Like many others, serving in gospel ministry during the COVID pandemic has meant picking up some part-time work to put bread on the table. In my case, literally: in God’s providence, the Lord provided 6 months of part-time bread merchandising work that dovetailed into our call to pastor a new church family where I’m preaching every other week.
So what does putting bread on supermarket shelves have to do with preparing and delivering a sermon that’s faithful to the text and engaging for your audience? Come along on a guided tour of how your bread ends up on the supermarket shelf, and why it matters for your preaching.
1. Regular feedback makes you a better bread merchandiser.
The moment I walk down the bread aisle, I see straight away whether yesterday’s work paid off or not. Empty racks? Nailed it. Loaves left over? That means more work sorting, presenting and fitting new bread, delivered in large stacks up to 15 trays high. Of course there’s factors outside our control: more bread goes out on weekends or after certain events (e.g. a rainy day at your supermarket with an underground carpark). But generally, you get a fair idea each day how well your work went.
In the same way, preachers and teachers should invite feedback on how their sermons are received. It could be a regular feedback group with fellow preachers, a live Q&A after your worship service, a service review with fellow leaders and church members, or something else. It’s good and humbling to hear what parts of your teaching was clear, what was confusing, what worked well, what needs sharpening.
2. We stack older bread at eye level so people grab it first.
The oldest loaves need to be sold first, otherwise no one buys them. In fact, the first job at each supermarket is to remove bread that’s 2 days or less from their best before date so it can be returned to the breadmakers (they turn it into feed for pigs). This means shuffling loaves around based on their colour-coded date tags until the oldest bread’s at eye level.
Likewise, when writing a sermon, put your most important point at eye level. For example, if your Bible passage majors on God’s compassion, let that be the main take-home message from your talk. Help your people understand that clearly from the passage. By all means share other helpful insights, but don’t let it crowd out what needs to go out.
3. Well presented bread brings more buyers.
Early on, I noticed that facing bread loaves a certain way meant it would disappear from the shelves the next day. Whether it’s rolling the packaging so the brand faces up, or stacking muffins in aesthetically-pleasing pyramid shapes, or splitting loaves across two trays to give a “full” look to the shelves, merchandisers do all kinds of things to make you take notice of what’s on offer and add it to your trolley.
Similarly, try not to settle for just plonking information down on your manuscript. The gospel is the gospel — any faithful presentation of it is better than none. But it’s helpful to present it as well as you can. Is there a clearer way to present this truth? Will my listeners pick it up straight away? What cultural barriers am I crossing? Think of explanations and illustrations to make the arrow fly further, and hit deeper with your audience.
4. You can’t feed yourself on bread that’s meant for others.
After five hours of unscrambling tray after tray of bread into colour-matched, customer-facing rows, two things usually happen: I get hungry. And, I don’t feel like buying the bread I’ve worked with all day. (Thankfully, Cheryl makes some wonderful home-baked sourdough!)
Beware the illusion that you become well fed from God’s Word solely from preparing sermons, or teaching Sunday School, or whatever word ministry you’re involved with. Too many preachers replace their private devotional life with their ministry work, only to find their experience of God’s Word becomes functional and task oriented, rather than part of a life-giving relationship. Far better to be nourished by day and night “delight” in the Law of the LORD (Psalm 1:2) with no agenda other than hearing from a Dad who loves you.
5. Give people the best you have to offer.
By the time I reach the last store, the automatic doors open and the first customers begin to wander through. From time to time a shopper ends up browsing for bread before I’ve sorted it. When it happens, I almost always pipe up: “Can I help you?” – and if they want something specific, I’ll give it to them from today’s delivery. The gratitude they express is priceless.
Teaching regularly can be discouraging. You may wonder if what you share makes any difference. You may doubt you have anything of your own to say. So it becomes tempting to cut corners by just copy pasting someone else’s thoughts, or parroting a famous preacher’s substance and style.
But just as shoppers respond best to a personal encounter, your church thrives as it hears God’s Word through you personally delivering it to them. So be yourself. Even in an age when any answer from the Bible (orthodox or heretical) exists online, there is still no substitute for hearing God’s Word through someone who loves and cares for you deeply. God is gracious: he won’t let the bread you share return void.