- Eliminate Debt. It is extremely tempting to load up on debt while the church is riding high. While the people are flocking, the church can handle high debt ratios, and besides we have to have a place for all these people to sit. Yet, when the crowds stop coming and the mortgage lingers, a church can be crippled for years to come. By all means, use the money that is coming in the good years, but be careful about racking up debt to leave to a shrunken congregation after you are long gone.
- Build a Strong Governance Structure. If the health of the church is dependent on your personal leadership, it can be difficult to sustain healthy governance after you are gone – particularly if all the other strong leaders are leaving with you. In good times, you want to make sure that the policy structures and systems of governance are well designed and sturdy enough to withstand the challenges created by your eventual departure.
- Develop Leaders. It should go without saying, but a big part of your job as a preacher/pastor is to be actively working to develop leaders. A church that is rich in gifted and trained leaders will be more easily able to carry on the vision of the church after you are gone. Developing these people includes letting them have an opportunity to preach often enough that they get good at it and that people are actually happy to hear them.
- Create a Productive Denominational Relationship. I know that denominations are not particularly cool or cutting edge, but they can come in handy at a time of difficult transition. You might not need them very much when you are flying high, but establishing a solid relationship will provide the lines of communication necessary when your church is in need of some of the services that they provide. You might even be surprised by how useful and productive the relationship can be even when things are good.
- Create a Culture of the Word. You will want to do everything you can to make sure that your ministry is about the Word and not about you. This is always a good idea, but it will be particularly helpful to your people as you transition out. Helping people understand that they are hearing from God through his Word more than they are hearing from you yourself, will make it easier for them to listen to others who take the same approach.
I have been having a bit of a debate recently with some of my students about memorization. If we value a more look-the-audience-in-the-face kind of extemporanaeity, are we better to memorize written manuscripts or should we allow ourselves more freedom to invent our specific verbal constructions in the moment of our preaching?
The former offers the ability to craft the sermon carefully and with precision. It also allows the preacher to move faster with a greater and perhaps more dynamic rate of speech. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine a manner of preparation that would require a greater amount of time, both in the writing and in the memorizing. Secondly, memorizing is risky, given that it can end up coming off more like reciting than actually preaching, and when the words don’t come, the preacher can feel exposed and vulnerable.
The latter approach, construction on the fly, offers more of an in-the-moment sense of authenticity. The listener gets the sense that the preacher didn’t just pull this off the shelf, but that there is real communication going on. This way is also more manageable within the pattern of a busy preacher’s life. The downside, of course, is that the preacher learns to rely too much on the possibility of “winging it,” or coming to the sermon poorly prepared. Without a substantial amount of skill, this form of preaching can sometimes ramble and lose its focus.
I have typically counselled different approaches to the matter depending upon various factors. For example, the ‘manuscript and memorize’ approach might serve well a preacher who is less experienced and less confident, especially with those who are working in second languages. I have also noticed that this method is used by some large church pastors whose schedule and assignment allows a greater amount of time for preparation. Conversely, church planters and smaller church pastors who have limited amounts of time, will see obvious benefit in a more spontaneous approach, as will preachers who are working with youth groups and younger congregations.
Often, preachers will gravitate to some form of hybrid approach – working with a more limited set of notes, while practicing as much as time will permit. Over time, these preachers find a middle ground that works well with their context, their schedule, and their personal temperament. This works for some, though others find the presence of text, even in the form of partial notes to be cognitively distracting from the primary goal of actually communicating with the gathered crowd.
Clearly, there is no correct approach to the matter. We will all have to assess our own capacities and find an approach that allows us to offer the truth with a sufficient sense of precision while at the same time offering the required sense of presence.
I heard a sermon this morning on the famous “Widow’s mite” narrative. The preacher took care to tell us the story in a way that had us leaning forward. We were completely gripped by his imaginative handling of the details of this woman’s story. From there he moved directly to a personal story about his three-year old son who was willing to part with his hard-earned money to help a homeless man that he encountered in the street. You kind of had to be there to appreciate the power of these two stories told in parallel. I know that I won’t soon forget it.
We might want to say that this was one of those almost-magical moments where the story of our lives and the story in the text matched perfectly. I suspect, however that this kind of opportunity is there for us more often than we think. The Bible is written to address the stuff of life. If we can’t see the connections to the lives we lead, it is only because we haven’t been paying attention.
Paying attention to life is a significant preacher-skill. It is important that we be attentive to the things that are going on around us, which might offer examples, metaphors, or clues to the meanings that we want to preach. When our sermons can be seen in life, they take on an increased power.
This means we can’t start preparing just the night before. If we want to notice these illustrative and applicational opportunities, we need space in life for these connections to be recognized. A longer gestation period for our sermons will be helpful so that there is time for us to pay attention. Our minds focused on the direction of our sermon will be able to find those points of connection if we are able to give it just a little time.
The preacher I heard this morning, might never have noticed anything special in his son’s response to the homeless man, if it were not for the fact that he had his sermon on his mind. For days he had been contemplating the deep truths of his text such that when he saw an example in life, the connection was readily evident.
I have written before that one way to manage this sort of thing is to work on more than one sermon at a time. For example, you could do your exegetical and interpretive work for the next week’s sermon and also your sermon construction work for the current week’s sermon in the same week. In that way, you can give your sermons a longer gestation period without adding any hours or minutes to your preparation.
If we had time to pay attention, we might find a great number of things that can take us deeper into the truth of our sermons. It only takes intention – and attention.
Is there a place for heat in homiletics?
I have no better remedy than anger. If I want to write, pray, preach well, then I must be angry. Then my entire blood supply refreshes itself, my mind is made keen, and all temptations depart.- Luther
One time, I nearly broke my iPhone during the second point of my sermon.
That week’s sermon, out of Mark 1:14-20, was about kairos time—about how, in our hubris, Americans are constantly tempted to believe we can cram way more into our little earthly lives than God really desires for us to do. Omnipresence, we assume, is a characteristic of human beings. I talked about how the Bible dismisses such arrogance. Humanity is intrinsically bounded by divine boundaries, I argued; boundaries not to be transcended. We aren’t God.
But our desire to be like God was in our bones. So we ate the apple.
I reminded the congregation that the first apple represented a fundamental breakdown and disrespect for these intentional boundaries. Humanity, I suggested, sinned by transcending the moral boundaries of Eden by eating whatever they wanted. Humanity hasn’t evolved. Railing against our addiction to multi-tasking, I pulled out my iPhone in front of the congregation. And with a homiletical anger I’ve rarely seen come from within, I yelled:
The first one was an apple that led us astray. And, once again, we find ourselves in a similar position. An apple (my iPhone) has deceived us, causing us to believe we can transcend the boundaries of humanity. We can’t! God made the boundaries. Your phone is not an escape from human limitations. It doesn’t make you a god. You can’t be everywhere! So, friends, put your phone away, for heaven’s sake. Sit in God’s presence. Enjoy the garden He’s already given you. Be present. Repent of your supposed omnipotence.
By sermon’s end, I was steaming, sweating with anger—just about ready for the floor to cave into the pits of Hades as it supposedly did during Jonathan Edward’s (1703-1758) “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
Two things have happened since that sermon. Firstly, because I rarely get angry, people really remember my point. And I’m happy they do. Secondly, however, it’s caused me to think critically and constructively about the role anger plays in preaching.
What’s the place of anger in preaching?
I have just returned from the annual meetings of the Evangelical Homiletics Society at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, where the theme for the event was “Hermeneutics for Homiletics.” The keynote speaker was Abe Kuruvilla from Dallas Seminary, whose seminal book, “Privilege the Text” was unpacked for the benefit of those who attended.
To speak of hermeneutics and homiletics is to struggle with the perennial challenge of overcoming the gap we sense between our interpretive work and our expressive work. In other words, how do we take what we have learned from Scripture and turn into something we can preach?
Kuruvilla’s answer is to discern the theology in the text. What is God doing with this passage from his word? What is it that the word accomplishes in salvation history and in the lives of our listeners? We are pretty good as preachers determining the technical interpretation of a passage. “What is the text saying?”, is our go-to hermeneutical question. “What is the text doing with what it is saying?”, is a much more powerful question.
Kuruvilla’s question took me back to my studies years ago in the Canonical Interpretation strategies of scholars like Brevard Childs and John Sailhammer. It can be powerful to understand the Scriptures as the product of an Author (with a capital “A”) who has acted with intention in the construction of his Word. When we look at a passage for how it moves and what it achieves both across the sweep of history and in its current expression among those of us who encounter it today, we treat the text the way it was intended. The Word of God is living and active. It is not solely a matter of determining what it said (past tense), but what is says (present tense) as we encounter the text today.
This theological approach to the passage is helpful when we go to preach. If we can appreciate the activity of the text, the gap will shrink to almost nothing. We might learn not just how to read the text and today. We might learn to see that the text is today.
I have just added a Scoop.it page for preaching.org. You can find it here. This is a place for various curated pieces related to the subjects of biblical preaching and its association with culture. Over time, I will try to keep you connected here to various stories and items that might be useful to you.
I was recently asked to answer the following question for a journal forum: “What is the future of homiletics?” The following was my response…
When I think about the future of homiletics, as distinct from the future of preaching, I am thinking about the way that we encourage excellence in the preaching that is done. As a homiletician, I am charged with thinking deeply about the nature of preaching and how to go about helping others grow more effective in their practice of their calling. This leads me, then, to two key thoughts. The first will be about the way we conceive of preaching, and the second will be about the way by which might develop people for this work in the near future.
As to our conception of preaching, I would say that the future will demand us to be far more integrative. Preaching that merely instructs, or which solely engages, will not be satisfying to people who are no longer compelled by culture or tradition to listen to our sermons. Of course, the Scriptures themselves are full of examples of preachers who were careful not only to offer teaching, but also to tell stories, to paint pictures, and to offer prayers. The preaching of the prophets, the apostles, and of Jesus himself, were rich with metaphor, object lessons, and expressive language. Think, for one example, of Jeremiah’s belt. They were varied in their forms utilizing narrative, poetry, didactic teaching and so much more. The preachers of the Bible located their preaching in life. They were pleased to offer abstract theological thought, but they were always careful to root what they had to say in the real experience of their listeners.
Today we hear a lot of hard-core exegetical and theological preaching and I am grateful for it. I believe we needed a return to biblical rootedness and a deeper approach to the word of God. I would like to think that the future, then, could retain this depth, while seeking for broader and more integrated expressions of these truths. If we could do this, we could take our preaching to another level of impact.
As to the development of preachers, I believe we the future is going to be a lot more context-based. Actually, I think that all of theological education is moving in this direction. At my own seminary, we have embraced a fully mastery-model, outcomes-based to pastoral development, including the development of preachers.
What this means is that preaching will be proved more in the church than in the classroom. There will be room for us to discuss theory and to teach technique, but increasingly, this will be done through mentoring in place. Preachers will have to show that they can actually help people hear from God in the context of their ministries instead of only satisfying their professors in the security of the classroom.
