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.

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.

The Pride of the Preacher

Preachers are particularly prone to pride. If that were not already self-evident, it ought to be now, given the recent termination of several high profile preachers for the stated cause of pride. Whether prominent preachers are growing more prideful, or whether churches are becoming more vigilant as to this particular sin is hard to discern. Either way, it is indisputable that preaching as a highly public act makes preachers susceptible to the sin of pride.arrogance

Pride is the first and fundamental core of every sin. At the heart of all sin is rebellion against the Creator, which is definitive for pride. Biblically, whenever we sin, we are saying that our desires and intentions are of a higher value and interest to us than that of God himself. This is pride and it has no place in our preaching.

There is a pressure on preachers in these days to build their personal brand. It is hard to argue that churches grow when the primary preacher is well known and appreciated. Preachers can improve the chances for their church’s growth if they are able to increase things like their follower and friend counts on social media, the amount and size of conferences that they speak at, and the number of book sales that their name can generate. None of this is necessarily bad, and it can all be very appropriate and powerful for the sake of the Kingdom. The downside is that it can feed our pride.

Sunday morning preaching can be an ego boost when preachers focus more on listener appreciation than on the hearing of the Word of God. It is easy to justify our enthusiasm for growth as a passion for God’s glory when it really is the way be which we feel good about ourselves. Preachers who need people to like them because of self esteem issues will feel this tension. Preachers who understand that their needs are met in Christ, can be free from the need to feed their pride.

There are ways that preachers and churches can mitigate these temptations. Allowing others to preach alongside us will be very helpful. Establishing strong accountability structures will be essential. Separating the role of the preacher from the role of administrative leader might also be a good idea, particularly in large ministries.

We need to take a moment to check ourselves. To what degree is our preaching about ourselves? What might we do to make ourselves more accountable? What might we do so that people see less of us and more of Christ whenever we stand up to preach?

Our preaching is not about us. Our preaching is about helping people hear from God. We do this because we are called. We do this because God has given us capacity. That we would be prideful about this betrays a fundamental problem with our conception of our task. Preaching is what God does. We are only servants of his Word. There is no place for pride in this.

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?

 

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.

An Instinct for Preaching

If you have been preaching for any length of time you know the experience. You are deep into the sermon when some fresh idea comes unbidden to your mind. It seems to be a worthy idea, but then you don’t exactly have time to give it full consideration, given that you are preaching in full flight. Do you use it?sermon

Whether or not you use an unconsidered insight will depend upon things like your risk tolerance, your sense of discipline, and your Spirit-guided instinct. Great preachers have good instincts, guided by the Holy Spirit and developed over a long period of discipleship. The more we know the Word and the better we know our Lord, the better we can trust ourselves to think on our feet.

Some will say that one should never give one’s self such license – that the only things worth saying are the things that have been carefully and prayerfully considered. It is good advice, except for the fact that it doesn’t fully appreciate what is happening in preaching. Preaching is a corporate dialogue with God by his Spirit through his Word. It happens in the community of God as we collectively try to listen to his voice. When practiced at its best, there is a vitality in preaching that comes from knowing that this is an event in God’s presence that is unique and unrepeatable. Great preachers are alive to what God is doing in the moment, listening for the Spirit, tracking with the crowd and giving voice to the Word. It cannot possibly be fully planned in advance.

To say that good preachers have good instincts does not mean that they have a special freedom to make the sermon up in the moment of its preaching. That would be irresponsible. It does mean, however, that the preacher has walked with God for a long time, is present to God through prayer, and has honed the discipline of recognizing truth from error. This is one of the reasone that preaching is not a work for spiritual novices.

Great preachers have great instincts. Those instincts, like every other aspect of their lives, have been brought under the Lordship of Christ and are offered in the service of his people.

 

 

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.

What Happens When the Star Preacher Leaves?

So what happens when our preaching is so successful at attracting crowds that we actually make it hard for the church to out-last our influence?
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We’ve seen how it happens. A preacher does a great job and begins to develop a following. Eventually great crowds are coming, at least in part because of the quality and reputation of the pastor’s preaching. So what happens if the pastor gets hit by a truck, messes up, decides to retire, or just comes to the conclusion that the pressure is too great and he doesn’t want to do it anymore? What does the church do then? Finding another preacher/pastor who can achieve the same level of influence is almost impossible – at least, we almost never see it happen. Occasionally we see the preacher turn the reigns over to his son as if the pulpit were the family business, but again, it almost never works. There is something about the gifting of the original which is seldom replicated in successive pastoral tenures.
So what do we do about this? How does a church protect itself against this eventuality? It’s fun to ride the wave while the star preacher is doing his thing, but eventually the wave flattens out. Sometimes it happens abruptly. If the church hasn’t thought about succession, it can be disastrous.
Actually, I think that succession planning is as much a responsibility of the star as it is of the church. There are several things that a successful preacher/pastor can do to help the church after his tenure has come to an end. Some of those things are as follows: 
  1. Eliminate Debt. It is extremely tempting to load up on debt while the church is riding high. While the people are flocking, the church can handle high debt ratios, and besides we have to have a place for all these people to sit. Yet, when the crowds stop coming and the mortgage lingers, a church can be crippled for years to come. By all means, use the money that is coming in the good years, but be careful about racking up debt to leave to a shrunken congregation after you are long gone.
  2. Build a Strong Governance Structure. If the health of the church is dependent on your personal leadership, it can be difficult to sustain healthy governance after you are gone – particularly if all the other strong leaders are leaving with you. In good times, you want to make sure that the policy structures and systems of governance are well designed and sturdy enough to withstand the challenges created by your eventual departure.
  3. Develop Leaders. It should go without saying, but a big part of your job as a preacher/pastor is to be actively working to develop leaders. A church that is rich in gifted and trained leaders will be more easily able to carry on the vision of the church after you are gone. Developing these people includes letting them have an opportunity to preach often enough that they get good at it and that people are actually happy to hear them.
  4. Create a Productive Denominational Relationship. I know that denominations are not particularly cool or cutting edge, but they can come in handy at a time of difficult transition. You might not need them very much when you are flying high, but establishing a solid relationship will provide the lines of communication necessary when your church is in need of some of the services that they provide. You might even be surprised by how useful and productive the relationship can be even when things are good.
  5. Create a Culture of the Word. You will want to do everything you can to make sure that your ministry is about the Word and not about you. This is always a good idea, but it will be particularly helpful to your people as you transition out. Helping people understand that they are hearing from God through his Word more than they are hearing from you yourself, will make it easier for them to listen to others who take the same approach.
Of course, it will be extremely easy for you to avoid this matter, because after all, it won’t be your problem. You will be long gone and won’t have to face any of the consequences of a poorly planned succession. But if you really love the people to whom you are preaching, you will give attention to these things. This whole thing is a little like squirrelling away the nuts during the summer because the winter could be long and cold. Your church won’t want to wait until they have the problem to begin trying to deal with it. 
There are any number of highly visible examples of churches who have experienced this very problem. You can work to make sure that your church is not the next.
 

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Preacher

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author_1688Is there a place for heat in homiletics?

A.J. Swoboda

I have no better remedy than anger. If I want to write, pray, preach well, then I must be angry. Then my entire blood supply refreshes itself, my mind is made keen, and all temptations depart.– Luther

One time, I nearly broke my iPhone during the second point of my sermon.

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

That week’s sermon, out of Mark 1:14-20, was about kairos time—about how, in our hubris, Americans are constantly tempted to believe we can cram way more into our little earthly lives than God really desires for us to do. Omnipresence, we assume, is a characteristic of human beings. I talked about how the Bible dismisses such arrogance. Humanity is intrinsically bounded by divine boundaries, I argued; boundaries not to be transcended. We aren’t God.

But our desire to be like God was in our bones. So we ate the apple.

