The Art of Persuasion

Preaching, if it is to be biblical, will always be persuasive. Persuasion is foundational to preaching because the gospel always seeks conversion and commitment. pascal_pensees

That preaching is a persuasive act, means it will be undervalued in contemporary cultures where diversity of perspective and self-definition are the most highly prized qualities. People typically are not interested in being persuaded to adopt the preacher’s perspective when the culture celebrates the expression of their self-derived convictions.

In such a setting, I found it helpful to review what Blaise Pascal had to say about persuasion in his Pensees.

When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true.

Pascal offers an appreciative form of persuasion, respectful to the listener that he is seeking to persuade. Far from mere flattery, Pascal looks to build upon whatever is objectively true within the listeners’s self-expression. It may be that the listener is not particularly bothered by the need to think congruent to the truth. Nevertheless, by asserting what is actually true within the listener’s perspective, the preacher encourages the best impulses of the listener’s mind, while charting a more helpful, more consistent, and ultimately more truthful path for the listener.

This form of preaching, while being more winsome, cannot help but be more persuasive.

For further reference, have a look at this brief piece by Maria Popova of

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?


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.



Playing to Specific People in the Crowd

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

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

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

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

To Manuscript or Memorize

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paying Attention to Life

I heard a sermon this morning on the famous “Widow’s mite” narrative. The preacher took care to tell us the story in a way that had us leaning forward. We were completely gripped by his imaginative handling of the details of this woman’s story. From there he moved directly to a personal story about his three-year old son who was willing to part with his hard-earned money to help a homeless man that he encountered in the street. You kind of had to be there to appreciate the power of these two stories told in parallel. I know that I won’t soon forget it.attentive

We might want to say that this was one of those almost-magical moments where the story of our lives and the story in the text matched perfectly. I suspect, however that this kind of opportunity is there for us more often than we think. The Bible is written to address the stuff of life. If we can’t see the connections to the lives we lead, it is only because we haven’t been paying attention.

Paying attention to life is a significant preacher-skill. It is important that we be attentive to the things that are going on around us, which might offer examples, metaphors, or clues to the meanings that we want to preach. When our sermons can be seen in life, they take on an increased power.

This means we can’t start preparing just the night before. If we want to notice these illustrative and applicational opportunities, we need space in life for these connections to be recognized. A longer gestation period for our sermons will be helpful so that there is time for us to pay attention. Our minds focused on the direction of our sermon will be able to find those points of connection if we are able to give it just a little time.

The preacher I heard this morning, might never have noticed anything special in his son’s response to the homeless man, if it were not for the fact that he had his sermon on his mind. For days he had been contemplating the deep truths of his text such that when he saw an example in life, the connection was readily evident.

I have written before that one way to manage this sort of thing is to work on more than one sermon at a time. For example, you could do your exegetical and interpretive work for the next week’s sermon and also your sermon construction work for the current week’s sermon in the same week. In that way, you can give your sermons a longer gestation period without adding any hours or minutes to your preparation.

If we had time to pay attention, we might find a great number of things that can take us deeper into the truth of our sermons. It only takes intention – and attention.

The 500 Word Manuscript

So how much manuscript should a preacher use? Does a sermon manuscript keep a preacher from rambling into irrelevance, or does it stifle and inhibit communication? A more oral and in-the-moment approach can keep the sermon from feeling like it has been canned or packaged. On the other hand, a manuscript can keep the sermon from feeling like the preacher is making it up as he goes.


My own preaching has utilized both methods to varying degrees. I do love the communicative power of extemporaneous preaching, even though it sometimes feels a little undisciplined and imprecise. Some have suggested the preparation of a manuscript that is left behind and not utilized in the actual preaching of the sermon. While this sounds like a great way of integrating the two approaches, I have often found myself paralyzed while preaching by this method, trying to remember the exact construction that I laboured over in the writing of the manuscript.

My solution has been to move to a 500 Word Manuscript. Having done my sermon research and construction, I write the sermon in 500 words or less – basically the sermon on a single sheet of paper. 500 words is not enough words for even the shortest of sermons, but it is enough to communicate the basic substance and structure I intend. It also doesn’t require as much time to prepare. Consolidating the sermon into 500 words forces me to focus and sharpen the sermon, requiring me to make important choices about better and best. I can then easily commit the resulting structure to memory without worrying about falling into a deadly recitation in the preaching of the sermon.

There is a delightful freedom in preaching the resulting sermon. The sermon feels fresh and focused. I am not bogged down by pre-fabricated constructions, nor am I struggling to discern direction. I don’t bring my 500 words with me to the platform. I don’t need to. I know what I am doing and where I am going, but I am free to use language that seems organic and unforced as it emerges in the moment.

One thing I know about myself is that I can talk. I am seldom stuck for words when I have clarity about my purpose. I suspect that the same could be true about any of us who preach. The resulting product might not look eloquent if published, but no one is publishing our preaching anyway.