This change is going to challenge the identity of some of us classroom teachers. I think we are in danger of having found our meaning more in our positions and our systems than in our callings. If we could free ourselves to think theologically about the outcomes we have been called to pursue, we might do a lot of things differently in the future and we might be more effective.
So how much manuscript should a preacher use? Does a sermon manuscript keep a preacher from rambling into irrelevance, or does it stifle and inhibit communication? A more oral and in-the-moment approach can keep the sermon from feeling like it has been canned or packaged. On the other hand, a manuscript can keep the sermon from feeling like the preacher is making it up as he goes.
My own preaching has utilized both methods to varying degrees. I do love the communicative power of extemporaneous preaching, even though it sometimes feels a little undisciplined and imprecise. Some have suggested the preparation of a manuscript that is left behind and not utilized in the actual preaching of the sermon. While this sounds like a great way of integrating the two approaches, I have often found myself paralyzed while preaching by this method, trying to remember the exact construction that I laboured over in the writing of the manuscript.
My solution has been to move to a 500 Word Manuscript. Having done my sermon research and construction, I write the sermon in 500 words or less – basically the sermon on a single sheet of paper. 500 words is not enough words for even the shortest of sermons, but it is enough to communicate the basic substance and structure I intend. It also doesn’t require as much time to prepare. Consolidating the sermon into 500 words forces me to focus and sharpen the sermon, requiring me to make important choices about better and best. I can then easily commit the resulting structure to memory without worrying about falling into a deadly recitation in the preaching of the sermon.
There is a delightful freedom in preaching the resulting sermon. The sermon feels fresh and focused. I am not bogged down by pre-fabricated constructions, nor am I struggling to discern direction. I don’t bring my 500 words with me to the platform. I don’t need to. I know what I am doing and where I am going, but I am free to use language that seems organic and unforced as it emerges in the moment.
One thing I know about myself is that I can talk. I am seldom stuck for words when I have clarity about my purpose. I suspect that the same could be true about any of us who preach. The resulting product might not look eloquent if published, but no one is publishing our preaching anyway.
As a seminary president, I do a lot of guest preaching. I consider it a tremendous privilege to be able to experience the working of God in a variety of settings and congregations. It is nice to receive a glowing introduction, though it also offers a fair bit of pressure – especially when you are introduced as someone who writes books about preaching! The truth is that all the real advantages are with the local preacher who is there every week, who knows the people and who has built up a reservoir of trust.
Still, most of us have opportunity to serve as guest preachers from time to time. A recent blogpost by Pete Wilson over at Sermon Central describe some of the things we will want to pay special attention to when we take the platform as a guest
1. Don’t go over your allotted time.
2. Don’t make controversial statements the church staff are going to have to clean up later.
3. Respect the methodology of the church you are speaking in.
4. Take a moment to give honour and respect to the pastor and staff.
I agree heartily with all of these – especially the latter one. One of my favourite things to do when visiting a church is to make kind comments about the pastor, who could probably use the encouragement – especially given the fact that you’re about to preach what might be one of your best, most polished sermons.
To Wilson’s encouragements, I might add another…
5. Learn whatever you can from the experience. We get so embedded in our own churches that it can be difficult to have perspective about what is going on. Preaching in another church help us both appreciate what we have in our own church, but also give us insight into things that we might be able to adapt for the benefit of our home congregation.
Whether at home or on the road, preaching is our privilege. We want always to practice our calling respectfully.
The preaching of the gospel is neither a fad nor the key to membership in a particular movement. When we communicate the Bible according to its intent, we are serving the purposes of a God who is actively reconciling his creation to himself by the gospel. When we serve the gospel according to its elemental interests, we will engage people, instruct people, convict people, and inspire people. Biblical preaching is gospel preaching. Gospel preaching is integrative preaching.
This is a full-length feature article. For the full article, click here.
One of our favourite ways to move people with our sermons is to use material that has already moved us. It surprises us, then, when the congregation seem relatively unmoved by the things that have had such an impact on us. It might help us, then, to consider the amount of distance that we have created between our material and the men and women who are listening.
We could, for example, count the removes the listener experiences with the material that the preacher offers. For example, the preacher might offer a story he had read in biography about an emotional event a missionary had observed while in Tokyo. That is four “removes” by my count. The missionary’s observation is one remove. The biographer who tells the missionary’s story is the second remove. The preacher who reads the biographer’s account is the third remove. The listener to the preacher’s description is a fourth remove. That is quite a bit of distance to manage if the listener is supposed to care. Vicarious emotion is a difficult thing to manage.
This can also happen with the exegetical propositions that we offer. Let’s say the preacher is working from Galatians 6, trying to speak about the restoration of a brother who has fallen into sin. Along the way, the preacher notices from the context that this act of restoration is what happens when one “keeps in step with the Spirit.” Of course, this comment about the Spirit is rooted in the fruit of the Spirit which is described in chapter five. Of course, one of the fruits of the Spirit is gentleness and so the preacher offers five minutes on the merits of gentleness when it comes to attempting restoration. Count them up and you will find that this involves at least four exegetical removes: (1) gentleness to (2) fruit to (3) stepping to (4) restoration.
To advocate for gentleness in restoration is an excellent thing to do. It even has the merit of being exegetically sound. My point, however, is that this level of intellectual removal is a hard thing to manage in an oral medium. I am not saying that you should not attempt it. You should, however, be aware of what you are asking of your listeners and adjust accordingly, leaving the necessary bread crumbs so that you are certain that the listener can track with you.
As to the matter of vicarious emotion, a certain amount of removal is unavoidable. Even if I share my own passion with the audience, that is still one level of remove. Ideally I want to try to help the listener feel the affective impact for her or himself. Working to create the listener’s own encounter with God through his Word is always going to be more effective than to try and generate the listener’s interest in the emotions of someone else – even if that someone else is the preacher.
Someone recently told me that they like the way I “break the fourth wall” when I preach. That sounded kind of cool, so I immediately had to go and find out what he meant by it.
Turns out, this is a theatrical term referring to the imaginary wall that exists between the stage and the seating area. Most theatres feature a back wall, two side walls, and a metaphoric fourth wall that the actors seldom try to broach.
I have found that the fourth wall is sturdily constructed in our churches. It takes a great act of intention by the preacher to break through that wall. When it happens the congregation will not feel comfortable. They may not be happy with you.
Of course that can work for you. The first time I remember attempting this breaking through, was when I was preaching the ‘walking on water’ narrative. I decided to portray Peter’s foray onto the sea by actually leaving the pulpit area and walking out into the congregation.
I immediately felt uncomfortable, which was actually appropriate given the nature of the story I was trying to transmit. It was as if I could hear the listeners saying, “What are you doing down here. This is our space. You get back up on the platform where you belong.” It was not hard to offer Peter’s sense of distraction when I was feeling a similar discomfort myself.
Since that time, I have found myself breaking the fourth wall on a regular basis, sometimes physically, sometimes orally. I enjoy picking out trusted members of the congregation as objects of direct statement or even brief conversation. Obviously, this has to be handled with extreme care. You don’t want to embarrass the listener or to put them in a bad or awkward light. However, when done well, this kind of brief encounter has a way of drawing close the whole congregation who view my conversation partner as a proxy for themselves.
Later in the evening of the day I got the wall-breaking comment, I watched Ellen Degeneres host the Oscars. Breaking the fourth wall has become Ellen’s signature move. She held conversations with several members of the audience, sometimes to their discomfort, but always to the delight of the audience. They danced together and ate pizza together. I doubt whether Ellen had any concept of the fourth wall at all. The crowd loved it – even the crowd in my living room who seemed to connect with her antics in a way that would not have been possible if she had kept to the platform.
While some might find this kind of decorum-breaking practice to lack the dignity necessary to the practice of preaching, I would suggest that it might be just the kind of thing we need. It is the objective of the preacher to draw the listener in so that he or she can be transformed. Any kind of wall that creates separation, distance, or a false sense of security for the listener might well be broken, dismantled, and destroyed.
Tear down that wall. Once your people get used to it, I suspect that they might find they like it, and profit from it.
A couple of days ago I posted on the limitations of using PowerPoint as it relates to retention in preaching. That post led to a record number of page views for this website. Clearly, many people are interested in this question of whether and how to use slides in preaching. While my earlier post might have given the impression that there is no use for PowerPoint in preaching, there are obvious benefits to using slides, when they are used well.
It has to be emphasized that quality counts when using slides. People are accustomed to seeing high quality graphics and images out in the wild. You do not want to inadvertently signal that your church is backward or inattentive by showing slip-shod visuals on the screen. If that is the best that you are capable of, it might be worth asking whether you ought to be showing anything at all. But if you do feel a need to use slides, then here are some of the ways that you might want to go about it.
I understand that this might seem a little daunting. Quality is hard to achieve, and this is something that is very hard to delegate. It may be, as I suggested before, that the best response is to not use slides at all. I continue to contend that the best visual in preaching is the preacher. The preacher embodies and enlivens the sermon. When done well, perhaps nothing else is needed.
You have all heard the statistics – that listeners retain only 10% of what they hear, 20% of what they see, but more than 30% of what they see and hear, or something along those lines. People use this as their reason why they have to use powerpoint in preaching. It is hoped that retention rates will increase if we add this element of communication to our preaching.
I will admit it makes a certain common sense – if only it were true.
The first problem with this thinking is that the numbers are cooked. The source of the theory is Edgar Dale and while his “cone of learning” hierarchy is real, he did not attach percentages to it. He also cautioned against over-generalizing it’s use. Whether or not the model is legitimate, the degree to which it is true has never been proven.
The second problem with this approach is that it seems to fly in the face of experience – for many of us, at least. Laura Vanderkam, writing in Fast Company magazine says, “The more times I give my standard speech on time management, the more aware I am of something curious. When I speak without Powerpoint – just me upon the stage, trying to entertain and instruct people – I enjoy the experience far more than when I use slides.”
This has been my experience as well. Working with slides while preaching has become more of a bother than a boon for me. I always feel like it goes better without the slides than with them. Of course, I have often felt a little guilty about that, given the supposed statistics about retention. I might prefer to work without slides, but what about my listeners? Am I robbing them of a greater chance of retaining the material?
Perhaps not. Vanderkam quotes Nick Morgan, a speech communication expert and president of Power Cues, who says that if retention of complex information is the goal, then a speech is not a very efficient means of delivery anyway. Studies show that we retain 10-30% of what we hear in a speech, and that this number does not increase with the use of slides. When it comes to watching and listening to a speaker, he says, “We form unconscious impressions about what matters to (the speaker) – what her intent is, what she’s passionate about – and that is what we remember.” The problem, he continues, is that humans are not very good multi-taskers, and when we focus on slides, it takes away from our ability to listen to the speaker. If we must use slides, then we need to limit the content, using few words and more images, seeking to support instead of compete with what we are saying orally.
As Vanderkam reminds us, name one significant speech in human history that ever relied on props.
Perhaps the biggest problem is our intention for our preaching. If we see preaching primarily as a way of delivering complicated instruction, we are probably barking up the wrong tree. As Morgan says, an oral speech is not efficient when it comes to complex instruction. If, on the other hand, we understood our task as helping people connect with the God who is present to them and speaking to them by his Spirit and through his Word, then the sermon might be the perfect medium – it just might not need the help of Powerpoint.