I reminded the congregation that the first apple represented a fundamental breakdown and disrespect for these intentional boundaries. Humanity, I suggested, sinned by transcending the moral boundaries of Eden by eating whatever they wanted. Humanity hasn’t evolved. Railing against our addiction to multi-tasking, I pulled out my iPhone in front of the congregation. And with a homiletical anger I’ve rarely seen come from within, I yelled:

The first one was an apple that led us astray. And, once again, we find ourselves in a similar position. An apple (my iPhone) has deceived us, causing us to believe we can transcend the boundaries of humanity. We can’t! God made the boundaries. Your phone is not an escape from human limitations. It doesn’t make you a god. You can’t be everywhere! So, friends, put your phone away, for heaven’s sake. Sit in God’s presence. Enjoy the garden He’s already given you. Be present. Repent of your supposed omnipotence.

By sermon’s end, I was steaming, sweating with anger—just about ready for the floor to cave into the pits of Hades as it supposedly did during Jonathan Edward’s (1703-1758) “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

Two things have happened since that sermon. Firstly, because I rarely get angry, people really remember my point. And I’m happy they do. Secondly, however, it’s caused me to think critically and constructively about the role anger plays in preaching.

What’s the place of anger in preaching?

Article Continued Here… 

Thoughts about Guest Preaching

As a seminary president, I do a lot of guest preaching. I consider it a tremendous privilege to be able to experience the working of God in a variety of settings and congregations. It is nice to receive a glowing introduction, though it also offers a fair bit of pressure – especially when you are introduced as someone who writes books about preaching! The truth is that all the real advantages are with the local preacher who is there every week, who knows the people and who has built up a reservoir of trust.

Still, most of us have opportunity to serve as guest preachers from time to time. A recent blogpost by Pete Wilson over at Sermon Central describe some of the things we will want petewilsonto pay special attention to when we take the platform as a guest

1. Don’t go over your allotted time.

2. Don’t make controversial statements the church staff are going to have to clean up later.

3. Respect the methodology of the church you are speaking in.

4. Take a moment to give honour and respect to the pastor and staff.

I agree heartily with all of these – especially the latter one. One of my favourite things to do when visiting a church is to make kind comments about the pastor, who could probably use the encouragement – especially given the fact that you’re about to preach what might be one of your best, most polished sermons.

To Wilson’s encouragements, I might add another…

5. Learn whatever you can from the experience. We get so embedded in our own churches that it can be difficult to have perspective about what is going on. Preaching in another church help us both appreciate what we have in our own church, but also give us insight into things that we might be able to adapt for the benefit of our home congregation.

Whether at home or on the road, preaching is our privilege. We want always to practice our calling respectfully.

No One Prefers Video Preaching

One of the fastest growing trends in recent years has been the move toward video-venue preaching. On one hand, this is an effective way of improving the quality of preaching that people hear. It is not a bad thing to get more people under the sound of the best preaching that we can offer. If hearing better preaching leads more people to respond to the gospel, then it is hard to complain that the preaching was mediated by video. Haven’t we all celebrated the remarkable effect of Billy Graham’s televised preaching over the years?video sermons

There is, however, a concern that ought to be considered. People prefer live preachers. According to a comprehensive new study from Lifeway Research, less than one percent of people prefer a video-venue sermon. 

Of course this isn’t shocking. If any one of us had the opportunity to hear some famous musician live or via video, we would all prefer to hear the music live. Live theatre is a much more enthralling experience than is a motion picture, and the best, most expensive seats are always near the front. Why should we be surprised that people would rather hear their preachers up close and personal?

None of this is to say that video preaching is wrong or evil. Thirty-five percent of people say they will only visit churches with a live preacher, but that leaves sixty-five percent who will visit such churches. If they are hearing transformational, biblical preaching, than why would we complain?

My main concern about all of this is what it says about the nature of preaching. Most people think of preaching as an instructional or motivational event. If we can be instructed by reading a book or a webpage, then we could surely gain such benefit from a video as well.

But preaching is so much more than mere instruction. Preaching mediates the presence of God through his Word and by his Spirit. Preaching is an event in God’s presence wherein the preacher leads the people to a place of encouragement, conviction, and response. In my experience, this broader ambition for the sermon is almost always more effectively achieved in person.

A Lack of Respect

We could be kinder when we listen to other people preach.

Preaching comes in a lot of different shapes and styles, meaning that listeners can respond to preaching in the same way that they respond to every other consumer choice in their lives. They can pick and choose the preaching that they like, while rejecting or dismissing the preaching that they do not appreciate. Often this dismissal is couched in language of disapproval and contempt, which is almost always unhelpful and uncalled for.

contemptCowell

I resonated strongly with a comment in John Koessler’s wonderful book, The Surprising Grace of Disappointment. The comment is about worship music, but it could be just as easily applied to preaching. He writes, “It is not our differences in musical taste that have caused the most damage to the church when it comes to worship. Rather it is our mutuallack of respect and contempt (Moody: 2013, p. 147).”

I know that this is true as to how people respond to musical worship leadership. People act as if their own personal preferences are definitive of faithfulness and appropriateness in worship, as if to say that anyone who worships in another form or with a different level of investment are somehow worshipping in a manner unfit or unworthy of the Lord. We do the same with preaching. We understand a certain form or a certain manner of preaching to represent faithfulness to Christ, and in so doing we contemptuously dismiss all those who preach differently from what we might prefer. In so doing, we pass judgement on the worthiness of another person’s offering. Instead of listening for what we could learn, we take the posture of a Simon Cowell, as if we were the arbiters of faithfulness to whom all others must account.

koesslerdisappointment

Of course we could all preach better than we do, and there is nothing wrong in saying so. It is also true that some of the preaching we hear might well earn our approbation because there are some preachers who actually are unfaithful. It is true that there are preachers who will offer an untruthful message; some who preach a prideful message; some who preach a plagiarized message; and some who simply fail to present the word with the care and consideration that it deserves. In these sad instances, a loving word of correction might be well advised.

Yet, so often the concern that we raise has more to do with our preference for didactic teaching over story-telling; or our ideas about what makes for an appropriate platform presence; or our preferred approach to a contested theological theme. We may have good reasons for our sense of things, but what we don’t have is the right to respond to those who differ in a way that lacks respect or that speaks contemptuously toward someone who is acting faithfully as he or she might understand his calling.

It is very possible that we have found a more faithful path for the preaching that we offer. We may have understood a better way. But that better way will always involve love and consideration. If we could speak out truth in love, we might find ourselves in a better position to actually be helpful to those in need of our critique. We might even find we learn something ourselves.

The Kids are Fact-Checking Your Sermons

So you better be careful, pastor. According to research from the Barna Group published this week by Christianity Today, nearly four out of ten practicing Christian millennials are fact-checking the pastor while they listen to the sermon. Perhaps even more surprising is that 14% of all millennials search to verify the things they hear faith leaders say.checkingcellphone

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised by this. I mean, I do it too. Whenever a pastor says something controversial, something curious, even something compelling, I am able to check the details right there while I am listening to the sermon. We do it for everything else  – watching news, listening to lectures in class, responding to advertising – why would we not do it for the sermons we hear?

Of course this shouldn’t frighten us. Of all people, preachers ought to be people who speak the truth. We ought to be well-researched and careful with our facts. Exaggeration and fact-twisting should not be part of our arsenal. They never should have been, even when they couldn’t check up on us. If anyone should feel no threat by the opportunity for people to hold a speaker accountable for truthfulness, it ought to be the preacher.

In fact, we ought to be encouraged by this. How great is it that people want to spend time engaging what we say – digging deeper? It’s a whole lot better than putting them to sleep.

And by the way – enough already with all the preaching plagiarism. Why pastors think they can get away from “borrowing” the sermons or writings of others in this day and age is beyond me. This doesn’t fool anyone, anymore. If you could find the sermon in your office on Wednesday afternoon, they can find the same sermon while they’re listening on Sunday morning. Passing off other people’s stuff as your own is sin, for which the preacher will have to answer to God – and now, thanks to Google, to all the tech-savvy people in the crowd as well.

Isn’t accountability awesome!

We Could Do That!

