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.
Staying at it every day can sometimes be a drag — especially if I skip a day because of an early morning breakfast and have to read eight the next day — but I feel it’s necessary for a good view of the forest. And it continues to surprise me how often the various passages interact with each other and with my upcoming sermons; connections I would have never made jump out at me through this daily discipline.
In addition to this Bible reading, I set aside a few hours a week (two to four) for theological reading not connected in any obvious way with sermon preparation. To study only for next Sunday leaves one wading about in shallow waters, so to stay fit I swim in the depths by working through a volume of systematic theology.
Early in my ministry I made a choice I haven’t regretted, though it would probably cause despair for my seminary language professors: with the limited time for study available to me, I decided to spend it with Karl Barth, say, rather than with Hebrew vocabulary lists. Consequently, my reading knowledge of Hebrew rapidly died and my Greek isn’t too healthy, but I believe that a growing ability to think theologically (with breadth and depth) has more than compensated for the deficiency.
Earl Palmer remembers a senior class dinner at Princeton Seminary in which George Buttrick challenged the future pastors by saying, “When you are at Coney Island, don’t tell the people of the concession on the boardwalk about which they know; tell them of the mystery of the sea, about which they don’t know.” He went on: “Don’t read only what your people are reading…. Read what your people are not reading.”2 The books that deserve our attention are primary sources; leave secondary sources to others. They will probably not be carried by the average Christian bookstore, but most merchants will happily order them.
Having a panoramic view of the forest isn’t enough; we don’t really see its wonders until we’ve closely examined individual trees. For me, study of the particulars of Scripture happens as I prepare for sermons. I dissect the text, sentence by sentence, word by word, asking a thousand questions and trying to answer them myself before reaching for the commentaries. I’m convinced that many preachers simply don’t stay with the text long enough. The best expositors, like Jacob wrestling with the angel, won’t let it go until they get the blessing (and often a pain in the thigh, too).
Freeman Patterson, a professional photographer, has described the way he approaches his art, and those of us who seek to understand Scripture would do well to follow his example: “On those frosty mornings when I grab my camera and tripod, and head out into the meadow behind the house, I quickly forget about me. I stop thinking about what I’ll do with the photographs, or about self-fulfillment, and lose myself in the sheer magic of rainbows in the grass ….”
“Letting go of self is an essential precondition to real seeing. When you let go of yourself, you abandon any preconceptions about the subject matter which might cramp you into photographing in a certain, predetermined way. As long as you are worried about whether or not you will be able to make good pictures, or are concerned about enjoying yourself, you are unlikely either to take the best photographs you can or experience the joy of photography to the fullest. When you let go new conceptions arise from your direct experience of the subject matter, and new ideas and feelings will guide you as you make pictures.”3
The way Patterson surrenders himself to his subject is the way an exegete should become wholly captivated by a text. I find this difficult. Many things distract me before I’m finished with seeing the text itself: possible sermon outlines, an idea to comfort the disturbed or to disturb the comfortable, and yes, even a great story I’ve been saving for a dramatic illustration. These things — and a hundred more — can seize my attention as thoroughly as rabbits distracting a hunting dog. But those weeks I manage to keep my eyes focused on the pheasant, as it were, I end up with more to feed my people.
Only after I’ve spent time with the text itself do I let myself wander through the commentaries. And I mean wander. I don’t feel compelled to read every word of every commentary in my library; I wander through them, checking my own exegesis to make sure I’m not being dishonest with the text, and watching for ideas I might have missed. I try to read at least one historical/- critical commentary, and then a couple expositional/homiletical commentaries.
2. Journals and periodicals. For the task of getting grounded on God’s side of the chasm, there are a good many periodicals available to keep us updated on recent theological trends, practical advice, book reviews, and news of the Christian world. These can be important resources stimulating our thinking and pointing to what God is doing in our world.
I’m very cautious with periodicals. They can consume a great deal of time, and as they pile up on the desk can bury one in a truckload of guilt. So I scan periodicals, occasionally using the last half-hour at the office to get through the accumulated stack. When an article interests me I slow down and perhaps copy it for my files.
3. The inner witness of the Holy Spirit. Sitting at our desks, surrounded by lexicons and commentaries, our minds engage the text of Scripture; through reason we hear the Word of God. But the learning doesn’t end there, if we have ears to hear. On our knees, surrounded by silence and filled with the usual assortment of fears and doubts and longings, our hearts can engage the text of experience; through our lives we can hear the Word of God. This is a secondary source, certainly, and always tested and confirmed through the recorded experience of the apostolic witnesses, but an important source nonetheless.
Sometimes — rarely, but sometimes — I catch a glimpse of something, eternity perhaps, behind my everyday experience, and I feel a lump forming in my throat and a tug at my guts and I could no more verbalize what’s happening to me than I could recite Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, but I try to linger and listen. It has happened while holding the hand of a friend who’s trying desperately to hold the life slipping away from him, and it has happened while watching sunlight gild my daughter’s hair as she practices the piano with concentrated innocence.