UPDATE: So if you are going to use PowerPoint, here are some thoughts about how to do it well.
One of the fastest growing trends in recent years has been the move toward video-venue preaching. On one hand, this is an effective way of improving the quality of preaching that people hear. It is not a bad thing to get more people under the sound of the best preaching that we can offer. If hearing better preaching leads more people to respond to the gospel, then it is hard to complain that the preaching was mediated by video. Haven’t we all celebrated the remarkable effect of Billy Graham’s televised preaching over the years?
There is, however, a concern that ought to be considered. People prefer live preachers. According to a comprehensive new study from Lifeway Research, less than one percent of people prefer a video-venue sermon.
Of course this isn’t shocking. If any one of us had the opportunity to hear some famous musician live or via video, we would all prefer to hear the music live. Live theatre is a much more enthralling experience than is a motion picture, and the best, most expensive seats are always near the front. Why should we be surprised that people would rather hear their preachers up close and personal?
None of this is to say that video preaching is wrong or evil. Thirty-five percent of people say they will only visit churches with a live preacher, but that leaves sixty-five percent who will visit such churches. If they are hearing transformational, biblical preaching, than why would we complain?
My main concern about all of this is what it says about the nature of preaching. Most people think of preaching as an instructional or motivational event. If we can be instructed by reading a book or a webpage, then we could surely gain such benefit from a video as well.
But preaching is so much more than mere instruction. Preaching mediates the presence of God through his Word and by his Spirit. Preaching is an event in God’s presence wherein the preacher leads the people to a place of encouragement, conviction, and response. In my experience, this broader ambition for the sermon is almost always more effectively achieved in person.
We could be kinder when we listen to other people preach.
Preaching comes in a lot of different shapes and styles, meaning that listeners can respond to preaching in the same way that they respond to every other consumer choice in their lives. They can pick and choose the preaching that they like, while rejecting or dismissing the preaching that they do not appreciate. Often this dismissal is couched in language of disapproval and contempt, which is almost always unhelpful and uncalled for.
I resonated strongly with a comment in John Koessler’s wonderful book, The Surprising Grace of Disappointment. The comment is about worship music, but it could be just as easily applied to preaching. He writes, “It is not our differences in musical taste that have caused the most damage to the church when it comes to worship. Rather it is our mutuallack of respect and contempt (Moody: 2013, p. 147).”
I know that this is true as to how people respond to musical worship leadership. People act as if their own personal preferences are definitive of faithfulness and appropriateness in worship, as if to say that anyone who worships in another form or with a different level of investment are somehow worshipping in a manner unfit or unworthy of the Lord. We do the same with preaching. We understand a certain form or a certain manner of preaching to represent faithfulness to Christ, and in so doing we contemptuously dismiss all those who preach differently from what we might prefer. In so doing, we pass judgement on the worthiness of another person’s offering. Instead of listening for what we could learn, we take the posture of a Simon Cowell, as if we were the arbiters of faithfulness to whom all others must account.
Of course we could all preach better than we do, and there is nothing wrong in saying so. It is also true that some of the preaching we hear might well earn our approbation because there are some preachers who actually are unfaithful. It is true that there are preachers who will offer an untruthful message; some who preach a prideful message; some who preach a plagiarized message; and some who simply fail to present the word with the care and consideration that it deserves. In these sad instances, a loving word of correction might be well advised.
Yet, so often the concern that we raise has more to do with our preference for didactic teaching over story-telling; or our ideas about what makes for an appropriate platform presence; or our preferred approach to a contested theological theme. We may have good reasons for our sense of things, but what we don’t have is the right to respond to those who differ in a way that lacks respect or that speaks contemptuously toward someone who is acting faithfully as he or she might understand his calling.
It is very possible that we have found a more faithful path for the preaching that we offer. We may have understood a better way. But that better way will always involve love and consideration. If we could speak out truth in love, we might find ourselves in a better position to actually be helpful to those in need of our critique. We might even find we learn something ourselves.
As I was reading the Christmas story again this year I was struck by the fact that the Magi came to “worship” (Matthew 2:2). It is hard to know what information was motivating this ambition, but it was important to them that they found this child and that they worship him. It is strange that they were not put off by the fact of his being new-born as a disincentive to their worship. Somehow they knew that a king had been born and they were compelled to find him and to pay him their worship.
Reading further, we see that when Herod heard of this he asked for a follow-up report so that he too could go and “worship” the newborn (v.8). Clearly, by “worship,” he had something different in his mind than the Magi had in theirs.
Everyone worships. The only question is the object of our worship.
Let’s remember that worship is the heart of Christmas. Preaching, itself an act of worship, calls people to determine who they will make the object of their worship. At Christmas, we are reminded that we are to worship Jesus. Let’s make sure our preaching sounds that tune and that our own heart is in tune with that aspiration.
So you better be careful, pastor. According to research from the Barna Group published this week by Christianity Today, nearly four out of ten practicing Christian millennials are fact-checking the pastor while they listen to the sermon. Perhaps even more surprising is that 14% of all millennials search to verify the things they hear faith leaders say.
I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised by this. I mean, I do it too. Whenever a pastor says something controversial, something curious, even something compelling, I am able to check the details right there while I am listening to the sermon. We do it for everything else – watching news, listening to lectures in class, responding to advertising – why would we not do it for the sermons we hear?
Of course this shouldn’t frighten us. Of all people, preachers ought to be people who speak the truth. We ought to be well-researched and careful with our facts. Exaggeration and fact-twisting should not be part of our arsenal. They never should have been, even when they couldn’t check up on us. If anyone should feel no threat by the opportunity for people to hold a speaker accountable for truthfulness, it ought to be the preacher.
In fact, we ought to be encouraged by this. How great is it that people want to spend time engaging what we say – digging deeper? It’s a whole lot better than putting them to sleep.
And by the way – enough already with all the preaching plagiarism. Why pastors think they can get away from “borrowing” the sermons or writings of others in this day and age is beyond me. This doesn’t fool anyone, anymore. If you could find the sermon in your office on Wednesday afternoon, they can find the same sermon while they’re listening on Sunday morning. Passing off other people’s stuff as your own is sin, for which the preacher will have to answer to God – and now, thanks to Google, to all the tech-savvy people in the crowd as well.
Isn’t accountability awesome!
Getting listeners to respond to our preaching is not easy. Most of what we want to say they’ve heard us say before. How do we get them to pay attention, buy in, and respond to our messages? In our hunger to overcome audience apathy, it can be tempting to resort to cheap homiletics tricks.
One of those time-tested tricks is the straw man illustration. These are stories that gather the listener to our side in opposition to an absent foil. The example described is usually so obvious in its inadequacy that the listener unites with the preacher, chuckling derisively at these imagined others who obviously don’t have a clue.
It is just too easy.
For example, I recently heard a preacher describe a long-past church board meeting where the elders were so far off mission that they spent twenty minutes of their precious meeting time debating what brand of toilet paper should be used in the church washroom. Of course, the audience was galvanized, clucking their disapproval, laughing easily at the stupidity of this board. It was homiletic child’s play – uniting the people against the straw man, easily knocked down for the entertainment, and not the edification, of the audience.
The whole thing felt cheap and easy. The inadequacy of this description was so obvious that no one in the audience had to own the preacher’s point. The preacher felt good because he got the people with him. He had them listening, but he wasn’t actually actually able to help them because it was too easy for the people to escape the weight of the sermon’s point. There wasn’t a single person in the crowd who would ever be tempted in the same way as was this long-past board. The example was too ridiculous to bear credibility. As a result, the critique was pointed elsewhere – at those present only in the imagination.
There is never much point preaching against “those people” who make an easy target because they are not in attendance. When the focus is on “those people,” the people who are actually present in the congregation, attending to the sermon, don’t have to bother facing accountability because they are not made of the straw the preacher is knocking down.
Do we have a problem with staying on mission in board and committee meetings? Of course we do! Do we struggle to maintain biblical focus in favour of the things that make us comfortable? Absolutely! So maybe we should talk about those challenges directly and as they really happen, framing our examples and our exhortations in realistic terms that do not allow listeners to so easily escape the necessary scrutiny.
Straw men serve the preacher’s ego. Real examples are more risky – but they might also be more compelling…and more powerful.
I was encouraged by Ed Stetzer’s comments regarding the use of the Bible in preaching. Stetzer, working with his team from Lifeway Research, listened to 450 sermons from invididual preachers and came up with the following four conclusions:
1. The Word Should be Heard. Our central task as preachers is to present God’s Word…
2. The Word Should be Organized. If God is orderly…then the preaching of his Word should be as well…
3. The Word Should be Sufficient. …The best way to explain Scripture is with Scripture itself…
4. The Word Should be Useful. God’s Word should make a difference in the lives of our listeners…
These insights might not be surprising, but they are useful. The full report from Stetzer is as follows…
At LifeWay Research, we recently studied the variety of ways pastors use the Bible by looking at 450 different sermons (all by different preachers). We gave our research team the audio files of these sermons and some objective questions about how the preacher handled God’s Word. Let me share about the research and my views on preaching at the same time.
In these sermons, the preachers handled God’s Word differently. The way pastors organized their sermons varied widely. Half of pastors traveled verse-by-verse through a passage, and almost half organized their sermons around a theme. Almost one out of five pastors named and explained a Greek word in their sermon. More than half explained verses by using other verses in the Bible.
Even though different preachers handle the Word differently, I believe they’re all obligated to teach it as authoritative, not merely as a scriptural footnote proving something they already wanted to say. Four things have to be true about a pastor’s handling of the Bible if that pastor is to preach authoritatively.
I recently attended the meetings of the Evangelical Homiletics Society, hosted this year by Don Sunukjian and the team at Talbot Seminary. I have been going to EHS since it began in 1997 and have never failed to find there a warm and engaging group of people who value the preaching of the Word and want to see it done more effectively.
This year’s theme was Spirit-Led Preaching, and featured Dr. Jack Hayford, the long-time pastor of The Church on the Way in Southern California. I was impressed by Dr. Hayford’s deep dependence on the Holy Spirit and with his unshakable conviction about the work of the Spirit in our preaching. How the Spirit’s work intersects with our work has always been a matter of mystery. Pastor Jack did not eliminate that mystery – nor would we want him to – but he did build our sense that when we speak the Word of God to people, the Spirit of God is at work. Of course this wasn’t news to anyone, but it was refreshing to hear from one who believes this truth so profoundly.
I have sometimes wondered how our preaching might change if we were able to deepen our sense of spiritual expectation. If we really did believe that God was actively present and that people were going to change as a result, how might that affect the preaching that we do? Would we be more hopeful? Would we be more energetic? Would we be more present to the moment? What might that even sound like?
One thing I think might change in my preaching is that I would become a lot less hypothetical. So much of the preaching that I do is anticipating some result postponed for another time. But in theory at least, I believe in a God who is present and active in the person of his Spirit. Why might God want to do by his Spirit right here and right now as I preach? How will the Spirit work to change us through this sermon in the present moment? If I were take more time to consider that question, I might be more open and responsive to the result.
