Privilege the Text – Abraham Kuruvilla

privilegeKuruvilla, Abraham. Privilege the Text!: A Theological Hermeneutic for Preaching. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 2013.

Too often homiletics assumes hermeneutics. In our pursuit of an effective practice of preaching, we too often neglect the prior concern for accurate exegesis. It will not be helpful for us to communicate well, if the content of our communication is poorly founded.

It is to this concern that Abraham Kuruvilla has focused himself. More than just a book about interpretation, his is a study of an approach to hermeneutics that is theologically tuned to the specific task and interest of the preacher. In this he is filling a significant felt need. Kuruvilla quotes David Buttrick, who said, “The odd idea that preachers can move from text to sermon without recourse to theology by some exegetical magic or leap of homiletic imagination is obvious nonsense (p.90).” Kuruvilla wants to offer this theological move so that preachers can more readily move across the gap from the study of the text to the preaching of it.

Haddon Robinson is famous for asking the subject/complement question. The subject provides “what the text is talking about.” The complement adds “what the text is saying about what it is talking about.” Kuruvilla’s contribution takes things further, asking “what the text is doing with what it is saying” (about what it is talking about). This, he suggests takes things to a deeper, theological level that assumes both the intention and activity of God. God is doing things through his Word, and preaching that looks for this intention will lead the listener to responses that are congruent with God’s own action.

This approach offers a future-directedness to preaching, which means that preachers will need to look for a “trans-historical intention – a conceptual entity projected by the text that carries its thrust beyond the immediate time-space circumstances of the writing… (44).” In fact, Kuruvilla describes three “facets of meaning” – the original textual sense, the trans-historical intention, and the exemplification. He also offers two facets of application: exemplification (overlapping the two categories), and significance. He gives the following example: “no drunkenness with wine” might be the original textual sense; “no drunkenness with alcohol” would be the trans-historical intention, “no drunkenness with vodka” would be the exemplification, “cancel subscription to Wine Spectator” might be an example of a significant application (64).

Kuruvilla’s “trans-historical intention” sounds a lot like the “principlizing” championed by Walter Kaiser and others. Kuruvilla, however sees a distinction. “There is … the tacit assumption in principlizing that, once one distinguishes those elements in the text that are not time – or culture – bound, these unconstrained principles are more valuable than the text itself.” He takes direct issue with Kaiser who according to Kuruvilla, “thinks that cultural issues ‘intrude’ on the text (128).” For Kuruvilla, this is an example of what Fred Craddock described as “boiling off all the water and then preaching the stain at the bottom of the cup (128).”

Preaching, according to Kuruvilla is more pragmatic than this. “Application,” he says, “is the alignment of God’s people to God’s demand (135).” It is the divine demand that drives everything for Kuruvilla’s hermeneutic and for his preaching also. A great example of this is found in his approach to the preaching of the law. “The fundamental change between the old and new covenants, then, is not a change in law or divine demand: that remains the same always. Rather, the newness is in the Spirit-aided means of keeping divine demand, and empowerment available to every believer in this dispensation as a consequence of the work of Christ (171).” So, for example, Christians, by attending to the theology of the legal text, can obey by doing what they would have been expected to do if those laws were given in this contemporary day (186).”

Perhaps the most controversial part of Kuruvilla’s book is the challenge that he offers to the redemptive-historical approach to gospel preaching. He particularly challenges Bryan Chapell’s “fallen-condition focus” approach, which in Kuruvilla’s mind, reduces every text to the same basic message. In contrast, he offers a “Christiconic” approach which respects the integrity of OT pericopes, seeking to discover what their authors were doing with what they were saying. “What the author is doing with what he is saying points to what aspect of each character is exemplary and what is not, i.e., what is Christlike and what is not. In other words, the protagonist of all Scripture is actually Jesus Christ (266).”

This is a challenging book, both in terms of its reading level, but also for its content. Before we ever think about how we preach, we need to sort out what we are going to preach. For that, Kuruvilla is instructive.

