“Images are a way to explore realities that cannot be fully investigated or explored by objective study or measurement.”
– Donald E. Messer, Contemporary Images of Christian Ministry
What picture most appeals to you in regard to preaching? Eugene Lowry, who depicts preaching as plot, has collected some suggestions: “We not only have [H. Grady] Davis’s tree and [Fred] Craddock’s trip, but also R. E. C. Browne’s gesture, Tom Troeger’s music of speech, David Buttrick’s move, Henry Mitchell’s celebration, Lucy Rose’s conversation, David Schlafer’s play, and Paul Scott Wilson’s spark of imagination.”1
I encourage my students to develop imaginative models or images to portray preaching. One wrote this:
Preaching is sort of like painting a picture. There is something you have seen. It is most outstanding – beautiful in a startling and breathtaking way. Everything inside you wants to capture it on canvas so that it can be shared with others. Painting requires paying attention to the details of what you see and imagining how to shape it on the canvas. Each color is lovingly chosen. Every brush stroke brings the scene closer to being alive. And finally comes the time for the unveiling – the scary, humbling, and joyous sharing of the beautiful grace of God.
In the past, I have pictured the preaching event as a ski-jump2 and a mountain climb. But I have long been searching for an image that resonates with the 360-degree preaching model and embodies the weekly journey from text to sermon.
Proposing a Model
When a seminary invited me in the mid-nineties to lecture on how I preach each week, I was forced to reflect honestly on what I had actually been doing each week for twenty years. (I commend not waiting twenty years before undertaking this revealing exercise!) I realized that my weekly practice involved a “journey” through a sequence of actions that involved not only study and technique but also my relationship with God. Actually, what mattered most in this process was not me trying to be fresh and original but God drawing me into discovering more of him and his Word, inviting me to live in its power, and encouraging me to work hard with him.
As I thought about how best to describe this journey, I eventually focused on the picture of a “preaching swim.” Perhaps my Baptist background attracts me to water, though I confess I am a weak swimmer and feel acute anxiety when in too deep, especially when buffeted by waves and crosscurrents. I am reminded of my call to preach with its sense of being plunged into something that would always be uncomfortably too deep. Any text about preaching overwhelms when its challenge is taken seriously, such as, “We are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us” (2 Cor. 5:20). C. W. Koller regarded this as perhaps the New Testament’s most important text for ministers.3
A swimming manual advises teachers to think back to their first experience with water so that they do not take the strangeness of water for granted. It lists disturbing features for new swimmers: pressure on the body; the way in which water’s density affects breathing and heart rate; buoyancy; and changes in vision, hearing, touch, and smell. First-time swimmers also experience a fear of drowning.4 Similarly, new preachers may feel disoriented when immersed in Scripture and preaching responsibilities for the first time.
The “preaching swim” model visualizes swimming down a river. It begins with immersion into a flow at the river’s source. The river gathers strength as it widens and deepens, bringing life and health to people on its banks. Each week as I take my preaching journey, I live in the flowing power of God’s Word to bring it to my hearers in fresh ways. “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isa. 43:19)
Sometimes early explorers such as Lewis and Clark traced rivers back to their sources and thereby opened up continents. Preachers move in the other direction, beginning at a bubbling source in God’s Word that flows out, creating new channels, deepening and impacting lives of individuals, communities, and nations.
Scripture’s references to springs and rivers resonate with life and energy. In dry deserts, rivers represent life. “On every lofty mountain and every high hill there will be brooks running with water” (Isa. 30:25); “The LORD in majesty will be for us a place of broad rivers and streams” (Isa. 33:21); “I will open rivers on the bare heights” (Isa. 41:18); “He will come like a pent-up stream that the wind of the LORD drives on” (Isa. 59:19). Jesus offers living water, which “will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14). John 7:37-38 contains the promise, “Out of a believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water,” which is linked with the work of the Holy Spirit.
Ezekiel 47 traces the prophet’s progress into the river – ankle-deep, waist-deep, and then deep enough to swim. The river flowing from the temple teems with life, offering fresh water instead of salt water so that “everything will live where the river goes” (v. 9). Scripture’s last chapter (Revelation 22) visualizes this river filled with the water of life, which nourishes fruit and trees for the healing of the nations.
Water may be a cause for praise (Pss. 36:8; 46:4), but its energy can also be destructive, causing fears of being overwhelmed (Pss. 42:7; 69:1-2, 15).
There are other evocative references. James 3:11 likens the tongue to a spring and warns about it being a source of fresh or brackish water. Baptism speaks of immersion and identification with Christ (1 Peter 3:21).
The swimming down a river metaphor seems to encapsulate much that is important for preaching. Most importantly, it conveys God’s energy and movement in the preaching process. In the ancient Near East’s dry and thirsty lands, water represented the mystery of God providing resources and energy for life. In a parched world that longs for an authentic word from God, flowing water speaks of surging good news as the Triune God initiates, sustains, and empowers the preacher’s task. We preach because God commands it, empowers it, and blesses it. Preaching continues to owe its power to a preacher’s immersion in the deeper currents and tides of God’s Word. At its best, preaching is a pulse-racing, people-changing, community-developing, history-forging adventure.
