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Preaching in the Zone (part 1)

Finding that place of perfect connection

This is part one of a two-part series.

I am one of those preachers who plays golf. Most of the time, my golf game is a lesson in humility—a kind of willing mortification of the flesh that reminds me that, for all my supposed spirituality, my conquest of the physical world is tenuous at best. Preachers don't have time to learn to play great golf. The time it would take to master the game would come at the expense of time spent with people or with God's Word. At least that is what I tell myself when I card yet another double bogey.

Still, there have been moments, rare though they may have been, where I felt that I could do no wrong, crushing my drives, sticking my irons, and dropping my putts. Sports psychologists call this being "in the zone." It's that place of confident performance and seeming invincibility.

Few things empower a sermon like love.

I've known those moments in the pulpit. You know them too—those times when it seems we have a perfect connection to the mind and heart of each listener so that everything we say is registering exactly as it should. In times like these we can do no homiletical harm. God's presence is known and his Spirit is at work. We are in "the preaching zone." These are the sermons we send for publication. These are the moments we remember when the sermonic cupboard seems bare.

The truth is, I don't find the zone on every Sunday. Like my golf swing, I think I have it one week, but the next week it goes missing. I wonder what I've done or where I've left it. I don't seem to be able to find the zone at will. I have discovered, rather, that there are things that encourage preaching in the zone and things that discourage it.

Things That Help: Assimilation of the Message

It helps if the preacher takes time to assimilate the message. The sermon needs to be taken off the page and written into the preacher's heart and life. Our messages need to be less hypothetical. We need to look for ways to actualize our messages in life before we preach them so that these are no longer words to be spoken, but a way of life and faith that bubbles up and spills out from inside us. Our preaching needs to come out of the overflow of our life lived with God and with his Word.

Assimilation requires intentional effort on the part of the preacher beyond the exegetical and homiletical preparation of the sermon. Once the text has been studied and the sermon constructed, the preacher needs to work intentionally to sense the sermon's language, pray the sermon's truths, and live the sermon's implications.

We preach a lot of sermons, so it might not be possible to do this in depth every single time. Nevertheless, we would do well to invest at least some of our preparation time in the work of listening to and obeying our own messages. Sometimes we will be able to respond right away. If, for example, we are preaching on forgiveness and realize that we have a grudge against someone, we could pick up the phone and deal with it immediately. Other themes are more deeply rooted and will take a deeper engagement. We might not be able to get to the bottom of things, but we could at least prayerfully intend some kind of beginning. Other times we may be speaking of things that are not currently front-burner issues, but which may have been at some time in the past. We can recall those times, reflecting upon the emotions and intentions of that period, bringing back a sense of consequence that may have lain dormant for a while.

The zone is reserved for preachers who are intimate with their messages. This intimacy seldom comes by accident. It is the intentional result of preachers willing to engage their own preaching.

Things That Hinder: Time Pressures

Good preaching takes time. There is just no way around it. It is hard to imagine any sermon that could not be improved if the preacher had more time. Unfortunately, time is limited and preachers seem to have less of it than most.

Part of the problem might be where we are spending our time. Perhaps a little homiletical time management might be in order. PowerPoint is great, but it might not be the most important investment of your time. Getting the exegesis correct is essential, but sometimes we keep on parsing long after we have discovered the meaning of the text. Obsessing over every word in the manuscript might help if you want to get your sermon published, but if you really want to find the preaching zone, that time might be better spent assimilating the message, or spending time with God in prayer.

In part two of this two-part series, Anderson offers more insight into what helps and what hinders us from entering "the preaching zone."

Kenton C. Anderson is dean and associate professor of applied theology at ACTS Seminaries (Northwest) in Langley, British Columbia. He is author of several books, including Choosing to Preach (Zondervan).

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