The Sermon Outline

I have been reading Tim Keller’s excellent new book, Preaching: Communicating Faith in the Age of Skepticism. I would commend the book for many things, but I was particularly stimulated by the footnotes, where Keller displays the depth of his thinking on a number of themes.

kellerI was interested in his comments on the use of the sermon outline which he suggests is inescapable. Following an extended discussion regarding a number of mainline homileticians like Fred Craddock, Eugene Lowry, and David Buttrick, Keller says, “The mainline writers do not really escape the need for an outline.” Whether we call these things “moves” like Buttrick, or shaped as narrative, like Lowry would champion, there is still a progressive linear structure and that, Keller believes, is essentially an outline (Preaching, 308-09). Of course reading earlier in the appendix of the book where Keller writes about the “how” of sermon-building, his approach to developing such an outline reverts to the classic advice about “unity, proportion, and order” (224).

I like what Keller has to say about outlining. His advice is helpful as it applies to propositional, instructional forms of the sermon. But his advice is less helpful if it is our concern to create a sermon that works more as a story or as a hymn – both of which (among others) are legitimate forms both of Scripture and of sermons.

I deeply appreciated Keller’s insistence that preaching must move both upon the mind and upon the will. He was particularly discerning in his encouragement to understand the biblical word: heart (kardia) as reflecting both cognitive understanding as well as affective motivation. I loved his material on developing a sense of wonder and imagination as we present the beauty of the gospel – the beauty of Christ (162).

So why the insistence on the classic outline with proportional points each offering an explanation instead of a display of truth? Could not a sermon be plotted instead of outlined and still be faithful? Could it not be sung? Truth must be known, but as Keller rightly noted (166ff), it must be known by heart.

A Well Turned Phrase

A word fitly spoken offers more than meets the ear.public speaking

In my efforts to encourage an accessible and compelling conversational style in preaching, I sometimes fear that I have not given adequate consideration to the value of a well turned phrase. Particularly, in my efforts to speak extemporaneously I have sometimes sacrificed precision for the sake of presence, and while I would certainly default toward communicating accessibly, I can forget that taking care with one’s expressions can also create access to truth for listeners through a more exact description of the things we have in mind.

Of course, extemporaneous preaching allows for well prepared content to find its expression in the orality of a given moment. This is its power, that the message is not stale, but alive in the moment of its expression. To memorize a sermon for oral presentation is not the same as to “preach by ear” (see Dave McClellan). Memorization gives rise to recitation which is likely to be just as stale as something that is read aloud to listeners.

This is not to say, however, that we should crab and memorize nothing of our sermons. Actually, a few well-placed, well-turned phrases, will be especially potent within the larger context of an extemporaneous sermon.

For example, in a recent sermon on Mark 10, I said that “In the inverted Kingdom, the first will be last and the last will be first, those who lose everything will gain the whole world, as those who are the least of these will end up the greatest of all.”

That one was worth memorizing and when I said it in the sermon, it rolled smoothly of the tongue. The statement was significant for the sermon and it stood out because of its crafting against thee more organic expressions offered throughout the sermon. Thinking about the rhythm of a statement, how it sounds as well as what it says is also a thing we need to think about.

Obviously the sermon theme statement would be important to craft, as well perhaps, as the sermon’s opening and closing lines. These are the structural pieces which can make or break your sermons.

We need to polish words so that they shine. Not all of them, probably, but some of them. A phrase turned out with care, is a phrase that is worthy to be shared.

The Reprise

One very effective approach to preaching is what I call the “reprise.” This is where we introduce some piece of distinctive material early in the sermon while bringing it back later for a deepened and renewed consideration.returnarrow

It is this deepening that makes the reprise effective. I remember being criticized as a homiletics student for a sermon that seemed circular to the professor, given that my closing story seemed to repeat the material offered in the introduction. If that was the effect, then the critique was appropriate.

Sermons need to move. They need to take us from where we are to where we need to be. For this reason, any re-presentation of material at a later point in the sermon must take the listener to a deeper consideration or impact. The effect of the reprise is in its maturation.

For example, a story told early in the sermon could be used to raise a vexing question or to create a sense of unsettledness which could be answered later in the sermon. In order for this to happen, the secondary telling will need to benefit from the information offered and developed in the sermon body. The story raises a question which is managed through exposition such that the later use of the story offers a settled sense of truth, insight, and motivation.

Sometimes a reprise can offer a welcome element of surprise. The story or question can yield an unexpected twist or resolution. The wise preacher will sometimes hold back a critical piece for utilization later on. Using that piece later can be like inserting a key that opens the door to the insight at just the right time.

This approach benefits from effective management of the sermon duration. The preacher develops a kind of pent-up demand for resolution. By delaying insight, the listener’s hunger and sense of receptivity is helpfully increased.

