The Fig-Arm Journey To Simplicity

Forest2Oliver Wendell Holmes is credited with this great quote – “I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity this side of complexity, but I’d give my right arm for simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

I remember Haddon Robinson using this quote to distinguish two types of simplicity in preaching.  This side of complexity the simplicity isn’t worth much.  Often very young preachers offer this because it is all they have to give.  Listeners will resonate at a certain level, appreciating the simplicity combined with a young preacher getting launched into ministry.  But there will also be a lack of depth, of experience, of insight, of nuance, and of genuine impact.  This less-than-a-fig’s worth of simple preaching will hopefully yield to a pursuit of something more valuable.

The goal is arms’-worth simplicity.  This is the kind of simplicity that great preachers offer. They have a much greater and more personal understanding of the Bible, of life, of their listeners, and of themselves.  This kind of preacher knows how to plumb the depths of Scripture and serve up a simple message that is not paper thin and feather light, but life impacting and pregnant with deep truth, resonating with listeners as true. To hear a great preacher preach simply is heart warming, life changing and profoundly satisfying.

But there is a journey from less-than-fig simplicity to arms’-worth simplicity.  It is a journey through complexity.  Here are five quick thoughts on the journey:

1. It is a necessary journey.  It may be tempting to stay this side of complexity and try to fake depth by copying preachers that have made the journey.  This cannot be effectively faked.  Knowing comments, beard stroking, profound stares and implying you are a deep well simply won’t convince the more mature listeners.  Determine to prayerfully make the journey over the next years to that far side of complexity.

2. It is a multi-faceted journey. It is tempting to assume that the journey simply involves learning a lot.  It includes that, but also much more.  By all means go to seminary, read lots, learn loads, but know that merely filling your head with knowledge will not get you through the dark forest of complexity – it will probably plant you right in the middle!  There will also be life experience needed, and only God can orchestrate that.  There may well be suffering – sometimes “low level” and sometimes a horrendous “crucible experience.”  There will need to be painful feedback pursued and taken to heart.  This journey is not easy, neither is it quick:

3. It can be a slow journey.  Know that it can take years to successfully get through the forest.  Many preachers play around the edges of the forest, but never plunge in and come through to the other side.  They read a bit, study a bit (even getting a degree can be just studying a bit), and try to act like the three bushes they have hung out with constitute a forest!  It is hard to spot shallowness and ignorance in the mirror, but pray for a clear view of yourself, and pray for honest insight from others.

4. The preacher should determine to make this journey.  Only God knows the journey through the forest, but pray for Him to lead you and start taking steps.  And remember your goal is simplicity.  Know that your listeners won’t love the complexity as much as you do, so always look to grow in simplicity in your preaching, wherever you are in the journey.  Often you will fail, but always aim to communicate as clearly as you can.

5. The listeners will need to have patience with the preacher.  If you know someone on this journey, then please support them, cheer them on, encourage them.  Give them feedback that will help them grow.  Give them grace and space to make mistakes and to make progress.  Don’t chase them back to cheap simplicity, and don’t chase them out of your church because they are trying to grow.  You will be glad when they make it through, and they will make it through, in part, because of your help!

10 Listener Fatigues – part 2

yawningman2Continuing our list of potential preaching fatigue that we might be able to avoid for our listeners…

(Yesterday we thought about genre, key text and main point fatigue)

4. Preacher Fatigue.  After a while your listeners might just get tired of hearing you.  You may try to vary what you do, but you will always be you and that creates some limitations for your preaching.  Don’t be afraid to share your pulpit. Develop other preachers, invite other local pastors, give yourself a break and your listeners too.

5. Illustration Fatigue.  One way we can be predictable is in the use of illustrations.  Do you often reference certain sports, or your own family, or the Napoleonic Wars?  Beware of tiring listeners with something that doesn’t mean as much to them as it does to you.  Some preachers default to the same category of illustration.  Others default to a collection of specific illustrations.  I’m feeling drained just describing it!

6. Vulnerability Fatigue.  Some of us don’t share enough vulnerability in our preaching.  But some of us share too much and too often.  When listeners start to feel like they are the counsellors for your self-disclosure, they will grow tired of hearing about your constant struggles.  Do be vulnerable.  Don’t be constantly sharing your struggles.  Remember that the spotlight in your preaching is not on you.

