Last week Republican Presidential candidate Jeb Bush was giving an important speech in New Hampshire. He was into it. He had a lot of things to say about jobs, the economy and healthcare. However, as he was delivering his speech the cameras caught a few people nodding off. One lady in particular looked like she was just about in full REM sleep before she quickly awoke and checked her watch. Many people, including Donald Trump, have seized this opportunity to poke fun at Bush and even try to discredit him as a candidate. I see it as an opportunity for us who are in ministry or who teach God’s word to be reminded of the importance of honest self-evaluation in view of not being boring.
Many of us who preach can identify with ole Jeb: we are sometimes kind of boring. And listen, you know this when you look up and see people fast asleep (hint: they are not praying for you when their eyes are closed). So we have some preachers who have a style and voice like Jeb Bush. It’s kind of dull. What can we do?
Ask God to help you discern how you can do a better job. Ask God to give you a humble heart that desires, more than anything, to be effectively used to communicate the truth of God to people in a clear, faithful, and engaging way.
Work at it
Be willing to work at your preaching and teaching. Some guys seem content to just settle in and say, “This is who I am.” Well, we must remember that while we may be boring at times, God’s word is not. It is our job to get out of the way. The first step here is to be willing to work at it. If a guy is not willing to try to get better than there is no use reading anything else here.
Listen to yourself
This is painful but so important. We have so many technological advantages today that previous generations did not. Take the opportunity to listen to yourself preach. Listen for long pauses, repeated phrases, swallowing of words, random or disconnected thoughts, or simply a monotone voice. If you expect others to listen to you the least you can do is listen to yourself. As you do, give yourself some honest feedback.
It is invaluable to have people around you who are willing to give you honest feedback. These people are rich blessing to you and your ministry. Listen to them, don’t tune them out. Ask for constructive criticism. And, don’t get frustrated when they don’t simply compliment you with, “Man, you are just like John Piper.” Remember, it is about feedback and getting better not simply affirmation and staying the same. My wife is one of the best avenues for feedback; I know she will shoot straight and reserve compliments to their appropriate serving size. I also enjoy constructive feedback from fellow elders and friends.
So you want to get better? You have to work at it. Here are some ideas:
Read broadly: I am not particularly drawn to fiction books but I read them just to have my mind shaped and informed by something that is not theology, sports, or my own experience. Reading fiction opens you up to a whole new world. It will allow you to import antidotes and illustrations from those world as they apply to the sermon. I try to have at least one fiction book going at all times to draw from. I would also suggest reading a newspaper instead of just reading or watching the 24-hour news channels. The newspapers (at least the good ones) tend to have more broad information and interaction that tends to be helpful in communicating the truth of Scripture. (more info on this)
Use illustrations: Can you imagine if Jeb Bush actually mixed in some word pictures or provided some compelling illustration to make his point? If you want to improve your preaching then you need to use word pictures and illustrations. These homiletical tools are like opening windows in a musty basement. They get fresh air in. Your sermon should not smell or look like grandma’s basement. Open some windows. Hang some nice art (word pictures). Put on some fresh paint (use current events to show the cultural idols, etc). This whole world is stamped with God’s creative seal, therefore find how it illustrates, elucidates or further communicates your point and go and get it. If you want more help on this read Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. You could also read Thomas Watson, my man was a homiletical artist.
Mix it up: If you always give application at the end of the sermon, try moving it to the middle or at the beginning. If you have become predictable then shuffling things up. How effective would a baseball pitcher be if he had the same pitch sequence each batter? Fastball, change-up, cutter. Repeat. By the fifth or sixth batter he is going to be throwing batting practice.
Make eye contact
If your head is buried for most of the 30-45 minutes then it makes it more difficult to engage with you. Try to rely less on your notes and interact with the people. Look them in the eyes, engage with them, and read them.
Remember what makes you compelling is not you. If you have read everything above you might be thinking, “Erik, you sound like a pragmatist.” Well, pragmatism is not bad, it just can’t govern us. The power is in the Word of God. What makes you compelling as a preacher is not how you turn a phrase, use an illustration, fluctuate your tone, or look people in the eyes. It is your preaching of God’s word. It is the giving away of the truth of God. This is the big difference from a politician who has to talk about themselves and various issues. We are supposed to be talking about God! How glorious is this? This is the compelling aspect of preaching. We must do our very best to get out of the way and give our people the Word of God and the God of the Word.
I’m hopeful that some of these may be helpful to those who preach and teach the Bible. I’d love to hear back from you with some more suggestions.