Comedians know the power of this sort of thing. The humour in a story is all in the shaping of the material. Jerry Seinfeld’s subject matter is decidedly pedestrian. It is in his knack for this delayed gratification that makes his stories funny.

Laughter, of course, is not our objective. Impact is. The truth is, I have never forgotten the critique offered by my Homiletics prof so many years ago. I suspect that I might have been overly zealous in my self-defence, which probably did not endear me to my teacher. Now, as a professor of homiletics myself, I have more respect for what he told me. Reprise is only useful if it moves me to a deeper learning.

See what I did there?

Half as Much is Twice as Good

I heard an expression recently that has stuck with me. “Half as much is twice as good.” It was offered with respect to public speaking, but I think it applies to preaching in general.scissors

As a preacher and public speaker, I always find that I have more to say than time allotted. It is normal. There is never enough time to say everything that could be said, which begs the question as to whether what I feel ought to be said is actually necessary. If I cut the time, I would be forced to consider what absolutely must be said. I would only say the worthy things. Half as much is twice as good.

I was re-thinking my social media intake this morning. Media is insatiable. There is always more and it is always interesting. But is it necessary? Certainly, it is important to me to be in touch with the culture. Social media intake is good for my preaching and my general usefulness in life, but the amount of time I spend on it might be inhibiting more important things I could be doing. This morning, after I spent an hour reading blogs, my wife asked me what I had learned. I couldn’t answer her. Clearly less intake and more analysis might be a good thing. Half as much is twice as good.

The same might be true of sermon research. Research is good. I highly recommend it. Making sure that you understand your text correctly and know the history of thought with respect to your theme is absolutely critical to the  effectiveness of your sermon. But a person can get lost in this. It is hard to articulate exactly where the line between too much and too little can be found, but you would probably know it if you were looking for it. Too much time in research means too little time appointed to prayer and assimilation of the sermon.

And of course when it comes to the time it takes us to deliver our sermons, does any listener doubt that we could be twice as effective if we took half as much time? Our people might rise up and call us blessed. I know that we can all point to mega-church heroes who preach for an hour. Then there are the great preachers from the history of the church known for their two and three hour sermons. Of course, they did not have to contend with the shortened attention spans that contemporary media has spawned.

I have no doubt that it is possible to preach long, yet compelling sermons. I have been known to do it from time to time myself. However, if I were to look closely at the sermons that I have preached, I almost never lament the fact that they were not long enough. Invariably, I can identify material that would have enhanced the sermon by its absence. Maybe not half as much, but certainly less would usually be in order.

I couldn’t give vouch for the math on this, whether the calculus is exact. It is more of general and inexact principle. Whether relating to the size of our food portions or the length of a blog post, half as much is often twice is good. In principle, it might even help our preaching.

Preaching as Leadership

We occasionally hear preaching about leadership. I would like to suggest something more fundamental: that preaching itself is an act of leadership. leadership

Certainly preachers have greater opportunity to act as leaders given that they stand in front of crowds with the intent to encourage prescribed actions. This is what leaders do. If you want to lead people, you are probably going to need to articulate your expectations publicly. This is what preachers do. But preaching as leadership is more profound than even this.

Here is what preachers do. They go to the Bible with the intent to hear from God. Having heard from God, they then proceed to share what they have heard so that listeners might similarly hear. The best preachers, are not content to simply offer the message they have heard second-hand. The best preachers work to lead the listeners to the place where their experience of hearing is replicated for the listeners – that they are led to hear for themselves.

This is not unlike what happens when we take people on a tour, perhaps of our home city. We are familiar with the city. It is after all our home. When a visitor comes, we may take them around to the sights, helping them save time and trouble by showing them the best and most compelling places in the most advantageous way. This is called leading someone.

Preachers do exactly the same thing. Preachers are presumably more experienced in their message than are their listeners. They have had the advantage of a head start. They have been to these places before, so now they have the opportunity to lead others to those same places, helping them in the most advantageous way to experience the intended impact.

Leaders are visionary people. They can see further than others, because of their experience, and perhaps because of their courage. Going somewhere first does require courage, which is why we respect our leaders. We will not follow a leader we do not respect, who has not proven his or her capacity to lead us to good and productive places.

