Prior to March of this year I preached an average of four times a year in my last seven years of full-time ministry. As a Worship Pastor these past 10 years, it was always a gift to get to lay my guitar down for a Sunday and lean in to my gifts as a communicator using a different method, and soon I began to itch for a season when I could do it more frequently.
Then in March, my wife and I (and a handful of beautiful people) started a new church in San Diego called Sojourn Grace Collective and my primary responsibility was to be the Teaching Pastor. Thrilled at my new position, these past seven months have been quite the journey of learning how to write and prepare a sermon every. single. week. (Of course, it’s not REALLY every week, it’s about 3 times a month.. but still, you get my drift). Here I am, a guy who had given maybe 30 sermons EVER, getting ready to be a full time Teaching Pastor. It feels a bit like, “hey, you coached Little League right? Here, manage the Giants in the World Series.”
Okay… a bit dramatic… moving on…
It has, and continues to be, a real learning curve. For those of you that do this, or have done this before, then perhaps you can remember when you first started out, and the challenge (and thrill!) of churning something out week in and week out.
I love it.
Like, really love it.
And it’s hard.
Like, really hard.
I’d like to think I’m starting to find a groove. And perhaps I am. But this past week I sat down with a book I hadn’t picked up in a while called Deep Church by Jim Belcher. It’s five years old, and some of the references are dated already, but in short it’s a book where Jim tries to imagine a Third Way of doing church that goes beyond the Traditional model and the Emerging model. My hope was to read his chapter on Preaching and take some intentional time to work on developing the craft of sermon writing and delivering. I was hoping for some new insight and some fresh takes on preaching, but what I found was actually refreshingly surprising.
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I remember taking a Homiletics class in College. Homiletics is the “art of preaching.” And I remember having a blast because not only did I learn some wonderful techniques from the esteemed Dr Trull, but I also got to deliver one of my first ever sermons to my peers. It was from Habakkuk 2:4 (“the just shall live by faith”) and I recall taking a rather unconventional approach to the sermon. Sort of half-acted out, half-exegeted. My classmates ended up loving it (more so than my professor, ha!) and voted me “Preacher of the Year” when the semester ended. It was one of my favorite moments in college.
Even though, after graduating, I went in to the field of Worship & Arts, I never lost my love for preaching. Always believing that a time would come when I would get to preach and teach in a church full time.
Finally, that time has come.
And while I still have some of the residue of my homiletics class hanging around (such as the concept of the “Big Idea”), I more or less have developed a preaching style in the same way my wife cooks: intuitively, experimentally, and through trial and error.
My wife doesn’t use recipes to cook. She finds an assortment of ingredients, has a general idea of what she wants the end product to be, and then feels her way towards that goal. Likely leaning on some things she observed from watching her mom and grandma cook, maybe remembering a Rachel Ray episode here or there, and possibly holding in mind a recent picture she saw on Pinterest as to what it “could” look like.
I kind of feel like my approach to preaching has a similar methodology.
Since graduating college I haven’t read one book on preaching. But I have listened to countless sermons and absorbed what resonated with me, what I loved, and what I wanted to emulate. My three largest influences would be:
- Rob Bell (the master of words, the poet of theology, and the make-the-biblical-world-relevant guy),
- Jonathan Martin (the from-the-heart, follow the spirit guy), and
- Greg Boyd (the deep thinking, theology-can-be-fun guy).
- Oh, and I’ll add one more, Shane Hipps (the Turn guy… that’ll make sense in a minute).
(Ironically, three of those four guys are no longer preaching regularly. So I’m currently in the market for some good preachers. Preferably some women. Let me know who your favs are!)
Then, with these guys as my guide, I’ve sort of felt my way through the best way to try and communicate each week the “Thing” that I really want people to leave with. Creativity has always been one of my strong suits, and so when I have the creative energy I love to think outside the box and outside the “lecture.” Be it with props, or movie clips, or guided discussion. But all that is normal preaching stuff, right?
So let me get back to my experience reading Belcher’s “Deep Church.”
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Jim was looking for a preaching approach that moved beyond Traditional Preaching, aka “bounded-set preaching” (evidenced by things like: three points and poem; you suck, try harder; and lecture style answer-giving), and that moved beyond what he identified as Emerging Preaching, aka “relational-set preaching” (based off of Doug Pagitt’s work and evidenced by things like: dialogical presentations, elevating the community over tradition and the Bible, and not giving people answers or creating any sort of boundaries). Where Jim landed, after dissecting the pros and cons of the two previous approaches, was on what he called “center-set preaching.”
Here are few hallmarks of centered-set preaching.
The Indicative and the Imperative – One of the downfalls of bounded-set preaching is that it can create an up and down roller coaster of commitment, failure, depression, followed by re-commitment, more failure, more depression… rinse and repeat. The “you suck, try harder” mentality. In centered-set preaching (using Jim’s terminology) you always begin with justification and then move toward sanctification. In other words, “the indicative indicates who we are in Christ through his saving grace. The imperative of the gospel impels or empowers us to obey God’s commands as an act of gratitude for the new life that we have” (pg 154). Without this proper movement we can leave people thinking that either they’ve got it figured out (yay! you’re righteous! you didn’t sin this week!), or they’re miserable cretins (no! you fool! you’ve sinned and separated yourself from God!)
