Where do we get the ideas that allow us to say what God has called us to say, in new, fresh, and insightful ways?
I can suggest four places where the raw ore of ideas is the richest and most accessible. Outlining them from the safest and least labor-intensive to the most daring and most labor-intensive:
1) Harvest what’s in the air
We don’t have to always go out and look for ideas. Many of them are floating around and all we have to do is snatch them. Current events and immediate concerns are there for the taking. In publishing, reliance on current events can lead to a copycat, finger-in-the-wind mentality, where everyone is chasing after whatever happens to be hot.
But the reason these issues are hot in the first place is because they are intensely relevant. In preaching, these things can produce fresh ideas because they provide a new and urgent context for the message we are called to proclaim.
Parishioners are not usually looking for the abstract or theoretical. They are most interested in how this Gospel I am preaching touches them in this time and place. The specifics of time and place are always changing. Therefore, whatever is most on people’s minds always provides a new context for an old story.
2) Mine your experience
A common maxim in the writing world is, write what you know. Your life is the subject you know most intimately and upon which you can speak with the most authority.
Why not go with your strength?
There is a fine line here. The sermon is not meant to focus attention on the preacher and his/her life. But each of us has countless nuggets of experience in our lives that help us relate to or make sense of Biblical teachings. Look for those connections. How do the stories of my life connect with the truth of the Bible?
Assuming pastors are not total freaks of nature, others can relate to the stories we tell, and they, too, will see the connections that bring the Biblical message into focus.
3) Create a Chain Reaction of Questions
In contrast to the above, I often find myself more interested in what I don’t know than in what I know. Nothing can create ideas faster than asking questions.
Questions are like particle accelerators in a nuclear reactor. One particle splits an atom into two parts that release energy, which then zing off and hit other atoms. These atoms, in turn, split, release more energy, and smash into more atoms.
I once heard Herb Brokering describe how he urged a group to try and fill a room with questions, clear to the rafters. Imagine the chain reaction that such an effort could produce! Questions lead to more questions, each opening up new possibilities until the range of ideas is almost limitless.
This method has worked for me many times in getting ideas. I got the idea for my most successful series, on business innovators, just by asking questions about a can of Coca-Cola. In preaching, I find it helpful to blast away at the text with questions – what I wish I knew. It’s amazing how those questions will provide more room for the Spirit to work.
4) Put Things Where They Don’t Belong
It’s hard to gain new perspective when we keep looking at things from the same angle. Putting things where we are not accustomed to seeing them forces us to look at issues and beliefs from a new vantage point. For more detail on how this works, please see my column “Diapers, Ninja Turtles, and Creativity.”