One Year to Better Preaching

One Year to Better Preaching

Here’s a recommended preaching resource for you: One Year to Better Preaching: 52 Exercises to Hone Your Skills, by Daniel Overdorf (Kregel, 2013).

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed the inspiring Preaching in an Age of Distraction. Whereas that book took a largely big picture approach, building on itself chapter by chapter, One Year to Better Preaching contains 52 exercises (plus a few “Bonus Exercises”) that give preachers a tangible, nuts-and-bolts set of practices to engage.

Overdorf wants to help preachers “sharpen preaching skills.” Just “an hour or two of effort” is required for most of these practices, so it’s an easy book to pick up, get right into, and use right away in preparing next week’s sermon.

The 52 exercises can be weekly ones for a year, or can easily be spread out over more than a year. Overdorf wisely suggests that preachers could focus on exercises that help them overcome their particular preaching weaknesses.

To try to achieve a “process similar to cross-training,” the 52 exercises are grouped into eight categories:

  1. Prayer and Preaching
  2. Bible Interpretation
  3. Understanding Listeners
  4. Sermon Construction
  5. Illustration and Application
  6. Word Crafting
  7. The Preaching Event
  8. Sermon Evaluation

Exercises include an introduction and setup to that exercise, a description of the exercise itself, an “I Tried It” testimonial section, and “Resources for Further Study.” A preacher could easily make the benefits of this book stretch out beyond a year.

To take just one example, Exercise Two, “Balance Your Biblical Diet,” suggests that preachers be sure they are preaching from both Testaments and from a variety of literary genres. Overdorf suggests charting out recent sermons to see where they fall, and shows a chart of his last 175 sermons in various biblical genres as an example. As balance in this sense is one of my preaching priorities, I appreciated this section.

Overdorf also makes the welcome suggestion that even a preacher’s illustrations be well-balanced:

Additionally, you may consider charting your recent illustrations. What aspects of life have you used most to illustrate biblical truth? How many illustrations have come from the world of sports? From your family? How many stories have you told from the Civil War, or from popular movies? How often have you quoted Tozer, Bonhoeffer, or your favorite contemporary authors?

Other exercises that I found helpful (and have tried put to use in the pulpit) have been: “Show, Don’t Tell” (on phrasing), “Have Listeners Evaluate You,” “Listen to a Storyteller,” and especially, “Craft Evocative Words.”

Despite how truly thorough the book is, one lack I noticed was any mention of the lectionary. For as many preachers as use the lectionary, some reference to it would have been useful. Or especially for preachers who don’t ever use the lectionary, suggesting they at least try it for a while would have been a good exercise.

One Year to Better Preaching is the kind of book you put right on your desk (not your bookshelf) where you can reference it repeatedly. I’m looking forward to continuing to mine its riches in the weeks and months of preaching ahead.

Thanks to Kregel for the review copy, offered with no expectation as to the content of this review. Find the book on Amazon here (affiliate link), at Kregel’s site here, and check out a pdf sample of the book here.

Preaching in an Age of Distraction

Preaching in an Age of Distraction

Any worship leader or preacher knows what it’s like to be distracted–either by something internally (himself or herself) or externally (something going on in the room).

“We live in the Age of Distraction,” says J. Ellsworth Kalas, Senior Professor of Homiletics at Asbury Theological Seminary, “and it seems to be accelerating.” Kalas notes that “the altar of the new” (a great turn of phrase) is constantly beckoning, but it is “a poor place to bow.”

Over the course of ten chapters, Kalas seeks to guide the preacher through distractions and distractedness, offering counsel as to how to prepare messages and preach to potentially distracted congregations.

The book started more slowly than I’d have liked. This could, of course, be a function of my own distractedness and lack of patience in reading. But there were more vague assertions than were helpful for building his case from the beginning, a trend which popped up again throughout the book. (E.g., “Sports have probably had a place in human life for as far back as we have any record” (ch. 2), and, “Surveys show that…” (ch. 4), and, “Some brain research indicates that…” (ch. 9), etc.)

Perhaps I was looking for more practical “take-aways.” And Kalas does give these as the book progresses.

