Monday, March 12, 2012

Always Improving Your Craft

Hugo is a beautiful movie.  I don't like 3-D much at all, but I am sorely disappointed I didn't see it in 3-D (it was, however, a great way to break in a new Blu-Ray!). It is a movie about the movies, a beautiful story set amid beautiful scenery.  It is hard to write about it without spoiling the plot line, but suffice it to say it is about a forgotten man who once was a great artist in his given medium, and how he finds redemption through the persistence of a young boy and girl.

It is, in short, a fictionalized account of the later life of Georges Melies, the early cinematographic genius, famous for his "Voyage to the Moon," in which the rocket launched from Earth hits the Old Man in the Moon in the eye.  Melies was a restless perfectionist and innovator, always driving himself to do better and be better, inventing an art where none had previously existed.

Watching those early movies is fascinating --they are primitive, yet beautiful.  We have come far so very fast in terms of technology.  Sound, then color, then Cinemascope and Panavision, then stereo, then surround, and now digital and CGI.  Hollywood has been restlessly improving itself since its beginnings.

Which makes me think about preaching...

I found a new and insightful blog,, by Eric McKiddie, one of the pastors of the storied College Church @ Wheaton.  McKiddie is excellent at offering pithy and wise advice to pastors on the whole range of pastoral attitudes and practice.  His blog 12 Ways to Improve Your Preaching in 2012 started quite a lively discussion on my Facebook page.

I work with seminary interns, and one of the things I try to do is to get them to examine the "How" of preaching, in short to be thinking of delivery and how it can be improved.  Seminarians often view sermons as we might view our children --beloved little darlings-- and perish the thought that anyone might tell us we could improve them!  Those who have let me critique their sermons probably wish they hadn't, later (though some come back and thank me).  I have stressed to them that sermons are part art and part science, and, like any skill, we ought to be intent on getting better.  Preaching is part gifting, part caught and part taught.  WE also tend to know it when we hear it, even across a range of styles.

The aspiring preacher needs to find his own voice and cultivate it.  The danger of listening to good preaching is to become a mimic of a good preacher --and the mimics are never as good as the originals.  I firmly believe preachers ought to ingest a regular diet of good preaching for the good of their own souls, and also with an ear towards improving themselves, but to avoid at all costs imitating those whom you hear.

One part of preaching I think that has sadly fallen out of fashion is eliminating notes.  I am no anti-note legalist, but I know, in my case, notes do me far more harm than good.  The danger of "notelessness" is straying off topic, but really this is not difficult to remedy --know what you're going to say, and don't say anything (generally) you hadn't planned to say.  Preaching is oral proclamation, which is a very different thing from written communication, and a sermon that is read, generally, will sound stilted and fail to connect.  I say generally to all this because there are exceptions!

I say this too, because I use notes in the evening, and I know how much less enjoyable preaching is when I do it.

Friends who studied under great homileticians (Henry Bast, Haddon Robinson, Robert Rayburn) all report that it was expected of them not to take notes into the pulpit.  It seems to me that a reasonably intelligent and disciplined man should be able to speak for 25-35 minutes on a topic extemporaneously without veering too far afield.  Sometimes I wonder if this is why so many candidate sermons sound like Bible study notes, and, sadly, many preachers fail to ever advance beyond that.

The danger of all of this is, of course, that I, or any, who venture to opine about preaching may come across as regarding myself (ourselves) as experts, and as gifted preachers.  That is not my intent.  I do think, however, that I generally know what makes for good preaching, about which much more could and should be said (and McKiddie is excellent on this, as is Fred Craddock in his books Preaching and As One Without Authority.)  

The overall point is this: preachers ought to be restless and intentional about improving the "hows" of their preaching --things like structure of argument, rhetorical flow, voice and delivery.  Other preachers care to weigh in?

1 comment:

  1. Yes! As your mentor has regularly said, "It is no sin to be interesting."

    I often think of the airplane analogy. Too often preachers are bad at circling the runway instead of landing the plane. I think this is b/c they haven't prepared their landing very well (if at all). Many preachers prepare for the points of the sermon and then simply tack on an ending.

    I have found that if I have the conclusion prepared FIRST - then I know where I am going and it's easier to get there.

    I've also discovered that there is not ONE way to preacher (finding your voice). And, we must not be afraid to adapt and improve our "voice." My first few years of preaching were "book reports about God." My sermons lacked oomph, passion and unction. Since then, I have un-handcuffed myself from any specific formula and sought to simply proclaim God's Word. This has brought freedom (even though I still use notes - not manuscripts).