Learning from Felix Baumgartner

I wouldn’t wish my preaching style on anyone.  If you’re a new preacher, learn from someone else.

I got into bad habits early, and I’m too old to change.  Or maybe not.

When I preach, most of the time I stand in one place (typically a pulpit) with my manuscript in front of me.  I try my best to learn the sermon and not refer to it very often, but the videos of my sermons on the church website do not lie.  I look at the manuscript a lot.

Which makes what I did last Sunday night all the more astonishing.

At our new 5:00 service (we call it “expressive,” not “contemporary,” because “contemporary” is divisive, and we don’t want that), the preacher usually stands at the front and not in the pulpit.  I don’t ordinarily preach at the 5:00 service, but I did last Sunday.  And that presented a problem.

But earlier in the day a man named Felix Baumgartner stepped out of a capsule and fell more than 20 miles to earth, passing the speed of sound along the way, and landing on his feet.  I watched that and thought to myself, “Mmmm, if Felix Baumgartner can do that, then I can stand in front of the church tonight without my manuscript and preach my sermon.  The two things require pretty much the same level of courage.”

No kidding, I really did think that.

Here’s the full story, and maybe it’s more than you wanted to know. I was a writer before I was a preacher.  I really, desperately wanted to be a writer – or work for a publishing company, one or the other.  I was in love with words, especially my own words.  And from about fifth grade onward, I’ve been trying to get better as a writer.

And so, when I started preaching – you guessed it – I carefully crafted my sermons, not realizing that the spoken word is a lot different from the written word. People who hear a sermon typically don’t care what the sermon looks like on paper.

Rather than doing the right thing early on – ditching the manuscript – I compensated by learning the sermon really, really well.  For years I would get to the church early on Sunday morning, earlier even than the custodian, and preach my sermon two or three times to an empty sanctuary.

Turns out, that was a good way for me to learn to be a preacher, but it also set in place the problem of being dependent on the manuscript. What happened last Sunday night is that I proved (to myself) that I’m not too old to learn better preaching habits.

Like all preachers who preach without notes, I probably repeated myself and probably wasn’t as concise as I would like to be, but no one complained. Instead they commented on the naturalness of it.  I’m determined to do it again.

The preacher in me wants to ask, “What did you learn from Felix Baumgartner?”

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.


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