The Beatles used to sing about Getting Better All The Time.
Which is a daunting task when you think about it.
But how do you know if you’re getting better any of the time?
This came home to me when, over the last several weeks, a young man has begun attending church with some friends and family.
That’s not all that unusual or extraordinary, with one difference: he grew up in this church, drifted away when he graduated college, and so is returning to worship after an absence of about ten years.
And so what I so want to ask him is this: am I any better at this than I was ten years ago when you last saw me up there yammering away?
Now that question supposes that as a teenager he was a) listening consistently and b) listening closely enough to evaluate quality. Both suppositions are possible; neither are probable.
Nevertheless, the question remains: am I better the preaching task than I was ten years ago? Five years ago? Last year? Is any preacher better? I’m probably not getting better all the time, but perhaps some of the time?
And, if improvement is possible, how does it happen?
Well, since I’m asking the question (silently) and writing this post, I believe preaching improvement is not only possible but pivotal. And here are five ways I attempt to go about it, even if I’m not always sure of the results:
Read Novels. Over the last ten years, I’m sure I’ve read 100 novels but only one book on preaching (of course, that was Andy Stanley’s extraordinary Communicating For A Change, so that counts for way more than one). I have found that in reading fiction I can gain insights into truths about human behaviors and motivations that I never could if I stuck to more general preacher fare. Plus, good novelists write with the kind of effortless grace that you know takes a lot of effort — much like a strong sermon. Just recently, in reading Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again, I cam across this gem: Maybe you fall in love with people who save your life, even when you think it’s not worth saving. Indeed.
Tweet. Yep, Twitter helps preaching. It sounds sacrilegious — or at least my attempt to justify something I’m already doing — but the ability to craft meaningful statements in compelling ways is at the heart of a sermon that sticks. And a twit that tweets.
Read Sermons. MethoHeresy Confession: I read John Piper’s stuff. Often. Sometimes it makes me mad; more often it makes me think; occasionally it makes me weep. Learning from his sermon design helps my own.
Exercsise. I’m so glad my YMCA keeps pens and pieces of paper handy, because that’s where my best inspiration occurs. So I’ll run over, write it down, put it in my locker, and the rest of the workout goes that much better.
Find A Wordsmithing Friend. One of my colleagues at Good Shepherd knows that he’ll be asked each week to weigh in on which version of a sermon’s bottom line “pops” with more emotional punch and theological accuracy. When possible, I return the favor with him. We have even brought a third friend from another church into our almost holy trinity. I believe we are making each other better. I just hope the recently-returned Good Shepherder notices.
Grow In Self-Awareness. Yes, I have someone I talk through life with in a professional, counselor-to-counselee way. Yes, I’ve taken the kind of personality inventories that let me know both the sunshine side of my personality and the shadow side. I’ve realized that when you’re aware of your worst tendencies, it’s much easier to stop them from happening and to begin acting in ways that are not very natural but are more helpful. Of course, even with that knowledge, I have more than a few moments where I realize, “Oooops! I did it again. Being the worst sort of me.” My goal is that as I grow in self-awareness I will be better able to defend against self-destruction.