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Take the Initiative to Keep Growing

I'm learning that my growth as a preacher doesn't happen automatically. I can only grow as a preacher when I take the initiative to maintain certain practices and habits.

I started preaching every Sunday when I was 33 years old. By the time I was 40 I felt the learning curve was flattening out. I'd reached a certain proficiency and was settling into a groove. It was still hard but not as hard. I was still improving, I'm sure, but I was concerned that I wouldn't improve much. That bothered me because when I was young I had set a personal goal of being a great preacher. Not famous-great. Good-to-great. I looked ahead at maybe 25 or 30 more years of preaching and wondered how I could keep growing when it seemed my basic skills were tabling off. After all, to be a better preacher you can't just talk louder or faster.

I must admit that there are some things that have never improved much. I still start studying too late in the week. I get this hang-dog look on my face when someone tells me that they prepare three weeks in advance, or for that matter, get a good start on Tuesdays. The worst weakness, as far as I'm concerned, is that I've never figured out how to preach a good sermon shorter. Time is my sermonic thorn in the flesh. I've asked God far more than three times to give me 30-35 minute sermons because I think they'd be stronger. But usually I just cannot do it. So I must trust again and again that God's strength has been made perfect through my weakness.

That said, here are some of the practices that have helped me take the initiative to keep growing as a preacher.

Recruit prayer helpers.
The very first thing I did was enlist people in the church to pray specifically several times a week for my preaching. Each year I put out a call for volunteers for what I call Aaron's Army. (I've always related more to Aaron the spokesman than Moses the leader.) Every two or three months I send them an updated preaching schedule and spell out the particular challenges of upcoming sermons. I tell them any particular preaching-related struggles I'm having. For example, for many years people prayed that I'd sleep well on Saturday nights since I've had problems with insomnia. I always thank them for their partnership because as Asahel Nettleton said in the early 1800s, "It is no use to preach, if the church does not pray." I suspect this is the single most significant thing I have done to be a better preacher.

Stretch yourself.
A personal trainer I met with for some months (poor guy) was always showing me new stretching exercises. Preachers need to stretch or we get stiff and inflexible. My stretching exercises include:

  • I never preach an old sermon in my own church. I don't fault others for doing so. In fact, it makes a lot of sense to me. But I don't do it.
  • I resist clichés. One reason I manuscript sermons is to try to snag my own threadbare ways of saying things. But whole sermons can be clichéd as well. When I'm preaching on a well-known text or truth I require myself to write my way into a fresh expression.
  • I contemplate the passage. Good exegesis is hard, long work, but it is familiar work. I know how to do it. Contemplating a passage is the real stretch. It is a kind of vague work with an I'll-know-it-when-I-find-it quality about it. I often write out a phrase or verse from my passage and then see how much I can write on it, not for the sermon but for me. Writers know what it is to "write into" and idea. That's what happens when I pray and persevere. Then I distill those ideas and some make it into the sermon.
  • I try sermon series that take me into new territory. Sometimes I know that God wants me to return to familiar scriptural ground but I like to try to push myself to tackle parts of the Bible that have seemed daunting to me. Sometimes it is a section of Scripture (Numbers was a real challenge!) and sometimes it is a new way of coming at a topic. For example, I did a series called, "What Are We Waiting For?" on seven central (and difficult) texts in Revelation.

Find your preaching voice.
When we first begin preaching most of us have no particular voice—no identifiable way. It is sort of like the difference between your name typed and your signature. They both say the same thing but not in the same way. Young brides practice writing their new signature. Finding your preaching voice is like that.

I began preaching the way I wrote papers for school. Researched. 'Big idea' statement. Outlined: I, A, 1. I'm still guided by those practices but there's a little more jazz in me now. For example, I know that I have a bent toward inspiring people with language and story. I'm an artist at heart. That's why I love what R.L. Dabney said: "It's a noble thing to make the truth beautiful." I am a word painter, a feeling singer, an exegete of a text's emotion as much as its verbs.

Once, after a lady at church heard me read something from a book I wrote, she said, "It sounded just like you!" I replied, "You have no idea how hard it is to sound just like me." So it is with finding my preaching voice.

