When I started expository preaching someone told me I was teaching and not preaching. Now when you get a feedback like that in an African context you know that was one boring lecture. Just think about that lesson you didn’t like in college or highschool and imagine having it just before lunch with a teacher who always extends it despite hearing the bell. It’s an ordeal that gives the true meaning to the phrase kill me now. But now imagine you are in a church setting and you have to pretend to care because after all God is watching. Imagine you cannot open WhatsApp memes and the best you can do is visit the washroom until people start wondering what you eat. That’s not a good experience from the living word of God. And yet that’s how it feels sitting through some sermons. The life giving word becomes something that kills you slowly. It’s worse enough when we make faithful preaching something that people don’t want to listen to.
I believe the Bible is such an amazing book that when it’s well taught it would captivate the attention of any of us. The problem is not the word but the preacher especially those trying to correct their preaching to fit in with the Bible. It’s the equivalent of a novice entering a high end workshop. They have everything they need to make a great couch but if they don’t know how to use the tools then you’ll never get the quality you expect. That said, how do we grow in our preaching without killing our audience? How do we stick to the word and still speak to the people around us? I believe first we have to get the meaning and intention of the passage right but we cannot stop there. You cannot just be satisfied with being faithful to the text. You also have to be faithful to the people. Here I propose 3 things I’m trying to grow in when it comes to sermon delivery and application:
When you travel by bus many wise people will tell you to listen to a podcast or read a book. This is helpful instead of being idle. But I think sometimes observing will do a preacher a lot of good depending on how frequently you use a certain route. Look at the kind of advertising language there is on billboards. Count the number of shopping malls you pass and check what seems to sell. Listen in to conversations around you, see what people are watching and what seems to matter to them.
While some might consider this idling I find it helps you understand the culture around you and what’s selling. It’s sad when preachers are the last ones to know cultural trends because that means they’ll speak to it when the world has already moved on to something new.
Observing makes a preacher sound relevant and practical. It moves your sermon from the study room to the theatre of your congregants daily lives. It tells them you see what they see and breathe the air they breath. Observing changes the language of your sermon and your points become more relatable and therefore easier to sit through.
Nothing sells like imagination. If you don’t believe me ask Disney and Marvel. People will pay for a simple story with great imagination. The twist and turns of make believe keeps us glued to the television. People can spend hours watching a series but feel like dying after a thirty minutes sermon. Why is that? Well I guess most pulpits don’t spend as much as these blockbusters do but I think imagination has something to do with it as well. Think about the speakers you love to listen to. In addition to their charisma and charm most of the them are great story tellers. They are good with imagination and you can listen to them for a whole hour without realising it. They are imaginative with their humour and they flow so easily.
The Bible has such a great story line with such amazing twist and turns that none of showbiz can match. Actually if you trace the story lines of most of these superhero films and bingeworthy series they have borrowed something from the great plot of the Bible. To grow in our preaching we have to grow in our imagination both in the kind of illustrations we use and the way we bring out the text. Nothing is as bad as listening to a great narrative told so poorly. We need to wear our imagination caps on as we read the text. Imagine being there when the events happened. Think about the tone, feel and the effect it must have had. Once we’ve got the experience think about how to help your audience experience the same.
The greatest artists and public speakers use the same language we use on a daily basis but they relate so well to our deepest fears and hopes they sound like they are out of this world. I normally like to read lyrics so I don’t lose the message in the tune and dance and I can tell you the best songs speak to things we go through everyday. The difference is they manage to express it in good music and you find yourself humming along long after the music ends. I think we can borrow a leaf here to improve our preaching. We don’t have to talk like televangelists because we have something more powerful. We know our people, their language, their sense of humour, their hopes and fears.
You don’t have to be a genius to make a great preacher. You just need to relate with your audience and bring the word to bear in their lives. The amazing thing is the word already has people in mind having been written to a specific audience with specific struggles and within a specific culture. That means you don’t have to change the message but you need to relate with your specific audience in light of that message. We cannot grow in our preaching if we are not connected to the people and culture around us. You’ve got to leave your study room and get that coffee with your congregant. Listen to the news, talk to a stranger on the bus but most importantly be invested in the lives of your audience.
All in all remember preaching is hard work. You’ll need to put in the hours to get the text right. But don’t quit at that. Put in a few more outside your study room. Observe. Imagine. Relate. This means start your preparation a bit early to allow you to get out of the study room early. But be a preacher who observes without a sermon in mind. One who studies the picture language of the text in their devotion and is able to relate with the congregants because they are invested in their lives. That way even with a quick sermon you’ll still sound like you know who you are speaking to.