When was the last time you went to a zoo? If you have little kids, it may be a recent memory. No matter what, you certainly remember trips to the zoo as a kid. What’s the best animal to see at the zoo? While we might have personal favorites, many would probably say it’s the lion. Rhinos are cool, tigers are wild, otters are cute, but there is just something majestic, powerful, and terrifying about a lion. Now, imagine jumping in the exhibit with the lion.
Are you there in your mind? What happened? If you’re realistic, that lion just ran over and ate you. Remember that. Now, imagine you are loose in Africa somewhere and you meet a wild, uncaged lion. What just happened, in your imagination? That lion just ran over and ate you.
Same lion, same result, different context.
As a preacher, you have heard this debate and probably internalized this debate. Should you have separate times for your “sermon preparation” and for your “personal time with God”? The debate usually says you absolutely must have separate personal time with God outside of your preparation time. Now, naturally you are going to spend time reading Scriptures that you aren’t preparing a lesson for. That’s just going to happen. This blog is concerned with the underlying beliefs that draw a thick, stark line between “personal time with God” and sermon preparation.
Let’s just start with the phrase, “personal time with God”. You may not have caught it but just separating out these two different times in your day/week with that terminology implies that one is personal. One affects you personally. One moves you personally. One does not. And one is time with God. One includes God at work in your life. One does not.
Of course, few if any believe sermon preparation is not at all personal and does not involve God’s work in your life whatsoever. However, the pervasive idea seems to say that there is a strong qualitative difference between God’s work during sermon preparation and God’s work during “personal time” with Him. His work is different in those two times. One is personal, the other not as personal. One is “intimate”, the other not so much. One popular Bible teacher went so far to say that if you only spend time preparing lessons, sermons, and the like, you are dying a slow death.
So, the qualitative difference implied between preparation time and personal time is one of life and death, according to this Bible teacher. It’s not that one is simply a little more personal. It’s that one of these moments in your day gives and sustains life and the other does not. In other words, your time preparing your sermon is so impersonal and so devoid of God’s present work in your life, sermon preparation alone will leave you dead.
But that begs the question, why preach that content? If the content you study and think on for 15+ hours is so powerless, why then preach it on Sunday?
The underlying belief at work in this debate might be that we think we can control the Word. If we are preparing for a sermon, we can regulate it’s power to mainly affect us intellectually, as we gather content to communicate. But we probably won’t be cut to the core, moved to prayer, strengthened in faith. We must have a separate personal time in order for the Word to unleash power to change us, move us, and bring us to repentance.
But does a lion in a cage or a lion outside of cage need you to activate it? Does it care where he is? Whether you jump in the cage with the lion or you meet the lion in the wild, that lion is on the move and that lion will do whatever he wants with you. That lion doesn’t care where you are or what you are doing. Whether you jump into “personal time with God” or you jump into “sermon preparation”, you just stepped in front of a lion. And he doesn’t care whether you’re reading for fun or reading to prepare a Bible study, because in reality, he is an uncaged lion that just found you.
Have you ever turned off a movie trailer because you really did not want to see anymore of the movie before you saw the actual movie? Sometimes movie trailers give away so much that you know what to expect from 75% of the movie. They sometimes play with the line of giving away all the “goods” before you go see the actual movie.
Too often sermons do not just give away 75% of the sermon up front but 100%. You have possibly preached this kind of sermon and you have certainly heard this kind of sermon: “Today, we are going to see three main-points from our passage. We are going to see that God is good and that he sustains us in suffering; that suffering, while hard, is used by God for our good. That is everything that we are going to look at today, so let’s get started.”
After that kind of introduction, what now sustains the attention of listeners? They just heard the whole message in the first few minutes, so what else are they on the edge of their seats listening for. A sermon like that, that puts the ending before the beginning, preaches the message of the sermon and then assumes listeners will hang on for another 30-40 minutes for further details about the message they already heard. But that is a big assumption to make about listener interest and attention.
What keeps us engaged with and hanging on every word of a story, movie, book, or the like, is not fully knowing where it is going or how it is going to end. Our attention is sustained by understanding, in general, what a book is about but we keep turning the pages to see exactly where it is going to go, what argument it is going to make, or whether or not the hero is going to live or die.
Imagine Jesus telling the story of the prodigal son and beginning with, “Right now I’m about to tell a parable. This parable is about a son who runs away, returns, and is embraced by his gracious father; this parable is intended to convict those listening who do not understand grace. Let’s begin…” All the thunder would now be gone from the parable. The compelling nature of the parable of the prodigal son is the shocking ending of the son being received back graciously and also that the older brother did not receive the son graciously, sending a message to those listening who are rejecting the grace of Jesus standing right before them.
Is it wrong to preview your whole sermon before beginning your sermon? Of course not. But are you losing the attention of your listeners when you do so? It seems highly likely. Rather than previewing your whole sermon ahead of time, putting the ending before the beginning, consider just beginning your sermon. Start the sermon, start preaching the message of your biblical text, build the argument and the main idea until it is completed.
Then close the sermon.