So often we preachers think we have to do the Spirit’s work for him. We feel we have to be the eloquent one – the powerful one. This concern is obviously misplaced. The Spirit is going to do his thing. That you and I get to be a part of this is more our privilege than our obligation.
Next week I will be attending the annual meetings of the Evangelical Homiletics Society, to be held at Talbot Seminary in La Mirada, California, October 17-19. The theme of this year’s conference is Spirit-Led Preaching, with Jack Hayford as the plenary speaker.
I always look forward to this intensive interaction with those people who are giving serious thought to the work of preaching in evangelical contexts. This year, I will even be presenting a paper, “Preaching the Gospel: Integrating the Elements that Form Us.”
If you are in the area, or if you have the ability to travel, I would encourage you to join us. Find more information at www.ehomiletics.com
So, how long should it take for me to preach my sermon?
I get the sense from listening to some folks that a sermon isn’t worth it’s salt at any less than 40 minutes. But maybe that’s the company I keep. In other traditions, anything longer than 20 is severely pressing the expected norm. Of course, those folks don’t really care about ‘biblical’ preaching – at least that is the perspective that is usually left unsaid.
The whole discussion strikes me as misguided. Why would it matter for how long we preach? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about how well we preach? Is there some special time frame in which preaching finds its power? Is duration the test of faithfulness in the preaching of a sermon?
Perhaps one of the critical factors relates to how we conceive of our task. If we understand our task to be the transmission of ideas and that the more information we can pass along the better our sermon will be, then it stands to reason that more minutes allows for more material. On that calculation, longer is better. Of course, if we buy the sense that less can actually be more, then we might find virtue in brevity. But that said, there must be some kind of minute minimum under which effectiveness in preaching could not be possible.
But as I have listened to preaching, I have found that it doesn’t really matter. I have heard many excellent long-forms sermons that have brought me to the cross and led me into Jesus’ presence. But then I have to say that some of the best sermons I have heard are short – 15 or 20 minutes that have brought me to my knees. And of course the converse is also true. I have heard short sermons that were a mess. I have heard long sermons that were similarly mangled.
Long sermons put a particular burden on the preacher to manage more material without loosing the thread. More words offer more opportunity to mess it up. We remember, of course, what James said about the tongue.
Short sermons put a similar burden on the preacher to be economical. In the effort to be concise, significant pieces can go sadly missing. If the sermon is a journey, it is going to need to take some time.
Maybe the whole question is wrong-headed to begin with. Maybe what we need to be thinking about is the purpose of the sermon. What is it that we are trying to achieve? If we had a solid grasp on what it is that we are doing, we will know exactly what it is that must be done, regardless how much or little time that it requires.
My basic rule of thumb is to focus on what is needful to the process. Once I know what it is the God is saying through his Word, I set about considering what it will take to proclaim it. If a piece is necessary I will include it. If it is going to get in the way, I leave it out – even if the piece is good and right and worthy. I strive to use only what is needed. Then when I am done, I might check the clock to see how long that it has taken.
I will say this – holding attention over time through oral presentation is a difficult business. People don’t experience it many other places in their lives. We cannot afford to be sloppy, redundant, or unwise.
So I try to say only what I need to say – however long it takes. It usually requires less time than what I would have thought.
We usually think of preaching as what the preacher does, but what if the objectives of preaching could be shared and magnified through the activity of those who listen? What if our preaching was able to extend beyond what happens when we stand to speak?
Robert Campbell and I came to the conclusion that the effects of our preaching could be exponentially realized if we were able to multiply our impact by purposefully working through the sermon to empower listeners to replicate the intentions and impact of the sermon through their personal network. We call this “Preaching Through Your Church.”
We have learned, for example, that social media is a way by which communication can be amplified. We think that preaching can be also. You can read more here.
This article was originally published in Preaching magazine.
I had a delightful moment in my introductory preaching class last week. I was working on the definition of preaching, trying to help the students appreciate what they were doing in my class. I like to say that preaching is “helping people hear from God.” It’s simple, but I think it profound. When I finally put the definition out there, one of the students surprised me (and I think herself), blurting out the words, “I can do that!”
There was a joyful relief in her voice. Preaching is a hard business and it is tempting to own too much of it ourselves. Yes, we need to be intentional about what we are doing, and yes, we need to dig deeply into the task. But at the end of the day, preaching is what God does. We are not the preachers. It is God who is speaking. Our task is simply to help others hear what he is saying.
What a relief!
My student, like a lot of students before her, came into the class burdened by the sense that she was going to have to be eloquent, witty, and powerful in presence and expression. Not that any of that hurts, but what she came to understand was that none of that was really her job. Which is why it was so encouraging to come to understand that God is the one that is making his voice heard.
Not only does this perspective relieve the pressure from us, but it also makes for a more authentic sermon. We are no longer speaking on the basis of our own authority or wisdom, which frees us to adopt a humbler, more welcome stance.
We can do that. We might not be able to offer eloquence, but we can offer help. We can clarify. We can relate. We can point directions and we can help people listen.
A lot of preachers out there are making a lot of noise, such that it is not so easy to hear the voice of God. We could quiet our own voice so we could hear his voice. We could listen more and help more.
We could do that.
I have long been struck by the integrative nature of Jesus’ life and ministry, particularly as it has been summarized in John 1:14. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, … full of grace and truth.”
In Jesus, we find the integration of the objective and the subjective (Word and flesh). I might suggest that this describes the vertical line that traces the distance between heaven and here. But according to John, we also find in Jesus the integration of cognitive and affective (truth and grace), which describes the horizontal line that intersects both head and heart. I would suggest that this verse, then describes the shape of the cross which serves both as the philosophical model as well as the theological means of transformative preaching.
Great preaching will integrate these themes, speaking truthfully of the Word, objectively given, but also with a measure of grace that appreciates the implications of our preaching for our lives today. Great preaching lives and breathes. It is not solely a standard by which we are measured. It presents a way of being that we can embody.
I am concerned about preaching that dis-integrates the two. So often we hear preaching that reduces the gospel to mere doctrine, as if reconciliation to God is solely a matter of intellectual assent. Of course, it can roll the other way also, where preaching is understood to be little more than an encouragement to better and more moral ways of being.
Key to success in such varied pursuits as golf, piano, and preaching, is the ability to develop a sense of “touch.” Sinking a double breaking twelve foot downhill putt, or shaping the perfect diminuendo at the conclusion of well expressed sonata, requires a sense of touch that separates the many from the masters.
This quality is less a matter of dexterity than it is of deftness. Touch is less skill than it is a mastery of an attentive heart. Artists that understand the expression of their subject know that what differentiates greatness is less the display of technical brilliance than it is the exposure of any array of intangible elements. It is all a matter of touch.
Great preachers display the same quality when they display a deftness of touch. Excellence is seen in preachers who understand, innately perhaps, the exact amount of emphasis required by each element of the sermon. Such preachers know how to develop a story to the point of optimum impact without ever deteriorating into the maudlin. Similarly, these preachers appreciate how to work an idea to the point of understanding without ever pushing past to the point where the impact has been blunted by a heavier touch than what is warranted.
Of course the other side can offer a pitfall also. Great preachers do not assume too much of their listeners, underplaying their propositions, or assuming a greater facility and awareness on the part of their listeners than what they are actually capable of. There are ditches on both sides of this particular road.
I have played a lot of golf and a lot of guitar and I can tell you that there is only one way to develop touch, and that is to play a lot. The only way our preaching will gain this kind of deftness will be through frequency of preaching. Listening to preaching (including our own) also helps. Ironically, touch is related to another of the senses – namely, our sense of hearing. The more we listen to great preaching, the more we will develop our ear, making it easier to appreciate just how heavy our touch will need to be. Attentiveness to our listeners would not, also be ill-served.
I can think of numerous sermons where the impact was blunted either by an overly expressed and over anxious conclusion. I have heard preachers who “had me” at a point, but then proceeded to “lose me” by pushing beyond the necessary to the narcoleptic. Oh, for preachers who understand that most often, less is more. What would we give if our preachers could gain a tangible sense of touch.
For years I have profited from Haddon Robinson’s teaching that every sermon ought to offer a single “big idea.” This has always struck as a sensible approach both to exegesis and communication. The big idea has been a staple of my preaching and my teaching of preaching for many years.
Recently, in addition to my teaching of the big idea, i have added the concept of a big moment.
I believe that the best sermons move. Not only are we concerned to explain and apply a significant proposition from the biblical text, but we are concerned to mobilize people toward an actual encounter with the God who has spoken this big idea. Great preaching will bring the listener to a point of ‘conviction’ where a deep reckoning with the spiritual and practical consequences of the idea must be engaged. This is a worshipful moment in the presence of God – a holy moment of brokenness, humility, and openness to the presence and will of God.
Typically, we have left this sort of thing to the worship leaders. We believe that this moment of reckoning will occur as we come together in prayer or in song after the sermon has been completed. But I am not willing to cede that much ground to the guitar players (and I, myself am a guitar player!). As the preacher, I see myself as the primary worship leader, which means that worship must comprise a significant portion of my sermon.
For his to happen, I believe that the preacher must actually create space in the sermon, clearing room for this climactic moment. I believe that the preacher must actually craft a sense of movement in the sermon that brings the listener to a point of homiletic climax. I am not content to just assume that the listener will find time to be responsive to God’s Spirit. I believe that I need to take personal responsibility to carve out room for this to happen. I suspect that this would be a more productive use of our time than if we were to clarify yet another point.
Preaching is about helping people toward transformation as they hear the voice of God. Taking a greater sense of responsibility for the encouragement of this transformation would be a good move for most of us preachers.
We understand we need to articulate a big idea. Now let us see if we can lead our people toward a big moment in the presence of God by his Holy Spirit.
A few months ago, David Murray offered a blogpost over at headhearthand.org in which he raised questions concerning the kind of sermons that can harm those who are suffering from clinical and other forms of mental depression. I was impressed with his insight and thought I would share the substance of it here. These, according to Murray, are offerings by which “preachers can harm the depressed.”
Sermons that over-stress the moral evils of the day. They are anxious enough through hearing the daily news without every church service ramping up the “we’re doomed” rhetoric. A steady diet of gloomy sermons is not going to lift up the head or heart of the cast down.
Sermons that include graphic descriptions of violence. They are deeply traumatized by preachers reciting the gory details of shooting massacres, abortion procedures, persecution of Christians, child murders, etc.
Sermons that extol constant happiness as the only valid and virtuous Christian experience. The deep pain of depression is multiplied when a depressed person is repeatedly told that sadness is a sin.
Sermons that question the faith of anyone who doubts. A lack of assurance is not necessarily a lack of faith. Believers who hang on to God despite feeling no assurance sometimes have the greatest faith.
Sermons that demand, demand, and demand.The depressed person already feels like an inadequate failure. To be regularly berated for not doing this ministry, or failing to engage in that Christian service, only crushes what’s left of their spirit.
Sermons that are too loud for too long. When a preacher pours out high-decibel words with hardly a breath between them for 45 minutes, it’s not just the nerves of the depressed that are frayed.