However, at about chapter 3 or so, I realized that I was reading some reassuringly wise counsel. I received it as such. Kalas has generations of experience in preaching (and teaching about preaching). This allows him to see our current day in a fuller historical light. Distractions may change from generation to generation (TV vs. iPhone), but distractions themselves are not unique to the second decade of the 21st century. Kalas is worth quoting at some length here:

All of this reminds us that while the times have changed in some details–the sources of the distractions and the means by which those distractions are delivered–the pastor in his or her study has always been susceptible to distraction. Paul must surely have hoped that his guard would stop humming that first-century show tune. Bunyan no doubt had to deal with insects and assorted vermin as he thought his way through Pilgrim’s Progress. And who can guess the physical and emotional intrusions that assailed Dietrich Bonhoeffer day after day in his imprisonment!

There are significant recent changes to congregations, though. In chapter 3, “The Distracted Preacher,” Kalas notes that it “is no longer the world of our great-grandparents, where nearly all the people in the pews had the same occupation–say, dairy farming or working at the local factory–and essentially the same education.” Even if this overgeneralizes a bit, Kalas brings his point into focus by continuing, “Now the preacher looks out on vocations that did not exist a decade ago, let alone a century ago.” They are “more specialized.” Because no preacher can possibly “be a Renaissance person,” we preachers “must be highly discriminating in the knowledge we pursue.”

That itself is not a novel idea, but Kalas gives the preacher needed reminders (that we too often forget) like, “The Internet will take as much of our time as we allow it to have.” And to any preachers who may not think much about a pre-Internet world, Kalas suggests “reading across the centuries,” a practice he himself has obviously employed, as his book passes on some of the wisdom of those he has read.

An underlying theme of the book is that the ones who follow after distractions (whether preacher or congregation, or both) are “expressing the longing of a restless heart.” Kalas writes, “[W]hat gets our attention gets us.” The challenge is that not all distractions are harmful, per se; some stimulate creativity and pull us out of ruts. How to discern the difference? Kalas suggests asking:

Does this [distraction or thought] incline me toward Christ or away from him? If I pursue this thought, what will it do to my mind and spirit?

and:

Will this “distraction” lead to more life or to less?

If there is an antidote (or “counterforce”) to the distractions that lead to less of life, it is “excellence.”  How Kalas teases this out makes the book worth pursuing. Canned illustrations are okay, he suggests, but even better is “the excitement that comes when an idea springs forth after the preacher has wrestled with the Scriptures until a light has come on in the soul.” With the Holy Spirit as guide, director, and inspirer, the pastor also needs to remember that “preaching is a relationship,” so deliberate relationship-building with the congregation necessarily precedes good preaching.

Are you burned out on preaching? Get this book. Kalas doesn’t say he set out to write for burned-out preachers, per se, but I can’t think of anything better for such a preacher to read.

Are you not burned out, but looking to take a step forward in your preparation or delivery? Kalas gives a slew of sage advice and some practical suggestions to pursue excellence.

Are you distracted or unsettled when you go to prepare a sermon? Kalas offers soul care, and in the midst of a distraction-filled life helps the preacher take a look inward, and an awe-filled look outward to God.

Thanks to InterVarsity Press for the review copy, given to me so I could write this review, but with no expectation as to my assessment of the book. Find Preaching in an Age of Distraction here (publisher’s page) or here (Amazon affiliate link).

How to Teach a New Worship Song to a Congregation

The below is a re-post from September 2012. I’m posting it again because it strikes me that summer could be a good time to try something new in your church services, including learning new songs together. Here are some suggestions for teaching a new worship song to a congregation or other group of people.

This morning I had the privilege of teaching our worshiping community this song:

Because I had guessed it would be new to the majority of our congregation, I decided to teach the song before we sang it all the way through. There are at least six things I like to try to do when teaching a new song:

1. Split it into pieces. I had the chorus for All the Earth Will Sing Your Praises on two Powerpoint slides. So I sang through the first half of the chorus (one PPT slide), stopped, and invited the congregation to sing that same part with me:

Then I repeated that same process for the second half of the chorus:

This way the congregation had heard the chorus once and sung it once.

2. Teach it not in order. This helps me and hopefully others remember that we’re actually working on learning the song. It also keeps us attentive to what part of the song we’re working on. We’ll piece it all together only once we’ve learned the component parts.

3. Highlight the lyrical content. If the tune is new, the lyrics likely are, too. At least they were in this case. So because this song speaks of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, I took the opportunity to highlight that. I actually read some of the song lyrics before teaching it, and connected them to something my church says in our weekly worship: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” I mentioned that like 1 Corinthians 15 and Luke 24, this is one of the great summaries of our faith that can unite us across multiple denominations and Christian backgrounds.

