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.

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.