Sermons that condemn anyone for using meds to treat depression or anxiety. These are often preached by pastors whose medicine cabinets are overflowing with pills and potions for every other condition under the sun!
Sermons that overdo the subjective side of Christian experience. Depressed people need to focus most on the objective facts of Christianity, the historic doctrines of the faith. Facts first and feelings follow. There’s a place for careful self-examination, but remember McCheyne’s rule: “For every look inside, take ten looks to Christ.”
As I read Murray’s list, it occurred to me that these are sermons that might depress me and I experience fairly robust mental health on most days. This is a pretty good list of homiletic ills to be avoided by any of us, whether we are preaching to the mentally unstable or not.
Murray’s prescription is that we “preach Christ” and I must affirm the sheer awesomeness of his call, for the sake of the depressed, the discouraged, and all of us who depend upon the gospel for our mental and spiritual security…
Preach His suffering and sympathizing humanity. Preach His gentle and tender dealings with trembling and timid sinners. Preach His gracious and merciful words. Preach His beautiful meekness. Preach His miracles to demonstrate His power to heal. Preach His finished work on Calvary. Preach His offer of rest to the weary. Preach the power of His resurrection-life. Preach His precious promises: ”A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench.” Preach Christ! Preach Him winningly and winsomely. Preach Him near and ready to help. Preach Him from the heart to the heart. Preach Him again, and again, and again. Until the day dawn and the shadows flee away.
It seems to me we spend a lot of time obsessing about other people – particularly people who have no direct influence on the pattern of our lives. I can see how we might worry about the people around us – our friends, family, and those to whom we are accountable – but I am talking about the massive amount of energy we invest in people whose orbits are completely disconnected from ours and for whom we have no chance of influence.
Okay, I suppose there is some sense in which the big influence leaders in our nation – the politicians and financiers do have their impact on us and that there is some sense in which our concerns can be reflected back upon them as part of some larger body of opinion, but I think this might be over-rated or out of proportion to the interest we give it.
Let’s be honest with ourselves. There is little way by which Barack Obama, Payton Manning, Tim Cook, or Justin Bieber are going to care beans about my personal opinion related to their performance, except perhaps in some big-picture collective customer-survey sort of way. For that matter, even if they did care about I thought, and even if they responded fruitfully to all of my suggestions, their response would have very little direct impact on the living of my life. Well maybe the President to a degree, but without discounting the importance of federal politics, most of the things we obsess about on the front pages of our newspapers are only tangentially connected to the normal living of our lives.
As preachers we spend an awful lot of time talking about people who will never sit before us and who will never hear us preach. We rail away against the politicians, the celebrities, the famous and the powerful as if somehow we had the wind to convey our concerns to their attention. But I am fairly certain that Hillary Clinton or George Clooney will never sit as a member of my congregation. So why waste breath talking about or speaking to them.
Here is a novel idea. Why don’t we preach to the people who gather. Why don’t we tailor our messages to the concerns and interests of the local congregation?
Great preaching offers biblical truth to these people in their time and in their context. Biblical truth is timeless, but it only has value as it is applied within a particular context. The context for our preaching is always these people – the people that God has put into our orbit and given us influence with, and for whom we are accountable. I will never have to give much account for the choices made in government. But I will have to answer for the truth I taught these people. If I can be faithful to that, a gospel impact might take root. If those roots run deep enough, they result might grow enough to nurture and to shade those opinion leaders in the public, tangentially perhaps, but more deeply meaningful.
What does God want to say through this text to these people at this time? Answer that, and you will build a faithful sermon.
I recently returned from the annual meetings of the Fellowship of Evangelical Seminary Presidents. This is a remarkable gathering of people committed to the management and development of significant academic institutions all over North America. As with every major institution in the 21st century, whether in business, academics, or the church, the major challenge for leaders has to do with managing change.
Typically, when we think of the institutional leader as a change agent, we are thinking about transformational leadership – leadership that seeks to change the fundamentals of an organization so that it can abruptly and immediately morph. But while the nature of our cultures might seem to require such an approach , the truth is that leading change is almost never so dramatic.
Dan Aleshire, head of The Association of Theological Schools said to us this week that “institutional change is almost always more by accrual than it is by transformation.” This is to follow Ronald Heifetz, who in Leadership Without Easy Answers, suggests that leading change is more about understanding adaptation.
I found this to be encouraging. Whether presidents or preachers, we all feel the pressure to champion some kind of impressive, institution-wide transformation. But such attempts almost always run into opposition from people embedded in the institutional tradition, who will not be convinced of the need for such disruption. Disruptive, instead of adaptive change must always either run past people or run them over. That might not be unreasonable when the situation requires it, or when there are absolutely no other options. But such is very rarely to be the case.
More appropriately, an effective leader will look for incremental objectives that are achievable. A great leader will understand how to put the puzzle together piece by piece, so that the bigger picture change accrues over time. In this way, the changes will run deeper and have greater staying power, while fewer people will be lost along the way.
As I think about the great churches and seminaries that have stayed relevant and meaningful over long periods of time, there is no doubt that transformation has occurred, but this change has been accrued over time, the work of patient leaders who know the times and know the way and who can lead others in the require direction without losing them along the way.
I am on a flight returning home from Boston where I spent the week teaching a group of ThM students at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. There is nothing like a full week of homiletic conversation to stir up my juices for this work of preaching. Working with this eclectic group of students renewed my passion for this great work that we share.
One of my new student friends was preparing to return to Beizhing where he would be teaching hundreds of Chinese preachers how to preach more effectively. Another was preparing to engage student ministers on the campus of a major American university. There were a few freshly-minted young pastors full of promise and optimism about the ministry God was preparing them for. One man was in process of selling his cable media company so that he could devote himself full-time to the gospel. I even had the privilege of working with a couple of Army chaplain, one of which was with Special Operations in the Airborne division. This courageous man will soon be leading the training of hundreds of Army chaplain to preach.
As we worked together these days we gained respect for each other and for the ministries to which we had been called. I was personally humbled by the knowledge that the things I was teaching would be passed along by these students all over the world. Together, we all kindled a fresh appreciation for and passion for the possibilities of our preaching – particularly, integrative preaching.
We spent a good deal of time talking about the difference between merely “good” preaching and what we might call “great” preaching. Greatness as a quality in preaching can seem elusive. While we were able to identify a great number of potential markers of greatness, we settled on the idea that a great sermon is a sermon that changes lives. It has become of obvious to me that through these incredible people, a lot of lives are being changed – a lot of great preaching is going forth.
It is easy sometimes to take the view that preaching is past it’s prime and that it is not particularly well received in contemporary cultures. Yet I keep meeting people like these and I find it impossible to support the pessimism. The gospel persists – it goes forth. People are hearing from God and the Kingdom of God is being established in result. I am just happy to have some small part in the whole thing.
Okay, let’s get one thing straight right off the top. We are subjective beings. In that the postmodernists are correct. We live locked in space and time. We are subject to our point of view, directed by our experience, our education, our parents, personality, and passions. We cannot escape it.
But this is not to say that there is no objective truth, nor does it suggest that we cannot know it. The very fact of our subjectivity requires there be an Object if there is any meaning in the world. Go back to your high school grammar – subjects point to objects. If we are subjects we must be subject to the Object of our existence.
Here is another thing that postmoderns are correct about. Subjects cannot know the object fully and with complete certainty. Subjects can observe, learn, test, and observe, but they can never be sure that they are fully in possession of all the pertinent facts or have not tainted these facts by things we prefer might be so. We can stumble upon the truth by accident. We can discern the truth through scientific observation. We might even be correct, but we can never be certain that we have achieved either.
Of course, there is another way that the subject could know the truth about the object. The object could make itself available to the subject – and this is exactly what has happened. It is, in fact, the nature of the gospel. It is the grounds upon which we find the voice to preach.
Preachers are not so wise to have been able to overcome the limitations of their own subjectivity in and of themselves. Preachers are not any more powerful in that regard than anyone else. Preachers simply have been given access to the Truth by relating to the Object. God is making himself known to his subjects. He has done it through his Word and he does it now through those who preach his Word.
The point is that subjective beings, by definition crave relationship with the Object of their being. Through preaching we can help to make the reconnection.
As a hockey fan, I am encouraged to see that the lockout between the NHL and its players has been settled in time to assure at least a partial season for this year. The experience to this point has been highly frustrating for those of us who care, yet the truth is that this result is exactly what was expected. Anyone with any kind of perspective or experience with this sort of labor disruption knew that there would be brinksmanship and heated rhetoric resulting in a last minute compromise that would be unsatisfying to the purists, but which would allow for the resumption of work and some measure of temporary peace.
Situations like this leave me longing for the Kingdom, that place in God’s economy where negotiations could be managed graciously, without rancour, and with an honest concern for the well being of the other. Personally, I serve in leadership within a five-school consortium. Our success in managing the situation is largely due to what we have called “the agape principle,” a commitment to the idea that what is good for one is good for all – kind of a ‘three musketeers’ approach to seminary leadership that would be foreign to the “billionaires and millionaires” negotiating the NHL lockout.
Typically, our approach is to take a zero-sum approach to negotiation, believing that there is only so much to go around and that whatever we give to one must be taken from the other. The fundamental premise is that both parties must be zealous for their self-interest, knowing that if they do not aggressively work for the protection of their own interest, the other side certainly will.
It reminds me of the old joke where one brother offers his other brother a plate with two pieces of pie. When the second brother chooses the larger piece, the first brother says, “if it was me, I would have chosen the smaller piece.” “What are you complaining about, the other brother said? You got the piece you wanted!”
Of course, this scenario assumes that there is only so much pie. But what if the pie could grow? What if we could adopt an abundance mentality, as described in Stephen Covey’s 12 Habits? Do you remember, for example, the old Jay Leno Doritos telephone commercial where he says, ” Go ahead. Eat all you want. We’ll make more.”
What the hockey negotiators didn’t seem to understand was that by collaborating graciously toward the development of the strongest possible league, they could create something that would allow the pie to grow for everyone, allowing all parties to prosper. A rising tide, as they say, raises all ships.
This kind of attitude, is consistent with the attitudes intended of Kingdom citizens, so it shouldn’t surprise us that this is not our experience today. Like with every experience of dysfunction and malfunction, as a disappointed preacher and hockey fan, I try to let these things develop in me a heathy longing for the kingdom.
It will not always be thus.
Songwriter Brian Doerksen recently tweeted that it was curious that North Americans use the more formal “Merry Christmas” as their seasonal greeting while the British use the more casual “Happy Christmas.” I think we, on this side of the water, got it right this time.
Christmas is a time for “merriment.” It is a time to be joyful. The long dark night of advent expectation is over. It is time for extravagant celebration. It is a time to eat, drink, and be merry.
This merriment is not for the sake of personal indulgence. It is not to drown the sorrow of an otherwise empty existence. It is to rejoice in the fact that hope has been established. It is to utilize the traditions of the season so that we might remember to be grateful – exuberantly appreciative for the fact that we, in Christ, have hope.
