Deep Preaching in a Distracted Age
Will anything capture people's attention and keep it long enough for God to do his work?
How do you get a hyper-driven med student to slow down and deeply attend to the patient before her? That question bothered Dr. Irwin Braverman, the director of medical residents at Yale's University School of Medicine. Braverman noticed that his busy, tech-savvy, data-rich students zipped through their patient exams without stopping to observe the main focus of medicine—patients.
In 1998 he teamed with a local art curator and developed a novel mandatory course. First-year med students had to take a field trip to a local art museum where they gazed at various paintings and then described what they saw in great detail. Braverman tells his students, "Approach the work with an open mind, moving past first assumptions. Revisit the subject, again and again." One med student commented that these deep observational skills "made me notice things that my eyes had just not seen."
As a preacher, I ponder a question similar to the one that bothered Dr. Braverman: how do I slow down and deeply attend to the Word of God for my people? How can I—a busy, tech-savvy, data-rich preacher—find time and energy to revisit the text over and over again while noticing and addressing the needs of my people? And how can I help them do the same?
As the poet Denise Levertov once prayed in one of her poems: "I stop to think of you [Lord], and my mind at once like a minnow darts away into the shadows." Sometimes I have the spiritual attention span of a minnow.
The culture we're swimming in doesn't help. Recent articles and books highlight what Microsoft researcher Linda Stone calls our "continuous partial attention." Consider this trio of recent articles from The New York Times—"Addicted to Distraction," "The End of Reflection," and "Don't Distract Me." The stats don't lie about our heightened distractibility. The average attention span has dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to just 8.25 seconds in 2015. Little wonder, since an American on social media receives 54,000 words and 443 minutes of video every day.
Then add the distraction of what Chicago pastor Aaron Damiani calls the "outrage du jour." Damiani says, "Every month there's a new outrage demanding my attention. One of my biggest distractions is the urge to address every one of them RIGHT NOW." As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman observed, " … we are too numbed, satiated and coopted to do serious imaginative work."
How do we preachers respond? How do we keep our own focus? Can we capture people's attention and keep it long enough for God to do his work?
I believe the only answer is counterintuitive. Go deep.
In a distracted, outraged, shallow culture, people begin to hunger for something rare: the focused, balanced, deep. Because we chronically distract ourselves, we crave depth. Deep preaching is our best chance to change lives.
So how do we get to depth in our preaching? After preaching for over twenty years, coaching dozens of other preachers, and studying preaching as the managing editor of PreachingToday.com, I've identified four practices that facilitate deep preaching in an age of distractions.
Practice 1: Deep living before God
Here's the bad news first: deep preaching flows from a life that's been deepened by suffering, failure, repentance, and a persistent cry for God's mercy. You can't get to depth by taking a few homiletics classes, crafting amazing outlines, or finding killer illustrations. It flows from your heart, a heart slowly and carefully shaped by God's stubborn grace.
Ten years ago I preached a sermon on integrity in Christian leadership. It was well-crafted and eloquent, but because I had some gaps in my integrity, though the words sounded deep, the impact was shallow. Then I suffered. It's a long story with a happy ending, but in the midst of my failure and pain God deposited a deep vein of gold in my heart. So now, ten years later, when I preached again on integrity—real, costly, hard-won integrity forged in God's furnace—it came from a deep place in my soul.
Now for the good news about deep preaching: there's not a program, but there is a path. If you live your life open to the Lord, remaining spiritually poor and eager for his grace; if you allow people to speak truth to you; if you let the pain of the world break your heart and make you long for Christ's mercy; then you will grow deeper and deeper as a preacher.
As Pastor Ken Shigematsu, senior pastor of Tenth Church in Vancouver, BC, told me, "Deep preaching flows from an ever-deepening relationship with Jesus Christ. No techniques or shortcuts can substitute for this. Preaching is a secondary calling. We're called to be lovers first."
Practice 2: Deep listening to the text
There's a little axiom I tell myself as I start my sermon prep: "Sit with the text, and the text will teach you (almost) everything." Of course that little word "almost" is crucial. It includes reading commentaries, studying the original languages, listening to the church's long conversation on your preaching text, and talking to trusted preaching advisers and teammates. But the text will teach us more than we often imagine because the Holy Spirit who authored the text also indwells you. So start by ignoring the commentaries and sit with the naked text without props.
