Category Archives: Preaching

How COVID Changed My Preaching

The last few months have brought my preaching to a turning point.  COVID-19 opened my eyes to some problems I needed to address.  While I was saddened with not being able to gather for public worship, some good seems to have come from it.

Three things conspired to bring about a change in the way I approach the delivery of my sermons.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I was doing live-streamed messages from the church building.  My family was at home watching those along with everyone else in the congregation.  Eventually, those live-streamed messages moved to my living room.  My family watched me live in person, while the rest of the church watched through YouTube.  However, we soon found that there were issues with the live-stream coming from our home.  The stream was inconsistent and so a lot of viewers had stuttering and buffering problems.  To address that, I moved to pre-recording the messages.  Now I was recording the messages on Saturday mornings and then uploading them to YouTube.  Then they’d “premiere” at 9:30 and 3:30 on Sunday.  Now, along with my family, I had to watch myself preach.

That was painful.  Many preachers, I think, can relate to the agony of watching yourself preach.  It’s awkward and embarrassing.  You see all the flaws, not only in the message itself, but also in the delivery.  I tried to disassociate myself as I was watching, pretending I was watching someone else, but that didn’t really work.

To further drive the point home, I got to a point where I needed a break.  I’d been going hard since the beginning of the pandemic and I needed a week off.  My elders graciously arranged to find a recording of another pastor and upload that for the congregation’s edification in my absence.  So, that Sunday morning and afternoon, I watched another colleague preach.  It was a colleague I highly respect, whose delivery is spot on every time.  They say you shouldn’t compare yourself to others, but whoever “they” are, they’re not realistic.  I did compare.

The second thing that conspired to change my delivery was Zoom.  I went into the pandemic with an intense antipathy towards video chats and conference calls.  I still don’t like them.  But here we were forced to use Zoom not only for consistory meetings, but also for catechism classes.  At the moment, we’re still using Zoom for catechism, though I hope that’ll change in the next month or so.

But it was especially the catechism classes that got me thinking.  I ran it like this:  my students were all muted when they signed on.  Using my lesson plan, I would teach.  I give them opportunities for questions periodically but, unlike being in a physical classroom setting, they seldom ask anything.  So it ends up being me talking for 30 minutes straight.  When you have to talk for 30 minutes straight just talking off of notes, there needs to be some ability for public speaking.  I could do it.

Finally, this year I’ve been doing a lot of reading about preaching.  Some of the authors I’ve read have addressed the point of delivery and how to do that most effectively.  They suggested concrete ways I could improve.

For the last 20 years, I’ve almost always taken a full manuscript into the pulpit with me.  I did that partly because I believed in preaching with the most precise words possible.  I also didn’t want to go around in circles, I didn’t want needless repetition, and I wanted the sermon to flow smoothly from one thought to the next.  A full manuscript definitely helps rigidly control those things.  The downside to having a manuscript on the pulpit is that your attention can be more fixed on it than on the people to whom you’re preaching.  Eye contact can suffer; presentation can be artificial or stale.  The impression could be that you’re just reading from your manuscript.  Is that really preaching?

So recently, I’ve begun preaching from a two-page outline instead.  After I’m done my exegesis, I prepare a draft of the outline.  From that draft, I then prepare a manuscript.  I review the manuscript a couple of times and then make adjustments to the outline.  Through the whole process I pray that the Holy Spirit will give me the right words I need to say on the pulpit, gleaned from my preparations.

As I walk away from preaching from an outline, I feel that the preaching is rougher, more imprecise.  Transitions from one thought to the next don’t always go as smoothly as I’d like.  But I’m told that the outline slows me down (which is good — I often tend to speak too fast from a manuscript) and it improves the eye-contact and connection with the congregation.  I’ve watched part of one of these sermons and it’s still painful to watch, but better than what I was doing before.

It’s still early days in this new approach for me.  Hopefully with time and practice I’ll become more proficient at speaking from an outline.  It’s true that God can strike straight blows with a crooked stick — I’m sure he’s used my preaching from a manuscript in the past, just as he might with any colleague who’s doing that too.  However, I think of 2 Timothy 2:15, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.”  A pastor always has to do his best, always has to seek to improve.  The glorious gospel we preach deserves nothing less.  God used a tiny virus to teach me that big lesson.


“Go to sleep” Says the Sermon

In his Lectures to My Students, Spurgeon has this little ditty which has always amused me:

It is an ill case when the preacher

“Leaves his hearers perplex’d —

Twixt the two to determine:

‘Watch and pray,’ says the text,

‘Go to sleep,’ says the sermon.