It is not surprising that those who do not have this hope might desire to wish a more benign form of address, but for those of us in Christ, let us wish each other and experience together the merriest of Christmases.
Joy to the world. Let earth receive her King!
Merry Christmas, indeed.
Yesterday I said that evil exists and that its antidote is found in the gospel. Today I would like to add a word about compassion.
I remember a line from an old Steve Taylor song, “I just want to stay angry at the evil.” I have resonated with that line over the years as it has become increasingly convenient to find ways to get along with the evil in the world – to tolerate and coexist comfortably with things that are at odds with what is right and true and good.
But while I want to name evil correctly in the world, I also want to be sure to sustain a strong heart of compassion for those who struggle with evil and its consequences, consistent with our understanding of the gospel and its attendant grace.
To say that mental illness, like any illness or dysfunction, derives from an evil root, is not to say that we must not offer compassion to those who are caught up in it. I am not an expert in mental illness, and would not claim to be, but I can affirm that those experiencing such torment require us to respond with love and not with anger. To be compassionate is to be gracious and grace is at the core of the gospel.
I cannot imagine the kind of mental anguish that would drive a person to commit the kind of atrocity that we saw on Friday. I also understand how a well intentioned society can exacerbate such problems through inadequate service and opportunity for care. Even the church (even people like me), can unknowingly create the conditions where people feel a deeper sense of shame than welcome when they come into our midst, and that too is the incidence of evil – our inadvertent evil.
It might seem a little oxymoronic to speak of compassion in the same breath as we speak of a healthy abhorrence of evil, yet such is in the spirit of the gospel. It helps no one to merely mush into the middle. God hates our sin, but he loves us in our sin. To love like this is itself to war against the evil
Yesterday, I made some comments about the Newtown shootings. Among other things, I spoke of how sickness of soul is at the heart of these unspeakable situations. I mentioned how that it is events like these that remind us why we still need preachers. Where else are you going to hear anyone speak of the reality of evil and the answer provided in the gospel?
You certainly aren’t going to hear much of this in media, social or mainstream. Most of what I have heard in the last several hours has focused on mental illness, and while I would not want to discount or disparage the psychological aspects of the killer’s dysfunction, I would say that such explanations are far too simplistic. Chemical imbalances or mental anguish are not the reason for these shootings. Plenty of people experience mental illness without taking guns into schools.
Let us call this what it is. This is evil and evil requires a more than purely physical response. This is a spiritual problem and it is important that we see it as such. The Bible describes life as a struggle between powers. The biblical worldview acknowledges that there is an Evil One who is actively engaged against all things right and pure and good. Evil is expressed as sin, which is far more than simply breaking social prohibitions. Sin, at its core, is a prideful rebellion against truth and righteousness. It is a self-pitying cancer that gives birth to pain and fear and mental suffering. When sin plants its seed it blossoms into every kind of evil, including the kind that we saw yesterday.
At a time like this we need preachers to help lead the conversation. We need people who can help us see the spiritual dimensions. We need preachers who can remind us that the gospel offers a meaningful response. In the gospel we have a means by which God reverses the gravitational pull of evil. In the gospel we realize the grace that says we don’t have to manage for ourselves, but that we can find meaning, truth, and forgiveness in the love of God expressed in Jesus Christ. The gospel is the antidote to evil and our ultimate response to human tragedy. These powers are not equal and evil does not exist entirely unrestrained. The gospel teaches that the day will come when all will be put right as God asserts his authority. But that day is not yet here and for now we must resist the influence of evil.
I understand that people do not always live out the implications of the gospel with integrity or with consistency, but that does not obviate the importance of the claim. In the gospel we have the opportunity to re-orient ourselves so that our internal compass points us true. Preachers understand this, and we need them to help us hear this truthful message.
Yesterday I made some comments about form and function and I turned those comments to the subject of guns and their control. I think it is probably wise to try and restrain the opportunity for evil through a simple thing like restricting access to instruments whose only possible function is to exacerbate the incidence of evil. That would help, as similar measures have helped keep people alive all over the world.
But at the end of the day, the problem we are dealing with has little to do with illness or government policy. The problem is that there is evil among us. The problem is that evil exists. The limiting influence of the gospel is being itself limited by those who want to re-imagine evil as something less dramatic.
But perhaps tomorrow as we gather in our churches, with the memory of eighteen slaughtered children on our minds, we might be better positioned to hear the message of the preacher – that evil exists and that it has to be extinguished. The gospel is that extinguisher. The gospel must be preached.
Marshall McLuhan famously said that “medium is the message.” Among the many implications of this statement is that the form that discourse takes has some influence upon the outcome of this discourse. In other words, the medium matters. Assuming that he is correct, one starts quickly to consider whether and how morality (good/evil) is attached to the medium or the form. We are quick to judge value based upon the message, but if the medium matters, then can we ascribe moral weight to the form of the message as well.
In the study of preaching, this line of argument is used to consider whether certain forms of the sermon can be concerned morally efficient or deficient apart from any consideration of the content of the message. This is not unlike arguments I used to hear from people in authority who tried to suggest that certain forms of music were “of the devil” and incompatible with a holy or God-honoring message. I always took the position that there were no inherently evil forms of music, but that the morality or appropriateness of a particular piece would have to be judged on the merits of its content alone. No doubt certain musical expressions could be judged by the quality of tjeor expression, but that is a different sort of question. The same, I would say, applies to the practice of preaching. There is no particularly holy structure or system for the practice of preaching. The moral proof of the preaching pudding, is as they say, in the eating of it.
I am thinking about these things in response to today’s horrific shootings which killed 27 people, including 18 children. As I was trying to come to terms with this insistent evil, I noticed a tweet from political commentator Glenn Beck who announced that “It is the soul. Not the gun.” In other words, guns were merely the medium and not the message. Moral judgment falls upon the sickness of the shooter’s soul and not, according to Beck, to the fact that he had access to a gun.
You will have to forgive me for using the space to make this point. Perhaps this is my Bob Costas moment, but I think it instructive to apply the same principle we described above. My comments about medium and message would seem to affirm Beck’s statement. To put it in the popular expression, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Theologically, I am in full agreement. Blame for this and for the far too numerous similar events we have seen, falls squarely upon the individual who gave way to the sin in his soul. Further, as Russell Moore said today, we blame the Evil One himself, the Prince of Darkness who is sponsor of all such horror. But that said, I still have to add a caveat to my earlier claims about the medium and the message.
Whether we are talking about songs, sermons, or in this case, shootings, we need to understand that while the medium is only the means of expressing what is in the individual’s heart, certain forms are better suited for certain functions. A traditional expository sermon, is better suited for the communication of doctrinal instruction. A narrative sermon form is going to be more effective in terms of touching the listener’s heart and motivating a change in response. These are not moral judgments. They simply describe the way that tools enable desired actions. It is not out of line to suggest without ascribing any moral value, that guns (form) are particularly suited to the purpose of killing (function).
My point is that if this young man in Connecticut did not have access to automatic weapons, there would be a lot more children in Connecticut having dinner with their families this evening.
And if you are still squirming by my importing of this theme to a space normally dedicated to the practice of biblical preaching, let me add that it is for things like this that we appreciate our call to preach. Preaching may not be as popular as it once was, but I have got to say that the sermon is one of the few places in contemporary society where we still speak seriously about the nature of sin. Where else will we hear today an argument that makes any kind of sense of what happened earlier this morning? It is only in the proclaimed gospel that we find any kind of meaning and any kind of hope for a world so sick as this.
So preach on, my friends. The world needs us more than it knows.
I was recently asked to do a series of brief devotional pieces for a new Bible to be published by Scripture Union. The project is called theStory and is seeking to make the Bible accessible to a new generation of readers. Here is one of the pieces that I wrote in response to the assignment…
Luke 6:12-16 – Eternity is Everything
They say that ‘timing is everything.’ ‘Here today and gone tomorrow,’ the benefits we enjoy today may not endure forever.
The people coming to Jesus were looking for healing. They wanted a better life – a healthier, happier existence. Who doesn’t?
Of course, Jesus does heal them, though his words deny somewhat his actions. ‘Blessed are the poor,’ he says. Blessed are the hungry, the hurting, and the disempowered. Blessed are the ones, he says, who are not healed.
It is not that health and prosperity is not valued. These blessed ones will prosper – their stomachs will be filled. They will be satisfied and honored – they will know joy, just not right now. They will receive all that they are looking for – rewarded one day in heaven, though perhaps not now on earth. Those who receive their reward here on earth are the ones to be pitied – ‘woe to them,’ Jesus says.
Eternity, we learn, is everything.
You can have your rewards now or you can have them later. The rewards we realize today are temporal and fleeting. The rewards we reap in heaven are eternal. The whole of Jesus’ mountainside sermon will continue this refrain – that there are ways of being that are focused on the present and ways of being that are attuned to the eternal. Given that eternity is eternal, it doesn’t seem much of a choice.
To be ‘blessed’ is to be fully and finally satisfied. It seems oxymoronic to say that a hungry person could be sated or that a poor person might in actual fact be rich. It is hard to feel contentment when one is lacking the essentials. But all of this might simply be perspective. In Christ, it is all just a matter of timing. Eternity is everything.
In the Great Giveaway I wrote a chapter entitled “The Myth of Expository Preaching: Why We Must Do More Than Wear Scrolls On Our Foreheads.” I admit I still love that title. It gets across the idea that preaching is much more than presenting “accurate” Biblical information that Christians can “apply” to their lives with the hopes of improving as Christians. This kind of preaching is a mechanical exercise. It puts the hearer in charge “over” the Word, not in submission to the Word under the Lordship of Christ. That’s bad, because when I am in charge of what I’m hearing, transformation rarely happens.
Find the full blogpost here.
I published this several years ago. I think it still holds up!
The primary tool of a preacher is his or her voice. Of course, effective preachers have always understood the added power of a well-chosen visual aid. Jeremiah once hid a linen belt under a rock in order to help his audience visualize the ruin of Judah and the spiritual decay of Jerusalem (Jer. 13). Today’s methods are more technologically advanced, yet they serve much the same purpose.
How it can help: Still image project helps the preacher to focus the attention of listeners on key ideas and propositions. It can assist the preacher in sharpening focus, deepening impact, and enhancing listener retention.
How it can hinder: Building an effective PowerPoint presentation takes a lot of time. For many, the energy taken to develop these presentations comes at the expense of the time that might have been invested in study of the Scriptures. In the end, the preacher might have a pretty presentation without much worth presenting. People are accustomed to viewing professional quality presentations on their televisions and in their workplaces. Few churches are able to come close to matching the people’s expectation without investing huge amounts of time in the process. The answer might be to delegate the task, but this is not as easy as it sounds. Effective presentations require the integration of technical, graphic, and theological acumen. A computer geek might not have a good eye for graphics. A graphic designer might not have the theological insight necessary to know how to actually enhance the sermon. In the end, the preacher may decide that it is easier to do it alone at the expense of other aspects of sermon development.