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

The Fourth Wall

Someone recently told me that they like the way I “break the fourth wall” when I preach. That sounded kind of cool, so I immediately had to go and find out what he meant by it.audience

Turns out, this is a theatrical term referring to the imaginary wall that exists between the stage and the seating area. Most theatres feature a back wall, two side walls, and a metaphoric fourth wall that the actors seldom try to broach.

I have found that the fourth wall is sturdily constructed in our churches. It takes a great act of intention by the preacher to break through that wall. When it happens the congregation will not feel comfortable. They may not be happy with you.

Of course that can work for you. The first time I remember attempting this breaking through, was when I was preaching the ‘walking on water’ narrative. I decided to portray Peter’s foray onto the sea by actually leaving the pulpit area and walking out into the congregation.

I immediately felt uncomfortable, which was actually appropriate given the nature of the story I was trying to transmit. It was as if I could hear the listeners saying, “What are you doing down here. This is our space. You get back up on the platform where you belong.” It was not hard to offer Peter’s sense of distraction when I was feeling a similar discomfort myself.

Since that time, I have found myself breaking the fourth wall on a regular basis, sometimes physically, sometimes orally. I enjoy picking out trusted members of the congregation as objects of direct statement or even brief conversation. Obviously, this has to be handled with extreme care. You don’t want to embarrass the listener or to put them in a bad or awkward light. However, when done well, this kind of brief encounter has a way of drawing close the whole congregation who view my conversation partner as a proxy for themselves.

Oscars selfieLater in the evening of the day I got the wall-breaking comment, I watched Ellen Degeneres host the Oscars. Breaking the fourth wall has become Ellen’s signature move. She held conversations with several members of the audience, sometimes to their discomfort, but always to the delight of the audience. They danced together and ate pizza together. I doubt whether Ellen had any concept of the fourth wall at all. The crowd loved it – even the crowd in my living room who seemed to connect with her antics in a way that would not have been possible if she had kept to the platform.

While some might find this kind of decorum-breaking practice to lack the dignity necessary to the practice of preaching, I would suggest that it might be just the kind of thing we need. It is the objective of the preacher to draw the listener in so that he or she can be transformed. Any kind of wall that creates separation, distance, or a false sense of security for the listener might well be broken, dismantled, and destroyed.

Tear down that wall. Once your people get used to it, I suspect that they might find they like it, and profit from it.

Best PowerPoint Practices for Preaching

A couple of days ago I posted on the limitations of using PowerPoint as it relates to retention in preaching. That post led to a record number of page views for this website. Clearly, many people are interested in this question of whether and how to use slides in preaching. While my earlier post might have given the impression that there is no use for PowerPoint in preaching, there are obvious benefits to using slides, when they are used well.powerpointprojector

It has to be emphasized that quality counts when using slides. People are accustomed to seeing high quality graphics and images out in the wild. You do not want to inadvertently signal that your church is backward or inattentive by showing slip-shod visuals on the screen. If that is the best that you are capable of, it might be worth asking whether you ought to be showing anything at all. But if you do feel a need to use slides, then here are some of the ways that you might want to go about it.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


I understand that this might seem a little daunting. Quality is hard to achieve, and this is something that is very hard to delegate. It may be, as I suggested before, that the best response is to not use slides at all. I continue to contend that the best visual in preaching is the preacher. The preacher embodies and enlivens the sermon. When done well, perhaps nothing else is needed.


Does Powerpoint Increase Retention?

You have all heard the statistics – that listeners retain only 10% of what they hear, 20% of what they see, but more than 30% of what they see and hear, or something along those lines. People use this as their reason why they have to use powerpoint in preaching. It is hoped that retention rates will increase if we add this element of communication to our preaching. powerpointprojector

I will admit it makes a certain common sense – if only it were true.

The first problem with this thinking is that the numbers are cooked. The source of the theory is Edgar Dale and while his “cone of learning” hierarchy is real, he did not attach percentages to it. He also cautioned against over-generalizing it’s use. Whether or not the model is legitimate, the degree to which it is true has never been proven.

The second problem with this approach is that it seems to fly in the face of experience – for many of us, at least. Laura Vanderkam, writing in Fast Company magazine says, “The more times I give my standard speech on time management, the more aware I am of something curious. When I speak without Powerpoint – just me upon the stage, trying to entertain and instruct people – I enjoy the experience far more than when I use slides.”

This has been my experience as well. Working with slides while preaching has become more of a bother than a boon for me. I always feel like it goes better without the slides than with them. Of course, I have often felt a little guilty about that, given the supposed statistics about retention. I might prefer to work without slides, but what about my listeners? Am I robbing them of a greater chance of retaining the material?

Perhaps not. Vanderkam quotes Nick Morgan, a speech communication expert and president of Power Cues, who says that if retention of complex information is the goal, then a speech is not a very efficient means of delivery anyway. Studies show that we retain 10-30% of what we hear in a speech, and that this number does not increase with the use of slides. When it comes to watching and listening to a speaker, he says, “We form unconscious impressions about what matters to (the speaker) – what her intent is, what she’s passionate about – and that is what we remember.” The problem, he continues, is that humans are not very good multi-taskers, and when we focus on slides, it takes away from our ability to listen to the speaker. If we must use slides, then we need to limit the content, using few words and more images, seeking to support instead of compete with what we are saying orally.

