Cutting Room Floor: Bible

bible

I’m starting a new series, mostly for our church family that are the research “left overs” from the most recent sermon.  Often an effective sermon comes down to what you don’t say as much as what you do, and thus editing out good material becomes essential. Here, then are some of the leftovers from this past week’s message:  They are somewhat random and unconnected, but for those wanting more thoughts on Scripture, they may be helpful:  Continue reading

Ira Glass on the Craft of Story

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Ira Glass is one of the most gifted story curators today. His most known work is the radio show/podcast “This American Life” but he also has the goods on story composition. About every other year he stops by town to host a seminar which is part “This American Life” and part explanation of how he performs it.  For part one, “Exactly Human Sized Stories” click here.  Part two below are bullet point highlights of what Ira taught.

 

  • He earns his right to speak by being a great listener and by providing understated meaning to story, which is to say, to our lives. He has a light touch and doesn’t oversell.  Understatement is the new language of persuasion.
  • He learned story telling from his Rabbi.  Move the plot forward, then step out of it and verbally reflect on what happened, then back into the plot, reflect etc. Ira told us with chargrin, “I thought I had invented this technique. It turns out my rabbi used it, as does every preacher every Sunday. And then I found out that is how Jesus taught.”  A fine example of this was Brene Brown’s most recent talk at Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit.  
  • Narrative is the back door entrance to a deep place within us. It touches us deeper than argument or debate can. Narrative can actually change someone, debate rarely does.
  •  Ira was equal part storyteller, journalist and DJ. He spoke with an iPad in his hand and he was frequently launching audio as he spoke. We heard quotes from people, fade in music to change mood etc and somehow it wasn’t remotely hokey. It made me wonder what preaching would be like if it were modeled in a similar fashion with soundtrack fades and 3rd party quotes. Ira also mentioned that he has a full-time staff of 8 people producing the show each week.  Is the preacher constraint by resource in this area?
  • “Dialogue is the “ground zero” of a good story.”
  • TAL chooses amazing music for their transitions. Ira uses soundtrack and music that ‘isn’t too interesting.’ He starts speaking on top of the music about the time you’d start singing if it had melody.
  • One of Ira’s best shows was an episode where he played interviews from his earliest days as a journalist.  They were cringeworthy and awkward. Ira says, “Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
  • Think the modern attention span is dead?  TAL runs for 58 minutes and the average time listeners spend with the show is 48 minutes. Ira, “once they tune in, we’ve got them until we’re done with them.”  Stunning feat for radio and evidence that Ira Glass and TAL are one of the most important story curators alive today.

TBT: Constructing a Preaching Calendar

I first published this in May 2012 and it received more hits than any article I’ve posted.  If you preach on a regular basis as well as other pastoral and leadership responsibilities, a long term sermon calendar can help in huge ways.  In 2015, I still make one – my current calendar is built through May 2016 with a few weeks of gaps in two places.  With this TBT, I’ve edited the post with some updates.  The original is here.

If you preach on a regular basis, you’ve experienced blank page blank screen syndrome.  Sunday’s comin’ whether you’re ready or not.  Sunday is a mistress and she is indifferent to your mood, what has happened during the week or your level of preparation.  (Tony Campolo’s famous title, “Its Friday But Sunday’ Comin'” is fire and brimstone for a preacher!)

Most preachers I know wear multiple hats so in the face of a recurring deadline for one of our key roles, we need habits and tools to help us along.  One such tool is the 12 month sermon calendar.

Just recently I’ve taken to making my own beef jerky. My kids are jerky fanatics and making our own is much cheaper than buying. Jerky, it turns out, is all about marination time. The longer you marinate the meat, the better the taste. And so we segue into the 12 month preaching calendar. Its about extending the marination time of ideas and creating a way to capture and retrieve random ideas.

