Over the Hill

Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.
~ 1 Timothy 4:16

I sat in the small, mostly white room. You could say it had a mauve accent. It was cold, though I wasn’t chilled. But, it was cold enough that everything felt almost damp. The cleanliness of the room was not in question, but I still wanted to touch as little as possible in there. Directly across from the straight, vinyl covered chair was a wall poster of a blackened lung that belonged to a longtime smoker. It reminded me of warnings against smoking from junior high.

I would again be reminded of junior high when the doctor came in and asked me questions I didn’t want to answer and scolded me about stuff I didn’t want to do. At least there was no paddle. The doctor came in and spent more time looking at the infamous chart and typing on the computer than making eye contact or giving me visible assurance I was being heard. As the doctor shuffled the file and the computer, I glanced at the chart. I don’t know why I felt so guilty about it, as if I were cheating on a test or something. I noticed my chart with my name on it was marked, “Prime of Life.” I almost laughed. I wanted to ask, “Does that mean this is the best it’s going to get for me?”

Have you ever noticed a lot of doctors don’t have much of what us civilians call a sense of humor. I suppose it’s the rigors of the work and all that. Once again, I’m back to junior high when the principal has serious concerns about my actions and I try to point out the funny in the business. Inevitably, they, and I quote, “Failed to see the humor.”

Middle Age is Also Middle Danger

Prime of life sounds nicer than middle-aged, but it doesn’t soften the realities that come with it. We could also say I’m at the top of the hill looking down the other side. I appreciate the attempts at positive spin, but I’m not bothered by it. Middle age frightens me, but not because of reduced energy levels, increased blood pressure, gray overtaking what’s left of hair, or more time spent in that little room with the doctor. Middle age is dangerous, particularly for a preacher, because being over the hill means it’s effortless to coast down the other side. The allure of easy chairs, TV sports, warm beds, and food and drink becomes stronger, or maybe the man is weaker.

As a young preacher you cannot easily see this fork in the road coming up. You’re full of fire and energy and can never imagine having to make a choice between leisure and work. You have so many things to learn and do you can’t imagine a strong desire to relax and do nothing. What’s unimaginable at 25 can become a daily battle at 45. Several years ago an older preacher asked me what hobbies I enjoyed. I don’t remember my reply, but the one in my head ran on this wise, “Hobbies? I ain’t got time for no hobbies. I got work to do.”

Young preachers all know older preachers they do not want to be like. They’ve seen the preacher who might as well advertise, “Have sermons, will travel.” He has his kit of sermons he’s preached hundreds of times and has warmed over so many times he could deliver them comatose. Young preachers see the cranky, bitter, ill-spirited old preacher who can instantly rain on any parade. They’ve seen the greasy salesman preacher always buttering everybody up and, as C. S. Lewis once said, if the biblical text had smallpox, his sermons would be in no danger of catching it. They’ve seen the politicking old preacher who is always calculating and being in the right place at the right time with the right people. They’ve seen the weeping preacher who’s not like Jeremiah, but rather is weepily pouting in the corner and continually licking his thirty year old wounds. They’ve seen the Elijah-under-the-juniper-tree preacher. He’s convinced he’s the only one faithful left and all these whippersnappers ain’t much.

Young preachers see these older specimens and don’t want to be like that guy. I doubt most of those older preachers started out that way. They probably weren’t so different from the young preachers today. I venture to guess that decisive turn came in middle age for them. That’s the time when it’s easy to think you’ve laid up enough goods that you can relax and live off the store. That’s the time when it’s deceptively easy to stop making progress in the ministry.

A Call to Preach is a Call to Work

In the interest of Fair Use, I disclose I’m about to paraphrase and fool about with something John Stott said somebody else said in his book on preaching, Between Two Worlds. When men stop making progress in the ministry, stop reading and thinking, it begins to show around the age of 45, or middle age. Their coasting typically deposits them on one side or the other. They become a bigot or a sentimentalist. The bigot resorts to the points of his dogma and hammers those nails until the heads are shiny at first, but soon they’re worn clean off. The sentimentalist is a widower who can’t let his deceased wife named Tradition rest in peace. He’s always digging her back up and bemoaning how they don’t make ’em like they used to.