As Vanderkam reminds us, name one significant speech in human history that ever relied on props.

Perhaps the biggest problem is our intention for our preaching. If we see preaching primarily as a way of delivering complicated instruction, we are probably barking up the wrong tree. As Morgan says, an oral speech is not efficient when it comes to complex instruction. If, on the other hand, we understood our task as helping people connect with the God who is present to them and speaking to them by his Spirit and through his Word, then the sermon might be the perfect medium – it just might not need the help of Powerpoint.


UPDATE: So if you are going to use PowerPoint, here are some thoughts about how to do it well.

Preaching Through Your Church

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

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

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


This article was originally published in Preaching magazine.

Trigger Phrases

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

Developing Touch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Raiding or Reading the Bible?

Preaching: Raiding or Reading?

August 1, 2012 By  11 Comments

I have a very brief post, and it concerns how and what we preach. Observing internet sermons, reading sermons by famous pastors and the like, I see two sorts of preaching (there are of course more and nuances between them — and good lectionary preaching is a combination of both):

Do you think we need to return to preaching Bible books or portions of Bible books? What does your church tend to do?

Bible Raiding. This sort goes to the Bible to find support for an already-decided-upon idea, to get answers from the Bible on the basis of a surface reading of the Bible (what does the Bible say about investments, Bible verses here and there, rather than how does Paul’s teaching on the collection for the saints take root in financial support), and lets what the preacher want to say and what the preacher believes establish what is to be preached. (I’m not against topical preaching; I’m not against themes; but I’m pushing a distinctive here to make a point.) This sort rarely preaches a book from the Bible — a whole book. The major issue here is that sermons tend to be agenda driven — the agenda of the preacher.

Bible Reading. This sort goes to the Bible to see what it says and what it says shapes what the preacher preaches and teaches. “Application” (not my favorite of terms) emerges from a close Bible reading, and often surprises us, but the secret here is gradual teaching of what the Bible says and allowing the Bible’s big story to shape what we see in each book of the Bible. This sort often preaches whole books. The danger here is that the sermons tend to lack focus for the average Christian and get to be intellectual exercises in informing people about an ancient text.

There are problems with each, but there’s too much Bible raiding today and not enough Bible reading.

When I begin teaching at Northern Seminary this Fall, I will emphasize Bible reading.

Sequential Series Preaching

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

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

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

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

Anticipating the Impact of our Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

Empty Calories: Pitfalls in Preaching #3

Anyone who has tried to lose weight knows that you have to make your calories count. You don’t want to be filling yourself with empty calories that fill your stomach and add to your waistline without nourishing your body.

In a similar way, Richard Eslinger counsels preachers away from “empty calorie” language in preaching. Specifically, he is talking about the filler words, phrases, and ideas we seem to be addicted to in e attempt to make our preaching sound significant, but which in fact only weight our preaching unnecessarily. Such preaching reinforces stereotypes about preaching, according to Eslinger.

“Stock examples of this preachery rhetoric include the well-worn adverbs ‘very,’ ‘truly,’ ‘awfully,’ and ‘only,’ as well as many trendy verbs made from nouns (‘to fellowship,’ ‘to dialogue,’ ‘to prioritize’). Uses of ‘just’ are empty sermonic calories when appearing in ‘I just want to …,’ whether in prayers or otherwise. The ‘sermonic subjunctive’ also fits the description of empty calories: ‘if only we would …’; ‘if only we cold. …’ Filler words and phrases (‘well,’ ‘like,’ ‘you know’) serve only to distract from communication.

All is, of course, assumes that there is nourishment at the core of our sermons if we could only cut through the clutter of unnecessary language. If we do, have truth on offer, directed by the Spirit, through his Word, then our embellishment will be unnecessary. If we find ourselves pressing our language, trying overly to enhance the power of our language, it might be a clue that we do not have sufficient confidence in the substance of our sermons. It may be, in fact, that we are trying to cover the fact that we do not have much to say.

See Richard Eslinger, Pitfalls in Preaching, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 15,16.

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.

Bringing Energy to the Audience

The following was written by one of my students in a paper submitted to me…

“I learned something a long time ago from a musician friend of mine who plays in front of strangers every week. He is clear that you cannot gauge your energy level from the audience. it is your job to draw them in if they are not interested. I think in the church there is a significant calling on the listener to engage in what God is saying, but I also want to impress upon my listeners that I am interested and passionate even if they are not. I want to draw them into what I am saying.”

This is great advice. We might not always be able to overcome apathy in the audience, but we always ought to make the effort. Preaching, like music performance includes the emotive element. We want to make sure to bring that element to our preaching.

Language that Deletes: Pitfalls in Preaching #2

A second “pitfall” described by Richard Eslinger, is the use of filler language that crowds our sentences and allows our thoughts to delete in the consciousness of the listener. Imagine, for example, a sermon that begins with the sentence…

“No man, whenever in history, has lived without the experience of hope.”