How to use it well: Despite the challenges, still image projection is likely to grow in use. Preachers can make it work for them if they pay attention to a few basic concepts:
Start with the Sermon: The best way to build a great PowerPoint presentation is to have great material. Garbage on the page will be garbage on the screen. A good presentation starts with a good sermon, clearly conceived and carefully constructed. The first thing is to make sure the preacher has a clear grasp of the big idea of the sermon. PowerPoint will expose any fuzziness in sermon design so the words have to be sharp. Theme statements ought to be short (12 words or less), simple (no conjunctions), declarative statements (not phrases) that can actually be spoken by the preacher. The heading for this paragraph, “Start with the sermon” is an example of the kind of focused wording that will communicate on screen.
Create Visual Metaphors: Preachers need to use fewer words and more visual metaphors in their PowerPoint presentations. Slides should highlight words or phrases, rather than offering a point-by-point breakdown of the sermon. The visual presentation ought to reinforce the point rather than duplicating it. Images come from a variety of sources. Some images can be found online for free. Other fee-for-service websites like photos.com or worshipphotos.com can be helpful. Some preachers will take their own digital photos in order to get just the right image. Remember that PowerPoint is the software that allows you to present the image. The best slides are often created using Adobe Photo Elements (the cheaper version of Photoshop) or some other image production software that allows the designer to creatively merge words with images in ways that communicate an overall concept. The completed image can then be imported into PowerPoint.
Less is More: Like a child with a new toy, preachers initially want to make use of all the bells, beeps, and transitions the technology offers. Wise preachers understand that more is not necessarily better. Simple images and constructions are almost always stronger. As a general rule of thumb, 25 words on a single slide might be a maximum, and 12-15 slides in a presentation might be an outside limit. For further hints on slide construction, check the information and links found at powerpointers.com.
Aim to be Seen: All our efforts will not be worth much if the slides cannot be seen. Try sitting in the back row with a normal Sunday morning light array and ask how easily the screen can be read. Font sizes of less than 28 points might be difficult for some to read. Generally, white fonts against dark backgrounds read well. Colors ought to contrast without clashing. Sometimes, the technology itself causes a problem. A weak projector that offers images too dull to be seen from the back row will frustrate more than it will help. If you’re going to spend the money, spend enough money. 1800 lumens might be a minimum standard for a small church building.
Team Up: Few preachers bring expertise in homiletics, theology, computer technology, and graphic design. A team approach, however, could bring all of these together. Rather than seeing this as a burden, preachers could see this as an opportunity for collaborating on sermon development. The design team could serve as a kind of sermon consulting group, giving the preacher helpful feedback on the sermon while the cement is still wet.
Throughout the sermon, the preacher needs to retain the focus of the listener. The technology must always be in the service of the human event that is the sermon. Preachers don’t have to ignore the screen, for instance. Referring to the image, pointing at the screen, and reading from the screen, can help to keep the listener focused on the human preacher while still making use of the projected image. Remember that the screen does not always have to be illuminated. It may, in fact, enhance the dramatic flow of the presentation to have the screen darken at a strategic moment, when the preacher is calling for response, for instance.
Computer projection units also offer the preacher opportunity to show motion picture clips, either those prepared in-house, or taken from popular movies and other public sources.
How it can help: The use of video allows the preacher to connect with listeners on their own terms. Video is the language of contemporary culture in just about any part of the world. Not only does it add variety, color, and motion to the preaching experience, it shows that the preacher is relevant and in-touch with the culture. Inexpensive access to digital video cameras and editing software allows churches to customize sermons with locally produced “on the street” interviews, dramatizations, and music-video style enhancements. Such approaches allow the preacher to involve people in the process of putting truth into the context of life. Digital video cameras can now be found for less than $400. Simple video editing packages start at less than $100. Apple Computers bundle iMovie, a simple, intuitive, editing package, with their computers for free.
How it can hinder: A video clip is a kind of super-charged sermon illustration, subject to all of the strengths and weaknesses of such illustrations and then some. Video can eat precious time and interrupt carefully designed sermon flow. Further, a video clip creates a world for the listener to inhabit. Many times that world is more compelling than the world of the sermon itself. Listeners can get lost there, losing touch with the actual intent of the sermon itself. Preachers need to be particularly careful with clips taken from movies which can be seen to give license to listeners to view things that might be substantially less than the pure and lovely things of good report that Paul describes in Philippians 4:8.
How to use it well: Preachers who want to make good use of video would do well to keep a few simple principles in mind.
Keep it Legal: Copyright issues must be respected. Using clips taken from copyrighted motion pictures without consent of the rights holder is theft. Gaining consent usually requires paying a fee. Blanket licenses can be obtained. Whatever the fee, it will not equal the cost of a preacher’s integrity.
Keep it Short: Using a movie clip often requires some kind of contextual “set up.” If the clip requires too much explanation, it probably isn’t worth using. A clip of more than two or three minutes (10 percent of the sermon duration) is probably as long as can be sustained without damaging the sermon itself. Shorter is always better.
Keep it Flowing: Transitions are critical. Video does not do well as a stand-alone piece in worship or in sermons. In most cases, it might be best to use the video clip as a lead-in to the sermon or as a post sermon piece. Either way, videos need to fit the flow of the overall worship experience or they could be more trouble than they are worth.
Keep it Clean: Remember that showing a movie clip in church is equivalent to offering a blanket recommendation for the whole movie. The clip the preacher shows might be clean, but what about that graphic sex scene forty-five minutes later in the movie? If a preacher can’t recommend the whole movie, then he or she should not use it at all.
Still and video projection are only two of the more contemporary uses of visual enhancement in preaching. While perhaps not as trendy, a good old-fashioned object lesson still has power. Using real human beings in the sermon is another low-tech way of enhancing the sermon experience. Either through using brief dramatic sketches or through personal testimony or interview, the preacher can use the experience of real people to humanize, contextualize, deepen, and accredit the ideas the sermon presents.
Visuals are valuable, but they should be used with the confidence that the greatest visual effect inherent to preaching is the image of the preacher standing and delivering. Preachers are going to have difficulty competing with Hollywood or with the multi-media found on cable. But no one excels the preacher in terms of standing up and speaking. It might be worth asking whether the preacher actually needs technological reinforcement. The strength of preaching is that a human being, having heard from God, helps others hear the same. The energy and passion of such a preacher might be visual stimulation enough.
1. Rom. 8:38-39 – For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
2. Rom. 11:33, 36 – Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
3. Rom. 15:5-6 – May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
4. Rom. 15:13 – May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.
5. 1 Cor. 15:58 – Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
6. 2 Cor. 13:11 – Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.
7. 2 Cor. 13:14 – The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
8. Gal. 6:18 – The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen.
9. Eph. 3:17-19 – (May) Christ dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
10. Eph. 3:20-21 – Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
11. Eph. 6:23-24 – Peace be to the brothers, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible.
12. Phil. 4:7 – (May) the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
13. Col. 3:15 – And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.
14. Col. 3:16-17 – Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
15. 1 Th. 3:12-13 – May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
16. 1 Th. 5:23-24 – Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.
17. 2 Th. 2:16-17 – Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.
18. 1 Tim. 1:17 – To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
19. 1 Tim. 6:15b-16 – He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.
20. Philem. 25 – The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
21. Heb. 13:20-21 – Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
22. 2 Pet. 3:18 – (May you) grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.
23. 2 John 3 – Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love.
24. Jude 24-25 – Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.
25. Rev. 1:5b-6 – To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
26. Rev. 5:12, 13 – Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing! …To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!
27. Rev. 7:12 – Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.
28. Rev. 22:20-21 – He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.
Engage the listener with a problem:
Sometimes I don’t get Jesus. I mean I love Jesus, but sometimes I don’t understand him. Like here, in the early chapters of the gospel of Mark, Jesus has been healing people, blessing people, astonishing people – I love this about Jesus. The people are responding to him, his ministry is growing, to borrow a phrase from Malcolm Gladwell, Jesus has reached his “tipping point.” All he has to do is push it just a a little bit further and he would have the whole world at his feet. It seems a strange time to go to the lake.
That’s the thing with Jesus, just when things really start to get going he seems to undercut his own momentum. Just when things are really heating up, he goes on retreat. Just when people really want to hear what he has to say, he puts out a gag order. Just when people are really starting to buy into who he is, he downloads the authority to his lower level people. It’s like he is doing everything he can to subvert his authority.
Instruct the listener with an idea:
It is all about authority, after all, not just celebrity, and not even just power. Who has authority over disciples, over disease, over demons? For Jesus there was no question. The demons understood – “You are the Son of God,” they said, which was the same message that Jesus authorized the disciples to go out preaching. Jesus wasn’t engaged in a desperate attempt to assert his authority. Jesus wasn’t worried about attracting crowds. Jesus wasn’t trying to show his authority through his dynamism. Jesus was displaying his authority through his discipline. Authority is shown through discipline.
Jesus was playing a deeper game, exercising authority through self-limitation – the same authority that brought him down to us from heaven. Jesus didn’t need a trumpet. Jesus used a towel. Jesus didn’t need a crowd. Jesus used a cross. Jesus wasn’t not concerned about reaching a tipping point. Jesus had his own agenda – his own timeline – and he would see it done. Jesus came with authority – a disciplined plan that would not be thwarted either by our opposition or by our enthusiasm. He didn’t have to prove himself. He was too busy working out his plan.
Convict the listener with a picture:
Imagine Jesus on that boat. Does he look worried to you? You would think he ought to be. He has just entrusted a motley crew of fickle men who have very little chance of holding the crowd. You can already see them going home – many of them disappointed – many of them confused. This is not what they expected. This is not what they were used to. But Jesus doesn’t seem concerned as he rests out there on the water. He has a plan and this is not the time. The time will come, and when it does, all heaven and earth will shake before its consequence, but for now its time to rest. For now its time to wait.
Could we wait with him? Could you trust him for the moment? I know how hard it is to wait of the Lord – to trust that he has it all in hand – that there is an end game and that it is certain. That’s why we call it faith. Faith is believing in a future that looks different than what we see today. It is investing in that future day after day – making the counter-intuitive moves – the moves consistent with the gospel that don’t always seem to be the most productive, given the contours of our culture. It takes discipline. It takes patience. It took discipline for Jesus to stay out there on his boat. If we have confidence in his authority, we can join him in that discipline.
Inspire the listener with a story:
There are leadership lessons we could take from this text – the easy pickings that don’t quite get it. When things get crazy – head to the lake. When the rhetoric gets overheated, control the message. When you can’t handle everything yourself – empower others. There is a certain sense to it, but to boil this whole thing down to these moralistic applications is to really miss the point.
By 1948, Billy Graham’s reputation as an evangelist had begun to grow, but Billy and his team were worried about the challenge of celebrity. They met together in a motel room in Modesto, California to describe a set of disciplines that would help them stay faithful and to have integrity. Some said that the principles they determined, such as publishing all of their financial records, and supporting the local church leadership was at best unnecessary, and at worst, created a drag on their ability to move their ministry forward. But the “Modesto Manifesto” as it came to be known proved to be the thing that kept Billy Graham and his team rooted in their calling under the authority of Jesus.
Discipline does not serve its own sake. But when the authority of Jesus shows itself in discipline, consistent with our calling and in service to our Lord, the Kingdom goes forth and the gates of hell cannot stand against it.