Whatever you or I think about Stott’s thoughts about somebody else’s thoughts, there’s something there. A call to ministry is a call to serious, strenuous work marked by progress (1 Timothy 4:15). Paul told Timothy to give himself “wholly” to this work and continue to do so (1 Timothy 4:16). Paul explains what it takes to be “a good minister of Jesus Christ.” Spoiler alert: it takes a whole lot of continued, really hard work (1 Timothy 4:6-16). Just like the guy riding the pine wants to the be the star of the game but doesn’t want to practice, everyone wants to preach well when in the pulpit, but not everyone wants to work hard every day in the study.

Middle age comes and brings a lot of dangers, but it should not be the top of the hill for the preacher. He should continue to climb and make progress until death comes, or he is no longer physically able to climb. Young preachers will face this Hill of Difficulty at some point. It will be tempting to coast. Remember the warnings and persevere, brothers, persevere.

Adrift

And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?
~ Genesis 3:9

It was in that moment the preacher realized the people’s heads were bobbing like flotsam that hadn’t yet reached the shore.

Twenty-two and a half minutes in, I didn’t know where we were. I didn’t know how we got there and I didn’t know where we were going. No, I’m not describing a senior moment. I’m not talking about an ill-fated hiking excursion, nor a road trip. I’m talking about being in the middle of a sermon like you are in the middle of a windless and waveless ocean, adrift.

You’ve been there. Whether you were behind the pulpit or you were a pew weight, you’ve been there. The sermon started with promise, but lost its way. Some preachers recover better than others, but it’s still a tough spot. As a preacher, what do you do? How do you recover?

The Best Way to Right the Ship

Writing experts teach you should hook your readers and pull them in by building suspense or curiosity. Most ad copy promises you a vital solution, but you have to keep reading and reading. It takes a long time to finally get to that solution. Since you’re not paying for this advice and I have nothing to sell you or sign you up for, I’m going to go straight to the single best solution. The best way to fix being adrift in the middle of your sermon is to never begin to be adrift in the first place. See, if you never start to go adrift, you will never be adrift.

Are you disappointed? It really is the best way to not get lost in your sermon. I see what you mean though. That’s not extremely helpful. Maybe I can do better, but we will have to take this in two parts. First, if you are adrift in the midst of a sermon, there’s not a lot that can be done to save it. I think it’s best to cut off whatever you’ve been babbling and get straight back to the sermon, like when you’ve shanked one into the woods off the tee. The best thing to do is get back to the fairway with the least strokes possible. It makes for an awkward transition, but it’s better than trying to do some weird turnaround and tie-in of your irrelevancy to the sermon you’re supposed to be preaching. That only confuses people more and you might accidentally preach some heresy. If you’re quick witted, you might be able to make a joke and smooth it out a little, but it’s best to get back to the sermon with the least words and time spent possible.

The second part is where I can be more helpful to young preachers. That’s the part about not beginning to be adrift in the first place. As much as possible, you want to avoid getting lost in your sermon. What I mean by getting lost is not just the occasional turning to the wrong reference or momentarily losing your place in the outline. I’m talking about when you have drifted off into irrelevancy from the the point of the sermon. It’s not just a minor rabbit trail.

How Not to Get Lost

I can give three steps here that are most beneficial to keep you from getting lost in the middle of a sermon. Sure, exceptions always exist, but don’t worry about exceptions. There is no one right way of preparing and preaching a sermon, but all biblically faithful sermons will have some things in common. My point is that qualifiers do exist for this list, but I’m not going to give a hundred qualifiers.