I had a delightful moment in my introductory preaching class last week. I was working on the definition of preaching, trying to help the students appreciate what they were doing in my class. I like to say that preaching is “helping people hear from God.” It’s simple, but I think it profound. When I finally put the definition out there, one of the students surprised me (and I think herself), blurting out the words, “I can do that!”hearing

There was a joyful relief in her voice. Preaching is a hard business and it is tempting to own too much of it ourselves. Yes, we need to be intentional about what we are doing, and yes, we need to dig deeply into the task. But at the end of the day, preaching is what God does. We are not the preachers. It is God who is speaking. Our task is simply to help others hear what he is saying.

What a relief!

My student, like a lot of students before her, came into the class burdened by the sense that she was going to have to be eloquent, witty, and powerful in presence and expression. Not that any of that hurts, but what she came to understand was that none of that was really her job. Which is why it was so encouraging to come to understand that God is the one that is making his voice heard.

Not only does this perspective relieve the pressure from us, but it also makes for a more authentic sermon. We are no longer speaking on the basis of our own authority or wisdom, which frees us to adopt a humbler, more welcome stance.

We can do that. We might not be able to offer eloquence, but we can offer help. We can clarify. We can relate. We can point directions and we can help people listen.

A lot of preachers out there are making a lot of noise, such that it is not so easy to hear the voice of God. We could quiet our own voice so we could hear his voice. We could listen more and help more.

We could do that.

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.

Can We Learn about Preaching from Bill Clinton?

I found Jonathan Martin’s post over at SermonCentral on what we can learn about preaching from Bill Clinton to be quite interesting. Without getting into the political substance of Clinton’s recent comments at the Democratic National Convention, Martin makes the point that Clinton’s willingness to engage substantive discourse sets him apart from other politicians – and preachers – most of whom seem to be content with the “sound bite” approach. He writes,  

“What makes contemporary politics so insulting to me right now is the shameless parade of sound bites. Both sides do it all the time. Politics have become reduced to sentimentality. You say the right word to the right crowd (“Jesus,” “the wealthy,” “the poor,” “the middle class,” “values,”), and nobody cares about whether or not there is an agenda or a plan—they respond emotionally to the words. In political conventions in particular, when folks are playing largely to their party base, real content is conspicuously absent. We have never been dumber. We are accustomed to being talked down to, we are used to being patronized. So it is honestly surprising these days when anybody attempts to engage us with anything like actual ideas.

And while I’m sad to say it, this is just as true about preaching in this day and age. We preachers, like everybody else, largely play to the lowest common denominator. Preachers speak in buzzwords and sound bites. Preachers don’t talk to people as if they are intelligent.

This is getting worse, not better, because most people don’t care and aren’t going to know the difference. In a culture that values style over substance, you can get a sermon to go over just fine without challenging a congregation. We are far past the days when preachers were prophets who paint an alternative vision of the world. We are not expected to be visionaries, but mere marketing experts. We don’t have enough “prophetic imagination” (in Brueggemann’s phrase), or for that matter, real content to actually shape culture.”

This is quite an indictment, if true, of preachers particularly. I am not going to argue that it is. I am not convinced the general trend in preaching is toward a truncated, dumbed down preaching. In fact, I think I’ve seen the trend move in the other direction in recent years. It seems to me that preachers are engaging more substantive discussion recently, as more and more of us seek to understand how our communication of the gospel can be more transformative for our listeners. Where we struggle is in our attempts to make this truth engaging for our listeners.

That, of course, is where Bill Clinton shines. The man personifies “folksy.” He is charming, entertaining, and knows how to describe complicated ideas in ways that make sense to people. The fact that he often plays fast and loose with the truth notwithstanding, Clinton shows us how an engaging personality can communicate complicated ideas with winsomeness and appeal.

It takes a long time to cultivate this kind of thing, and most of us will never get to his level. That said, we all could stand to be more welcoming in our manner of talking to our people. Learning how to love the people would be a good start. Finding ways to let that affection out in our speaking would be welcome.

Given that our content beats Clinton’s all to pieces, we might be able to be a lot more hopeful about the preaching that we offer.

Getting Psyched to Preach

From my friend, Lee Eclov in Leadership

Yogi Berra said of baseball, “Ninety-five percent of this game is half mental.” Preaching is about the same. We learned how to exegete a text, structure an outline, and stand and deliver. But somewhere along the line we need to learn the mental game.

I know it’s my God-ordained responsibility to deliver the Word faithfully whether I’m jazzed or not. We preach by faith … even on Sundays when our hearts are heavy or our minds are dull. The Spirit’s anointing—his unction—does not always come with an adrenaline rush. But I can still get psyched. Psych is a transliteration of the Greek word psuche—soul. That works for me. Let’s say I’ve got to get “souled up” before I preach. And it’s different from the way athletes get up for a big game.

Weight for the words

Usually, the first time I read my text, it seems one-dimensional, flat and light as the paper it’s printed on. As I study, pray, and think, it is almost as though, one word or phrase at a time, the sermon grows heavier, as though the very ink gains weight. Gradually it takes on a more lifelike shape, and Jesus himself comes to life in it somehow, and so do the people I will address.

It is tempting to preach a passage before it has fully come to life. It’s not that hard, really. You can lay out a solid exegetical outline, explain key words, colorize with good illustrations, but the sermon is too lightweight. Not so much because it is trite, but because it isn’t full. Did you ever see an actor on a stage pick up a suitcase, and you just knew there was nothing in the suitcase, even though he leaned into it? He just can’t fake the weight, and you begin to doubt the actor. A sermon is like that.

In the Old Testament there were priestly carriers. When Israel moved, priests carried all the parts of the Tabernacle. Ordinary, white-clad men hefting the holy weight of God’s household goods. Think of the glory of that weight, the honor of that carrying. They were like anti-pallbearers. Instead of dead weight they carried Israel’s life.

The Hebrew word for glory, kavod, carries the connotation of weight. The glory of God is heavy. I get psyched to preach as I feel the heft of the glory of a text of Scripture. Jesus himself is alive in this Word. In preaching we share something with those priestly forebears who carried the Ark of God’s glory ahead of Israel. The prospect of carrying the weight of God’s glorious Word psyches me up; it stirs my soul to preach.

Power beyond my own

Every preacher who hews to Scripture knows there is a mysterious, holy power in preaching. What we don’t know is just how it will come through on a given Sunday morning. It is no small thing to set a passage of the Bible before people vividly and clearly. Simply preaching Christ is powerful. The privilege of simply doing that energizes me on Sunday morning.

What also psyches me up is the possibility—actually, the likelihood—that God will do something in some lives that morning all out of proportion to anything I put in or that they expect. I read recently about a college football player from Florida who happened to be nearby when a Cadillac somehow crushed the tow truck driver trying to move it. This athlete was a big guy, but he said later, “I tried to lift the car, and when I first tried, it didn’t budge.” [Ever had a sermon like that?] The football player continued, “I backed up. I don’t know, but I felt this energy come, and I lifted it. I don’t know how. And then somebody pulled him from the car.”

That kind of thing happens to preachers. I don’t usually “feel this energy come.” But for some people sitting in that congregation, a crushing burden is lifted off them, some clear beam of truth punches light into their darkness, some new righteous resolve stirs their will and love for Christ. When they tell me about it later, I think, That happened here? God did that while I was preaching? Where was I?

Believing that such muscular, Samson-like wonders will happen this Sunday gets my blood pumping as I prepare to preach.

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.

7 Questions Francis Chan Asks Before Preaching

Francis Chan in Top 100: the Best Leadership Articles, Practical How-Tos, and Features of the Year a 2012 Edition. Vista, CA: Outreach, Inc., 86.

1. Am I worried about what people will think of my message or what God thinks?

2. Do I genuinely love these people?

3. Am I accurately presenting this passage?

4. Am I depending on the Holy Spirit’s power or on my own cleverness?

5. Have I applied this message to my own life?

6. Will this message draw attention to me or to God?

7. Do the people really need this message?

Acting Authentic

Excerpt from Choosing to Preach, p. 110.

Affective preachers help listener’s experience God through his Word. The experience is not the goal of the sermon but the means by which the goal is attained. The goal is a deepened appreciation for God’s truth and a more faithful obedience to its demands.

