Monday, March 14, 2016

Poor Timing and Learning to Practicing

My friend Aaron practices his sermons before preaching every Sunday. This weekend I noticed him slip away during an ETS regional conference. "Where did you go?" I asked when he returned.

"I had to practice my sermon."

Jeremy, Tim (me), Lee, and Aaron @ ETS Regional
Hours later, Aaron vanished again to rehearse. I envisioned him preaching to trees and parking curbs.
When I asked Aaron how often he runs through his message, he said, "Six times."

"And you preach for thirty-five to forty-five minutes each week?" I asked, incredulously.

"About forty-five. Yes."

My mind performed a quick calculation. "That's four and a half hours of rehearsing."

"That's right," Aaron said, obviously impressed with my math skills.

But, truth be told, I was the more impressed figure of us two. I rarely gave my sermons a dry run. At best, I worked on my introductions while driving around town in my car.

"How much do you practice?" Aaron asked.

Fortunately, I had just reflected on that question. "I work on my introduction while driving around town in my car."

Our friend Jeremy joined the conversation. "I practice every Friday. I didn't used to, but [one of my elders] said I needed to. It's made a huge difference." 

"In what ways?" I wondered.

"When I speak my sermon aloud, it helps me with the pacing. I can hear areas where I get off track or bogged down."

"I practice, too," Lee said.

The conversation quickly strayed to another topic. Aaron eventually disappeared again for another homily to the sparrows. But I was left evaluating the quality of my sermon preparation. Nearly nine years and 4500 hours of sermon-crafting later, I felt capacious room to improve.

The feeling intensified on Sunday morning. My introduction wandered. My treatment of the "end-times" confusion for the Thessalonian church (2:1-4) created "end-times" confusion for my congregation. (Is the man of lawlessness Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton?) My emphasis on the  victory of Jesus (2:8) and glories of work (3:6-12) lost its punch with a meandering history of labor. And, worst of all, my timer malfunctioned: I preached long.


The timer was my safeguard against rabbit trails and run-on sentences. I purchased it at the beginning of the year to help shorten my sermons to a palatable, forty minutes (or less). It was my sign of self-improvement. I've achieved my goal once this year.

This past week was no exception. Before the sermon I failed to reset the dial to zero. I preached blind until my voice ran out. It was my second-longest sermon ever.

I have logged a respectable amount of hours preaching (one more after this Sunday!). I am an adept and creative presenter.  But I can improve. Anyone can fine-tune his or her craft by deliberate practice. In his book Outliers, Maclolm Gladwell highlights the 10,000 Rule: [T]he thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder. (Gladwell, Outliers, 39).

Excellence gets beyond watching the timer and counting the hours; excellence prioritizes practice. I may not run through my sermon six times this week like Aaron, but I will spend more time driving around town in my car and practicing. I need to get beyond the introduction of my message. 

And on Sunday, may God help me reset the timer.

1 comment:

Viki Rife said...

We appreciate your commitment to excellence! (Maybe you could delegate setting your timer, too.)