7. Contagious Fatigue.  If you are preaching fatigued, then it will be infectious.  Sometimes you can’t avoid being up all night with a child or a church member in crisis.  Be careful that you don’t get into a rhythm of preaching fatigued.  If your preparations are draining you, maybe you need to revisit your preparation schedule.  Perhaps you don’t get enough sleep, or exercise, or your sugary snacks while you work on the sermon mean you preach in a weekly sugar low?  Be careful that you don’t simply preach tired.  Listeners will pick up on your lack of energy, or your extra edginess.

Tomorrow we’ll finish the list, but feel free to add any more at any time!

Application Is Not Always Engagement

HammerEveryone lauds preaching that connects with the congregation.  Many imply that the key to connecting is giving applications.  But is it possible to be totally applicational in a message, and yet completely unengaging?

I believe it is possible.  If there is no personal warmth between preacher and listener, and if there is no vertical warmth between the preacher and God, then a highly applicational message could easily become an instructional rant based on a text.  Listeners will not feel connected with the preacher or the preaching.  They may just feel got at.

The problem is that if we think being relevant and applicational is all it takes to connect, then we can overlook the fact that communication is best offered in the context of interpersonal warmth.  Our listeners need us to have that reality in both dimensions!

A good friend of mine has a stock of great sayings, one of which goes, when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  This is so true in preaching.  A chilling of the temperature in our personal walk with God will show in our communication with others.  Even the most winsome of texts can become an opportunity to hammer on the duty theme again, for example.

Instead of just plugging in applications, let’s pray about what it really takes to connect with listeners.  This will include our manner and delivery, sermon content and presentation of the Bible, as well as pastoral connection outside of the pulpit.  People need preaching that engages them more than just preaching that gives application.

3 Ways Preachers Fear Listeners

Fear2Preachers can fear listeners.  When they do, the ministry suffers.  Here are three ways preachers fear listeners:

1. I am scared because you are there!  This “deer in the headlights fear” is typically an issue for the beginner preacher.  Actually, the fear is usually of public speaking.  Seeing all the faces looking toward them, the preacher freezes and goes into a restricted function coping mechanism.  Vocal range becomes limited, pauses disappear, body language gets stuck, the mind struggles to think clearly.  This can occur for more experienced preachers under specific circumstances (perhaps a special event, preaching in a new venue, preaching after illness), but typically preachers who have moved past the deer in the headlights fear will be able to adjust fairly easily to new circumstances.

2. I am scared of what you might do!  The itchy-ear-scratching fear can occur for a variety of reasons.  Perhaps the preacher wants to keep listeners happy rather than stirring any controversy.  Maybe the preacher feels their position or even salary is being threatened (after all, churches can become hideously political environments).  The result of getting the gaze fixed on the listeners evaluations will be preaching that is stripped of its potential.  Sometimes God wants to stir up listeners, or challenge them, or change them.  Itchy-ear-scratching preachers are dull tools for divine purposes.

3. I am scared of what you will think!  This need to impress is closely related to the itchy-ear-scratching fear.  The preacher’s insecurity is more about self than about what the listeners want.  This is about what the listeners think.  Are they impressed?  Do they think I am clever?  Spiritual?  A good leader?  Because if they think that, then maybe I am.  All fears are forms of insecurity, and this one is certainly a matter of insecurity.  This is a preacher whose identity is found in what others think rather than in what God says to be true.

There are other fears too.  The fear of consequences if we preach certain things will probably only grow as culture “progresses.”  What fears would you add to the list?  What fears do you sense in your own heart when you preach?

Biggest Mistakes Preachers Make – pt 5

Slip2Big adjustments can lead to big benefits for your preaching.  We have considered content, audience, and timing of preparation.  Here’s another:

Mistake 5 – Assuming anything about your delivery

Don’t assume.  Find out.

You may be more monotonous than you think.  We all tend to think our vocal variation is good . . . range of voice, diversity of volume, length and frequency of pauses, etc.  The truth is you probably come across as more monotonous than you think you do.  There is a lot that goes into the use of voice in preaching.  Don’t assume anything.  Find out.

You probably smile less than you think.  We all tend to assume our facial expressions are more expressive than they actually are.  Most people freeze slightly in front of a crowd.  As humans, we are all wired to connect on multiple levels at once.  People connect or pull back from each other based on a host of factors, but expression, body language and personal warmth are very significant.  Don’t assume anything.  Find out.