Nothing like this can happen unless the preacher is fully engaged in the preaching moment. The preacher cannot appear detached if the goal is to touch the listener’s affections. The affective preacher does not so much describe the truth as embody it. The preacher participates in the sermon not only as one who tells the truth but as one who portrays it.

This portrayal must be authentic. The preacher cannot merely act the sermon out. Actors know how to evoke affective response from listeners, but the actor deals in artifice. The preacher deals in truth. Method actors, for example, a taught to identify with the character to the extend that they are no longer acting. The method actor becomes the character, embodying the identity of the character to such a degree that actor and character are virtually indistinguishable. This approach comes closer to that of faithful preaching but still falls short. Preaches cannot afford to act. Affective preachers must live their sermons. Their message must overtake them, engulfing them physically and intellectually so that absolutely nothing is artificial. The affective preacher personifies the message.

Preaching Improves Over Time

Preaching improves over time. There are some skills that can be learned quickly and with minimal effort. Preaching is not one of them. Like any significant skill such as playing guitar or learning to play golf, preaching requires constant consistent efforts toward improvement.

I’ve had the opportunity to spend the weekend working on my golf game. I suppose that for some people the game comes naturally, but for me, it is a real struggle. I work so hard to understand the game and then to bring that understanding to the physical element of actually playing. The result is generally inconsistent. Sometimes I do well and come away thinking that I have finally got the game figured out. But then the next time out, it all comes apart again and I wonder whether I should give up on it entirely.

I sometimes feel the same about my preaching. It is so much work to preach well, and there are so many variables that it seems I can’t control. Some days everything works and I feel my calling has been confirmed. Other days I wonder whether I have misread God’s will entirely.

The truth is, preaching, like golf, does improve over time. But preaching, unlike golf, also benefits from the power of the Holy Spirit which makes powerful even the most meager of my efforts.

I am not likely to give up golf because I enjoy it. I even value the challenge of it.

I am not going to give up preaching either. I will continue to work on both my understanding and my practice of the craft. And when I am weak, I will look to God, who will be strong for me, and for the benefit of those who listen to me.

Angry Preaching

Somewhere along the line a lot of us preachers seem to have lost our civility. I appreciate the critical importance of offering a message that is consistent with the Scriptures, but I also believe that we must speak in a manner that is consistent with the Scriptures. Why do we seem to think that having the right theological content obviates our need to offer it in a manner that is congruent? I appreciate the value of directness and passion. I also appreciate the value of graciousness and a peaceable spirit.

For me, the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22 and 23) provide a kind of litmus test for preaching. Preachers must be loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good and faithful. They must speak gently and with evident self-control. If they cannot attend to at least this basic description of Christian comportment, then why would anyone be compelled to listen to what they say, no matter how significant a thing it might be that they are saying.

I realize that this very comment might appear to be in violation of the charitable nature of these categories. No doubt these qualities are owned more by aspiration than actualization in my experience – and in yours. It is hard to offer critique without sounding impatient, perhaps even unloving. The problem is that we seem to have got to the point where some preachers wear it as a value that they incite offence. Some preachers see no irony in that they come across obnoxious, relishing every opportunity to bludgeon people with the gospel.

I won’t name anyone in this, because I know that it is not my place to judge the inner workings of another’s heart. To be truthful, I’m not thinking of any one person at the moment. I am speaking rather of a growing inclination toward a kind of angry preaching –  a preaching that delights in picking out the flaws and rooting out the inconsistencies in another’s faith and practice.

I hesitate immediately, knowing the reservations my comment must incite. Do I not believe in the preaching of the truth? Am I soft on sin and unconcerned for righteousness? Am I weak in my concern for the lack of truth in the preaching of the modern pulpit?

No to all the above. I don’t believe my comments reflect weakness. They are, rather, an attempt to reflect the character of Christ who came bearing grace and truth, and in the spirit of the apostle Paul who taught us to speak truth in love. I am very concerned for truth and righteousness. It is just that I don’t delight in the exposure of its absence. I believe in preaching sin. I just don’t believe in being gleeful about it.

I am not forgetful of Paul’s comment, that it’s worth rejoicing whenever Christ is preached, whether out of good motive or of bad. But I want to be the kind of preacher that God is pleased to use. I tell my students that the manner of their preaching matters just as much as the message of their preaching. If I can’t observe your message by your manner, I will not be open to your discourse. If I can’t see your message with my eyes, how will I ever hear it with my ears?

 

 

 

Performance in Preaching

Most of us have been taught to believe that preachers who “perform” their sermons are mistaking their task for some kind of acting in the pulpit. I tended to share that view, at least until I heard a presentation by Ruthanna Hooke, author of Transforming Preaching, who helped me realize that the word “perform” and even the word “act” should not be disrespected by preachers who aspire to something more than hypothetics.

In other words, the best preachers don’t just suggest themes for consideration at some more convenient time. The best preachers enact the themes of Scripture, often in the very act of preaching itself.

When a doctor “performs surgery” the patient is deeply and dramatically affected. To “act” on a lawyer’s advice, is to actually make a substantive change that could, in fact, keep one out of jail. To “perform” the Scriptures in preaching, is not simply to state, describe, or recommend the truths found therein, but to act-ually put them into practice. Hooke says, “to perform the text – to learn it by heart, interpret it, and embody it – is to lose this easy familiarity and discover anew its strangeness and unexpectedness (p. 111).”

In my own writing and teaching, I have described the importance of “assimilating” the message and the sermon before preaching it. This is, I have come to see, an act of performance. Hooke says that it is “helpful to “perform” the texts of Scripture on which you will be preaching, which means to take several steps beyond reciting it or reading it out loud.”

This is, she says, “to learn the passage by heart, and then to act out the text as one would act out the script of a play, or to retell it as one would tell a story. To perform a passage of Scripture means to take on the voice of the characters, to stage the action, to decide what the scene looks like (110).”

This has a lot to commend it as a way of thinking about our preparation for preaching. But even more, it speaks to the importance we need to place in our own appropriation of the themes we are preaching. Preaching ought never to be hypothetical. We all must allow the sermon to perform its work upon our own hearts. That will prepare us well to act upon the things that we hear from the Word and then, to “make it so” for our listeners also, through our preaching.

 

Hooke, Ruthanna B. Transforming Preaching. “Transformations” Series edited by James Lemler. The Episcopal Church of the 21st Century. New York: Church Publishing, 2010.

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!

http://trevinwax.com/2011/07/11/our-ears-still-itch/

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.

Just Say You Want to be a Pastor

I resonated with this piece when I read it today. There is a certain arrogance to the need to qualify our ambitions quite so much as we seem to want to do. Pastoral work is a noble ambition. We don’t all need to be “renewal experts” and such. I remember one of my mentors taking me to 1 Timothy 3:1 where it says that the desire to be an overseer is a good thing. I trust that God is still gifting, calling, and leading many of us.

http://www.credomag.com/2/post/2011/07/just-say-you-want-to-be-a-pastor.html

Just Love Them

One of the things I learned early on in ministry was the importance of loving those I served. I was very young when I started preaching. Young people can tend toward arrogance, especially when they are given responsibility for which they are not ready. In my case, I was reasonably aware of my limitations. What came clear to me early on was the power of loving the people to whom I preached. Of course, it wasn’t enough for me just to act and speak lovingly, but they had to know that I loved them. So, I told them, as often as I could, then I tried to act in ways that bore that love out. As I said, in Choosing to Preach (p.175)…

“Preachers need to love their listeners. We might not always get it right. Things we say can be misconstrued. Sometimes we will make comments that would have been better left unsaid. But, love cover a multitude of wrongs. When people are convinced that the preacher really loves them, they will listen with more grace and more intention. Of course, loving listeners is another way the preacher maintains integrity with the loving message of the Bible.”

 

The Greatest Preacher Hardly Anyone Hears

Dave McClellan in his excellent Preach By Ear blog recently posted the following comment. I would encourage you to follow Dave, perhaps the most intriguing homiletician you may have never heard of! …

“I drove by a big church today. I drive by them all the time. They bug me. Not for any good reason. That church never did anything to me. It’s just that it was big and mine is small. That’s really its only crime. It got big and we didn’t. I’m trying to be Ok with that… being a small church pastor. But I’m only partly Ok with it.”

