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.

Perpetual Preparation

Preachers never truly quit preaching, or thinking about their preaching. There is always another sermon to preach just around the corner and there is always something happening that will remind us. preparation

We never turn the preacher switch off. Some snipet of a song reminds of something from our next week’s sermon text. A seemingly unrelated conversation with a friend turns our thinking in a helpful direction as we think about our exposition. We’re always ‘on.’

I am thinking, however, that this might actually only a problem if we have over-professionalized our approach to preaching. If we see our preaching as a function of our employment – a burden we bear to sustain an income, or to service our sense of professional obligation – this always-on approach will make our preaching feel like work and will deaden our ability to know joy in the patterns of our living.

If, on the other hand, preaching is not just what we do, but who we are, we might find that preaching-as-a-way-of-life could actually be life-giving.

I am not saying that as preachers we must always be looking for someone to preach at, or that we derive our sense of identity or worth from the preaching that we do. I am actually calling for a healthier view of preaching altogether.

Preaching is the privilege of sharing life from the perspective of the gospel. It is about constantly and consistently listening for the voice of the Spirit and hearing that voice everywhere and in everything. It is about learning how to process the stuff of life from the prospective of God’s Word, and understanding how all we see and find can be expressed or addressed from a godly perspective.

This is an incredibly fulfilling way to do life. The fact that we will then have the opportunity to share what we have been learning with others in formal and informal ways only deepens the benefit.

This is not always looking to get a sermon. This approach to preaching is a trained way of appropriating life. I have had some of my best sermon ideas come to me while lying on a beach while on vacation, or while picking through the stalls at a farmer’s market. This is not because I am unhealthy or because I am not properly engaged in the practices of rest and sabbath. It is because I am at rest that I am well prepared to hear something profound from God.

Preaching, then, is more than just the precision of particular texts and pericopes. It is bigger than that. Preaching does not live within the pages of a commentary. You have to let your sermon out into the world so it can breathe. Only then will the sermon be fully filled with the inspired breath of God.

It is OK to be Interesting

There is a sense out there, that it is somehow unfaithful for a preacher to work at being interesting. The thought seems to be that faithful preachers give their attention solely to the Word and not to any other feature that might actually be helpful to the listener in their desire to hear. You will forgive me if sound a little cynical, but I am just coming off listening to two consecutive sermons that were each 90 minutes of running commentary on the Scripture. The preacher was truthful, but he was hard to hear.blackpreacher

I believe that it is the crying need of every human to hear the Word of God. The Word is our source of truth and that ought to be enough. The Word requires nothing beyond itself to transform those who hear it. The Word is the Word. It is sufficient in itself.

But this does not mean that there is anything unworthy or unholy about a preacher who works to help the listener hear. Consider the fact that we are called to preach at all. Somehow, the Lord considered it of value for a human preacher to bring his or her humanity to the task, helping people to hear by the explanation, exhortation, and endorsement of a preacher. I consider this to be one of the most wonderful aspects of God’s grace.

The divine and human nature of preaching is a beautiful mystery. We know that God does not need us. The Word is not deepened or improved by our expressions of it. Still, God not only tolerates our representations of his Word, he requires them. In the same spirit as the incarnation, preaching puts flesh to the Word. Our expression of the Word helps humans to appropriate its message. As human preachers, we bring our stories, our word pictures, and our turns of phrase, employing all these things in the service of the Word’s own intention.

Preachers are compelled to bring their best to the task. That means we bring our insight, our creativity, and our artistry, such that the Word is made compelling to those others like us who have gathered with us to hear. Our work in preaching does not preclude or disempower the work that God himself is doing in the task. God is pleased to protect his Word as his servants preach it.

It goes without saying that creative and compelling preaching is easier to hear. If such preaching faithfully presents the intention of the Word, this will help the people hear. It is in the very nature of what we are called to do.

Standing on Shoulders

We all stand on other people’s shoulders. We all benefit from the boost offered by those who came before. There is a sense that this dependency is to be despised – that greatness is defined by an absolute inventiveness. But this idea that we ought and could create out of nothing is both foolish and arrogant. The wise ones among us understand how to benefit from and build upon work done already by others before. In so doing, we pay these people honour and we extend the legacy of their offerings.standingonshoulders

It is particularly important for preachers to understand this standing upon shoulders. The prevalence of sermons on the internet has empowered a wave of pulpit plagiarism. Pastors fear the real possibility of dismissal should they rely too heavily on the work of others, which is difficult because there is so much good work being done by others. Why should we deprive our congregations of the excellence that is available and which has fuelled our love for our craft and calling? If a sermon on YouTube is more compelling than what I could put together on my own, would it not be better that I offer that to my people? It would certainly save a lot of time and effort.

Most of us understand the falsity of this question of expedience. We understand the value of the preacher bringing original work, forged in the fire of a particular context with a specific group of people. At the very least, we can understand that this is what people feel that they are paying for and that it would be dishonest for us to represent the work of others as the fruit of our own labours and the congregation’s investment. For most of us, the real issue takes on a deeper nuance.

This morning I was going through some old notes, and found some jotted comments from my hearing of a friend’s sermon. It was a great sermon and I found myself thinking that I might like to preach it. Well, not his sermon exactly, but certainly his text, and probably its general direction. If God had been pleased to bless me by the work of my friend, I ought to be able to offer that same blessing to others. The text is the text. The truth is the truth. How would this be any different than my singing someone else’s song or playing someone else’s video?

There would be no difference, of course, so long as I was willing to tell everyone that the sermon had been written or substantially built by someone else. The fact that I would find it almost impossible to do so, tells me all I need to know about the propriety of such a thing. My people expect my sermon, forged in dialogue with a God by his Word and by his Spirit. To admit that I was preaching someone else’s sermon would not fly, at least not very often.

But this is not to say that I could not, nor should not utilize the value of my friend’s sermon. In fact, I believe that it would be honouring to his work if I did. Of course, I must go further. I must stand on his shoulders and in so doing, see if I could see a little further. We see this when we share in conversation. One person offers an idea. The next person hears it and comments on the first, intending to advance the understanding of them both. The second comment stands upon the shoulders of the first, with the third and fourth comments reaching even higher.

Of course, it would be disingenuous then for me to take the result of this homiletic conversation and own it entirely as my own. If I were, rather, to share the source of my original thoughts, I bear tribute to my friend and I elevate the authority of what I have offered. People see that there is a progeny to my thinking which gives to it a greater credence.

Perhaps this is exactly what we should be doing. Would it not be awesome if we could grow to celebrate the preaching of each other’s sermons in the full light of day, paying full tribute to each other, while consciously advancing the effects of one another’s work. This would be like we treat our sermons as open source materials, expecting and even hoping that others will take what we have given and make more of it for the good of God’s Kingdom.

This might require a culture change, but I believe that such a change could draw us closer to the culture of the Kingdom, because of both the improving content of our preaching, but also for the spirit of it.

Preachers Listening to Preaching

It struck me recently that preaching would be greatly improved if preachers listened to more preaching. This is difficult when we are the ones charged to preach to our congregations every week. But there is a significant difference between offering sermons and listening to sermons. If preachers could hear sermons more than just preaching crowdlisteningsermons, their preaching might improve.

I know that most of us listen to our favourite preachers online or via podcasts, and that has to be helpful. But it is not the same thing as sitting in a congregation in the context of worship and hearing a sermon. Preachers have assumptions. Listeners have expectations. The two are not always aligned.

I had two recent sermon listening experiences that were painful. Everything the preachers said was worthy. I did not have any theological or exegetical concerns. It is just that the sermons were tedious to listen to. It took a significant amount of intention on my part to pay attention – and I will admit that I did not fully succeed. A few conversations after the services indicated to me that other listeners had the same trouble.

I wonder what was going on in the mind of the preachers. I suspect that they were oblivious. They had passion for their subjects. They believed what they were saying. They simply droned on, seemingly unaware of the mind-numbing nature of their presentation. What would they have thought if they knew what was going on in the mind of their listeners.

I’m sure they would have been devastated. Surely, this was not what they intended as they poured themselves into preparation. It is just that somewhere along the way, they forgot about the fact that people have to listen to what they are saying and that it isn’t always easy.

The success of our preaching is largely the work of the Holy Spirit who has promised to work through the faithful communication of the truth of Scripture. I get that on a theological level, but as a listener in the crowd, my experience has not always seemed so fruitful. I don’t want to blame the Spirit. I am sure that I bear some of the blame myself. But there is no doubt that the preacher could do something to make the hearing of their sermons less of a chore. As they care about the gospel, I would think that they would want to.

A good place to start might be for preachers to listen to more sermons. We might have to clear time to visit elsewhere on Sundays, to attend some conferences, or to schedule more guest preachers, but somehow, we need to get the experience from the perspective of our listeners. We need to appreciate what it is like to sit and to listen.

This should be a certain kind of listening, attentive to what is happening inside of us as we hear. Is this sermon a delight to listen to or a drudgery? Do I have to strain to follow? I am not suggesting that we turn ourselves into critics, but that we tune ourselves to the experience of our listeners so that we can be more helpful to them when next we get up to preach.

