John Daker, preaching, and when you don’t know the words

A few years ago, John Daker took my home by storm. His failed attempt to sing a medley of songs as a fill-in singer on a local public broadcast station was truly hilarious. And so, too, were the animated version of him and the American Idol edit. My family loved them all. (If you’ve never seen them, take a few minutes and click on the highlighted links above. The laugh will do you good.)

What makes John Daker’s performance so funny is that he forgot the words to the songs he was singing. But there he was on live television, so he had to press on and mumble his way through the performance. What makes the animated version doubly hilarious is its subtitles, with its approximations of his mumbled attempts to fill in for forgotten words.

In fact, my kids so loved these John Dakerisms that they memorized all of them word for word and would slip them into conversations at random. I found it ironic that my kids would learn by heart John Daker’s failure to do so himself.

Making up the words as you go is fine when you’re singing a song for entertainment. Ad libbing is as expected skill for all actors. But when it comes to preaching, it’s essential that you know the Word and that you don’t make it up on the spot.

Back in the 1990s when people thought that marching for Jesus would change the world, I somehow ended up on a team of Christian leaders in Seattle preparing for a March For Jesus. During our first meeting, the pastors in the group got to talking about how they prepare for their weekly sermons. One talked about how much time he needed to prepare. But then others chimed with with holier-than-thou statements about how they wouldn’t prepare anything during the week, because they wanted God’s Spirit to speak to them and through them unfiltered as they stood in the pulpit.

It was hogwash. I’ve written elsewhere about what preachers should do when they know their sermon is going to suck. Here, I want to address preachers who think that they can make up their sermons on the spot.

There are those who think they can use their amazing powers of intuition to get a feel for the people they’re preaching to and then speak God’s words to them. But that’s a lot to ask from one’s intuition. Too much, actually. There’s no way anyone’s intuition can know what’s going on in a group of people — be it 500 or just 50. Yes, there are times when a mob mentality sets in, but thankfully that’s not what takes place on Sunday mornings in most churches.

It would take incredible mind-reading abilities to be able to know what’s going on in the minds of sermon listeners. And it’s a rare preacher who would want to know what’s going on in the minds of those supposedly listening. (Horrors!)

But really, there’s a great time to intuit what’s going on in the minds and hearts of a congregation. It’s just not during the sermon. It’s during the weeks and months before the sermon. And all it takes is a few phone calls, a handful of emails, and possibly several coffee or lunch meetings. It’s called being with people, asking them open questions, and listening to what they say.

I know, it doesn’t sound as exciting as intuition. But it works and has been working for pretty much as long as humans have been using speech.

So, that’s the preacher who thinks it’s possible to intuit a group of people. And then there’s the preacher, like those in my March For Jesus story, who think they can intuit the Holy Spirit at a moment’s notice.

This is super dangerous stuff. When people take personal hunches and blame them on the Holy Spirit, we’re heading into cult territory.

What’s going on here is a belief that the stuff bouncing around in my head isn’t my own voice but the voice of God himself. And when I equate my thoughts with God’s thoughts, you better start running.

And really, there’s a great time to intuit the thoughts of God. It’s just not during the sermon. It’s during the week beforehand. It’s called study. It includes sitting with the biblical text long enough to get past my own thoughts so that I finally get to God’s thoughts. (I’ve written a bit about how to do this elsewhere.)

It’s a baptism, and immersion into the biblical text and into the world of God that the Scriptures lead me into. It’s a refusal to use the Bible to write a sermon, however badly I may feel the need to write one. It’s a long, long listening — long enough to drown out my own thoughts so that I don’t impose them on God’s thoughts.

I don’t remember why he said it, but Eugene Peterson once stated that pastors have sins they can commit that others can’t commit. Everyone else has the same standard list of sins, but pastors have a bonus list. And one of the areas where pastors can sin that others can’t is in the way they handle (or mishandle) the biblical text in their sermons. They can do violence to the congregation, to the Scriptures, and to God himself by what they say.

It’s funny when John Daker makes us words on the spot. Ticket-e-tay! But it’s downright deadly when pastors do so.

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