Preachers, Kill your Darlings!

‘In extreme circumstances, the assailants can be stopped by removing the head or destroying the brain.’ (Jeremy Thompson, Shaun of the Dead)

Let me share with you what has been simultaneously one of the most helpful and painful pieces of advice I have ever received. It’s an oft-proffered tip to budding writers, but I suggest it is just as vital for preachers. ‘You must kill your darlings.’

A darling can look different for each of us. For one, it’s a video clip from a trendy show that simply serves to show how ‘in touch’ you are with culture. For others, perhaps it’s a hilarious anecdote that you’re just longing to tell, whether it fits the message or not. Maybe it’s a quote by an obscure Czechoslovakian Theologian, intended to make you sound well-read (though in reality, you’ve never picked up one of their books, you just pinched it from Keller). Perhaps it’s a neat, alliterative, tripartite structure, which satiates your OCD, but honestly doesn’t do justice to the Scripture.

You’ve got to kill your darlings, before they kill you.

I have a drawer full of dead darlings. It is an enviable collection of languishing, bleeding illustrations. In this drawer are film clips and anecdotes gasping for their last breath. Rhetorical flourishes that would make Aaron Sorkin’s spine tingle; they all lie there, devoid of life, and racked with rigormortis.

Kill them. Show them no mercy.

A couple of months ago I preached a sermon in which I accommodated a darling. She looked so beautiful at the time. I honestly believed she was the missing ingredient that would elevate my talk and make it memorable, powerful, hilarious and life-changing. She promised such treasures if only I’d give her the air-time. A standing ovation, an auditorium full of weeping worshippers (a second invitation to preach?!)

She thoroughly derailed the talk. As I climbed out of the burning wreckage of a crash-landed application point, she removed her mask, unveiled her hideous face and cackled like a madman.

You must learn to kill your darlings!

If you aren’t in the habit of mercilessly hacking your darlings to pieces, you will quickly resemble the obsessive hoarder who fools himself into believing his decades-old clothes are still suitable for wearing in public. “Threadbare’s in fashion!” he kids himself. And all who look on can see through every hole.

Preachers: you have got to kill your darlings!

I caught one a few weeks ago! On the Friday before the talk; it was all done, dusted and ready to go. I had a powerful movie clip which would land my talk brilliantly. I’d spent an inordinate amount of time editing the film (carefully removing hints of the Docetic heresy!) and could imagine the audience’s reaction… And then it hit me… this was a grade-one darling. The tell-tale signs were all there. It didn’t quite fit the text (probably about 60% relevant), it was emotionally manipulative, it had taken more time to shoe-horn into my talk than the rest of the talk had taken to prepare, and I was staking everything on it. As I thought, prayed, and wrestled with my conscience, I knew it had to go. And painful though it was, I took a knife to it…

The funny thing is that when we stop relying on darlings, and start relying on the Spirit, the difference is astonishing. I felt so free, so liberated, so authentic. I felt that I didn’t need the hype and the gimmick. I realised that the double-edge sword of the word really was sharp enough, and that by contrast my attempts at relevance couldn’t separate playdough from paper, let alone bone from marrow! (Heb 4:12). Darlings are deceptive and dangerous. You give them an inch and they take a mile. They make you depend on them, and they quickly become idols.

Remove the head, or destroy the brain.

Here are three thoughts that have helped me in this area. You may have your own struggles and disciplines, but maybe, just maybe, some of you are as neurotic as I and can identify with these:

Know your motives. Why do I rely on darlings? Typically I think it’s because I want people to like me, to think well of me, and to think I know what I’m talking about. So I’m tempted to show that video clip, tell that anecdote (with perhaps just a minor embellishment here and there), or use that statistic I just stumbled across, in order to sound more in touch with current affairs than I truly am.

When we fail to kill our darlings, we sacrifice integrity in return for popular appeal. It may break the flow of the sermon, or obscure the larger point we’re making, ‘but hey’, we convince ourselves, ‘it’ll make people like me.’

I have to remind myself constantly that preaching is not about me. It’s about the glory of God, and the people in the seats. If a story, film clip, joke, whatever, will serve those two elements, I will use it with gusto. If it’s simply in my script to serve my ego, it’s got to go!

Know your weaknesses. What is the hardest part for you in preparing a sermon? Identify it and give time to it. Many of us are simply undisciplined in our sermon editing process. We pen the first thing that pops into our head, without taking time to consider whether it is actually a cogent idea. We think ‘that’ll do… it sounds good’ without thinking through the logical extensions of the metaphor. So we end up with illustrations that fall over the instant you stand them up, and hint at theological positions for which you would have been burnt in the 16th century.

Think through the implications of your illustrations. Don’t be pedantic. It’s fine to preface an illustration with ‘this isn’t a perfect illustration, but it expresses something of the heart of my point.’ But be responsible. If a story is well worth telling it’s worth telling well, and sometimes that means keeping it for another day, until it can serve the talk better and can be honed to the point of perfection.

The pressure of a looming Sunday can cause us to snatch for the first thing that comes into our heads… maybe then this is a symptom of a larger problem, and perhaps (shock horror!) we need to start preparing further in advance to allow time for the honing period. I know my weaknesses. I know that the parts of the preparation process that I struggle with most are the illustrations and structure. If I don’t allow sufficient time for honing illustrations then I will find myself grabbing at any and every gimmick I can find in those pressured few hours. That, for me, means that I need to have the content planned out way in advance so I can give my time to rooting out darlings. Know yourself. Know how you work best. Know your weaknesses and be ruthless with them.

Know your audience. If you don’t know your audience, you may well pack your sermon full to the brim with darlings that completely fail to connect. I remember a painful 20 minutes preaching the gospel at an open-air seaside event. I used a talk that had worked brilliantly in another setting, and I was convinced it would go down well here. I relied on some great stories; well honed, well timed. I’d previously written it for a student event, and would now be using it on a slightly older crowd, but I thought my charisma would cut through the generation gap.

How wrong I was!

I found myself dying on a stage, presenting pop culture references to a crowd of toothless grannies, sunken into their deckchairs, gumming Mister Whippys. What had been a perfectly good illustration in one setting had become a darling in another. I needed to kill it and start again, but a mixture of pride and indiscipline had got the better of me.

Know your audience, and give them the thought, attention and effort they deserve. Don’t simply rely on tried and tested methods… they may be darlings in disguise!

So, next time you come to prepare a talk, think carefully about what you take into the study with you. I recommend a Bible, a commentary, nerves of steel and a heavy, blunt instrument!

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