Setting the Sails: The Canon of Discovery

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Through the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, you are not so much coming up with something to preach about as you are coming upon it.

This is Part 3 of a series about employing classical rhetoric in preaching.
We suggest you read Part 1 and Part 2 prior to this article.

The process for preparing to preach is both joyous and troubling, typically at the same time (like all of ministry!). Part of the vexation stems from the elusive search, week in and week out, for what to preach on. Pastors everywhere are familiar with the often serendipitous nature of determining their sermon’s topic or taking on the Good News. The muse of the Spirit can sometimes be a bit, shall we say, cagey.

We cannot altogether tame the muse; the Spirit blows where He will, after all. We can, however, set the sails, putting ourselves in position to harness the breath of God when it gusts through. This is where the first of the canons of rhetoric, Inventio, comes in.

Inventio is often more or less transliterated as “Invention,” but others translate it as “Discovery.” This latter term better conveys both the etymology and the actual process of this stage, especially for preachers. Through the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, you are not so much coming up with something to preach about as you are coming upon it.

Through the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, you are not so much coming up with something to preach about as you are coming upon it.

The way we come upon the focus of our proclamation is through study and meditation: of the Scriptures, first and foremost, then of faithful voices both ancient and modern who commented on the Scriptures, followed by omnivorously gobbling up other sources—pop culture, research from the sciences, literature, etc.—which speak in some wise way to the text and topic at hand. This stage of Discovery is about the deep dive into a passage or theme you will be preaching on and unearthing as much possible material as you can.

This is not to ignore, of course, that sometimes the muse truly does just whisper something in your ear before you even dig too deeply in study. Sunday comes too regularly to rely on that, though. Thus, the regular discipline of Inventio. It keeps you on course for your destination, even if you do not yet fully know the route.

With this in mind, let me suggest five ways preachers can “set the sails” of Discovery and keep on course for the goal of the pulpit:

1. Keep a folder for each Sunday and/or topic

There is a sneaky good benefit to those of us who avail ourselves of the Lectionary: we know a Sunday is coming back around again, either every three years or even (in the case of the Feast Days and the Historic Lectionary) annually.

And so, I recommend creating a folder for each Sunday (whether it be a physical folder in your drawer, or a document folder on your computer) so when you come across an article or idea which is fitting for a particular text you can just drop it in. When you arrive at that week, it is like getting one of those customer appreciation cards from the coffee shop that already has a couple of stamps on it. Bonus!

2. Make it a “big rock”

Stephen Covey made the “big rock” image famous.[1] The picture is of a jar being filled with three elements: big rocks, gravel, and sand. They correspond, respectively, to your most important responsibilities, necessary tasks and trivial matters. If you start with the sand, the big rocks hardly ever make it in. But, if you start with the big rocks, there will still be room for all the rest.

Inventio has got to be a big rock on your schedule. For me, the first thing I do in the study on Monday morning (before e-mail, before visits, before whatever) is devote a solid block of three hours to study. Then I have given myself the most time possible in the week to ruminate on what I have learned. If you are a high achiever and can do this a few weeks out, so much the better.

3. Prepare a Monday morning checklist

There is no reason to reinvent the wheel every week with your Discovery process. Develop a checklist to cover all your bases and keep it close at hand each and every week. I say, “Monday morning,” but I mean whatever is your first day in the study each week post-Sunday.

My checklist looks like this:

  • Read and reflect on the Scripture texts in English translation
  • Do the same in the original languages (I often just do the Greek/LXX—apologies to our Hebrew buffs)
  • Check out cross-references and context
  • Read pre-modern commentaries from the Church Fathers and Luther
  • Read modern commentary
  • Read contemporary homiletical helps, like the great ones we have here on Craft of Preaching
  • Read various and sundry books, articles, etc. which come to mind or emerge via web searches

This is how I go about my business. Your mileage will vary. The point is to develop a weekly plan and work from it. Recognize you will often be adapting, reducing and expanding it from week to week.

4. Be a magnet, not a colander

The temptation is always to start filtering your study from the word, “Go,” as soon as you find something that has you thinking, “That’ll preach.” I want to discourage this impulse. In the Discovery stage we should be magnets, not colanders: attracting as much as we possibly can, not yet sifting through what we find. You will get there. But at first, keep everything and edit nothing.

5. Carry a pocket notebook

Carrying a pocket notebook is not only a manly tradition, it is also an incredibly helpful tool for Discovery in the preaching task. Personally, I swear by Field Notes. Some guys feel naked if they go out without their phone. I feel that way if I do not have my Field Notes handy. The reason being, Discovery does not just happen on Monday morning.

I might record an insight from my devotional reading, an overheard conversation, a moment from a movie, a story on NPR… anything. I even keep it next to my bed since, as we all know, the best ideas come in that liminal space between sleeping and waking (and in the shower, but I have not yet figured out how to bring my Field Notes there). Do yourself a favor and pick up a three-pack of these puppies ASAP and start carrying one around (no, I am not being paid by Field Notes).

As with each of these canons of rhetoric, much more could be said, of course. Suffice it to say for our purposes here that Discovery is the stage for developing the raw material of your sermon. It is the time for setting your sails. And mercy of mercies, week by week the Spirit still faithfully blows through the pastor’s study, even if not always on our timetable.

[1] See Steven Covey, First Things First (New York: Fireside, 1994), chapter 4.