Often, preaching metaphors seem to place most of the responsibility for preaching on preachers’ shoulders, as though everything depends on their understanding, techniques, and energy. In this model, a preacher’s prime responsibility is to be immersed in the dynamics of trinitarian preaching. The preaching swim keeps preachers focused on God’s energy and movement.
In discussing the preaching swim with a swimming coach, he emphasized the uniqueness of swimming’s physical movements. On land we operate by Newton’s law: For every action there is a reaction. Since many movements take place against immovable objects, such as the ground, they tend to be piston-like. However, water is a viscous medium and offers only minimal resistance before moving in the direction of a force. In water, therefore, piston movements are highly inefficient. Rather, swimmers need to make “sweeping” movements, finding “still water” against which they can exert resistance. Thrashing about gets one nowhere. This is evocative language for considering the role of a preacher’s spirituality in the preaching process. Listening, waiting, and obeying achieve much more than thrashing about.
The preaching swim also emphasizes personal commitment. Though traveling by boat is much safer and faster, preachers must jump in for their own swim. Copied sermons and generic outlines encourage cloning of others’ preaching experiences. God wants preachers who are compelled by authentic commitment to his Word and passionate commitment to interpret its good news for their hearers. To the question “To preach or not to preach?” the only answer should be, “You cannot stop us.” As Peter and John said, “We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).
Personal styles will vary. All swimmers have a natural stroke style and often take to one stroke more than another. One may prefer the backstroke, another the crawl; some like gentle breaststrokes, while others take to extravagant butterfly action. God honors preachers who make their own strokes with honesty, hard work, love for their people, and passion for the lost. God works through preachers who offer their best.
Serious swimming requires high levels of fitness and preparedness; so does serious preaching. Preachers need to be fit in body, mind, and spirit. They need to immerse their entire life in God’s work. Christians should be used to this tension of working hard within God’s work. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13). Preachers who opt to stay on dry land or paddle in the shallows have misunderstood this principle.
Swimming can also be dangerous, and preaching too involves a sense of danger. Complacency can be deadly when swimming; underwater currents, riptides, and undertows can catch the unwary and cause drowning Complacency is also dangerous when preaching. Trivializing, manipulating, misleading, and downright hypocrisy have eternal consequences.
Jesus reserved his most critical condemnation for professional religious people who presumed their “rightness” (Matt. 23:2-4, 13-15). Martin Luther said, I have often been afraid and awed to think that I have to preach before God’s face of his great majesty and divine being.”5
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a great British preacher, commented that he had preached a good sermon only twice in his life, and both times he had been asleep. “I still remember the awful feeling of disappointment, on both occasions, when I found I was only dreaming. If only I could preach like that in the pulpit when I was awake.”6 The most effective preachers rightly remain dissatisfied with their best efforts and feel inadequate to the next occasion. As Thomas Long warns, “Preaching is a wild river, wide and deep,” and preachers have to “navigate its currents.”7
The image of preaching as swimming in a river can also be used to describe the cultural context. Streams and rivers have a profound long-term influence on their environments. Sourced in high places by springs, rainfall, and snowfall, they begin to move downward, joining other tributaries, deepening, and widening. They encounter obstacles, fall over sheer rock faces, and tumble through narrow gorges and over massive boulders. A river’s power, which allows it to surge, overwhelm, and burst its banks, demands continuing respect. Over time, the imprint rivers leave on the land can be breathtaking. With climatic change or shifts in sea level, they can create spectacular environments. When standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, it is difficult to imagine that rivers created this landscape, yet they did. Rivers shape environments and bring life to inhabitants living on their banks. When preachers swim in God’s news, they belong to the contemporary world with its new, rough terrain of postmodernity. Their swim interacts with culture as they engage Scripture and interpret it for their hearers. Over time the flow of God’s truth through preachers should impact the entire environment.
The preaching swim moves from source to destination, providing a model of sermon preparation as a progression of phases. For convenience, the preaching swim process will be described by a number of stages containing various phases. Yet in reality, the process involves being churned backward and forward by surges, crosscurrents, and obstacles. After all, preachers move toward nothing less than fresh encounters with God. And God’s Word does not return empty.
One further aspect of the preaching swim should be stressed – its fellowship. Each preacher is responsible for being immersed within the dynamic of God’s Word but never as a solo act. Many others swim alongside. William Willimon reminds preachers that they belong to the community of the baptized,8 for many are on the Christian journey. In David Schlafer’s language, preachers have “preaching parents” and “enter into a procession of other voices,”9 especially through Bible commentaries and other study aids. And as already noted, preachers can intentionally develop preaching teamwork by inviting others to swim alongside. Preaching support groups, even in the smallest church settings, can benefit preachers immensely.