The problem with this is the use of conceptual language to carry meaning. Speaking of “man”, “history”, and “experience” is not concrete or alive enough to be retained by the listener. It will simply erase. Eslinger says…

“In order to avoid the “we can’t hear you pitfall, we need to use the five thousand or so words that compose the social vernacular of our hearers.”

Okay, that’s good advice, despite the fact that he uses words like “vernacular”, which might not make that list of 5,000 words. The point is to not try to impress people with the extensive range of your vocabulary. If you want them to hear you, you have to use words that they will appreciate and understand.

see Eslinger, Richard L. Pitfalls in Preaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), pp.5,6.

Keeping Our Distance: Pitfalls in Preaching

Some years ago, I used to assign Richard Eslinger’s Pitfalls in Preaching (Eerdmans 1996) to my Preaching Laboratory students. The book, I believe, is out of print, but it still offers a lot of value from a purely homiletical perspective. I thought, perhaps, from time to time, I might share some of Eslinger’s cautions in this blogspace.

One such pitfall, described by Eslinger, is the problem of “talking about” instead of “speaking of”, or as I like to say, the pitfall of keeping our distance, from the subject we are describing. Eslinger describes this as “perhaps one of the most common and pernicious” such dangers. “This pitfall,” he writes, “Is the failure to use language that is brightly imaged and shaped with a sense of immediacy (p.2).” Such preaching takes on a “certain colourlessness.” We are talking about things, but we’re not speaking of things. In other words, we keep a safe distance from our subject, using language that describes rather than language that helps to create an experience of the subject under discussion.

This kind of preaching, Eslinger says, “is extremely difficult to be heard and retained. Such speech simply cannot form in congregational consciousness. Preaching from within this homiletic pit of “talk about” results in sermons that largely cannot be retained by the hearers. (pp. 2-3)”

Key to overcoming this particular pitfall, is to shift our pronouns from the third to the second (or first) person. In so doing, we no longer speak of one who does such and such, but we speak to your or me and our experience of the subject. This creates a more active engagement with the listener.

Another key is to shift the perspective that we take to our subjects. Rather than working as an observer, we need to imagine ourselves as active participators with a stake in whatever it is that we are talking about. We can speak of things as if they are happening, rather than of things that have merely happened at some time in the past.

The thing I love about a more active perspective for our preaching is that it is theologically powerful. We actually believe that God is speaking through our preaching and that we are engaging subjects that are not simply static, but which are alive and active among us. Our manner of preaching ought to reflect that same sensibility.

So try it. Use the second or first person, and imagine yourself as as an active participant. See if doesn’t help your preaching.

If We Said It, Is it Done?

A common fallacy, is the idea that just because we may have said something in our sermon, that we have automatically achieved our intended result by the comment.

I will sometimes offer a word of critique to one of my students. “Oh, but I said that,” they will respond. “Check the tape around minute 13.”

“Well,” I say, “you may in fact have said it, but that doesn’t mean that you have made it so.”

Preaching is an oral exercise. Listeners experience our sermons as a stream of ideas, stories, questions, and images coming at them rapidly and steadily. Just because we may have given some idea air time, doesn’t mean that we have given it enough time to take root in our listener’s consciousness. If we were writing our sermon to be read, it might be different. But given that we preach our sermons, we need to give our concept time within the space of the sermon so that it can do its work upon the listener. If your intent is important, then take some time with it. Let it sink in. Say it, repeat it, image it, then say it again.

Just because you said it, doesn’t mean you got it done.

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.

Manipulation in Preaching

In my last post, I suggested that offering poor content by means of dramatic delivery is a form of manipulation. The comment raises a bigger question about the nature of manipulation itself.  Most of us would want to avoid manipulation in our preaching, however, knowing the difference between manipulation and motivation can be challenging. We all want to motivate our listeners toward the things that God has in mind for us. Manipulation, I believe, is something different.

Manipulation, literally means that we are putting our hands on something to direct it in an unnatural way. In terms of preaching, I might suggest that we are manipulating people when we are leading them to an irresistible response. God has created us in his image, which means that we have dignity. God is sovereign, but he still gives us the right to our response – even if that response is to walk away from him. If we preach in such a way that listeners have been denied their own choice, then we have manipulated them. If we lead them so completely that they have not consented to their response, we are guilty of manipulation.

I’m often unsure what to make of decisions made during the 12th chorus of “Just as I am” with “every head bowed and every eye closed.” While I believe in the value of calling people to decision, I want them to own their decision in the cold light of day and not believe that they had been snookered, somehow, into an inauthentic response.

I said in a previous post that emotion and tone are a valuable part of the preaching process. I appreciate that there can be a fuzzy line between legitimate use of emotion and an illegitimate use of manipulation. I suspect that we will know when we have crossed that line, fuzzy as it is, by evaluating our own motivations. It is perhaps not so amazing to discover that temptations to manipulate are strongest when our motivation is more for ourselves than it is for our message.

