by W. Jackson Watts
(Part 1 of this article appeared earlier on our site. It can be accessed here.)
Attention to Detail (Focus)
Brady is well-known for his commitment to film study. Studying the film from actual games is a large component of game preparation for coaches and players. The regular rhythm of film study is part of every team’s weekly preparation. By studying film, one gains a better understanding of what is happening on the field: Why did this play work? Why didn’t that play work? What are my bad tendencies and habits that I’m not seeing? If film study can help yield answers to these questions, then Brady is miles ahead of most players. He has remarked that he can literally watch film all day.
Film study is representative of a commitment to grow and improve, specifically by giving attention to details. Instead of having just a gut-level idea of what happened on the field based on what the scoreboard says, film analysis gives a clearer view. Similarly, preachers committed to their craft will pay attention to detail. This is part and parcel of being serious about growth and improvement in the pulpit.
No decent pastor believes that God’s blessing isn’t essential to good sermon work. We know that we need the Holy Spirit in the study and in the pulpit. Moreover, we need Him every day leading up to Sunday to help us practice what we are preparing to preach. In a real sense, the “results” of our preaching are in His hands. As the apostle Paul said, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6). 
On the other hand, our focused effort should never be minimized. Ezra was spoken of favorably as having “set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (Ez. 7:10). This was not the most opportune time to be a teacher, to remind a freshly-liberated people of the Word they had forsaken. Yet he had real “power in the pulpit” because of this commitment. The corporate confession and repentance that we see in Ezra’s ministry seems to evidence of the Spirit’s power. Ezra was committed in heart and mind to know and share the Word.
Some may reject this interpretation of Ezra’s impact, emphasizing that God doesn’t need our preparation. They point to Peter and James as they preached in Jerusalem. Didn’t they confound the religious leaders since they “perceived that they were uneducated, common men”? (Acts 4:13). Yet when we look closer at this passage, it does not emphasize their boldness at the expense of competence. Peter and James may not have received the type of rabbinical training that religious teachers had, but they had been to the Harvard of their day: They had enrolled in the school of Jesus. They had learned from Him, and had His Holy Spirit breathed on them (Jn. 20:22). They were students empowered to share what they had learned and memorized.
There are two aspects of the preparation I’m referring to: When it comes to substance, we need to consider both our text and the theology surrounding it, as well as the words we use to convey that text and theology. The first requires a regular deep dive into Scripture, language, history, culture, and our theological tradition to learn what is meant by the Word. This is a persistent pursuit. When do we truly master the Scriptures? In the tenth year of ministry? Twentieth? Thirtieth? No, this is a lifelong pursuit.
The second aspect of verbal communication refers more to how we express the text’s meaning and application. This is where preachers really should consider their own “film study.” Most churches record sermons. As much as we all dislike the sound of our own voices on tape, I strongly recommend pastors at least occasionally listen to their messages. You’ll be surprised at what you hear! Places you think you bungled sound different on tape and presumably sounded different to hearers, too. Places you thought were sufficiently clear don’t sound so clear the second time around.
Pastoral film study also reveals those pesky and awkward habits of speech that cling to us over the years. Some preachers incessantly end their good points with the solicitous, “Amen church?!” Others preach like they talk, always ending sentences with, “You know?” or “Right?” (I’ve suffered from a heavy dose of the latter recently). Or as one pastor I know always said following a call to obedience (or request to bring a casserole to a potluck), “Do this and the Lord will bless you for it.” Film study helps us identify and gradually eliminate those repetitive statements and phrases. We’re then better able to offer our audience a diversity of language that adds color and appeal to our sermons.
A final way we can pay attention to detail as we strive for preaching excellence is to watch ourselves. Listening is useful, but viewing ourselves takes us from two dimensions to three. Preaching is not only verbal but also non-verbal. God has designed us as creatures with senses that enable us to interpret, process, and be enriched through all kinds of unique non-verbal cues. Preachers committed to their craft will let themselves be impacted by their passage, so when they preach they will more likely reflect authentic facial expression, gestures, and other movement. This also applies to verbal qualities, such as volume and inflection. Ultimately preachers must let the Holy Spirit guide them to be true to their own God-given personalities, while also letting Him more fully sanctify their personalities. In other words, it’s fine to be yourself. However, be the most effective version of yourself!
Pastors’ wives can be a great asset to them in evaluation. They love us enough to tell us the truth, no matter how hard the truth may be. In most cases, they have sat under our preaching longer than our congregations. They know the content of our message and the content of our lives. They see the delivery of the message and hear the message delivered. Sometimes a wise staff member may also provide additional input. Utilize these assets in improving your preaching.
Other practices can also help “fine-tune and sharpen our fundamentals,” just as the veteran Tom Brady still does. We should probably read at least one preaching book a year. Listen occasionally to a sermon online from a respected pastor—perhaps from one you know and from one who you have respected from afar. Strive to give your people your best since Christ Jesus gave us His best. We can sharpen our skills by asking questions as diverse as, “Is this really what this verse is saying?” to “Is this anecdote as humorous to others as it is to me?”
We need great discipline to give this type of attention to detail—and, perhaps more so, humility. Humility says, “I have not arrived at this task.” Humility says, “I can learn from other preachers, living and dead.” Humility says, “With God’s help and personal diligence, I can be more effective.” While great people can grow proud, the Christian will recognize that greatness is defined by and achieved through humility (e.g., Mt. 18:4).
(The third and final part of this article will post next Tuesday here on the Commission’s blog.)
All Scripture quotations come from the English Standard Version.
I borrow this phrase from the Jim Shaddix preaching book by the same title.