A Chance Encounter, A Frustrated Newspaper Career, And UN-Learning As The Key To Wordsmithing

Many moons ago, I had a chance encounter with the late Ben
Haden, a Chattanooga-based pastor with the Presbyterian
Church of America who enjoyed a measure of fame with the television
ministry Changed Lives. Our conversation was on the bucolic
grounds of Camp-of-the-Woods in the Adirondack Mountains,
where I spent a collegiate summer teaching tennis (what else?) and
he spent a week as the guest preacher.

He heard that I was considering seminary and ministry after graduation, and he gave me what I thought at the time was some of the oddest advice possible: “I think every man thinking of ministry should spend some time in journalism first. That’s where you’ll learn what you need to know.”
Haden, as it turns out, knew of which he spoke: prior to his own entrance into seminary, he had been the CEO of the Kingsport Times-News.

Even odder than the advice he gave me that day is the fact that I actually followed it. Now: I didn’t leave Camp-of-the-Woods that summer with a grand plan of getting a job at a newspaper before resigning in a flourish to pursue the higher calling of ministry. Instead, in my first year out of college, while trying to decide: “Do I REALLY want to do this ministry thing?” I fell into a job as a part-time columnist with The Trentonian, a newspaper in not-very-bucolic Trenton, New Jersey. The subject of my column? Tennis, of course. I slaved over those weekly efforts, first writing them longhand before trudging into the smoke-filled—and I mean smoke-filled—offices of that tabloid daily to type the words into a bewildering invention called a word processor.

For a time in those heady days of the mid-eighties, I thought I was trending toward a career with World Tennis or even Sports Illustrated
magazinesl . . . or maybe an editorial job with a New York publishing
house. None of those doors even cracked, much less opened.

Yet like almost everything else in life, I now know God’s grace was working on me when I wasn’t looking for God. I thought I was simply trying to land the next big job in journalism. Instead, God used the experience and the style of newspaper writing—attention grabbing leads followed by short, bold, declarative sentences—to prepare me for what is involved in writing sermons that will certainly be heard but only occasionally be read.

For any of us who have ever had a freshman composition course:
How can you UNLEARN everything you ever learned about writing
for the eye so that you can RE-LEARN the exhilarating skill of
writing for the ear? How do you move from simply using words to
smithing them? How can you grow in the percussive, emphatic writing
style that translates so well into the spoken word?


One such technique involves Wordplay:

Some of the most effective bottom lines take shape when the preacher plays with the words involved. The kind of wordplay I am talking about includes double meanings, using the same term as both noun and verb, and upending the congregation’s expectations. Here are a few examples:

In a message on kindness from the Fashion Statement series based
on Paul’s virtue list in Colossians 3:12: Kindness does for people who can’t do for you.

From a message drawing from James 2 and its discussion of preferential
treatment for wealthy church guests: The favorites you play play you.

I opened the Eye Rollers series with a message on Matthew 5:44
“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass
you” that landed at this bottom line: The only way to love your
enemies is to realize you’re the loved enemy. Romans 5:10 provided
supplemental insight for that one. In that same series I also preached on Jesus’s words regarding anger in Matthew 5:21-26. The conclusion? Your anger fades when you face the ones you anger. I heightened the contrast with two poles on the platform, one with a sign representing the noun (Your Anger) and the other the verb (You Anger).

Our Behind the Scenes series based on the book of Esther launched with a message called “Control Freak, Meet Trophy Wife.” The bottom line, inspired by King Xerxes’s antics in chapter 1, went this way: People control you when they can’t control themselves.

During On the Up and Up—a series on the Songs Of Ascent (Psalms 120-134)—the sermon on Psalm 122 built to Having the right doesn’t give you the right. That sermon with that bottom line also happened to be delivered on the Sunday closest to the Fourth of July.

From a series called Only Human, I developed this bottom line for a sermon on Psalm 8: It’s no accident that you’re on purpose.

My earliest inspiration for sermonic wordplay came, not surprisingly,
from an Andy Stanley message from Proverbs: Wise people know what they don’t know. Simple, compelling, convicting, and memorable. May all your wordplays get the same reviews!

The preceding is an excerpt from the forthcoming Simplify The Message; Multiply The Impact, to be released by Abingdon Press on February 4.  You can pre-order copies here.