Tone Sculpting

We all know what it is like to hear a sermon that takes the same emotional tone from start to finish. No matter how good the content of the sermon, a mono-tone sermon is hard to hear. What is true of hospitals is true of homiletics – nothing healthy flatlines.

I would agree that tone ought to be secondary to content in our preaching. Poor content is not enhanced by dramatic delivery. That would be manipulative. It is true, conversely, that great content can be enhanced by effective delivery. Great content delivered without passion risks being overlooked and under-appreciated. Great content delivered with a matching passion in tone can take a sermon to another level.

Of course, overly dramatic preaching can be just as difficult for the listener. Simply raising the decibel and intensity levels can flatline just as much, though perhaps with greater irritation for the listener. The key seems to be an intentional variation of tone. I encourage preachers to track the emotional shape of the various moments of the sermon. Like a sculptor, we need to work to shape the tone of our sermon, varying the pace, volume, and intensity to match the content as it is communicated.

We don’t always appreciate that we have much control over this sort of thing. We sometimes believe that we are what we are and that there is little to be done about a lacklustre style if that is our natural bent. Putting all of our energy into the ideas in the sermon, we tend to think that how it comes out is simply how it comes out. I have come to see, however, that every preacher has an emotional bandwith. In some cases, that bandwidth is narrower than others, but we all can work to stretch and max our range. Whether we are quiet or boisterous by nature, we can all attend to a variation of our tone.

Our sermons should have contemplative moments, motivational moments, light-hearted moments, and intellectually challenging moments. A great preacher will sculpt the sermon intentionally to lead the listener through all such ways of being.

Circular Preaching?

Written by @richardlittledale – Preaching A-Z

Digital input & 360 degree preaching

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

by Richard Littledale

Metaphorically Speaking


One of my favoring TED Talks featured James Geary, author of The Secret Life of Metaphors. Geary’s presentation, titled Metaphorically Speaking is required viewing for preachers, as far as I’m concerned.

For Geary, metaphor is ubiquitous in life, claiming that we utter six of them every minute. “A way of thought, more than a way with words,” Geary sees metaphor as a way by which we shake people’s ingrained patterns of thought so as to stimulate deeper and more effective thinking. When we say, for example, that “some jobs are jails,” we are speaking truthfully, even if we are not speaking with strict accuracy. When we think of a job as a jail, we might be moved to consider alterations.

Of course, preachers are among the most practiced users of metaphor. Yet, I sometimes wonder how much we understand our utilization of this tool. I vividly remember a popular preacher many years ago speak of “a horse of a different wheelbase.” His dual juxtaposition stuck with me, even though I can’t recall exactly what his point may have been.

Of course, that’s part of the danger. We don’t want to be so cute with our words that people lose the sense of what we’re saying. Of course, that’s just another way of claiming that we need to be more careful and intentional with the use of metaphor. “Claiming” by the way is a metaphor. See how common this form of speaking, really is.

The power of the metaphor needs to be utilized judiciously. Geary describes how things work in the financial sector. When prices increase, the financial news tends to use “agent metaphors” (describing the deliberate action of a living thing), saying things like “the NASDAQclimbed 300 points today.” Obviously, a stock index has no physical ability to climb. But climbing is a noble and positive activity. Declines, on the other hand, tend to be described in terms of “object metaphors,” through words like “the Dow fell like a brick in trading this morning.” A brick falling is as vivid as it is ominous. In either case, the metaphor loads the language with persuasive meaning, for good or for ill.

Geary also describes a study whereby people were told of a small country in crisis and asked whether or not the United States should intervene. Some were informed through use of World War II metaphors. Others with Viet Nam metaphors. Others still with neutral metaphors. Not surprisingly, those who were encouraged to view the crises from the perspective of Viet Nam were far less likely to advocate for intervention.

Preachers tend to understand these things intuitively, but given the power of these things, perhaps it would be well for us to be more intentional about our use of them. Jesus taught us to consider lillies and to conserve our pearls in the face of swine. Clearly, he wasn’t above using such a powerful tool. But like our master, we want to be sure that we use metaphor appropriately, without manipulative intent, but with a heart to offer blessing by “shaking” people’s ingrained assumptions to see the gospel in a more compelling light.


Vocal Coaching

Recently, Erwin Stutzman (Eastern Mennonite Seminary) led a group of us homiletics professors in a discussion of vocal coaching in the classroom. Frankly, this has never been a primary focus for me, given the priority of helping students get the biblical text right and helping them to an effective sermon structure. Additionally, I’ve struggled with the sense that overdoing an interest in things like diction risks the perception of inauthenticity among listeners in these postmodern times. I have tended to counsel a kind of “conversational passion” that comes off as natural to both speaker and listener.

That said, there is no doubt that many of us could profit from a little more attention given to the quality of our voices. I have sometimes dreamed of having a richer and more resonant preaching voice. Strange that I have seldom considered the fact that such a voice could be cultivated. No one wants to listen to a thin and mumbling voice, no matter how authentic. A rich and confident voice will always communicate with greater authority.

