For those of you who wish to sharpen your teaching gift, whether it’s a top-level gift or somewhere lower in your mix, you’re desiring exactly what Paul encouraged Timothy to pursue: “Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress” (1 Tim. 4:15). Paul told Timothy to work at improving his preaching. You, in turn, may be asking, “How do I do that? How do I get better?” Here are some ideas that will prove useful.
Listen to Great Preaching and Teaching
In almost every discipline, if you want to improve, you need to watch others. If you want to develop your golf game, you need to watch golf. Study tapes showing people swinging correctly and effectively. I’m a sailboat racer. So if I’m not racing a boat myself, I’ll watch other people race so I can observe their skills. I study how they trim their sails and how their crew works, and I watch their tactics. The way we tend to get better at anything is by putting ourselves in a situation where we can get more information about what we are trying to improve.
Most of us have two or three communicators who really inspire us. We say, “Boy, I wish I could communicate a little more like her” or “a little more like him.” Do more than wish. Get on their tape lists. Read their stuff. Go hear them when you can. And instead of listening to them casually, listen to them with your work gloves on.
Ask some clear questions. Why did that introduction work so well? Why did that point come across with such power? What was there about the structure of that message that made it so memorable?
In my opinion, the late E. V. Hill was one of the best preachers around. I once watched a tape, marveling at his sense of timing. He came to a very tender part in his message, paused, and then slowly walked around the side of the lectern. He let everything become utterly quiet in the room. Then with a lowered voice he said something with great emotion and gentleness. It was such a moment from God.
That was helpful for me to watch because my temperament is like a machine gunner. I tend to say, “All right, here’s the point. Now let’s go!” And if I’m not carefully taking time to absorb great preaching and teaching, I’ll unintentionally mow people down with my intensity. I have to learn how to pause, shift the level of passion, and vary the tone of what I do.
Some preachers are great storytellers; I just want to get to the point of what I’m teaching. So when I tell a story that’s full of potential humor, capable of putting some energy in the room, I’m usually so anxious to get to the lesson payoff that I fail to take the necessary time to embellish it.
John Ortberg recently told a great story about himself and Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian winding up on the same airplane. Dr. B. had been upgraded, but John was in the back of the plane. He had fun with that story for several minutes, getting enormous humor out of it with remarks like, “I was eating a chicken-like substance in the back while Dr. B. was dining on fine china.” The point is this: John had a lot of fun with the story and still made a strong point. It gave opportunity for humor. So listen to great preaching and teaching not with the intent to mimic it but rather to learn lessons that can improve your own preaching and teaching.
This next statement is so obvious that I hesitate to even say it. Develop your own unique style. While you want to learn from great preachers, you don’t want to copy their style.
John Maxwell and I teach communications seminars around the country, and we have two very different styles. John will use a music stand, a stool, and have two or three things to drink all around him. He’ll wander in and out of the crowd, hide behind plants, throw stuff, and ask people questions. His style is so different than mine that he has fun kidding me about it. One time he took a piece of chalk and drew a line out in front of the lectern. He said, “I’ll give you a hundred bucks if you’ll step over that line.” I tried for two days and just couldn’t do it. We laugh at that because our styles are so different. But you know what? I’m comfortable with mine, and he’s comfortable with his. There are things we can learn from the other, but we shouldn’t try to copy each other.
A helpful practice we utilize at Willow is brainstorming with other great teachers. People would be shocked if they learned how much we bounce message ideas off one another around here. If I’m stuck on something, I’ll drop into someone’s office and say, “I’m working on my message. I could go at it this way or that way. What comes to your mind?” Great communicators bubble ideas about communication recreationally. When you get the opportunity to do that, don’t think you have to sit at your desk in total isolation. Ask people. Say, “I’m preaching on this issue or text. What would you want to hear about it?”
We frequently do this with illustrations as well. We’ll just ask someone, “Have you ever had anything memorable happen to you that I could use as an illustration?” It’s a great source of fresh stories, and we are careful to give credit when we tell one. So remember, you’re not in it alone. Listen to great preaching and teaching.
Understand the Dynamic of Urgency
A second way to develop yourself as a communicator involves understanding the dynamic of urgency. Many years ago when I was trying to take a step toward improving my preaching, I listened to about fifteen or twenty different sermon recordings while asking, “What are the common denominators of great preaching and teaching?” The one that consistently rose to the top was this sense of urgency. I was repeatedly struck with how the person preaching was talking as though their subject matter was the most urgent issue on the planet. Everything else went away. So I began to analyze that.
If preaching is done right, you live with a text or topic for a week and it builds steam in your spirit. You’re thinking about it, talking to people about it, and asking that God will anoint it. So by the time you’re ready to preach, this subject is the most urgent item in your spirit. If you’ve prepared properly, there is an urgency coming out of you that’s not manufactured. That becomes compelling communication.
