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Trouble, drowning, confusion helpful in sermon preparation, lecturer says

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–A sermon is more than saying the right things, and good sermon preparation involves “looking for trouble,” “drowning” in the text and becoming confused, a professor of preaching said during the Northcutt Lectures at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Feb. 7.

Every sermon should have a shape, or a plot, taking its hearers from a question to an answer, said Eugene L. Lowry, preaching professor at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo.

“[A sermon] isn’t just having said the right thing,” Lowry said. “It has to do with when and how the thing gets shaped.”

Sermons should have a definite direction, he added. “If [sermons] move at all, they move from an itch to a scratch,” he said. “You don’t start with the answer; you end with the answer.”

In his series of lectures about narrative preaching at the Fort Worth, Texas, campus, Lowry said life is lived in narrative form, with a beginning, a middle and an end, and that most parts of life take this form as well. It is only logical, he said, that sermons should take this kind of form to be understandable.

The ordained United Methodist minister said sermon preparation should have the same direction as the sermon delivery.

“The sermon preparation process ought also to move from itch to scratch,” Lowry said, adding that preparing a sermon should not begin with answers but should be a search for answers.

The first step to preparing a sermon, Lowry said, is to “be immersed in the text” rather than approaching it with specific answers in mind. He equated this step with “drowning” in the text.

“We’re not here to take texts for a ride,” he said. “We are here to put ourselves in the kind of position, humbly, that texts can take us for a ride.”

One way to do this, Lowry said, is by reading the Bible out loud rather than silently. “Not only will the eye see stuff, but the ear will hear stuff that you might otherwise miss,” he said.

Lowry also said it is important to “get lost” in the text before doing a thorough exegesis. “It’s better to load yourself with confusion, questions, wonderments, so that then when you turn to the experts they can help you where it really matters,” he said.

Lowry advised seminarians to “look for trouble” when approaching a sermon text. Something that is seemingly out of place can often be a beginning point, he said. Conflict, connections or anything “funny” or “weird” are things to look for, he said.

“When we read a text, about the first thing we ask is, ‘What’s the point here?'” Lowry said. “Look with different eyes, and ask, ‘What is the question here?’ You’ve got to position yourself to be surprised.”

In fact, he said, when taking a break from the sermon preparation process, it is better to leave it at a point of difficulty or confusion rather than at a point of closure. This way the mind can continue pondering the question during other activities, often resulting in answers that would not otherwise come, he said.

“While you’re making a hospital call or playing a game of racquetball or sleeping,” Lowry said, “actually your mind is continuing to work without the veto power of your conscious virtue.”

Lowry also advised talking to other people during the process and even early in the process. Simply paraphrasing the text for another person might bring something new to the surface, he said.

“You’ll discover that their ideas and their thoughts may prompt sparks of juxtaposition that you may never have come up with yourself,” he said.

Lowry stressed that confusion concerning the biblical text is a positive thing rather than a negative one. Confusion prompts looking for the answers and leads to new ideas, he said.

It is when the exegesis is looking for answers to specific questions that it is most effective, he said, and therefore confusion should always come first. Once the questions are in place, the research is ready to begin.

“When you go to biblical work and you know it all already, you’re in trouble and so is your congregation,” Lowry said. “The Holy Spirit has a lot more chance with me in my confusion than in my convictions.”

The Jessie and Fannie Northcutt Lectures on Preaching and Pastoral Ministry were established in 1976. The lectures are presented annually by an established, practicing professional who demonstrates effectiveness in preaching or pastoral ministries in the conservative evangelical tradition. They are funded by an endowment established by Mr. and Mrs. Ray L. Graham Sr. and friends and family of the Northcutts.

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  • Tony Imms