We may even want to listen to more of our own recorded sermons, though that might be painful. It is easy for us to project difficulties with others without giving the same level of scrutiny to ourselves. Self-awareness is an important trait for preachers.

I do believe that truth has its own compelling power. But I also know that as a preacher, I am called to exercise my gifting to produce something that is attractive to listeners and that will create a hearing. Part of this is about sound and careful exegesis. But some of it, is about being creative and engaging.

So, preacher, have you heard any great preaching lately?


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.

The Ring of Truth

Preaching is not viable if preachers are not preaching truth. If we were not offering truth, we have no right to stand and speak.truth

People have largely given up on truth, at least as it touches on the biggest questions of our life, identity, and way of being. Truth seems beyond us – certainly beyond our capacity to preach. Even if we could understand what is true for our personal existence, the thought that we could know truth for others well enough to proclaim it to a gathered group seems to be beyond us. We might have some level of confidence about our own selves, at least until things break down, but we have little hope of identifying such for others. Even when we do think we have some proven insight we could offer, it will likely not be well received if pressed with a tone of too much confidence.

Preachers are different. Preachers have the kind of confidence that would allow them to speak the truth – for themselves and for others also. This is not because of the preacher’s own personal wisdom, but because the preacher believes that God has spoken and is speaking through his Word and by his Spirit. To the degree that preachers speak the things that God is saying, they represent and share the truth. Preachers preach because they have this conviction that God is making himself known in the world, in part through preachers who instruct people in his Word.

This is a tremendous claim. If preachers are correct in this assertion, then everybody ought to listen to them. It is a complicated world and a sure and moral compass ought to be of highest value. Why would we not pay attention to the wisdom of the universe? Why would we prefer our own wisdom when we can only see so far. Why would we not welcome the voice of a preacher?

Perhaps, because we do not trust the preacher. It may be we have heard too many truthless preachers, infatuated with the sound of their own voice and inflated with the arrogance of their opinions. Perhaps listeners just don’t have the faith to believe that God could exist and speak into the world that he created. It is a risky position. If people are wrong in this, they will have seriously miscalculated.

Truth preached ought to bear the ring of truth, wherever it is heard. Humans have been created so as to recognize the voice of their Creator. When we convey the Word of God, it rings a bell for people whose capacity to hear has not too greatly been eroded. People might not like what they hear, but if the message is truthful, it will leave a mark. The people God is calling will hear what he is saying. Whether they will respond is another question.

Preachers ought to trade in truth. Only then will preaching have authority. Truthful preaching has a right to be spoken. Truthful preaching has a need to be heard.

The Vulnerable Preacher

Preaching is a vulnerable activity. Anytime anybody stands in front of a crowd there is personal risk involved. Expressing oneself, especially in an authoritative tone on controversial subjects is an invitation to trouble.images

Speaking publicly invites accountability. Everything we say in public is open to critique by our audience. In this day of social media, we may find ourselves accountable to an even broader audience of people who were not even present when we preach. This might not be a big deal if we were preaching to appreciative audiences, but increasingly we find our message to be at odds with the culture – and sometimes even with the church. It might be a whole lot easier just to sit down and keep quiet.

Given this, it is surprising that people still stand up to speak at all. Yet it seems that there are more voices speaking now than ever. Public communication is instant and ubiquitous. Every person has a media channel. Every opinion has a megaphone. It is not lost on me that this very act of blogging is a case in point. In such an environment, offering critical comment, sometimes scathing critical comment, seems safe and perhaps even appropriate. Of course there is a need to interact helpfully and critically to public discourse, but in these times when “flaming” is an anonymous and risk-free activity, it makes one wonder whether preaching is a safe activity.

We were never promised that preachers would be treated well or that the proclamation of the gospel would be received well. They killed Jesus, after all. It seems that preachers are being reminded once again that our calling comes at cost. Preachers are vulnerable.

Perhaps we should be. Preachers are probably at their best when they are most open to critique. If we work to protect ourselves, either by holding back what we say, or limiting those to whom we say it, we could probably do damage to the gospel that we preach. It is a kind of irony, that the preacher who shows transparency and who could be most vulnerable as a result, might actually be most greatly appreciated for the authenticity displayed.

When Paul spoke to Timothy about “preaching the Word,” he rested his authority on two sources: the Word of course, which is profitable for doctrine, teaching, and rebuke, but also on his own personal authority, where he had been, what he had suffered, and who had taught him (1 Timothy 3). Paul’s preaching was marked by an oxymoronic confident vulnerability. This is the kind of preaching that God seems to want to use.

Vulnerable preaching can be great preaching, when it does not have to lack conviction.

A Vision for Your Preaching

It has long been common for pastors and leaders to describe “vision statements” for their churches and ministries, but how about a vision statement for your preaching? Where are you going with your preaching? What is it that you are trying to accomplish by this effort?visionthumbnail

A vision statement for preaching could be offered at both the macro and the micro level. We could work on a grand, encompassing vision for our overarching ministry of preaching.  We could also speak about the vision we have for each specific sermon.

A vision statement for my preaching ministry might sound something like, “Through the practice of my preaching, people and churches will be led to hear from God through his Word and by his Spirit such that the Kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven.”

If that sounds too much like a generic mission statement, the vision could be further located and defined by saying something like, “Through the practice of my preaching, the people of _____________ Church will be lead to hear from God in growing numbers and deepening ways such that the ____________ Church is increasingly recognized as a compelling and fruitful manifestation of the Kingdom God on earth as it is in heaven.”

If even that sounds like something any preacher could say, it might be more useful to focus on a micro vision for the preaching that we offer. What about this particular sermon? What is our vision for the specific sermon that I expect to preach this Sunday? Could I describe the intended outcome of the preaching of this sermon? Could I describe how things will change because we all have invested energy in listening to God in this particular moment?

“As God’s people at ___________ Church listen to God as he speaks by his Spirit through our study of how Word as it is found in (specific text), we will together be compelled to ____________________________________________ such that individual lives are _________________, our relationships are ______________________, and our community is _____________________.”

This is obviously just a broad example. The wording doesn’t matter greatly. The main concern is that the preacher gives some attention to trying to visualize the outcome of the preaching of this sermon.

Great athletes talk about the value of visualization – rehearsing in advance an inner visual picture of a preferred eventual result. Preachers, also, need to pre-hearse their expectation for their preaching. If we do not have some idea where we are going with this, it will be difficult for us to take our people there.

This is, perhaps, another way of talking about ‘application.’ Preaching has to go beyond the mere expression of ideas. But preaching also has to go beyond the abstract. Preaching has to land. We need to lead people to actual response in real time. Describing a vision for our sermons, is a way of holding ourselves accountable to a way of preaching that results in tangible results.

If we can see it, we might be able to describe it. If we can describe it, we might be able to achieve it.

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

Dispatches from the Meetings of the Evangelical Homiletics Society

by Kent Anderson

This year’s meetings were held at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. The theme of the event was Preaching and Biblical Literacy. The keynote speaker was Al Mohler, president of Southern.

Dr. Mohler chose to speak chiefly on the ubiquity of secularization and the place of
preaching as a “survival strategy” within such times. Mohler was thoughtful and well informed on the subject, particularly on the matter of the spread of the secular. He spoke of how we need to encourage our best and brightest to move to the cities, the coasts, and the campuses in order to conbanner_2015_01tinue to have influence. The period of Christian dominance, however, he said is clearly over. The fact that a man like Mohler, from his position at Southern would observe this was striking. There is perhaps no place in a North America where an evangelical Christian faith is more fully ensconced than in the south (and in this seminary). If Mohler is feeling it in Louisville, than the phenomena has truly spread everywhere.

I had the privilege of offering a formal response to his addresses, which I found to be helpful given my location in Vancouver, one of the most secular cities on the continent. I mentioned that in my experience, secularity was not something new to be survived, but a normal way of being. This does not mean, however that God is absent or that the Kingdom is not present. Some of God’s most profound works are seen in these places where the contrast is most deeply felt.

Still, I understand the sense of loss that many feel. No doubt, there is something here that could be grieved. Cultural dominance was never promised us nor described for us in the Scriptures. Still, such a privileged position has had its benefits, not to mention its comforts. From my perspective, however, such a way of being seem curious in the way that might a foreign culture or a museum exhibit. Mohler used this metaphor himself, suggesting that this is how people in the broader culture now look at Christians generally. We are reduced to curiosities, not even generating hostility any more. If that is so, and it probably is, I guess that I am used to it.

It is not so bad. Secularization of the culture is not the end of the church or the demise of the Kingdom. On the contrary, it might offer opportunity for it. The Bible has not promised we would achieve the Kingdom, as it if would come through the sweep of our cultural influence. Preaching will always be heard by those who have an ear for it. There might be here a need for some adjustment in our attitude and our approach, but there is no reason to despair for preaching or for the gospel. Mohler knows this and it was good to hear him say it.

As to other aspects of the conference, the papers presented were well conceived and very helpful. I was particularly appreciative of Ben Walton’s fine work on communication theories and their potential for preaching, Rod Casey on the leading questions that can help a sermon move, and Glenn Watson, who wrote helpfully on the place and use of metanarrative. Many other excellent pieces were presented. Fifteen papers were accepted from 53 proposals.

