This is the second blog post about preaching without notes, but this one is more focused on preparing to preach. In the previous post, I invited preachers to take the plunge off the high dive and preach with fewer and fewer notes as a way to be more engaging, connected and authentic.
This post is to invite preachers to go deeper into their preaching – into the text, into the context and into the community. Not every sermon can be preached everywhere, but every preacher can prepare a sermon for a specific place and time that is sensitive to the moment and contextually appropriate.
When I helped my son learn to be in the water as a baby, he thought the surface of the water was all there was to it. He floated with his floaties, he splashed with his hands in the swim ring, and he held on tightly as he rode on my back along the surface. We got him to put his head under the water's surface once or twice and he freaked out a bit. So for the most part he was fine above the water. As he gained more confidence, we took him to swimming lessons and he learned the treasures of the deeper water. He could not believe he had never experienced the "deep end." Now he could dive into the water, swim deeper into the water, dive for things at the bottom of the pool, and other more exciting things - like take on the waves at the Jersey shore or boogie board on a North Carolina beach. He was in heaven ... all because he learned to break the surface.
In preaching, too many preachers stay on the surface in their sermon preparation, in their sermons, and in their understanding of the listeners who will receive these sermons. They keep their floaties on. They stay in the shallow end of the pool. They avoid the big waves of controversial or complex texts. They splash around a lot seeming to be making a lot of impact when all they are doing is stirring up the surface. And they ignore the "deep end" of the text and the context. It is unfortunate for them and very often for their listeners as well.
So first let's talk about going deeper in sermon prep.
One of the most important parts of the preaching process is not deciding what goes into a sermon; it is more about deciding what needs to stay out. As preachers prepare to preach, they should be doing biblical exegesis to learn all they can about the text, research the circumstances of the text (author, place, time/context of writing, style of writing, etc.), and work to find connections between the text and their particular context (time, place, situation, congregational make-up, etc.). They should also be considering stories that will illuminate the text for their people. They should be pondering current events, their own lives, and the lives of their people in relationship to preaching any given Sunday.
All of this is vital for the process of crafting a sermon – no matter what delivery vehicle you are using. However, the problem for many preachers is deciding what goes into the sermon after that research. Some decide to preach what I call the "kitchen sink" sermon. They have thrown in everything but the kitchen sink. These types of sermons can provide a lot of historical and exegetical information for the listeners, but might be so much more than the current circumstances warrant.
I went to church on vacation a few years ago and the preacher was using the Good Samaritan text for their sermon. They spent 12 and 1/2 minutes of their 18 minute sermon telling us about the historical circumstances of the time, describing the history of the Jewish/Samaritan conflict, describing the road system in the area, talking about the inn system of the day, etc. by the time they got to the story itself -- they seemed to have lost most of the congregation, myself included. Often a little bit goes a long way. One or two short sentences briefly describing the context of the story would have been enough. It was a moment of too much.
Going deeper does not mean utilizing everything you find in your exegetical process ... it means analyzing those depths for what is necessary and important for the listener in the context in which you preach. It means creating a message that enables people to enter into the story without being inundated with so many facts or historical details that do not drive the sermon toward greater connection and engagement. It means using the relevant information you find in your exegesis in ways that are relevant to the sermon and context.
Maybe you want your listeners to picture a time in their faith journey when they felt alone on a road, set upon by forces bent on destroying them, and feeling left by the side of the road ... and were rescued by someone unexpected. In this case some visualization of the road might be a way into the depths of the sermon. But do they need a full history of the road systems of the day? Probably not.
Going deeper in your preaching means making important connections between the text, the context of the day, and your own listeners. It does not mean sharing every tidbit of information you have discovered in your exegesis.
Edit your research and edit yourself. Analyze the material and analyze its effectiveness in helping to further your proclamation. That is the key in going deeper.
Sometimes preachers preach as if this will be the only time they will ever preach on a particular text. If you preach from the lectionary or just think you might preach a series on similar texts someday - store the research in a file (physical or digital) so you can come back to it someday, but remember you will need to once again analyze it for the context of that preaching as well.
Going deeper is an important part of sermon preparation but it does not mean pulling up and spilling out all of the water you pass through.
Be selective, be critical, be relevant. But still go deep.