As a high school baseball coach, I taught my players what my college baseball coach has taught me, nerves are not an enemy to excellent performance, they are a necessary, and can become a friend. The key was in learning to channel nervous energy toward heightened performance rather than allowing nerves to control you in a debilitating way. Plenty of skill repetition in practice is vital to effective performance and breaking down mechanics in order to learn them in a piece-by-piece way is mechanical but necessary. But the goal, whether in pitching, fielding, or hitting mechanics is confident fluidity. In other words, putting in the work on mechanics is so the player won’t overthink mechanics in the heat of competition.
A hitter trying to remember perfect hand placement, stride distance, weight distribution, and swing path in the heat of competition is doomed. On game day, the baseball player has to, with appropriate nervous tension, let it fly. I hear the same message from the coaches who work with my daughters who are competitive tennis players. Any well-prepared player has more information than they will use in the heat of competition. They must not perform robotically when they compete. All learning is to be internalized and adapted for competition on a particular day.
I find the parallels to the preaching task striking. If the preacher is not somewhat nervous before they stand to preach the Word they are not rightly reckoning what is at stake in the preaching moment. If the preacher’s response to their nervousness is to retreat from it by hiding behind their notes and robotically parceling out what they have written then they are also failing to reckon with what is at stake in the preaching moment. We preach to people, not mannequins or abstractions. John Broadus, in his classic A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, describes the preacher as one “whose soul is on fire with the truth” and who “speaks to his fellow-men, face to face, eye to eye” [23rd ed., London: (Hodder & Stoughton, 1898), 3].
I am often struck by the ability of others to concisely articulate what I have been trying to say in a more verbose (less helpful) way. Dan Doriani’s post, “Preaching In A Mild State Of Panic,” was one of those occasions. As one who has been teaching preaching to seminary students for over a decade I know that many (most?) approach using their preaching notes in a way that is detrimental to their preaching.
My students generally write down a set of notes, whether brief or a lengthy manuscript, and consider their notes a sermon. Also, they often consider serious preaching to be inherently notes reliant. I stress to my students that the sermon is an oral event, which means the sermon is what they say, not what they write. My desire is for my students understanding that preaching is an oral event will reshape the way they prepare their sermons. Doriani hones in on why many who preach want to think of their written notes as their sermon—it feels safe.
Thus, Doriani helpfully advocates “preaching in a mild state of panic.” The heart of his proposal is below (read the entire thing here):
Today I propose an alternative—preaching in a mild state of panic. I want to question those who advocate full manuscripts and memorized outlines. I invite preachers to consider another way: Stop trying to master a set of notes. Fill yourself with more Scripture, ideas, applications, and illustrations than you could possibly use, then pray, and see what happens.
Write as much or little as you like, but stop trying to master your material and delivering it as planned. Consider the possibility that while you master your notes, they master you, chaining you to the pulpit and pulling you away from people who want to know if you love them, who feel that eye contact is a sign of affection.
Preachers accidentally panic when they lose their line of thought or when wailing babies get under their skin. To embrace panic is different. “Mild state of panic” preachers do prepare; they exegete and add theological reflections, illustrations, and applications until they have more content than time to deliver it. They outline findings in as much or as little detail as seems right. I recommend speakers create a file for future reference whenever they work hard on a text or topic.
The essential idea is to enter the pulpit full of ideas, depending on the Lord and a feel for the congregation, rather than hard-won mastery of notes. The “panic” lies in not knowing precisely what you will say. It is mild, because you’ve prepared, albeit in a different way.
Any preacher worthy of the task knows through preparation that there is always far more he could say than he will say in a given sermon. The struggle for expository preachers is always found in attempting to wisely decide what to leave out of the sermon. Doriani helpfully encourages, “Write up as much or as little as you please, but when you preach, focus on the core message and the people, rather than your meticulously prepared remarks.” There is no place for robotic, mechanical, or impersonal delivery because too much is at stake. Broadus contends, that preaching from what Doriani terms “a mild state of panic,” leads to hearers “sympathizing with a man, not a composition,—a man all alive with thoughts he is now thinking, and fervors he is now feeling, and not simply reviving” (462).
One of the things I have begun doing in my Preaching Practicum classes is have my students prepare 30 minute sermons but at some point in the semester as they are walking to the pulpit to preach I tell them they have 12 minutes to deliver their sermon that day. Why? Because if they really know the message, having internalized it, summarizing the sermon will not be a crisis. The mild state of panic they feel when I tell then the have 12 minutes will force them focus on the core of the message and be direct. The mild state of panic in shortening the 30-minute sermon to 12 minutes will only become debilitating if the preacher is not full of ideas, illustrations, and applications because he has not effectively internalized the message he came to deliver.
I will let Broadus have the last word in this article, “The whole mass of prepared material becomes brightened, warmed, sometimes transfigured, by this inspiration of delivery” (463).