove the validity of what I was saying. These days, however, I’ve learned that from me, less is more. I still preach the same length, but now that time is also filled with conversation and discussion (more on that soon), not just a monologue or lecture from me. I do believe there are times and places where a lecture-style, intensive teaching is not only appropriate, but also necessary. Yet, on a Sunday morning, I’ve discovered that my job is to help us think about the text or topic in a way that is accessible and portable, meaning it shapes our lives and leads us into actual practice. To put it another way, I’ve learned to value creating conversations that lead to transformation more than simply trying to download information into people. 

Second, I’ve learned that I’m not the only person in the room with something insightful to say. I know, it’s silly this lesson took twenty years to teach, but I can be hardheaded. I learned this through engaging people in my community in smaller venues, first. We have a Wednesday night discussion group that meets each week during the school year, for one hour. This group varies week to week in attendance, and has no set agenda or topic. The people who come can raise any issue or topic they wish, and we all share our perspectives and insights. Some weeks we discuss particular biblical texts, while other weeks find us talking about health care or prison reform, all through the lens of our faith. I am continually impressed with the insights we share week to week. So, during this past Lenten season, when I was planning on preaching a series called Signs & Wonders, focused on the signs of Jesus in the Gospel of John, I wondered what would happen if I took time at the beginning and the end of my talk (and sometimes in the middle) to hear how the text or teaching landed. I opened up the opportunity to share to everyone in the room, and it has been amazing. To give just one example of how much I’ve learned from my community through this process, I have to tell you about Cheryl’s insight into Jesus’ sign that involved the Feeding of the 5,000. She pointed out the twelve baskets full of food leftover, and to the fact that, in that day, Jewish travelers (like Jesus’ disciples) would have carried a basket of food with them on their journey, to ensure the availability of kosher food. I knew this, yet never made the connection she did, which was that the young boy shared what was in his basket, BUT, Jesus’ disciples ALSO had baskets of food. Those are the very baskets that were used to collect the leftovers! This detail illuminated a whole other layer to this story for me, one that I would not have experienced if I were giving a monologue. The point: Don’t be afraid to crowdsource your sermons! This does not have to happen overnight, mind you. I’ve been at MCC for twelve years now, so I have a comfort level with my community that has opened up this possibility. Start somewhere. It’s important to hear (and learn from) our community participants. It’s not a one-way street!

Third, I’ve learned to find my own voice. When I was first learning to art of preaching, I wanted to preach just like my pastor. Then I wanted to be as good a communicator as the Andy Stanley’s and Louie Giglio’s. Then I heard Rob Bell, and I knew I wanted to be just like him. And here’s the thing, I learned so many important things about communication and connecting with people from each of those people, but I was a terrible copy of them. I couldn’t be them as good as they could. Part of my journey these past two decades has been finding my own voice, allowing my personality and experiences (and idiosyncracies) to come through. It’s taken me a long time, but I am finally comfortable in my own skin as a communicator and that has allowed me to connect better with my community. We can and should learn from others, and even allow some of those lessons to shape our approach. However, our best work (in terms of actually connecting and communicating) will come when we adapt those skills into our own voices and contexts.

Fourth, I’ve learned not to tie up all the loose ends. At one point my approach to a teaching was the same as a thirty minute TV show. Create some tension, then resolve it at the end. I’d try to put a nice, big bow on the end of the sermon, leave no question hanging. But that’s not how Jesus sermonized, is it? Remember the story of the Prodigal, in Luke 15? Jesus tells the story of two brothers, and a compassionate father who wants all his kids to be at his party. At the end, however, everything isn’t resolved in a nice, neat “they all lived happily ever after.” Instead, Jesus concludes the story with this scene of the father talking to his older son, who had stayed home: 

“Then his father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’”

He’s inviting this older son into the party and trying to explain why he’s thrown such a lavish celebration for his younger son, Yet, if you’ll notice, Jesus doesn’t ease the tension by saying, “And the older son realized he was being a jerk and went in to celebrate his younger brother’s return.” 

Jesus doesn’t do that. He leaves the tension, and puts the task of resolving that tension onto his listeners, who happen to be some religious leaders who question Jesus’ celebratory meals with tax collectors and “sinners.” He’s asking them, “What are you going to do? Will you join the celebration? Will you miss out on the Kingdom party by being obstinate and jealous of the reality that God loves all of God’s kids?”

There have been people who’ve decided to leave our community, frustrated that we don’t give more answers or tell them what to think. I see our task as helping people learn how to think about these things. To use another example, we aren’t telling them what to see as much as we are helping them find the lens that helps them see best. This is why I love to end a teaching with a question or two. We engage these questions on the spot, but I also hope these questions are shaping our continued conversation and reflection during the week. The sermon time is the first word in a conversation, not the last word. 

Fifth, I’ve learned to value engagement over perfection. One of the first sermons I gave at MCC was from a text in the Psalms that talks about how we are animated by the Breath or Spirit of God, and without that Breath, we die. I decided to use an illustration to drive home the point. The plan was to blow up a balloon, talk about the idea that we are animated by God’s breath, and then release the balloon. Like I said, that WAS the plan. When I started blowing it up, however, the balloon started hissing. I realized too late that there was a pin-sized hole which caused the balloon to burst like something out of a Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner episode. 

I. was. mortified. 

I didn’t bring a spare. I had no idea how to get back on track, because I was so embarrassed. I wanted the sermon to be seamless and flawless. And there’s something to be said for giving it one’s best, which I do every time I preach. But I’ve learned that the flubs and misspeak can sometimes be the moments that begin to engage people. They humanize you…because you’re really human! This idea that the preacher is somehow above or more connected to God than the people in the seats is just rubbish. We all live, move, and exist in God. The problem isn’t one of access, but awareness. To be frank, there are many times people in my community are more aware of God, and our conversations help me become more open to God myself. 

The point, after all, isn’t looking like we have it all together or all figured out. The point is transformation. Mine. Yours. Theirs. Ours. The ultimate goal is that we all are more aware of God, more open to God, and as a result, more open to loving and serving all of God’s kids around us. 

I realize that twenty years to some people is just a drop in the bucket. I hope to be in this long enough to look back on forty or fifty years, or more, and celebrate the lessons I’ve learned. I’m also really interested to hear from all of you who do this work. Do these thoughts resonate? What would you add from your own experiences? Please share in the comments section. 

Grace and peace, friends!




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