I couldn’t help but think of that as I was re-reading Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ great classic, Preaching & Preachers.  He notes that a preacher who appears untouched by the truth he’s preaching is not really a preacher at all.  He goes on:

I came across a notable example of what I am condemning recently when I was convalescing after an illness.  I was staying in a village in a certain part of England and went to the local church just across the road from where I was staying.  I found that the preacher was preaching that evening on the prophet Jeremiah.  He told us that he was starting a series of sermons on the prophet.  So he was starting with that great text where Jeremiah said he could not refrain any longer, but that the Word of God was like a fire in his bones.  That was the text he took.  What happened?  I left the service feeling that I had witnessed something quite extraordinary, for the one big thing that was entirely missing in that service was ‘fire.’  The good man was talking about fire as if he were sitting on an iceberg.  He was actually dealing with the theme of fire in a detached and cold manner; he was a living denial of the very thing that he was saying, or perhaps I should say a dead denial.  It was a good sermon from the standpoint of construction and preparation.  He had obviously taken considerable care over this, and had obviously written out every word, because he was reading it; but that one thing that was absent was fire.  There was no zeal, no enthusiasm, no apparent concern for us as members of the congregation.  His whole attitude seemed to be detached and academic and formal.  (p.88)

Sad, no?  It reminds me of a time I visited a Presbyterian church somewhere.  This church had a seminary and their homiletics professor was on the pulpit that Sunday morning.  The poor man had just flown in the day before and was dealing with a bad case of jet lag.  He yawned his way through the whole sermon.  Maybe it was just a bad day for that brother…


Preaching in the New Testament — Jonathan Griffiths

I just want to drop a little note about this great study on preaching from 2017.  The Second Helvetic Confession famously said that “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”  Those of us who’ve been preaching for a bit know the popular biblical supports for this statement, passages like 1 Thess. 2:13.  Jonathan Griffiths discusses those, but he also goes way further and deeper.  Exegeting the relevant passages, he deftly explains what makes preaching a distinct form of word ministry.  Along the way, he also implicitly makes a case for why only men can be preachers of the gospel.  It’s a book not so much about the “how” of preaching as the “what.”


COVID-19 & Tasmania — Update

Being a small island state has its advantages, especially during a pandemic.  The Tasmania state government made some good calls early in the crisis and those have paid off.  One of the key strategies was to close the state borders.  People from out-of-state could still travel to Tasmania, but they’d have to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in accommodations provided by the state.  As a result of these strict measures, yesterday saw the 22nd straight day with no new COVID-19 cases.  Currently there are only two active cases in the entire state.

As of last Friday, more restrictions were lifted.  Travel is now permitted around the state, as is camping.  Many restaurants are now re-opened, though with limited seating.  But, most importantly of all, places of worship are now allowed to have 40 people in attendance for services.

Back in March, our church (Free Reformed Church of Launceston) decided to suspend worship services because of the pandemic.  We made this decision before the government imposed it.  In the place of worship services, we decided to provide two Sunday messages and one Wednesday evening message.  These messages, preceded and followed by prayer, just provided the bare minimum.

Last week, the consistory decided to resume worship services.  So yesterday we met together and worshipped for the first time since March 15.  For the time being, we are worshipping by wards, with numbers capped at 40 (plus “staff”).  Those not able to attend in person can still make use of the live-stream.

So what was it like to finally worship together again yesterday?  It was joyful.  Being able to see some brothers and sisters again in person, to be together in God’s presence, to sing and pray together — it was all so beautiful.  It’s easy to take these things for granted, but when it’s been taken away from you, you appreciate it all the more.

It was also surprising.  I’ve thought that when we get back together again, we may have some surprises.  Yesterday, we had two visitors from the community — people we’ve never met before, who’ve never attended before.  We warmly welcomed them and pray to see them again.

Finally, it was also so much better for me as a preacher.  After weeks of preaching to the heartless, dark eye of a camera, I was so happy to be able to preach to real live people in front of me.  It’s just so different when you can actually see the people listening.  Preaching to a camera just isn’t the same — I don’t even know if it’s really preaching.  Of course, it was better than nothing, but preaching from the pulpit is incomparable.  The physicality of being together cannot be replaced and it can only be poorly imitated.

More restrictions are due to be lifted in the next few weeks.  It’s possible that the schedule may even be bumped up again and we can soon have more people in attendance at public worship.  Things are looking good here in Tassie and we praise God for that.  I do think of brothers and sisters elsewhere still languishing in “exile,” especially those who have to deal with the frustration of not being able to worship together while governments look the other way when it comes to riots and protests which violate public health guidelines.  It makes no sense.  May God give us all wisdom and patience!


Preaching the Whole Counsel of God

I’m not giving a full-fledged review, just a little note to encourage my preacher colleagues to check out this book by Julius Kim, Professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Seminary California.  Why read this? There’s a lot in this book that you can find in other volumes on preaching. For those new to the task, for those who haven’t yet read many books on preaching, this would be a great primer. For those who’ve been around the block a few times, there’s still the value of review. But there’s also something in this book that you won’t find anywhere else: chapter 8, “The Influence of Neuroscience on the Design and Delivery of the Sermon.” That chapter alone made this book worthwhile for me.