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Improving Your Preaching

An interview with Michael Quicke
The golden rule is you can always improve.

Preaching Today.com:I've been preaching for 25 years and I see many areas that I can improve in my preaching. And I think most of our listeners feel the same way. They see places they can improve; they want to improve. We're not always sure how to go about that. Tell me first, what's the good news and what's the bad news about improving our own preaching?

Michael Quicke: Well, the good news is that anybody who really cares about preaching and being effective, whether it's been 5 years, 25, or 55, must have this desire to keep improving. The golden rule is you can always improve. When we're seeking to be effective, there are fresh ways in which we can discover a richness. And our people need to know and to hear that in us. So to be concerned about growth is vital for all of us. I feel just like you. Certainly when you're preaching year-in and year-out to the same people, you feel, oh,I'm stale. They must think I'm stale. I'd love to be freshened again and develop skills. And that's the good news.

The bad news is that this is very hard work. When 2 Timothy 2:15 speaks about doing your best to be a worker, it is a worker. There is no shortcut in escaping the responsibility to give your very best in what I call the science of preaching, which is dealing with the biblical text fairly and honestly and doing your Bible work.

But then there's the art of preaching, which is interpreting with flare and imagination and being relevant and real to people. Some of us are more science — left-brained people as the jargon goes — and we find it easier to do the detailed Bible work and to let things fly with a language that is creative and warm. Some of us find it easier to do the imaginative stuff than to do the Bible work. We'll only improve when we do the hard work holding them both together. And that's the task that the Spirit calls us to. He'll never substitute for our lack of commitment. We need more and more commitment if we're going to be better and better preachers.

And the good news, also, is if the Lord's called us — and I believe that undergirds everything — he's the one who loves us and has made us his preachers in our own particular way, our own voice. What's doable for us is unlike anybody else, and we need to live within the grace of our calling. And while we need to keep stretching the boundaries of that, we can't all the time, as sometimes we can become depressed that we're not like so-and-so, who actually has a different voice and who has a different bundle of experience. We'll never be like them. For us the doable call is always extending, but it's us and our call and not some kind of imaginary set of goals: Oh, I must reach that.

A lot is said today about strengths and weaknesses. " Build on your strengths, " some people say, " don't worry about your weaknesses. " What's your feeling on that?

I believe we should always play to our strengths, because those are God's gifts. I tell this to apprentice preachers who are just beginning. I want to take, if I can, the fear out of this kind of performance thing; to tell them that we're actually ambassadors for Jesus, which is the highest calling and the most wonderful. And the particular gifts we have are how he's made us and how he wants to anoint us in ministry.

But I do believe that there are technical things we need to be disciplined about where we can be better. Beginnings and endings, illustrations, how we shape a sermon, how we plan it through, how we plan a series of sermons so that we have a diet that is interesting and varied — those are things that we've really got to take seriously.

Some of us aren't good administrators. We can't be bothered to do that. But you've got to work all the time at those areas, nibbling away at areas where we know we're not particularly strong (because sometimes that's more laziness, lack of discipline, or fear than it is a genuine limitation that the Lord's given us). There are genuine limitations, but I believe we have to keep pushing the envelope.

What would you say is your strength as a preacher, and what would you identify as a weakness that you've tried to work on?

I think that my strength, in as much as I have evaluated, is that I have been given an imagination to get into the text. I'm a great believer in starting with the open Bible and letting it live. And I think I convey excitement.

I think the weaker areas are appropriate planning and designing, insuring that there's a diet. When I was in my last pastorate for 14 years, I had to make sure that there was a genuine accountability in what I was doing and how I was doing it. I've worked at it, and I believe I've benefited from it.

Talk about your own pursuit of growth and what we can learn, what you have learned that others can pick up from you.

I think in my own pilgrimage the most startling point of growth was when I'd been preaching for 12 or 13 years (this is in the center of Cambridge in the University Church), and the visiting Old Testament professor kept telling me he'd send me a letter, and several weeks went by. He must have said to me three or four successive Sundays, " I'm really going to write you a letter. " When it came, it was a devastating analysis of my sermons that he'd heard. It ran into several pages of single-spaced typing. It was devastating. And when I read it, I was really hurt, because it's a big church, and I felt I couldn't have done more.

But very quickly I realized that he did what no one else had since I'd been in seminary: he critiqued not just what I'd done with the text, which was important, but my delivery, my voice, my gestures, the whole thing. And he'd given me this opportunity to stand back through another set of eyes.

That began my second phase, in which I still am, of taking seriously the evaluation and the monitoring of others. I built into my last years in ministry an evaluation group. That experience of growing in evaluation, learning from others, listening to others, and taking in lots of resources in books and tapes is the pilgrimage that I'm still on.

What would be some other things that we can do to improve?