  1. Outline
    Avoiding getting lost in a sermon is mostly going to depend on your preparation for the sermon. Some form of outline is needed, even if you want to preach without any notes at all. In making an outline, you are working through the message and arranging points in a logical order. Putting an outline together makes you think through the sermon and it should become obvious to you where you’ve not given proper support for a point, where you’ve transitioned from one point to another that does not follow, where you have a point or subpoint that is not relevant to the point of the sermon, and if you’ve worked yourself into a corner. These kind of problems in a message can set you adrift, but if you identify them ahead of time, you can fix them before you ever get up to preach.
  2. Stick to the point
    If you’ve worked through the sermon ahead of time with an outline, then you should know the material well that you are going to preach. For the most part, you need to stick to what you have prepared. Don’t be slavish. I’m not suggesting you have to write down every word you’re going to say and then only say what you’ve written down. The farther away you get from your notes, the farther you are getting from the point of the message, and the closer you are getting to drifting off. Many thoughts will come to mind while you’re preaching. Some of those should be said and some of them shouldn’t. It takes experience and discernment to navigate that.

    Young preachers have a struggle here because they’re tempted to try to say everything every time they preach. Let me relieve some pressure here. You are not preaching the definitive sermon on your subject. Even if you think you are, you’re not. Furthermore, don’t try to do that. Take a manageable point and preach it well. Stick to it. Don’t try to say everything.

  3. Exposition
    One of the best things a preacher can do to avoid getting lost in a sermon is to preach expositorily. You can and should do this by preaching through books, especially if you are preaching regularly. Even if you are preaching on a subject, it’s best to take a passage that addresses that subject and do an exposition of the passage in its context. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you will preach word-by-word through the text, but you will get your points from the passage and preach them from the context. This makes for a richer and more powerful topical sermon. You’re not taking a word or two from somewhere, or worse, using a verse out of its context because it seems to say what you want to say.

    Even in preaching a topical message, if you’ve studied the passage expositorily, you know the passage well. You know how and why the verses say what they are saying. You are not relying on being clever or your wit to make your points. You’re bringing them from the text. This keeps you tethered to the text and provides much less opportunity for going adrift in the middle of the message.

There are different types of sermons and they each have their strengths and uses. I’m not saying these three steps will keep you from ever going adrift, but they will reduce the likelihood. One of most common ways preachers lose their way in sermons is by telling stories. The story may have started out as an illustration, and maybe it was even a good one, but one story reminds you of another, and that one reminds you of something else, and so on. Those stories and jokes may be interesting, but somewhere in there you’ve gotten lost and are no longer preaching the Bible. Maybe you’ve entertained people for a while, but you’ve wasted however long you had to actually feed them.

Sermons Like Gummy Worms on Mashed Potatoes

Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou and example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.
– 1 Timothy 4:12

Where do sermons come from? That may seem an odd question, but those kind are the most fun.

I once attended a week long software training class in the sprawling environs north of Atlanta. A place expanding so rapidly that three buildings appeared by lunch time. On the opening morning of the festivities, the instructor dispatched the customary preliminaries and said, “Turn on your computers and open Windows.” Each of us bright-eyed learners had a desktop computer with monitor, keyboard, and mouse on the table directly front of us. At this point in the proceedings, you would think everyone adept and if the class went no further, we should all be pronounced scholars of the first rate. However, a gentleman near 60 in a breezy Hawaiian style shirt, who spoke in an effortless South African accent, asked, “What’s Windows?” He was a nice guy and despite the dulcet tones of his indigenous lilt, I thought to myself, “Oh great!” in an equally effortless Appalachian accent.

This is how it is sometimes for young preachers, who are either young in age or experience. The well-informed lot are going on about vectors and rendered views and such things while you’re thinking, “What’s Windows?” Books and messages on sermonizing often assume a certain level of knowledge and don’t have “for Dummies” in the title. Let’s step back to the basic starting point. Where do sermons come from? Where does one start?

These are the problems

Young preachers have a few different difficulties to deal with in regards to coming up with sermons. Young preachers are not usually preaching with great frequency or regularity. It can be a while between opportunities. If you only study for a sermon when you’ve been asked to preach one, you are going to struggle and flounder. I’m going to give you some help here, but you must persevere to the end.