Preachers, for this reason, deserve our respect. They have courageously gone there first and they are gracious enough to take others with them to see and hear what they themselves have seen and heard. Leadership is a generous thing. It is not content to keep its discoveries to itself. Preaching, likewise offers this same open-handedness.

We are less likely in these days to see this heroic aspect of preaching, perhaps in part because preachers have become less likely to understand their role as leaders. If preaching plays safe, going only to the expected, comfortable places, we should not be surprised if people find our leadership less compelling.

Preaching is leadership. Preachers who resist their role as leaders are doing something less than what preaching is.

Is Good Enough Enough?

I hear a lot of decent sermons. I am talking about sermons that will keep a pastor from getting fired. These are sermons that give the listener just enough to keep people satisfied without giving them enough to change their lives. Is good enough enough?darkpr

Probably not. We preach because we are called to preach – called by God, no less, which ought suggest a higher standard. We do not preach to hold our jobs. We preach to see the Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. Good enough for God is very good, more good than what we usually satisfy ourselves with.

Okay, this is intimidating. Most of us work hard and preaching seems harder than ever. At one time we may have been satisfied to do a good job with our texts, but now, in addition to exegetical excellence we have to add excellence in communication. It is not enough anymore that we get our text right, but now we have to speak with creativity and authenticity. Just thinking about it can be exhausting.

Is it possible that preaching could be great, not just good, without being oppressive to our schedules and health? Could we simplify our efforts while at the same time elevating our standard? I think so. Here are just a few things that could help:

1. Talk about your sermon with your listeners before you preach your sermon to them.

I love to interact with people about my sermon themes before I completely form the sermon. Sometimes these interactions are formal and sometimes informal. It is helpful to hear how people react and what they will respond to so that we don’t waste time on matters that will harvest little fruit.

2. Think about how to bring your listeners into the presence of God.

A lot of times we stop our sermons short of the impact they deserve. We do a pretty good job of teaching truths about God without ever leading them into the presence of God. This doesn’t necessarily mean the sermon must be longer. It just means that we could be intentional, carving out some space in the sermon to encourage the response our sermons ought to have. We could do more to help people encounter God through our preaching, encouraging them to thank God, say sorry to God, or find joy in the presence of God.

3. Paint a picture of the sermon as it impacts the world.

A great, not merely good, sermon will offer people a tangible, concrete vision of how the sermon will affect the future. We have vision statements for our churches. How about we have a vision for our sermons also? This goes beyond mere application, to an inspirational form of language that shares in concrete language a dream can capture the imagination of our listeners. Nobody is going to be inspired by our preaching until they can see what our sermon intends.

4. Learn how to care about what you are saying.

We do care, but perhaps not always enough. We do this preaching thing every week. It is hard to care passionately about everything that we say. Perhaps that is because we are not invested quite enough. We need to embody our sermons – to feel the emotion that our sermon ought to offer. It won’t be true if we don’t give ourselves to what we have to say. It is not enough to tell the people why this matters, they need to see it in our body language and hear it in the timbre of our voice. It won’t work for others unless it’s true for us.

Perhaps our preaching never will be good enough, or then again, maybe it always is. God is gracious after all. Still, if we reject the good in favour of an aspiration for the great, we will continue to improve in what we offer. We might even see something greater in the way our listeners hear.

Playing to Specific People in the Crowd

Often when I am preaching or teaching, I find that I am focused on how a particular listener in a crowd might be responding to what I have to say. I find that sometimes I am scanning the crowd looking for a specific person or persons, anxious for their response. Whether this is a good thing or not, depends upon what is going on in my heart.individualcrowd

Sometimes it is because I am afraid. I know that what I am going to say might not be appreciated by the person that I have in mind. I am anticipating that this idea or statement is going to pinch and so I am looking both to measure and to soften the impact on the listener. Having located the listener somewhere in the crowd, the temptation to modify the message is very strong. This may be out of a desire to avoid, limit, or mitigate the anticipated damage. It might also be because I am feeling needy in my heart. I long to win the approval of specific people and so I find that I perform for them, speaking in a way that I think will encourage their appreciation, not for their benefit or for the benefit of the gospel, but to address a deficit in my own needy heart.

Other times, however, my focus on individuals might be much more positive. I may be aware that something I have in mind to say will be particularly appreciated by a specific individual. I know something about their lives and I know that I am going to offer something particularly helpful. In these cases, my focus in a little like when I give a gift on Christmas morning. I can’t wait to see how the person will respond to the gift that I have given. My searching out of the listener comes from a generous heart, anticipating the positive impact on the listener.

