As a preaching pastor, I’m confronted with the task of preparing and delivering an edifying, encouraging, and exegetically sound sermon about 48 times each year. I am not complaining; I love this work. It is, without a doubt, the most fun I have ever had in a “job.”
But, as with most jobs, there are a few questions to be asked and a few choices to be made. How long is too long? How short is too short? How often should I step out the main exegetical series (we’re in the Gospel of Mark at MCC) to address particular passages or issues? Should I even consider this question? Is it important to develop services for the two main holy seasons (Easter & Christmas)? Is it important to preach a Mother’s Day message, a Father’s Day message, and a Memorial Day message?
I think, though, that there is one question that many pastors fail to answer explicitly, and in failing to answer this question, they miss out on delivering content that could extend their work indefinitely.
Last Thanksgiving, Anna and I visited family and friends in northern Indiana, and we had the pleasure of sitting in on the church services at McCoy Memorial Baptist Church. The pastor–Ray Laborde–was addressing 1 Corinthians 9-10, which is a minefield to say the least. The sermon was excellent. The applications were helpful. The delivery was clear and to-the-point. As a congregant, I found myself edified by Pastor Laborde’s message both that morning, and for some weeks after. Even today, I feel more able to approach Paul’s letter–all of 1 Corinthians–with a clearer understanding of his goals, the primary themes, and the Corinthian context. The reason, I think, is because Pastor Laborde chose to “show the seams.”
By “show the seams,” I mean that Pastor Laborde chose to let the congregation see his work. He chose to show them the outline that he had developed as he studied the whole book and as he studied the passage in context. He chose to show them the results of his study into the Corinthian culture and pagan temple practices. He chose to show them the questions he had as he sought to draw out application for today, and he chose to show them how he moved from these various bits of information to his overarching conclusion. I think he chose to do all of this intentionally. He chose to “show the seams.”
So a question I think pastors would benefit from considering and deciding upon is this: Do I show them just the results, or do I show them my work as well?
After we returned from Indiana, I began to consider this question, and I decided to begin showing the work as well. In practice, this is not that difficult. It simply means doing little things like:
- Providing at regular intervals a clear outline of the entire book and of the surrounding context
- Providing at regular intervals a clear outline of salvation history and where the passage in question fits into that history
- Listing the questions that arise from a careful reading of the passage
- Mentioning–at least briefly–the steps taken to answer those questions (What words were worth further study? What cultural issues demanded attention? What literature, maps, lexicons, or other resources were available?)
- Discussing the alternative answers and their implications (What do others think, and why did I reject or amend those answers?)
- Commenting on personal, internal battles with the implications of the passage (I don’t mean one should turn the pulpit into a confessional, but that one should identify ways in which they struggled–as all imperfect humans must–with accepting the truths of the passage.)
In ninth-grade math, Mr. S—— always sent my work back with a note at the top: “Show Your Work!!!” I always said, “But I have the right answer! What’s the point of writing down all the steps? It’s a waste of time and paper, and isn’t it important to be efficient?” (I’m not saying I was a good kid.) He would reply, “I need to know that you actually know what you’re doing.”
In one sense, showing the seams–or showing our work–as pastors can be helpful to the congregation for much the same reason:
- They can gain confidence in the pastor’s commitment to Scriptural truth and to the work required to draw that truth out
- They can know that their pastor is committed to the truth of Scripture rather than to simply flouting his already-developed beliefs
- They can know that their pastor also remains in need of ongoing transformation
- They can learn to recognize the types of questions to ask as they read the Bible privately
- They can learn what resources are available to answer those questions
- They can gain a deeper understanding of how their devotional readings fit into the immediate context, into the whole book, and into salvation history
- They can begin to recognize why they struggle internally with accepting certain truths in the passage at hand, and once they accept that there is a battle, they can gain motivation to fight for growth
Again, I believe there are countless other benefits when a pastor chooses to show his work. I have suffered through countless sermons where the pastor simply read the passage, summarized some of the main points of the passage or the narrative unit, followed each with a humorous or engaging illustration, said what he considered to be the overall idea of the passage, and then explained how he felt we should apply that point to our lives today. This might be nice and it might warm my heart and encourage my soul, at least until I sit down for Sunday lunch. What it fails to do is provide me with the tools and the insight to continue studying and learning from the passage for the following weeks or months. So, I suppose that if I can encourage pastors to begin to do one thing, it would be this: Show The Seams.