This post is part two in the series Preparing to Preach in the Missional Church. You can read part one here.
For a missional church planter, sermon preparation as a way of living within the larger set of responsibilities. It’s not just a list of steps to work through as much as it is a cycle of actions and postures — a way of living within our wider role. The fact is, in the early seasons of the church’s life, we might not have as much time to devote to sermon preparation.
The question then, is how can we devote as much attention? Attention is a good jumping-off point for our first posture, because it really is the first posture: Attend.
By attend, we don’t mean that you have to go to a church service on Sunday, though I suppose it would be hard to preach without doing so. It means we attend to life. We recognize the need for us to show up, to be present. To attend is to recognize that the work of the sermon is to engage God’s larger story with everyday life. If we are to help others do so in our preaching, it begins as we do the same in our own day to day.
A few years ago, I read a book called Refractions, by the artist Makuro Fujimura. It is a collection of writings in which he mixes reflections about his work as an artist, theology, and day to day life. While I appreciated the thoughtfulness he brought to each reflection, I remember being left with my larger overall impression of how engaged he is to everything happening around him. Many of the essays came out of his own journal, and I was struck by the awareness with which he lives — the seeming necessity to pay attention to, and reflect on, all that was going on around him. He saw things that captured his thoughts, and he took the time to tease out his initial inklings. This is what I have in mind as I say our first posture needs to be those who Attend.
I received my Master’s degree from the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. Even before I applied, I was intrigued by the simple tagline used by the school: Soul. Text. Culture. These are, as the mission statement of the school describes, the three areas where students are to be equipped in competent study. While I am unreasonably wary of three point outlines, these three areas form a helpful breakdown for the areas where we need to Attend. And so, with proper credit ascribed, I now steal them—though I will re-order them for my own purposes.
Most of us, as missional church planters, already have degrees that define our expertise as “study-ers” of the sacred texts of the Old and New Testament. Or course, this is a critical skill for sermon preparation. But I’ve been thankful for, and challenged by, the number of interviews I’ve done on Sermonsmith where the primal action of someone’s sermon preparation is to reflect through what the text has to say to them.
Before they engage word studies, commentaries, and historical context, they engage a pen and paper to reflect how the text is capturing their own heart. They sit and be present with the text. The text is best engaged not for the purpose of having something to say, but for saying something to us. Our best sermons will come not from a text that was scheduled months in advance to be preached on a given Sunday, but from our own time spent attending to texts and allowing them to engage our own day-to-day. I’ve heard that preachers need to study the Scriptures beyond those that they are going to preach.
This is a fair point, I suppose, but I’d just as much argue that deep, long, and personal study of texts that are to be preached will lead to our most meaningful sermons and selves.
It may be apocryphal that Karl Barth said that we need to “read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” He might not have ever said that exact thing, but we have quotes of similar things that remind us that we cannot only be familiar with the ancient story being told in Scriptures. We need also to be able to see the larger ongoing story happening today in the neighborhoods in which we live and minister.
One example of attending to culture would be social media- something about which I have a finely honed ambivalence.I see how it might generate self-gratuitous, narcissistic tendencies as well as distant, impersonal, objectifying conversations. (Pessimistic? Perhaps. True of me? Yes.) But social media can also be a gift, an untapped mine of voices encrusted with the cares and concerns of your neighbors and congregation. A thoughtful scan of tweets, statuses, and ‘grams invites a diligent preacher to listen in on the stories of Monday through Saturday, and to weigh how they are resonant or dissonant with the ongoing story of Scripture.
Care more about who you follow than who follows you, and you can curate a well-crafted stream of the voices in your parish.
Most of us have been trained to pay attention to exegete Scripture and culture — but our souls don’t always receive the same summons. We are told that as pastors and preachers we must care for our souls, which usually alludes to what we put in. But we also take heed of what comes out. Pay attention to how you respond to things and why. Get some blank notebooks or an app like Day One and fill them up. What irritates you, revives you, bores you, thrills you, and angers you? Why? How is your own story, like the cultural story, resonant or dissonant in Scripture, and how does that shape the sermons you prepare? My three kids have an acute expertise in delaying bedtime. Their favorite method of the last few years is to require us to tell them a story of when we were a kid. It seems that no repeats are allowed, and I now wake most mornings in a panic about what story I can recall for the looming pillow talk.
But as I dredge the stories, I dredge the depths of myself, too. Why, of all the thousands of days I went to school, do I remember that one? How did this particular conversation with my mom mark me in a way that causes me to remember it so well? How have these stories formed even the smallest choices I’ll make today? Many of these memories have found their way into sermons.
The personal stories we tell our congregation shape how they see God’s larger story. And so do the stories we don’t tell, because they’ve shaped us, and they shape how we preach, what we emphasize, and what we avoid. Know thyself.
The Sacred Mundane
Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God is a classic Christian text. I haven’t read it since the first Bush was in the White House, but I maintain a vivid image of him describing how he tried to be aware of God’s presence even as he washed the stacks of dishes used in the monastery each day. The suds were not sacred, but the moments he spent with them were.
Perhaps the best way to understand what it means to Attend is to understand it as prayer. It is a perpetual dialogue with God so that we see Scripture, culture, and self in the same way that God does. It is to scour the mundane in a way that sees the sacredness of it all.
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