It has happened when the veil has been pulled back by the Holy Spirit and my own attentiveness, and I see behind the ordinary. I try to reflect on these moments, let the emotions that flow through me agitate my thinking and incite my imagination. Often I am led into a passage of Scripture or it forces its way into me, and before long my homiletical instincts are aroused.
If we are God’s children living in God’s world, and if God holds our lives in His loving hands, we must pay attention; we must learn how to notice both heaven and hell behind our earthly experiences. And in this seeing we will also hear, and what we hear just may be the Word of God.
In my prayer-time, I try to remember commonplace happenings, and then be ready for the wind of the Spirit to blow aside the veil. It’s not easy. I’m usually too busy with pitiful attempts to get God’s attention about some problem or need. But sometimes I get quiet enough to hear something coming through my own experiences, a word to me that may, for all I know, be the Word.
The preacher’s first task is to sink one side of the bridge deeply into the soil of God, the Word of God. But the bridge-building isn’t completed until the other end of the bridge has been sunk deeply into the soil of humanity, the world of God.
Humanity’s Side of the Chasm
1. Listening to people. Exegeting Scripture isn’t enough; a preacher must also exegete human life. The people who often seem to drain our emotions and distract our thinking are, in fact, an important resource for preaching. We must know those to whom we preach, not in the way a salesman knows a client well enough to make a sale, but rather the way a husband knows his wife with a participatory knowledge that transforms him as much as it transforms her. A preacher’s knowledge must not be simply utilitarian, for that leads to manipulation; it must be incarnational, for that leads to transformation.
The only way to know people — really know them — is to listen to them. Whenever I’m quiet long enough to try this, I feel like a kindergartner trying to learn calculus. Oh, it’s not hard to appear as though I’m listening; even when I’m bored silly and wishing the person would stop talking so I can tell her what she needs to know — even then I can fake a wonderful pastoral concern. The nod, the smile, the probing question.
Yet appearing interested isn’t the same as being interested. When I’m really listening I don’t feel like a wonderful counselor; I often find myself with nothing much to say (I haven’t been composing pithy comments in my head). But that person’s questions and hurts linger long after the conversation. And I try to remember them as I plan my preaching.
So when Hazel looked up at me through a face swollen by chemotherapy and said, “Pastor, why hasn’t God healed me,” I let that question bounce around in my own soul until it, becoming one with a biblical text, conceived a sermon that was delivered in the presence of the congregation.
Though the staff at my church is now large enough to relieve me from most pastoral care duties, I make certain that I continue to be with at least a few people who are walking through dark valleys.
2. Reading to know people. Our knowledge of humanity need not be limited by our circle of friends and parishioners. Through books we can enter into the lives of others. It may be possible for non-readers to preach well, though only in the sense that “with God nothing will be impossible.” For most of us, however, reading is to preaching as breathing is to life: an absolute necessity. If I couldn’t read I’d feel like a paraplegic competing in an Olympic foot race.
There seems never enough time to read. I’ve pastored a small church and a large church, and there’s no difference. Reading time is as scarce as pine trees on Southern California beaches; but if you have to find them and know where to look, the occasional Torrey Pine can be seen. The hard truth is this: we make time for what we value. And if we cannot preach well without reading, then we must create room for it in our schedules.
Aside from commentaries and the periodicals at the end of the day, I almost never read at the office. I do most of it in the evenings and on weekends. When I don’t have a meeting to attend, I read at least two hours before going to bed. And on most Saturday mornings, when my family is still asleep and it’s so quiet I can hear my heart pumping, you will find me with a book and hot coffee keeping me company.
Because reading time is hard to come by, I am very careful about what I read. I sometimes think I take as much time choosing what to read as I spend reading. Every year publishers dump fifty thousand new books on the market, and even if forty-nine thousand aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, that still leaves a good many books crying for attention.
In selecting books, I pay careful attention to reviews (my favorite weekly source is The New York Times Review of Books — for $26 a year it’s a great buy) and recommendations from people I trust. Also, if I find an especially challenging and inspiring author, I read her other works, and then I read the thinkers that have influenced her. In this way, good books lead me to other good books.
My goal is to finish at least one book a week. This seems a reasonable requirement for anyone faced with the weekly task of preaching. I usually keep four different books going. In addition to the volume of theology I’ve already mentioned, I’m always in a novel and a biography, and the fourth book varies between different categories — most often socio/political commentary, religious works (not strictly theology), and psychology.
A final comment about reading. The daily newspaper can consume massive amounts of time, and in my judgment it’s rarely worth it, even if you receive, as I do, one of the nation’s finest. I limit my newspaper time to a careful reading of the front page and occasional editorals, and then I scan the sports and arts sections. Most news develops over several days, so a weekly newsmagazine offers a better investment of time. (For many years I have read Time cover to cover, and I have recently begun reading World Monitor).
3. The electronic media. The people to whom we preach do not spend most of their time reading. Electronic media influence them far more than the printed page. The average American spends 41/2 hours each day watching television — an increase of 81% in the past fifteen years.4 Preachers have not begun to think deeply enough about what this means for sermonizing, and I can’t offer a thorough analysis here. I will say that if we’re not watching some television, we’re out of touch with an important part of today’s world.
