Preaching the Scales

Posted: July 6, 2016 in Preaching
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As a child, your imagination is a curious and wonderful thing.  You can be a firefighter, a basketball player, a Rock star, a doctor, or anything else that comes to mind.  Each of those images shows success at your chosen career.  Saving a life.  Hitting the winning shot at the buzzer.  Carrying someone over your shoulder safely out of the burning building.  But, what one rarely imagines is the hard work, the patience, the years of training and learning, and the repetitive memorization of the fundamentals that allow for success in that field.

Certainly, when I have imagined myself as a preacher, it did not see hours behind a desk studying commentaries, writing page after page of notes and manuscript, polishing and editing, practice preaching and memorizing.  I saw the tip of the iceberg of “performing” the sermon but could not see the mass of work lying beneath the ocean’s surface.  I was often astounded by the preacher’s that seemed to conjure masterful sermons from out of thin air – like a magician.  There were plenty of times where the sermon, in those particular cases, were something like smoke and mirrors – dazzling but far from real.  But, in those cases where the sermon was powerful and moving, it was not always readily apparent how much disciplined work and effort went into that sermon.  It seemed effortless.

Imagine my surprise, especially when I first began preaching, to find just how unbelievably difficult it was to create sermons.  It was a struggle – like a child learning to dribble a basketball for the first time.  I hadn’t learned the fundamentals and I was a long way from mastering them.  In fact, as is often the case when learning a new skill, my desire to create something beautiful failed to match my actual sermons.  My desire still continues to outstrip my capacity to preach.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless I become satisfied and stop trying to improve and grow.

So, how does one become a proficient preacher?  Dr. Frank Thomas shared with us some of his wisdom about becoming a better preacher.  He said that preaching is like playing an instrument.  If you want to become a good musician, you have to learn the musical scales.  You have to learn the scales, the basics, the structure (like chords), so that they become ingrained in you.  The best preachers, like the best Jazz musicians, have mastered the fundamentals.

Dr. Thomas suggests that most of the time sermons are bad because of their structure.  Sermons, he goes on, can be fixed or made better by fixing the structure – in other words, in being intentional about the fundamentals of communication.  There are a number of structures that can be utilized for sermons.  Dr. Thomas suggests picking one (four pages, Lowry’s loop, homiletical moves, etc.) and mastering that technique.  That doesn’t mean that you can’t use other structures.  But, it does mean that you gain a certain kind of freedom by  mastering that structure.  And, here, is the definition of a master: “One who has made all of the mistakes and has learned how to make adjustments.”

Being a master preacher does not mean that you do not make mistakes, but that you are learning from your mistakes.  When you recognize that something wasn’t working in a sermon, it’s best to go back and check out the structure.  Start with the fundamentals.  Was there a better way to organize the sermon?  Was it all connected?  Was there a cohesive flow?  In other words, find a structure that fits you and become proficient at the fundamentals of that particular structure.  Don’t be afraid of mistakes, but learn from them.  And, if the sermon just seems to be falling flat, go back and look at the overall structure.  Don’t stop imagining the beauty of a finished sermon, but don’t think it’s possible (at least consistently) to preach at a high level without doing the disciplined, diligent work of mastering the fundamentals.

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