One Thing to Improve Your Sermon for Sunday

Here is one of the most effective suggestions I could offer to immediately improve your sermon for this Sunday…onething

Make sure you know your theme statement.

Every sermon needs a big idea, and if the sermon is driven by that idea, it will be easier to listen to and more compelling of our listeners response.

First, make sure that your theme is a complete sentence. You need a subject and a complement – what the sermon is talking about and what it is saying about what it is talking about. Only then will you have something to proclaim. Until we have proclaimed something, there is nothing for us to fight over or contend with.  Without proclamation, we haven’t really preached.

Second, having understood the theme, we need to make sure that it is driving the sermon. Once you know your theme, you can create a story that will invite people to listen to it. With the establishment of a solid theme, we know what to call people to respond to. Without the theme, application will not make any sense.

All of this assumes a strong connection to the biblical text. If the theme does not describe the intention of the biblical passage, then it will lack authority and it will not be worth preaching.

You may already be well into your preparation. Stop now for a moment and check yourself. Do you have a theme that proclaims the intention of the text and that drives the sermon forward? If not, you know where you need to put your efforts.

Expository and Other Forms of Preaching

Ed Stetzer recently published a series of excellent posts on the subject of expository forms the sermon and how it compares with other approaches to the preaching task. His stetzerapproach supports the values of exposition, while treating other forms fairly and helpfully. In the first article he argues for Exposition as a form. In the second piece, he argues why Exposition cannot be held as the exclusively biblical form of the sermon. In the third post, he describes other firms of the sermon and how they can be used appreciatively.

Thinking about Expository Preaching – Part 1

Thinking about Expository Preaching – Part 2

Thinking about Expository Preaching – Part 3

In previous discussions of the subject, I have distinguished between “capital E exposition” and “small case e exposition.” My point is that all preaching out to be expository in the sense that it exposes the Word of God from the pages of the biblical Scriptures. However, the formal elements that have attached themselves to exposition might not be required to the greater expositional interest. One can, for example, be expository without working consecutively through books of the Bible, which has often been a hallmark of Exposition with a capital E.

The goal, of course, is for the Word to be heard. This drives us to the biblical text. That we treat the text faithfully is more important than the form the sermon eventually takes.

Integrative Preaching Presentations

Integrative preaching is a method of preaching developed by Kenton C. Anderson. In the following four presentations and four videos, Kent presents the method in summary form. Perhaps they can be helpful to you as you think about ways to improve your own preaching.

The Integrative Preaching Model: Visual Presentation

The Integrative Preaching Model: Video Summary

The Tools of Integrative Preaching: Visual Presentation

The Tools of Integrative Preaching: Video Summary

The Elements of Integrative Preaching: Visual Presentation

The Elements of Integrative Preaching: Video Summary

The Process of Integrative Preaching: Visual Presentation

The Process of Integrative Preaching: Video Summary

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

Sermons, Souls, and Shootings

Marshall McLuhan famously said that “medium is the message.” Among the many implications of this statement is that the form that discourse takes has some influence upon the outcome of this discourse. In other words, the medium matters. Assuming that he is correct, one starts quickly to consider whether and how morality (good/evil) is attached to the medium or the form. We are quick to judge value based upon the message, but if the medium matters, then can we ascribe moral weight to the form of the message as well.

In the study of preaching, this line of argument is used to consider whether certain forms of the sermon can be concerned morally efficient or deficient apart from any consideration of the content of the message. This is not unlike arguments I used to hear from people in authority who tried to suggest that certain forms of music were “of the devil” and incompatible with a holy or God-honoring message. I always took the position that there were no inherently evil forms of music, but that the morality or appropriateness of a particular piece would have to be judged on the merits of its content alone. No doubt certain musical expressions could be judged by the quality of tjeor expression, but that is a different sort of question. The same, I would say, applies to the practice of preaching. There is no particularly holy structure or system for the practice of preaching. The moral proof of the preaching pudding, is as they say, in the eating of it.

I am thinking about these things in response to today’s horrific shootings which killed 27 people, including 18 children. As I was trying to come to terms with this insistent evil, I noticed a tweet from political commentator Glenn Beck who announced that “It is the soul. Not the gun.” In other words, guns were merely the medium and not the message. Moral judgment falls upon the sickness of the shooter’s soul and not, according to Beck, to the fact that he had access to a gun.

You will have to forgive me for using the space to make this point. Perhaps this is my Bob Costas moment, but I think it instructive to apply the same principle we described above. My comments about medium and message would seem to affirm Beck’s statement. To put it in the popular expression, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Theologically, I am in full agreement. Blame for this and for the far too numerous similar events we have seen, falls squarely upon the individual who gave way to the sin in his soul. Further, as Russell Moore said today, we blame the Evil One himself, the Prince of Darkness who is sponsor of all such horror. But that said, I still have to add a caveat to my earlier claims about the medium and the message.

Whether we are talking about songs, sermons, or in this case, shootings, we need to understand that while the medium is only the means of expressing what is in the individual’s heart, certain forms are better suited for certain functions. A traditional expository sermon, is better suited for the communication of doctrinal instruction. A narrative sermon form is going to be more effective in terms of touching the listener’s heart and motivating a change in response. These are not moral judgments. They simply describe the way that tools enable desired actions. It is not out of line to suggest without ascribing any moral value, that guns (form) are particularly suited to the purpose of killing (function).

My point is that if this young man in Connecticut did not have access to automatic weapons, there would be a lot more children in Connecticut having dinner with their families this evening.

And if you are still squirming by my importing of this theme to a space normally dedicated to the practice of biblical preaching, let me add that it is for things like this that we appreciate our call to preach. Preaching may not be as popular as it once was, but I have got to say that the sermon is one of the few places in contemporary society where we still speak seriously about the nature of sin. Where else will we hear today an argument that makes any kind of sense of what happened earlier this morning? It is only in the proclaimed gospel that we find any kind of meaning and any kind of hope for a world so sick as this.

So preach on, my friends. The world needs us more than it knows.

 

Remembering Calvin Miller

I was saddened to hear this week of the death due to heart failure of my friend and sometimes-mentor, Calvin Miller. 

Calvin Miller’s Legacy

My experience with Calvin began with many years of reading his published works. His wisdom, humour, and insight compelled me to a ministry that was biblically faithful, yet aesthetically pleasing. When I had the opportunity to meet him personally, many years later, I was not disappointed. Calvin became a great champion of my own work, seeing in my “integrative preaching” concept, an approach that he had embodied intuitively for many years.

