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Preaching in the Zone (part 2)

Finding that place of perfect connection

Editor's note: In part one of this two-part series, Anderson shared some thoughts on what helps or hinders us from entering "the preaching zone." In part two, he continues with his helpful suggestions on entering the zone.

Things That Help: Anticipation

This is a faith thing. Preachers "in the zone" believe that God is working. They understand that preaching is not a sterile consideration of ideas and concepts but an active engagement with a God who is present and who is at work. Preachers who want to find the zone anticipate God's action and work to cultivate a sense of his presence.

Preaching is spiritual work, but sometimes we just don't feel very spiritual.

Preaching is worship. Contrary to appearances in many of our churches, the worship does not end when the preaching begins. Preaching is simply worship in another key, and the good preacher has been building up to it for some time.

When we are preaching in the zone, we have given our sermons back to God. We sense that he is the preacher and that we are simply providing service so that God can work through what he has to say. We anticipate great things to happen. We are looking for the doorposts to shake like they did for Isaiah in the Temple. Something is happening here, and we are privileged to share a part.

Things That Hinder: Spiritual Weakness

Preaching is spiritual work, but sometimes we just don't feel very spiritual. It is usually our own fault. We are not praying. We've let sinful attitudes take root in our hearts. The spiritual truth we are preaching has become hypothetical to us because we have let ourselves get too busy to tend to our hearts. God has become a stranger to us, so it is little wonder we have trouble helping people hear his voice. One can feel a little guilty standing in the pulpit, trying to muster up a sense of spiritual consequence when there has been little spiritual substance in our recent lives.

The antidote, of course, should not surprise us. The spiritual disciplines were made for times like these. Perhaps a day or week of prayer and fasting would be in order. A session could be spent with a spiritual director to discuss one's attitudes and state of heart. Spiritual passion will ebb and flow. Good preachers know this, and so they invest energy in keeping their spiritual life in tune.

Things That Help: Trusting the Gift

Good preachers are gifted. God has given these people a special ability to use language to communicate his truth. It is difficult to hit the zone when we read our sermons to the people. Effective preaching is experienced as an event in God's presence. It is a unique moment in time when people hear God's voice and respond to what he is saying. It is difficult to script such a thing.

In no way would I want to downplay the value of careful preparation. Still, once we have a faithful message and have assimilated it well, we could relinquish our manuscripts a little and trust the gift that God has given. Gifted preachers don't need to fear whether something will go astray because we have not locked down every word. Rather, as we work with the people in the sermon moment, the gifting works to empower the message from God's Word, carefully discerned and intentionally assimilated.

Things That Hinder: A Bad Attitude

Preaching is an act of love—at least good preaching is. Preaching is a way of blessing people by helping them hear from God. This is very hard to do when we don't like the people very much. Sometimes it is difficult because these people say some nasty things about us and do some terribly hurtful things. But it isn't going to help if we are angry with them. Bitterness and resentment are not going to help us find the preaching zone.

Few things empower a sermon like love. Not only do we need to love our listeners, but we also need to make sure that they know we love them. We actually have to tell them. There is a certain vulnerability and humility in this kind of expression that heightens the moment and deepens the sense of consequence that preacher and listener feel.

The Zone Checklist

We could consider all of this to be a kind of checklist. If it's been a while since we have found the zone, we could ask ourselves whether our spiritual life needs a tune-up, whether our attitude needs adjustment or whether we are investing our time in the right kinds of things.

Still, we could do everything right and still come up empty. John of the Cross described a sense of spiritual greed we experience when we become more attached to the feeling of spiritual attainment than the actual substance of our devotion. Perhaps God is working a kind of "dark night" of the homiletical soul in order to work something wonderful later on.

The truth is, preaching is God's work, and he will use it as he sees fit. Golfing in the zone leads to lower scores. Preaching in the zone usually leads to more powerful responses, but whether it does or does not is a matter of God's inscrutable will.

I am incurably optimistic when it comes both to golfing and to preaching. Every time out I expect a lower score. Every time in the pulpit I'm looking for that holy zone. It is wonderful how God works through us when we're faithful. This coming Sunday's going to be great!

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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