If you have spent any time in this space or if you know me personally, then you’re probably aware that two of the strongest passions of my life are preaching and tennis?
So: how are these things alike? How are they different?
It’s actually something I’ve thought about since I first began delivering sermons over 20 years ago now. Why does this whole process of preparing and then giving a message feel so much like getting ready for a big tennis match did back in the day?
Well, here are some reasons that, for me, preaching is like tennis.
Before I spell those out, in my case there is one major exception to the rule. In tennis, I was an aggressive yet inconsistent player. In the spirit of the 70s, I was an unrepentant serve-and-volleyer. If I was on my game, I could do well. If my timing or confidence or both were off, I would beat myself very quickly.
The irony with that is that in life and ministry, I live by predictability, routine, and consistency. Some days and some sermons are better than others, to be sure, but overall my approach to work in the church has thrived on routine and suffered when it’s unpredictable. In tennis terms, I’m a steady baseliner.
- Preparation. There was no point entering a tennis tournament if I hadn’t practiced in the weeks leading up to it. I spent most of my life honing my shots so that I could compete for the state championship of Texas. In the same way, there’s no point in standing up on a Sunday morning if I haven’t already given a lot of thought and effort to what I’m going to say and how I’m going to say it.
- Routine. The day of a big match, I’d wake up at the same time, eat the same breakfast, and warm up in the same way. Then during the match, I’d use a towel to wipe off the grip after every point. I wouldn’t step on the doubles line as I was changing sides. I’d tie my shoes every two games. (Writing this down 40 years later just makes me see how sick I really was!) But there is comfort in a routine. So today, my process for researching, preparing, and then internalizing a message so I can deliver it without notes is remarkably similar every week. There is some variation to be sure but by and large the routine of it all brings a measure of security. And when do I know that some sickness still remains? When on Sunday morning just before I stand up … I bend down and tie my shoes. Ugh.
- Excitement. If I was in the middle of a big tournament — say, the Texas State Championship — my internal excitement would build each round. I assume it was a way of adrenaline flowing even before the match started. Today, I get that same kind of edge from Thursday morning through Saturday night — especially if I have something provocative I just can’t wait to say.
- Environment. I couldn’t bear to play a single point of a match if a gate was open. Today? If the doors to the Worship Center are open during our celebration services (except to let people stream in of course!), I just get all twisted.
- Competition. By definition, of course, each tennis match has a winner and a loser. No gray area at all. When I am living in the Spirit, I recognize that in ministry our competition is the evil one. When I am living in the flesh, I believe that my competition is a “rival” preacher — someone with a larger flock or a deeper faith than I have. My prayer is to live — and walk and pray — in the Spirit.