The Society seems to be maturing as it approaches its 20th year. While preaching must always be more than academic, it can be helped by those who are willing to examine its practice closely. To find out more or to learn how to join us in Texas next October, go to

A Well Turned Phrase

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Half as Much is Twice as Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preaching as Leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Good Enough Enough?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Manuscript or Memorize

I have been having a bit of a debate recently with some of my students about memorization. If we value a more look-the-audience-in-the-face kind of extemporanaeity, are we better to memorize written manuscripts or should we allow ourselves more freedom to invent our specific verbal constructions in the moment of our preaching?memorize copy

The former offers the ability to craft the sermon carefully and with precision. It also allows the preacher to move faster with a greater and perhaps more dynamic rate of speech. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine a manner of preparation that would require a greater amount of time, both in the writing and in the memorizing. Secondly, memorizing is risky, given that it can end up coming off more like reciting than actually preaching, and when the words don’t come, the preacher can feel exposed and vulnerable.

The latter approach, construction on the fly, offers more of an in-the-moment sense of authenticity. The listener gets the sense that the preacher didn’t just pull this off the shelf, but that there is real communication going on. This way is also more manageable within the pattern of a busy preacher’s life. The downside, of course, is that the preacher learns to rely too much on the possibility of “winging it,” or coming to the sermon poorly prepared. Without a substantial amount of skill, this form of preaching can sometimes ramble and lose its focus.

I have typically counselled different approaches to the matter depending upon various factors. For example, the ‘manuscript and memorize’ approach might serve well a preacher who is less experienced and less confident, especially with those who are working in second languages. I have also noticed that this method is used by some large church pastors whose schedule and assignment allows a greater amount of time for preparation. Conversely, church planters and smaller church pastors who have limited amounts of time, will see obvious benefit in a more spontaneous approach, as will preachers who are working with youth groups and younger congregations.

Often, preachers will gravitate to some form of hybrid approach – working with a more limited set of notes, while practicing as much as time will permit. Over time, these preachers find a middle ground that works well with their context, their schedule, and their personal temperament. This works for some, though others find the presence of text, even in the form of partial notes to be cognitively distracting from the primary goal of actually communicating with the gathered crowd.

Clearly, there is no correct approach to the matter. We will all have to assess our own capacities and find an approach that allows us to offer the truth with a sufficient sense of precision while at the same time offering the required sense of presence. 

EHS: Hermeneutics for Homiletics

I have just returned from the annual meetings of the Evangelical Homiletics Society at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, where the theme for the event was “Hermeneutics for Homiletics.” The keynote speaker was Abe Kuruvilla from Dallas Seminary, whose seminal book, “Privilege the Text” was unpacked for the benefit of those who attended.ehs2014

To speak of hermeneutics and homiletics is to struggle with the perennial challenge of overcoming the gap we sense between our interpretive work and our expressive work. In other words, how do we take what we have learned from Scripture and turn into something we can preach?

Kuruvilla’s answer is to discern the theology in the text. What is God doing with this passage from his word? What is it that the word accomplishes in salvation history and in the lives of our listeners? We are pretty good as preachers determining the technical interpretation of a passage. “What is the text saying?”, is our go-to hermeneutical question. “What is the text doing with what it is saying?”, is a much more powerful question.

Kuruvilla’s question took me back to my studies years ago in the Canonical Interpretation strategies of scholars like Brevard Childs and John Sailhammer. It can be powerful to understand the Scriptures as the product of an Author (with a capital “A”) who has acted with intention in the construction of his Word. When we look at a passage for how it moves and what it achieves both across the sweep of history and in its current expression among those of us who encounter it today, we treat the text the way it was intended. The Word of God is living and active. It is not solely a matter of determining what it said (past tense), but what is says (present tense) as we encounter the text today.

This theological approach to the passage is helpful when we go to preach. If we can appreciate the activity of the text, the gap will shrink to almost nothing. We might learn not just how to read the text and today. We might learn to see that the text is today.

The Future of Homiletics

I was recently asked to answer the following question for a journal forum: “What is the future of homiletics?” The following was my response…

When I think about the future of homiletics, as distinct from the future of preaching, I am futurethinking about the way that we encourage excellence in the preaching that is done. As a homiletician, I am charged with thinking deeply about the nature of preaching and how to go about helping others grow more effective in their practice of their calling. This leads me, then, to two key thoughts. The first will be about the way we conceive of preaching, and the second will be about the way by which might develop people for this work in the near future.

As to our conception of preaching, I would say that the future will demand us to be far more integrative. Preaching that merely instructs, or which solely engages, will not be satisfying to people who are no longer compelled by culture or tradition to listen to our sermons. Of course, the Scriptures themselves are full of examples of preachers who were careful not only to offer teaching, but also to tell stories, to paint pictures, and to offer prayers. The preaching of the prophets, the apostles, and of Jesus himself, were rich with metaphor, object lessons, and expressive language. Think, for one example, of Jeremiah’s belt. They were varied in their forms utilizing narrative, poetry, didactic teaching and so much more. The preachers of the Bible located their preaching in life. They were pleased to offer abstract theological thought, but they were always careful to root what they had to say in the real experience of their listeners.

Today we hear a lot of hard-core exegetical and theological preaching and I am grateful for it. I believe we needed a return to biblical rootedness and a deeper approach to the word of God. I would like to think that the future, then, could retain this depth, while seeking for broader and more integrated expressions of these truths. If we could do this, we could take our preaching to another level of impact.

As to the development of preachers, I believe we the future is going to be a lot more context-based. Actually, I think that all of theological education is moving in this direction. At my own seminary, we have embraced a fully mastery-model, outcomes-based to pastoral development, including the development of preachers.

What this means is that preaching will be proved more in the church than in the classroom. There will be room for us to discuss theory and to teach technique, but increasingly, this will be done through mentoring in place. Preachers will have to show that they can actually help people hear from God in the context of their ministries instead of only satisfying their professors in the security of the classroom.

This change is going to challenge the identity of some of us classroom teachers. I think we are in danger of having found our meaning more in our positions and our systems than in our callings. If we could free ourselves to think theologically about the outcomes we have been called to pursue, we might do a lot of things differently in the future and we might be more effective.

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.

Straw Man Sermons

Getting listeners to respond to our preaching is not easy. Most of what we want to say they’ve heard us say before. How do we get them to pay attention, buy in, and respond to our messages? In our hunger to overcome audience apathy, it can be tempting to resort to cheap homiletics tricks.Straw Man

One of those time-tested tricks is the straw man illustration. These are stories that gather the listener to our side in opposition to an absent foil. The example described is usually so obvious in its inadequacy that the listener unites with the preacher, chuckling derisively at these imagined others who obviously don’t have a clue.

It is just too easy.

For example, I recently heard a preacher describe a long-past church board meeting where the elders were so far off mission that they spent twenty minutes of their precious meeting time debating what brand of toilet paper should be used in the church washroom. Of course, the audience was galvanized, clucking their disapproval, laughing easily at the stupidity of this board. It was homiletic child’s play – uniting the people against the straw man, easily knocked down for the entertainment, and not the edification, of the audience.

The whole thing felt cheap and easy. The inadequacy of this description was so obvious that no one in the audience had to own the preacher’s point. The preacher felt good because he got the people with him. He had them listening, but he wasn’t actually actually able to help them because it was too easy for the people to escape the weight of the sermon’s point. There wasn’t a single person in the crowd who would ever be tempted in the same way as was this long-past board. The example was too ridiculous to bear credibility. As a result, the critique was pointed elsewhere – at those present only in the imagination.

There is never much point preaching against “those people” who make an easy target because they are not in attendance. When the focus is on “those people,” the people who are actually present in the congregation, attending to the sermon, don’t have to bother facing accountability because they are not made of the straw the preacher is knocking down.

Do we have a problem with staying on mission in board and committee meetings? Of course we do! Do we struggle to maintain biblical focus in favour of the things that make us comfortable? Absolutely! So maybe we should talk about those challenges directly and as they really happen, framing our examples and our exhortations in realistic terms that do not allow listeners to so easily escape the necessary scrutiny.

Straw men serve the preacher’s ego. Real examples are more risky – but they might also be more compelling…and more powerful.

Lifeway Research on the Use of the Bible in Preaching

I was encouraged by Ed Stetzer’s comments regarding the use of the Bible in preaching. Stetzer, working with his team from Lifeway Research, listened to 450 sermons from invididual preachers and came up with the following four conclusions:450Sermons

1. The Word Should be Heard. Our central task as preachers is to present God’s Word…

2. The Word Should be Organized. If God is orderly…then the preaching of his Word should be as well…

3. The Word Should be Sufficient. …The best way to explain Scripture is with Scripture itself…

4. The Word Should be Useful. God’s Word should make a difference in the lives of our listeners…

These insights might not be surprising, but they are useful. The full report from Stetzer is as follows…

At LifeWay Research, we recently studied the variety of ways pastors use the Bible by looking at 450 different sermons (all by different preachers). We gave our research team the audio files of these sermons and some objective questions about how the preacher handled God’s Word. Let me share about the research and my views on preaching at the same time.

