Inside the preacher’s head (3): The journey a preacher makes


walkOne of the strange things that happened to me, when I moved back into church-based ministry, was the experience of preaching the same sermon, repeatedly.  I’d had it before, but I’d forgotten what it’s like.

I don’t mean that thing where you need to preach at short notice, dig up a golden oldie, and pray it back into life.  That’s called bunging one in the microwave.

Nor do mean that lovely luxury of being able to give your ideas and sermons a couple of outings first before they actually take root and take wing in your church.

No, I mean successive services with the same message. Previously I’ve worked in a church where there were two identical services; now I’m in a church where there are three.

What it’s underlined for me is that preaching a sermon involves a journey: intellectual, emotional, spiritual. We start with people in one place, and we aim to leave them in another.  The proud, broken.  The broken, rejoicing.  The sinner saved.

And the more experienced we are as preachers, the more conscious we are of the elements of that journey, and the minefields of manipulation that surround us as we seek to lay the path to repentance and faith.

What I’d forgotten is that we as preachers are also the addressees of our sermon as well as its herald; God’s Word passes through us as it goes to others.

Which means we go through an inner journey as well; not exactly the same as our hearers’ perhaps, and we are consciously and consciously aware of so many things going at the same time.  But we also travel a journey.

What’s highlighted this for me is realising that after the first service I have to reset my internal compass to begin the journey all over again. And a third time.

There’s a lovely old summary of preaching: ‘First I thinks myself clear, then I prays myself hot, then I preaches myself empty’.  But the problem comes when you can’t quite preach yourself empty because you still need fuel for the other trips.

So, as series of questions for those of you who have faced this for years:

  • Is this experience a common one?
  • How do you ‘reset the clock’ speedily?
  • How do you avoid not investing in the sermon fully, because that conserves energy for later?

Pile in!

10 comments on “Inside the preacher’s head (3): The journey a preacher makes”

  1. Chris,
    Thanks for this. Very helpful. This problem has been exacerbated for me since moving away from a full script to shorter notes. When I had a full script I found it actually easier to preach the second time round because I knew it better, I knew the journey and the contours of the landscape we would be going over better. I knew what worked and what didn’t.

    Now moving to preach with notes. The Lord has graciously changed thoughts, brought things out clearer, or emotionally engaged with my heart more as I preached it from my heart than my script. Yet I’m concerned that as I head to a church with a similar scenario to you that I won’t remember/be able to produce those moments that were more provoked than planned.

    Do you have any additional tips therefore, not just for resetting myself emotionally, but ensuring that the 2nd and 3rd time is just as good as the first one, if not better, when fewer notes leads to more impromptu moments?



    1. I think it’s a trade-off James: for me, the gain of being fully engaged with preaching, rather than reading a script, outweighs the cost of a certain nervousness (which is in itself a good thing anyway). it’s the lack of time to regroup that’s catching me out.. I remember Charles once preaching a sermon where an illustration he was using caught him out emotionally and unexpectedly. Before he preached it again, we talked and he replaced it with another – equally powerful but without the danger of repeating the emotional effect on him personally – because of the risk of its being fake.

  2. Similarly, we have two back to back and I’m not sure there’s an easy answer. I too feel strange second time round but have to keep telling myself that those coming haven’t heard it. I have found it’s go easier to push ‘reset’ over time – the first few months were hardest – now 3 years in it’s easier. The danger with the ‘conserve energy’ mindset is you cheat the first service, and the second (or third) gets the best material. I think you just have to go for it and I find God somehow gives me strength to go again – though by Sunday night I’m drained – that’s life! Sorry, no easy answer. Hopefully when we’ve built our new mega-church we’ll go back to one service – until we fill it and then do it all again 😉
    Be interesting to have a post on your thoughts transitioning from the academy back to the ‘real’ world. What are colleges (and college teachers) missing?

  3. I enjoy second time round. Although we have the same passage/topic at both morning services, they aren’t exact replicas -different people and different needs between the two groups -so different illustrations and aspects of application.