“I have this sense that I’m a good preacher and that preaching is key to a growing church. So when I add the two together… it just seems inevitable. Especially because deep inside I think I’m not only a good preacher, but exceptional. But then again maybe all preachers think that deep inside. That would be funny if we all thought we were better than average.”

“So what do I do with that? Usually just feel bad and try harder. Try anything that might draw and keep people. The drawing isn’t that hard. It’s the keeping. People are hard to please over the long haul. But boy do I try. I get the feeling sometimes that everybody will move on eventually. So it’s my job, in preaching, to try to keep them as long as possible. I feel that pressure. That can’t be good.”

“Everybody who goes to church has to abide some sort of weekly monologue preached by a guy who, like me, is trying to hang on to people. So if my monologue were to be marginally better than the competing monologues around me there’s a fair chance that some church folk might come to choose my place over theirs, and that I’d be tempted to call that success. But that’s not what preaching is supposed to be about. That’s not about the love of the word or His people. It’s about something else entirely. Something not worthy of ten hours of work each week.”

 

Writing Sermons as a Spiritual Discipline

I highly recommend this piece by Christine Sine on The Spiritual Discipline of Writing Sermons.

Why spend twenty hours a week in sermon preparation? Because it is an act of spiritual discipline. Listening to God by his Spirit and through his Word such that we can communicate what we hear to God is a process that ought not be rushed. It ought to be undertaken in concert with an array of other spiritual disciplines like prayer, fasting, silence, solitude, and worship.

Sine writes, “Some pastors believe that sermon-writing takes them away from spiritual disciplines or that Bible study that is useful for preaching doesn’t ‘count’ as “spiritual reading. It is certainly possible to beat the spiritual value out of the sermon-writing process, but if one enters into the weekly preaching cycle to receive something personally transforming and helpful to others from God, then spiritual growth and strengthening is inevitable.”

 

Ortberg on the Call to Preach

I was struck by a comment by John Ortberg on the discerning of a call to preach. It is taken from an interview in the September/October issue of Preaching magazine. Ortberg says…

“Early in the ministry I would say be as ruthlessly honest about whether or not you have the spiritual gift of teaching. You know, it’s an interesting thing – I loved seminary and had a great seminary education. I place a high value on theological reflection, theological education. But I think one thing that often doesn’t happen in seminaries, and maybe it can’t, is to help people find out whether or not they have the spiritual gift of teaching, preaching.”

“Folks who do (have the gift) will find out because they will find that they have a love to study Scripture. They love to think about how to communicate it. They have a good radar for a congregation. They will get feedback from a congregation – “God has used your preaching to change my life, to put a marriage back together.” They have an internal affirmation from God about how they’re being used. People who don’t have (the gift) or have it to a lesser degree won’t have those kinds of things going on.”

“So be ruthlessly honest about it. If you don’t have the spiritual gift of teaching, don’t teach. Do something else. It will be really painful for you to admit it, but better pain for a few months than 40 or 50 years of pain for you and a congregation. If it’s in your gift mix but not the top gift, maybe you need to preach once every two or three or four weeks. Make sure you’re part of a team so you don’t have to do it all the time.”

“If it is your primary gift, hone it. Devote yourself to it. Teach a lot. Get really good feedback from people who you know and love who will talk to you honestly. Get tapes of messages and listen to people who are really good preachers and teachers. Read about it. Experiment with it. Just keep honing it. Don’t neglect your gift by thinking, ‘Well, there are other parts of pastoral ministry I’m not too good at, so I’ll spend more time shoring up my weaknesses.’ Don’t do that. Just hone it, hone it, hone it.”

 

The Candidating Sermon

Many of us know the stress and pressure that comes with the candidating process. We want to put our best foot forward, but we do not want to make such a good impression that we are never able to live up to it in the future. I remember hearing an older pastor years ago saying that we should avoid preaching our “Royal George Sermon” when auditioning for a church. I’m not sure what King George had to do with it, but we all have those sure-fire, can’t miss sermons that are certain to put us in the best possible light. It is tempting to default to such sermons when the footing isn’t sure.

For that reason Scott Gibson’s advice, that we preach our “best average sermon” seems wise. Scott’s comment can be found in his excellent article, Preaching the Candidating Sermon, the preaching.org feature article for October. “What is a best average sermon,” Gibson asks? “It is a sermon that captures who you are as a preacher, your personality; and also demonstrates your competence in handling the Word, delivered with skill.”

In other words, preach well, without resorting to any special measures, homiletic pyrotechnics, or features that you won’t be able to live up to. “Remember,” Gibson counsels, “you are not trying to preach your “barn burner” sermon. A candidating sermon is not the sole measure of your preaching ability. You want to give the listeners your best average sermon to demonstrate to them what you are able to do week by week.”

Preaching a candidating sermon can make a person feel like they are back in homiletics class. It feels like people are listening to the preacher more than they are listening to God. No matter what we say, people are thinking about our delivery, more than about the message. They are watching us closely, making decisions about what they are hearing. Their judgment has more to do with whether they would want to listen to us on a weekly basis than it has to do with their own response to the message that we came to bring. It is what it is. We can’t really change it, though we’re best not to dwell on this reality obsessively. The best thing we could do is the same thing that we ought to do whenever we stand to preach. We turn people’s focus to the Word of God and seek to help them to hear his voice.

 

I’d Rather See a Sermon

From my files, an old poem by Edgar Guest, not that our preaching is without value, but preaching has to be “seen” as much as it is spoken:

I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day;
I’d rather one should walk with me than merely tell the way.
The eye’s a better pupil and more willing than the ear.
Fine counsel is confusing, but example’s always clear;
And the best of all the preachers are the ones who live their creeds,
For to see good put in action is what everybody needs.

 

Stealing Sermons

I heard a very good sermon recently. I was personally challenged and convicted by what the pastor had to say. This is what preaching is supposed to do, I thought to myself. I was impressed and encouraged by the word that I was hearing.

I was disappointed then, about three-quarters of the way through the sermon when the preacher indicated that he had been helped by another preacher who had taught him the insight that formed the core of this sermon that was now blessing me. Hmm, I thought to myself, I wonder how much of this sermon has been borrowed. A conversation with the preacher later confirmed that a good portion of the thinking, the textual development, and even the language of the sermon was not original to the preacher I had heard.

So the question is, should that matter? The fact is I was blessed by the sermon. It really did help me. Who cares where it came from? If the message was true, it came from God. Isn’t that all that matters? Besides, the preacher indicated his source, however subtly. If he was blessed by the message, why should he not share it? We all stand upon one another’s shoulders don’t we?

Yes we do, and for that reason I will not accuse this preacher of pulpit plagiarism. His passion for the sermon was real. He didn’t do it because he was too busy or because he was disinterested in preaching. He did it because he believed it was powerful and because he knew we needed to hear it. His use of the text was excellent. The attribution of the other preacher was given, though it might have been a little more overt. What is more, he adapted it and applied it to our setting. Two strong closing stories were taken from the previous week in the life of the congregation. So what’s the problem?

No problem, at least in the case. Thomas Long offers a way of discerning these things that is quite effective, in my view. If the pastor was to begin the sermon by saying, “What you are about to hear is largely a sermon that I heard preached by Pastor So and So,” how would it effect the congregation. Would it be a problem or would it not? Would the preacher have a reason to be embarrassed?

For the most part, that would depend upon the pastor’s motivation for the borrowing. Let’s rephrase the opening statement. What if the preacher said, “It has been a busy week and I didn’t have time to prepare so what you are about to hear is largely a sermon that I heard preached by Pastor So and So…”. In that case I believe that the congregational response would be greatly diminished no matter how good the sermon was.

If, on the other hand, the preacher said, “This morning I’m going to share with you a sermon that helped to change my life and ministry. I first heard it preached by Pastor So and So and now would like to share it with you in the hope that it could have a similar impact for you.” In this case, the response could be quite a bit more positive.