I remember, early in my career as a teacher of preachers, often being asked who my own favorite preacher was. Typically, I would name Calvin Miller. Few preachers were as adept at integrating both the art and the science of preaching. The subtitle of his book, Preaching: The Art of Narrative Exposition aptly captured that particular homiletic oxymoron. Calvin’s ability to describe exegetically-derived truth in ways that were affectively gripping confirmed for me the power of this particular approach to preaching. Few have seen the potential for beauty and precision in his sermon language. Truth is not diminished when it is made beautiful by its words. No one knew that better than Calvin Miller.

I will never have his gifts, but I can champion his cause. I trust I will not be alone in this pursuit.

Banquet or Buffet: How to Speak to Diverse Audiences

In “5 Keys to Sticky Preaching,”  (Top 100, Outreach Inc., Vista, CA, 2012; 106). Larry Osborne, criticizes the idea of a single-point sermon as appealing to a particular group of listeners, but unappetizing to a diverse crowd of listeners. He suggests it is the difference between a banquet and a buffet, with the latter being more suitable for today’s multi-cultural audiences.

“A tightly-knit, single-point sermon plays well on the speaking circuit. It wins awards from homileticians. But by its very nature, it best fits a narrowly focused group of people. It is like a great Thanksgiving dinner: we’ll themed and delicious to Americans who like turkey and dressing. But it’s rather unappetizing to a Vietnamese immigrant – or a Seattle vegan.” (in Top 100: Vista, CA: Outreach, Inc., 106).

I want to credit Osborne for his concern to speak to a diverse audience, but as a homiletician myself, steeped in the “big idea” philosophy of Haddon Robinson, I find that I must comment.

I find it curious that Osborne would suggest that the way to speak to a diverse crowd is to offer more than one point, when it is the very idea of point-edness that gives away his mono-cultural approach. The more I engage diverse cultures, the more I am aware of the fact there are a number of ways of learning that people represent. Propositional approaches, as valuable as they are, do not represent all of the cultural ways people know and are formed. Some cultures are more tuned to narrative ways of learning and others toward more artistic forms of representing truth.

My approach is to say that preaching does not affect diverse audiences simply by multiplying points, which is just an extension of a single way of knowing. Preaching effectively to a diverse crowd, from my perspective involves Integrated modes of learning – points, stories, problems, and pictures. It is not the single point that is the problem. It is the singular mode of operation that makes our preaching hard to hear in diverse contexts. In fact, a single point is much easier to offer in a variety of modes, making presentation to multi-cultural audiences even easier.

Elephantine Intros: Pitfalls in Preaching #5

Derived from Richard L. Eslinger’s Pitfalls in Preaching (Eerdmans 1996), 60-61.

A problem I am discerning increasingly in preaching is overlong introductions. I am not sure exactly what to attribute this phenomenon to. Perhaps it reveals a latent insecurity about our preaching – a sense that we have to work over hard to win the attention and good will of our listeners. Perhaps it is an insecurity in our own selves, wishing ourselves able to be particularly interesting and attractive to those to whom we preach.

Whatever the source of the malady, it is not helpful to us in our interest to see our preaching take root in the hearts of those to whom we speak. In fact, it may have the exact opposite effect from what we had intended. Richard Eslinger writes…

“The pitfalls involved in this elephantiasis of sermon introductions fall within three categories. First, long introductions make it harder for the hearers to get into the body of the son. The opening material may consist of several interwoven stories, perhaps with the intent of leading ultimately to some thematic point or other. If the stories are well told, the auditors may have trouble extricating themselves from these story-worlds and moving with the preacher into the main part of the sermon. Certainly a good deal of the sermonic material following extended anecdotal introductions will wind up being lost in the congregational hearing. Recognizing such a pitfall, we need to think rather of introductions as creating the readiness to hear the first move or other opening unit of the sermon itself. The introduction should increase, and not decrease, the capability of the hearers to receive the opening section of the sermon body.

“A second pitfall concerns congregational attention. Expanding the introductory remarks of a sermon increases the likelihood that congregational attention will begin to wander. This restlessness is natural and in fact should be expected once the introduction moves beyond about twelve sentences in length. As the opening material expands beyond this threshold, in addition to the problem of wandering attention, there is the challenge of retrieving attention during the opening section of the sermon body. …

“A third pitfall related to these elongated introductions is that the material will begin to act as a sort of quasi-scriptural text. What will be exegetes and interpreted is the opening contemporary story-material, not the biblical narrative. Almost inevitably, the sermon begun by way of an extended anecdote will to some extent be shaped by the theological field implied in the opening story. The more extensive and detailed the opening story, the more likely it is to hold sway unduly over the following material in the sermon.”

Personally, I am quite committed to the value of story in the preaching of a sermon, so this last concern of Eslinger’s concerns me as well, though perhaps from a different direction. As useful and as important as story-telling is to the preaching or our sermons, it can actually inhibit the communication of the text. We must be particularly careful that our stories do not emerge as a rival to our texts, but as a complement to them. The text of Scripture and its clear communication must always be the focal point for our preaching.

Why We Still Need Propositions in our Preaching

It is the way of things, that in order to champion something that has been under-appreciated, we feel the need to knock down the thing that has been appreciated. This has no bearing on whether or not the more valued piece has found appreciation on the basis of its merits. It is simply the zero-sum approach we humans tend to favor, whereby we believe in the scarcity of favor such that to escalate one side, we feel we must dissipate the other. 

This is a foolishness, based on a lack of imagination sufficient to conceive that we could find the capacity to appreciate both aspects without forcing unhealthy competition. The best preachers, fail to succumb to this malady, emphasizing both the head as well as the heart within their preaching.

Propositional preaching has been ascendant for so long that I sometimes find myself neglecting it simply so as to emphasize other aspects of the preaching task. I have found that I love the affective aspects of preaching. I value story and emotion. I appreciate aesthetics, finding them to be compelling in the pursuit of godliness through preaching. I find the kind of preaching that avoids these aspects of the task to come off dry and unappealing. Preaching that communicates truth without creating a heart-level connection with the truth feels incomplete to me.

