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.