I've been doing quite a lot of preaching this term, both in my home church and other places. Some of these talks seem to have "gone well", while others have been laboured. I have been trying to analyse why this is the case. There are probably many reasons, but one of the common denominators seems to be to do with discipline, and sermon structure. The better sermons have had a structure like the first diagram, whereas weaker ones tend to indicate that I have slipped into my default settings where the structure looks like the 2nd one.
In the first diagram there is a clear sense that there is one main idea which needs to be explained, then illustrated and applied. Other material in the text is referred to and shown how it casts light on the main point. The sermon can be summarized in its content and application in one pithy sentence. It is faithful to the text, but disciplined in form.
The second diagram represents one of my sloppier talks. It is still faithful to the text, and seeks to both explain and apply it. However, there is no one main focus, it has as many central thrusts as there are sentences in the text! While a sermon like this can contain a wealth of material, it lacks two things; focus and engagement.
The question is, why if I aspire to the first type - do I sometimes actually present the second? The answers are many!
Firstly the second model is my default mindset. I am personally more inclined to think in this way, which may also reflect the fact that I am predominantly a reader of non-fiction and am not particularly artistic. I have discovered that a lot people do not relate to this approach, and so material presented in this way is less helpful for them.
Secondly tiredness or lack of time means that while I have done a lot of work on the whole passage under discussion, I have not had the time/energy to do the sifting and sorting of the material into priority areas. Tiredeness/lack of time can also be fatal for the development of effective illustration, and use of narrative.
Thirdly, lack of prayer can be fatal in this area! What I mean is that it is sometimes when praying through the material, preparing myself, and praying for the congregation who will (!) come to hear it, a sense of which element of the passage to stress emerges. Cutting corners here is very poor indeed. The Victorian orator-preacher C.H. Spurgeon preached on the same texts repeatedly, but often with a different element of it as the organising principle of his talk.
Fourthly, there is the matter of pride. Organising a sermon with a proper structure inevitably means cutting out some material which the preacher thinks is rather good! This material may or may not be as good as the preacher supposes - however, if it serves to over-complicate or distract from the main thrust, it is little more than verbal vanity!
Fifthly (and probably related to point 2 + 3) there is the temptation to reach for scholarly commentaries too early in the process. It is so important to consult the learned and the worthy! It is also important not to do so before studying the Biblical text itself. I find that when a commentary is my first point of call, it saps the imagination of creative ways to engage the most obvious points with contemporary ideas; replacing it with a wealth of fascinating but less helpful information.
Perhaps I am disappointed to be still making so many of the same mistakes which I have been aware of for so long - when I hoped to have been able to internalise these lessons to the point that getting these things right more spontaneously! This task remains a fascinating combination of inspiration and discipline. Nevertheless, I am also aware that while I must constantly critique my "performance", preaching itself is not one. The use to which God puts the word spoken, is not in any way proportionate to my trifling about with technique. Rather - 'doing my best' is an act of worship, a striving to present 'first-fruits' not leftovers to God in worship. That is something He self-evidently deserves.