In these sermons, the preachers handled God’s Word differently. The way pastors organized their sermons varied widely. Half of pastors traveled verse-by-verse through a passage, and almost half organized their sermons around a theme. Almost one out of five pastors named and explained a Greek word in their sermon. More than half explained verses by using other verses in the Bible.

Even though different preachers handle the Word differently, I believe they’re all obligated to teach it as authoritative, not merely as a scriptural footnote proving something they already wanted to say. Four things have to be true about a pastor’s handling of the Bible if that pastor is to preach authoritatively.

Read More

Preaching Through Your Church

We usually think of preaching as what the preacher does, but what if the objectives of preaching could be shared and magnified through the activity of those who listen? What if our preaching was able to extend beyond what happens when we stand to speak?sharing

Robert Campbell and I came to the conclusion that the effects of our preaching could be exponentially realized if we were able to multiply our impact by purposefully working through the sermon to empower listeners to replicate the intentions and impact of the sermon through their personal network. We call this “Preaching Through Your Church.”

We have learned, for example, that social media is a way by which communication can be amplified. We think that preaching can be also. You can read more here.


This article was originally published in Preaching magazine.

Developing Touch

Key to success in such varied pursuits as golf, piano, and preaching, is the ability to develop a sense of “touch.” Sinking a double breaking twelve foot downhill putt, or shaping the perfect diminuendo at the conclusion of well expressed sonata, requires a sense of touch that separates the many from the masters. deft

This quality is less a matter of dexterity than it is of deftness. Touch is less skill than it is a mastery of an attentive heart. Artists that understand the expression of their subject know that what differentiates greatness is less the display of technical brilliance than it is the exposure of any array of intangible elements. It is all a matter of touch.

Great preachers display the same quality when they display a deftness of touch. Excellence is seen in preachers who understand, innately perhaps, the exact amount of emphasis required by each element of the sermon. Such preachers know how to develop a story to the point of optimum impact without ever deteriorating into the maudlin. Similarly, these preachers appreciate how to work an idea to the point of understanding without ever pushing past to the point where the impact has been blunted by a heavier touch than what is warranted.

Of course the other side can offer a pitfall also. Great preachers do not assume too much of their listeners, underplaying their propositions, or assuming a greater facility and awareness on the part of their listeners than what they are actually capable of. There are ditches on both sides of this particular road.

I have played a lot of golf and a lot of guitar and I can tell you that there is only one way to develop touch, and that is to play a lot. The only way our preaching will gain this kind of deftness will be through frequency of preaching. Listening to preaching (including our own) also helps. Ironically, touch is related to another of the senses – namely, our sense of hearing. The more we listen to great preaching, the more we will develop our ear, making it easier to appreciate just how heavy our touch will need to be. Attentiveness to our listeners would not, also be ill-served.

I can think of numerous sermons where the impact was blunted either by an overly expressed and over anxious conclusion. I have heard preachers who “had me” at a point, but then proceeded to “lose me” by pushing beyond the necessary to the narcoleptic. Oh, for preachers who understand that most often, less is more. What would we give if our preachers could gain a tangible sense of touch.

The Big Moment

For years I have profited from Haddon Robinson’s teaching that every sermon ought to offer a single “big idea.” This has always struck as a sensible approach both to exegesis and communication. The big idea has been a staple of my preaching and my teaching of preaching for many years.worship

Recently, in addition to my teaching of the big idea, i have added the concept of a big moment.

I believe that the best sermons move. Not only are we concerned to explain and apply a significant proposition from the biblical text, but we are concerned to mobilize people toward an actual encounter with the God who has spoken this big idea. Great preaching will bring the listener to a point of ‘conviction’ where a deep reckoning with the spiritual and practical consequences of the idea must be engaged. This is a worshipful moment in the presence of God – a holy moment of brokenness, humility, and openness to the presence and will of God.

Typically, we have left this sort of thing to the worship leaders. We believe that this moment of reckoning will occur as we come together in prayer or in song after the sermon has been completed. But I am not willing to cede that much ground to the guitar players (and I, myself am a guitar player!). As the preacher, I see myself as the primary worship leader, which means that worship must comprise a significant portion of my sermon.

For his to happen, I believe that the preacher must actually create space in the sermon, clearing room for this climactic moment. I believe that the preacher must actually craft a sense of movement in the sermon that brings the listener to a point of homiletic climax. I am not content to just assume that the listener will find time to be responsive to God’s Spirit. I believe that I need to take personal responsibility to carve out room for this to happen. I suspect that this would be a more productive use of our time than if we were to clarify yet another point.

Preaching is about helping people toward transformation as they hear the voice of God. Taking a greater sense of responsibility for the encouragement of this transformation would be a good move for most of us preachers.

We understand we need to articulate a big idea. Now let us see if we can lead our people toward a big moment in the presence of God by his Holy Spirit.

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

A few months ago, David Murray offered a blogpost over at in which he raised questions concerning the kind of sermons that can harm those who are suffering from clinical and other forms of mental depression. I was impressed with his insight and thought I would share the substance of it here. These, according to Murray, are offerings by which “preachers can harm the depressed.”depresssion

Sermons that over-stress the moral evils of the day. They are anxious enough through hearing the daily news without every church service ramping up the “we’re doomed” rhetoric. A steady diet of gloomy sermons is not going to lift up the head or heart of the cast down.

Sermons that include graphic descriptions of violence. They are deeply traumatized by preachers reciting the gory details of shooting massacres, abortion procedures, persecution of Christians, child murders, etc.

Sermons that extol constant happiness as the only valid and virtuous Christian experience. The deep pain of depression is multiplied when a depressed person is repeatedly told that sadness is a sin.

Sermons that question the faith of anyone who doubts. A lack of assurance is not necessarily a lack of faith. Believers who hang on to God despite feeling no assurance sometimes have the greatest faith.

Sermons that demand, demand, and demand.The depressed person already feels like an inadequate failure. To be regularly berated for not doing this ministry, or failing to engage in that Christian service, only crushes what’s left of their spirit.

Sermons that are too loud for too long. When a preacher pours out high-decibel words with hardly a breath between them for 45 minutes, it’s not just the nerves of the depressed that are frayed.

Sermons that condemn anyone for using meds to treat depression or anxiety. These are often preached by pastors whose medicine cabinets are overflowing with pills and potions for every other condition under the sun!

Sermons that overdo the subjective side of Christian experience. Depressed people need to focus most on the objective facts of Christianity, the historic doctrines of the faith. Facts first and feelings follow. There’s a place for careful self-examination, but remember McCheyne’s rule: “For every look inside, take ten looks to Christ.”

As I read Murray’s list, it occurred to me that these are sermons that might depress me and I experience fairly robust mental health on most days. This is a pretty good list of homiletic ills to be avoided by any of us, whether we are preaching to the mentally unstable or not.

Murray’s prescription is that we “preach Christ” and I must affirm the sheer awesomeness of his call, for the sake of the depressed, the discouraged, and all of us who depend upon the gospel for our mental and spiritual security…

Preach His suffering and sympathizing humanity. Preach His gentle and tender dealings with trembling and timid sinners. Preach His gracious and merciful words. Preach His beautiful meekness. Preach His miracles to demonstrate His power to heal. Preach His finished work on Calvary. Preach His offer of rest to the weary. Preach the power of His resurrection-life. Preach His precious promises: ”A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench.” Preach Christ! Preach Him winningly and winsomely. Preach Him near and ready to help. Preach Him from the heart to the heart. Preach Him again, and again, and again. Until the day dawn and the shadows flee away.

These People

It seems to me we spend a lot of time obsessing about other people – particularly people who have no direct influence on the pattern of our lives. I can see how we might worry about the people around us – our friends, family, and those to whom we are accountable – but I am talking about the massive amount of energy we invest in people whose orbits are completely disconnected from ours and for whom we have no chance of influence. listening people

Okay, I suppose there is some sense in which the big influence leaders in our nation – the politicians and financiers do have their impact on us and that there is some sense in which our concerns can be reflected back upon them as part of some larger body of opinion, but I think this might be over-rated or out of proportion to the interest we give it.

Let’s be honest with ourselves. There is little way by which Barack Obama, Payton Manning, Tim Cook, or Justin Bieber are going to care beans about my personal opinion related to their performance, except perhaps in some big-picture collective customer-survey sort of way. For that matter, even if they did care about I thought, and even if they responded fruitfully to all of my suggestions, their response would have very little direct impact on the living of my life. Well maybe the President to a degree, but without discounting the importance of federal politics, most of the things we obsess about on the front pages of our newspapers are only tangentially connected to the normal living of our lives.

As preachers we spend an awful lot of time talking about people who will never sit before us and who will never hear us preach. We rail away against the politicians, the celebrities, the famous and the powerful as if somehow we had the wind to convey our concerns to their attention. But I am fairly certain that Hillary Clinton or George Clooney will never sit as a member of my congregation. So why waste breath talking about or speaking to them.

Here is a novel idea. Why don’t we preach to the people who gather. Why don’t we tailor our messages to the concerns and interests of the local congregation?