My preaching calendar is the result of a planning retreat.  If I didn’t get away for a night or two, I’d never get a calendar built.  You can’t build one on the fly, or in an afternoon.  You have to build it, pray over it, move things around, pray over it.  Not unlike an actual sermon, the calendar comes together over time, with marination.  Before I go on retreat, I ask our elders, key staff and some volunteers for input into sermon ideas.  What do they think should be covered over the coming year?  We look at the previous 24 months of series, current cultural challenges, topics a skeptic would engage and books of the Bible we’ve not covered.  After the retreat, I run the calendar by our elders and also hand it out to planning staff.

As for series ideas, I keep a running document of ideas that I can pull from.  My current document is 7 pages long with 36 different sermon series.  I’ve also attached a sample pdf of sermon series ideas.  Some of the ideas are really bad, some are stale because they’ve been sitting there so long.  For example, when I came up with the title, “Grudge Report” for a series on Forgiveness, the “Drudge Report” was known in pop culture.  I’m not sure it is still as known now.  MC Hammer, on the other hand…..he’ll always preach!

A third document: a place to capture content for the upcoming sermon series. Random ideas, quotes, pictures, interviews and stories that relate to that sermon series.  I used Evernote App for this.

So long term sermon planning is a combination of planning retreat, sermon calendar,  future series ideas and “next series” content capturing. These tools work really well to keep a preacher’s head well above the coming Sunday and give months of lead time to collect stories, marinate ideas etc.

I now open my computer Monday morning and almost feel naughty with the content already waiting for me.

I’ve attached 3 example documents if you find them helpful.  These 3 are old, but flesh out what a calendar can look like:  (warning:  long content!)

Continue reading

Two Elements of Great Story Telling

1. What to tell:  Something fresh, unexpected, funny, moving, unusual, but at the same time something that expresses a commonality of the human experience.  Our stories must be “human sized” so listeners can see themselves in them.  Preachers are guilty as charged of telling superhuman (super Christian?) stories that communicate to people, “you’re not good enough, so don’t bother trying.”  We can also be guilty of finding stories that just don’t move people because they don’t matter.  I’m struck by Fred Craddock’s promise to his congregation that, to the best of his ability, he would only preach sermons that matter and this involves telling stories that are surprising and funny yes, but always, always, always capturing the common human experience.

Find exactly human sized stories, which leads to number two.

2. How to tell it: This is actually more difficult than finding a good story.  Crafting it well all comes down to editing and timing.  Tell it well.  What is the essence of the story?  How can I tell it to put people in the room with the characters?  Where is an appropriate place for tension and/or humor?  Often times our stories don’t move people because we don’t spend enough time crafting how to tell them.

Want to hear some examples?  Here are two:

This one is 4 minutes.  I promise you’ve probably never heard of such a situation, yet, having never experienced it, you’ll find yourself in it.  Click here for this StoryCorp human sized story told well.

And then come back and listen to the first 5 minutes of this story.

Preaching to a Churched and Unchurched at the same time

“If you don’t preach as if non Christians are there, non Christians will never be there, because they’ll never be brought.

If you preach like ‘it’s just us chickens here’ nobody will bring any ducks in. So you need to preach as if non Christians are there, you want to acknowledge that non believers are there. You speak very respectfully. If you’re doing this and everyone knows there are no non Christians there, everyone will be saying to themselves, “who is he talking to?’ But many Christians will say, “I love what this preacher is saying, but I can’t bring my non Christian sister in law because she’ll be offended or won’t understand.”

But if you preach to non Christians, respectfully, thinking through their natural objections and skepticism and speak to those matters, your Christians will feel comfortable bringing their non Christian friends, knowing they’ll be treated with respect from the pulpit.”

That’s from a Tim Keller Q&A that I found from a recent Resurgence podcast.

Keller is a master at preaching to two radically different audiences at once.  I use this same approach – teaching a message but spending time in the message speaking respectfully to those who might disagree or see it another way. So many preachers only preach to the audience they have now, but Keller teaches us to also preach to the audience they want to have. I have been attempting this for years now and every Sunday between 25 – 35% of our attendance are non Christian and almost without exception, they tell me how surprised they are at our hospitality -both in the hallways and just as importantly, in the pulpit.

