Steven W. Smith is Dean of The College at Southwestern and author of Dying to Preach, winner of Preaching Today’s “Book of the Year” in 2009. He is married to Ashley. They have two daughters (Jewell and Sydney) and one son (Shepherd).
*Editor’s Note: This post is the fourth and last in Dr. Smith’s series, “Deep Preaching.”
A sea diver finds a treasure that has been buried for 200 years and you get to see it. What do you expect to see? Well, the treasure is in fact a treasure because of its age. No one has really been able to get a good look at this – it’s rare. It also has inherent value because of its beauty. However, when the diver surfaces you can see none of that. It is covered in the oceanic grime of centuries. It is a treasure by itself, the value is inherent, but the beauty of the treasure is not seen until he takes the time to remove the things that show its beauty.
On Monday, a preacher entered the study. He decided not to be superficial, but to go deep into the Word of God. He desperately wanted to mine out the treasure of the Word for his people, so he did not stop until he got to the bottom where the treasure lay. And, wisely, he did it in time. He got the treasure and began to go to the surface. As a result he has a well crafted structure to his sermon that mirrors the structure of the text. He sank for treasure. He surfaced to bring the treasure to the people. But before he enters the pulpit he must polish off the sermon. He must remove the barriers that impede a view of the beauty of Scripture.
How to Polish
Scripture needs nothing added to it. We add nothing. However, the people to whom we preach are so removed from the cultural and theological worlds of Scripture that they need someone to remove the barriers that keep them from seeing the truth clearly. So by “polish” I am not suggesting that we add to the Word. It does not need our rhetorical flourish. Rather, I am using the word “polish” to describe the process by which we remove anything that keeps people from seeing the beauty of the Scripture. Personally, I am an advocate of a plain style of preaching. By that I mean that we need to remove any forced words or structure that keeps people from seeing truth clearly.
However, demonstrating the simplicity of Scripture is not easy. Simplicity is extremely difficult. So here are some strategies to help so show the beauty of the Word:
1. Look for models.
I am not aware of an effective preacher who is not reading widely or listening to other sermons. To steal another’s sermon is a crime. However, we are always looking for ways to say the same things in new ways. The flavor of someone’s communication style, the insight into a text: these things can be learned by humbling ourselves and reading others.
2. Manuscript for clarity.
Manuscripting does not imply that you will preach with the document in front of you, it simple means that you have worked out the key phrases, you have the transitions down, you know how one thing will lead to the next. You know all of this because it is one complete document. The discipline also keeps you on task so that when you read through it you will see where you have gaps in logic or flow, it will really jump out. As a pastor, I rarely manuscripted my sermons, and I think I paid the price in a lack of oral clarity. I leave the manuscript on the hard drive, but the discipline of doing it is very helpful. If I am pressed for time, I will at least manuscript the introduction and the conclusion.
3. Never preach a sermon for the first time.
Once the manuscript is complete, stand up in the study and preach through the sermon. One pastor I know gets to the church early Sunday morning and preaches it from the pulpit. The goal is that when you enter the pulpit, you do so with confidence because this is a sermon you have already preached!
My dad used to tell me that preaching “goes from paper, to preaching, to paper.” What he meant was that in the study as we are “writing” our sermons, a thought will come to us. The natural reaction is to preach it out loud. It is often in the vocal working out of this that the thoughts really come together. So we write, we preach, and then we write some more.
4. Listen to the Holy Spirit.
This is so subjective that I hesitate to insert it here. An encouragement to be “sensitive to the Spirit” is interpreted by some to mean “don’t study and just go for it.” We don’t mean that. What we mean is that often from the moment of leaving the study to the time when enter the pulpit, the Holy Spirit will prompt us in certain directions. This may happen at any time before or during the sermon. It is often in those promptings that a way to express something becomes clearer. One preacher told me he prints out his sermon, lays it on his bedside, and reads through before he goes to sleep on Saturday night.
So, after we sink and surface, we must shine. To do less is laziness no matter how we describe it. So again, when we dive into the text we must leave time to surface by understanding the structure of Scripture, and to shine by removing anything that hides its beauty. After all you risked your life at the bottom of the ocean for this, you want your people to know that the treasure is worth risking their life for. The goal is that when they began to love the words of the Word, they will want to go deep themselves.
A pastor then knows that he is effective when he never dives alone.