Podcast Episode 19 | 12 min
Avoiding Preaching Ruts
Tips to become a multi-pitch preacher.
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Matt Woodley: Welcome to Monday Morning Preacher, a podcast dedicated to helping you grow in the beautiful craft of preaching. I’m Matt Woodley, editor of PreachingToday.com and missions pastor at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois. I’m also here with our much-beloved guest host Kevin Miller.
Kevin Miller: Whoa, I went from default to much beloved? Was that because I disagreed with you on one episode and now you’re trying to, like, soften me up?
MW: No, it’s only because our ratings went up. So that’s why we love you more. It’s all works righteousness.
KM: I feel that.
MW: So Kevin, I was talking to a friend of my son, John Michael, who is a young baseball prospect named Tomas. Well, Tomas was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays as a pitcher. So I was chatting with him about pitching the other day, and he told me there are basically four main pitches in baseball. Did you know that?
MW: Yeah, I’m sure you did. The fastball, the breaking ball, the change-up or off-speed, and the knuckleball. Those pitches break down into a bunch more pitches like the sinking fastball, or the Vulcan changeup, etc.
KM: Or the 2-seam fastball, the 4-seam … Okay, so I still have some faint hope that this is going to relate to preaching.
MW: We’re getting there. Hold on in this sprawling introduction. Tomas said that some pitchers have a real problem because they only know how to throw one of those pitches. So you might have an amazing sinking fastball, Tomas said, but eventually hitters catch up to you. So I asked him, “You mean pitchers get into a preaching rut?”
KM: You said a preaching rut?
MW: A pitching rut!
KM: A pitching rut. Now I see where this is going.
MW: Preaching rut, like a pitching rut. So here’s what we’re going to talk about today. Preachers don’t get in what I’d call a one-pitch preaching rut. You know, you start sounding exactly the same sermon after sermon. You have the same comfortable sermon outline, the same application, the same tone, the same theological themes. It’s like a pitcher who can only throw a fastball. Everyone knows what’s coming.
KM: So let’s say though that a preacher is very good at that usual pitch, people like that pitch. What’s wrong with a preaching rut?
MW: Well, in one way, nothing because we do have our tendencies and our strengths and we want to operate in that. But on the other hand there’s two things that can be problematic about that. Number one, it gets a little boring for your people that every single sermon is exactly the same format. Secondly, and more importantly though, there is a theological spiritual thing here, and that is that as preachers we can fail to preach what the Apostle Paul called the whole counsel of God. So we narrow our preaching to themes that we’re comfortable with, and in some ways our hearers can remain spiritually stuck and stagnant, and that’s a bad thing.
KM: Okay, you’ve convinced me there. As you were talking about the whole counsel of God, I think one area I’ve struggled with that way is that for some time I’ve been a little frustrated by sermons that were lofty and theological and not practical in their application. So I’ve worked hard to get practical in my applications, but I realize there are certain Scriptures that don’t lend themselves well to that. There’s doxologies, there’s Psalms, there’s texts of Scripture that should leave you in awe or wonder or a connectedness to God that doesn’t really require any sort of specific “Do this this week …” kind of application. So I need to get out of that rut if I’m going to preach the whole counsel of God.
MW: Yeah, it’s almost like we have this comfortable template that we put on every single biblical text and it’s not right or fair or a good way to preach the text. So my preaching rut has kind of looked like this: I have a clever intro, I introduce the big idea—which is good—and then I would say three things about the big idea. Then secondly in terms of the tone, I always tend to be sort of the grace-filled, comforting.
KM: You are. You’re everybody’s friend and advocate.
MW: But sometimes that’s not good. Sometimes people need to be challenged, sometimes people need to be convicted of sin, sometimes people need to confront their idols, etc.
KM: Okay, so no more Mr. Nice Woodley.
MW: No, I’m over that.
KM: No more Minnesota nice.
MW: Seriously though, you can operate in your strength, but you need to diversify, get out of your rut.
KM: Okay, so how do we get out of our rut? What’s our game plan for that?
MW: First thing, know thy ruts.
KM: It sounds like Socrates.
MW: Go back over your sermons, get some feedback from people and ask yourself these questions: What are your tendencies and have they become ruts? Is the structure always the same? Is the tone always the same? Is the application always given in the same way? Do I preach one biblical genre all the time? Am I always in the Epistles? Am I always in the gospels? Look at your ruts.
