by W. Jackson Watts
Committed to the Team (Collaboration)
Over the last year or two, news outlets have reported several times on a friction in the Patriots organization between Tom Brady and his legendary coach Bill Belichick. Some of this stemmed from Belichick’s reported interest in beginning to transition the team to an emerging young backup quarterback. Despite this story and related ones, all accounts appear to suggest that Brady and Belichick have patched up their relationship, at least enough to have another successful season.
Many dimensions of the Patriot’s dynasty transcend Brady’s own individual excellence. He has almost always had an above-average offensive line (the players who protect him from opposing defenses). This no doubt partially explains his ability to stay healthy for nearly his entire career. The Kraft family has provided stable ownership for the franchise. Pundits view Belichick as arguably the best coach of all time. Brady has had competent coordinators and assistant coaches. Though the overall talent of his teams has varied over his career, Brady has managed to succeed with all rosters. These points highlight that Brady is more than just the product of a good system and culture. However, his greatness cannot be interpreted apart from the organization he has been a part of.
Preachers also are part of a larger whole that is essential to their pulpit effectiveness. When we stand in the pulpit, we don’t do so in a vacuum. We preach to people who have perhaps heard ten different pastors in that same pulpit over their lifetime. Or perhaps they have heard only one voice for that same period of time. This can shape the way listeners hear and respond to our preaching.
The quality of the music and other service elements preceding and surrounding the sermon can shape the mind and mood of both preacher and congregation. What has transpired in the week before can impact the pastor’s confidence as he prepares to preach. Poor sound quality or mics unexpectedly squealing are highly disruptive. What of the congregation’s readiness? Have they prayerfully prepared to listen to God’s Word this day? These are just a few of the hundreds of factors shaping the presentation of and reception of the sermon.
The simple lesson is this: There are factors we can and cannot control. We can put in the necessary study time and prayer throughout the week. We can read what the great theologians and preachers of the past have said. We can discuss our passage with our wives during the week. We can ask Sunday school teachers to encourage people to enter the service with a prayerful, focused mindset. These are some of the ways we can collaborate with our congregation to make the preaching moment more impactful.
For those factors outside of our control, we’re in good company. Tom Brady cannot control the weather he works in; neither can you. The prophets and apostles couldn’t manipulate their hearers into hearing better. All they could do was their best to follow the Spirit’s leadership, and let God work. So should we.
Gotham Chopra, son of the famed spiritualist guru Deepak Chopra, produced Tom vs Time. Remarking on Tom’s commitment, Chopra said the following: “What’s really at the epicenter of it is this devotional love for the game. . . . It is his vocation—it’s what gives his life meaning and purpose.” When we hear those words, we might recall the comment one observer made about football being Brady’s religion. As Christians we worry about those who find their meaning in a game or career, not in Christ. Yet for those of us who call Jesus Savior and Lord, who are free to serve Him because of grace, not to earn grace, how much more commitment should we have to excellence in His service?
If Brady, playing a temporal game with temporal satisfaction, has committed himself to longevity, details, and teamwork, how much more should preachers, serving an eternal God through work with eternal consequences, give their best?
You don’t have to pursue a Doctorate of Ministry in preaching to commit yourself to your calling and craft (though doing so might be useful for some). For me, the four most helpful practices have been to: (1) listen to my own sermons regularly; (2) occasionally collaborate on a preaching series with a fellow pastor; (3) read great books on preaching; and (4) read as broadly as possible.
Charles Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students was the textbook I found most helpful in this area many years ago, and certainly it has helped previous generations. Among more modern books, Mark Galli and Craig Larson’s Preaching that Connects is another book that first stimulated my thinking about cultivating rhetoric skills. More recently Tim Keller’s Preaching: Communicating Faith in An Age of Skepticism has been instructive about preaching Christ from all the Scriptures and preaching in our particular historical and cultural moment.
Reading broadly offers several benefits. It introduces us to God’s common grace poured out on many scholars, experts, journalists, historians, and even humorists across many subjects. It introduces us to new language, new concepts, and a treasure-trove of sermon illustrations. Biographies, autobiographies, and novels are especially useful in our finding appropriate and timely illustrations.
Certainly every preacher must discern what habits and practices best orient him to listening well to Scripture, understanding his people, and speaking to them week after week. I have offered a secular (though not irreligious) analogy for a spiritual aim: the formation of disciples toward Christlikeness. Christ is magnified through the foolishness of preaching, but that in no way discounts the vehicle of preaching as an art and craft that preachers should steward and sharpen. Pastors committed to excellence in preaching will appreciate the depth and breadth of the Scriptures, the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit, and the multi-faceted dynamics of human communication.
Brady did miss most of the 2008 season due to an ACL injury. However, it is not uncommon for even great players to miss part of a season or an entire season over their career with some kind of acute injury.
Bob Smietana, “For Tom Brady, football has become religion. No, really.” Washington Post, 4 February 2018; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/02/02/for-tom-brady-football-has-become-religion-no-really/?utm_term=.5af11a5b462b; accessed 22 January 2019.