Van Gogh Swimming with Cookies: 3 tips to keep your preaching consistently good
Pittsburgh Seminary continues our sermon writing tips series. Be sure to look for other tips from faculty, staff, and alums in the months ahead and read our recent posts on preaching without notes, dealing with writer’s block, 12 questions for effective preaching, using art as a tutorial to Scripture, preaching about current events, and preaching from the Old Testament. Have a tip you’d like to offer or have a sermon issue you’d like help with? Let us know by using the comments option.
I love outlandish ways to think about sermons, so with comparisons like that I couldn’t resist chiming in. Having served a local congregation, and now a national institution, I have preached regularly in two very different roles, so I’m going to offer some outlandish comparisons of my own drawn from each.
After I finished my MDiv at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, I served Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Orlando. Next time you visit Disney, it’s a tremendous congregation and only about 30 minutes from the parks, so stop by and say hello for me. Serving there for five years led me to a number of insights about preaching in a local church. Here are a few highlights.
Preaching is like:
You know those famous paintings made up of all those little dots? They’re usually painted by Van Gogh or that other famous guy you can’t remember right now. (His name is Seurat.) When you look at those kinds of paintings up close, they’re great. But when you step back, you find an amazing picture that wasn’t there until you saw it all together.
Preaching is like that. The cumulative effect of years of preaching is far more significant than one individual sermon, and sometimes you can’t even tell what the impact is until you see it all together. I had a lot of fun with an annual “series” that took place each year around Christmas. That kind of long-term impact is far more substantial than most of us realize.
Pay attention to the sermon you preach not just each week, but over the course of the year.
I love cookies. Who doesn’t?
But, if you eat cookies all the time, you would eventually get tired of them. Or so I’m told.
Preaching is like cookies. To be more precise, your preaching style is like cookies. As great as it is, people may come to love it even more if sometimes they have something else instead. Like cake.
In Florida, I had the privilege of working with a pastor named Bob Eckard. As the senior pastor, he was very generous with sharing the pulpit, so I preached way more than most associates. As a result, the congregation heard each of us preach a lot, and got to experience two different styles on a regular basis. They came to appreciate the differences in our styles, and found them to be complementary. Regularly hearing a good preacher also helped my preaching grow and evolve. This is an advantage that larger churches naturally have that can be healthy for solo pastors to seek out. Doing so will help you with preaching consistently good messages.
Give the cookies a rest and have some cake.
Ask someone else to preach sometimes – even when you’re in town. Need ideas? Try a missionary you support, an elder or deacon, a Sunday School teacher, youth director, or even (ahem) Seminary faculty or administrators.
When you go swimming, the best way to find out what the water’s like is to jump in.
Preaching is the same. Being immersed in the life of a congregation is the best way to learn what concepts, words, or images will really make a splash. Homileticians and preachers often talk about exegeting a congregation. There’s no way to do that without diving into the life of a parish.
Spend some time paying attention to the “water” you swim in.
On an unrelated note, next time I’ll share some contrasting insights from my role as a travelling preacher. In the meantime, look at some pointillism, eat a cookie, and then (after 30 minutes) go for a swim.
The Rev. Derek Davenport ’05 is director of enrollment at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and program co-director of the Miller Summer Youth Institute. Derek is also a PTS alumnus of the Master of Divinity (MDiv) Program after which he served at a church in Orlando, Fla., for five years. Besides working with prospective students, he serves as a guest preacher in Western Pennsylvania, researches church symbolism on his website, and tweets at @DerekRDavenport.