Inside the preacher’s head (1): “That’ll Preach”


lightbulbThere’s a curious, clarifying moment that happens.  It’s impossible to engineer, but without it preaching feels lifeless, by rote.

And it’s not something that happens in the moment, during the preaching itself.  It happens days earlier, in the study.
I find it goes like this: I’ve dug deep into the text, and done all my language work. I’ve ransacked the commentaries and made pages of notes, but I know this is early days.  I’ve learnt the hard way that lots of ‘stuff’ does not make a helpful sermon.
I’ve done my good Haddon Robinson work, and found The Big Idea: the one sentence that captures the essence of the passage I’m dealing with.  But increasingly I know that that one sentence often does not come out well in public.  It uses necessary theological shorthand, but it’s often clunky, or too literary.
I’ve begun to map some possible structures, and some lines of application. Everything is tentative, and it’s still in rough.  For me, this is an exploratory phase – I use an A3 pad, pencils, post-it notes to move ideas round.
And then it comes – that ‘Aha!’ moment, when every things swims into focus.  I know that for some people it comes when they’re walking the dog or out on a run; for me, it’s a study moment.  But once the fog lifts and I see things clearly (or, at least, as clearly as I’m capable) I know that my work for that day is done. I won’t be able to take that idea any further that morning.
There’s a lot of pop-psychology and pop-science around at the moment, and it shows that there’s good anecdotal evidence for this kind of experience being quite normal in a creative endeavour.
But we need a deeper, better explanation of it, and I think we find it in Paul. Writing to Timothy,  he says, ‘Think over what I say,’ (that is, this issues Paul was writing about) ‘for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.’ (2 Tim. 2:7 ESV). That’s a necessary double focus.
We need to think, study, read and write ourselves clear.  There is no substitute for mental sweat.
But the moment of clarity, the realisation ‘That’ll preach’, is when God presses on our hearts the necessary implications for the people in our charge. And first of all, for us as preachers. Because without that, there’s no sermon.
So as we face a new week of sweat and prep, and good ministry busyness, let’s agree together that we know this is a process that can’t be rushed.  God is kind and he knows which of our weeks will be ludicrously short of space – but he has also instructed us to think hard, as the necessary foundation for his giving us the understanding that will preach.  Set aside the time, people.
Process question
  • Do you recognise that clarifying moment, ‘That’ll preach’?
  • Is it something you actively work and pray for?  Why/ why not?
  • Which is your greatest weakness – leaving God out of the planning as you think, or winging it, hoping he’ll make up for your lack of prep ‘in the moment’?
Pitch in below!

6 comments on “Inside the preacher’s head (1): “That’ll Preach””

  1. Thanks for this Chris. It echoes with my own prep. For me it often comes as I’m scribbling words and ideas trying to understand the passage more clearly and illustrate it. It does feel like 2Tim 2:7 and nothing seems to beat hitting your thoughts off the text again and again from different angles, and what delight when the Lord seems to give some fresh insight.

  2. Hi Chris, yes good reminder to allow room to wait. About the 2 Tim:2:7, is that your own translation/paraphrase? blessings, sam+

  3. I can also relate to this. The way my brain works this kind of moment sometimes happens in conversation as I am talking about the passage to someone else in my preparation time. A reminder of the role of the community in preaching perhaps?

    1. I agree, too. as I said to Stephe it’s not so much a question of squeezed time, as keeping clear on the reason for why we preach: and that’s true whether we have a sabbatical to prepare (!), or a panicky half hour in a frantic week.

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