It was in this latter sense that the sermon I just heard was preached. My thinking about this was prompted by a preachingtoday.com email I received this morning featuring an excellent article on the subject by Tom Long, titled Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize. I’ve linked to this piece before, but in case you missed it, you’ll want to catch it this time.

Here’s to excellence and honesty in preaching.

 

Preaching is Boring Because…

Someone recently said to me, “preaching is boring because preachers are boring. They ought to get a life.”

Sounds harsh. You can decide how true it is of you or your ministry. Suffice it to say that preachers ought to be interesting because they engage life from a perspective that is truthful and transcendent.

I’ll leave you to ponder the implications.

 

Feeding the Preacher

One of the problems I have observed is that some of us think we preach better than we actually do. Truthfully, most of us probably suffer from that problem. If I’m honest, I’d probably have to admit that I have a higher sense of the effectiveness of my own preaching than what the listeners might say (though they do seem to be very complimentary).

The problem shows up when I talk to people about studying preaching more. I heard it again this weekend when a denominational leader told me that his pastors would not take a course in homiletics because they wouldn’t think that they need it. If you asked their churches, he admitted, we would probably get a different answer.

In response, another friend offered this metaphor: If you’re feeding yourself, you might be able to get by with cup-a-noodles, or with Kraft Dinner. If you’re feeding your family, you might want to put a little more effort into preparation. If you are the dietitian at a major hospital, you would need to do some serious work to prepare yourself as well as your meal.

Preachers “feed” a lot more than just themselves and their families. We feed a congregation. We have to do more than just prepare a great meal. We need to prepare ourselves so that we have the knowledge and capacity to feed the multitude that gathers when we preach.

 

The Crossing Tender

I heard Jeff Arthurs read this little parable at an EHS gathering many years ago. Afterwards I asked him for a copy so that I could share it with my classes. It was published in 1919 by William Eleazar Barton, otherwise known as “Safed the Sage”. The piece has been edited.

Now there is a railway that runneth through the town where I live, and there are gates that are pulled down when a train goeth by. And one day when I would have crossed the tracks, the gates went down, so that I stopped. And I spake unto the man who keepeth the crossing, and I said, “lovest thou thy job?”

And he said, “I count myself lucky to have this job, for I am neither young nor strong; nevertheless mine is a hard job.”

And I said, “wherefore should thy job be hard?”

And he said, “because I save people’s lives and they curse me.”

“They come down the street breaking the speed limit, and honking for me to lift the gates; or if they be on foot they duck under. And when I warn them not to cross the tracks lest they die, they act as if I were their enemy.”

And I took him by the hand, and I said, “Thou art my brother, and my job is like unto thine.”

And he said, “Art thou not a minister?”

And I answered, “I am a crossing-tender. Where thou seest yonder spire, I tend a crossing; and i say unto the wicked, go not in thine evil way, lest thou die, but they continue to go as they did before. And I say unto the heedless, duck not under the gate, lest evil befall thee; but they duck as they were wont to do.”

My job is like unto the crossing-tenders for my job has the same trials. Nevertheless, his is a good job, and so is mine. And every now and then we keep people on the right side of the gate.

So I considered this, and I resolved to do it as well as I could.

 

Hit and Run Preaching

I remember one of my old homiletics profs saying how he wished that he had a trap-door beneath the pulpit. He dreamed of a button he could push that would open an escape route out the back of the church so that he didn’t have to greet the people after preaching. Of course, he had too much integrity and concern for his listeners to actually have such a thing installed. Still, I can appreciate how he sometimes felt. After pouring yourself out on the platform, immediately having to face the crowd up close and personal does not seem particularly welcome. Singers, actors, and other performers can take their bows and retreat safely backstage without having to actually talk to the audience.

Yet, as preachers, we are not performers. We are not separated from the congregation but are one with them engaged together in the process of listening for the voice of God. The post-sermon opportunity is not about receiving the reviews of critical listeners, whether positive or negative. It is, rather, a profound opportunity to engage people, many of whom have been meaningfully affected by God’s presence and voice.

Hit and run preachers, who feel that having delivered their best, are justified in quickly leaving the scene, miss out on one of the better aspects of their preaching. Forget about the “great sermon, pastor,” comments. Preachers ought to be searching for those knowing looks, the tell-tale tears, and the other signs of God at work. Getting to the people who are ready to respond can be a powerfully rewarding experience both for the preacher and for those who listen.

 

Can Preachers Have Friends in the Congregation

I had another interesting conversation with one of our Doctor of Ministry students last week. Robert Campbell is a pastor from Corona, California and is working on the question of whether or not a pastor can have friends in the congregation.

Traditionalists would say not, given that a pastor can never escape the pastoral role within the life of the congregation. Playing favorites within the church can be a real problem for the overall health of a church.

But what about the pastor’s own spiritual growth? Campbell contends that spiritual formation happens within community and that the pastor needs to be growing as much as anyone else. If the pastor is not allowed to engage the community in the same way as others, then how is he or she supposed to grow?

It is a problem because the truth is a pastor can never really have the same kind of relationship with other people in the congregation because it is true that he or she can never leave behind the pastoral role. However, is this really all that different from anyone else? Everyone brings their personal identity into relationship. Gender, social standing, race, education, and a myriad of other factors all play into the way that we relate to one another. The pastoral role is just one of those factors that shape the way that people relate.

The answer that Robert and I are coming to is that yes, pastors, need to engage people as friends within the congregation so that the community can do its thing to help in the spiritual formation of the pastor alongside everyone else. At the same time, we understand that the pastor’s relationship with people is always going to be colored and shaped by the fact that she or he is in that role.

This is okay. It is to be celebrated, even. The community of God’s people is a rich tapestry of relationships as we grow together in Christ.

 

Pulpit Plagiarism

Thomas Long has written a tremendous piece on pulpit plagiarism that you can find here in it’s entirety: Stolen Goods. The article traces the arguments for and against using materials developed by others in the pulpit. Long comes down on the issue of honesty and integrity. He writes…

“A good test of this point is to ask, What would happen if the preacher told the truth? “Hey folks, it’s been a busy week and I didn’t have time to work on a sermon, and honestly, I’m not all that creative anyway. So this is a little something I found on the ’net.” The fact that the air would immediately go out of the room is a reliable indicator that the tacit agreement of the sermon event has been violated. This is why plagiarists, for all their blather about God’s words being free for all, never confess their true sources and always imply that these words are coming straight from the heart. Yes, Augustine made space for preachers to memorize the words of other, more eloquent proclaimers, but note well that he added the test of truth: “supposing them to do it without deception.”

Perhaps even more powerfully, Long describes giving credit as more than just doing the right thing. He writes, “Giving credit to others is not merely a matter of keeping our ethical noses clean; it is also a part of bearing witness to the gospel. No sermon stands alone, but instead takes its place in a “cloud of witnesses.” The proclamation of the gospel does not spring forth from our cleverness or ability to generate novelty. To borrow words from others and to show that one’s sermon dips into the deep well of shared wisdom is itself part of Christian testimony, a fresh expression of Paul’s confession, “I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received.”

 

Evaluation

This week I have been engaged in wall-to-wall faculty meetings here at ACTS Seminaries. It is annual review week, which is both grueling and encouraging as we get a sense of what we have been doing (well and poorly) and what we could see happen going forward as we consider our responsibilities.

Like many of us, I’ve not always found it easy to submit to evaluation. It’s a natural human response to shrink from critical evaluation of one’s person and work. Still, I understand how essential it really is. None of us, in our work, in our preaching, and in in terms of our personal character are so aware that we do not need the wisdom that is offered through the scrutiny provided by people who look at what we do from a different frame of reference. We are mutually dependent upon others who have a stake in what we are doing. We must respect the view of others and be assured enough to be able to effectively utilize the critique that others offer.

In terms of our preaching, it seems self-evident that if preaching is going to make a difference for our listeners then we might want to listen to them in terms of how they are responding to what we have to say. Evaluation isn’t always pleasant, but it is a key to succeeding in the work to which we’ve been called.

 

Women Can Preach!

