A blank screen or blank sheet of paper, a closed Bible, pen in hand, and a blank look while staring out the window. And then the frustrating question: "What should I preach this Sunday?"
As Rob Bell phrases it: what can we do to not start with a blank screen at the beginning of the week? How can we move from having to say something to having something to say...
Here's the contrast:
all around us
all the time
When is the radar up for discerning what the message ought to be on Sunday?
Rob worked hard to inspire preachers to keep the radar always up - use everything as fodder for messages in the works. By working six to twelve months in advance, and by having the radar up the whole time, when it comes to Tuesday 9am there is no blank screen. Rather, the new problem is one of editing - sifting out all the good stuff that can't be worked into the message.
Here's how Rob breaks it down:
Radar: the attitude of the preacher that the Spirit is always at work, that Jesus is always at work, that God is always at work - and thus we ought to be more aware of what They are up to in the world around us. This awareness both fuels the content of the message, but also the context.
Buckets: the many, many, many categories of content that you gather as you do life; with a big ever working radar there will be many buckets of stuff that is accumulate. Which is good - if you are trying to avoid starting with a blank screen!
Rob challenged preachers to get their buckets going by collecting one idea/fragment/insight/sentence per week. Give it a year - but don't put any pressure on the self to collect, just look for it, let it come. Revisit regularly what you find, stay familiar with the stuff in the buckets.
Chunks: the content that connects with what you perceive going on in the congregation - the stuff that stirs curiosity and arouses conviction. The stuff you draw from the buckets to begin exploring, exegeting, examining in order to discern what the Spirit is saying to you and the church.
With the chunks, be intentional with the text - and pay attention to what it is saying. Look for the organizational principles at play in the text and ideas emerging. For the buckets and chunks that grow into something interesting and convicting, work with them. For buckets and chunks that don't seem to go anywhere, either dump them or let them sit on the backburner.
Don't just accumulate information, look for ways to arrange it. Keep the radar up, not only for content to collect, but what is going on in the world of the congregation and city. Be aware of what buckets and chunks are most pertinent to what the Spirit is doing.
Marinade: once the content has been discerned, let it sit in the head, heart and gut. Let the ideas and convictions soak into the soul - let it stay with you so that as you do life, the message will emerge from real life, not abstract ideals. For example: memorize the Scripture you'll be preaching from - months in advance. Then let that Scripture stay with you as you go for a run, cook dinner, play with the family. Let stuff you learn from that Scripture swirl in the mind so that by the time it gets penned to paper it is a well-considered text.
When it comes to collecting information from what you see and hear in life, here's Rob's suggestion:
write it down
take a picture of it
ask for it
tear it out
When it comes to working with the Scripture text, here's some of Rob's suggestions:
inhale what others have said about it
examine key words
get to know the location
ask questions about the culture
explore the concepts
what are the stories about
where in time does this occur
what are the pictures
actions - who and what
connections with anything else
When it comes to distilling the message, here's a practice that Rob puts himself through:
If I couldn't use any biblical or religious language, how would I describe this...
to a child?
to a Martian?
using only drawings and pictures?
using only actors?
to irreligious people?
to help people become fully human?
A big part of what drives Rob in his sermonwork is this goal: asking what is the thing behind the thing? What is the mystery behind the mystery? What is the truth behind the truth.
This preaching event provided me some space to rethink how I plan out my messages, where do I get my content from, and what I can do to sharpen my skills. Obviously Rob isn't telling preachers to do it like him - but we can learn from him and apply the wisdom to our own personality and place.
What are some specific ways I could improve my preaching?
Plan out at least six-months in advance, and NOT change the schedule!
Take some days to plan out the six-month schedule.
Take some time to get insights from fellow Anchorites before planning out the schedule.
Rearrange my weekly schedule - make it a bit more rigid when it comes to working on sermons -not only for the upcoming Sunday, but for the ones in the weeks to come. Plan my work, than work my plan!
I'm sure people who listen to my sermons regularly could give me some more suggestions for improvement!