By Dustin Leimgruber
Monday, December 12, 2011
Some of the fondest memories of my childhood are of going fishing with my dad. To enjoy each other's company and build up our relationship, we would head down to the lake to enjoy some catch-and-release fishing. Before we made it to the lake, we had preparation rituals to accomplish. The night before, we would quietly stalk night crawlers in our back yard to use for bait. In the morning, we would check the tackle box to make sure we had all the right tools for the job. If it was the first day of the season, we would head down to the local bait shop to get a license and maybe some extra worms if my stomping had scared away too many night crawlers the previous night.
When we got to the lake, we would carefully bait our hooks or choose our lure. Then we would cast and wait. When we got a bite, the real thrill began. There was so much excitement in fighting a fish, wondering how big it would be when we got it out of the water, and sharing in the thrill for whoever was reeling in one. After the fight was over, we would take a good look at our prize, take it off the hook and throw it back in the water. The people who were there to keep the fish would look at us as if we were crazy; but we always threw them back, because we had no need of fish. We wanted the pond to stay well-stocked so we would have enough fish to fight. On occasion, we got exactly what we wanted because we could tell the same fish would bite over and over again.
Although this story is a fond memory, I hope my fishing strategy never resembles my preaching strategy. When Jesus told His disciples He would make them fishers of men, He wasn't talking about catch-and-release fishing. The fishers in the group caught fish for the sole purpose of keeping them. Although those fish would die because they had been caught, Jesus' style of fishing leads to life for those who are caught. Jesus intended for His disciples to keep their catch, not throw them back into the environment they had come from before they were caught.
Finding Our Bait
Just as my father and I spent the previous night collecting our bait to catch the interest of fish, we as preachers must have something to catch the interest of our congregation. As we live life, we will experience many things that can serve as sermon illustrations that we can store as bait. I like to store mine in a Word document where the Find function can bring me to any key word or topic in a moment. Others use a more traditional hard-copy system in a filing cabinet. Whatever system you choose, it is bound to be better than hoping the story will come to mind in your sermon preparation. These illustrations will bring your sermon to life and catch the interest of your congregation so the members will recognize the Bible really does have something to say to them. A sermon without illustrations is like a naked fish hook floating in the water; you're not going to get very many bites.
Preparing Our Tackle Box
Next we prepare our tackle box. Instead of hooks, weights and bobbers, we make sure we have the tools of exegesis. We have our grammars and commentaries to help us arrive at the best exegetical understanding of the passage. We read for context. We ask ourselves, "What was the author trying to convey to his original audience?" Without accurate exegesis, we have nothing important to say. Without good exegesis, we are men making casting motions with our fishing rods, even though it's not attached to a fishing line. We may appear to be going through the motions, but we are not actually accomplishing anything.
Choose Your Lure
Now that we have the right bait and the right tools in our tackle boxes, the next step is to choose the right lure. Experienced fishermen will know what type of fish live in which spot and which bait these fish prefer. Some fish like live bait; some like lures; some live on the bottom; some live on the top. The right bait and the right fishing technique will catch the attention of the fish you are trying to catch. Likewise, good preachers knows their congregations. They know the type of illustrations that catch their members' attention. Some congregations respond to illustrations about children, some sports, but very few to anecdotes that begin, "I remember reading in seminary about Greek grammar..." Good preachers recognize that a carefully crafted form and style of sermon will catch the attention of a congregation so the people cannot help but pay attention. When choosing our lure, we must first find an accurate homiletical idea. How can we briefly and memorably state the big idea of the sermon to our congregation? After we have done this, how can we best structure the sermon to be faithful to the text and interesting for our congregation?
The Thrill of the Fight
Once the bait has been acquired, the right tools used and the correct strategy chosen, the next stage is the thrill of the fight. After our sermons are prepared, we must preach them. All the hours of careful preparation and prayer culminate in a relatively brief sermon in which we wrestle with the text and our audience. First is the thrill of hooking the audience with an opening. Hopefully, we do not end the fight before it has begun with dry exposition about the economic climate of a long dead city. However, we may pose a question with which many have struggled personally. We may tell an unresolved story that begs to be finished. Whatever the opening, our congregation should want to hear what comes next. After the audience has been hooked, the majority of the fight begins. In fishing, a fisherman has to be careful to do two things when bringing in a fish. He cannot go too fast, or the line will break; he cannot go too slow, or the fish will spit out the hook. Likewise, we cannot race forward in our sermons at breakneck speeds or meander by exhausting the truth or piling up illustrations as though the congregation cannot possibly think of anything more interesting than our third illustration about the same concept. We must go through our material, stopping to explain just as much as needed about these three things: We must explain what is unclear, prove what is difficult to believe at first hearing, and apply what is not immediately obvious. Tarrying too long at one step will lose our congregation's interest and they will spit out the hook. Skipping over steps at great speed will snap the line and lose our congregation in confusion. Preaching is a conversation in which the congregation should track with the preacher as he explains what they are confused about, prove what they are skeptical of and apply what they find irrelevant.
The Big Moment
If your sermon has been a success so far and all of your work has paid off, you come to the most important moment, the conclusion. Just as a successful fishermna stands proudly with his catch in hand, a successful preacher at the end of the sermon stands with the congregation waiting to hear the final words. This is where much of our preaching falls flat. What do we do with congregations after they have been hooked by the text, wrestled with it and are finally brought out of their old world to confront God's reality? Unfortunately, many of us hold up our trophy to admire and throw it back in the water so we can go through the whole process the following week. When Jesus told His disciples they would be fishers of men, He meant much more than this. At this moment of the sermon, we must ask our congregations, "How does this word from God change your life?" If we do not directly pose this question to our congregations, we will be catch-and-release preachers. We may carefully craft our sermons and deliver them with care, but they ultimately will leave people exactly where they started. So how will you keep your catch?
Just as there are many tools for the rest of your sermon, there are many different ways to ask your congregations how they will respond to God. Consider this non-exhaustive list of tools to keep your catch. Directly ask in the sermon for people to consider and discuss, "How will this change my life during the next week?" Set up a Q&A time after the sermon. Collaborate with Sunday School to teach the same subject. Allow time for testimonies about past sermon implications. These are just a few ways you might aid your congregation in applying a sermon. Do not stop with these, but go and find your own techniques that work for your specific context. Pick and use the best ones. Find your bait, pick your lure, and keep your catch because Jesus has made us fishers of men.