To riff off Dr. Braverman, "Approach the text with an open mind, moving past first assumptions. Revisit the text, again and again." Pay attention. Look for words or phrases that jump out at you. Scribble notes in the margins. Read it, and then read it again. Take a walk and pray it through. Tell God how this text does (or does not) live in your soul. Talk to friends about it. Sit quietly with God and his Word before you have all—or any—of the words you'll eventually use to preach the text.
Lee Eclov, senior pastor of Village Church of Lincolnshire, told me, "Deep preaching arises from deep listening to a text. We tend to come to a passage convinced we know what we're going to hear, so we hear only what fits our expectations. Deep preaching has puzzled out—and prayed out—the message God and the author really wanted us to hear."
Cal Newport's book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World argues, "To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction." For busy, distractible preachers like me that involves developing some simple but hard-to-sustain rituals like blocking out chunks of network-free time, shutting down computers and phones early in the evening so my brain can rest and reboot, and lowering expectations for my responsiveness to email. Newport also promotes "a radical change to your normal work environment, coupled with a significant investment of energy" driven by a simple goal: focusing on one deep work project (like planning a sermon series). Deep work isn't easy, but it's worth pursuing.
Practice 3: Deep simplicity from the text
Deep preaching is always simple rather than complex, what Duane Liftin, former president of Wheaton College, calls "the simplicity on the other side of complexity." It takes work to get one simple, clear idea for your message. It takes work to craft that one idea in a clear, compelling sentence. It takes more work to tweak that main idea so it offers something compelling to your local church.
Kent Edwards, professor of preaching at Talbot School of Theology, claims there's an inverse relationship between a sermon's effectiveness and the number of ideas it contains. "Less is more!" he says. "Good preachers are like great chefs. They do not smother God's ideas under a bland sauce of data. They only use the garnishes that will set off their entrée to maximum effect. They keep the main idea of the text the main idea of their sermon … Deep preaching is clear and direct. It is profound in its simplicity."
A few months ago I preached what I considered a deep sermon. My text (1 Timothy 2:4-6—"For there is one God, and one Mediator between God and man—the man Jesus Christ") led me to the theme of religious pluralism. I used quotes about the limits of contemporary pluralism, the reality of "plausibility structures" (a term from Leslie Newbigin), and cutting-edge insights from Tim Keller. But it wasn't simple. I think I smothered the sermon with too much sauce.
Kevin Miller, teaching pastor at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, IL, offered this practical suggestion for moving towards simplicity. He shortens his commentary study by 30 minutes (ignoring, he says, some fascinating rabbit-trail insights into Ancient Near customs and variants in the Masoretic text) so he can reinvest that 30 minutes in a prayer walk during his writing phase. Miller says, "Often during that walk, with the benefit of fresh air and nature, I find a simple idea or image comes to me, and it orders the rest of my sermon."
Practice 4: Deep work of the Spirit
Deep living, deep listening, deep simplicity—these three things lead to deep preaching, but there is one more depth that rules them all: the deep work of the Holy Spirit. Our deep work can only lead so far—like gathering and carefully laying the kindling for the campfire. Only the Holy Spirit can ignite the flame.
There is a deep work that is beyond us. As the Apostle Paul wrote, there are truths that only God can reveal through his Spirit speaking to the spirit of our hearers. "For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God … And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit" (1 Cor. 2:10-14). This is the deep work of the Holy Spirit.
I encountered this deep work of the Spirit during a difficult preaching season. I was pastoring in the midst of profound pain and sorrow. For a few months in a row I would enter the pulpit Sunday after Sunday utterly exhausted and spiritually bankrupt. Sunday after Sunday, like the little boy in the Gospel of John with the five barley loaves and two fish, I offered God my preaching morsel with a simple prayer: "Father, if you don't show up, I have nothing—no power of my own, no cleverness, no preaching dynamism." And Sunday after Sunday, the Spirit would show up in quiet but significant ways, convicting people of sin, wooing people to Christ, opening eyes to spiritual truth. It was uncanny to witness my spiritual inadequacy meet God's ability.
That is the deep work that only the Holy Spirit can accomplish. And that power is available every time we preach.
Matt Woodley serves as the Editor for PreachingToday.com and the Pastor of Compassion Ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois. He is also the author of God With Us: The Gospel of Matthew (IVP).