Help them work more, help them work less. Preaching part 4

Fred Craddock, one of the finest preachers in America, teaches the importance of allowing the listener to wrestle with your message.  His basic premise is that a preacher ought not be holed up in his or her study for 10 – 15 hours per week, wrestling with the text, trying to sort out meaning, praying through it and working on application, only to resolve the message for people in 30 minutes on a Sunday.

Rather, Craddock proposes, a preacher should spend a portion of the preparation time figuring out how to make the congregation also wrestle with it.  Craddock tells us a well delivered sermon will then launch 10 – 15 hours of wrestling, application etc in the hearers during the week.

In other words, don’t button up the message like a Brady Bunch conclusion with all the loose pieces tied up.  Leave a little hair somewhere, an edge or a shock to encourage your people to go away, now having to wrestle with it.

One of my favorite Fred Craddock sermons is “What Shall We Do With The Gift” – which he delivered to a room full of preachers at a conference.  It is 26 minutes long with a slow start and stunning application of how different leaders in the Bible wrestled with their calling.  But he didn’t offer the thesis of his message until the final 26 seconds.  Craddock often uses a long runway for his sermons and is famous for his sudden landings, but this one was so sudden I thought somehow the recording had been cut off.  I spent a long time sorting through his message, the way it was crafted and the examples to better understand what he was saying.  It was a masterpiece of engagement and wrestling.

I think there is another side to this coin, however.  While a good sermon ought to create wrestling and ongoing engagement in the listener, it also ought to be delivered in such a way that makes it easier for the listener to receive it.  In other words, make the listener wrestle with the content, but ease their work by your delivery style.   I’ve really had to work on this in my own preaching.

Its one thing to generate good content, its a whole other thing to figure out how to deliver it well.  

My older sermons were too dense with ideas, with no hierarchy of structure, not enough stories and not enough consideration of the jumps between ideas.  I’d deliver these messages and put too much work on the listener to process them, arrange the ideas by importance etc.  I’m still working on my preaching skill (who isn’t?) but I pay much more attention now to HOW to deliver the ideas and concepts.  Where does the message need to breath?  How slowly do I need to move so that people can follow?  Which idea carries the most weight and which ideas exist to serve the greater idea?  Pace of speech, story, pauses, volume, repetition – all devices to ease the listener’s workload in processing the message.

So on the one hand, we ought to increase the workload of our hearers – encourage them to wrestle with the content.  On the other hand, we ought to ease their workload by delivering the content in a way that is simplest to process.

From Concept to Fleshed out sermon

Three or four years ago, I stumbled across the above image on a Flikr forum.  I found it completing arresting and enchanting and decided it would make a strong basis for a Christmas sermon series.  I grabbed the image and filed it “for future use.”

As I was looking through my random idea folder (now on evernote) I came across a quote from my favorite Old Testament Scholar, Walter Brueggemann.  He wrote, “No wonder Jesus was a revolutionary.  His mother sang him protest songs as lullabies.”  I don’t remember when I found this quote – I think I was listening to one of his lectures on Itunes University while commuting to an appointment.  Either way, the quote had struck me and I’d taken 10 seconds to record it for future use.  It joined the list of hundreds of random quotes, ideas and articles that strike me for any particular reason.

That quote and that image became the basis of our 2011 series, Christmas Revolution.  For Scripture, it seemed perfectly fitting to use the “original carols of Christmas” sung by Mary, Simeon, and Zechariah and the Angel.  We got permission from the designer of the graphic to use his image and we printed it on Christmas Ornaments for our church to pass out as invitations.

The series was one of my favorites to preach – it hit many of the lesser known parts of the Christmas story which are deeply rooted in the history of Israel, so the series was rich with Biblical teaching.  It kept a running thread of “revolution” and how the true meaning of Christmas is to up-end us and astonish us.

