The Preacher’s Plateau. We’ve all seen it, heard it, smelt it. It’s the growing sense that the preacher has a style, a pattern, a groove. A default.
I’ve seen it happen to preachers even in their late twenties: they get approval for preaching in a particular way, and they then assume that that is the ‘right’ way to preach. Worse, they assume that they’ve mastered it, and from then on produce messages with exactly the same consistency and depth for the rest of their ministry.
For the first few years, every sermon is built on many, many hours of sweat. What if I get the text wrong? What if I fall into some kind of heresy, through my ignorance? What happens if I am misunderstood? What happens, simply, if I forget my words?
That’s serious climbing, up a steep slope.
And then, the ground levels off. You’ve preached on a range of genres. You’ve handled some tricky issues. Navigated the translation battle. Learnt how to make people laugh, and how to make the room go silent. Even at your study desk you can anticipate where the boring sections will be, and make allowance.
You can slow down, take it easier. It’s not so hard, this preaching lark, is it?
Well, gently, I think I’d want today that it is quite a bit harder than that – but, curiously, only if you want it to be so.
You see, if you want to hit cruise control, and potter gently for the rest of your ministry, I think I’m seeing that God will let you. And if you change church every seven years or so, you can keep going with the same routine and nobody rumbles you.
But, if you want to keep sharp, keep improving, what can you do? Here are one commandment, and five suggestions
Attend, seriously, to God’s Word. This is the commandment. It’s to prevent that awful day when we look at a passage, take it in at a glance, work out a rough structure in your head, and – boof, we’re done, in 30 minutes, tops.
Instead, take every measure to pay the closest and most obedient attention to God’s living Word. Force yourself to work with paper and pencil. If you have even the barest scraps of the languages, use them. Box it, work it, write it, reverse it – whatever it takes to the point where the most familiar passage becomes shiningly wonderful.
And above all, pray and praise with it. This is living communication from your living Saviour and Lord, and you must never forget it, or treat it as less than that.
That’s the first commandment. The rest are just good advice.
Listen to yourself. I know, it’s horrid. I hate listening to myself. In my head, I sound like James Earl Jones preaching with the magnificent clarity of John Stott, and the persuasiveness of a Billy Graham. In recording, I sound like Mickey Mouse.
Get over it. People have to listen to you week after week, so find out what they’re hearing. Listen to your mannerisms, your tropes. The verses you keep going back to. The stories that begin, ‘Forgive me if I’ve told you this, but…’. The similarity of structure. The predictability of your points.
And then, in your study, get to work.
Talk to the church. After a few years they will have the confidence to tell you the truth. When they say, ‘You never mention X,’ or ‘You’re always going on about Y,’ they might actually be right. And when they tell you that they enjoy your preaching and always find it interesting, then that might be the truth too.
Encourage your spouse to be straight with you, too. Just not over Sunday lunch.
Read, listen to, and watch, a wide variety of preachers. We all have heroes, and bias towards them, and that’s natural. It’s also limiting, because as they say, ‘the apple don’t fall far from the tree.’ So broaden your horizons. There are preachers out there who are master of the art of telling a story: learn from them. Simplicity, richness, passion – they all have exemplars. Learn to deconstruct what they do, and try it for yourself. Don’t be afraid to learn these things from preachers who are not quite of your tribe, either, because you’re unlikely to repeat their heresies. But well known preachers are well known for a reason. Find out why.
And go back in time, too. Years ago I picked up a thirteen-volume ‘History of Great Preaching,’ and I’m working my way through it. It’s fascinating, and occasionally alarming. But exposing yourself to preaching from the past not only makes you more aware of contemporary styles, it also gives you alternative options, and different voices.
Address a current issue. The range of ethical issues facing Christians is bogglingly vast – and I can hardly think of a time where there have been more of them, both singly and interconnected. The challenge is to get beyond a newspaper headline and article, and really to tackle a subject properly. Not because you intend to preach on it, necessarily, but in order to think in depth, and in new ways. If one half of a heterosexual marriage has a gender reassignment, does that make it a same-sex marriage? Suppose a robot soldier had been programmed to feel pain and let you know that it was hurting – would it be acceptable to torture it for secret information? Is it OK to forget about God, in order to focus, fully, on whacking a golf ball properly? And how would your answer play out in front of a sceptical journalist, or a probing police officer? Or John Piper?
Learn something new. Keep your brain plastic by learning to dance a salsa, or throw a pot, or paint in oils, or catch trout. Not just because you’ll gain lots of stories, but because a brain which is learning keeps fresh, and agile. It learns in questioning mode, being used to not knowing the answers, and trying something new, feeling comfortable with something feeling uncomfortable.
Process question: how am I preaching differently to the way I preached five years ago?
What have you learnt to keep yourself fresh? Pile in!