Of course, this is a false construction. There is no need to play the two against each other. I have noticed, for example in Acts 16, how the Berean Jews were commended for putting everything that Paul had to say up against the Scriptures, testing what he had to say against the propositional teaching of Scripture. Two chapters later, Apollos is commended as one who had been carefully instructed in the faith , and who himself taught the Scriptures accurately. He is described as one who refuted unbelievers. In short, it was the propositional presentation of the gospel that communicated power and that commended these servants for their faithfulness.

The truth is, I love a meaty proposition and get frustrated by its absence. For all my love of story, a sermon that does not offer something of substance for me to chew on, is easily dismissed. People love a good story, but not at the expense of a deeply informed articulation of the truth.

I love how the two feed and discipline each other. Narrative without proposition is like music without lyrics, beautiful perhaps but without intellectual substance. It is like a cartoon without a caption, like a joke without a punchline. Such preaching is suggestive, but without substance.

It is also unnecessary. Preachers need not choose between aesthetics and articulation. The two complement each other. In the service of the gospel, preaching that integrates the two speaks truth to both head and heart. We need not displace one so as to give place to the other.

Piling On

In football there is a penalty known as “piling on” which is assessed whenever players excessively tackle an opposing player who has already been brought to the ground. There have been times when listening to preaching that I have wished I had a flag to throw for similar infractions.

How often have we heard preachers who, having already made their point, continue to pile on extra illustrations and superfluous commentary in the attempt to accomplish what has already been achieved. I am not a homiletic referee, but I have often wished that I could blow a whistle on that kind of thing.

The preacher who piles on is betraying a lack of confidence in the sermon. The irony is that this attempt to strengthen the impact through the addition of excessive material actually weakens the impact of what we hear. The extra story or proposition actually diffuses the focus of the sermon, creating a kind of fog in the listener’s consciousness. By trying to make the point sure, we actually serve to loosen our hold upon the listener. We do exactly the opposite of what we had intended.

Of course, piling on in preaching also serves to unnecessarily lengthen the sermon. I know we sometimes feel the sermon has to reach a certain length, but in preaching, as in life, the old adage is most often true: less is more.

Anticipating the Impact of our Stories

Last week, Andy Stanley got into trouble over a sermon illustration. If nothing else, this indicates the significance of the stories that we tell in our sermons. We need to give as much attention to the stories we tell as to the points that we make, if Stanley’s experience is instructive to us.

Stanley was making a point about ethical standards for leadership in the church, describing the holding of a couple accountable for adultery but not for their homosexual practice. Like many, I found the story to be disturbing. Operating at a distance, however, I might like to give the man the benefit of any doubt. My concern in this piece, however, is to point to the way that stories and illustrations can lead to unintended consequences.

Our stories require scrutiny. Stories are less precise than propositions. They can misdirect in ways that we might not intend. I remember telling a joke that got me in trouble because I missed the double entendre. That was an avoidable situation.

Whatever Stanley’s view of homosexual practice, clearly it was not his intent to speak to that particular issue by means of the story that he told. Setting aside any theological malpractice for the moment, the illustration was an example of homiletical malpractice as it led listeners to engage an entirely different issue than the one intended by the preacher. Stanley’s point about leadership has been completely lost in all the heat about sexuality. Stanley should have been able to anticipate that this would be the case. If he really wanted to make his point, he could have chosen another story.

Avoiding this problem requires the skill of anticipation. We need to pre-hear our stories, anticipating how they will be heard by our listeners. This requires that we know our listeners and how they think. We might not catch everything before we say it, but we can surely catch the most egregious examples, before we make a regrettable error.

I am fairly certain Andy Stanley had not anticipated that his sermon would make news, at least not for this reason. Not anticipating, added greatly to his problem.

The Purpose of the Story

One of my students made an interesting statement in a recent paper about the purpose of stories used in the opening moments of the sermon…

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“I don’t want to engage (the listeners) in a story so I can then direct them to Christ using other elements. I want to engage them with a story and then use that same story to direct them to Christ.”

The difference, he said, “is subtle, but significant.” In both cases, the purpose of the preacher is to direct the listener to Christ. However, in one case, the purpose of the story is merely to engage the listener so that the preacher can present Christ. In the other case, the purpose of the story is, in itself to present Christ.

This does not mean that every story has to directly and overtly speak of Christ. It does mean that the link between the story and it’s Christological import must be evident. The path between the two ought to be short and the route direct.

One of the benefits of this way of working is that we do not set up a false distinction between the instructional and theological elements of the sermon with elements that are set up to seem more enjoyable.

I once, for example, told a humorous story about a man who didn’t recognize me as the pastor while out on golf course. It was a pretty engaging story and I used the humorous elements to full effect. The point in telling the story, however, was not just to get the crowd comfortable in listening to me, but to connect people with those in Scripture who had difficulty recognizing Jesus as the Son of God. The purpose of the story, then, was to develop a readiness within the listener to hear the theological truth about the identity of Jesus Christ.

Everything we say within our sermons ought to drive toward our theological purpose. Even the stories that we tell ought to lead us to worship.

Big and Bigger Ideas

Excerpted from Choosing to Preach p.92

Saying that the sermon ought to have one main idea is easier in theory than in practice. It takes a great deal of discipline for the preacher to be able to focus all of his or her energies on a specific proposition. When you spend the better part of a week falling in love with a text in Scripture, it can be very difficult to bring the whole thing under the discipline of a single concept. Bible texts are rich and detailed, and the more we study them, the more wonders we discover. yet if we try to communicate all of those ideas in a single sermon we will relate more confusion than clarity. Many times a text will feature a big idea, a bigger idea, and a biggest idea. Which of these ideas we choose to preach on is less important than choosing one of these ideas and preaching a message that has unity and focus. It doesn’t take me long to tell when a student really understands what he is trying to say and when he has been able to finally put his finger on it. Preaching rings true when the preacher is compelled by a single big idea.
If we can convince our listener’s of one truly big idea week by week, we will see lives change in ways beyond our imagining. The truth will embed itself like a seed deep in the congregational ground. Eventually, it will break out into blossom and bear fruit.

Yeah, But…

The “yeah, but” aspect of the integrative sermon always provides a very powerful moment. I love that time in the sermon when the preacher is able to identify with the listener’s objections, taking up the listener’s voice in ways that he or she might not even be fully conscious of. This is one of the most powerful ways to engage listeners in the preaching process. By speaking for the listeners, as one of the listeners, the preacher gains a sense of solidarity with the listeners, thus deepening the communication transaction.