This is my primary way of developing a sermon series.  It starts with an idea I’ve heard or seen or received from reading Scripture.  Over time the idea gets some meat on it and forms into a cohesive overall theme.  The above example is obviously quite comprehensive.  Others happen quite simply – reading a passage or a commentary, hearing a story can all trigger an idea that brews its way over time into a fleshed out structure for a series.  The reason I’ve had series ideas sitting dormant for years is that they’ve never moved from idea to fleshed out structure.

So for this Christmas series, the graphic and the Bruegemann quote helped me determine to use the songs and poems from Luke and Matthew.  Then the calendar helped me figure out which passage to do when.  The overall theme of revolution/up-ending/astonishment gave me plenty of room to find stories.  So when I opened my Bible on a Tuesday to start work, 50% or more of the structure was already in place.

Obviously, not every series can work this way, but at any given time, the human brain can be stewing on 8 – 10 different concepts and ideas.  My current series idea document has 36 series ideas.  My “random quotes and thoughts” has hundreds of entries.  When I retreat to plan a calendar, I look over it all and see what comes up and how to connect thoughts.

Obviously, I have a whole other process for the final preparation of the sermon.  This process above doesn’t create a sermon, it creates an overflow of ideas and a solid skeleton for a sermon.  Perhaps another time I can blog on the Tuesday – Saturday preparation process of finalizing the message.

Everyone prepares differently and I am far from an example of an experienced preacher, but this method works for me and over time I’ve developed it to help me get ahead of the Tuesday blank page syndrome.  I’ve found that it doesn’t solve all my preaching challenges, but it makes me more immune to the MHP syndrome of interruptions.


Constructing a Preaching Calendar

Just recently I’ve taken to making my own beef jerky.  My kids are jerky fanatics and making our own is much cheaper than buying.  Jerky, it turns out, is all about marination time.  The longer you marinate the meat, the better the taste.  And so we segue into the 12 month preaching calendar.  Its about extending the marination time of ideas.  Its also about paying attention to the rhythms of the year.  

At the bottom are two examples of 12 month preaching calendars to this post so you can see what they look like.  One is from Ron Johnson, pastor of Restoration Community Church and the other is mine.

Ron, particularly, pays attention to overall church rhythm and his team plan accordingly.  His “big events” all revolve around the sermon calendar, so he’ll plan a day of service to the community in conjunction with a series on action, or a summer series on the Bible while people are in soul care mode.  This past Easter, his church was really creative with the whole “come to church we’ll give you a gift” thing.  If you brought a friend to Easter, or if you were a first time guest, Restoration would donate money toward an organization that freed people out of slavery.  Modern skeptics would prefer that over another coffee cup any day.

Preaching calendars are a result of a planning retreat.  If I didn’t get away for a night or two, I’d never get a calendar built.  You can’t build one on the fly, or in an afternoon.  You have to build it, pray over it, move things around, pray over it.  Not unlike an actual sermon, the calendar comes together over time, with marination.  Before I go on retreat, I ask our elders, key staff and some volunteers for input into sermon ideas.  What do they think should be covered over the coming year?  After the retreat, I run the calendar by our elders and also hand it out to planning staff.

As for series ideas, I keep a running document of ideas that I can pull from.  My current document is 7 pages long with 36 different ideas for sermon series.  I’ve also attached a sample pdf of sermon series ideas.  Some of the ideas are really bad, some are stale, because they’ve been sitting there so long.  When I came up with the title, “Grudge Report” for a series on Forgiveness, the “Drudge Report” was known in pop culture.  I’m not sure it is still as known now.  MC Hammer, on the other hand…..he’ll always preach!

A quick note for my “exegesis only” friends: don’t let the series titles put you off, many of these ideas are exegetical book studies.  (I refer you, yet again, to MC Hammer.)  Just because you’re exegetical, doesn’t mean you cannot have some fun.  Your people will appreciate the extra effort.

