Thursday, May 21, 2009

What Do You Do with the Gift?

When we give time to something (or someone), we are announcing that it (or they) have value.

For the last three days I have been listening to preachers preach, and I have been leaning forward as theologians talk about faith and communication and what it means to follow Jesus in a world that isn't sure what to make of Jesus. I don't take three or four days away for something like this very often. But preaching is important.

Preaching is important. There was a time in the 60's and early 70's when Christian leaders and communication/worship experts thought preaching was an obsolete relic. Dramas, video clips, experiential worship...all of that was thought to be more "relevant" than preaching.

One of the ways I know preaching is important is that we see God using it to change people and change the world. The sermons of prophets like Elijah and Elisha put tyrants on notice that God is a God of justice. When God sent Jesus into the world, he spent his ministry doing a couple of essential tasks: preaching and healing. In Luke 4 he reads from the Isaiah and says, "The Lord has anointed me to preach..." The book of Acts records some of the sermons of people like Peter and Paul, and God used those sermons to turn the world upside-down.

Another way I know preaching is important is that as a lay person I have heard it done well - and badly. When it has been done well, my life has changed. My experience with God has deepened. I have come face to face with a kind of truth that challenged my ways of thinking and living. When sermons have been limp and lifeless, thrown together at the last minute, I have come away hungry...disappointed...frustrated.

As a preacher it is a powerful thing to be a part of a moment when the Word is declared with power and integrity. You can tell when the room changes and we all suddenly realize we are standing on holy ground. When I have preached and failed, you can tell. We can all tell.

I always do my best. You need to know that. One sermon is better than another. One message reaches inside your head and heart with the truth of Jesus. You can't avoid it or escape it. Another sermon doesn't get anywhere close to where you need for it to be. But I always do my best. I give everything I have to the task of preaching.

You may be curious to know what it takes to deliver one of those "talks," as some people outside the church refer to them. A couple of times each year I go away for two or three days to look the Bible...pray...and plan preaching themes. I make notes. Identify possible points within the sermon.

The week before the sermon I spend part of Thursday outlining the sermon, and on Friday I begin writing around 9:30 in the morning. (Many people at TUMC think Friday is my day off, but it is usually the longest workday of my week!) The manuscript is finally finished around 6. I walk away. Let God have some time with the words put down on paper.

Saturday afternoon I read the sermon and re-read the manuscript. (It's usually about 10 or 12 pages long!) Before I enter the sanctuary, I jot down some key phrases on a piece of scrap paper, slip that in my Bible, and pray.

Somewhere between the writing of the sermon and the preaching of the message, I "cut out" about one-half of what I have written. Sometimes, from service to service, the message changes as I watch the clock and the eyes of the congregation. At one service a story is shared, and at the next service it isn't. The messages shifts through the weekend as the Holy Spirit works in my. heart and you...between us.

My preaching has changed over the years. I once put a lot of time in making sure the "presentation" was polished. My preaching, like many other pastors, has become much more of a conversation with people. It is more of a dialogue than a religious lecture. So in some sense my preaching is more rough around the edges...and it is more real.

Another change is that the sermons have gotten longer. There was a time in the "Mainline Church" when sermons were 15-20 minutes. More and more, in healthy, vital, growing large churches the preaching time has become a serious teaching time that takes up 30-45 minutes. (Rob Bell up in Grand Rapids often preaches for 80 minutes! Heh...did some of you just break into a sweat?! Don't worry...we're not going to try and head in that direction!)

Preaching, I tell people, is like Jacob's wrestling match with the heavenly messenger. Some weeks I am drained. Some weeks the words come easily and quickly, and some weeks the process of sermon writing is exahusting. Frustrating beyond words. God refuses to let me get a hold of him.

If you find yourself vaguely dissatisfied with the preaching/'teaching ministry at TUMC, it may be your fault. (Didn't expect that, did you?) You play a key role in what happens in our teaching ministry! I challenge you to be praying for the service and preacher as you head to church. I invite you who attend the 8 o'clock service to join us in the Conference Room at 7:40 a.m. every Sunday as we pray for the sermon and the services. I encourage you to read the text of the day before the service begins. The sermon may seem lifeless and irrelevant if you wander in 10 minutes late to worship, work on a shopping list during the Bible reading, and only half-listen while you are trying to decide what you'll do for dinner. Your role in our church's preaching ministry is important!

The art of preaching is something I love to do. Some weeks I do better than others. But I always do my best...give my best...hold nothing back.

Jesus refers to himself, in John, as living bread. I love breaking that bread and sharing it with a hungry world.

No comments: