Ten Questions to Guide Every Preacher
Ten Questions to Guide Every Preacher
Editor’s Note: The following article is an edited transcript of a talk given by Peter Scazzero at New Life Church in Queens, New York. In his books The Emotionally Healthy Church and Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, Peter has written extensively about the intersection of spiritual and emotional maturity. As Scazzero says in this message, "Emotional health and spiritual maturity are inseparable. A person can't be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature." In this article, Scazzero takes the principles of emotionally healthy spirituality and applies them to the art and craft of preaching.
I have discovered that many great preachers are like Saul. He was anointed, a great charismatic leader. He was ready to conquer nations, but if you look at Scripture you can also clearly see that he has huge areas of immaturity. He's emotionally unaware. He is not in touch with what's going on inside of himself. He's jealous, he's stubborn, and he's power crazy. There are gaps, huge gaps, in his inner life.
I know all about this, because I've lived like Saul.
I wasn't raised in the church or around preaching, but came to Christ in college. I felt called to the ministry, and went to seminary. I remember being in preaching class. The homiletics advice felt like Saul's armor on me. It didn't fit. I was haunted by one seminary professor banging his hand against the desk saying, "Don't you put words in God's mouth." Seminary provided a good context for grounding me in the intellectual work of theology and exegesis, but I was left wondering where I fit in. I remember saying to myself, This isn't going to work. I figured it was me. I figured I wasn't a person who could preach. I just couldn't find my own voice.
After a few ministry endeavors, we came to Queens to plant New Life Fellowship Church in 1987. By 1995, I'd been a Christian 17 years, the church was 8 years old and I was tired. Actually, I was exhausted and overworked. I blamed everything from New York City to small children to people in my church to being poor.
I had this great dream of building the kingdom of God. I was planting a church and (in spite of my misgivings) preaching my guts out, but I remember my wife and I having conversations back then about "What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul." Because in the stress of ministry we were clearly losing our souls. Gradually, I entered a real spiritual crisis. I was a cursing, angry, unforgiving, and furious pastor. I just wanted people to get transformed by Jesus, but something was missing. Not only was I sure I didn't want to be a pastor anymore, I wasn't sure I wanted to be a Christian anymore. You can imagine how tough it was to preach. One Sunday, I remember my wife saying "I can't believe you're going to get up and preach." And I said, "I can't either." I wanted to run out of the door and never look back. No more church, no more pastoring, no more preaching.
It was in that situation of crisis that I had what I call my second conversion. It was prompted by the realization that emotional health and spiritual maturity are inseparable. A person can't be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature. I realized that I was an emotional infant pastoring a church. I was trying to raise up mothers and fathers of the faith when I myself had areas of my life that had never been touched by the gospel. I was embarrassed and I was ashamed.
I ended up going to a Christian counselor (even though I didn't believe in counseling) because I had to talk to somebody. So I started a profound inward journey, a journey of looking inside my own life. And in that midst of that inward journey, God met me in an extraordinary way. I started to learn about myself, and I started to find real spiritual and emotional health.
In contrast to Saul's immaturity, there's the positive model of Kind David. Emotionally, he's fully aware of what's going on inside of him. You've read the Psalms: he's suicidal, he wants to kill people, he's depressed, he's rejoicing, he's dancing. But in pouring out his life before God, David becomes aware of himself. We love him because he's not perfect. But he walks closely with God.
Out of this ongoing experience of pursuing emotionally healthy spirituality, I've developed ten questions that I believe apply to preaching. These ten questions guide preachers in pursuing their own path of transformation and then preaching in a way that leads others into true transformation as well.
1. Am I grounded in my own contemplation of God?
Pastors are not CEOs. Before we are anything else, we're (hopefully) men and women who know God. The gift that we bring our churches is God. We bring the living God to our people out of our relationship with God. Well, I cannot bring him if I don't know him deeply. I can only bring what I've got inside of me.
Exegesis is important. But the question really is, Do I have enough contemplative time around my text? Do I have time for this to sink into my soul and become a part of me? I'm talking about the kind of time needed for meditation, lectio divina, and almost memorizing a text, as a result of contemplation. It's easy for busy pastors to preach sermons about Jesus without really thinking about Jesus. It's possible; I've done it. So, the number one struggle for preaching is to remain anchored in Jesus, abiding in a loving union with Jesus. That is the great challenge of preaching.
Bernard of Clairvaux was great reformer and leader in the Middle Ages. But he would not allow anybody to become an active leader in the church who was not first a contemplative. For him, activity had to flow from contemplation. One of his monks, Eugene the Third, became Pope. And Bernard wrote scathing letters to him, saying (I'm paraphrasing here) You have been a lousy Monk all these years, sloppy and undisciplined, because it requires a lot of discipline to be still before God. You don't have the walk with God that sustained the weight of responsibility that you're carrying and I fear for your soul.
