I spent the past few days at a conference sponsored by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I was learning about many trends in church life (a topic I write about on occasion) but one of the more interesting ones was the idea of “excellence in preaching.” Indeed, Calvin’s seminary has established just such a program on excellence. The idea is that while some charismatic types are born to be great preachers, you can also make a thoughtful, reverent person into an excellent preacher, too.
Some of this happens naturally through experience or, as Prof. Scott Hoezee put it, “the sheer dint of doing the thing over and over again.” During his church years, Hoezee had to crank out two sermons a week (Calvinists prefer our religion in large quantities). When you have to write and deliver two 25-minute sermons every week, you will probably become better at sermon writing-and-delivery. You will come up with ways to save time and do this more efficiently; Hoezee had an elaborate file system with articles, quotes, anecdotes, etc. tagged with “grace” or “atonement” or “Good Friday” or whatever else might arise in a sermon theme.
But sheer hours aren’t enough to be great. You achieve greatness by using these hours to think about how to get better. The Calvin Center for Excellence in Preaching has a sermon evaluation form that guides preachers (or the hapless folks in the pew) toward thinking a sermon through. If you’re in a Christian church, then probably the sermon should be based on a Biblical text, and help the congregation understand that text better. It should be authentic; that is, delivered well and with the pastor really believing it. It should be contextual — showing how the truth of the passage relates to the world as we experience it. And hopefully, the sermon will be life-changing too. If a pastor delivers on all these fronts, and spends time practicing how to deliver a message in public, he or she will do a great job. Possibly even a better job than someone with more charisma.
One of the things that has been most fun to contemplate as I think about my 168 hours, is that time is a resource. When invested, it can pay returns in getting better at things. This is the reason we invest time in school (with a payoff in knowledge and skills). It is the reason we invest time in building relationships with our spouses, children and friends. It can be invested in achieving health, through getting enough sleep and exercise.
And, of course, it can be invested in our professional crafts, be that sermon writing or other things. One of the more frustrating aspects of my writing life has been attempting to hoist my fiction over the bar of what works. I used to think that the four novels I wrote that never went anywhere were wasted time. But when I think of my time as a resource, then every minute spent working on my craft pays off in an ability to write prose faster and cleaner than I would have before. It is both the sheer dint of doing the thing, and thinking about how we do the thing, that makes for a good use of our 168 hours.