In general, paying attention to the individuals in a crowd is a good move. Anytime we can personalize the crowd, seeing individuals instead of masses, we are going to preach more effectively. The congregation is not a monolith. It is the gathering of individuals in community. Preaching with a heart for the specific people in the crowd will make for a greater, more powerful impact.

Preaching and the Two Halves of Life

Feature Article by Dr. Clint Heacock

Once in a while we are fortunate to encounter a person whose unique perceptions can oldmanyoungmanquite literally change our lives. Such was the experience I had in October 2014 at the Catalyst Conference in Sheffield, England (http://www.bmscatalystlive.com/). There I heard an interview with an author I had heard a lot about but had never been exposed to any of his works: Father Richard Rohr. Attached to the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM (https://cac.org/richard-rohr) Fr. Rohr is the author of numerous books and explores the subjects of Christian mysticism, contemplation and social action for the socially marginalized.

The subject of the interview concerned his 2011 book Falling Upward which introduces the concept Rohr refers to as ‘the two halves of life.’ This short article will briefly explain this concept from the book and then finish by raising some implications for preaching from the point of view of Rohr’s model.

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Telegraphing the Theme of Your Sermon

I can still hear my high school basketball coach warning about “telegraphing” our passes. This was a staple of his half-time tirades. Telegraphing occurred when we would look directly at the person that we were passing the ball to, making our target evident and obvious to the defenders that stood in the way. Telegraphing led to turnovers – incomplete passes that were stolen by the other team. It was a great way to lose basketball games.

Conversely, telegraphing is a pretty good way to keep listeners during sermons.telegraph

Sermonic telegraphing is where the preacher makes his or her direction obvious to the listeners.

“Here is what I am going to tell you.”

“Here is why I am going to tell you.”

“Are you ready?”

“Here it is! I am telling you now.”

“Now let me remind you what I told you.”

It might seem a little pedantic, but there is no mistaking the intention or the message when it is showcased in the sermon. Preaching is an oral medium and it can be quite a challenge for the listener to track in her ear what the preacher sees so clearly in his notes. The preacher who makes the journey obvious, helps everyone to know exactly what is going on and that can be extremely helpful in an oral message.

Telegraphing lends itself well to more deductive sermon forms where the sermon is the process of unfolding and explaining a given theme. But inductive preaching an help its listeners also, through telegraphing, though perhaps with more suggestive, inclusive language.

“Let’s see where this takes us.”

“Oh, did you notice that?”

“That is an amazing discovery, don’t you think?”

Preacher, you understand, is essentially an act of leadership. The preacher gets to the text first, several days ahead of the listeners. Having met with God and heard from him through his Word and by his Spirit, the preacher then leads the listeners to the same discoveries. Like a tour guide, the preacher points out the views along the way, making sure the listener does not miss anything important and that he or she can get home when the tour is over. This is what a leader or a guide does – makes sure that the subject achieves the objective and gets home to tell about it.

It is okay to be obvious. There are no extra points in preaching for being cute. Subtlety is not your friend. You can be subtle when you write. When you preach you need to lead us. You need to get us where we are going. You need hold no fear of interception. Look us in the eye and make the pass.

Story Stacking

Stacking is when a preacher gathers several stories or pictures and offers them in bulk, one after the other in a confined space of sermon time. It might seem like a good idea at the time, but stacking stories is usually counter-productive.stackedcups 
Normally this is not intentional. It happens when a preacher falls in love with a number of illustrations and stories and decides to use all of them without much thought as to what kind of impact this might have on the poor listener. Typically, the result for the listener is confusion. Stacked stories tend to blend into one another, blunting the impact of all. If the preacher had been disciplined enough to use just one of these stories, the listener would have been able to focus his or her attention resulting in a far stronger effect. 
Stories, well told, are rich events. Stories introduce places and people. They describe places and events. A story carries a narrative. It moves a listener from one place to another. When stories are stacked it is just too many moving parts. The listener cannot commit to so many characters or to so much conflict. There is just too much going on. It would be better for the preacher not to have offered any story at all.
Pictures, on the other hand, can be stacked effectively. Unlike stories, pictures are static – they do not move. They offer a snapshot of a particular setting or situation. Typically, pictures require a lot less time to describe, which allows for effective stacking. It can be very effective to open or close a sermon with a series of carefully expressed word pictures that offer an array of examples, opportunities, or which simply combine to set the stage for what is yet to come. 
I’ve sometimes heard story-stacking called “skyscraper preaching” – one story on top of another. It is a way of filling the time, though not with the substance preaching requires.