Stutzman describes four stages of vocal production: breathing, phonation, resonation, and articulation. “For the most part,” he says, “they are the elements that one could be isolated by listening to an audio-taped recording of the presentation.” In his experience, “the most common of these problems have to do with the rate of speaking, pitch, improper pronunciation or articulation of words, distracting vocalizations such as ers and ums, lack of vocal variety and emphasis (monotone speech), or undue strain on the vocal apparatus.” Most of these can be improved through intentional effort. In some cases of significant disfluency (stutters and lisps) a professional vocal coach could be utilized.

Such vocal deficiencies, as well as distracting physical mannerisms, are generally unconscious and habitual. People have a tendency to “make friends” with these disfluencies, Stutzman says, such that they will be unable to grasp the nature of the problem until they hear or see a recording of their own presentations.

As painful as it is, perhaps this is where we could start. Recording ourselves and listening carefully for distracting elements can help us toward a style that offers fewer impediments for our listeners in our work to help them hear from God.


Constant Incremental Improvement

As I have been working with my students at the end of the semester, I’ve been thinking about the Japanese concept of kaizen – the principle of constant incremental improvement. One of the things that have made companies like Sony so ubiquitous is that they are constantly improving their products. The Walkman still sells because with every season Sony makes sure to offer a slightly improved product. Sony engineers never rest. They don’t have to re-invent everything every year, but they do need to show the market they are constantly improving.

I feel the same about my preaching. I’ve been preaching and teaching about preaching for a very long time now, but I still feel like I am constantly and consistently improving. I try to teach my students how to self-evaluate, because constant incremental improvement requires we pay attention.

Are you a better preacher today than you were a year ago? Have you even thought about what improvement might look like in your case?

For some of us, our last homiletics class was many years ago. We figured we knew how to preach when we left the seminary and we have never really looked back. That might not actually be a good thing. It might not hurt for us to consider how we preach and whether there might be places that our preaching could improve. If we can get into a kaizen pattern for our preaching, we might find an exponential improvement in our exposition over time. That would be a good thing.

I know that it is difficult for some of us to own up to the idea that our preaching could improve. We don’t like to think about the fact that we could be better. But whether we want to think about it, our listeners are. Perhaps it is time for us to grab a book on preaching, to gather some trusted listeners for some honest evaluative conversation, or maybe even to enroll in a seminary course on preaching.

I know, you’re a good preacher. I’m sure of it. You could, however, be better. You can always be better – constantly and incrementally.


Finding Another Gear

I’m not sure how long your sermon’s take, but it seems that most Sunday sermons in my experience last somewhere around 30 minutes. Some of you will think that sounds a little light, but I’ve got to say that thirty minutes is a long time to hold a crowd’s attention. Keeping people interested for that length of time is going to require more than just good ideas, particularly in these media-rich times.

Many of us find a grove that we feel comfortable preaching in. We’re sailing along, happy with our rhythm and tone, unaware our listeners are losing energy. I’ve learned that if I really want to keep my listeners with me, I’m going to have to find another gear.

My favorite way to do this is to somehow turn the sermon theologically. So much of what we offer could be anticipated by most of the people we are speaking to. They’ve been down this road before. Some of them could probably finish your sentences for you, they’ve been around for so long. It is not that what you are saying is problematic. It is just that they’ve heard it all before. They are with you. They aren’t fighting you – but perhaps that is the problem.

I love it when I can find a way to somehow subvert the listener’s expectation. It’s great when we can uncover the place in the listener’s experience where the biblical truth is not so easily received. If we could have an honest fight, struggling with the text and with its implications we can sometimes find another gear which accelerates the sermon and takes it to a higher level.

I did that this past Sunday. I had been working the storm narrative in Mark 4, talking about how we expect Jesus to take away our storms. We think the reason that we hang with Jesus is so that we wouldn’t have to go through storms. Of course, we’re really not paying attention. The more closely that we walk with Jesus, the more likely we are going to find ourselves in trouble because storms seemed to follow that guy where he would go. I reminded the people that Jesus didn’t promise he would take away our storm. He tried to make us strong enough that we might prosper in the middle of the storm.

Afterwards, a man said to me, I thought I knew where you were going with the sermon, but all of a sudden you turned it on me. It was like you “found another gear.”

Getting to that level in our preaching is not just a matter of speaking louder or adopting a different rhythm, though that can certainly help. The challenge is to get people to another level of thought by challenging their thinking. Getting to another level of thought can take use to another level of response.


Has Powerpoint Become Unnecessary?

It’s been a while since I have done a full powerpoint presentation for a sermon. I know that this is supposed to mean that my preaching will be less effective and somehow less culturally relevant. The truth is, however, I don’t think anyone has missed it.

The progression of powerpoint usage by preachers has been interesting to watch. When it first arrived, preachers simply used it as a convenient way to list their sermon outlines and project their Scripture texts. The more adventurous among us added clip-art style images and animations to try to give the sermon that little extra zing.

