Haddon W. Robinson on Sermon Preparation
Dr. Haddon W. Robinson is the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts. He is considered the doyen of teachers on the subject of preaching in the USA, and his text books are used in many American seminaries. In a recent interview in the magazine Ministry he was asked the following questions:
Q: How can we combine all the demands of a pastorate with sermon preparation?
A: You have to prioritize. You can’t be all circumference. You have to have a centre. If you haven’t decided that the centre of your ministry is to expound the Word of God, then something else will take the centre. And it’s easier for something else to take the centre because it’s usually more fun than sermon preparation. You can go out, you can visit, you can do all kind of things; but if you don’t make sermon preparation a priority, then you’ll do other things instead. We all know the temptations: you’re away, you’re studying, you wonder, ‘What in the world am I doing here in the book of Obadiah?’ And somebody calls and wants you to take them to the doctor’s office, and off you go. Not because you’re that compassionate, but because it’s easier than dealing with Obadiah.
Q: As a teacher, what questions are you asked?
A: The great question you have to ask is, What kind of thinking do you have to do to prepare to preach? If you simply give the class Roman numerals, some Ads, and stories, it’s fragmented. It doesn’t hold together. It’s not good enough to tell them, ‘You need three points.’ That’s not thinking; that’s just arranging stuff. Sometimes a student says, ‘Teach me to preach,’ which means, ‘Teach me to put sermons together.’ You end up with cookie-cutter sermons. Every week, you do the same thing. So I think a great deal of it has to do with teaching people to think. And the problem with that is that they may not think your thoughts after you.
Q: So, how do you teach them to think creatively?
A: One way is that I talk about narratives. A narrative is a way of showing people how the person in this text is working it. So Joseph’s story is different than Jacob’s story. And you come to literature and you say, ‘What is Sarah doing here? What is the writer trying to do?’ If I should read a John Grisham novel, and you say to me, ‘What’s the novel about?’ And I say, ‘There are three things I learned from it,’ that’s not what you’re asking me. I’m saying that the story is set in New York City in a court in which a man has no power, and a great and large law firm is coming against him. You go through this, and you might say to me, ‘Well, what’s the idea then?’ I would answer, ‘he person is doing this: I think he’s trying to help us realize how difficult it is to be right in an unright world. And he does it in a number of ways.’ That’s not the same thing as saying, ‘There are three things we can learn.’
Q: Regardless of age or experience, what advice would you pass on to those who preach on a weekly basis?
A: I would say to them, you don’t realize how strategic you are. Most people in church get their understanding of God, the Holy Spirit, and Christ from you. They may have devotions every day, but that’s not where they get their minds shaped. So, to get before them and bore them is to say something about God. And boredom is not only bad communication — it’s a destroyer of life and hope. Whatever it takes, treat the Bible as God’s Word in the sense that holy stuff does not mean boring. It’s holy. It’s set apart to teach me about God, and teach the people about God.
I may entertain them as I preach; but if I entertain them and don’t teach them about God when I open this text, I haven’t served the Lord well. But it’s easy week after week after week to forget that. You preach not because you have something to say, but because you have to say something. That’s the agony of preaching. And every serious preacher feels that. Some weeks you open a passage, and you see it. But there are many other weeks where you wonder, ‘What in the world is this about?’ And if I understand it, how do I get it across effectively? Very seldom the great questions are asked, but if they are asked it’s at the point of pain.
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