It is always a lot easier to make our points when we set them up against false or stereotyped caricatures. We really don’t like it when people do this against us, so it is hardly fair that we might try the same game with others.
Russell Moore makes this point in an article in Christianity Today, asking “What Can We Learn About Preaching from Parks and Recreation.” He speaks in reference to last week’s episode of the popular NBC situation comedy which took a position against abstinence education. I saw the show, and would agree with Moore that this episode was not particularly funny, largely because it seemed more interested in pursuing an agenda than making the audience laugh. Moore suggests that the point was rather bluntly made primarily by setting up a caricature of two Christian activists, whose evident stupidity and foolishness made the anti-abstinence view seem self-evident.
Like Moore, I am not particularly surprised or exercised by this. It is what I have come to expect. Moore’s concern – and mine – is to ask how often we pull the same kind of trick in our own preaching – making our arguments seem evident, by positioning them against straw men caricatures.
“It is easy to preach in a way that, like Parks and Rec, simply seeks to reinforce the assumptions of those who already agree with us. We can rail against people who aren’t in the room, or at least that we don’t think are in the room, simply to get the “Amen” from our people. We can caricature our detractors’ positions in the grossest terms, in order to help reassure ourselves that those who oppose us out there are stupid or peculiarly wicked. But that’s not preaching.”
There is a sense that everyone in Parks and Recreation is a caricature which is why the situation comedy format is not particularly useful as a mode of preaching. Conversely, preaching is not particularly useful as a form of humour – which is fine, of course. We are not comedians. We also believe in the power of the gospel. If the gospel is as powerful as we claim it is, we should not need to force it by creating false dichotomies.
I could suggest that we take things in the opposite direction, seeking to real-ize our propositions as much as possible. Rather than belittling the other point of few, we should take the opposing side seriously, representing alternative approaches honestly and realistically so that people take us seriously in return. We don’t have to protect the Scriptures, making it easier for them by pitting our biblical propositions against weak opposition, like an aging prize-fighter scheduling washed-up competition so as to pad his record.
The gospel we preach is true. Pursuing truthfulness not only in the content of our preaching but in our manner also is consistent. It is also powerful.
This week I am attending the annual meetings of the Evangelical Homiletics Society where the subject is “multi-ethnic preaching.” The keynote speaker is Bryan Lorritts from Memphis, Tennessee. I have deeply appreciated his emphasis upon the importance of displaying the diversity that is the Kingdom in our churches. He has much to say about the ways by which we can encourage a greater integration around the gospel.
One of the complexities I have been noticing as I listen is how different my experience is on the west coast of Canada from what it is in places like the American south. In Memphis, multi-ethnicity is about the challenge of integrating long-entrenched cultures – black, white, and Hispanic primarily. Where I come from, the challenge is very different.
My part of the continent is one of the most diverse places on the planet, but the variety of cultures we experience are not well entrenched. Most of the diversity in our part of the world is the result of recent immigration, primarily from places like China, India, Korea, and Pakistan. Segregation, in these cases has to do with the natural desire of the immigrant to band together with others of a similar background and experience.
The difference, between these cases has to do with the experience of the second generation. Where I come from, one of the most hopeful things is the way by which the second and third generations seem to be able to integrate fully with people of a variety of ethnicities. I don’t want to say that they are color-blind, but many others have. While this is not a specifically Christian phenomena, the good news is that we are not seeing a strong entrenchment of culture distinctiveness beyond the first generation.
What I am thinking is that given the freshness of our experience of diversity, we have a unique opportunity to create diverse congregations among the second and third generations, before they become entrenched. This kind of “multi-ethnicity” might require an even different array of considerations than what we have so-far managed. Perhaps there are cultural approaches that transcend ethnicity.
For example, Lorritts described his experience visiting Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City. Tim Keller and his team has been effective in developing a multi-ethnic congregation which is, conversely, largely mono-cultural. That is to say that while the people come from a variety of ethnic experiences in their backgrounds, they are largely united in terms of their youthfulness, their urban-ness, often their singleness, and their interest in a highly cognitive presentation.
When that is the case, I wonder whether we are as diverse as we might think. It is natural for people to gravitate toward people they are comfortable with regardless of their ethnicity. But if we truly want to represent the Kingdom, we will figure out how to transcend all of these distinctives. In other words, maybe the Kingdom would be most fully represented when we have those second and third generation people of every ethnicity integrated with the older folks of every background. Maybe we need a whole array af multi-interests – multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-generational and more.
Clearly we still have some work to do.
Moralism is one of the easiest traps for a preacher to fall into. In our attempts to challenge our listeners and to affect change in their lives, it is simpler to pick the low-hanging fruit – pray more; read the Bible more; be more faithful; be a better Christian. Of course, there is nothing wrong with these encouragements, but when such things are not rooted in the person and work of Christ, they come off as attempts to try and win God’s favour by our hard work instead of by the grace that God commends. I love this quotation of Tim Keller…
In nearly every text of Scripture a moral principle can be found, shown through the character of God or Christ, displayed in the good or bad examples of characters in the text, or provided as explicit commands, promises, and warnings. This moral principle is important and must be distilled clearly. But then a crisis is created in the hearers as they understand that this moral principle creates insurmountable problems. I describe in my sermons how this practical and moral obligation is impossible to meet. The hearers are led to a seemingly dead end, but then a hidden door opens and light comes in. Our sermons must show how the person and work of Jesus Christ bears on the subject. First we show how our inability to live as we ought stems from our forgetting or rejecting the work of Christ. Then we show that only by repenting and rejoicing in Christ can we then live, as we know we ought.
We preach Christ. That is our calling. That is our task. That is also, the key to our effectiveness in producing the results God has in mind for us and for our listeners.
We all want to be motivating and inspirational in our preaching. A big part of the preacher’s task is helping people get past the natural inertia that keeps them locked into unhealthy and unhelpful patterns of life. Our calling is to encourage meaningful responses to the Word of God that result in positive changes in keeping with the things God expects of us. It helps if we can be compelling.
That said, it’s not hard to move from a motivating tone to one that’s more coercive. Perhaps we swell the music or just slightly dim the lights. We might push the point a little harder than what seems natural or fitting. None of it is wrong exactly or definitively out of bounds. But taken together, it can leave the listener little choice as to his or response.
And that’s where we’ve crossed the line. Motivation becomes manipulation when we’ve limited the listener’s capacity to choose how she or he will answer to what it is they are hearing. When the mood or the message is constructed such that the listener is left without option, we have become manipulative.
Preachers manipulate by magnifying guilt, pressing fear, or hyping an idea beyond what it was built to bear. In each case, the listener is emotively pushed beyond what would be reasonable or what the listener would normally choose for him or herself.
Let me be clear: the end does not justify the manipulative means. Preachers are accountable to God, for what they have to say and for how they have to say it, more than for the results that they produce. I would rather stand before God’s judgment on a record of faithful communication than on the basis of great numbers of manipulated responses. That is a line I never want to cross.
I found Jonathan Martin’s post over at SermonCentral on what we can learn about preaching from Bill Clinton to be quite interesting. Without getting into the political substance of Clinton’s recent comments at the Democratic National Convention, Martin makes the point that Clinton’s willingness to engage substantive discourse sets him apart from other politicians – and preachers – most of whom seem to be content with the “sound bite” approach. He writes,
“What makes contemporary politics so insulting to me right now is the shameless parade of sound bites. Both sides do it all the time. Politics have become reduced to sentimentality. You say the right word to the right crowd (“Jesus,” “the wealthy,” “the poor,” “the middle class,” “values,”), and nobody cares about whether or not there is an agenda or a plan—they respond emotionally to the words. In political conventions in particular, when folks are playing largely to their party base, real content is conspicuously absent. We have never been dumber. We are accustomed to being talked down to, we are used to being patronized. So it is honestly surprising these days when anybody attempts to engage us with anything like actual ideas.
And while I’m sad to say it, this is just as true about preaching in this day and age. We preachers, like everybody else, largely play to the lowest common denominator. Preachers speak in buzzwords and sound bites. Preachers don’t talk to people as if they are intelligent.
This is getting worse, not better, because most people don’t care and aren’t going to know the difference. In a culture that values style over substance, you can get a sermon to go over just fine without challenging a congregation. We are far past the days when preachers were prophets who paint an alternative vision of the world. We are not expected to be visionaries, but mere marketing experts. We don’t have enough “prophetic imagination” (in Brueggemann’s phrase), or for that matter, real content to actually shape culture.”
This is quite an indictment, if true, of preachers particularly. I am not going to argue that it is. I am not convinced the general trend in preaching is toward a truncated, dumbed down preaching. In fact, I think I’ve seen the trend move in the other direction in recent years. It seems to me that preachers are engaging more substantive discussion recently, as more and more of us seek to understand how our communication of the gospel can be more transformative for our listeners. Where we struggle is in our attempts to make this truth engaging for our listeners.
That, of course, is where Bill Clinton shines. The man personifies “folksy.” He is charming, entertaining, and knows how to describe complicated ideas in ways that make sense to people. The fact that he often plays fast and loose with the truth notwithstanding, Clinton shows us how an engaging personality can communicate complicated ideas with winsomeness and appeal.
It takes a long time to cultivate this kind of thing, and most of us will never get to his level. That said, we all could stand to be more welcoming in our manner of talking to our people. Learning how to love the people would be a good start. Finding ways to let that affection out in our speaking would be welcome.
Given that our content beats Clinton’s all to pieces, we might be able to be a lot more hopeful about the preaching that we offer.
Once again, I am looking forward to attending the meetings of the Evangelical Homiletics Society taking place October 11-13, held this year at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. For full details please go to www.ehomiletics.com.
This is a tremendous event that brings together most of the leading evangelical homileticians in North America to discuss the work of biblical preaching. Many of the ideas that end up getting published, taught in our classrooms, and ultimately lived out in pulpits and on platforms across North America find their beginnings in conversation at EHS.
This year, the focus of the conference is on Multi-Cultural Preaching. Increasingly, we are all experiencing greater diversity within our congregations. This is a very good thing, but it is also a deeply challenging thing, demanding that preachers give greater attention to the ways that culture affects their preaching. Homileticians have always understood that along with making sure that we get the truth right, we also have to concern ourselves with the way by which we get the right truth heard. Of course, how truth gets heard depends largely on how truth gets told. The telling of truth as an exercise in persuasive communication requires a fluency with language and culture and that is where things get difficult.
I remember attending a church in south London, that featured more than 30 nations among its 250 people. When the congregation offers that much diversity, how can we have any confidence that the truth we teach is being heard the same by all? There is a sense in which the gospel announces its own culture. At what point does the shaping of truth to fit cultural norms end up distorting the truth, in essence re-enforcing culture instead of countering culture?
These are questions I will be thinking about as I travel to New Orleans. In weeks to come I hope to report on some of the findings from this conference, sharing some of the insights presented by my colleagues. Homiletics tends toward a uniformity of practice in preaching – in pursuit of best practices. Consideration of culture, however, might lead us to reflect in our preaching some of the diversity that makes God’s Kingdom beautiful.