This ‘solidarity’ is legitimate, because the preacher is more listener than communicator in the process, if we understand the preacher truly to be God. If we appreciate that it is God who is speaking, then the preacher need only search his or her heart to discern the objections and assumptions that hinder his or her own appropriation of the message. By honestly describing his or her own misgivings, the preacher, as the first listener, establishes common ground with the broader group of listeners, who are all together trying carefully to hear from God.

The truth is, that if it is God who is speaking, then we are all going to have to overcome things in order to respond faithfully. To pretend that this is not the case is to preach from a naiveté about human nature that is misguided. Preaching, mediating as it does the voice of God, will always challenge our self-focused presumptions. The listener’s opening gambit is almost always “so what.” Having heard “what’s what” the listener will almost always need to overcome the “yeah, but” in order to get to the “now what.” The preacher who owns this challenge will almost always preach with a greater sense of engagement by the listeners. his or her own appropriation of the message. By honestly describing his or her own misgivings, the preacher, as the first listener, establishes common ground with the broader group of listeners, who are all together trying carefully to hear from God.

A Simple Model for Your Preaching

I am always interested to discern how my students appropriate my teaching well after their time spend with me in class. I had a brief conversation with one such student a few days ago. “The model still works for me,” he said, particularly the… 

…so what
…what’s what
…yeah, but
…now what

I know that there are a lot of legitimate ways to construct a sermon, but I agree with my student. Over the years, this one has held up pretty well, even in my own preaching. Give it a try. It will lead you a long ways toward a more integrative preaching style.

Flow-Charting, Road-Mapping

I’ve begun to teach my students the concept of mapping their sermons. Following Dave McLellan’s advice, in his preach by ear, I’ve been showing the students how to chart the flow of their sermon with a kind of mind-map using stick figures, simple drawings, and a few choice words.

This has been helpful in getting students to understand their sermons better, to reduce the clutter in their sermon plans, and to assimilate the sermons better for oral delivery. So far it has really seemed to help.

I had a conversation with one student this afternoon who told me that it had allowed him to use his time much more efficiently. I hadn’t foreseen this as one of the benefits, but in the case of this student, he told me that he was able to save great amounts of time by seeing the sermon structure more quickly. He even said that it had helped his prayer time because his thought process was much clearer. I should add, that I haven’t heard him preach it yet. That will happen this Tuesday. I suspect that he is going to do a great job.

I’ve long advocated keeping sermons simpler. I’ve seen too many preachers struggle to communicate their points, sub-points, and sub-subpoints in a way that can be managed for effective oral presentation. Simpler is usually better, and often more profound as well. Sermon mapping can be useful in that pursuit.

 

Sermons that Stuff

One of the elements that makes for better preaching is the way in which the preacher manages time. Every time we preach, we work within a window of time. If we take too much, we lose attention. If we take too little, we don’t meet expectations. The preacher works within that window to achieve the objectives intended for that sermon.

Typically, the preacher attempts too much. It may all be great material, but if there is too much of it, it will not fit the time frame. The preacher has to struggle to cram it all in, unwilling to let anything go unspoken. As a result, the preacher has to trust the listener to grasp the implications and make the connections that make the sermon sensible. The listener may not be willing or able to bring that kind of effort.

It would be better if the preacher backed off a little on the content. A sermon ought to allow the listener the kind of space that allows for smooth digestion. The listener wants to savor the sermon, not just gobble it. Less really is more.

I gave my wife a box of Lindt chocolates for Valentines Day. I could have spent less and got more chocolate, but it wouldn’t have tasted quite so well. I preferred instead, to spend more and get less, because the quality was worth it. The same is true with my preaching. I prefer to invest more energy and time in fewer bits of content so that what I offer listeners might be more deeply satisfying. My sermons are not of the “all-you-can-eat” variety. I’m not trying to stuff my listeners. I’m trying to nourish them.

In the end, it’s not a question of how much time you have. It is a matter of how you choose to utilize the time. Over-stuffed sermons only lead to a homiletic bloating that is uncomfortable for everyone.

 

Avoiding the “And”

Great preachers understand the importance of using a simple declarative sentence to serve as the sermon’s theme. It is important to be able to encapsulate the message of your sermon in a strong, single sentence. If you are having trouble describing your sermon in a sentence, it may be because you don’t yet truly understand what your sermon needs to say.

In the building of these statements, I have found it helpful to avoid the use of conjunctions, particularly the word “and.” Whenever we find “and” in a theme statement, we are looking at two sermons. If our theme statement is that “God is loving and gracious,” we are splicing two sermons, one about God’s love and another about God’s grace. Those two themes might be strongly related, but the sermon will be greatly improved if the preacher would choose between the two for the purposes of this particular sermon.

Sometimes the word “and” can be eliminated by reshaping the theme statement around a particular theme. “God is loving and gracious,” could be restated as “God’s love is gracious.” Or, “God’s grace is evidence of his love.” In a sermon like this, grace is described as the proof of God’s love. It is now a single idea and a single idea always makes possible, a stronger sermon.

 

The Heresy of Application

I just spent some time working through Haddon Robinson’s excellent article, The Heresy of Application with a group of students. Robinson contends that there is more heresy preached in application than through exegesis. It is when we try to concretize the listener’s response to God’s Word that we often get in trouble. In our attempt to help people with practical aspects of their life experience, we sometimes credit God with things he never actually said.

Does the Bible promise that if we raise our children as Christians, that they will always life faithfully for Christ? Does the Word of God promise that husbands and wives who submit to each other will never experience disharmony in their marriages? Well, no, despite the fact that these things are often preached that way.

There are several kinds of implications that can arise from the texts we preach, Robinson says. “For example, a necessary implication of “You shall not commit adultery” is you cannot have a sexual relationship with a person who is not your spouse. A probable implication is you ought to be very careful of strong bonding friendships with a person who is not your spouse. A possible implication is you ought not travel regularly to conventions or other places with a person who is not your spouse. An improbable conclusion is you should not at any time have lunch with someone who is not your spouse. An impossible implication is you ought not have dinner with another couple because you are at the same table with a person who is not your spouse. Too often preachers give to a possible implication all the authority of a necessary implication, which is at the level of obedience. Only with necessary implications can you preach, ‘Thus saith the Lord.’”

Those of us who care about honoring God by getting the text right, will also want to make sure that we get the application right as well.