You might have a distracting mannerism only you don’t know about.  Perhaps you rock on your heels, maintain a frozen arm, point awkwardly, do an involuntary impersonation of a werewolf, or a T-Rex, or a traffic police officer.  Maybe you wave an imaginary pen around, or scratch your ear, or shrug, or whatever.  None of these (or the hundreds of other common mannerisms), are a problem in themselves.  But they are distracted when repeated.  Don’t assume anything.  Find out.

You might have verbal pauses only you can’t hear.  You know, like, umm, kinda, know what I mean? You can hear other people with verbal pauses (unnecessary filler words), and vocal pauses (unnecessary filler noises).  But you probably tune out most of your own.  Don’t assume anything.  Find out.

How do we find out?  Actually, it is quite easy:

1. Listen to yourself preach.

2. Watch yourself preach.

3. Invite honest feedback from trusted listeners, specifically about delivery.


5 Radars Every Preacher Needs – #5

RadarScreen2This is the last of our five radars we should be prayerfully collecting as preachers.  They are early warning systems that will make us better preachers.  There are probably many more, but hopefully these five will prompt us to pray and help us to grow.   So far we’ve thought about an OT radar, a hissing radar, a resistance radar, and an obfuscation radar.  How about one more where we are likely to have blind spots?

Radar 5. Rationalizing Radar (in your personal application)

Before we preach to others, we must first be on the receiving end of God’s transformative work ourselves.  Starting a sermon on Saturday night does not allow time for personal application, hence we should start sooner. However, we can be preparing a sermon for weeks and still fail to hear the message ourselves.  Why?  Not because of a lack of time, but because of our fleshly capacity to rationalize our own lack of application.  What we might see clearly in others, we often see in a rose-tinted mirror in regards to ourselves.  The solution to this is not to try harder, but to engage more with God in the conversation.  What I am calling a rationalizing radar is really a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit as He searches and tries our hearts, gently convicting us so that we can first hear, before we also speak.

5 Radars Every Preacher Needs – #4

RadarScreen2This week we are collecting radar equipment.  Better, we are compiling a wishlist to bring before God and ask Him to develop in us as we grow as preachers.  Early warning systems that will make us better preachers.  So far we’ve thought about an OT radar, a hissing radar, and a resistance radar.  How about one regarding our own delivery?

Radar 4. Obfuscation Radar (in your delivery)

def. to make something confusing or difficult to understand.”  Most preachers don’t do this on purpose.  In fact, most preachers’ sermons make good sense to the preacher.  But good preachers’ sermons make sense to the listeners too.

How can we grow in this area?  Chase helpful and specific feedback, listen to the audio of your message, watch a video of your preaching, do whatever you can to develop discernment as to your own obfuscation tendencies.  Do you speak too fast?  Do you pause too little?  Is your energy incessant?  Are your transitions too brief?  Are your gestures distracting?  Is your sermon structure complex?  Is your vocabulary too lofty?

Prayerfully and conversationally (i.e. with friends) develop a radar that will beep when your delivery is, in reality, not as clear as your pride tells you it is.

88 Questions Because Delivery Makes a Difference – III

Questions2Let’s conclude the list of questions to ponder about effective delivery:

14. Are your word choices appropriate for subject and audience?  Is there an appropriate combination of dignity and authenticity?  Do you sound like an academic?  Do you sound like a stereotypical preacher (whichever stereotype comes to mind)?  Are your words understandable, condescending, flippant, crass, attention-seeking, natural, coherent?

15. Do you actually make sense when you speak?  Are your sentences fully there?  Do you rely too much on people to get what you mean, or can you consistently say what you mean?  Do you lose volume or change pace at the end of your sentences?  Do you garble words, or skip them entirely?  Do you rely on awkward filler terms like, well, you know, so, umm, like those?

16. Is what you wear appropriate for your listeners or distracting?  Do you fit with the culture of your church?  What message does your attire give off?  Are listeners thinking about your excessive formality, your unkempt appearance, your distracting clothing choices?

17. Do you have any idiosyncratic quirks that should be eliminated?  It could be in your voice, vocabulary, expression, gesture or movement, but if people have heard you a couple of times, could they name something distracting about your delivery?

18. Is the combination of everything we’ve seen already coming across as genuine?  Do listeners meet the same you when they talk to you afterwards?  Does your spouse or child recognize the person preaching in the pulpit?

19. How goes your prayer about delivery?  Do you pray out of love for self and your reputation?  Do you pray with a heartfelt concern for your listeners?  Do you pray for your fame, or God’s?  Do you pray about delivery at all?

