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?"
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.
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.