 

Dialogue and Monologue

A theme has been developing in my end of semester conversation with students. We seem to be learning that there is a correlation with the amount of dialogue that occurs with listeners in a good sermon and the size of the group that is participating. This might seem obvious, but it is helpful to discern that monologues work better with larger crowds and that dialogue works better with smaller crowds. It is very difficult, for instance, to offer a formal monologue sermon to a group of five or six, whereas a dialogue would work wonderfully. Trying to carry on a meaningful, participatory dialogue with a group of two or three hundred, is similarly problematic.

Not that either can’t be done. If the small group grants permission, a preacher can proceed with a formal monologue, but if my student’s experience can be trusted, it is going to come off stilted and unnatural. The reverse, of course, is also true. One can, in fact, have a “discussion” with a very large group, but the truth is that only a very few members of the crowd will be able to be heard in dialogue and that those who speak will likely be the most vocal and not truly representative of the mind of the whole. I do remember hearing Bill Hybels carry on an open-mike dialogue with a group of about 7,000 at Willow Creek, but the thing felt a little staged to me. While it was not ineffective, it didn’t come across to me as real dialogue.

So, perhaps there is something of a “rule of thumb.” Smaller crowd, more dialogue. Larger crowd, more monologue.

 

Benedictions

Pronouncing the benediction at the end of a sermon or service of worship is a lost art. For some it might seem a little too liturgical. For others it might seem a little old-fashioned. I’d like to suggest that the practice ought to be resurrected. There is something beautifully moving that happens whenever a worship leader lifts his or her hands in order to offer God’s blessing on the people as they go out into the world. My friend Art Birch is a master of this practice. I can’t tell you how uplifted I feel when I hear him pronounce the benediction. I sometimes think that there is as much preaching in the benediction as in the sermon that preceded it.

Personally, I like to use one of the biblical benedictions, often rephrasing them slightly to reflect the sermon theme or any specific events in the life of the congregation that would be weighing heavy on their minds.

For a helpful list of biblical benedictions, along with a description and definition of the benediction, click on benediction.net.

 

No Wasted Energy

One of my students made an interesting statement to me recently about the value of editing one’s sermon. “I want to make sure that there is no wasted energy in the sermons I present.”

I appreciated that particular turn of phrase. I remember the days when I used to write full manuscripts for my sermons. In those days I spent a fair bit of time trying to hone the language. I wanted to make sure that every word was well placed for maximum impact. As a writer, I know a thing or two about the value of a good edit. Having moved, however, to extemporaneous (noteless) preaching for the last number of years, I have grown to appreciate the way that the sermon moment provides a language that is powerful, notwithstanding its lack of precision. I enjoy a certain sense of inventiveness that happens in the moment while I am preaching.

All that said, my student’s comment was telling. I want to eliminate the filler words, the useless pieces, and the unproductive elements that get in the way of my sermon theme, he said to me.

I agree. I’ve commented in the past about the problem of sermonic clutter. Sometimes less is more. A forty minute sermon might not be an improvement on a thirty minute sermon if it is filled with fifteen minutes worth of clutter. There is only so muchenergy available in the sermon process. Listeners only have so much energy to commit to the project. Preachers certainly have a limited store of energy. We want to make sure that we waste as little of it as possible so that the preaching event is as productive as it possibly could be.

“Energy” is an effective way of thinking about this question. Ask yourself the question… Will the energy required to add this story, this idea, this sentence, add momentum to the sermon or will it act as a drag on the sermon’s movement?” Everything we say ought to take a sermon forward. This is something we can sense somehow in the preaching of our sermons. If we are attentive to not only what the sermon says, but how the sermon feels, we will be able to discern the ways in which our words adds or wastes our energy.

As I get older, I’m increasingly conscious of the ways in which I use my limited stores of energy. Taking this thinking to my preaching seems natural.

 

Chronological Bible Storying

My friend and mentor, Grant Lovejoy, sent me a link this morning to the new website for Chronological Bible Storying. The website offers the methodology, research, and reports from the field into this powerful way of preaching to oral and indigenous cultures.

According to the website, “Chronological Bible Storying (CBS) is the process of encountering God by telling the stories of the Bible. In CBS we tell Bible stories without interruption or comment and we tell them in the order that they happened in time. Afterward we discuss each story and its significance for our lives. Each story builds on those that came before; as a result, the overarching message of the Bible becomes clear and we discover our own place in God’s story.”

The oral nature of communication within many of the people groups of the world is a major motivator for those championing CBS. “Though literacy has developed and spread its reach around the globe, a majority of the world’s people still live day to day by the spoken word, by orality. Some people live by oral communication out of necessity; their language may not have a written form or they may not have acquired literacy in school.”

When people live primarily by means of orality, memory becomes a major feature in everyday life. People in oral cultures prefer the familiar and are slow to accept new information, especially when it does not come in a memorable format. Chronological Bible Storying is a way of communicating the truths of Scripture in a format that is both memorable and familiar to the recipients.

The good news is that this format is an effective way of training locals to communicate the gospel. The opportunity for the spread of the gospel is exponential. In a report from South Asia, for example, training in CBS is multiplying its impact. A missionary reports, “The 48 men who have now finished their first year of training say that they are formally training another 553 storytellers. Of these, 439 have 10-15 men and women each to whom they are telling the stories. So every story we teach is perhaps being taught to 5,000 people immediately—most of whom are not yet believers. You can imagine the potential for God’s Word to work in these thousands of lives!”

Other helpful websites on this theme include oralbible.com and wycliffe.org.

 

No Place for Subtlety

I’ve just finished a series of one-on-one conversations that I have at the end of every semester with my preaching students. One of the things I’ve noticed again this year is the fact that these budding preachers tend to assume too much. Students seem to labor under the misconception that people are going to pay attention to everything they say.

Sorry folks, it doesn’t work like that. Preaching is no place for subtlety. Some of the clever things we say are going to go right over people’s heads because most of them aren’t listening that closely. Even those who are paying close attention aren’t going to catch everything we say because they are listening, not reading. If they were reading they could pause to think about what you are saying. They could go back and reread the things they struggle to understand. But this isn’t reading. This is preaching.f You can’t afford to be subtle.

Oral communication happens on the fly. There is no rewind button in the listener’s hand (wouldn’t that be cool!). They can’t pause you or replay the clever things you have to say. As soon as you’ve said something it’s gone and so if you really want them to lock it in you’re going to have to use repetition.

