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Schtick & Stones

The temptation of being ‘creative.’
Schtick & Stones
Image: Martin Poole / Getty Images

I recently spoke at a Christian school’s chapel service, and it might have been more fun to cut off my leg. In fact, I thought about cutting off my leg. These kids were not interested in being at chapel, and they really weren’t interested in listening to me.

Let me set the scene.

High-school students wander into a school gymnasium for a chapel that few, if any, of them want. The school’s chapel is held in the school gymnasium, which is never a space that screams “worship.” Not only were we worshiping in a gym, it was a gym that serves double-duty as an auditorium. A few hours after chapel this room will be packed by basketball and cheer practice.

The sound system is ad hoc, and a portable screen has been pulled out, rolled in, and unfurled on the stage. A talented teacher begins leading worship, but no one, not even the teachers, bother to join him in singing. The teachers are too busy monitoring the students, which is mostly commanding them to take out their Airpods and turn off their phones.

One thing was clear: These students did not want to be here. The best that can be said about their mandatory chapel is that it is a 30-minute break from their mandatory classes.

It’s into this breach, after three or four songs that I, someone who they don’t know and who doesn’t know them, must bring a word from God. It’s in these moments that I remind myself that God’s Word never returns void and that what is about to happen has very little to do with me. Preparation, study, and giftedness matter, but if God’s not at work, no amount of craft or content will make a difference.

At least those are my thoughts in my better moments. In my lessor moments, I get nervous. I get downright scared. I sometimes worry that I’m going to stand in front of people and bore them or maybe they’ll fall asleep or worse, get that withering look of how truly disinteresting and lame I am.

Fear of Being Boring

I know from my speaking and preaching clients that many other preachers fear the same. We fear that what we are doing just isn’t, well, good enough. In those moments, that’s when we are most tempted to do something “creative,” something attention grabbing, something interesting. The problem, though, is that what is often called “creative” isn’t. It’s schtick. It’s a sideshow!

Since Eutychus fell out the window, preachers have worried about being boring. And let’s face it, there just aren’t as many tantalizing tools at the preacher’s disposal as the television and film director or musician has.

Pastors have brought in live petting zoos onto the stage, rub spit into the faces of church members, cursed and yelled at their communities, wear $700 shoes and designer clothes, and stalk local celebrities trying to get them to come to their church, because of the same fears I felt in that school chapel.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a space for creativity in preaching. In fact, too much preaching suffers from a lack of creativity. Yet there is a difference, perhaps a fine one, between creativity and schtick. Creativity enhances a message. Schtick enhances its performer.

3 Principles to Remember

Years ago Henri Nouwen warned of the temptations of Christian leadership: To be relevant, remarkable, and powerful. Those three temptations are particularly pressing when it comes to preaching. In response to fears of boring my listeners, I try to keep three principles in mind.

The Bible Is Always Relevant

Of course, some sermons are boring, and they are boring because the preacher never tried to make them not boring. That is not what I’m talking about. The Biblical text always has a word for the moment and the time.

Years ago, I wrote a short e-book about Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1. I highlighted the women, names, and why they were included and what that told us about the coming Messiah. It would be easy to assume genealogies are boring, but many found the book, and the sermon series from which it came to be deeply moving and healing.

Part of the prep work for preaching is sifting through the text that might be considered boring for those who lack the knowledge and context of preachers. Before we are handed a mic or step in front of a group, the question, “What is this word of God for this people of God?” is deeply important.

This Talk Might Actually Be Boring

If a talk is boring, that’s okay. There are worse things in the world than being boring or people being bored.

As a boy, my parents loved when my brother and I were bored. It created space for us to be creative, to figure something out, to brainstorm, and make something new.

When a talk is boring, return to it. Ask why. Work to think through what might make it better the next time. Odds are the answer to that question will increase the implant and creativity around all your sermons. Truth is, with anything we do regularly, it’s probably good to have one go sideways every now and then to keep us on our toes.

It's All God’s Work Anyway

Every preacher has preached what they thought was a dud of a sermon, only to later hear feedback about how meaningful, encouraging, or powerful it was. We can know homiletics, but the work of the Spirit is beyond anything any of us was taught in a classroom or conference.

I recently spoke with a man I consider a preaching master about a sermon he delivered in 1999. I have re-listened to it multiple times, gathered small groups to listen, and used it as a model for others to learn from. He barely remembers it. That sermon shaped my homiletical imagination, and what did he tell me last month? “I kinda belched that one out.”

The easiest thing in preaching would be to allow our concerns over boredom and receptivity to lure us into becoming a shock-jock prophet, more interested in theatrics than theology, but that would center ourselves over our mission and the text. In the moments we fear, the three principles above, remind us that God is always near.

Sean Palmer is the Teaching Pastor at Ecclesia Houston, speaker and speaking coach, and author of several books including--Speaking by the Numbers: Ennegram Wisdom for Teachers, Pastors, and Communicators.

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