Friday, August 14, 2015

the challenge of writing weekly sermons (part 1)

Over the last thirty years, I’ve spoken in some capacity—whether teaching or worship leading—in well over four-thousand church services because of multiple services on the weekends. Seriously. It actually sounds a bit unbelievable (uh, crazy?) when I think about it.

Prior to that, for ten years I traveled coast to coast in bands of various configurations as a vocalist, guitarist and drummer, communicating in widely (and wildly) different settings, from small coffeehouses to festivals, in front of a handful to thousands. That’s not to mention workshops, seminars and conferences, both nationally and internationally.

To say that I’ve spent the bulk of my life trying to learn to communicate in different mediums the ridiculously good news of Jesus and the Kingdom is an understatement. Please note: “trying to learn.” You’d think I’d have this down, but I get nervous every time I speak and I’m still addicted to notes. And still learning, even now in my sixties. I feel like a neophyte at this communication-thing…despite Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” theory of mastery.

But there are a few things I think make communicators better, especially those entrusted with preaching/teaching. Before I share a few techniques, paramount is a preparatory attitude: I’ve never taken lightly the honor of communicating before an audience the realities of the Kingdom and hopefully the heart of God. For what it’s worth, I have little respect for speakers who simply wing it without prior prayer, perspiration and thoughtfulness. And believe me, most people can spot them.

For pastors, I think it’s best to have an overview of an entire year of speaking. Most of the time at the Vineyard, we spoke topically, though at times we would tackle a book of the Bible. Regardless, looking out over twelve months is incredibly helpful. The way we (our leadership team) would determine the teaching calendar was preceded by uncovering what we called our yearly “strategic initiatives”—what we would want our entire staff and key volunteer leaders to be focused on for the next year, typically three-to-five initiatives.

Once those were determined, the team would sketch out a rough teaching calendar for the next year—series and themes would be mapped on a calendar. We would keep five things in focus in this process:
  • Our mission and vision (it would be posted on a wall)
  • Our core values (posted as well)
  • Our proposed new strategic initiatives
  • A gap analysis (where is there a problem of praxis at Vineyard Cincinnati? What are the felt needs? What needs to be corrected by teaching?)
  • And, of course, what God wants to specifically say to our church (hopefully determined by a guided prayer time with the team)

We would also balance and adjust our teaching calendar through this filter: “Army” talks (series that are mission-centered, “take-the-hill” focused), “School” talks (series that are doctrinal, creedal, or pure Biblical-literacy talks) and “Hospital” talks (growth-and-healing, soul care, self-awareness talks). Why? Because too much of one style can either (respectively) wear a church out, puff it up, or become too inward-focused. And most pastors will subconsciously default to one of these in their teaching style.

One ridiculously simple reason for planning twelve months in advance is simply this: other key ministries can plan events and seminars that match the topic. For instance, if we were doing a “Hospital” series—perhaps messages on developing authentic relationships—our Growth & Healing Ministry might plan small groups or classes at that time on that topic to tackle our relational dysfunctions. Anytime you can “preach” the announcements, your “extracurricular” events have more power, better response and provide a clear actionable point.

For years I had a team of people who would brainstorm creative ideas, references and texts for messages. It was always helpful to call up those notes when I was prepping for a message. But before crafting a message, I’d remind myself of a few questions:

1. What’s the form? If it’s topic-driven, I begin by thinking of as many scriptures as possible that relate to the subject…via memory, word searches and conversations with others. If its text-driven, I want the passage to preach itself, to really breathe. What did the author intend, what was the context, who was it written for, what’s our application? I’m primarily looking for a few things: what does it want me to do, or how does it expand my understanding and heart for God?

2. What is the one main action-oriented “take-away” I want the listener to get? I’m convinced that listeners can’t really assimilate multiple points into any actionable follow-up. So what is the One Thing I want them to leave with?—or in other words: what is God saying to you in this message and what are you going to do about it? We have to move beyond mere information, because most of us really only learn by ultimately doing it.

3. Who is my audience? I have to consider the wide spectrum of people listening to me, such as:
  • Demographics. How will the single mom, factory worker, executive, or college student hear this message? Those are actually the four people I imagine myself speaking to.
  • Political spectrum. Don’t ever assume a monolithic political view in your audience. Or as Andy Stanley says, “I’d rather make a difference than a point.”
  • Age. Consider the average age of your audience; what references will they understand and what’s their generational bias in terms of style.
  • Cultures. I once watched Tony Evans masterfully speak to a group of white people with their notepads and pens poised. He spoke in a style radically different than his own church, accurately reading the audience and how they would best hear him.
And even if your church isn’t very diverse, you’re probably podcasting or posting audio of your messages on your website. Please, please, please consider your potentially wider audience...and don’t embarrass the Body of Christ with an offhanded insensitive remark.

4. Last, during the writing of the message, I have to consciously slow down my brain and ask out loud, “Father, what do you really want to say this weekend?” It sounds simple, but that would calm my furious typing and spare me from many a rabbit trail.

In the next post, I’ll get into the actual mechanics of how I craft a message. But for now, slip off your shoes, look down and remember this:

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, "Your God reigns!" Isaiah 52:7 (New International Version)

You’ve either got a great podiatrist or a calling from God, my friend.

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