Have you ever noticed how many times the catchline of a good song is repeated? Have you ever noticed how it can stick inside your head? How many times did Martin Luther King Jr. say “I Have a Dream” in that famous sermon? I’m not sure but it was a lot and everyone remembers to this day.

Simply put, if you want your listeners to get it, you’re going to have to repeat it – often. You’re going to have to repeat it. I said repeat it. Repea…

Got it?

 

Hide the Wiring

We’ve been doing some renovations on our home recently which has meant a lot of moving things around. One of the bigger headaches in this process has been getting the stereo and television components set up in a new location. This has become an incredibly complicated operation. Hidden behind the furniture is a rat’s nest made of wires of varying color and thickness. I know that the manuals show neat and orderly schematics with a place for every wire and every wire in it’s place. The reality is much less tidy. It can take a long time to figure out how to get every wire in its proper place, but until this is achieved, the speakers won’t sound, the tv screen will display static, and the results just won’t be what they need to be. On the other hand, when everything is properly connected, those wires can be hidden away and no one has to know how much a mess they really are. As long as the sound and picture appear the way they are supposed to be, all is fine.

I tend to see everything in my life as a metaphor for the preaching process, and this is no exception. If you were to look behind the scenes at one of my sermons, it might look a little like that mess of wires hidden behind the television. Trying to figure out which element belongs in which position in the sermon, if it belongs at all, can be a messy process from the preacher’s perspective. The work is important, however, because if we don’t get the pieces in their proper place, the sermon will not sound. Once we do have everything set up properly, however, the results will please the one who listens.

In other words, get the sermon wired correctly. Make sure everything is in its proper place. Once you’ve done that then hide the wiring. The sermon doesn’t have to sound as complicated as it really is.

 

The Sermon Epilogue

I picked up a great idea recently from Jim Lucas, President of Canadian Pentecostal Seminary, and a friend and colleague of mine. Jim says that he likes to hold back some of his best stuff from the body of his sermon in order to utilize it as a kind of epilogue. When the sermon is over and the worship team has offered their closing song, he likes to come back up and put the cap on the sermon with something strong and encouraging before everyone leaves the building.

Some of us are accustomed to having the worship pastor do something like this, which has the advantage of a different voice endorsing the message. At the same time, it can be frustrating for a pastor who has poured himself into the sermon to find the worship leader “getting the last word” with a few poorly considered thoughts.

I like to think of Jim’s idea as a kind of extended benediction. We want to leave people motivated and sensing God’s blessing as they go out into a contrary world.

 

Flying the Pulpit

It’s good to be back from my journeys, though things are going to be very intense for a few days yet as it is regional convention time for my denomination.

I thought I would share some hi-lights from Calvin Miller’s theme address as the International Congress on Preaching last week. Calvin’s presentation, titled “Flying the Pulpit,” suggested that preaching is a lot like air travel. You need to attend to the take-off, the flight itself, and the landing. You’ve got to keep all 200,000 parts working together. Sermons like flights, he said, need to go somewhere. There has to be a destination.

Anything can fly, he said, if it has wings and it’s going fast enough. You can fly the Empire State Building if you could get wings on it and get it moving fast enough. In other words, he said, a good sermon needs to balance the ‘weight’ or the teaching of the sermon, with it’s ‘movement’ or its flow, which is another way of saying that we have to combine the cognitive aspects of the sermon with its affective elements.

I thought that to be a striking metaphor, but then Miller is a master of the metaphor. Another one he shared, which features in his new book Preaching, is the “Dagwood Sandwich.” Between the introduction and the conclusion you load story upon precept upon story upon precept and so on. I might just add that one would want to be careful just how thick a sandwich you want to serve.

Miller, on another point, mentioned how Fred Craddock says that it’s better to take the picture than to be in it. Yet Miller thinks that anything we touch is better if we can tell people how it is that we’ve been touched by it. I’m with Calvin on this one. We can help people identify with biblical themes if we can show how they have affected us – just so long as the sermon does not become about us.

Miller’s sermon by the way, Gradual Brimstone, based on Genesis 18:20-26, was wonderful. Most of have a “big bang” theory of judgement, he said. We’re looking for a sense of drama, when judgement more often comes upon us gradually. If we lose our love for our people or our God, we are flirting with brimstone.

I love Calvin Miller. He has been a great encouragement to me. If you haven’t read him, you really ought to.

 

Let the Fish Run

Last week I was talking to my students about the challenge of helping listeners overcome their objections to the sermon’s big idea. I likened the challenge to fishing. I’m not much of a fisherman, but I know that once you’ve got the fish on the hook, you don’t just bring the fish into the boat. You’ve got to let the fish run a little.

What I mean is that we have to create room in our sermons for the listener to struggle with what they have heard. We have to let them fight back some if we expect them to take hold of the message and truly own it. We can’t just explain our big idea and sit down thinking “I’ve made my point.” We may have explained our point and the listeners may have understood it but that doesn’t mean that they are ready to give their lives for it.

I love the image provided by Hemmingway in The Old Man and the Sea of the ancient fisherman who takes two full days to bring in the giant fish that he has hooked. This isn’t going to come easily. If we want our listeners to respond to the gospel, we’re going to have to fight for it. We’re going to have to struggle.

The best way I know how to do this is to anticipate the things that the listener is going to have to overcome and then to use the listener’s voice in articulating these things in the space of the sermon. The listener needs to recognize her or his own voice in the sermon. The listener needs to know that the preacher is speaking as a listener and for the listeners. It is a matter of showing respect for the listener as a person with dignity who has the right to make his or her own response to God.

Let the fish run. When it’s ready you’ll be able to bring it into the boat.

 

Spotlighting

So much of what we do in preaching is about the shaping of language so as to showcase certain ideas or elements. I was talking to a student this morning about the conclusion to one of his sermons. I mentioned that he could have done more to sharpen the invitation to response. He said that he thought he had done so, but that when he watched himself on video, he could see how it wasn’t very strong.

I talked to him about “spotlighting” that particular element. By this I meant that we can shape the language – even our body language – to put particular emphasis upon something we want to make sure the listener catches. If the sermon was written to be read, we could rely on bold fonts, italics, white space, and other such print cues. With oral presentation we need to use things like a well-placed pause, a particular turn of phrase, or an emotional turn to heighten the emphasis upon a particular aspect of the sermon.

Above all, we need to know which elements require spotlighting. Most preachers love every single element of their sermons, but that is neither realistic nor true. Some pieces are worth the special focus. Effective preachers both recognize what those things are and know how to go about putting those pieces in the center of the spotlight.

