Exegesis != Communication

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Last semester I took my fourth semester of Greek. And this summer I took my first class in preaching. I did better than I expected in both classes, doing as well or better than any of my classmates. This surprised me because 1)I'm not very good at Greek, and 2)Many of my classmates preach on a semi-regular basis while I had never preached before. So why did I do better than my classmates?

Preaching and translation are about communication. Thus, as a preacher or a translator, my job is to communicate a message (that I did not create) to a recipient. That is to say, I have a dual job: to determine what the passage of scripture means, and then to convey that meaning to someone else. The reason why I did better than my classmates is that I spent roughly equal amounts of time on each task.

Most of my classmates spent 90% (or more) on the first task of exegesis. Figuring out how to convey the meaning that they had uncovered was either an afterthought, or it was very rushed as deadlines approached. Our school places a high emphasis on "What does the text say", which is an admirable focus. But that message seems to have been internalized at the expense of other valuable messages. As a result, my classmates spend endless amounts of time in exegesis trying to grok all the levels of meaning in a passage before they will do anything with it. There is a feeling that if you haven't grasped all the layers of meaning, then you haven't gotten it at all, which is paralyzing (not to mention false). Some of my classmates in the preaching class were still trying to figure out the main idea of the passage they were preaching less than half an hour before they were supposed to preach. Obviously, that left little time for the actual preparation of the sermon.

In contrast, I was very disciplined about spending equal amounts of time in both exegesis and conveyance. This required "cutting short" my exegesis (since time was a limiting factor), but I took solace in the fact that while the full meaning of the text may be richer and deeper than I had yet fathomed, it was not fundamentally different that what I had seen. I then took additional solace in the fact that I wouldn't be able to convey even half of the depth that I had penetrated to; thus if I had done more exegesis, then I probably wouldn't have the time/space to convey any of that additional info anyway.

Because I spent much more time determining how to convey the meaning of a passage, I ended up being a better communicator, even if I did a less thorough job in my exegesis.

2 Comments

The main teaching elder in my congregation says that after 28 years of preaching he still has to spend as much time on exegesis as he ever did, but the time preparing the communicative elements has gone way down as he's gotten much better at it over the years.

He still puts a lot more time into it than many do, though, including spending time after he's gotten his whole sermon done just thinking through how to read the text aloud, including if he wants to vary any words or word order from his primary translation (RSV) and figuring out which words to accent and then marking his text accordingly. He says that's one of the most important parts of his sermon prep, because that's the word of God. What he says isn't. So it's worth focusing energy on how you present the word of God itself even more than it's worth focusing energy on what you then will say about what you just read.

I've had the opportunity to sit in some Bible studies he's done for closer study of texts he's just preached on days earlier, and he's explained why he talked about certain things and not others that he spent a lot of time thinking through or investigating. I think these are the things I'm least good at. I've never preached a sermon, but I've led enough Bible studies and taught philosophy for long enough that I sort of feel comfortable teaching something I've studied a lot but haven't through my presentation of. The difference in all those cases is that I'm in an environment when people can ask questions and allow me to clarify what I'm saying.

I've only given a few talks that amount to something like a sermon, and it's very different. You have to be aware of what people are going to be thinking about how you present things ahead of time. You have to think through all sorts of questions people might ask about the text to see if any of them will be worth raising during the sermon or if they would be better saved for answering people who come up to you afterward, and a lot of that depends on how widespread certain ideas might be.

[For instance, I wouldn't teach the I Thessalonians eschatological passages without at least addressing the issue of the overwhelming popularity of pre-trib views among non-scholars in evangelicalism in the U.S. You have to say something about the issue of Jonah's historicity if you're going to teach that book. I wouldn't want either issue to obscure the plain meaning of the text in context, but you have to raise the questions because people will be thinking about them. It's not as clear to me whether you need to raise the claims of some that Jonathan and David had a homosexual relationship when dealing with II Samuel 1. A Protestant congregation with more than a few former Catholics will need to have Catholic views addressed when you cover the bread of life passage in John, but will every congregation need that in the sermon? Sometimes it's best just to teach the passage.]

You need to think through examples for illustration. You need to be aware of what idiosyncratic turns of phrase you regularly use that a hearer will pick up on as you use it over and over. (D.A. Carson tells a story of when a bunch of teenagers were making fun of him during one of his sermons for saying "in point of fact" every other paragraph or so.) You have to think about how the text connects with other texts that would be worth bringing out, especially as you think of larger issues that a sermon should bring you back to that the text doesn't itself talk about explicitly. You have to think through which principles at work in the text are most relevant for the particular congregation you're addressing and thus structure your sermon with those as the highlights. You have to be aware of passages that might seem to conflict with the one you're teaching and then figure out if it would be worth time in your sermon to address.

I don't think I'm very good at some of these things. What I gather from what my elder said is that you get better at these things over time and that it comes much more quickly, especially if you're preaching to one congregation over time and really know them. I just can't imagine not trying to do any of these things at all, though. It's not so bad when you're in a small group setting and can interact with people as you're trying to draw certain points out of the text. It's pretty awful not to have thought about any of those things and then have a half hour before you have to give your sermon. I guess it's a good thing this was a sermon to a class as an exercise in learning and not part of the weekly teaching of a local congregation.

Wink, I admire you for you how budgeted your time and energy for your sermon class. Ultimately, the question for anyone who gives a sermon is: "What do I want people to learn from this?" You have probably seen the statistics about how much of content that people forget soon after they hear it. But people will remember something that impacts them, an application from the biblical passage. I grew up in a church and Bible school (yes, I took homiletics) environment where we typically had our 3-point sermons, ideally alliterated. But some of the sermons I have remembered the longest made a lasting impression because they communicated one main point, often using rhetorical techniques like those of Jesus, an example of a great preacher, who would often point to something in his surrounding such as a bush, or flowers, and make some important spiritual point about it.

Keep keeping your priorities right. God will then take what you have to say and help changes lives through it. There is nothing at all wrong with content. I'm a strong content person myself. But I suspect that it is better to save content for books or Bible studies with guided handouts, so people have a way to take the content home with them and review it. We can retain content much longer that way.

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