Great preaching offers biblical truth to these people in their time and in their context. Biblical truth is timeless, but it only has value as it is applied within a particular context. The context for our preaching is always these people – the people that God has put into our orbit and given us influence with, and for whom we are accountable. I will never have to give much account for the choices made in government. But I will have to answer for the truth I taught these people. If I can be faithful to that, a gospel impact might take root. If those roots run deep enough, they result might grow enough to nurture and to shade those opinion leaders in the public, tangentially perhaps, but more deeply meaningful.

What does God want to say through this text to these people at this time? Answer that, and you will build a faithful sermon.

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.


Mechanical Accuracy

I really appreciate the following comment, make by David Fitch…

In the Great Giveaway I wrote a chapter entitled “The Myth of Expository Preaching: Why We Must Do More Than Wear Scrolls On Our Foreheads.”  I admit I still love that title.  It gets across the idea that preaching is much more than presenting “accurate” Biblical information that Christians can “apply” to their lives with the hopes of improving as Christians. This kind of preaching is a mechanical exercise. It puts the hearer in charge “over” the Word, not in submission to the Word under the Lordship of Christ. That’s bad, because when I am in charge of what I’m hearing, transformation rarely happens.

Find the full blogpost here.

Preaching Against Caricatures

It is always a lot easier to make our points when we set them up against false or stereotyped caricatures. We really don’t like it when people do this against us, so it is hardly fair that we might try the same game with others. 

Russell Moore makes this point in an article in Christianity Today, asking  “What Can We Learn About Preaching from Parks and Recreation.” He speaks in reference to last week’s episode of the popular NBC situation comedy which took a position against abstinence education. I saw the show, and would agree with Moore that this episode was not particularly funny, largely because it seemed more interested in pursuing an agenda than making the audience laugh. Moore suggests that the point was rather bluntly made primarily by setting up a caricature of two Christian activists, whose evident stupidity and foolishness made the anti-abstinence view seem self-evident.

Like Moore, I am not particularly surprised or exercised by this. It is what I have come to expect. Moore’s concern – and mine – is to ask how often we pull the same kind of trick in our own preaching – making our arguments seem evident, by positioning them against straw men caricatures.

“It is easy to preach in a way that, like Parks and Rec, simply seeks to reinforce the assumptions of those who already agree with us. We can rail against people who aren’t in the room, or at least that we don’t think are in the room, simply to get the “Amen” from our people. We can caricature our detractors’ positions in the grossest terms, in order to help reassure ourselves that those who oppose us out there are stupid or peculiarly wicked. But that’s not preaching.”

There is a sense that everyone in Parks and Recreation is a caricature which is why the situation comedy format is not particularly useful as a mode of preaching. Conversely, preaching is not particularly useful as a form of humour – which is fine, of course.  We are not comedians. We also believe in the power of the gospel. If the gospel is as powerful as we claim it is, we should not need to force it by creating false dichotomies.

I could suggest that we take things in the opposite direction, seeking to real-ize our propositions as much as possible. Rather than belittling the other point of few, we should take the opposing side seriously, representing alternative approaches honestly and realistically so that people take us seriously in return. We don’t have to protect the Scriptures, making it easier for them by pitting our biblical propositions against weak opposition, like an aging prize-fighter scheduling washed-up competition so as to pad his record.

The gospel we preach is true. Pursuing truthfulness not only in the content of our preaching but in our manner also is consistent. It is also powerful.

Preaching Christ, Not Moralism

Moralism is one of the easiest traps for a preacher to fall into. In our attempts to challenge our listeners and to affect change in their lives, it is simpler to pick the low-hanging fruit – pray more; read the Bible more; be more faithful; be a better Christian. Of course, there is nothing wrong with these encouragements, but when such things are not rooted in the person and work of Christ, they come off as attempts to try and win God’s favour by our hard work instead of by the grace that God commends. I love this quotation of Tim Keller…

In nearly every text of Scripture a moral principle can be found, shown through the character of God or Christ, displayed in the good or bad examples of characters in the text, or provided as explicit commands, promises, and warnings. This moral principle is important and must be distilled clearly. But then a crisis is created in the hearers as they understand that this moral principle creates insurmountable problems. I describe in my sermons how this practical and moral obligation is impossible to meet. The hearers are led to a seemingly dead end, but then a hidden door opens and light comes in. Our sermons must show how the person and work of Jesus Christ bears on the subject. First we show how our inability to live as we ought stems from our forgetting or rejecting the work of Christ. Then we show that only by repenting and rejoicing in Christ can we then live, as we know we ought.

We preach Christ. That is our calling. That is our task. That is also, the key to our effectiveness in producing the results God has in mind for us and for our listeners.

When Motivation Becomes Manipulation

There is a line somewhere between manipulation and motivation in preaching. That line is not always evident, though most of us know it when we’ve crossed it.

We all want to be motivating and inspirational in our preaching. A big part of the preacher’s task is helping people get past the natural inertia that keeps them locked into unhealthy and unhelpful patterns of life. Our calling is to encourage meaningful responses to the Word of God that result in positive changes in keeping with the things God expects of us. It helps if we can be compelling.

That said, it’s not hard to move from a motivating tone to one that’s more coercive. Perhaps we swell the music or just slightly dim the lights. We might push the point a little harder than what seems natural or fitting. None of it is wrong exactly or definitively out of bounds. But taken together, it can leave the listener little choice as to his or response.

And that’s where we’ve crossed the line. Motivation becomes manipulation when we’ve limited the listener’s capacity to choose how she or he will answer to what it is they are hearing. When the mood or the message is constructed such that the listener is left without option, we have become manipulative.

Preachers manipulate by magnifying guilt, pressing fear, or hyping an idea beyond what it was built to bear. In each case, the listener is emotively pushed beyond what would be reasonable or what the listener would normally choose for him or herself.

Let me be clear: the end does not justify the manipulative means. Preachers are accountable to God, for what they have to say and for how they have to say it, more than for the results that they produce. I would rather stand before God’s judgment on a record of faithful communication than on the basis of great numbers of manipulated responses. That is a line I never want to cross.

Multi-Cultural Preaching at the Evangelical Homiletics Society

Once again, I am looking forward to attending the meetings of the Evangelical Homiletics Society taking place October 11-13, held this year at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. For full details please go to

This is a tremendous event that brings together most of the leading evangelical homileticians in North America to discuss the work of biblical preaching. Many of the ideas that end up getting published, taught in our classrooms, and ultimately lived out in pulpits and on platforms across North America find their beginnings in conversation at EHS.

This year, the focus of the conference is on Multi-Cultural Preaching. Increasingly, we are all experiencing greater diversity within our congregations. This is a very good thing, but it is also a deeply challenging thing, demanding that preachers give greater attention to the ways that culture affects their preaching. Homileticians have always understood that along with making sure that we get the truth right, we also have to concern ourselves with the way by which we get the right truth heard. Of course, how truth gets heard depends largely on how truth gets told. The telling of truth as an exercise in persuasive communication requires a fluency with language and culture and that is where things get difficult.

I remember attending a church in south London, that featured more than 30 nations among its 250 people. When the congregation offers that much diversity, how can we have any confidence that the truth we teach is being heard the same by all? There is a sense in which the gospel announces its own culture. At what point does the shaping of truth to fit cultural norms end up distorting the truth, in essence re-enforcing culture instead of countering culture?

These are questions I will be thinking about as I travel to New Orleans. In weeks to come I hope to report on some of the findings from this conference, sharing some of the insights presented by my colleagues. Homiletics tends toward a uniformity of practice in preaching – in pursuit of best practices. Consideration of culture, however, might lead us to reflect in our preaching some of the diversity that makes God’s Kingdom beautiful.

Misrepresenting Christ

Building off of last week’s internet meme of the poor woman who attempted to improve an ancient fresco portrait of Jesus, Liam Thatcher makes some great points about the way in which we represent Christ in our preaching.

No doubt, by now you have seen the woman’s ill-advised efforts. Thatcher’s response was insightful…

First of all I chuckled at the absurdity of the situation and the unfortunate botch job. Let’s be honest… the picture is amusing, and somewhat reminiscent of Mr Bean’s attempt to restore ‘Whistler’s Mother’. 

Secondly, I pondered the aesthetic-ontological questions of whether this lady had indeed destroyed a work of art, and what the philosophical implications were of covering an original work (albeit a pimped-up version) with a print. 

Thirdly, I wondered if Gimenez’s version didn’t unintentionally capture something of Isaiah’s prophecy, ‘He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him’ (Isaiah 53:2). 

Fourthly, I felt sobered by the whole thing. And here’s why:

It’s undeniable that the poor lady was just trying to help. There was nothing malicious about her work. In fact there was something beautifully reverent about it. Just… reverence misplaced and misguided. 

And then I got to thinking this: How many times have I, in my preaching and theology, out of my desire to make Jesus accessible, palatable and beautiful to a sceptical audience, inadvertently botched my representation of him, blurring out his true form and depicting him as less than he is? 

I was struck by the way the crown of thorns, a key feature of the original painting, was now lost under the mass of fuzzy hair. Are there elements of Jesus’ life, death and character that I simply gloss over and airbrush out?

