Back in the old days, I remember subscribing to a “sermon-tape of the month” club from my favorite preachers. I’d write out a check (or money-order) for a 12 month subscription; and, every month I’d get the odd little cassette in the mail. Sure, you could purchase those sermon tape-binders if you happened to be at a conference. But, for most of us, our local preacher was the only one we heard.
Of course, now-a-days, everyone has access to a million sermons on their phones. The greatest speakers are no longer hidden somewhere in obscurity. They’re everywhere. Which has created a uniquely new dilemma for the modern pastor, and it’s this:
Fifteen years ago, nobody knew that your speaking blew chunks. But now, they can tweet about it before you’ve finished your second point. You referenced current events in your message (thinking you were so clever and relevant) only to hear: “Furtick, Driscoll, & Stanley had a better take.”
For better or for worse, those of us who preach are now being compared to the greatest speakers on earth every week. I suppose I should be happy that information is finally available for everyone. But, for better or for worse, the bar for public speaking has been raised. And people are going to compare you to them.
Many pastors ask me how long I spend prepping my messages each week. If it’s a totally new message, it can easily take me 20 hours. But now, having over 2500 messages under my belt, I can do a lot of creative recycling – which can reduce my prep time down to only 9-12 hours (over a 2-3 day period). That’s why I often tell church planters: “Don’t plant unless you have at least 500 messages under your belt – or you’ll either spend all your time writing messages (when you should be recruiting & system building); OR, you’ll preach mediocre messages – and wonder why you’re growing so slowly.”
In other words, in the old days, you could be a “pastor” more than “teacher” and it didn’t matter as much. Good communicators didn’t need to be great. Besides most churches were smaller too. And before we start romanticizing the “old days”, lets ALSO remember that, “small-church” generally meant: kids and youth ministry are a lame after-thought. And most churches couldn’t afford to have a specialized teaching pastor. Before video campuses, pastors wasted all of their time writing a mediocre sermon rather than actually pastoring people. And there were many leaders who simply didn’t want to pastor because they hated the public-speaking aspect of the vocation. Thus, if you didn’t fit the “teaching” mold, you felt useless.
Recently, I had a pastor friend ask me if he should consider being a lead pastor. And this is what I asked him: “Do you want to completely give yourself to the craft of sermon writing? If it is not your all-consuming passion, then stay an associate pastor.” To put it another way: If you don’t love spending 80% of your time sitting in front of a computer, then you probably DON’T want to be a senior pastor. Honestly, the only exceptions are the senior pastors who, after logging a thousand messages, have such a quick ability to creatively recycle that, they can redeem more hours for recruiting / fundraising / [fill-in-the-blank] etc. But make no mistake: they still had to put in years of desk-work before they could make this shift.
So, in the days of “Specialization” what can we do to make preaching easier?
(1). Decide if you really want to be a “Specialist” – Life is short. Don’t waste it trying to be someone you’re not. We can rip on high-production sermon trends; or, we can reinterpret our callings in light of them. Now adays, there are a million ways to be in full time ministry: Don’t put on the straight-jacket of being a lead pastor unless you LOVE the snuggly feeling.
(2). Develop a Teaching Team: Over the years I have facilitated many speaking practicums… a place where staff can practice their messages in front of each other. Quite often, their messages are mediocre. But often times, they come out with a message that’s ready for the big leagues. You’d be surprised what some of your team can come up with (for the good and bad); but, if you don’t give them a place to practice, they’ll never grow.
“But Peter, I’m telling you, I don’t have anyone in house who’s even remotely ready to speak. What do I do?”
(3). Utilize great outside speakers: Every pastor should have a budget for outside speakers. Pull in people you want to mentor you.
“But Peter, we don’t have the money to afford outside speakers!?” Well… first off, get a budget! But until then…
(4). Utilize video messages from other churches: I’m constantly asking my staff: What’s the best podcast you’ve heard in the last 3 months?” After listening to their favorites, I often acquire the HD video from that church (most churches are cool with this). And then I play that video message to my church on Sunday morning. In other words, train your people to watch a video – even in a large auditorium.
“But won’t your people whine that they’re watching a video instead of a live preacher?” Well, for the most part, if the spiritual food is good, they won’t care. And secondly, if they love you, they’re going to want to give you a break. Third, they will quickly see that such a practice frees you up (& the team) to pastor them better. Fourth, people will always whine about any changes. So, you can either wear yourself out trying to indulge them; or, you can politely tell them to shut up. Lastly, it’s not healthy for people to be exclusively addicted to your preaching style. I only do 32 Sundays a year. Part of it is because the well only goes so deep. I always want to be fresh. And I’m planning on doing this for another 40 years! Obviously, you don’t have to use video content to accomplish this; but, why not… when you can get amazing messages for free?
But my greater point is this: in the age of information, presentation matters to people more. We can rant about how “small churches are better” – which better accommodates the size of our gift. We can create derogatory terms like “preacher-tainers;” or, rip on the pastors of video-venues (as though they aren’t pastoring their people as well because they aren’t preaching); but, I believe these tools are ultimately here to set us free – to enable a broader spectrum of personalities to do what God created us to do.
Besides, as the Bible teaches: “Are all teachers?” (1 Cor. 12:2). “No” Paul, implies. Does that mean, non-teachers are less special? Absolutely not. But amidst a world full of podcasts and mega-churches, the greatest way to expand God’s kingdom is this: Do what you’re truly gifted to do – and it will open doors, and “usher you into the presence of the great” (Prov. 18:16).