Don’t undermine yourself by providing distractions to your listeners.
I have little experience with dog races, but my understanding is that to get the dogs to run, they use a mechanical rabbit that goes flying. Naturally, the dogs engage and try to catch it. David Fleer helpfully introduced the idea of rabbit chasing to me for how to think about distractions in preaching.
It isn’t the case that your audience is a blank slate, anxious for your shaping. Very likely, even as they have come to join you, they are distracted. Whether it’s the thing they need to do after church, the problem they’ll have to face on Monday, or even an argument in the car on the way to where you are, there are already so many reasons why people might have trouble focusing.
This is why word economy is of great importance in preaching and teaching. You should choose your words well and speak as succinctly as you can. This is especially true in a culture as time-sensitive as the West. I know that some people prefer a conversational style of preaching, and to a large degree I would put myself in that number. But if by “conversational” you mean “I don’t really polish or practice what I’m going to say,” then I would suggest being less “conversational” and more intentional.
One of the greatest downsides of a more string-of-consciousness feel to your speaking is that you might unwittingly send your audience off chasing an idea in a way that keeps them from hearing what you wanted to say.
Perhaps, assuming you are a male, you want to share an insightful observation from your wife about a story. I will use an example that Lauren Calvin Cooke shared with me in a podcast. In John’s Gospel, Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd, asserting that his sheep know the sound of his voice. In the story of Lazarus, when Jesus called Lazarus, Lazarus knew and responded to the sound of Jesus’ voice, even as it called him from death back into life. The sheep knew his Shepherd. It’s a touching image and a brilliant insight, I think.
But suppose that it was your wife, Karen, who pointed this out to you. Here’s a terrible way to get to this insight:
I want to share something that Karen noticed about Lazarus. It’s super interesting. Ok, so yesterday was craaaazy. We watched the big game. Oh man, I can’t believe that one call! Anyway, we had been outdoors with friends and were kind of sweaty, so before we were going to go to bed, Karen decided to hop in the shower. I was in there brushing my teeth and she said, “You know something cool about that Lazarus story?” We had been talking about it on the ride, because I told her I was preaching about it today. Anyway…
Of the above, how many potential ways might you have sent your audience running after a distraction?
- Some are thinking about the game
- Some are thinking about whether they are currently sweaty
- Some are wondering if they have bad breath and need to brush their teeth or at least have a mint
- Some are thinking about Karen in the shower
I think you could leave out the entire paragraph and replace it with:
Karen and I were reflecting on this story of Lazarus, and she noticed something that really touched my heart…
Make sure you know the central core of what you’re trying to say, and what the response is you desire from your audience. Let these serve as a filter for what you will or won’t say. If your comments don’t align with these, trim them out.
Sharpening Your Skills
The best ways you can sharpen your skills of verbal precision and word usage are to (1) read things by people who do this well and (2) practice doing it yourself.
Consider C.S. Lewis. He was not only a brilliant and creative writer, he was a master of simplicity. Here is one classic paragraph from The Abolition of Man:
In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.C.S. Lewis
If you take this paragraph and break it into individual sentences, have a look at the precision with which he writes:
In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function.
We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise.
We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.
We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.
No run-on sentences. No distractions. Every phrase carries weight.
Poetry Can Help
In general, I believe no one works harder than poets do in saying much with few words. Lately I’ve been listening to Gordon Lightfoot, and am often struck by how much he can say with a few words.
I can see her lying back in her satin dressGordon Lightfoot, “Sundown”
In a room where you do what you don’t confess
Sundown, you better take care
If I find you been creeping ’round my back stairs
The movement in these four short lines is cinematic. The focus is on the woman, it expands into the room, moves outside to the back steps, and shows us that the sun is setting.
Simultaneously there is movement in how we understand his relationship to the woman. She must be beautiful in her dress. But the context means their relationship must be hidden/forbidden. The last two lines of warning tell us there is a problem. Who had better take care? Why?
One of my favorite poets is Billy Collins. He doesn’t generally write rhyming poetry, which is part of why I find him so useful for preaching. (I’m not a rhyming preacher.) His poem “The Lanyard” is a favorite of mine. It is both humorous and heartfelt. This video has his comments along with his reading of it:
How About Haikus?
I personally do my best creative work when I’m forced to remain within certain constraints. Freeform poetry is nearly impossible for me. But I’ve grown to love writing haikus. These are a Japanese form of poetry that follows a formula:
I am linking below to some posts I’ve shared containing haikus that I’ve written. Several of these I composed as a way of helping me get to the essence of a Biblical text. If I could only describe this passage in the form of a haiku, what is it saying? Some of these provided for me that filter I spoke of earlier. “If my comments don’t help build to this central idea, I must leave them out.”
Say what you have to say clearly and concisely. Avoid words especially which might distract your listeners.