Young preachers also have a lot of things on their minds to say. These thoughts are as varied as a kid’s plate at the buffet. They grab a little of this and a little of that with no organizing principle or sense of food pairings. Gummy worms make perfect sense with mashed potatoes to such an enthused youth. Because your thoughts are diverse and bouncing around, it can seem like you have more matter for a sermon than what you actually do. You will also be tempted to try to get it all in there because you’re not sure when your next opportunity will be. Instead of preparing a gourmet meal like a chef, you become more of a throw-it-all-in-the-pot cook.

Young preachers also face a problem because of older preachers. You hear a powerful sermon and you want to preach like that. You do your best to preach like that. However, you don’t have any idea how he did that. No matter who that preacher is for you, you are not him and will never be him. As Paul wrote, “But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10). Each one of us has a unique set of abilities and we can only do with what we have to do with.

How to always be ready

I hope I’m not overselling here, though I do know I’m splitting the infinitive. The aforementioned difficulties also provide opportunities, as is usually the case with difficulties. While preaching infrequently can be problematic, it can also be a blessing as a gift of time. Any pastor who preaches a couple or more times a week can tell you that they are strapped for time when it comes to sermon prep. You want to make good use of that time by studying and developing good habits. You need to distinguish study and sermon preparation in your mind. They are not one and the same thing.

You should be committing yourself to studying the Bible. You should be reading the Bible daily. I believe reading the whole Bible in a year by some plan is invaluable. You should also be studying the Bible where you are reading and thinking in a particular book or passage. Pen and paper are your most valuable tools. If you had no other books beside your Bible, you could still study and preach with pen and paper. John Bunyan has certainly shown us that. He had no education beyond rudimentary education to read and write. He didn’t know any Hebrew or Greek. However, he wrote nearly sixty books of different kinds that show a profound understanding of Scripture and a powerful ability to communicate. Large crowds came to hear him preach. His contemporary, the scholarly John Owen, famously stated that he would trade all his learning if he could only preach like the tinker. An English Bible and pen and paper were indispensable tools to Bunyan and tools with which he built a spiritual legacy the world is still benefiting from over three hundred years later.

You need to study, think, and write. You need to train yourself to look long at a passage until you begin to see it clearly enough that you start asking questions. Why was this word used here? What is the shape of this argument? Why does this narrative include this detail? Why is this repeated throughout the passage? How does this work with a different statement in another passage? How does this fit with the context?

You don’t want to stop with asking questions. You want to train yourself to search the scriptures until you find answers, like the noble Bereans (Acts 17:11). When Jonathan Edwards was not yet twenty years old, he wrote his famous resolutions. This was before he had written any books, before he had preached any famous sermons, and before he had a part in The Great Awakening. Resolution no. 11 is as follows:

Resolved: When I think of any theorem in divinity to be solved, immediately to do what I can towards solving it, if circumstances do not hinder.

Edwards resolved that whenever he encountered a problem in Scripture, or a question he didn’t know the answer to, he would immediately take up the trail and stay on it until he found it. This is sound advice. Obviously, we don’t always have the time to fully answer all questions. Beside that, we will never be able to answer all the questions we come up with. However, you should make a habit of thinking these things through with Bible, pen, and paper. I have found that when we discover a problem or a question we can’t answer at the time, we often find the answer later. That’s one reason why it is good to write it down.

Always have a means of taking notes with you. You never know when a thought or question will come to mind. You might be driving and have no way to look into it immediately. Write it down as soon as you can. Make a digital memo with your phone if you must. At least, you want to be able to come back to it later and don’t assume you will remember all your thoughts at a later time. Even at a young age, I would pursue a train of thought and feel a powerful impression at the time only to fail to recall it later because I didn’t write it down.

If you make this a committed habit, you will not be floundering around about what to preach. You will have material, though you will still have a good bit of work ahead of you to put it into a sermon. The preacher who does this will be growing and deepening in the Word and it will be apparent to those who hear him (1 Timothy 4:15).