After a while, preachers began to mature in their use of the medium. Sermon powerpoints became more image-rich, usually offering less words, more pictures, and sometimes even video, as a way to augment the spoken word. While many would argue that this has enhanced the preaching experience, others would say that the time commitment required to put together this kind of presentation has become increasingly difficult to justify, particularly given that it is a difficult thing to delegate. When done poorly it can actually subvert the sermon.

Now, in most larger churches, we are finding that sermon screen time is devoted to a live video-feed of the preacher, sometimes with key points or theme statements in a bar along the bottom of the screen. No doubt this is because of the size of some of these auditoriums. It’s worth noting, however, that these preachers seem to get along just fine without the typical powerpoint screens behind the preacher.

I’ve long wondered what Marshall McLuhan would say about the message in this particular medium. Initial use of powerpoint tended to highlight the propositional nature of our preaching. Moving to a more image-rich approach probably changed the nature of our preaching, moving us more toward the sermon as experienced than explained. Dedicating the screen to the person of the preacher no doubt says something to the listener about the importance of the preacher’s personality, for better and for worse.

In my case, I’ve found that the time necessary for me to produce a worthwhile powerpoint presentation is often not worth the investment. I’ve experienced all the normal difficulties working with technicians, having bulbs burn out, and struggling with incompatible technologies. In every case, I can honestly say that the only thing that has been lost when the powerpoint wasn’t available was the time I may have spent preparing it.

I’ll still prepare the powerpoint when the church requires it. Lately, I’ve taken just to using select images or diagrams when they are particularly important to the presentation, like when I want to show them a picture in order to talk about it, or when I need to sketch something out in a visual manner. For those sorts of things, the technology is useful, but beyond that, I’m becoming increasingly less sure. I wouldn’t work with out it for worship singing, but as for preaching, when I don’t use it, the people don’t seem to miss it.

The best visual image, of course, is always the preacher. As you and I stand before the gathered crowd, our person, our manner, our voice, and our gestures all contribute to the impact of the message, far beyond anything that could be projected on the screen. In fact, the screen might just be distracting.

I wouldn’t say that powerpoint is over. I’m just not certain that its necessary.


Shock Rhetoric

Last week Tony Campolo spoke in our chapel service at ACTS Seminaries. He was his usual, provocative self, describing the difference between older evangelicals and younger evangelicals, at least as he sees it. I was generally appreciative of his analysis. Afterwards, I made a brief comment about having heard him on my facebook wall. The response was immediate. Friends from various parts of the continent jumped in quickly to share their take on Tony. I was surprised to see the strength and the speed of the reaction. One friend wrote, “Last time I heard Tony, he was so far left, and pretty crude, vulgar and even swore. I sort of swore off bothering with him ever again.”

Campolo has made his reputation garnering this kind of strong reaction from people. He is famous for having publically said, “…thousands of people are dying every day and going to hell, and most of us don’t give a s..t. But the sad part is that more people are upset that I just said ’s..t’ than are upset about the thousands of people going to hell!”

Strong stuff. Unforgettable even. Of course, a statement like this is never made by accident. When Campolo first spoke those words, he took a calculated risk, believing that the shock of what he said might register on a level that a more conventional approach to communication could never achieve.

It works – to a degree. Shock rhetoric can cut through the clutter to register an unforgettable impact. The problem comes when listeners are more aware of the shock than they are of the message that it was intended to convey. When communicators become better known for their tactics than for their message, they have likely gone too far.

I love Tony Campolo, because I know he loves the Lord and because I know that his bombast always derives out of his passion for people! When he shocks, it is not because he wants to “push our buttons” or because he wants to be the centre of attention. When he shocks it is out of hope that we might change. While I might not share all of Tony’s convictions, I share his love for the people Jesus loves.

Shock rhetoric probably works more effectively for a guest speaker like Campolo, than it might for your normal local preacher. However if we never say anything that rouses our listeners – if we never bring a thing that gets under people’s skins, we just might not care enough.


Preach by Ear


Dave McClellan, a preacher, homiletician, and friend, has just launched Preach By Ear, a website and DVD designed to help preachers more effectively preach without notes. McLellan offers several short videos on the website that introduce the preacher to his techniques. The full DVD system is available on the website for purchase.

I believe in the power of extemporaneous preaching. Preaching without notes is not about memorizing a manuscript, or about preaching unprepared. It is, rather, taking care to develop the sermon orally and to assimilate it thoroughly for presentation. I have had a lot to say about the subject in my own books. I’m pleased to see that now there is a resource to help preachers more deliberately with the task.

McClellan is an expert on the subject of rhetoric (see his feature article on “Dead Pagans”. Preach by Ear offers lessons learned from the ancients and applied to the practice of contemporary preaching. I highly recommend it.


Building Dynamic Range

One of my students asked an interesting question yesterday. We had been listening to various student preachers and had observed that there was quite a difference in style between the various contributers. Some of the preachers were dramaic and dynamic – others much less so. Of course, the style of the preaching matched the personality of the preacher, which led us to question the degree to which we should push ourselves to be more energetic in our style when our personality might be naturally less demonstrative.