 

Pastor Correct and Pastor Imaginative

One of my doctoral graduates, Dick Moes, wrote the following narrative for a discussion group he is working with. It is loosely based on selections from Choosing to Preach.

Pastor Correct is a cognitive preacher who sees as his primary task to instruct the listener. He believes that if we are going to understand God, we need to know exactly who he is. Moreover, if we are going to obey God, we need to understand what He expects. Thus, Pastor Unimaginative works to make sure he gives the listener the necessary information so that he or she understands correctly. Sometimes, he thinks the listener’s mind is like a kind of filing cabinet. Thus, the goal of his sermon is to make sure all the information is in the correct folders and placed in the proper drawers. Other times, he thinks of the mind of his listeners as a complicated piece of computer code written by God. A virus has infected the code, fatally altering key blocks of information and causing the data to be disarrayed. The listener cannot function properly according to the designer’s intent. if the code is in error. Thus, through preaching he works to fix the code, rooting out the virus and replacing it with the right information, making sure that all the correct codelines are in the right places so that the synapses fire correctly and the mind works as designed.

Pastor Imaginative is an affective preacher who sees his primary task to help listeners experience God through his Word. While He believes the experience is not the goal of the sermon, he intuitively feels it is the means by which the goal is experienced. That goal is an encounter with God’s love in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Thus, Pastor Imaginative is fully engaged in the preaching moment. He does not so much describe the truth as he embodies it. He participates in the sermon not as one who only tells the truth, but as one who portrays it. He believes the listener always feels things when ideas are presented and that it is these feelings that motivate us to action. Understanding, according to him, can lead to the best intentions, but affection leads to action. Preaching must lead to a response and it will not do so unless it touches the heart. In order to evoke this response, Pastor Imaginative creates experience for listeners through the use of images. He paints pictures so as to evoke a specific response.

Discuss: Which preacher do you tend to relate to better? Why is this so? How have you experienced that understanding leads to best intentions, but affection leads to action? How do images or word pictures evoke emotions in you?

 

The Great Giveaway

David Fitch has been writing and blogging about expository preaching in his new book and blog titled The Great Giveaway. In sum, Fitch offers a number of interesting suggestions:

1. “Quit explaining and start proclaiming.” Okay, it’s not a matter of not explaining. It’s more a matter of priority. “The primary move of preaching will not be sentence-by-sentence explotion and explaining, then an application. Instead the primary move of the preacher will be to describe the world as it is via the person and work of Jesus Christ…”

2. “Please, let’s come to Scripture as drama not a textbook.” This is an attempt to see the sermon in the manner it is given in the Bible itself. “Let us see the Scriptures as alive. Scripture is real accounts, testimonies and witnesses of God’s people, through the prophets and apostles, to see what God has done and said and will do.” …

3. “Forget the application points! Go for the liturgical response.” The concern here is with an unhealthy dependence upon sermonic “to do lists.” “Instead the Word invokes postures of response: i.e., silence, submission, obedience, affirmation in faith, confession before the Lord, and of course the Eucharistic celebration of participating in the receiving of the Body of Christ.”…

4. “The act of preaching can only be the tip of a communal iceberg.” Preaching ought not to be so individualized. “The violence comes when the preaching of the Word separates us as individuals over against one armed with the interpretation we want because we do not come together in mutual submission to discern the Scripture’s meaning for our lives today.” …

Fitch’s work seems to respect a wholistic approach to biblical preaching that ought to be considered. Classic expositors might not agree with everything he is saying, but they ought not be threatened by the dialogue.

 

Integrative Preaching in Small Groups

A pastor friend of mine, Robert Campbell from Corona, California recently asked me about doing the integrative preaching/teaching thing in small groups. Here was my response…

With respect to your question about small groups, I would say that the integrative principles are still sound. The difference would simply be in the way the various elements are utilized.

The “story”, for instance, is primarily about human connection. I’ve used role plays, games, puzzles, and yes, stories to create that connection.

The “point” element usually involves more discussion in a small group. The teacher/preacher in this case still has to lead, but they are able to use interaction as the means by which people are instructed.

I’ve found that the “mystery/problem” element is particularly powerful in small groups because you don’t have to speak for the listeners so much. They actually have the opportunity to describe their concerns for themselves. This can get pretty intense.

With respect to the vision or “difference” element, I have found it helpful to encourage groups to some project or hands-on response. Sometimes I have done this right in the meeting and other times we planned events for later on that we could do together.

 

The Warped Board

Have you ever tried to hold down a warped board? As soon as you get one side hammered down the other side pops up. Put your attention to that side and the first side pops back up. It can be maddening.

The same can be true of integrative preaching. You put your attention to the Word of God, trying to make sure that your explanations are clear and that your logic is sound only to discover that you’ve become boring. Your sermon lacks the experiential flavoring that your listeners want. So you think of some good stories and meaningful ways of encouraging response only to discover that you are taking time and energy away from your explanation of the text. You can’t keep both ends down.

Preaching feels like that sometime, but it doesn’t have to. The problem with the metaphor is that the board isn’t really warped – at least it doesn’t have to be. Cognition and Affection – Deduction and Induction – these things are not truly at war with each other. They describe a particular kind of emphasis, but they need not be opposed. A good story can speak to the mind if properly constructed. A strong proposition can awake emotion if we were to give some thought to how we shared it.

The board isn’t warped – not really.

 

Sermon Clutter

Every now and then my youngest daughter will come downstairs and complain that there is “nothing to do.” I say, “Come on, Katey, there are plenty of things to do. There are years of Christmas and birthday presents and toys of all descriptions in your bedroom just waiting to be played with.” But she is insistent. “No Daddy, there is nothing to do!” So I take her upstairs and after one look at her room I know exactly what she means. It’s not that there is nothing to do. The problem is that there is too much to do and that it is everywhere, strewn across the floor and piled to the rafters. The room is an undisciplined cluttered mess! I walk into her bedroom, being careful not to break anything by stepping on it. I pick up something, a toy, a game, or perhaps a book and show it to her. “How about this,” I say. “Oh,” she says, her face brightening, “I forgot all about that.” She takes it in her hand and she’s good for the next hour or so.

Sermons are like this all too often. They are cluttered. It’s all good stuff, there is just too much of it. The listener can’t get a hold of it because there is too much. Everything jumbles together and turns into goop. If we took a single element and looked at it carefully we would see its value, but in the mix of the sermon, it becomes almost inaccessible.

