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george wieland: listening and speaking

I like to be well prepared before I preach, to have arrived at a clear grasp of the message I hope to communicate, to have dealt in my own mind with Biblical, theological and practical issues, to have crystallised key ideas in effective phrases or headings. This diminishes the anxiety that I feel as I approach the communication event that we call the sermon. And that’s the problem. To what extent is my preparation an attempt at self-protection that, like Saul’s armour that he pressed on young David, might seem to reduce my vulnerability but could in fact disable me from fulfilling my role as utterly dependent agent in the communication event in which God is the actor?

A couple of years ago I felt challenged to lay the armour aside and venture forth with a few stones and a sling, depending on God to direct my aim at the crucial moment. I was going overseas on a trip that our team hoped would bring encouragement to a part of the church facing many challenges in its particular context. I’d been there before – with a folder full of teaching notes and what I’d hoped would be appropriate sermon outlines – and had soon found that what I’d prepared in advance just wasn’t going to address the situations and challenges of that context. The folder had to be set aside and the discipline of preparation refocussed on an intensive listening to God in and through those situations, among and with those people, to be the bearer of a message that would hit the mark. This second time I knew that I had to leave the folder at home. Sermons written in advance in NZ just wouldn’t be adequate. I had to go instead with that commitment to listen as I went, cultivating openness to God, a thirst to know and understand the people I was to be among, a willingness to take the risk of offering what I believed God wanted to say through me.

Is it different back home? Only in the apparent extent of my knowledge of the people to whom I preach and my understanding of their contexts, and this difference is of degree, not kind. Overseas there is more that I know that I don’t know, but even here, in a congregation that I feel I know well and whose life setting I imagine I share, what I don’t know far outweighs whatever I do. God knows what is in the lives, hearts and minds of those who gather to hear, it is God who must act if genuinely transformative communication is to be effected, and to be God’s agent in that communicative act I need not Saul’s defensive armour but David’s vulnerable dependence, utter openness and risk-taking venture. I do prepare, as thoroughly and prayerfully as I can, but I am now more intentional about that part of the preparation that continues after the notes have been written, that attentiveness to God and to the community during the gathering and the worship, listening, for example, for particular emphases that the Spirit of God seems to be bringing, for the direction and content of the conversation with God through worship of which the sermon will be a part, for concerns, issues, matters concerning which perhaps God has something to say to that particular group of people at that time. The listening continues during the act of preaching. When that has resulted in putting down the well crafted helmet and sword and picking up a simple stone that is to hand in the moment, there has been evidence that marks have been hit, including some that I wouldn’t have known to aim at. I want to be an effective speaker for God; that demands that I learn how to be an attuned and faithful listener to God.

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George Wieland teaches New Testament at Carey Baptist College. A former missionary and pastor, he preaches regularly in a range of contexts.

One Comment

  1. Cameron says:

    Hi George,

    Great post, it sounds like some great transformation has gone on in your preaching life. Preaching with a few small stones as you put it is a great analogy because though the stones are small the God guiding them and effecting them is great.

    In addition to this it would seem that laying aside preaching to your congregations varying contexts in favour of preaching Christ is what is required. As you say “God knows what is in the lives, hearts and minds of those who gather to hear, it is God who must act if genuinely transformative communication is to be effected…”. It is Christ who transforms not our own preparation/eloquence.

    Thank you for your post George.

    Cameron

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