Wednesday, August 19, 2015

the challenge of writing weekly sermons (part 2)

In the last post (please read that first!), I talked about the connection between our yearly strategic initiatives and our teaching calendar along with the filters through which we developed our series. But when it came time for me to actually assemble a message for the weekend (after meeting with a team of folks some 3-4 weeks earlier and gathering ideas (references, texts, creative ideas), I now have the tough work to do: write the message.

I’ve discovered there are as many different preparation styles as there are pastors. I think it was after Rob Bell gave his famous scapegoat message—with a live goat by his side—at a preaching seminar years ago that John Ortberg followed with a funny, pithy comment along the lines of: “Pastors, don’t try that unless you’re Rob Bell.” Pastors/teachers are wonderfully unique both in speaking and preparation.

My personal style was simply to get in my car on Friday morning, go for a long drive away from the office, listen to a podcast that typically had nothing to do with my topic, grab a lunch while reading, then begin to write furiously after looking at the notes from the teaching team meeting, oftentimes in a park. Drive home about 5:30pm or so.

The next morning I would go to my office, lock the door and write for the next seven hours, often creating my own Powerpoint/ProPresenter visuals myself (as an artist, graphics help me think), reading my talk out loud as I go, send the word-for-word transcript (with slides highlighted) and graphics to the tech team, walk down to the auditorium and speak at the Saturday celebration at 5:30. After meeting with new people after the service at our “Ten-Minute Meetup” (and sometimes having dinner with someone new), I’d drive home and typically edit my message for another hour or two. It may not have drastically needed it, but it made me feel better and more confident. Then Sunday morning I’d speak at the three celebrations: 9, 10:30am and noon. For a number of years, I’d also connect with someone that I trusted with a very different personality than me who would critique my message.

When I once mentioned my process with my friend Rich Nathan (pastor of the Columbus Vineyard), he looked at me and said, “Wow. We could not be more different…”! Everyone does it differently, but it always helped me to hear how folks constructed their messages.

So here are the details…and a few tips:
  • 12-14 hours uninterrupted think/writing time; 7 pages of 12pt / 1.5 line spacing allows for a 30-35 minute message.
  • 8-10 of those hours were writing on my Macbook, researching the internet, perusing my Kindle library, using my Wordsearch bibles/commentaries, wordsmithing, etc.
  • Another 1-2 hours editing Saturday night
  • I transcript the entire talk word-for-word and have learned to write like I talk.
  • I read it aloud as I write it, and usually once before I give it.
  • I format the talk to a Word template that I created for my iPad, save it as a pdf in Dropbox, download it to my iPad and open it up in iBooks where it lives in perpetuity.
  • I often try to work on the finish first; this is what people tend to remember…and especially when it leads into a time of prayer or ministry. Many of us spend too much time on the opening setup and miss the critical close.
  • Be aware of the need for a “commercial break” every 5-7 minutes (personal story, humor element, a chance to exhale, etc…).
  • Typically, new preachers use too many scripture texts. It’s overload for the listener and dangerously close to cherry-picking.
  • If you’re a good storyteller, exploit it. But make sure there’s a very clear connecting point. Jesus was the master.
  • Find a critic…but not your spouse…unless you’re really, really secure. (Wounds from a friend can be trusted… Proverbs 27:6)
  • Be authentically transparent; people will apply the message if they trust the messenger.
  • Study other good speakers. Watch for context and continuity.

I started transcripting word-for-word in the nineties when we were doing seven services each weekend and I would space out and couldn’t remember if I made a particular point. Plus, I’m pathetic at memorization, so I felt more comfortable with every word transcripted. Additionally, I work very hard on specific phrases I want to use; wordsmithing is critically important to me—words are powerful and I never want to take them for granted.

Other teachers on my team had radically different approaches. Some only used an outline, others sketched it out with simple doodles on one page, some mind-mapped it, others had near photographic memories after reading it once, and on and on.

The great evangelist Jonathan Edwards dispassionately read his sermons word-for-word, close to his face since he was so nearsighted. When you read his most famous message, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, it’s worth remembering that he would read with conviction but like an academic. Or as one observer noted, “He scarcely gestured or even moved, and he made no attempt by the elegance of his style or the beauty of his pictures to gratify the taste and fascinate the imagination.”

George Whitefield was quite the opposite. This remarkable preacher presented his sermons extemporaneously with no notes. It’s estimated he preached easily 18,000 times to millions of people (but I’m sure there were a lot of repeats…). Benjamin Franklin once described the sheer power of Whitefield’s voice: “He had a loud and clear Voice, and articulated his Words and Sentences so perfectly that he might be heard and understood at a great Distance . . . I computed that he might well be heard by more than Thirty Thousand.”

Sheesh. And pre-subwoofers.

In our day, Andy Stanley is a no-notes guy. Bill Hybels carefully scripts each word and reads it. Different strokes.

There are obvious pros and cons to transcripting:
  • Pro: you have a good record of your talks
  • Pro: you can create pivotal phrases
  • Pro: you see how much redundancy, repetition and cliché you use. Unless you watch videos of yourself speaking (which every communicator should regularly do), you have no idea how you come off. Remember the first time you heard your voice and were shocked at what you sounded like? Yeah. You should see you.
  • Con: you can sound scripted
  • Con: you can lose spontaneity
  • Con: you can miss critical eye-contact with audience
Last, a few important overall things to remember:
  • Know your Bible. People are depending on your wide understanding of scripture. Because of the different genres within those sixty-sixty books, it’s easy to get tangential on a single verse. James 3:1 ought to make us circumspect.
  • Know what you don’t know. Don’t try to impress. I’ve been bitten trying to interpret a Greek or Hebrew word based solely on a single commentary or Strong’s. Let’s not try to pretend to be language scholars if we’re not. You might think it sounds impressive, but it’s not.
  • Let’s not try to be theologians if we’re not one. Of course we have to have a solid theology (2 Timothy 2:15) and know what we believe, but we are shepherds first…and shepherds are sheep-centered and always looking for the one that’s wandered off. Yes, I know by default every believer is a theologian, but you’re a pastor first, a theologian second. At its heart, the gospel is deep, but not complicated.
  • Know your message. Read several translations and paraphrases to get a larger meaning of the text.
  • Know thyself. You can really only take people as far as you’ve been experientially. Don’t fake it. Integrity, integrity, integrity. I’ve noticed this about myself: When I’m spiritually and emotionally healthy, my tone is full of grace and truth; when I’m unhealthy, I tend to get preachy and harsh.
There you go. That’s my approach for better-or-for-worse (I feel naked now), but regardless of yours, it’s our responsibility to sharpen our calling and get better at what we do. Find your rhythm and master it.

And at the risk of sounding over-dramatic, lives are depending on it.