20. What is your strategy for developing as a public speaker?  Do you seek feedback from helpful people?  Do you give them permission to be honest about delivery issues with you?  How often do you listen to yourself preach?  When do you plan to get videotaped and see yourself?  Do you have one or two things that you are consciously working on and praying about at the moment?

88 Questions Because Delivery Makes a Difference – II

Questions2Continuing our list of 88 questions, grouped into 20 . . . all to nudge us to evaluate our delivery as we preach:

6. What do your feet do while you preach?  Do you pace?  Do you rock forward and back?  Is your natural stance, well, natural?

7. And what about your hands, do they fit with your communication?  Do gestures fit naturally or look forced?  Does time go from left to right or right to left?  Which way do you point when you talk about creation, or Christ’s return?  Do your hands do anything weird, repeatedly?

8. Does your facial expression reflect your heart? (And does your heart reflect Christ’s?)  Do you look angry most of the time?  Do you vary from whatever the default expression is?

9. Do you pause at appropriate moments for sufficient length?  Are your pauses ruined by verbal filler?  Do your pauses give people space to breathe, or do you generate nervousness by your apparent anxiety?

10. Is your pace appropriately varied and is the average about right?  Do you go so fast that people can’t keep up, get breathless, or switch off?  Do you slow down through transitions so that listeners can tell the message has shifted into a new phase?  Do you generally go so slow people get frustrated listening and waiting for you to say something?

11. Does your volume make listening easy?  Can your listeners hear you without effort on their part?  Are you too quiet so that people get tired concentrating?  Are you too loud so listeners feel defensive or annoyed by the power of your presentation?

12. Is the pitch of your voice easy to listen to, and do you vary it?  Would anyone describe you as shrill?  Does your voice sound natural and genuine?  Do you sound robotically stuck, whatever the pitch?

13. Does your posture generate comfort, tension or nervousness?   Do you come across as nervous and twitchy so that listeners feel the same?  Is your posture stiff and awkward so they aren’t sure how to take what you say?  Is your posture aggressive or over-confident so that they feel intimidated in some form?  Would you be ok with a picture of your standard posture being shown around?

And tomorrow we will finish the list!

88 Questions Because Delivery Makes a Difference

Questions2How many good messages have been wasted by poor delivery?  You’ve probably heard the old statistical misquote that content equates to only 7% of communication.  There are so many flaws in applying that study to preaching, but don’t make the big mistake of thinking that content is somehow only 7% of the equation.  Yes, body language and tone will overwhelm and negate content, but the visual and vocal will never fix or replace the verbal.  Content matters massively.  While a lack of content can’t be fixed by delivery, good content can be lost in delivery.

Here is a quick checklist for self-evaluation.  There are 88 questions grouped into just 20.  Remember, your self-evaluation is probably unrealistic.  You probably think you are doing better than you are.  You think pauses are longer than they feel, tone is more varied than it sounds, smiles are more noticeable than they are.  Nonetheless, evaluation is worth it.  Evaluate your own delivery and look for an area or two to prayerfully focus on and improve.  Also ask a listener or two to look at this list for you – they may be polite, but any hint they give is worth following up on!

1. What does your tone and manner do for the listeners?  Do they feel secure, loved, protected, safe?  Do they get nervous, agitated, upset, or got at?  Your tone and your manner make a big difference to the listeners, so do you think about these elements of your preaching?

2. Does your delivery flow, or does it feel like you get stuck?  Why?  Can you maintain momentum through the whole message in a natural way?  If you get stuck, can you handle that without generating nerves in others?  Do you know when you typically get stuck?  Does explaining the text trip you up more, or is it thinking applicationally?

3. How is your eye contact?  Are you looking at notes, over peoples’ heads, at one section of the room only?  Is it fleeting, forced, intense?  Can you look at people without closing your eyes or other awkward habits?  Do you over-stare and create awkward intimacy for some or a sense of aggression to others?  Which part of the room feel ignored as you preach?

4. Speaking of notes, do they really work for you?  Do you know how much you look at them?  When you look at them, do you lose momentum?  Do they enable you to preach unnecessarily complex messages?  Does your preaching feel canned rather than authentic?

5. Does your preaching furniture create unnecessary distance and function as a barrier between you and your listeners?  Could you come out from behind that thing?  Could you communicate better by being on the same level as the listeners?

We will continue the list tomorrow . . .