On multiple occasions, I have attempted piloting a virtual aircraft with a computerized flight simulator. Although these have taken place in different places, environments and contexts, they have all ended with the same predicable result – virtual destruction.
Unlike the perceived simplicity of flying, it is a complex reality with complicated instruments, controls, aerodynamics, gravity, weather, etc. What on the surface seems simple is, in reality, quite complex.
As someone who has preached regularly for years, I’ve learned a number of important things in the process. I want to share them here using the metaphor of piloting an airplane.
Flight Check List
Any pilot, when preparing for takeoff and the upcoming flight, has to meticulously prepare for the journey. They file flight plans, check gages, brief their crew, study their plane, know the weather, etc. They meticulously prepare! The same must exist for the preacher. The biblical communicator must know the Scripture he/she is preaching from (biblical exegesis), interpret it effectively (hermeneutics), study their unique context (cultural exegesis), and consider the best possible route for their sermon (methodology), etc.
Air Traffic Control
When a pilot prepares for take off, is in flight and prepares to land, he/she must be in constant communication with air traffic control. The same must be true for preachers as they pray before, during and after the preaching journey they take with their congregation.
One of the roles of an effective pilot is to prepare the travelers for take off, telling them to buckle up and preparing them for the journey ahead. The same is true for the preacher. As the preacher prepares to take off, they must communicate to the congregation, and prepare them for the journey. This will be different depending on the preaching methodology used, but the same principle exists regardless. The effective preacher invites the congregation to enter the journey ahead with preparation, expectation and anticipation.
I must be noted that the pilot, as with the preacher, is only effective if he/she knows his/her passengers, understands them and even, I would suggest, includes them in the planning and preparation for the journey ahead.
Aware of Passengers
As a pilot constantly keeps aware of the state of his/her passengers through the journey, the same must be true of the preacher. As the preacher journeys through the content of the message, he/she must keep the congregation engaged and aware. This is not to suggest that the goal is to keep the passengers comfortable but the preacher must be constantly aware that he/she is not taking this journey alone!
Sometimes a pilot will have to fly through turbulence and when they do, it is helpful and imperative to have people put up their tray tables, buckle-up, and prepare for the rough, and often uncomfortable, ride ahead. The same is true for preachers. There will be times when the preacher will preach through difficult texts and/or difficult topics. When this is the case, it is helpful to let people know what is coming, to be prepared for it and journey through it together. Personally, I have found I can preach on very difficult topics if I prepare the congregation for it. If I let them know that turbulence is ahead, there is, in my experience, a collective desire to work through it together, allowing the opportunity to pilot through difficult passages and topics together. This is where I find it helpful to remind the congregation that we, together, submit to God’s authority and discern truth together in community under the leading of the Holy Spirit.
For pilots, the one area that is often the most challenging, memorable and exciting is the landing. If there is going to be a problem, there is a good chance it will be in the landing. This is the area where, in my experience, most preachers struggle. In many cases, preachers look to approach the runway and land “on a wing and a prayer.” They pour hours of preparation into the take off (introduction) with the false assumption and fleeting hope that the landing will take care of itself. Good preaching should end the journey of the sermon with a distinct ending that calls for a response and leads to mission.
It is my usual practice to do a benediction at the end of the service. This is when I give a charge to the congregation as they engage the world on mission. I always end by calling people to “GO in peace” because, like a pilot who greets people as they leave the plane, I know as people will engage their world, the scripture we journeyed through will collide with their circumstance in challenging ways.
When it comes to preaching there are different kinds of pilots with different piloting skills and abilities. Some are stunt pilots who are extraordinarily gifted in their ability and people come in droves to see them in person or download their podcasts. In addition, there are private pilots who faithfully serve smaller churches as well as commercial pilots who serve larger churches. All follow the same process with different contexts and all have vital importance.
If you preach… Keep learning. Keep growing. Try new things. Get better at your craft, art and skill!
If you are a member of a congregation… Recognize that what might seem easy is, in reality, quite complex and, like flying a plane, when done well is not just a skill but also an art form that takes years of practice. Therefore, pray for your pastors, encourage them and invest in them!