I avoid Sunday morning meanderings by cultivating textual fluency, people fluency, and schedule fluency.
By Earl Palmer 2005
No one wants to blur or block the message of the Lord. Yet, sometimes on Sunday morning we climb into the pulpit or stand behind a lectern and, for any host of reasons, haltingly deliver an ill-prepared message or lead a Bible study that just goes nowhere.
The symptoms of such sermons and classes vary: (a) use of clichés, due to a shallow grasp of the text, (b) fogginess, due to heavy biblical spade work but light cultivation for human consumption, (c) apathy, due to sparse focus on the implications of the text. But whatever the symptoms, the source is often the same: lack of preparedness.
I avoid Sunday morning meanderings by cultivating three fluencies during the week: textual fluency, people fluency, and schedule fluency. Let me illustrate this by showing how I prepare for preaching, which for me is the main format for my teaching.
Textual fluency means knowing the content of a Scripture passage thoroughly enough that it leaves its mark on me. And textual fluency requires a journey from biblical text understood to discipleship implication addressed. In my journey, I take five steps, posing five questions to every preaching passage.
- Technical questions. C. S. Lewis says, “Tell me what the hard words mean” (in their own setting, when they were first said). He maintained that a lexicon profited him more than a thousand commentaries. After all, a text is built with words.
- Historical question. I must view the text in its own setting, both the historical within the material itself and that which lies behind the material. The historical research within would be, for instance, to learn about the identity of a person mentioned. Who is John the Baptist? Who are the Pharisees? Or the Sadducees?
- Theological question. If that’s what it says, what does it mean? This requires some interpretation, which is the dynamic part of the great journey. For example, when I determine that the parable of the Prodigal Son is not about the son as much as the father, that’s a theological evaluation.
- Contemporary question. I ask, “Now, how would Christ’s point collide with his own world, with his contemporaries?” In the parable of the Prodigal Son we see within the text itself a collision occurring between Jesus and the Pharisees over his eating and drinking with publicans. At that point, I play a game with the text and ask, I wonder how the Pharisees would respond? Who would they identify with? How would they feel about what Jesus does with the elder son? Now I’m getting inside the skin of a first-century person—what some critics call audience criticism—to understand how and why the collision would occur.
- Discipleship question. Where I put myself personally and representatively under the text. I must ask, “What is this text saying to me? How does it collide with my life? Where am I challenged to change?”
• Flatness. Research kindles a valid urgency. After significant study the material itself grips you.
One education study of a few years ago sought to discover the factors that raise teenagers’ sat scores. They found one particular variable that did that: teachers who believed their subject matter was crucial, who felt a student couldn’t make it without knowing their subject. Instructors who know the material but couldn’t care less if you learn it, or strict disciplinarians who merely want the right paper at the right time but don’t seek true learning, are less effective. I must passionately believe the scriptural material is invaluable.
• Limiting the gospel. We don’t want to shortcut the journey by prematurely deciding what discipleship implications we want to affirm. For example, a well-meaning pastor may say, “I want to tell people God loves them,” and then simply hunt for some supporting verses on Saturday night to undergird his or her intuitions. This approach doesn’t give the full gospel a chance to break through.
Some pastors love working the early stages of the journey but never get around to asking what it all means. They can stun us with Greek word studies but never arrive at discipleship implications.
Truth be known, we may be wanting to hide in the text, always talking about what the text says; as long as I don’t get down to what it means, it never really bothers me or anyone else. Then I’m not meddling. There is a comfortable distance in “On the one hand Calvin said this. On the other, Luther said that. Bultmann went this way, and Barth that way.” But what about me and you?
What are we going to do?
That’s where people fluency—understanding myself and my people—comes in. By sustained listening, I understand the questions on their minds, where they’re coming from and what’s happening in their lives. In fact, I can be a prophetic speaker to them only when I’ve been a prophetic listener.
For example, when I’m with teenagers, I try to understand what motivates and energizes their culture. Since it’s sometimes strange to me, I’m tempted to distance or disconnect myself from it, or, what’s worse, disdain or criticize it too quickly. Instead, I try to shift into a learner mode. When teenagers are bragging about some new music, I ask myself, What is it that really turns them on about that music? What do they feel when they hear it? What do they like about that group?
A prophetic listener is quick to hear and slow to speak. You can attend an opera, for instance, in the closed mode saying to yourself, This is going to be boring, or in the learner mode, I wonder what has caused the Italians to love these operas so much? A prophetic listener pauses to listen and watch.
I want to explode one myth. I believe pastors have the gift of time more than most professionals. Except for Sunday morning, pastors wield the whip hand over most events in the church week. We largely control when people will schedule appointments with us, when special classes will be offered, when we’ll talk with outsiders. Granted, this scarcely means we abound in free time, but given our authority, we can, if the resolve is there, establish a rhythm to our week.
Obviously this journey demands time and work, both of which I gladly invest in order to avoid three dangers:
• Inaccuracy. Research prevents historical errors, which can cripple the message. If I say something inaccurate in an illustration about airplanes, the pilots and aircraft-hobbyists in the congregation will downgrade everything else I say.