Few of us, I’m sure, begin our lives as theologians or preachers with the expressed intent to misrepresent Christ. We start out like Gimenez, with good intentions. We love our Lord, we hate to see him faded and deteriorated in the public consciousness, and so we set out to restore his image… we’re just trying to help. But if we’re not careful our zealous attempts to help people see Jesus in a fresh light, coupled with varying levels of skill and the temptation towards pacifying people rather than portraying him as he truly is may lead us to compromises that blur his true likeness. 

Preachers. Thinkers. Writers. Artists. Next time you have an opportunity to paint Christ, consider carefully the accuracy and beauty of your work, before it goes public!

Church: Christ Church London
Church Website:

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.

Sequential Series Preaching

There are some significant advantages to preaching sequentially through books of the Bible. Preaching a series on the book of Ephesians or the book of Ezra has a way of deepening people in their understanding of the Scripture. Practiced consistently over time and with an integrated congruity, those who listen will grow to develop a significant level of biblical understanding and fluency.

In one of the churches I pastored, I preached through the Gospel of Mark, the book of Genesis, the book of Acts, the prophecy of Jonah, the letters known as 1 John, and more. By moving intentionally from gospel to epistle to Old Testament, the people gained a comprehensive sense of the Bible. From my perspective, I never had to think about what I was going to preach on from week to week – and perhaps more importantly, I was never able to duck the tough issues.

For example, three months into my ministry, I found that my next text was Mark 10. This particular chapter features instruction on the subject of divorce and remarriage. Do you think I would have chosen to preach on such a subject so early in my ministry among those people. Not likely. And yet here if was. I could not avoid it. I was able to say to the people that this passage was not chosen deliberately because of any particular situations for which I was concerned. It was simply the next thing in line, so “if the text fits, wear it.” The response of the people to that sermon was quite significant. If I hadn’t been preaching a sequential series, that sermon and it’s impact would have gone wanting in my church.

I love the way that sermons in series build upon one another, making every Sunday just a little bit more than the specifics of that Sunday’s presentation. It reinforces the truth that Sunday services are not one-off entertainments. They exist, rather, within the life of the congregation – moments in the flow as the people together encounter God through his Word and in their experience. I love that as a preacher I can help to shepherd all of that.

The Relentlessness of Preaching

One of the particular challenges of preaching is the every-weekness of it. Preaching is relentless – week after week we have to stand and deliver, and sometimes more often than that. It wasn’t so long ago that most preachers would preach every Sunday morning and evening, not to mention Wednesday nights as well. I have several Korean brothers who preach every single day and sometimes more than once on each of those days. My wife is a chaplain serving Senior Citizens. She is required to open the Word of God several times a week before these spiritually hungry people.

It is a lot to ask.

Of course, the relentlessness of the preaching calendar is in the favor of the gospel and works to our benefit as well. We might not hit a home run every time to the pulpit, but over time, week after week, our preaching has a cumulative effect that can be very powerful for the people.

I am mindful of the fact, however, that as I train preachers, describing for them ways toward an ideal sermon, the reality is that the pressures of any given week will conspire against the offer of our very best. I know that some weeks we will simply have to do the best we can with what we have. In such weeks I am comforted by the knowledge that preaching, ultimately is God’s task and he will do his will by his Spirit, even when the preacher is personally overwhelmed. At the same time, I don’t use this as an excuse that might justify haphazard effort on my own behalf.

The discipline of the preaching schedule is a good thing for our listeners. It is also a good thing for us as we commit ourselves to faithful, regular, engagement with God’s Word, not solely for the professional purpose of the production of our preaching, but for the health and vitality of our own souls – week after week, Sunday after Sunday.

We preach in the faith that God will fill up what is lacking. We keep preaching week by week in the confidence that God will use his Word by his Spirit, even through his tired and sometimes over-extended servants.

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.

Four Steps from Good to Great in Preaching

Adapted from a piece by Kent Anderson in Top 100: The Best Leadership Articles, Practical How-Tos, and Features of the Year (Outreach, Inc., 2011), pp.76-77.


Most people can recognize a good sermon when they hear one, though they might have difficulty articulating why.

A good sermon sermon is rooted in the Bible. I’ve got my opinions, but people don’t need to hear about that. People need to hear from God and the only way I can guarantee that they will is by giving them the Bible.

A good sermon will be understood as significant. This means that the listener will understand and appreciate the message as speaking of things that are relevant to their experience and worth their investment of time and energy.


The Four Elements of a Good Sermon

A good sermon will engage the listener. Preachers need to treat their listeners with a sense of dignity. Preaching is a communication process which respects the language, and the interests of the listener and understands that they can and will disengage.

A good sermon will inform the listener. There is an educational aspect to preaching that seeks to teach the listener things that they don’t yet know or haven’t yet been persuaded of. The sermon needs to speak to the listener’s mind so as to encourage new thought patterns in keeping with the will of God.

A good sermon will expose the listener to the person of God. Exposition is more than just a form of the sermon. It is the desire to bring listeners to the person behind the propositions. When we encounter God in the sermon, everything changes.

A good sermon will inspire the listener. What is going to change because we have invested energy in this preaching experience? Can we motivate our listeners to something new and different?

Skilled preachers will utilize a variety of modes, to get these elements done (the moviemaker, the lawyer, the detective, the artist…


Moving our Preaching from Good to Great

Making a good sermon great depends upon the level to which the preacher has personally assimilated the message. As “the first listener” the preacher does his/her own business with God, which qualifies and prepares him/her to lead others to hear from and respond to God as well. Great preaching is more than hypothetical. It rises from out of the preacher’s life to became an event in God’s presence that can’t be published or repeated. Great preaching is expectant.

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.

Head and Heart

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.

Do What I Say…

One of my students made the following comment in a recent paper on the subject of doctrinal preaching….

“I have erred by preaching doctrinal sermons that unintentionally come across as ‘do what I say and you’ll be okay.’ Such an approach does not rest on the work of the Spirit in someone’s life to each doctrine that has a transforming effect on someone’s life.”

‘Do what I say and you’ll be okay’ has a nice ring to it, but it puts an awful lot of pressure on the preacher. It also communicates the sense that Christian faithfulness is comprised of doing whatever can be proven to be doctrinally sound. If we get our doing right, then we are faithful, which is a much more manageable way of doing life than is depending on the Spirit.

Doctrine is important. One of the tasks of the preacher is to help our listeners read Scripture well ad to understand properly it’s demands upon our life. But when we communicate that our calling is to simply master whatever it is that the preacher has to say, we have mis-located the source of our dependency.

It is a subtle distinction, to be sure. Good preaching describes faithfully the will of God for the listener, but when preaching becomes more about communicating the will of the preacher than the will of God, even when the two are very much the same, we are running into trouble. Obeying the preacher is hard work. Obeying the Spirit is something we can do. It is less a matter of our effort and more a matter of surrender.

The truth is, I want more than just “OK” for my listeners. But if I am calling them to do what I say, then OK might be the best we can aspire to.

“The Speak”

Excerpt from Choosing to Preach p.43

I recently heard a pastor refer to his sermon as “the speak.” I suppose that is what the preacher did. He spoke. It is what preachers do in the most literal sense. Still, the label bothered me. It seemed such an anemic way of talking about preaching. It seemed to betray a weak view of what could happen in the preaching task.

“Speaking” is safe in contemporary culture. Self-expression is something that everybody values. Nobody minds that we speak, as long as we don’t seek to persuade anyone of anything. Preachers in cent decades have adopted this safe, defensive posture, hoping to be heard, but afraid to offend. We speak our minds, but we’re careful not to push too hard. We are cautious with persuasion. We do not want to upset the seekers for fear they might not come back.

This is understandable, but it is not preaching – not really. Biblical preaching is more confident, more prophetic. Biblical preaching is not about our speaking. It about God’s speaking, and that is a greater thing altogether.

Preaching and the Caffeine-Free Diet Coke

Has our preaching slid into emptiness? Is there any flavor, nourishment, or sustenance to our offerings?

David Fitch, writing in The End of Evangelicalism, quotes cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek. In Zizek’s book, The Fragile Absolute, “he narrates how Coca-Cola was originally concocted as a medicine (originally known as a nerve tonic, stimulant, and headache remedy). It was eventually sweetened, and it’s strange taste was made more palatable. Soon it became a popular drink during Prohibition that still possessed medicinal qualities (it was deemed ‘refreshing’ as well as the perfect ‘temperance drink’). Over time, however, it’s sugar was replaced with sweetener and its caffeine was extracted, and so today we are left with Caffeine-Free Diet Coke: a drink that does not fulfill any of the concrete needs of a drink. …”

Fitch wonders whether this is a suitable metaphor for what has happened to the evangelical church. I wonder, similarly whether this may be what has happened to our preaching. We have added (humor, story, presence) and we have subtracted (doctrine, detail, precision), but does our reaching still fulfill the concrete needs of a sermon?