Yesterday, I concluded the latest installment of my preaching laboratory class. Toward the end of the class one of the male students mentioned that while he felt his preaching was improving he wasn’t yet up to the standard of one of his fellow students, who was generally acknowledged to be the strongest preacher in the class. It so happened that the preacher he was referring to was a woman.

Now I don’t want to say that every woman I have taught is a great preacher. I could say that in general, the woman have done better than the men. I’m not sure whether this is because they feel they have to try harder or if there is something nurturing and sensitive inherent to femininity that enhances preaching. What I can say with certainty is that women have at least as good an opportunity as men to achieve excellence in preaching.

I’m not interested in turning this blogpiece into an exegetical treatment of the contentious passages in Scripture. I’m just stating the obvious. Women can preach. Some of us may have good reasons for our prohibition of certain opportunities for women based on our understanding of Scripture. As long as our approach is sincerely based on a principled approach to the Bible, that is fine and good. If it is, rather, a cover for latent misogyny we should repent of the sin that this is.

Personally, I have tried to encourage women in their preaching in two ways. First, I have tried to broaden our definition of what preaching is so that we respect those opportunities that are more readily available to women, rather than confining preaching to what happens in the privileged space of the Sunday morning pulpit. Second, I have tried to confirm the gifting of women in my classes when that gifting is evident so that they feel confident in pursuing those opportunities that God would have in mind for them, whatever and wherever those opportunities might be.

Preaching is helping people hear from God. Romans 10 reminds us that there are plenty of people in the world in need of someone who will have enough courage to help them hear. This can happen anywhere and can take many forms. Women and men both need to hear this call.

 

Taking the Heat

Yesterday, I preached the same sermon at two consecutive services. In between the first and second services I took some heat from an older man who suggested that “if anyone came into the service confused, I left them more confused.” I tried to offer a gentle response, hoping to clarify what may have been a misapprehension of my intent, but he wasn’t interested in a conversation. He just wanted to drop his bomb. In fact, he proved the point that I was trying to make with the sermon about the way we perpetuate the forms of spiritual life without attending to the fruit of the Spirit. For all his concern, there wasn’t much evidence of love, joy, patience… in his response to me.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been hit with criticism for my preaching so directly. It just hasn’t happened to me all that often and so I don’t mind admitting that the criticism stung. Given that there was quite a bit of time between services I went for a walk in order to pray and to sort out my response. First, of course, one needs to deal with the emotional sting. Most of us like to be appreciated and it doesn’t feel good to know that we are not. Of course, I was able to balance this with the fact that multiple people had come to me offering profuse thanks for the same sermon. I remember, however, something I read in a book on Christian parenting about how every negative comment needs to be balanced by at least ten positive ones.

Secondly, I needed to rehearse the sermon to see if there was any truth in the criticism. Just because the critic was angry doesn’t mean that he was wrong. In this case, however, as I went through what I had said, I concluded that I was correct in what I had said. My comments, while difficult, were warranted by the text of Scripture.

The third and in this case most telling aspect was an examination of the degree to which the problem could have been avoided if I had done a better job of preaching. Here, I sensed was where I had stumbled. It’s not that the sermon was poor. It’s just that I could have done a better job of helping my critic deal with what I was saying. Not that I want to soft-peddle the struggle. Preaching the Bible leads us to say some uncomfortable things and I’m not afraid of laying it out there. At the same time, I don’t want to be unnecessarily confrontational. Where there is potential for challenge, my goal as a preacher is not just to create problems for people, but having raised the problems, find ways to help people past them. The truth is, I could have been more sensitive to the potential for difficulty and I could have done more to actually help the listener hear what God was saying. In fact, in the second service, that is exactly what I did.

As a preacher, I want to own responsibility for the listener’s response. This is not to say that I can control their responses. I can’t. It is also not to say that I am accountable for their response. I’m not. Nevertheless, the more I take it upon myself to help the listener respond well to what they hear, the better my preaching is going to be and the stronger the response will be from listeners. It’s not easy, but it’s part of our job as preachers.

 

Monday

I know that there has been a debate about whether pastor/preachers should take Mondays as their day off or whether they should try to take another day mid-week. Monday is most convenient, of course. Churches gear up towards the weekend and after all the excitement of Sunday, Monday is usually a down day and thus the easiest day for a pastor to take off. Of course, that is part of the problem. Monday is usually a down day emotionally for pastors and many feel that rather than spending the day licking their wounds, they ought to take another day later in the week and utilize the momentum gained from Sunday to accomplish worthwhile things on Monday.

Personally, I always took Mondays when I was a full-time local church pastor. Certainly I did experience some of the typical Monday blues from time to time, but that is just part of being human. The problem with trying to take another day later in the week is that it often doesn’t happen. Some pastors like to take Saturdays because their kids are off from school that day. The only problem there is that in most churches these days, Saturday is a busy day preparing for Sunday not to mention the fact that many churches are holding services on Saturday evenings these days.

I’m more concerned that we actually take a day off. A day of rest is a concept that originates with God himself and it goes all the way back to the first chapter of Genesis. We ought to take it seriously. It is true that a pastor’s work is never done and that we could easily fill the day with worthwhile things, but if we don’t take time off we are going to wear ourselves down to the point we are not effective or useful to the Lord or to our people. It might be worth remembering that many of our people actually get two days off each week.

In the past it may have been that a pastor could get some semblance of rest on a Sunday afternoon, but this day is becoming increasingly heavy for preachers and pastors. With multiple services, the preacher’s load on a Sunday can be back-breaking. Yesterday, for instance, I was up at 6:30am to prepare and preach two services. Add to that a lengthy Fellowship time during the break between services while a Sunday School program was going on and I didn’t get home until the afternoon. I was exhausted after putting in a seven hour shift – and given that I was a guest at the church, I didn’t even have to stay for the business meeting they were holding after the second service. Some “day of rest.”

If Monday morning is tough on us emotionally, try a Monday in February, traditionally the gloomiest month of the year. I heard a few days ago that search committees that have had difficulty finding experienced pastors who would consider leaving their ministries find that the number goes up dramatically in February once all the excitement of Christmas dissipates, winter drags on, and reality sinks in more deeply.

Now I’m working in the seminary environment which means that I have to be in the office first thing Monday morning even though I’m almost always preaching somewhere Sunday morning and often evening. I find myself longing for those pastoral Mondays when I could sleep in, do some things around the house and occasionally even play a game of golf (though not usually in February).

Okay, if it sounds like I’m whining, I guess that I am. It’s Monday and I’m human. But perhaps it’s worth reminding ourselves of the importance of the Sabbath concept. Sabbath, by the way, does not mean exchanging the hyperactivity of the church for hyperactivity at home. It also doesn’t necessarily describe six or eight hours in front of the television. Sabbath is rest in God’s presence. It is taking time to change pace, reflect on God’s love and on his encouragement, and to recharge the batteries for another week’s engagement of life with all of its wonderful challenges.

So pastor, why not go for a long walk just you and your Lord. Maybe its time to get lost in an interesting book without feeling you have to mine it for sermon fodder. Take your wife out for lunch or for dinner so that you can just talk about your life and where it’s heading.

It’s Monday. Give it a rest.

 

Abusing Our Privilege

Have you ever noticed how we sometimes use stories and illustrations as a way of redeeming ourselves through our preaching? I’m not just a preacher. I’m a human and as such, I find myself messing up in life. Most times these things are relatively minor, and sometimes they are of more serious consequence. As a preacher, I’ve discovered, I have a useful way of redeeming myself from these various indiscretions. I can simply use the problem as an illustration in one of my sermons. As long as I use the right kind of repentant tone and as long as the sin is not too flagrant, I’ll feel better about things after confessing in such a public manner. It has the added benefit of showing that I am a person that the listener can relate to and that God is gracious to forgive our sins.

This is not a bad thing, exactly. Telling stories that illustrate the grace of God and the frailty of humans is exactly what we must be doing. What worries me, however, is what might be going on in my heart as a preacher if I am using the pulpit as a kind of public confessional booth as if it were a short-cut to redemption. Does telling a story in a sermon really make things right? Not if things haven’t been made right. Not if I haven’t sought forgiveness from the ones I may have hurt. Not if I haven’t come to peace with God.