The Homiletical Drama – Traditional preaching style tends to be deductive. In that, it makes three points and then sets out prove those points using logical arguments, illustrations, and application. But Jim points out how this takes the drama out of the sermon. It’s like revealing the climax before seeing a movie. “Once you know the conclusion, all the tension, the myriad twists and turns, and the surprising reversal of fortune are missed” (pg 155). Instead, what if we saw our sermons as a dramatic unfolding like many of the narratives we find in the Scriptures?
The Aha Moment – When you’ve established the problem, and are working towards the solution (using the narrative/dramatic form) then you are able to bring the congregation along with you until you’re ready for the “aha moment.” This is the point where everything is leading up to, and where you pivot on the ridiculous love and grace and mercy of Jesus.
Jim sums up Centered-set preaching as thus:
“Like relational-set preaching it is inductive–setting up the problem, asking the questions, analyzing the situation and then moving to the solution together. But then it lays out the solution’s ramifications in a deductive manner, similar to bounded-set preaching. The big difference is that unlike bounded and relational set preaching, centered-set preaching always includes a linchpin, the aha moment, the life-changing, transforming power of God’s surprising grace through Jesus – his kingdom, his gospel, his salvation and the new life he brings.” (pg 156)
Finally, in what might be my favorite point, Belcher says that centered-set preaching focuses on the gospel and not on boundaries. In other words, the preaching begins from the radical place of Good News (Jesus, gospel, acceptance by God… that’s the Center) and then works out from there. It doesn’t exhaust itself with creating boundaries and emphasizing the “minor” elements (or the non-essentials) of Christianity, creating an us/them dynamic. Nor does it wander around in a void of questions and non-answers, never finding a grounding in what is true, good, and noble.
When I read this yesterday I was struck with this thought: hmmm… that pretty much describes my approach to preaching.
So instead of finding new inspiration or fresh challenges for honing my craft, I found language to articulate what I have sort of pieced together over the years (and, more specifically, over the past several months). For instance, here are Four Values that I hold in my preaching:
- When I preach, my starting point is our identity in Jesus. I want to make sure people know to begin with the wonderful and beautiful reality that they are a child of the King. (side note: I recognize that not all my readers share my theology here, and nor, for that matter, would Jim Belcher. But I think the principle still remains). I begin with the Good News that YOU are in the favor of God. So then, in response to that, we can live out the freedom of the Kingdom and be people of grace and forgiveness and peace and love. But ultimately, how you live isn’t going to impact your identity in Jesus. Grace… it’s weird like that.
- When I preach, I consider the elements of a Story. The setting, the conflict, the climax, and the denouement. Then I order my flow accordingly. In other words, I’m always building towards SOMETHING. I might drop a few observations here and there, grab some low hanging fruit on the way. But I am inviting the congregation to go along with me on a dramatic narrative, attempting to create tension along the way. If I tell them everything I going to tell them up front, they’re more likely to check out half way through. But if they are hanging in there with me, waiting for some sort of resolution, then they’re more likely to track with me and hopefully find it more interesting and engaging along the way. A lot of times I will actually draw out, on paper, a narrative arc. And I’ll put in the elements of a story, and build my sermon accordingly. Here’s a picture of what my sermon last week looked like (it’s a pretty good example of my general preaching style, if you’re interested here’s the link).
- When I preach, I look for the Turn. This is where Shane Hipps has influenced me in a big way. Once I’ve reached the climax of the story, what is the pivot moment? Sometimes it is saying, “you’ve heard it said like this… but what if instead it goes like THIS!” (That sounds familiar… who spoke like that?). The Turn is that moment when people get rewarded for hanging in there with me for the previous 30-40 minutes. It could be reimagining an old theological assumption, it could be a fresh interpretation of a familiar passage, it could be a new word about an old idea. It could be the one big Thing I’ve been building a case for the whole time.
- Finally, when I preach, I keep it open-handed. Meaning, I’m okay if you disagree with me, and I’m sure as heck not going to make you feel like you’re somehow less than me if you DO think differently. While I might stand firm on some convictions, I humbly acknowledge that these are MY convictions, and your story might have taken you some place else. One of my favorite pieces of feedback recently went something like this, “your sermon was SO Jesus-y… but I still loved it and it spoke to me!” This person doesn’t share the same Christology as me, and yet I believe that my open-handed approach to preaching allowed her to still hear and receive a fresh word of Grace from God even though she wasn’t tracking with me on all the Jesus-stuff.
I’m only seven months in to this Preacher gig. That’s why I sub-titled this post “The Early Years.” Because I’m sure my preaching style and methods will evolve and transform over the years to come. But I believe these four values that I’ve intuitively created, and have picked up through inspiration from others, will establish a solid footing for me as I grow in my craft. And trust me, I have a lot of room to grow.
I’ll close here with a special word of THANKS to my family at Sojourn Grace Collective for being such a kind, attentive, affirming, and encouraging group of people week in and week out. Thank you for letting me preach every Sunday, and for coming back the next week. Thank you for being patient with me as a I grow. Thank you to the Ministry Team and the Elder Board for understanding that so much of my time each week is consumed with sermon prep… I’m sure I’ll get quicker at as time goes on! You all are lovely people. Lovely.