Podcast Episode 16 | 11 min
The Cutting Room Floor
Preachers need to be more like filmmakers when crafting their sermons.
Matt Woodley: Thanks for joining us on another episode of Monday Morning Preacher. I’m Matt Woodley, editor of PreachingToday.com, and a 25-year journeyman of the fascinating craft of preaching. I’m here with my guest host today, fellow preacher extraordinaire, Kevin Miller.
Kevin Miller: Wow, I love the extraordinaire. It even had like an accent, like a little French flair or something.
MW: You are extraordinaire.
KM: Thank you.
MW: So Kevin, back in 1975, I was 16 years old. There was a blockbuster movie that came out that summer. It was the highest grossing film until the first Star Wars film hit. Any idea what it was?
KM: I don’t know. Airplane?
MW: Wrong. Let me give you a few clues.
KM: Thanks for letting me down gently.
MW: Summer. At the beach. Scary. Blood. Then this. [Jaws theme song] Yeah, Jaws, the thriller produced by Steven Spielberg about the giant man-eating great white shark that attacked folks at the New England summer resort town. Well, most people didn’t know that this movie was actually based on a novel, and the novel had all kinds of plots and subplots and twists and turns, so Spielberg had to do a lot of cutting from the book and then once the movie was finished he had all the scenes, he had to do a lot of cutting of the scenes. For instance, there’s this one really weird scene that got cut. The main character, a guy named Quint, he goes to the hardware store to buy some piano wire. While he’s in there, there’s this kid who’s playing the clarinet in the hardware store. Seriously.
KM: That’s weird.
MW: And Quint kind of goes crazy and he starts bopping along with the song, and he gets so loud he drowns the kid out, freaks the kid out, etc., etc., and it got cut.
KM: So I’m guessing that somewhere in this interminably long introduction of yours there is a theme for today’s podcast.
MW: There’s a theme. So here’s what we’re going to talk about today: The preacher’s cutting room floor.
KM: Oh, great topic.
MW: There will be scenes that you want to leave out of your sermon. Stuff, lots of stuff, that you will need to cut and leave on the cutting room floor. So Kevin, why is this so hard for preachers?
KM: Well, speaking for myself, when I’ve done my homework, exegesis, and I’ve thought about something, prayed about something and I get a great insight, I feel very attached to it. It’s almost like connected to me. It doesn’t feel like my work, like I’m holding it out at arm’s length. It feels like it’s inside me now. So the thought of cutting that out is kind of painful.
MW: Sure, I think every preacher can relate to that. There is a journalist named Roy Peter Clark who put it this way. He said, “When writers fall in love with their words, it is a good feeling that can lead to a bad effect.” Exactly what you’re talking about, right? When we fall in love with our words, Clark says, our quotes, our characters, our anecdotes – think of all our biblical exegesis, etc. – we cannot kill any of them. But then he says, “But kill them we must.” Ouch. So here’s my first bit of advice for preachers: Get used to it. Get used to the cutting room floor.
KM: Wow, no more Mr. Minnesota nice guy from Matt Woodley.
MW: This is Long Island stuff now.
KM: Okay. Well, you know, I think it’s really important because when I am reading an article or I’m listening to a sermon, you can tell—and I think our listeners can tell—when the person has put in absolutely everything that they discovered in their research or preparation process. And then you can also tell—and it’s a much richer experience—when they had more than they actually gave you and they selected out the very best.
MW: You know, we have a preaching prof, Dr. Kent Edwards, on our site at PreachingToday.com, and he said this, “Be ruthlessly selective about what you include in your message. Go lean.” So today we’re going to feature a preacher that I think represents going lean. It’s H.B. Charles, Jr., from Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, and in this clip H.B. is preaching on Psalm 100, and he’s gotten to the point in verse 2 where it says, “Shout to the Lord.” So here’s what H.B. had to say about that.
H.B. Charles, Jr.: Notice the text says you ought to “Shout to the Lord, all the earth.” Everyone. All people. I think the Holy Spirit put that in there for some of you who say, That’s just not my style. That’s not my culture, that’s not my background. God is not interested in any of that. He said, I don’t care what culture you’re from, what background, what your experience is. In fact, the text is so emphatic that it is commanding that pagans who worship false gods should denounce their dead idols. Come to Jehovah and joyfully praise him as the only living God. It doesn’t have anything to do with your education, your sophistication, your context, your culture or you background. It’s what your mama told you. Your mama said if somebody does something good for you, you ought to at least say thank you. And if God has been good to you, you ought not be ashamed to tell him, thank you, Lord.