    Which links to Martin’s tongue in cheek comment. I don’t think that if someone were to turn up tomorrow and say “Here’s a new building that you can fit everyone together into it for” that I’d necessarily jump at that. I might still keep the two congregations. Might be on my own with that one though

    Also, we don’t always repeat with the same speaker because we’re trying to develop leaders within both congregations so some people will just speak at one which means there are two people preaching the same passage, it gives chance to compare notes in the week and to sit in and listen to the other person.

  4. oh yes just thought of a question. What do you do between the services? What’s the most helpful use of your time for resetting your compass?

  5. In my last post I used to start in one church for a 10 minute preach, drive to the next church for a 20-25 minute preach (usually with kid’s talk or it might be family service) and then go back to the first church for an older congregation 20-25min talk all on the same passage.

    I now do two church with two talks on the same passage in the morning.

    I think there’s something important about thinking through the talk with respect to the distinct congregations to help make it fresh. Eating between services helped energy-wise. Actually the space on your own driving between the services was helpful too. When I did 3 talks I reckoned I peaked on number 2 and tailed off a bit on 3 (tiredness, and I almost knew it a bit too well).

    1. Yes, I think I’ve spotted that it’s the lack of break of any kind that’s the issue; and some of my colleagues have said that they slip out even for five minutes, to regroup

  6. So as an actor who once spent 2 years at the RSC I had to learn how to do this. I once spent a year playing the same role in the west end.eight shows a week. I had to play Hamlet and perform 8 shows a week. Twice in Thursday and Saturday!

    1. It’s not about you it’s about your audience.

    Your congration is receiving it for the first time. Your responsibility is to trust your script and deliver it faithfully. You have to stay ” true to the moment” otherwise you are a parrot.So you have to re think it and re feel it as you are delivering it. Think of it the way a chef would serve the same meal to different people at breakfast , lunch then supper. It might be scrambled eggs but you wouldn’t just serve it hot the first time.You would exercise all your skill from the moment you crack the eggs to the timing in the pan to the serving on the dish.your focus has to be on the people getting good hot food they can eat together

    2. Never give everything.

    If you expend all your energy on a matineee there is nothing left for the evening show.This is where good technique comes in. You know how to save your energy and how not to waste it. We actors have two rituals to handle this.

    1. Warm up . Thirty five minutes before every show ( the half) we go into preperation mode and focus on what we are doing. Five minutes before we go on stage ( the five) we prepare ourselves to perform.

    At the end of the show we take the applause and bow.

    I have noticed preachers do the first ones and not the final one. Probably because you think it’s vanity.

    I once played a character in a play with really high emotion, and Ias the performance and the audience response felt so intense I ignored the ” curtain call” it seemed vain and indulgent to me.

    The result was I took all the emotion and energy off the stage with me and gave myself and anyone who had anything to do with me a miserable 24 hours until I got back on the stage.
    Then the curtain call was a massive relief, it’s a marker where you and your audience can acknowledge something has now ended and you are now free to go in peace.

    I wonder what the equivalent preaching thing is. In Black churches they don’t have a problem with applause as a way of expressing gratitude without tempting the preacher to pride. I could argue that the stoic silence after a sermon is even more proud as it lacks any true expression of feeling, as if God given emotions are no longer necessary when you are spiritual. St. Paul would have described this as ” dung” in the posh translation and bullshit in the message version,

    Whatever works for you. Silence/ prayer/ a song. Take a moment and put it down if for no other reasn you have something left to give later.

    3. Enjoy it.

    If I only had three goes at delivering something I would be gutted. Each time would be an opportunity to improve it and enjoy it. Take notes after preach 1 and 2 and work out what you can do to improve it each time. There is real pleasure in honest craftsmanship that I haven’t found anywhere else.Way back in the early 80’s at mission for London I attended all three preparation services at the Albert Hall. I heard Louis Palau and Tiny Campolo both preach the same sermon three times . Louis was like clockwork. I enjoyed the first one and endured two and three.

    Tony was fresh each time. I laughed at all the jokes even though I already knew them. Just like you would with a favourite stand up.
    So what was the difference?

    Louis faithfully endured, Tony faithfully ENJOYED. So did I. Both times.

    Dare to enjoy what God has given you to do in His service .

    1. Thank you so much, Russell – that’s brilliantly helpful! And essential lesson for preachers is to learn how to handle compliments afterwards. It’s Ok to accept them, but then turn them back – what was so helpful for you?

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