My concern for us is that we build churches of size but lack the interior life to sustain them. In the end, all we have is a crowd. Because our people can't give something they don't possess any more than we can.
2. Am I centered in Christ?
It is so easy to spout Christian sayings that sound good. "God is good, Christ has risen, Jesus lived the life I should have lived and died the death I should have died!" As preachers we speak so much. But we are rarely centered in what we're saying. We're rarely grounded. We say words as if they're magic spells, sending them out, hoping they happen to impact people. Because what we're saying is true. We heard somebody else say it and it impacted us. Unfortunately, we often speak from a cramped place, fragmented and multi-tasking. Our bodies are running on an adrenaline rush. You know what it's like.
We get up there and preach it, but we're not centered, and as a result we end up just reading our notes. We share great truths without being connected to the people. Our minds are on the sermon, not our audience. Insecurity and exaggeration in the pulpit are symptoms of this. You know how it feels to be in the middle of a sermon and the crowd's with you and you think to yourself, Hey, a little embellishment never hurt anybody. It's all for the sake of the gospel, right? But in that moment, we're not prudent, we're not measured, and we stray from the truth.
When we're not centered, we're insecure. We are paranoid about how we "did" in the pulpit, and then we have to run have to ask three or four people how it went. We feed off our audience instead of God. When we're not centered in Christ, we end up preaching out of a reflected self—finding who we are from other people rather than who we are in God. Our role as pastor begins to define our soul.
3. Am I allowing the text to intersect with my family of origin?
I don't know how many of you have done a "genogram" of your family of origin. A genogram is a pictorial display of a person's family relationships that usually goes back three to four generations. I think that every pastor and leader needs to dig into their family history so you can consider how your family has impacted you. Our family system defines us far more than we think it does.
In my own life, I've seen how generations of negative messages about failure define how I preach. My family has about a million miles of negative tape: You're no good; you're a loser; man, you're going to mess up; don't do it. As a pastor I know in my head that I'm beloved, but when I preach a sermon and walk out the door, I can have nine people say to me, Fantastic! But the one person who says That was an awful sermon, devastates me for the day. I can know the truth in my head, but I've been patterned to struggle with this. It's the same trying to preach on Sabbath and delight with a generational history of workaholics, or preaching on faith when you've been patterned to need control.
Without insight into yourself and your family, you'll bring things to your texts that you can't even begin to recognize, things that can twist your preaching. That's why it's so important to have mentors, spiritual directors, even therapists. I think that therapy can be theological education. Consider carefully how your past impacts your present. You will be healthier. You'll be a better preacher. You may not be aware of it yet, but your grandma and grandpa live in your bones. You can over-spiritualize it as much as you like, but it can cripple your preaching.
4. Am I preaching out of my vulnerability and weakness?
I was taught in seminary that you should preach about weakness because it "helped you connect with people." As if it was a rhetorical strategy. The advice went something like this: Make sure somewhere in that sermon you talk about your weakness, because then people can connect with you." That's not what I'm talking about.
Up until 1996, I preached out of my success. I used illustrations of weakness, of course, but I never let my own weakness really come through. When I had my "second conversion," and became emotionally healthy, there was a gigantic shift in my preaching. To preach out of my brokenness changed everything. In the past I was scared that people wouldn't listen to a "weak" preacher. But of course I was wrong.
We all know the text where Jesus says to Paul, "My power is made perfect in weakness." We forget it's in the Bible, though. "My power is made perfect in weakness." Paul is talking about preaching out of a sense of real, genuine, authentic weakness. Not cliché weakness. And Paul boasts in that. But it is so tempting to believe the opposite.
It takes time and effort to resist projecting a false image of yourself. People will always try to make us the spiritual experts that they can pin their hopes to. And that is exactly why we had better be so grounded in our personal weakness that we can reject that foolishness. The truth is that we're as weak and broken and vulnerable as anyone in our congregations.
5. Am I allowing the text to transform me?
This sounds simple but it isn't. If you're preaching sermons and you're not being transformed, I wouldn't expect a lot to happen in your church either. There's no doctrine too fundamental to not carry lifelong power to transform us. Even us preachers.
6. Am I surrendering to Christ's process of birth, death, resurrection, and ascension?
My discovery is that in preaching, we're following the Paschal mystery. In other words, we're following the life of Jesus in every sermon. We get a "birth." We're excited about our topic, ready to dive in. But death comes when it's time to craft it, doesn't it? On Monday or Tuesday we think, This is going to be the best sermon I ever preached. By Wednesday we're like, This is a disaster. And we hope for resurrection before Saturday night.