The preaching swim, therefore, illustrates several important aspects of the act of preaching: God’s energy and movement, personal commitment, fitness and preparedness, inadequacy and danger, cultural context, progression of phases, and fellowship. I invite you in these next few chapters to visualize preaching as swimming in a river.
An Overview of the Weekly “Swim”
Though a preacher’s lifelong journey could be described as a marathon swim, the preaching swim applies to the short-term weekly process of preparing a sermon. There are five stages within the preaching swim that contain thirteen phases [The thirteen phases are discussed in an appendix of Quicke’s book, 360-Degree Preaching.] Its first two stages belong close together because they both involve immersion and listening.
Stage 1: Immerse in Scripture
Immersion sums up the challenge of engaging Scripture holistically. Immersion involves a learning experience in which understanding means participation. It requires preachers to be open to Scripture – to feel its pulse, sense its mood, and prayerfully enter a Bible passage in its context by listening with heads and hearts, right brain as well as left. Preachers cannot do this secondhand or at a safe distance. Rather than standing on a riverbank to fish for ideas, they need to plunge in to Scripture’s flow to experience its story and its power. This immersion is listening in the past tense. God’s words and images in Scripture breathe with creative potency as God shares himself, and preachers need skill and sensitivity to hear his message in its original context.
Traditionally, this stage is called “exegesis,” and it lays the vital groundwork for biblical preaching. Listening in the past tense involves asking questions such as What happened in this text? What did this mean to the first hearers? What did it say? and What did it do?
Stage 2: Interpret for Today
Stage 2 closely parallels exegesis and can be described as listening in the present tense. As preachers immerse themselves in Scripture, they need to keep in mind an understanding of their own times. They need to listen to several voices within the contemporary world. Scripture’s voice is primary, but the voices of congregation, culture, preacher, and worship are also present. To interpret a text for today, preachers need to ask, What does it say now? What does it do now? What is its mood and movement? A preacher summarizes the outcome of this interpretation process by completing the following sentence: “By the grace of God, what this sermon will say is . . . and what this sermon will do is . . .” This is called the “main impact” of the preaching event. Some call this stage “hermeneutics” (though this term properly includes the entire process of exegesis as well as interpretation).
Stage 3: Design the Sermon
Once a preacher has sharpened a sermon’s main impact, he or she must design its content into a sermon that will adequately carry its message. At this stage, preachers find themselves somewhere along the sermon spectrum between traditional deductive design and plotted inductive narrative design. The most difficult part of any communication is not what to say but how to say it, and preachers must work at both. This stage is called “homiletics” and involves designing a sermon that says and does the same things the biblical text says and does. Twenty-first-century hearers have to be engaged just as convincingly as the first hearers were.
Stage 4: Deliver the Sermon
Delivering the sermon requires yet another range of skills and disciplines. Incarnational preaching concerns the person of the preacher – spirituality, voice, and body. Authentic messages come from authentic messengers, represented by integrated circles of knowledge, skill, and character. Consider Francis of Assisi’s startling advice: “Go and preach the gospel. If you have to, use words.” Many other factors also weigh in alongside words for effective preaching. We have noted that technology invites new ways of combining word, image, and sound. Today, trinitarian preaching occurs within an electronic context, and twenty-first-century preachers have a responsibility to pursue new opportunities for delivering sermons – offering the timeless message in timely ways.
Stage 5: Experience the Outcomes
Figure 7 shows that 360-degree preaching involves action after the delivery as well as before. Preaching as a God-event moves individuals and communities forward in responsive living. God’s Word will not return empty because it empowers both preacher and hearers to live differently. Sermons are not conversation pieces to tickle gray matter but God’s springboards for action in kingdom life. Preachers and hearers should expect to be different. Hearers should say, “By the grace of God, what the preacher said to me is . . . and what he calls me to do is . . .”
Figure 8 provides a profile of the preaching swim. None of the five phases should be omitted from each weekly swim. Shortcuts are tempting for busy preachers, but they imperil genuine outcomes by disconnecting parts of the 360-degree model.
Michael Quicke is Koller Professor of Preaching at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, IL.
1. Eugene Lowry, The Sermon: Dancing the Edge of Mystery (Nashville: Abingdon, 1997), 15.
2. Michael Quicke (E. Y. Mullins Lectures, Southern Baptist Seminary, Louisville, 3 March 1995).
3. Charles W. Koller, How to Preach without Notes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 14.
4. YMCA of USA, Teaching Swimming Fundamentals (Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics Publishers, 1999), 10-11.
5. Quoted in John W. Doberstein, The Minister’s Prayer Book (London: Collins, 1964), 428.
6. Tony Sargent, The Sacred Anointing: The Preaching of Dr. Marten Lloyd-Jones (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1994), 2.
7. Thomas G. Long, The Witness of Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1989), 20.
8. William H. Willimon, Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992).
9. See David J. Schlafer, Your Way with God’s Word (Cambridge: Cowley, 1995), 28.
10. Ronald J. Allen and Gilbert L. Bartholomew, Preaching Verse by Verse (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), viii.