A taste of chapter 3 from Phil


Deadly, dull and boring

So here are the true confessions you most want to hear from the guy who’s writing the chapter on being clear and not being dull in this preaching book you just bought:

1. My battle with dullness hasn’t been won, but I’m making steady progress.

2. I’m not a gifted natural communicator.

3. I’m uniquely qualified to write a chapter entitled ‘Deadly, dull and boring’.

Let me explain. My early preaching disasters all followed the same deadly pattern. I’d write a well-crafted essay (much like the papers I’d write at theological college through the week), my wife Louise would read it and give the okay, and on Sunday morning I’d let it loose on the crowd.

But, time after time, it was the same train wreck. Parishioners would shake my hand at the door with a thin smile and a kind word, but the unvarnished truth always came out in the car trip home. I already knew what Louise was going to say. (I saw her slump sideways during the fifth sub-point.) “It looked great when I read through it yesterday—but today it was just so … boring.” And I knew she was right.

“It’s not you, it’s me”

It’s easy to blame the listener. Maybe it’s the seven-minute attention span of ‘the Sesame Street generation’. Or those multi-tasking time-slicing you-phone i-tubers? Someone said to me just last week, “People these days just can’t follow an intelligent argument.” And, of course, there’s some truth in that. Our culture has changed. Attention spans are shorter. We multi-task. We skim. We click, we like, we share, we move on to something else.

Jesus warns us to be careful how we listen, to avoid the fate of the “ever hearing but never listening Israel”. Sadly, some people just won’t pay attention to God’s word. And that’s their problem.

But that wasn’t the problem with my early sermons. I knew how hard it was to be a listener myself, and I knew how much more fun it was to count the bricks in the front wall of the church than to listen to a dull preacher. So I was convinced that it was my job to help my church family listen well … by working harder at keeping them awake. No more excuses. So one Sunday afternoon, I decided to make it my business to learn how to communicate.

I know some of you will think you’ve spotted the problem already. Preaching from a written script, you’ll say, is guaranteed to be dull. There’s no connection with the congregation, there’s no spontaneity. How can you expect the Spirit to move your listeners when you’re preaching from a prepared text?

Let me share our little secret. Both Gary and I preach fully scripted. We’re convinced that planning and preparing what you’re going to say is not the problem—in fact, if you do it right, it’s more often a solution.

We’re not claiming it’s the only way to preach—there are other models that work just fine. And I know it gets bad press. (If you’re ready to dump this book right now, maybe you’ll enjoy Preaching without Notes by Joseph M. Webb, or the earlier work of John Broadus in his Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons.[1])

Our point is this: if you master the art of natural scripting—writing exactly the words you’d naturally speak, exactly the way you’d naturally say them—then you can eliminate the downsides of scripted public speaking.

But the first thing you need to realize is that natural scripting is completely different from writing an essay or a term paper. That was my problem. I didn’t know the difference. But I soon learned, and most of what I learned will apply equally well to all sermon preparation—whether you’re scripting your sermons or not.

Okay. Where did I start? My first step was to call my friend David Ritchie. Dave was a couple of years ahead of me at Sydney’s Moore Theological College and an excellent natural communicator.

“Help!” I said. “I’m killing people. What am I doing wrong?” …

[1] Available as an ebook at <openlibrary.org>.