I raise the question with humility, knowing that I value some of the new elements brought to preaching, just as I appreciate what some of the new dimensions of a Coke has made possible for me. But still one has to wonder, whether in our movement toward a more sophisticated sermon, we have lost much of what makes our sermons worth the listening

This sounds a little cranky, and maybe it is. I’ll admit that I’m uncomfortable with the trajectory of the question, leading as it seems toward a more tiresome preaching that might be good for me, but far less attractive. And, of course, I recognize the weakness of the metaphor. Coke never was much good as medicine.

Still one has to wonder. In our efforts to enhance the sermon for (post)modern sensibilities, have we lost the very essence of what it means to preach?

False Dichotomy

This from a paper written by me of my students…

“The doctrine of the soon needs to be embedded intentionally in how I engage people. It is not enough to think of a great story or take or numerous episode. I need to chose such an engaging element because  it will direct them to the point of the sermon. Otherwise, I set up a dichotomy between the ‘boring doctrine’ and the ‘exciting story’ that I want to tell. Rather, from try to finish, the sermon is about the transforming work of Christ which is what everyone needs to come face to face with.”

I would add that this  idea of dichotomy is at the heart of what messes up so much of the preaching and thinking about preaching that we hear. Too often it is set up as an adversarial situation where in order to champion doctrine we think we have to avoid anything engaging, or to be engaging, we have to steer clear of doctrine.

Of course, you know the real way forward is through integration and not dis-integration of both.

Preaching is Cumulative

Preaching is a cumulative effort. Like brick-laying, each week we add something to the structure. It doesn’t always feel like what we have added in any given week is all that substantial, but when you step back and look at the big picture it can be quite surprising. 

I sometimes get frustrated that preaching doesn’t seem consequential enough – that I am not making a large enough impact on any given Sunday, but that kind of thinking misses the real impact that our preaching has. Preaching builds up over time. It’s impact, not always perceptible, deepens over time as the concepts, stories, and impressions build upon themselves over time.

If you don’t believe me, think about all of the faith commitments that you hold. Examine them one at a time. Ask yourself, “how did I come to believe this?” It might be true that you read about it, or that you took a class somewhere along the line, or that you pondered it within the privacy of your devotional reading of Scripture. These are all good things. But I would suggest that it is very likely that much of what you have come to believe has come to you through your listening to (or perhaps preaching of) sermons.

Good preaching – and somethings even average preaching – has its effect on us. We need to hear more of it.

Why You Might be an Ear-Tickling Preacher

I thought this post from Trevin Wax was worth sharing. Ear-tickling might be more our problem than we think!

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. (2 Tim. 4:3-4)

When we come across these words from the apostle Paul to Timothy, we tend to see this verse as a description of our day and age. How else do we explain the elegant churches whose liberalism has overtaken their once-glorious heritage? Or the masses that fill stadiums to hear prosperity teachers tell us how good we are and how much God wants to bless us financially?

Preaching that tickles the ears. We nod our heads in agreement and pray …

Lord, deliver us from the liberals who don’t believe anything and don’t preach the truth.

Lord, deliver us from those who give good advice and moral platitudes without the Good News of individual salvation.

Lord, deliver us from the stand-up comics who fill stadiums with ear-tickling, side-splitting sermons that are all about us and not about God.

Then, we sit back on Sunday mornings with a smile, satisfied in our assurance that our ears don’t itch.

But are we deceiving ourselves? Do we truly believe we have escaped the temptation to listen to pastors who tickle our ears? Is it possible to preach harshly against certain sins and yet still be an ear-tickling preacher?

The prophet Jeremiah tells us the human heart is deceitful and desperately wicked. We think that if we attend a church where the pastor consistently preaches hard messages with hard truths, we will never succumb to the “itching ears” syndrome. But such is not the case. Paul tells Timothy that itching ears accumulate for themselves teachers who will tell them what they want to hear. Itching ears desire teaching that suits their own passions.

Many laypeople hope to listen to a preacher who every week will tell them what’s wrong — with everybody else.

The congregation of teetotalers wants a pastor who, week after week, condemns alcohol from the pulpit.

The anti-war congregation hopes to hear a rousing sermon against those warmongering conservatives.

The congregation of staunch Republicans smiles as their pastor rails against “the gays” and “the liberals.”

The Calvinist congregation wants to hear a theologian/pastor who will preach against the errors of those Arminians.

The congregation of door-to-door soul-winners hires a pastor who will mock the namby-pamby “lifestyle” conversations that pass for evangelism in this day.

The charismatic congregation loves when its pastor tears into the dry, ritualistic worship of their liturgical neighbors.

And the liturgical congregation nods approvingly at critiques of their neighbors who manufacture emotionalism.

Can you hear the hearty “Amens” coming from the pews? Yes, Lord! Thank you for showing us what real Christianity is! Lord, help us not be like those Christians who are too blinded by their biases, who have been co-opted by the culture!

Of course, there are times when a pastor should address the issues above. Church members should expect pastors to preach boldly, to condemn sin, to faithfully exposit the biblical text, and to speak to the current issues of the day.

But let us not underestimate the evil intentions of the human heart. We crave a message that puffs us up. We read Jesus’ parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector and rightly condemn the Pharisee for his pompous prayer, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector.” Then we thank God that we’re not like the Pharisee.

Ironically, the very message that is supposed to cut us low, the message of the Cross, can be delivered in such a way that people walk out of the sanctuary patting themselves on the back. Thank God I’m not like those people!

Somewhere in the darkest places of our hearts, we take joy in preachers who put us on a pedestal, who remind us who all the bad guys are, and who assure us that we’re okay. We sing and read and preach about grace, but too often, our talk about grace is simply another method of preserving our self-righteousness.

The preaching we listen to on Sundays may be truth-filled and Bible-centered, but if it only points out the problems of everyone else in the world, it misses its target. Our ears are tickled, but our hearts are unchanged. Ear-tickling preaching may step on toes, but they’re never the toes of the people in the pews or the pastor in the pulpit.

Next time, your pastor preaches a challenging message that convicts you of sin, say “Amen.” If your church is not of the Amen-shouting variety, meet your pastor at the door and offer a word of encouragement. Allow the Sword of God’s Word to perform surgery on our own hearts before wielding the Sword in the faces of everyone else.

Circular Preaching?

Written by @richardlittledale – Preaching A-Z

Digital input & 360 degree preaching

Some of you may feel that you are all too familiar with circular preaching – it goes round and round like an angry bee trapped under a jamAvatar Image jar, until at last it wears itself out. Thankfully, that it not what I am describing here. Rather, following on from a highly creative conversation with@kimtownsend and @watfordgap, I want to develop my ideas of digital fellowship a little further. It might run something like this:

  • Tuesday – the preacher lets people know via social media what she or he is working on for the coming Sunday’s sermon. Insights on the particular topic are welcomed, and also suggestions for the music and worship.
  • Thursday – as a result of all this, a sermon shape is beginning to emerge, and a related prayer request goes out, together with a request for clarification on an elusive illustration or two.
  • Saturday – an outline of the sermon is posted online, accessible to those who prayed and contributed at a distance, as well as those who will hear it the following day
  • Sunday – the sermon is preached, and the podcast is made available online, as outlined before.
  • Monday – a blog post outlining the sermon and questions raised by it is posted by someone who heard the sermon, rather than the person who preached it.
  • Wednesday – questions arising from the sermon, and from Monday’s post, are fed into the church’s homegroups for further discussion

For preachers who are prima donnas, and who enjoy the mystique surrounding the pulpit, this is all profoundly threatening – since there are stages of this process over which they may have little control. Furthermore, it disenfranchises those members of the church who have neither the facility nor the inclination to engage in social media. Not only that, but we must guard against exchanging the messy business of real fellowship for its cleaner digital alternative. In real fellowship I must sit alongside people whose views offend me and whose problems make demands on me. Through the abrasion of our different personalities the likeness of Christ is fashioned in both of us. In digital fellowship I always have the ‘off’ switch which enables me to opt out.

Consider, though, the benefits. I am a great believer in the place of the sermon as traditionally understood. God has hard-wired us so that we are captivated and moved by human speech. That said, every pedagogical expert from Twickenham to Timbuktu  will tell you that we retain things better when we engage with them. When we handle theological truths rather than simply being shown them from a distant pulpit, we begin to internalise them and graft them onto our very souls. Discussion of a sermon before and after in the way described above can only be good for preacher and people, surely?

There are risks associated with the approach outlined above, and we should not embark upon it lightly. However, the benefits might just outweigh them.

What do you think?

by Richard Littledale

John Brand on Expository Preaching


Recently I introduced you to Rev. John Brand of Encouraging Expository Excellence out of Edinburgh, Scotland. In a recent email conversation, John offered these responses to some interesting questions about expository preaching.

1. Where do you place the importance of preaching in the grand scheme of church life?
I am utterly and increasingly convinced it has to be the heartbeat and central focus. There are many hallmarks of a true church and many things churches should be doing but none more vital and strategic than the faithful preaching of the Word of God. If the Word of God is not at the heart of its activities then it is no longer a church and simply a religious organisation.