KM: You know, one thing I think that can help us get out of our ruts is to experiment with some different formats in our sermons, and let me give you an example. This Holy Week I was preaching five times during the week, and I didn’t want all five sermons to have the same structure. I used the hook, book, took structure classic and I didn’t want to do that five times. So one sermon I actually brought out a white board and I sketched on the white board—it was kind of like a chalk-talk sermon, as it were, and I did it on Philippians 2. I drew the descent of Christ and his humiliation, his emptying, and then his exaltation to the Name above every Name, and contrasted that with the view that we have. It was a fun change of pace, it invigorated me and our people really liked it too.
MW: Yeah, I bet they did. So very different. I suppose if you did that every Sunday it would be kind of gimmicky.
KM: Yeah, I’m not going to do that again for months or years, but to give a freshness amidst five sermons I think it worked.
MW: Makes sense. The second thing is start asking different questions about your text during the sermon prep.
KM: What do you mean by that?
MW: Well, during sermon prep we all tend to have sort of a grid of questions we ask, whether we’re conscious of it or not.
KM: I do.
MW: Yeah, I tend to ask questions like: Where’s the grace and encouragement in this text? Where is God’s good news for broken people? Those are great questions and I’ll keep asking those, but I’m also starting to broaden out my questions to ask: Where does this text confront our sinful tendencies? What are the idols that we’re being asked to identify and relinquish? That’s stretching me, but I think it’s good for me and I think it’s good for our people.
KM: Yeah, you know, since reading Tim Keller’s book on preaching, he talks about preaching to the culture so I’ve started adding a question to my preaching prep: What is the cultural assumption that needs to be altered to make room for God’s truth? That has allowed me to probe down into the heart of where people are, and I think it’s helping my preaching.
MW: That’s great. So it might be helpful to ask yourself and write out what are the basic questions I ask about the text and which questions should I ask? The third thing is when you got that down, as we’ve sort of been implying here, try some new approaches, try some new things. So back to my friend, Tomas, the baseball pitcher, he told me that neurologically it takes pitchers thousands of reps to learn a new pitch, but the only way to do it is to go out there in a real game and try the pitch. And baseball players, pitchers, call that facing the monster. The monster is just the nervousness, the butterflies, the feeling that you might fail. But you’ve got to face it and you’ve got to throw the pitch. So obviously you can see the application to preaching here. Kevin, can you think of a time when you have to push through the monster in your preaching?
KM: Well, I tried a first person sermon recently, I had to push through the monster. I was Simon of Cyrene, and to get up there with no notes and to tell the story of Simon first person was scary for me. I was kind of freaked out. It took me out of my zone, but I think it worked. Another one that’s more just example of a traditional sermon approach, I was preaching in a sermon series on prayer and I decided I was going to do a sermon with lots of practical ideas of how to pray. Because I wasn’t doing sort of an in-depth textual study of one passage of Scripture, which is my usual, I felt insecure. I had to ask three friends, “Is this ok? Do you think this will be alright?” They answered, “Yeah, people pastoral help. Go for it.” But honestly I felt out of my norm and I was anxious.
MW: Those are good examples. So Easter Sunday—normally I try to ask questions like what are non-Christians thinking, and I try to be real evangelistic in my approach, but I pushed it umpteen more degrees in that direction. So I even said, “There are little numbers in your Bible, those are called verses. People put those in there to mark where to find things, because the Bible is a big book.” Then when Peter and John were running to the tomb, we actually played music from Chariots of Fire and I pretended I was running to the tomb. It was hilarious, I’ve got to say. You know what, we had a Muslim guy that showed up who said, “I never knew that there were actually eyewitnesses to the resurrection, that’s very intriguing to me.” I also had some believers come up to me and say, “Hey, I know what you were trying to do and I loved it, thanks for doing that, thanks for pushing even more in that direction.” So sometimes we have to face the monster.
KM: Alright, so any last ideas on getting out of a preaching rut?
MW: Well, I think you can learn a lot from other preachers. I think that’s really important. That’s one of the reasons why PreachingToday.com exists. We want to give voice to a wide variety of biblically-based preachers so we can learn from them. I’ve learned a ton recently from my African American preaching friends. They’ve taught me a lot and they’ve really challenged me and stretched me in a lot of ways. Somebody has said, and you’ve probably heard this as well, “If you listen to only the one preacher you become a clone, if you listen to two you become confused, but if you listen to 30, 40, 50 different preachers, you’re on the edge of being freed up to become a wise preacher yourself.” So preachers, get out of your ruts. Know what they are but become a multi-pitch preacher.
KM: Say that five times fast.
MW: That’s right. It takes time, it takes hard work, you’re going to have to face the monster of trying something new. But in the end it’s worth it. And not only will your preaching become more diverse and richer, but also your people will be edified by the whole counsel of God.
Matt Woodley serves as the Editor for PreachingToday.com and the Pastor of Compassion Ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois. He is also the author of God With Us: The Gospel of Matthew (IVP).