Our listeners need to know that we are human and if our personal stories can help people to hear what God is saying to them, then so be it, but if we seek to utilize the opportunity to fix our personal problems we might be abusing our privilege Our preaching serves the purposes of God.

 

Speaking of Ourselves

It seems that I have developed a pattern, offering useful or interesting excerpts every Friday for the weekend. In my latest installment, note this quotation from Eugene Lowry’s Doing Time in the Pulpit. I read this book for the first time as a young pastor in the mid-1980s. The book inspired me to pursue new ways of thinking about the homiletic task. Here, he quotes Frederick Buechner on the appropriateness of personal illustration in preaching:

I mentioned to Buechner that a lot of us were taught in seminary preaching classes not to use anecdotes out of our lives – nor for that matter, really to consider our own history when dealing with the Word. I started to say that such a viewpoint seemed to me to be . . . and he finished my sentence with a single word: “Nuts!” Later he explained: “It seems to me that the word we preach is an incarnate word; it’s the center of our faith. And this is true not only in terms of the Logos Word, the word made flesh in Christ, but the words that God speaks to us through the events of our own lives, and if you don’t talk about those words – if you don’t deal with the flesh and blood events of your own and your congregation’s lives – then most of what you say will be dim and irrelevant.”

 

Personal Style

I’ve found it interesting this week to contrast two of my students whose preaching (and personal) style is very different. One of the guys is energetic, passionate – the kind of guy who makes his presence felt wherever he is. Everybody likes him. The other guy is quite, personable, sincere. Everybody likes him too. When they preached in class, however, the contrast could not have been more distinct.

In a one-on-one feedback session with the quieter of the two, I tried to help this excellent young man to consider how to use his personality as a strength. He came in a little discouraged because he wasn’t able to light up the room like his fellow student did. I tried to show him that his sincerity and innate sense of authenticity were actually assets if he chose to use them that way. We talked about how in his case, working without notes would be a good idea because it would be a way that he could build a sense of intimacy that would heighten his naturally authentic personal style. We considered how he could utilize story-telling more effectively to create a sense of quiet drama.

Phillips Brooks famously said that preaching was the presentation of truth through personality. Since God has given us all a different personal style, it would be well for us to think about how we might utilize our personality in order to maximize our effectiveness.

 

How Much Time Do You Spend Preparing?

I just finished reading Thom Rainer’s Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and I will admit that I’m a little shocked to read that “90 percent

of pastors in America spend only two hours per week in sermon preparation for each message preached (p.67).”

Now I will admit that the old adage of one hour of study for every one minute of preaching is excessive, but two hours? Come on. Can we not do better than this? I am reminded of Haddon Robinson’s comment (100 people in church is approximately 300 hours in human investment, Biblical Preaching p.46) that given the person-hour investment of everyone gathering together to listen (count it up some time for your church), we ought to be willing to make a reasonable investment of time into the process.

What is reasonable? I’m going to say between eight and twelve hours for the major weekly sermon, though I understand that this is completely arbitrary. Some will take more and some less. I’m just saying that two hours is weak. It will make for weak preaching and weak church health.

Rainer says, “Perhaps the failure to connect with the unchurched is a reflection of some pastors’ lack of time in the study of the Word or sermon preparation. Perhaps pastors could become better communicators if they spent more time on preaching than other matters (p.67).”

 

Authenticity: The New Fruit of the Spirit?

I had an interesting online conversation with some of my students this week about the growing appreciation for authenticity as a personal value. I made the off-hand comment that I didn’t recall seeing authenticity as one of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5. Of course, the fruits list was not intended to be exhaustive and certainly an emphasis on truthfulness might be implied. Certainly Paul’s list in Philippians 4:8 seems to value honest expression and truthful thought.

I’m not sure, however, that this is always what is understood by the contemporary use of the word, “authentic.” More often than not, authenticity is described as “being true to one’s self” which, as one of my students pointed out, often translates into a kind of selfishenss that is more concerned with one’s personal desires than it is with the concerns and needs of others.

The problem I have with being true to myself is that ‘myself’ is a sinner at the core. My greatest challenge in life is to repudiate the selfish and prideful interests of my heart in favor of the purposes of God. An authentic presentation of my truest self would not be pretty, nor would it be honoring to God.

This is not to say that I should not be honest before God. When I come before God I am stripped bare and I need to be willing to expose my most authentic self to his scrutiny and judgment. I can do this in the knowledge that he loves me and that, in Christ, he is extending grace to me. By God’s grace, I can then transcend my authentic self in order to grow into the new person that he is forming in me.

From the perspective of a preacher/teacher, however, I can say that there is value in being honest with people about our own struggles. We ought to be able to speak about our weaknesses with an honesty that comes from the knowledge that God is at work to restore and renew us.

Ultimately, however, our challenge is to appreciate that we are never to be the focus of our own sermons. My preaching is not about me. It is about God and his glory. It is about trying to be a blessing to those who listen to me. Philippians 2:3 and 4 remind us that we are not to look to our own interests, as authentic as they may be, but we are to look to the interests of others, considering their needs and person more important than our own.

I know this runs against the grain, but it isn’t the first time we find the Bible challenging our popular conceptions.

Who Reaches the Unchurched?

According to Thom Rainer in Surprising Insights from the Unchurched the highest level of education among pastors who are successfully reaching the unchurched is either doctorate (40%) or masters (47%). This bodes well for those of us trying to serve the church by training people for ministry.

Even better was the news that 90% of previously unchurched people claim that ‘preaching’ was a dominant reason that they came to associate with their chosen church. Next to that was ‘doctrine’ at 88% and ‘friendliness’ way back at only 49%.

 

A Prophet Has Been Among Them

I recently came across a passage that got my attention. Ezekiel 2:1-3:11 reminded me again of the relevance of the Bible. Every preacher ought to pray over this one.

“Mortal man, I am sending you to the people of israel. They have rebelled and turned against me and are still rebels, just as their ancestors were. They are stubborn and do not respect me, so I am sending you to tell them what I, the Sovereign Lord, am saying to them. Whether these rebels listen to you or not, they will know that prophet has been among them.”

Later on God says,

“Mortal man, pay close attention and remember everything I tell you. Then go to the people of your nation who are in exile and tell them what I, the Sovereign Lord, am saying to them, whether they pay attention to you or not.”

These days, we can’t guarantee that anyone will pay attention to what we have to say, but we must go anyway and speak as God leads us. When they hear the Word of God through the voice of the preacher, “they will know that a prophet has been among them.”

 

Since When Did We Have to be Funny?

Listening to the speakers at a recent Willow Creek Leadership Summit I have been struck by just how funny everybody is. Patrick Lencioni, Jim Collins, and even Bill Hybels all used humor to great effect. Andy Stanley was hilarious. Not that anybody were telling jokes exactly (“A pastor, a priest, and rabbi get into an airplane…”). Most of it was off the cuff, self-deprecating, and slightly off-kilter, but almost all the speakers had the crowd smiling and sometimes roaring with laughter.

When did this become a requirement?

I’m thinking back to the great speaker/preachers of previous years and can’t say that any of them were particularly humerous. Charles Spurgeon? D. L. Moody? Billy Graham? Were any of these guys funny?

Now I enjoy humor as much as the next guy and I have been known to use it myself, though I can’t say I often intend it. Is this the sign of a dumbed down Christianity? Is preaching degrading into entertainment?

If this is a trend, I’m not too worried. Nowhere is it written that listening to preaching and teaching ought to be painful. As Nancy Beach said in introducing Lencioni yesterday, “Patrick has you enjoying yourself so much, it isn’t until later that you realize how much you’ve learned.” If this can help more people hear, then perhaps it is worth it.

But please, don’t force it! A healthy sense of humor is a natural thing. It comes from the ability to see the world with a careful sense of wit. Wit, by the way, is not far from wisdom, and it can be a powerful tool for the effective preacher.

Just keep it in its place. There is a season for everything in our sermons. A time to cry, and a time to laugh.