As for radio, I don’t follow my natural inclinations and turn to the classical music station when I get into the car. Many of my people — perhaps most — prefer light rock to the music of Bach. So I have my dial set on a popular rock station, and keep it there as long as my aesthetic sensibilities can take it. As with television, popular music reveals much about our contemporary culture. And besides, I’ve grown to like the beat.
4. Cultural events. Most communities offer opportunities to experience movies, drama, concerts, and visual arts. Nowadays even those in rural areas enjoy traveling performances; few preachers are completely cut off from these things. I never feel as though I’m taking full advantage of what’s available where I live; time and money, after all, are limited. But when I do see a movie or watch a play or listen to a concert or visit a gallery, I often find my mind stretched and my emotions touched.
Listening to people, reading books and periodicals, and experiencing electronic media and cultural events can be ways in which we ground the bridge on the human side of the chasm. For communication to happen, then, the truth from God’s side must get over to the human side. We must translate the truths of Canaan into the language of Babylon by clothing the biblical texts (and consequent theological affirmations) in illustrations and imagery drawn from contemporary human experience. To preach well, therefore, we must have eyes open to the world in which we live, and we must remember what we see.
Remembering What We See
Unless a preacher has a perfect memory, some way of storing and retrieving things noticed on the human side of the chasm will be necessary. Filing systems, I suppose, merit the comment C. S. Lewis made about the Devil: the two great errors we can make are to think too much about them or to think too little about them.
An elaborate system, complete with codes and cross-references and computer programs, creates a methodological legalism in which most of us eventually join with the Apostle in crying, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Complicated systems, I would guess, remain unused systems.
But certainly the stories, quotes, and images we find need to be recorded some way in order to be remembered some day. I make no claim to expertise in this part of the preaching process; I have developed a method, however, that has worked very well for me through the years.
I keep with me at all times (except in the shower) a small hand-held cassette recorder. It uses a “micro cassette” that can take up to 120 minutes of dictation. Many reasonably priced models are on the market, and I consider any preacher without one horribly deprived. If the proverbial push came to shove, I would probably trade my entire set bf Kittel or even the Church Dogmatics for one.
When I come across something in my reading, or have a thought I don’t want to forget, or think of an interesting image, I simply reach for my recorder, and speak to my secretary, “Marsha, a quote card….” She will then type whatever I tell her on a 4″ x 6″ card, and she has learned how to add any appropriate bibliographic references I may want to keep.
This is as easy as repeating what I want to remember. Before using this method, I might be reading with my shoes off and my feet up, and find something worth remembering. An argument with myself would immediately begin: I really should get up, get a piece of paper, and write this down; on the other hand, a tired man deserves to relax. And it would never get recorded. Now I simply reach for my recorder, push a button, and in seconds it’s accomplished.
When we’re on a family vacation I try to keep my eyes open for possible illustrations or observations. So, for example, when we took the boat to Liberty Island to see the famous statue, I was reminded of how God intended the law to function as that boat, as a way to move us toward liberty, as a way to lead us toward freedom. That evening in the hotel, while waiting for my daughters to clear out of the bathroom, I reached for my recorder and had more than enough time to record this and several other observations I made that day.
What do I do with the cards? I do not file them, at least not immediately. I keep a pile growing for about a year, because a good illustration can almost always be used in a variety of contexts. Just after I’ve written a bare-bones sermon outline, during the brainstorming part of the process, I shuffle through the stack. This doesn’t take as much time as you might think; after a few weeks a card is so familiar that one look reminds me of its content.
The card I made after seeing Rembrandt’s painting of the woman taken in adultery stayed in the pile for some time. I knew it would make a great illustration, but I was waiting for the best occasion. I didn’t know whether I would use it when speaking about grace or humility or pride; it would work well with each of these themes. Eventually I used it to illustrate humility. Had I filed it immediately under “grace” I wouldn’t have had it when I needed it most.
About once a year I force myself to categorize each card in order to file it according to a specific subject. Through the years the file boxes have accumulated, and in the event of a fire I would probably carry them to safety before anything else.
Building the bridge called preaching isn’t easy: to stay at it week by week requires dedicated attentiveness and disciplined remembering. The work has its joys, certainly, but also its drudgery.
Leonardo da Vinci was once at work on a great painting. He had labored long to create a masterpiece, and it was nearly complete. Suddenly he called a student to him, gave him the brush and said, “You finish it.” The student protested, feeling unworthy. But da Vinci said, “Will not what I have done inspire you to do your best?”5
Will not God’s masterful work of creation and redemption through Jesus Christ inspire us to do our best at the difficult task of bridge-building?
1. John R. W. Stott, Between Two Worlds — The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), p. 180.
2. Earl Palmer, The Twenty-Four Hour Christian — How to Stay Close to Jesus When the World Tugs Hard (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1987), p. 73.
3. Freeman Patterson, Photography and the Art of Seeing (Philadelphia: Chilton, 1965), p. 9.
4. Sources and Resources, October 15, 1985.
5. Ben Patterson, The Grand Essentials (Waco: Word, 1987), p. 26.

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