Yesterday I pondered the challenges of unfamiliarity of context. When we preach from the Old Testament, if our listeners are more used to the New Testament, then this will be a challenge. We thought about the canonical context, as well as the historical context. There’s another challenge:
Low expectation of relevance. I have to remember that by the time I come to preach from Ruth, I will have spent many hours in studying it. It will have taken root in my heart again and God will have stirred me through His Word. This will not be the case for the listeners.
They will be coming into the meeting with minds and hearts on all sorts of things. They will be thinking of anything but pre-monarchical Israelite history. So if I start into the message with an assumption that Ruth is a motivating destination, I may well be starting into my message alone. I’d much rather take folks with me. How can I do that? A couple of thoughts:
1. Introduce with relevance. I have written this before, but I’ll reiterate because it is important. It is not dishonouring the text to start with an introduction before reading it. I think the text can be dishonoured by reading it before people care to hear what it says. So one approach is to craft an introduction that overtly seeks to connect the listeners and their current state of disequilibrium with the text as relevant to them. This is not to “pander” to felt needs, but to recognize the reality of life and what it is to be a listener. Getting relevance into the introduction makes all the sense in the world. The listeners need an early appreciation of the fact that the preacher is relevant, the message is relevant and the text itself is relevant.
2. Let the narrative bite quickly. This does not necessarily contradict with the previous point. With a narrative the preacher has the advantage of the inherently gripping nature of the genre. TV show producers know that there is a better way to grip viewers than a long series of opening credits with promises of big name actors and actresses (as they did thirty years ago!) The best way is to let the narrative begin and bite quickly. Once bitten, viewers will then tolerate the 40 seconds of opening credits (sometimes several minutes into the show). This illustrates what I am saying here. The listeners should be gripped if the first three or four verses of Ruth are presented effectively. Maybe it would be worth getting into the tension of the plot before pulling back to make sense of context, etc.
I thought I’d share this list of five major failings of many preachers, according to the book that I am currently enjoying:
“1. Multiplitus – Using too many points until the sermon becomes a starburst that dazzles rather than communicates.”
Well put. When we try to preach more than one point, we quickly move from communication to fireworks.
“2. Elephantine Introductions – Huge ten or even fifteen minute introductions that contain the guiding imagery to control the rest of the sermon. Trouble is that the imagery is either tiresome, prosaic, or just misleading.”
I’ve been accused of this at times, sometimes with justification. I suppose that not having the entire reading up front can sometimes confuse people somehow searching for the end of the introduction. Nonetheless, the last line is especially important – tiresome, prosaic, or just misleading. We need to be careful with our introductions. Essentially we need to “meet the people” and then “motivate them to listen” and without further ado, “move into the message/passage.” (I don’t know why I used quotation marks there, the ‘meet, motivate and move’ alliterative language is my own – until someone publishes it first.)
Ok, tomorrow I’ll share the other three major failings according to this writer, along with my own comments.
I just saw a chart showing that there are two key times in any presentation. I’ll describe the chart for you. On the vertical axis, from 0 to 100%, is the scale of attention and retention. On the horizontal axis, it reads “beginning … middle … end.” The chart consists of a U-shaped curve. Attention/retention are highest at the beginning and the end, but dip significantly in the middle.
This poses some concern for me as a preacher. If this is true, then we need to consider whether we’ve packed the best meat in the middle of the sermon. Surely we wouldn’t want to give a “meat sandwich” of a sermon if our listeners miss significant amounts of good meat, but take in all the white bread at the start and finish? Perhaps we need to give more attention to the bread of the sandwich. Too many sermons are fine steak in the middle of dry cheap white sliced bread. We need to give more time to preparing our intros and conclusions (so the bread is a higher quality homebaked wholemeal something or other).
Ok, enough of the sandwich analogy, I’m starting to get distracted by my own hunger. When we preach, let’s think carefully about how to maximize the value of our introduction – not just grabbing attention and building rapport, but also raising need for what is to follow and moving powerfully into the message in order to protect against an excessive dip in attention and focus.
Let’s think carefully about how to make the most of our conclusion – not just fizzling to a faded flop of a finish, but finishing strong, driving home the main idea, encouraging application of it and stopping with purpose.
If attention and retention are highest at the beginning and end of a message, let’s make these two key times count.
(If you want to see the chart and the suggestions given in that post, just click here.)
It’s easy to waste time you don’t have when you’re preaching. For example, as we start our message, it is tempting to say that if only we had longer we could do a better job of preaching the passage. We waste time by saying this and achieve nothing other than a vain attempt to protect our reputation from a negative reaction to our preaching (aka an excuse).
Don’t tell people you wish you had more time to do justice to the passage. Use the time you have to the full. I won’t take any more of your time on this post!