Standing before my congregation I sometimes think of Huck Finn's description of Mr. Phelps who "never charged nothing for his preaching. And it was worth it, too." What is my preaching worth? That question can keep preachers trembling in the pulpit and tossing in bed.
God can make any sermon worth something, of course; the Holy Spirit can take wooden nickels of human speech and turn them into golden coins of divine speech. But while we pray and hope for this exchange, we don't count on it to relieve us of the hard work of preparation and delivery. On the human side, preaching is a craft, and like any craft it demands knowledge, practice, and a willingness to persevere through much drudgery.
George Buttrick, for many years pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, said "there is no excuse for stepping into the pulpit unprepared.... If there are two hundred people in the congregation, it would take you almost seventy hours to have a twenty minute visit with each one. No one has the right to waste that much time."
How can we keep from wasting time? Coming up with a hot zinger of a sermon once in a while isn't too difficult, but how do we maintain excellence in the craft week by week, year by year?
John Stott has developed the metaphor of bridge-building to describe the preacher's task: "If we are to build bridges into the real world, and seek to relate the Word of God to the major themes of life and the major issues of the day, then we have to take seriously both the biblical text and the contemporary scene. We cannot afford to remain on either side of the cultural divide ... it is our responsibility to explore the territories on both sides of the ravine until we become thoroughly familiar with them. Only then shall we discern the connections between them and be able to speak the divine Word to the human situation with any degree of sensitivity and accuracy."1
This article will tell of one preacher's attempt to sink deeply the bridge's pylons in both the soil of God and the soil of humanity. I don't believe my method represents the only effective approach, but it has worked well for me as I have been, to quote Robert Penn Warren from another context, "a man willing to go naked into the pit, again and again, to make the same old struggle for ... truth."
God's Side of the Chasm
1. Biblical/theological study. To communicate the Word of God to the world of humanity, we begin with the biblical text. Since most of us can't devote the eighteen hours a day Jonathan Edwards spent in study, how do we best organize our time? I begin by remembering the so-called hermeneutical circle: the whole of Scripture interprets its various parts, and the various parts reveal its whole. I want my study, therefore, to be both general and particular; I plan for reflection on the forest as a whole and for detailed study of individual trees.
To keep myself thinking about the broad sweep of God's revelation, I read four chapters in the Bible each day. Now, parts of it, I'll admit, bore me. So to keep from getting lost in the genealogies of Genesis or drowning in the blood sacrifices of Leviticus, I read in four different places, starting with Genesis, Ezra, Matthew, and Acts (a method I picked up from John Stott). At the end of the year I've read the Old Testament once and the New Testament twice.