In preaching, the old adage is true – less is more. The clearest, most compelling sermons have the simplest structure. They don’t attempt too much. They are deep by being profoundly simple, not by being complex and cluttered. Perhaps one or two simple elements for each of the four major movements will be adequate. Less is more.

American novelist, Flannery O’Connor once said that the editing process is a lot like killing your babies. You gave birth to this stuff and it is extremely painful to put some of it to death. But then there is always next week. The things that might be set aside this sermon might be just the thing for another sermon later on.

Keep the sermon clean and uncluttered and people will be helped to hear from God.

 

The Event

When Isaiah entered the temple (Isaiah 6), he experienced the presence of God in a powerful way. Seraphs were flying, smoke was billowing, and the doorposts were shaking because God was present and he had something to say. I’m not sure I have ever literally felt the ground shake while I was preaching, but there have been moments. If you have been preaching for any length of time, you will know what I am talking about – those unrepeatable, incredible moments when God speaks in an almost audible voice.

Of course, if we faithfully preach God’s word, we can be confident that God is always speaking. It is just that we don’t always appreciate what is going on when the doorposts don’t actually quiver. We don’t always anticipate that God could change eternity through the preaching of his word. And yet, theologically, we understand that God is speaking whether we experience the fireworks or not. In other words, preachers and listeners need to take the event of the sermon much more seriously.

I believe that sermons are unique and un-publishable. Of course, you could print and distribute the words of a sermon so that it could be read at a subsequent time. However each time those words are read the product is a new sermon. That is to say that it is always a new event whenever God speaks to whoever is accessing his word. Sermons ought to be time and date-stamped because they speak into a specific moment in time. The message of the sermon is what God wants to say through this text to these people at this time. This is to say that the delivery of a sermon is an event that cannot be replicated exactly. Each sermon is unique, never to be repeated exactly, and thus to be relished and anticipated.

What’s the Big Idea?

Every sermon ought to have a point – at least one. This is the message that we seek to discover in exegesis, but there only ought to be one message per sermon. Haddon Robinson reminds us that rhetoricians and experts on public speaking have been unanimous on the issue, public messages ought to focus on a single idea. “A sermon should be a bullet, not buckshot,” Robinson says (Biblical Preaching, 35). If a preacher cannot articulate the big idea of a sermon in a single concise statement, there will likely be confusion in the pulpit. Careful construction of a theme statement will help to discipline the preacher’s thought and the sermon itself so that the listener will have no trouble discerning the central truth of the sermon and of the biblical text.

The big idea of the sermon ought to match closely with the big idea of the text. Steven Matthewson, in his book The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative, counsels a progression in thinking about the big idea, beginning with the exegetical idea, building toward a theological idea, and ultimately a preaching or homiletic idea.

 

Text: Exodus 33:12-34:17

Exegetical Idea: Although God is so powerful that Moses cannot handle a look at his presence, God is driven by compassion, grace, patience, love, and forgiveness.

Theological Idea: Although God is so powerful that a human being cannot handle a look at his presence, God is driven by compassion, grace, patience, love, and forgiveness!

Homiletical Idea: The God who has the power to fry you is incredibly good!
Or how about this one…

 

Text: Genesis 22:1-19

Exegetical Idea: Abraham put obedience to God first even though he faced the prospect of sacrificing his son Isaac.

Theological Idea: Faithful worshipers of God will put obedience to God first even when there is great cost involved.

Homiletic Idea: The greatest thing you can do for your kids is to worship God, not your kids!

You will notice that the “homiletic idea” is shorter and has some punch to it. I would suggest that the big idea of the sermon (the “theme statement”) ought to have the following components…

-It ought to be a complete declarative sentence so that it is something we can actually say in the sermon.

-It ought to be stated in twelve words or less, not that twelve is a magic number. It simply serves to keep the idea concise.

-No conjuntions (ands, ifs, buts, …) ought to be in the statement if we are trying to say one thing well.

-It ought to be image rich (visual) and suggestive to the listeners.

 

Some examples, then…

1 Kings 17: God stands behind his Word.

Matthew 16:24-26: In this life only the losers win.

James 2: Faith has no favorites.

1 John 1:5-7: God doesn’t hide in the dark.

Of course, some texts have multiple ideas. There might be a big idea, a bigger idea, and a biggest idea. One doesn’t have to preach the biggest idea every time, as long as what is preached remains faithful to the intent of the biblical passage.

 

The Image Grid

Traditionally, sermon illustration has been understood as adding raisins to one’s oatmeal. The theory is that the oatmeal is the nutritious part of the meal, but it isn’t all that tasty. If we want people to be able to choke it down we need to add some tasty little raisins.
There are two problems with this approach. First, who says oatmeal can’t taste good? If the significant content of the sermon is well prepared, it can be as tasty and palatable as anything else. Second, who says story and image is only supplemental? It would seem that Jesus showed us that narrative or image can be as powerful a carrier of content as anything else. It may be well to understand that at many points in the preaching process, the story is the thing, not just the illustration of the thing.
To illustrate a sermon would be to color it in, to add the imagery that gives the content life and energy. One could argue, that content without color is of little use. It is the life relevance of the truth that gives it meaning in space and time. Without the “illustration” the idea is only abstract and not particularly useful.

Sermons need imagery, story, and metaphor if they will speak with power into people’s lives. The best images, of course, are organically developed. It is rare that an internet site or a book of “5000 Sermon Illustrations” can offer the connection that comes between preacher and listener when the image comes from the text of Scripture and the text of the listener’s lives. The best place to look for imagery for the sermon is from the text itself. From there the preacher can brainstorm, extrapolating all kinds of related pictures, stories, and points of connection through oral imagery. It is best, of course, if the text/sermon itself allows for the development of the imagery. If we lead with the illustration, we might find that the story shapes the thought of the sermon instead of the text.

David Buttrick (Homiletic) has written of what he calls, “The Image Grid.” “We are not merely trying to gather a bunch of “impact” illustrations, we are designing a grid of interrelating images to serve a particular structure of thought” (157).These images, stories, metaphors, and analogies weave together to from an underlying image grid for an entire sermon, much like what you would find in a well constructed poem. Forming such a grid may require the preacher to jettison some excellent material in the pursuit of a tightly woven grid, but then some of that material might suit another sermon better. Images work best when they fit together.