4. Teach it with a conversational tone. I can’t think of any other way to teach a song than by actually talking with the congregation about it, what we’re doing, what we’re about to do, etc. I find a friendly, inviting, conversational tone works best. At least it feels right to me when I am teaching a song!

5. Affirm the congregation. Our worshiping community picked this song up so fast today (some knew it already, I think) that this was easy to do. I actually cut short the process of teaching the song so that we could begin from the beginning singing it all the way through. This was due to the fact that as I began teaching the verse (i.e., “I’ll sing so you can hear it”), I could already hear folks singing along. It would certainly not be out of place to sincerely say something like, “You all are good singers!” (Provided it’s true.)

6. Have them hear the song even before I teach it. For example, I had All the Earth will Sing Your Praises played over the speakers as they were leaving worship Monday, knowing we’d be learning it today (Wednesday). It’s a little thing, but it helps. Other options could have been playing it as the prelude today, emailing everyone a Web link to the tune, etc.

The bottom line for me is: if we’re doing a song that I think will be new to most in the room, we highlight it as such and carve out time to work to learn it together. Then singing the new song from start to finish is not only easier, but feels like something we have worked at together in a way that draws us closer as we worship.

O Lord or Oh, Lord?

CommaWhen I was a college worship director for a couple of years, I put together and helped edit a lot of lyrics on PowerPoint. One recurring question I had was: Is it O Lord or Oh, Lord?

By default I found myself using the first, though I was never really sure why (I thought it looked better).

According to this articleO Lord is correct, when addressing a petition, prayer, or other saying to God.

One thing I’m still stuck on, though–if is proper for use with vocatives, why is there not also a comma after it?

It’s Still Easter

Via Jeff Miller at www.splendoroftruth.com
Image Source: Jeff Miller at splendoroftruth.com

You may be done with Easter Sunday services and Easter egg hunts. You may have put away your fancy new Easter dress and your bunny decorations. But Easter isn’t over, at least not for millions of Christians throughout history and throughout the world today.

Mark D. Roberts introduces the idea of Easter as a season with the above words, part of a post here that is worth reading in its entirety.

In the church calendar the Easter season begins on Easter Sunday and goes to Pentecost Sunday. That gives, Roberts points out, seven weeks of Sunday worship to sing Easter hymns and focus more intently on the resurrection of Jesus. He writes:

I was ready to experiment with all of this, though I must confess it felt rather strange to sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” a couple of weeks after Easter Sunday. (“Christ the Lord is Risen Two Weeks Ago” wouldn’t work either.) Moreover, the word “Eastertide” sounded strange to me, like some remnant of days gone by. Nevertheless, I did my best to be a good sport. Slowly, over the years, I’ve grown to appreciate celebrating Easter for more than just a single Sunday.

Especially for churches and Christians that observe 40 days of lent Lent (which, let’s be honest, can feel loooong), marking and celebrating the even longer 50 days of Eastertide is important. Roberts recommends some practical ways to engage in and celebrate the risen life of Jesus. Check it out here.

In Memoriam: Bonhoeffer’s “Who Am I?”

Bonhoeffer in Prison

In July 1944, less than a year before Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s death (69 years ago today), Bonhoeffer wrote a poignant and self-probing poem called, “Who Am I?” It is found in his Letters and Papers from Prison. Here it is, in its entirety:

Who Am I?

Who am I? They often tell me
I step out from my cell
calm and cheerful and poised,
like a squire from his manor.

Who am I? They often tell me
I speak with my guards
freely, friendly and clear,
as though I were the one in charge.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bear days of calamity
serenely, smiling and proud,
like one accustomed to victory.

Am I really what others say of me?
Or am I only what I know of myself?
Restless, yearning, sick, like a caged bird,
struggling for life breath, as if I were being strangled,
starving for colors, for flowers, for birdsong,
thirsting for kind words, human closeness,
shaking with rage at power lust and pettiest insult,
tossed about, waiting for great things to happen,
helplessly fearing for friends so far away,
too tired and empty to pray, to think, to work,
weary and ready to take my leave of it all?

Who am I? This one or the other?
Am I this one today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? Before others a hypocrite
and in my own eyes a pitiful, whimpering weakling?
Or is what remains in me like a defeated army,
Fleeing in disarray from victory already won?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest me; O God, I am thine!

See my other Bonhoeffer posts here.