For me, one of the keys is seeing yourself, and that is now much more possible with video cameras. I would urge anyone who is a bit stale and a bit stuck at the moment to take the plunge. They don't need to have anybody else sit in on this, but in a normal service have somebody at the back of the church with a camera discretely film them. They don't need to tell people. If they do tell the congregation, they can say, " This is for an exercise. " But to put it out of their minds, if they can, that it's happening.

Then, as they view that — and I really do think this is an important practical exercise — they should put themselves in the position of a viewer or listener (somebody said that 55 percent of communication is face and body, 55 percent!) to realize they never smile, haven't smiled — I haven't smiled once in that sermon, and yet it was the best news there's ever been — to pick up things which we just don't see, to look at the voice (which this survey said was 38 percent), the variety, the pacing, the pausing, the richness that we can all develop (the words were only 7 percent, if the calculation is right in my head), and just to see and to experience what's going on and to sense where it was alive and igniting. Perhaps it's not a very big congregation, but you knew when they were with you or they weren't with you. Where was it working? And where wasn't it?

And the whole question of evaluating yourself and being aware in terms of the relationship between you and your people — there is so much more than just the words. That's why a videotape is so much better than an audiotape.

And the other thing that I always try to do is to look for the love. You can tell whether this person is expressing in love. It may be a tough message, but is there a relationship of love? Ask the love question of yourself. There's too much of our preaching that comes across as another task we have to do. Or sometimes it comes across as a real effort to perform it. And actually, it's sharing the best news. In love, ask how you look, how you come across.

If you can't do a video, then an audiotape is clearly the next best thing. But there's a big gap between the two, because you still miss the non-verbal. For example, I have a fairly intense manic look in my eyes when I preach, so I really do look intense and rather over-the-top.

Now, if you're conscious of yourself, it really is a nightmare the next two or three times you preach if all the time you're saying, I've got to lighten up and relax. But what I found in my story is that the Spirit is in this. This is not just a technical thing when you see areas and you say, O Lord, please, help me.

At the beginning, those opening moments when it is so good just to be with your people, before you say anything in the pulpit — the Scripture has been read, there is a pause, sometimes there's prayer — I think just at that point, smile and be conscious this pause is for relationship. I've learned that from seeing. I don't think that's artificial; I think the Lord has blessed that.

So you've got to build awareness, particularly if you have irritating mannerisms. You know people who rock on the balls of their feet up and down all the time. You've got to be aware that this could be profoundly irritating. And if you don't know it about yourself, it's a battle. But it's who you are as a messenger of the Lord that matters. You're trying to improve. You will improve if you ask for his help. But you mustn't get so caught up in smaller details that you miss out on the heart of it, which is the heart itself.

When we're trying to learn from other excellent preachers, what are some ways to do that?

I use the Preaching Today tapes because they are regular and you've got the printed script, which is invaluable. I have what I call the WAA technique, which is w-a-a. W is worship. So whenever I listen I do it as a believer really wanting to hear the Lord. I don't want to go as a tired preacher wanting something for next week, though that may be true. But I really want to listen so that the Lord speaks through the person. And I find that foundation vital.

Then I ask questions, but I ask questions about what really worked for me. What was powerful there and effective? And it may have been something you can't define exactly. There was an authenticity through what may have been a very powerful illustration. The way that the text was broken open was just, wow. And I ask questions about what was valuable in this experience.

And in the second a, I take the sheet with the sermon and I just try to analyze, looking at it in cold blood, analyze. What did he do? What was the preacher actually doing at that point? And I find that a very, very useful exercise because we can learn very, very direct and practical things in that way. It's not just a question of being affirmed and encouraged. And, obviously, there are whole areas we neglect. Perhaps we need to be pushed into areas of doctrinal preaching. But technically, practically for how I preach, I find that there are nearly always things where you say, oh, look what happened. Look how the sermon started, or look how that illustration was worked in with that passage, or look how a familiar passage of Scripture was actually developed so it caught me. What happened? And rather than replicate what happens exactly there, be learning all the time. Wow, that is something that I could do this next Sunday. I try and build things in so that it's part of me. It's a new skill. It may not be a huge skill, but it's just something new that I've learned.

Is there anything else you would suggest as ways to pursue growth?

I think there are some larger issues that we need to talk about when we're preaching, particularly the diet that we're giving our people long term. Some use a lectionary, therefore there's a pattern through the Christian year. There are real strengths in that as well as dangers. But many of us don't. We have a fairly random way. And I think one of the skills we need to develop is nurturing our people and being fed ourselves across the whole counsel of God. If we're really keen on Paul, we need to recognize that Jesus is important too. If we're really, really keen on the New Testament and the poor Old Testament gets missed out, we need to address that.

This article is a transcript of the Preaching Today audio #220 workshop. To order this Preaching Today audio tape, e-mail your request tostore@ChristianityToday.com.

Michael Quicke is professor of preaching at Northern Baptist Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, and author of 360-Degree Preaching (Baker).

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