What Happens When the Star Preacher Leaves?

So what happens when our preaching is so successful at attracting crowds that we actually make it hard for the church to out-last our influence?
walkingback
We’ve seen how it happens. A preacher does a great job and begins to develop a following. Eventually great crowds are coming, at least in part because of the quality and reputation of the pastor’s preaching. So what happens if the pastor gets hit by a truck, messes up, decides to retire, or just comes to the conclusion that the pressure is too great and he doesn’t want to do it anymore? What does the church do then? Finding another preacher/pastor who can achieve the same level of influence is almost impossible – at least, we almost never see it happen. Occasionally we see the preacher turn the reigns over to his son as if the pulpit were the family business, but again, it almost never works. There is something about the gifting of the original which is seldom replicated in successive pastoral tenures.
So what do we do about this? How does a church protect itself against this eventuality? It’s fun to ride the wave while the star preacher is doing his thing, but eventually the wave flattens out. Sometimes it happens abruptly. If the church hasn’t thought about succession, it can be disastrous.
Actually, I think that succession planning is as much a responsibility of the star as it is of the church. There are several things that a successful preacher/pastor can do to help the church after his tenure has come to an end. Some of those things are as follows: 
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
Of course, it will be extremely easy for you to avoid this matter, because after all, it won’t be your problem. You will be long gone and won’t have to face any of the consequences of a poorly planned succession. But if you really love the people to whom you are preaching, you will give attention to these things. This whole thing is a little like squirrelling away the nuts during the summer because the winter could be long and cold. Your church won’t want to wait until they have the problem to begin trying to deal with it. 
There are any number of highly visible examples of churches who have experienced this very problem. You can work to make sure that your church is not the next.
 

To Manuscript or Memorize

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?memorize copy

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. 

Paying Attention to Life

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.attentive

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.

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Preacher

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author_1688Is there a place for heat in homiletics?

A.J. Swoboda

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.

Too often, a preacher’s emotions point to the preacher themselves; emotions are the shallow attempts of preachers to draw attention to themselves.

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?

Article Continued Here… 

EHS: Hermeneutics for Homiletics

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.ehs2014

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.

The Future of Homiletics

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 futurethinking 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.

The 500 Word Manuscript

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.

computer

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.

The 500 Word Manuscript is a way if having your homiletical cake and eating it too. People love it when we can look them in the eye and communicate with them directly without the interference of our manuscripts and notes. But they also want us to be coherent and to not waste their time. My 500 words is enough to help me give them what they need.

Thoughts about Guest Preaching

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 petewilsonto 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.

Preaching the Gospel

The preaching of the gospel is neither a fad nor the key to membership in a particular preachinggospelmovement. 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.

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Moved or Removed: Managing Emotional and Exegetical Distance

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.bench separation

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.

The Fourth Wall

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.audience

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.

Oscars selfieLater 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.

Best PowerPoint Practices for Preaching

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.powerpointprojector

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.

 

Few Words – Striking Images
The most effective slides are pleasing to the eye, matching a relevant image or graphic with a minimum of words. The point of the screen is to complement the speaker, not to compete with what the preacher is saying. A well chosen, striking picture can help focus the listener’s attention in the direction that the preacher is intending. A phrase or simple sentence will be enough to direct the listener without distracting him or her. Rather than putting a lengthy biblical text or quotation on the screen, it might be more effective to offer just the focal point of the passage, while reading the longer text orally

 

Managing Complexity
It is hard to handle complex material by means of an oral medium. Listeners have a difficult time processing details on the fly. This is where a slide or two can be very helpful. The point is that the slides actually clarify, which means that they must be laid out in a simple, pleasing, and eye-catching manner. Using an infographic might be helpful. If the preacher can’t manage the material with this kind of simplicity, it might be a clue that the preacher is attempting too much for what might be wise through a medium like preaching. Simple charts maps, or quotations are all excellent ways of achieving visual and mental clarity.

