For the longest time I was envious of those who worked in wood or metal or stone. On my wall I have hanging an Etsy-fied print of 1 Thessalonians 4:11: “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and work with you hands.” Alas, I work not in wood but in words. They are more intractable and seemingly less solid; you can’t quite wrangle a sentence like you can a saw, and cutting a paragraph isn’t nearly so satisfying as cutting firewood. I digress.
But a moment following a sermon a few years back shifted my thinking about this. We had then in my parish a guy I’ll call Paul. Paul was a man’s man: a lifetime carpenter and tradesman, he spent his free time in the woods or on the river; rumor had it fish surrendered into his canoe before he could even cast. He also played a mean banjo.
So, one Sunday in the receiving line after service I’m shaking hands and receiving the perfunctory remarks, when I notice Paul sizing me up like a 12-point. He clicks his tongue and pulls me close with a handshake that may have realigned some metacarpals. And then he says, “You know what, Pastor? You are a true craftsman.” Like Mary, ever after I’ve treasured this up in my heart. As you can tell.
I no longer bemoan my supposedly intangible work in words—or at least I try not to. Instead, aspiring to live up to Paul’s appraisal, I seek to hone the craftsmanship of preaching (a good title for a website, that). And wasn’t it another Paul who said, “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder, I laid a foundation…Let each one take care how he builds” (1 Corinthians 3:10). My boss is a Jewish carpenter, and I ply my trade in the pulpit.
With this in mind, and inspired by a classic article from the Art of Manliness, I submit to you four ways to cultivate the craftsmanship of preaching.
- Work well to the glory of God
Just as shoddy builders can get by at times with subpar work, so also shoddy preachers can occasionally offer up half-baked homiletic hash. To be sure, on the Last Day “each one’s work will be manifest.” Meanwhile, though, it’s not impossible for a preacher to skate by with canned sermons or a word that’s been barely nibbled at, much less “inwardly digested.” When the preaching ministry is not adequately appreciated by the hearers the temptation can be even stronger.
The Craftsman-Preacher is like the mason who carefully lays every stone in the cathedral though no human will ever lay eyes on it. The Craftsman-Preacher is like J.S. Bach, signing in good conscience every composition S.D.G.: Soli Deo gloria! In short, the Craftsman-Preacher does the work well for its own sake—and the sake of God.
The Craftsman-Preacher is like the mason who carefully lays every stone in the cathedral though no human will ever lay eyes on it.
- Sketch your work
Foolish is the builder who begins his work sans plans. The competent craftsman lays out his work before he takes a single step. But neither does he painstakingly prepare every detail; a sketch suffices to provide direction without constriction. As Richard Sennett contends in his aptly-titled book The Craftsman, the sketch furnishes a “working procedure for preventing premature closure.”
The Craftsman-Preacher has a similar approach. He’s not habitually winging it, pulling a weekly trust-fall on the Holy Spirit; nor is he agonizing over every jot and tittle before stepping foot into the pulpit. Rather, as I suggest in my book Preaching by Heart, you can “sketch out” your weekly sermon by composing only the core content for each movement of the message. In this way you wed adequate preparation with space for improvisation. Like couples at a youth group dance, you always want to save room for the Spirit.
- Work with what you’ve got
MacGyver is, in at least one respect, the craftsman par excellence. The guy could take whatever random implements he happened to have at hand and fashion a life-saving device or weapon of mass destruction. Give him a roll of duct tape and he could probably recreate the Eiffel Tower. True craftsmen work with what they’ve got.
When it comes to the task of preaching you could think of this with respect to your setting, people, and material. Concerning the setting, the Craftsman-Preacher is prepared to proclaim in a pulpit, on a stage, or at a bedside; he’s ready in season and out. As to the people, he can preach to a handful or to hundreds, be they the pious people of God or a band of barbarians. And as for the material, Holy Writ, he gladly works with the Word once for all delivered to the saints—particularly as appointed for him in the lectionary—and not the wish dreams or predilections of his own heart.
- Let go of your ego
It’s not about you. That’s a basic mantra of the craftsman: he cares more about the quality of the work than the quantity of the praise. He certainly doesn’t allow his own ego to get in the way—whether in the quest for glory or the fear of failure. Consequently, feedback and criticism is welcome, because the goal is always to do the very best job possible.
Likewise the Craftsman-Preacher. It’s natural for us to get our own sense of self-worth tied up with the response to our sermons—and insofar as this is a result of our being personally invested in the message, it’s understandable and even laudable. But ultimately, it’s not about you. You’re just the messenger, the steward of the mysteries. And what is required of the steward? To give the Master’s household their portion of food at the proper time (Luke 12:42). All compliments to the heavenly Chef.
The right toolbox
There’s an anecdote shared by Mike Rowe, he of “Dirty Jobs” fame, in his book The Way I Heard It. Rowe knows a thing or two about working with your hands. He himself got an F in shop class, though. He recounts how he quipped to his father, a craftsman, that “maybe the ‘handy gene’ is recessive.”
“There’s nothing magical about what I do,” his dad replied. “I’m just using the tools I was given. You can be a tradesman, too, if that’s what you want to be. Heck, we’re all tradesman. The trick is to get the right toolbox.”
To work in words, and especially in God’s Word, takes no less craftsmanship than does working in wood or stone. We Craftsman-Preachers therefore approach our work with no less an expectation of excellence; no duct tape necessary. Eat your heart out, MacGyver.