Jesus was the Master at this. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount he says, “You all ought to know there’s a tremendous storm on the horizon.” That wakes people up, doesn’t it? They’re looking out in the sky, trying to find the first clouds. He continues, “Now, you can take the words I just spoke to you and disregard them. That would be like building a house on sand. When that storm comes, your life is going to be blown flat. Or you can take the words I just spoke and build your life on them. And when that storm hits your life, you’re going to stand. Either way, you can count on this fact: There’s a storm coming” (see Matt. 7:24–27).
Well, people know that you’re playing for keeps when you preach with such urgency. I think a large measure of Billy Graham’s success as a communicator has been his urgency. Don’t manufacture it. Live with a text and let it build in your spirit until you’re feeling burdened about the issue. Then you’re ready to preach.
Strive for Clarity
Third, if you want to improve your communication, strive for clarity. When I coach our teachers around here, I always ask them two questions. “What do you want them to know? What do you want them to do?” If they can’t answer those two questions immediately, I say, “You’re ill prepared. Don’t inflict that message on our people.”
So much preaching these days is meandering. It’s a walk through six or seven different tulip beds, plucking a little flower here and there. You get to the end and you don’t know what the preacher wanted you to know or do. You must pass the clarity test.
You must also devote time toward creativity. It is so easy for us to fall into ruts and never vary our styles. We urge our teachers at Willow to drop the spoon-fed approach and shake things up once in a while. We encourage them to use a question-asking style or some props instead of just standing at the pulpit with a Bible in hand. We’ve found props to be remarkably helpful. I was talking about the pressures of life once, and I brought out a chemistry set complete with Bunsen burner. When I lit that Bunsen burner and put a beaker over it and stuff started boiling, people were really listening—all because I used that one little prop.
Another time I was preparing to teach on the tenderness of God. The idea occurred to me to preach from the passage that says, “A bruised reed God will not allow to break.” So I got a bruised reed and held it while I said, “Some of you feel like a bruised reed today.” I talked to them about the tenderness of God while holding that simple prop.
As I visited the offices or homes of our people over the following weeks, many had a bruised reed on their desk or taped to their refrigerator. It was amazing. People remember that stuff.
The Perspiration Factor
A fourth element in improving your preaching is what I call the perspiration factor. Most of our preaching would improve greatly if we would discipline ourselves to put one more hour into it. Many preachers don’t believe work enters into the equation of great preaching. But you don’t become good at anything unless you’ve paid the perspiration price. You’ve just got to pay it. And when you discover how much you have to pay for the acceptable quality level, then that price must become the “given” in your schedule.
It honestly takes me a minimum of twenty hours a week to put together an acceptable message. So that time becomes absolutely non-negotiable in my week if I have to preach. And if I have a funeral or get called out of town for some emergency, I’ve been known to get in the office at 3:30 in the morning because I know it takes me twenty hours. I can’t cheat that quality rule. If I put the time in, God will usually give me a message. But perspiration is essential.
Next, evaluation plays a huge part of the improvement process for all growing communicators. If I have developed at all as a communicator in the last twenty-five years, much of it comes from request evaluations after every single talk I give. Every time I give a message at Willow I have half a dozen people who will evaluate it. We have a system and I rely on these people. I don’t ask just anybody to do it because some would use it like an axe. I invite people who love me, but love God and this church more, to give me honest feedback. What worked well? What needed to be improved? I’m specific with my evaluators. “Don’t tell me ‘Point three stunk,’ because that doesn’t help me. If you think point three was weak, then tell me how you would make it better.” I usually have about an hour until I give the message again, and maybe I can integrate some of that feedback into the next delivery.
I’m often tempted to cut a corner when I’m putting a message together. But I’ll think, That’s a logical corner I’m cutting and attorney Russ Robinson, one of my evaluators, will have me dead to rights if I do it. I know that “corner” will be first on his list. So I can’t do that.
If I’m tempted to take a little theological shortcut, Dr. B. is going to be waiting for me on the other end. So I think, Man, I can’t deal with that. And if I miss an opportunity to be a little more artful in my presentation, John always shows me where I could have brought something back at the end that would have made it a more touching thing. There are so many ways to benefit and grow from well-rounded evaluation.
Live in Union with Jesus
Finally, I just cannot end without saying this: Live in such vital union with Jesus Christ that his power and his might flow through your preaching. It sounds as if it shouldn’t need to be said, but nothing can replace this truth. In simple terms here’s how this works. Pray like crazy. Trust like crazy. Expect God to work. And then thank him when he does.
Taken from Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching, The by CRAIG BRIAN LARSON; HADDON ROBINSON. Copyright © 2005 by Christianity Today International. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com