Recently I’ve been thinking through some of the mistakes and hindrances which have attended my preparation for preaching over the past 18 years, as well as some of the things which have been of real benefit to me as time has gone on. The post below, and those which will follow it, are written from the perspective of learning from doing things wrong, and then trying to find ways to overcome those errors. I hope that these reflections might be affirmative of others, or might provide encouragement to those who, like me, struggle to get ready to preach week-on-week:
A thousand micro-stresses, and as many distractions can keep me from the work of getting ready to teach God’s Word. By personality I find myself overawed by tough tasks, naturally inferior to formidable things – and there are few more daunting undertakings than declaring the whole counsel of God. As a result, I can immerse myself in a plethora of worthy things, all ministry-centric, which can buffer me from the reality of what lies before me. I am also a perfectionist when it comes to preparation, so I am reticent about committing myself too early in the week, getting notes down too soon for fear that they might not be up to scratch. For the first years of my preaching ministry this had a crippling and counter-productive effect, shunting my preparation into a space where I faced crushing last-minute pressures to be prepared on time and, ironically, weaponising my perfectionism against producing my best work.
One way in which I came to counter this was to prioritise and emphasise my reading of the passage I was to preach on. This might sound like the most elementary insight, but intentionally familiarising myself with the text provided a release from the fears I felt about doing justice to it. By reading I have at least six things in mind:
1. Read early: the hours after a Sunday evening service are unique in a preacher’s week. In this narrow gap there is room to rest, to not feel the burn of pressing deadlines, and to process how the day has gone. To intrude further reading into these moments may not work for everyone, but one of the chief ways that I have come to manage my anxiety about next week’s ministry is to begin my reading right way, one full week before I am to preach. By reading I don’t mean in-depth analysis or exegesis, I don’t mean extended hours of carefully poring over the text, but just a snapshot of the lie of the land ahead, an idea of what’s next in my preaching plan, what kind of territory awaits in the incoming week, what kinds of challenges I might be facing. The benefit of this is that it quantifies the task of coming preparation rather than it remaining a nebulous bundle of pressure, and it also allows me to plug context from what I have just preached on into what I am next to preach on. This might be a ten minute reading exercise, but it draws the sting from preparation stress considerably.
2. Read repeatedly: before pen goes to paper, before notes are on the horizon, before outlines are a possibility I keep reading, and rereading the passage in hand. What I have glanced through on a Sunday night becomes my more sustained reading on Monday, Tuesday and so on. Whatever other work begins to assemble itself around the section of Scripture, I try not to lose sight of simple reading, revising, and rehearsing what this passage is saying for itself. In essence, by the time the following Lord’s Day has come round I should be familiar with the content of the passage, and even its shape on the page. The confidence which this process instils is hard to overstate, as the terra incognita which could so easily throw the co-ordinates of my whole week in the study becomes a neighbourhood in which I live and with which I interact.
3. Read contextually: as part of this repeated reading I also try to read the surrounding context of the passage on repeat. With the exception of some of the longer text of the Old Testament this entails reading and rereading the whole book in which a passage appears. I do this by a variety of means – simply by sitting at the desk and reading the whole Bible book through in whatever time it takes, or by printing the text and bringing it with me when I am out visiting so that I can read it in the normally fallow time of waiting outside wards etc., or by listening to the whole book via audio Bible when I’m out for a walk or doing household jobs. So often the parts of the book which I have already preached come alive again, and I also begin to hear verbal links between what I am about to preach on, what I have just preached on, and what yet lies ahead in the book. This also stops me from front-loading my handling of the section in hand with issues which may be more fully resolved later in the book.
4. Read grammatically: this is one of the biggest challenges for me, as I am not a natural linguist, but I know that I need to do some drilling down into the original languages in order to follow the flow of what the Biblical author is saying. For the Old Testament this means listening carefully to commentaries which handle the Hebrew text well, for the New Testament it means doing some (for me) backbreaking work with the Greek text, but also leaning on good handling of the passage by scholarship. This is always a humbling process as my ignorance far outweighs my competence, but there are key issues which can be lost if this step is skipped.
5. Read audibly: for me audible reading is crucial for hearing the tones and texture, the nuances and logical order of the passage in hand. This also helps me to prepare for my Scripture reading during the service, alerting me to any tricky spots, or crucial punctuation which might influence how my hearers understand what I read aloud to them.
6. Read diversely: I largely prepare and preach from the ESV, but my reading preparation also needs to take in other translations as well. Often there is a broad unanimity in how the passage is translated, but there are occasional verbal hooks which capture my attention and take my back into the grammar of the text to question why one version makes the interpretative decisions that it does. This part of the process also helps me to hear the text as it will appear on the pages of those who listen to my preaching but use another translation.
There is so much more to preparation than the reading I recommend above, but without this basis, without this textual insistence, without this familiarisation process, my engagement with commentaries etc will begin to shape my understanding of the passage before I have even really absorbed it.
There is also a huge spiritual benefit for my own soul in engaging with the Scriptures in this concerted manner, as the waves of what God’s Word says wash over me again and again, counselling and convicting, edifying and humbling me. This kind of reading means that I am preaching the text as a hearer, preparing the text as a disciple, and hopefully assimilating the text as one who needs its truth just as much as any who will sit in the congregation on Sunday.