2. In a paragraph, how did you discover your gifts in preaching?
I was born into a Manse, the son and grandson of missionary preachers, and I think to start with it was almost a natural thing to do – to try my hand at preaching. My father’s church – who were not, it has to said, the most spiritually discerning of folk – gave me opportunity in my mid-teens and I was encouraged to persevere as well as sensing a growing burden and joy in my own spirit for this great work.

3. How long (on average) does it take you to prepare a sermon?
To be honest, it takes me longer now than when I started out more than 30 years ago and in the Lords goodness I think that is partly because I take the responsibility much more seriously now than at any other time in my life. I guess these day it takes me anywhere between 12 and 15 hours on average.

4. Is it important to you that a sermon contain one major theme or idea? If so, how do you crystallise it?
I wish I had realised the importance of this in my early days of preaching because I have come to realise how vital this issue is for effective communication. There is a tendency, especially when you are younger, to try and cram too much into one sermon and generally speaking, not only can most folk not cope with that but it can so easily blur the God-intended focus of the passage. In some way I find this the hardest and often most time-consuming aspect of preparation and yet you can’t move forward until you have identified it. For me, I just try writing out ‘the big idea’ again and again and again; restating it until I feel I am doing justice to the Scripture I am working.

5. What is the most important aspect of a preacher’s style and what should he avoid?
Firstly, it is vital that we are truly ourselves in the pulpit and not try to be somebody or something we are not. Affected tones of voice and imitation of others is for the stage and not the pulpit. Sincerity and integrity are key. Two other vital ingredients for me are earnestness and passion. We live in a day and age of all too often lifeless, take-it-or-leave-it preaching and it’s inconsistent with the message we preach or the one in whose name we claim to speak.

6. What notes, if any, do you use?
These days, my notes are much fuller than they used to be, though I have gone through different stages in my ministry. It varies too depending on the nature of the sermon. A more closely reasoned exposition, working through the logic of a passage, for example, will demand more notes than a study in one of the parables. For me, it’s not so much the quantity of the notes but the familiarity with the text and notes and though my notes are fuller I probably refer to them less than I used to.

7. What are the greatest perils that preacher must avoid?
I have already referred to things like affectation. We must also studiously avoid disclosing confidences, even by allusion. We must avoid ‘showing off’ the work done in preparation. Perhaps the greatest sin to avoid is saying any less or any more than the text we are preaching says.

8. How do you fight to balance preparation for preaching with other important responsibilities (eg. pastoral care, leadership responsibilities)
In recent years this has been a special challenge for me, now as a Bible College Principal and before that heading up a Mission agency, rather than in church-based pastoral ministry. It’s really a case of identifying and protecting priorities. I have had to ring fence time slots and tell my colleagues that I am unavailable except in emergencies.

9. What, in your opinion, are the top 5 books on preaching that have been most helpful to you as a preacher, with perhaps a few words by way of comment about them?
-Bryan Chapell’s Christ Centered Preaching is, in my opinion, simply the best there is
-Ramesh Richard’s Preaching Expository Sermons really helped me work on and teach the importance of structure with his very helpful model of the human body
-Arturo Azurdia’s Spirit Empowered Preaching provides the perfect balance between hard work on the part of the exegete and preacher and the empowering of God’s Spirit
-Michael Fabarez’s Preaching that Changes Lives is the most helpful book on application that I have found
-John Piper’s The Supremacy of God in Preaching keeps reigniting my passion for preaching and keeps my sights fixed on God

10. Which preachers, living or dead, have had the greatest influence on your own ministry?
During my student days I read many of Spurgeon’s sermons and through Lloyd-Jones sermons on Romans and Ephesians and, albeit largely unconsciously, imbibed a commitment to systematic, verse by verse exposition, though not at the same level of detail as the Doctor! Sinclair Ferguson taught and modelled homiletics as well as systematic theology and made a monumental impact on my life and, humanly speaking, I owe him a unique debt. The inspired passion of men like Steven Lawson and John Piper are also a great example.

10. What steps do you take to nurture or encourage developing or future preachers?
This has always been a joyful privilege and responsibility for me. In my first pastorate I gather a group of 3 men and we met on a monthly basis to encourage one another and I gave them regular opportunities to cut their preaching teeth and try and help them. I am and have been involved in several preachers workshops, seminars and conferences. One of my greatest joys in this area has been an annual workshop in Sudan where I have seen 50 church leaders grow in their confidence in and ability to handle the word of God. I teach homiletics at the College where I serve and also blog on preaching at www.encouraging where, among other things, I hold a ‘sermon clinic’.

11. What advice would you give to a young man who is wondering whether God is calling him into a preaching ministry, firstly in terms of recognising the genuineness of a call and secondly in acting on it?
Be obedient! Of course, we must take seriously the immense responsibility of such a charge, but if someone senses that God is leading them in this direction – perhaps because as they hear others preach they have a godly sense of ‘I could do that’ – pray that others will prompt you and give you opportunity and look to mature, experienced spiritual leaders to confirm – or otherwise – the gift of a preacher in you.

12. Is good expository preaching something that is ‘caught’ or ‘taught’; where is the balance between the two?
I have no doubts that it is both. There must, of course, be the divine gifting in the first place, but preaching is both an art and a science and skills can be sharpened and honed. One of the neglected responsibilities laid on preachers is to model good preaching to others.

13. What is the secret of perseverance in a preaching ministry?
A constant re-submission to the call of God on your life and an awareness of the fact that there is no greater or more important task on the planet!

14. What is the secret of freshness in a preaching ministry?
Keep close to God and to his Word. The more I read Scripture, the more I want to preach Scripture as I gain new insights. I am more enthusiastic today about preaching than I was over 35 years ago when I started out.


Most Influential Preachers


Lifeway Research recently asked more than 1,000 protestant pastors to “name the top three living Christian preachers that most influence you.” Number one on the list? Billy Graham, and who can argue with that? Graham has personally preached the gospel to more than 200 million people in 185 lands and, at 91, still believes that his purpose in life is to help people find a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Top ten influencers…

1. Billy Graham
2. Charles Swindoll
3. Charles Stanley
4. Rick Warren
5. John MacArthur
6. Barbara Brown Taylor
7. David Jeremiah
8. Max Lucado
9. John Piper
10. Andy Stanley

This list is a little surprising according to Lifeway director of research, Ed Stetzer: “Considering our sample includes liberal and conservative, all races and ethnicities, mainline and evangelical, we were surprised that the list looked like mainstream Christian radio and publishing and was not more representative.”

What the list does suggest is the power of media as almost all of these have media ministries that broaden the reach of their preaching. Secondly, it is encouraging to note that almost everyone on this list are known as biblical preachers.

“Studies like these can help us see who is shaping the thinking of Protestant pastors today,” said Stetzer. “Since survey participants are not picking from a predetermined list, the people named must be widely known. Knowing who is shaping Protestant thinking shows us what type of direction to expect fromt he nation’s pastors.”


What’s Under the Hood?

I recently spent some time looking at cars, kicking tires, and test-driving various vehicles. Strangely, I never thought to look under the hood. Eventually a salesman decided to show me the engine of one of the cars I was looking at. We both looked appreciatively at the intricate wiring and the shiny covers for about fifteen seconds before closing the hood and moving on to less meaningful things like how good the stereo sounded. Clearly, the engine is the most important part of a car. Without a good engine, the car is not going to do what we need it to do. It’s just that I’m not in a position to either understand or do anything significant with the engine, given my lack of expertise.

I suspect that this illustrates the way that we think about exegesis in preaching. Good preaching depends upon solid exegetical work. That means that someone has read the Greek and sorted out the details and that the findings of that someone has found its way into the foundations of the sermon. Whether the preacher does original work in the original languages or rests upon work done by others as reported in the commentaries, reliable preaching relies about good work done in the text. The question is whether anyone needs to see that detail in the sermon.

I’ll grant there are a few people who understand the inner workings of the text and love to hear a preacher talk participles and indicatives. The rest of the congregation is just not going to be as interested. This is not to say, however, that they don’t care. The truth is they care a great deal. They want to know that the preacher they are hearing has paid attention to the details because they need to have confidence that what they’re being told is properly founded on an authoritative exegetical framework. It’s just that they don’t want to have to look under the hood for themselves.

We could lament this situation, believing that listeners need to be taught to do the work themselves, and that we impoverish our listeners if we don’t help them appreciate the structural nuances of the text. I take the point, but I don’t entirely buy it. In any area of life, we rely on the experts that are able to make the investment that the rest of us can’t. That doesn’t mean we don’t many any investment. It is just that not all of us need to commit equally to the task of exegesis.

If I want to drive a car, the government feels it important enough to test and examine my ability to adhere to a basic framework of reasonable expectations that can assure reasonable safety for all upon the roads. That doesn’t mean that I need to know a carburetor from a catalytic converter. I just need to know how to drive.

Just like we need a lot of good auto mechanics, I believe we need a whole lot of people with expertise in the biblical languages and in the practices of exegesis. I also believe that most preaching pastors ought be among them. At the same time, I understand that there will be many without the time, the capacity, or the inclination. These are the ones who will have to rely on the work of others. As long as their work does, in fact, rest upon credible research, it might not matter greatly whether that work is original with them.

In the end, good preaching rests on good exegesis, whether listeners ever bother to look under the hood.