Work on your delivery.
I've come to think a lot about presence in preaching—delivery, body language (notwithstanding my lousy posture), eye contact, voice inflection, and gestures. The number one thing I've learned about delivery is the power of pacing and pauses. The danger of manuscript preaching (which I do) is the loss of natural pacing and audience connection. Reading tends to mess up the timing of sentences—the irregular hitches between words. I've learned to pause long enough to give people time to say, "Wait … What?" It's sort of like double-spacing orally.

African-American preachers can be sure people are engaged by pleading, "Can I get a witness?!" That probably won't work for me, so I pause and look 'em in the eye and wait a little longer than they expect. (By the way, a bonus of going slower and pausing to let words sink in is that I've almost completely cleared away the clutter of uhs and ums from my delivery.)

Pursue homiletics.
Since I wanted preaching to become my ministry sweet spot I set out to become a student of homiletics—the art of preaching. I had learned the basics in seminary but I hadn't thought much more about things like sermon structure and rhetoric. I began by reading something on the subject regularly, trolling for fresh thinking.

About 15 years ago I joined the Evangelical Homiletics Society, "an academic society formed for the exchange of ideas related to the instruction of biblical preaching." Even though I don't teach preaching, the papers and presentations at our annual meetings stimulate my thinking beyond basic skills to learning theory, history, culture, and more.

In conjunction with a D.Min. program (which I confess I never finished) I took three D.Min. classes on preaching. The most fascinating was a class on the history of preaching with Dr. David Larsen. I gained a deep appreciation for my preaching forbears, as if I'd found a long-lost family. I also studied my personal homiletical hero, Alexander Maclaren (1826-1910), whose careful exegesis and beautiful language has become my model.

Talk about preaching.
When I meet another preacher I almost invariably ask, "So what are you preaching on these days?" I learn why he developed a particular series and what the delights and challenges are. I get ideas and insights that help me. I hear about good books. I hear how God works through his Word. I love the camaraderie. I always think it is like running into a cousin from back home whom I haven't seen in a long time.

Attend to your emotional cycle.
When I was a young preacher Saturday nights were killers. I'd get so keyed up and tense that my wife told me it had to stop. Ironically, I was at my worst on Saturday nights because I wanted to be at my best Sunday mornings. To this day, my weeks have this stomach-tensing rhythm that starts about Wednesday afternoon and only releases gradually after noon on Sundays. I am an emotional guy. I have to get psyched to preach. But, thankfully, I'm not usually a nervous wreck about it anymore.

One thing that has changed, of course, is that well over 1000 Sundays have come and gone. I've done this before. It will come together. God always helps me. Besides that, I just don't have the energy any more to get so wound up.

I've made an uneasy peace with the emotional cycle of my week. I always feel like I'm way behind but generally I've stopped hammering myself for my lack of discipline. I don't like it this way but I'm almost 63 and you know how it is with teaching old dogs new tricks.

At the back end of this emotional cycle is the aftermath of sermons. Some Sundays I go home to my afternoon nap contented, but some weeks I feel like the guy who misses the last second shot. There's no medicine—not even a nap—for a sermon I feel badly about. It lingers, sour in my mouth, into Monday. But then, I do let go. Another Sunday's coming. And I believe that God works even through bad homiletics. I really do believe that so I can leave it. Plus, like I said, 1000 Sundays of this help take the edge off.

To grow as a preacher I've had to learn to trust God more. As Sunday approaches, I'm almost always uneasy about the sermon and about me. I often think a little nervously of Samson and how quickly his strength was squandered. But each week I have prayed—often in fits and starts. Breaths and groans and long give-and-takes with God. I respect the preachers who can say they've bathed their sermons in prayer. I never feel confident enough to say that, but I have doused mine. One of the most important helps to preaching I've ever come across was something D. Martin Lloyd-Jones wrote to young preachers: "Always respond to every impulse to pray. The impulse to pray may come when you are reading or when you are battling with a text. I would make an absolute law of this—always obey such an impulse. Where does it come from? It is the work of the Holy Spirit."

I suspect that earnest preachers get better at preaching even if they seldom think about how, but I'm a better preacher by far for having put my mind and heart to it.

Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.

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