MW: So Kevin, any thoughts about H.B. Charles, Jr., and his approach to preaching here?
KM: It’s obvious that H.B.’s clearly done his research on Ancient Near Eastern culture, but he doesn’t overload that. He just gives you enough so you get the context of paganism, and then of the many illustrations he could have used, he just uses one. It’s not overloaded with illustrations, it’s just how your mama taught you to say thank you.
MW: Yeah, it’s simple and I have been in H.B.’s office in Jacksonville, Florida, and I’ve got to tell you, the guy’s got a lot of books. Tons of books, commentaries, theology books. He studies hard, he puts a lot into his sermons. But in order to get his sermon lean I can imagine H.B.’s also got a lot of stuff on the cutting room floor every sermon. He knew how to kill his little darlings.
KM: Wow, that’s brutal. But let’s get practical today, Matt. What practices have you discovered over your years of preaching that helped you to leave some things behind?
MW: Well, I think one thing is to get really clear on what your big idea is. We said in a previous episode, write it down, get it super clear, and then stay focused on that. Avoid two sermons for the price of one syndrome. I remember coming to you once with a sermon I was working on, to get some feedback, and you told me, Wow, Matt, you have two really good sermons in here. And then you said something like, “Choose ye this day which one ye shall preach.”
KM: Okay, I’m sure I did not speak in King James English.
MW: I think you did.
KM: Okay. But we are still friends, right?
KM: Oh, thank you. I’ve started because I’ve realized I need to cut some stuff, I now play sort of a mental game with myself where I actually take some pride or sense of achievement in how much I can cut. It’s quite common for me that the amount of material I cut out of a sermon is at least half as long—sometimes as long—as the entire sermon itself.
MW: So Kevin, where do you think most preachers could do some cutting room floor work in their sermon, at what point? I think introductions and conclusions. I think preachers spend way too much time getting the plane off the ground and then landing it. I spent 13 minutes this summer on an introduction once. The second service I cut it to 4 minutes, and I don’t think I lost much. So what do you think?
KM: Well, I think you’re wrong.
KM: Au contraire, my esteemed host.
MW: This is shocking. Note to self: Do not invite Miller to be a guest host.
KM: I think the bigger problem is actually not in the introduction, and it’s definitely not in the application. I think it’s in the biblical exegesis itself, the central portion of the message, because everybody knows that’s the heart. Everybody spends a lot of time on that. You don’t become a preacher unless you love that, and I find people trying to pack in two, three, or four big ideas where there should really be one. Little side trips into the Masoretic text, into the Ancient Near Eastern culture, and things that were eminently fascinating when you had out your Accordance Bible software. But most people actually don’t really need.
MW: So you think the middle and the exegesis, I think the introductions and conclusions. I think you’re right.
KM: Wait, you’re coming my way?
MW: Well, I think I’m right too.
KM: Okay, I’m so glad this is being … Wait a second.
MW: I think it’s everywhere in the sermon. Everywhere. But I think you’re more right.
KM: Okay, so Mr. Minnesota Nice Guy is back again.
MW: I do think you’re more right because I do agree with you, I think it’s more in the exegetical stuff you get a lot of fat.
KM: Well, this is music to my ears to hear the words: You are more right.
MW: But I am also right. So one more thing about this topic. It’s not always about the sermon. Sometimes it’s about the preacher. We just over talk because we’re vain sometimes.
KM: Okay, yeah. There’s sometimes where I found something that’s amazing and it’s not a perfect fit for the sermon but it’s just like it’s so hard to say good bye to it because it’s either really funny and I know it’ll be funny, or it somehow maybe convinces people: I really know my stuff.
MW: Exactly. There you go. You know, sometimes you can go to the store and you find some cheap chicken and it’ll say, if you look carefully on it, it’ll say, “Injected with up to 14 percent water or chicken broth.” Just to make it look bigger and more impressive. I think sometimes in our sermons we are chicken patters.
KM: Block that metaphor.
MW: I mean, I’ve been a sermon patter, right? You inject it with stuff to make it look a little more impressive, sound a little more impressive, a little more intellectual, etc.
KM: I could say something here but I am chickening out.
MW: That is way too good. So preaching friends, take a lesson from good filmmakers. After you’ve done your sermon prep and written that draft, take another 15-20 minutes, or 30 minutes, and go through every sermon like Kevin said: Sometimes you may have more on the floor than you’re actually using. Trim some words, trim some illustrations, cut some whole seams out, and as one good preaching prof said: God is eternal but our sermons need not be. Amen.
H.B. Charles is the Pastor-Teacher at the Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida.