Comment from across the partnerships

Work in progress

15 January, 2015 Jonathan Prime

Work in progress

A question:  Can we help ministry trainees/ apprentices teach the Bible more effectively by letting them see parts of our preaching prep that we normally do in private?

Unless someone is responsible for teaching the Bible regularly, they are unlikely to be aware of all that is practically involved in seeking to be a “workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the Word of Truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).  In fact, many assume that the process of preparing to preach is – at least for an experienced pastor – fairly easy, quick and painless.  Often apprentices and ministry trainees start out with this impression and, as a result, may have little idea of how to approach writing talks themselves.

While there are principles of good Bible handling to be followed, talk or sermon prep cannot be reduced to a system or methodology.  The work that goes on in the study is a very personal thing and can often seem messy and chaotic, punctuated with desperate prayer for understanding, wisdom and clarity.  Given this, how can we help others to handle God’s word and to teach it faithfully and persuasively?  Is there a way in which we can let ministry trainees/apprentices in on the “personal aspect” of our talk prep so that they can learn from it?

Here in Enfield our apprentices take it in turns to do “gobbets”.  We divide our crit into three sections using an acrostic TAP:  

  • T = Text.  Is there evidence of hard work on the text?  Have they taught what the text is actually saying?  Are they being faithful to the passage in its context?  Have they considered how it points to our Lord Jesus and what it means to live by faith in Him?
  • A = Application.  Have they prayerfully thought through how the message of the text applies to themselves and those to whom they are speaking?
  •  P = Presentation.  Was the structure of the talk clear and helpful? Did it have direction and  a sense of flow, which took the listener with them?

We teach that TAP is also the order that should be followed when preparing a talk:  we must start with the text.  Only when we have clarity on the text (and have grasped the overall Big Idea or THEME of the passage) should we spend time working on application; then, and only then, should we start to think about presentation.  Where we are going in application (our AIM) must always be driven by the THEME of the passage, but it is better if our AIM determines the structure of the presentation.

Our experience reveals that apprentices often struggle with each of these stages.  As a result, I have experimented with trying to let them see – and contribute to – some of the prep that I normally do in private.  While I know I’m far from a perfect model, my hope has been that they will gain an insight into the kind of processes involved and that seeing these used for real will help them when preparing their own talks.

How has this worked?

For me, sermon prep starts with text work on a Monday morning.  I’ve invited our apprentices to join me for half an hour at the very start of this prep.  Having prayed for the Spirit’s help and read the passage out loud, we start work on the text together.  I show them the kind of things I write down, the sort of questions I ask and the investigations I intend to pursue.  I ask them to spend some time that day doing some more work on the text.

We then meet together for another half-hour the following morning.  In these meetings we talk through what they have discovered and I share the progress I’ve made.   I try to be honest about where I am struggling and the questions I still need to tackle.  I try to show the benefits of scribbling thoughts down as I go along, and of summarising the big idea of the passage in an often-adjusted theme sentence.  The process has revealed that a rubbish bin full of “scrunched-up” scribblings is normal!

If we reach some clarity about the big idea of the passage, I’ve suggested that they spend time asking some application questions before we next meet.   This is where my experiment has broken down.  Life is not always neat and tidy.  Wednesday is my day off.  Ideally I’d be able to spend time with them on a Thursday morning, working on a skeleton sermon outline and thinking about other matters of presentation.  I’d then want to follow up with them on Friday.  The truth is that I am rarely at that stage by Thursday or even Friday morning and they are busy with other duties.  However, involving them in the early parts of the process has led to helpful snatched conversations about application and presentation (facilitated by us all having desks in the same building).  It has also resulted in profitable discussions after the sermon; for example, about the choices I made in application, structure and presentation.    

It has also begun to shape the way that they have gone about preparing their own talks.  Seeing the process and struggle that I often go through in writing a talk – even after 20+ years of preaching – has encouraged them to persevere in their own prayerful study.  As they’ve seen the process worked through in practice, it’s also made it easier to provide useful help and crit on their gobbets.   And it’s not just the apprentices who’ve benefited.  Verbalising where I’ve got to in my prep has helped to crystallise my thinking and has often led to new ideas, or highlighted things I need to consider.  

This is an experiment.  It is still very much a work in progress.  It may or may not work with the new group of apprentices starting this year.  But, is it something that you could try with your trainees in some way?   It will be humbling; it will reveal that you don’t have all the answers and don’t find preaching prep easy or sweat free.   However, my experience has been that it can be a valuable way of helping others to teach clearly and faithfully.  Moreover, it will encourage a deep sense of partnership in our Lord Jesus, whose great Gospel we are seeking to proclaim.

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