So long term sermon planning is a combination of planning retreat, 12 month calendar and ongoing sermon idea document.  These three tools work really well to keep a preacher’s head well above the coming Sunday and give months of lead time to collect stories, marinate ideas etc.

Here are the 3 documents:  (warning:  long content!) Continue reading

Sanity and the Preaching Calendar

When I first started interviewing with Discovery about being the preaching pastor, I felt this nagging concern that I would never be able to preach every week.  I’d simply run out of ideas or worse yet, I’d stand in front of the congregation one Sunday with an empty head and heart and having no option left but to glare at everybody and say, “what are you looking at?” and then walk away and sell cars.  (retroactive warning:  preacher psychosis!)

At our recent BLN North gathering, Joe Beckler discussed the sermon calendar and the importance of planning ahead, both for the preacher’s stamina and the rest of the team’s sanity.  Two out of our team regularly work on a 12 month calendar and one other guy works 3 or 4 months ahead, but many of our guys do not work an annual calendar.

This post: benefits of a sermon calendar.  Next post: how we create one.  Then:  taking a series idea and fleshing it out into a working sermon series full of content.  

Continue reading

Mentors You’ve Not Yet Met

Everybody has them.  Folks who have influenced you from a distance.  Here are some of mine:

1) Eugene Peterson.  A Pastor/Scholar who writes for Pastor/er….hack scholars like me.  I love Dr Peterson because he is old school, counter cultural and a poet trapped in a curmugeon’s body.  For him, pastoring is always extremely local and personal to the people in your church.  For books, I recommend, “Contemplative Pastor,” “The Pastor: A Memoir,” and “5 Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work.”    Also, search itunes for “Zondervan Podcast” and grab Peterson’s message at the 2007 National Pastors Gathering.  He asks the question, “What are pastors good for?” and then spends the next hour chipping away at the answers.  Vintage Peterson.

2) Fred Craddock  (actually, I’ve met Dr Craddock, but its not like I could call him up and invite him for tea…)  Craddock is the finest preacher you’ve never heard of.  He taught me to find my own voice and not try to be someone else.  he also taught the power of story, shock and most of all, the importance of helping people wrestle with the text.  Craddock says, “Don’t spend 10 hours wrestling with your message only to resolve it in 30 minutes for the people.  Instead, spend 10 hours figuring out how to let your people wrestle with the text.”  Craddock is the finest story teller I’ve ever heard inside the church.  His sermon, “What Shall We Do With the Gift” is vintage Craddock.

3) Philip Yancey and Fred Buechner.  Yep, they come in bulk at number 3.  Both incredibly gifted writers, both have wrestled with doubt and both became loyal companions on my own journey of doubt.  These guys write with a fresh and raw honesty that is rare in Christian publishing.  Buechner’s writing holds a beauty and an ache that resonates deeply.  Yancey asks the questions many are timid to ask.  I doubt I’ll ever meet Buechner, but Philip lives down the road, so maybe I’ll start stalking him…  Yancey’s “What’s So Amazing About Grace” is probably a good start.  Buechner’s fiction:  “Son of Laughter.”  His book on preaching, “Telling the Truth” is incredible.

4)  Tim Keller  (ok, so I’ve met Tim as well.  Yep, I’m sort of a big deal.)  Is there a finer pastoral brain alive today?  Brilliant, winsome, engaging, missional, Keller is the whole package.  I know no better example of a preacher who can equally engage the skeptical outsider and the long term insider.  His insights into the text continue to stun me.  His “Preaching the Gospel” talk at Resurgance 2006 is an excellent example of his brain and heart on full display.

5) Walter Brueggeman and N.T. Wright  Come on! I’m a 30 something post modern pastor, its almost obligatory to have these two guys on my list.  World Class Scholars and also excellent preachers.  They write phenomenal theology for the church.  They engage the text almost viscerally and they are shaping the modern church.

Well, there are others for shizzle, but these 5 7 hopefully provide some good resources for your journey.  Feel free to share your mentors that you’ve not yet met.