I love commentaries, but I've never written one. I appreciate people who do. A commentary cannot give you a revelation, though. There may be a line that grabs you and it becomes a revelation for you, but commentaries can't bring spiritual change. They have a different purpose. In our prep, it is the Holy Spirit who at some point ignites our study, as we wait and listen. It comes unexpectedly. It may happen in a car in traffic. All of a sudden it's like, I got it. And you see it and it's like a resurrection. This process can't be forced or controlled. But we need to understand it and how it relates to our preaching and preparation.
7. Am I making time to craft clear application?
This is an area I've faltered in, especially as a young preacher. It is a lot of work to make clear and pointed applications. I didn't leave enough time for this in the beginning. I spent all my time in exegesis, a lot of time on praying, but not enough in bringing it home to people. But the more general your application is, the less transformational your sermon is. To think through pointed, clear applications, friends, is a lot of work. It is hard work. It is not something you do at the last minute.
8. Am I thinking through the complexities and nuances of my topic and audience?
Preachers can be very flippant about the complexities and nuances of real life. How do you preach forgiveness to an audience that includes people abused as children? How do you preach joy to people carrying traumatic grief? For example, consider Philippians 4:1: Rejoice in the Lord always. That's true certainly true. But on the other hand, don't minimize the fact that we have a whole book in the Bible called Lamentations. We have two-thirds of the Psalms which are laments. So how do I rejoice when I'm grieving and I've just lost a loved one, or my spouse just divorced me, or my kids have run away from home. How do I do that? What does that look like to grieve and lament and yet to rejoice in God at the same time?
It's not as simple as just standing up and spewing verses. It takes sensitivity and empathy for how complicated human life is.
9. Am I doing exegesis in community?
You've heard this before, but it's important. I can't preach the sermon by myself. I need the input of at least one or two other people. I'm very fortunate because in our staff right now we have each other. My wife served as that outside voice and critique for me for years. I know that I don't have the whole perspective on any given sermon or text. To me, this flows from what I've written on elsewhere about a theology of limits. In other words, based on Scripture and my own life I know that I'm very limited. My perspective, experience in life, and even my understanding of a particular text all come bound up with all of my limitations. That's why I need to constantly consider drinking from the well of community exegesis.
Specifically, as an act of humility and acknowledging your limits, I'm talking about getting one or two other people that you can talk with about your upcoming sermon. Even if I think, I got it, I got it, I got it, I really don't. I need to check it out with someone else—even if they say something like, "That doesn't make sense at all," or "That illustration doesn't work at all for me," or "I really don't know what you're talking about." At times my wife would say, "Pete, you're so in the heavenlies, I don't know what you're talking about. You're up in Revelation but you're having a great time up there with yourself." I used to hate sharing my sermon with her because she would sometimes devastate it, and I'd be back in the death stage of sermon preparation. But I always try to have at least one other person that I can talk to about that sermon.
10. Am I connecting the message to our long-term formation?
I love preaching. I believe in it. I also accept its limits. Preaching is part of people's spiritual formation. But I don't want people living off my spirituality. They need more than sermons. Many people in our churches become Christians, get baptized, are even involved in ministry, but they live off their pastor's spirituality: books, tapes, sermons, worship teams. They're not cultivating their personal relationship with Jesus. They're on spiritual autopilot. Some of these people are elders and deacons in our churches. Sermons are important; they create culture, context, and a lot of good things. But they don't directly connect people to Jesus.
So I try to connect people creatively in ways that sheer speaking can't. We may do things like a daily office in the middle of the service. We might stop for prayer. We may have a panel discussion. We may break up in small groups—even if there are a thousand people in the room. We've got a thousand people in a room, we'll do it anyway. We'll incorporate silence, meditation on scripture.
To aid in this, to try and connect people to Jesus as much as a sermon's able, I encourage you to develop your preaching skills. Listen to other people's sermons. Find new insights. But in the end, understand that your message must become a revelation to you. That's the key. Make sure the first person you preach to every week is you.
The greatest gift you can give your church is to walk with God. It's not what we say that's most important, it's not even how we say it that's most important. What is most important when we stand up in the pulpit is who we are.
Do you remember the movie Speed? A guy planted a bomb on a bus, which would explode if the bus went below 50 miles an hour. You can picture it plowing through the streets of L.A., busting over curbs and fire hydrants, out of control and unable to stop. That's how preachers are sometimes. We feel like we can't stop or everything will explode. But in the process, we're running people down, speeding out of control, stressed and in danger. We're afraid, because we don't know what's going to happen if we stop the bus.
But the theme of these ten questions, as I see it, is slow down. Be intentional. Take time for the important things. Ponder. Contemplate. That's difficult to do in our culture, but we need to stop the bus, step off, and walk with God. How else can we ever offer anything that is truly transformational through our preaching?
Peter Scazzero is Teaching Pastor/Pastor-at-Large at New Life Fellowship in Queens, New York and the author of The Emotionally Healthy Leader. Follow him on Twitter @petescazzero.