 

Going Dark
Sometimes the best screen is a dark screen. Slides are not essential. It can be powerful to focus attention on a particular quotation or graphic element by having the screen go dark before and after projection. Show the slide as you are speaking about the content of that slide and when you are finished, just let the screen go dark.   It is not critical that material is constantly projected. Less active screens, allow the listener to focus on the things that really matter to the preacher. They also take less work to prepare.

 

Title Slide
One viable approach is to use a single title slide that can be on the screen either at the start of the sermon or throughout. Such a slide could feature the sermon title, the biblical text reference, the sermon theme statement, along with a primary image or collage of images. It’s like a cover page for your sermon.

 

Visual Illustrations
Preachers love to tell stories to illustrate their points. While our word pictures might be great, it can be helpful sometimes to screen a picture that actually shows what the preacher is talking about. When talking about a lesson learned during a mission trip, for example, why not show a picture taken from that trip?

 

Interacting with the Screen
It is extremely helpful if the preacher interacts directly with what has been projected. For example, when showing a picture, the preacher could refer to it directly, turning to face the screen for a moment, and pointing out something interesting about the image. This helps the preacher visually connect the listener to the things that are being offered, helping to overcome the natural distance between the preacher and the screen.

 

The 10/20/30 Rule
Guy Kawasaki, has suggested a ten/twenty/thirty rule when dealing with slides. He says we should use no more than 10 slides, no more than 20 minutes, and no less than 30 point fonts. That might be good advice for us.

 

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.

 

Does Powerpoint Increase Retention?

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. powerpointprojector

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.

No One Prefers Video Preaching

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?video sermons

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.

A Lack of Respect

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.

contemptCowell

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.

koesslerdisappointment

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.

Christmas Worship

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.wisemenworship

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.

The Kids are Fact-Checking Your Sermons

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.checkingcellphone

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!

Straw Man Sermons

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.Straw Man

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.

Lifeway Research on the Use of the Bible in Preaching

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:450Sermons

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.

Read More

Spirit-Led Preaching at the EHS

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. jack hayford

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.

Evangelical Homiletics Society

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

How Long Should a Sermon Take?

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.timeclock

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.

Preaching Through Your Church

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?sharing

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.

We Could Do That!

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!”hearing

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.

Integration and Disintegration

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.” cross

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.

Trigger Phrases

As one who has become known for extemporaneous preaching, I am often questioned about the value of memorizing sermons. My standard response is to discourage memorization. Preachers who memories and present written manuscripts, may appear to be more oral in their approach, but rarely get past the recitation of a product that has been derived from literate practices. In other words, it has been written and not spoken into existence. No amount of recitation can overcome its provenance in that regard. And all that is to say nothing of the perils of memorization itself, which in my experience, seldom goes well.keywords
I prefer to assimilate my sermons to trying to memorize them, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in committing to memory some helpful trigger phrases or sentences in the sermon. I think of my sermon as a series of “moves” all of which require some level of transition or cuing in my consciousness. I have found it helpful to coin and deploy memorable phrases to help me move from one piece of the sermon to the next. Unlike theme statements, these trigger phrases do not require repetition. They do not even need to stick in the mind of the listener, but they do have to trigger in my mind the next piece that I intend to express.
Some such phrases I have used in recent sermons include…
…”well, I guess ‘that’s that”…
…”if I were writing the text, I would have done it differently…”
…”I would have liked to have seen Paul’s feet” (from Rom. 10:15)”…
…”it’s a matter of context, not content…”
Note that few, if any, of these carry much in the way of substance. The are, rather, hinge phrases that allow me to move from one piece to the next. Setting these markers in my memory allows me to give the sermon a sense of flow, ensuring that I get to the critical elements of the sermon, while remaining in oral mode thoughout.
Of course, any good extemporaneous preacher does this naturally. The rest of us, might find it helpful to be intentional about such things.

Developing Touch

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. deft

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.

The Big Moment

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.worship

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.

How Preachers can Harm the Depressed (or all of us for that matter).

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.”depresssion

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.

These People

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. listening people

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.

Change by Accrual, not Transformation

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. 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.

The Gospel Persists

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. images

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.

The Object of our Desire

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.  objectsubject

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.

Lessons from the Lockout

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.th

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.

Merry Christmas

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.

The Place of Compassion in our Response to Evil

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

See also: Evil and its Antidote

Also: Sermons, Souls and Shootings

Evil and its Antidote

Evil exists and we should talk about it.

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.

See: Sermons, Souls, and Shootings