Like a singer who has to work within her natural vocal range, preachers similarly have a natural dynamic range. For some, the range is wide, but for others the natural scope is more limited. Singers are able to expand their range through rehearsal and through training. Preachers also can work to build their dynamic bandwidth by being intentional about stretching the edges of their range.

One of the ways I like to do that is to force myself to be more demonstrative during pre-preaching worship. I deliberately sing louder, hold my hands higher, and make my movements bigger. I then try to carry that physical enthusiasm over into the preaching. While preaching, I try to be more present to the moment, trying to experience the impact of my words, and paying attention to the way that I portray what I am saying through my physiocal actions and through the quality of my voice. A little attentiveness can go a long ways.

Our personality is one of the key elements that we bring to our preaching. We probably should not deny what comes natural to us so that we do not come off sounding inauthentic. At the same time, we could work to expand our range without denying ourselves on the process. Listeners need preachers to portray a sense of enthusiasm in their preaching. It takes a lot of energy to get the message all the way to the back row. We shouldn’t be afraid to work to find more of that energy.


Verbal Tics

One of the potential negatives for preachers who work without notes is the potential for annoying verbal tics. These meaningless expressions fill the empty spaces in our speaking when we are subconsciously uncomfortable with silence or when we are nervous about what we are saying. Some of the more common such expressions are…

…you know
…and so on
…of course

“If we, you know, do too much of this, it’s like annoying, right? Of course, we’ve umm got to stop this, okay?”

Preparation is important. Confidence helps. But I have found that awareness is the best way to overcome these annoyances. Watching yourself on video tape can be useful. Once we become aware of what we are doing, we start hearing our offenses for ourselves and can begin to root them out of our language.

As frustrating as these instances can be, however, the problem is even more significant (and political) as Barry Eisler points out in this interesting blogpiece: Verbal Tics. He writes,

Why are people always described as “visibly moved,” or “visibly agitated,” or “visibly shaken?” To distinguish from those frequent occasions when we come to these conclusions by means other than visible? When people say, “in a very real sense,” they mean the opposite…

Plain speech unnecessarily adorned is the mark of an effective preacher.


Home Field Advantage

After the Seahawks/Packers playoff game on Saturday, someone on the radio mentioned that there is a huge advantage to playing on one’s home field. No doubt that’s usually true in sports. It is also true in preaching.

I have the opportunity to preach in many churches. As a seminary prof I am not tied to preaching in my own congregation every week. This is often viewed as an advantage by many pastors. As the visiting preacher, I’m not subject to the same level of scrutiny. I can say what I want and get out of Dodge. I don’t have to deal with these people on a daily basis. I might suggest, however, that this is more of a disadvantage than an advantage.

I believe that home field is a huge advantage in preaching. Preachers store up capital with their listeners. Over time, as people get to know a preacher both on the platform and in life more generally, the preacher grows in the listeners respect. The preacher gains opportunity to speak in ways that would not make sense with people who do not know him or her.

Yesterday, for instance, I was preaching to my home congregation. I do this regularly and have for many years. I was offering something of a doctrinal sermon from Romans 6 and intended to say some challenging things about sin and righteousness, life and death. I determined to say some things that would leave me a little bit exposed. Some of those things could not so easily have been said among people that did not know me. Some things you have to earn the right to say.

My home church is a place of honest grace. It’s a safe place for me to preach. I’m able to be honest with these people both about myself and about the state of my listeners and that is a huge advantage. I’ll admit that I haven’t always felt that way. Early in my experience preaching at this church I didn’t feel the same way. I enjoyed the anonymity of preaching at other churches. But a maturity has been growing both in my life and in my preaching. I’m finding that there is no place I would rather preach than in my own congregation, even though it is a lot more work.

On any given Sunday, I’d rather play at home.


No Place for Subtlety

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

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

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

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

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

Got it?


The Incomplete Pass

First, let me say “happy thanksgiving” to my American friends. We do, in fact, have much to be thankful for. There is a lot of football on our televisions right now as is customary at thanksgiving time. I was just watching a few minutes of the Texas/Texas A&M game. I couldn’t help but notice that Texas was throwing a lot of incomplete passes.

The incomplete pass is always so dissatisfying. The attempt is made. The ball is in the air, but something somehow goes awry. The ball flutters. The receiver fumbles. The defender sticks his hand in. The ball falls to the ground. The home crowd sighs.

The same thing happens in our preaching. We get the pass away. Our words fill the air, but something happens to deflect the message. Perhaps we haven’t clarified our thinking well enough. Perhaps the language doesn’t communicate quite like we would have hoped. Our good intentions don’t connect and the attempt goes incomplete.

What I’m suggesting is that our preaching isn’t always as effective as we sometimes think. Just because we get our words out there doesn’t mean that they are connecting with our listeners. There’s so many things that can get in the way. Sometimes it’s our fault. Our passes/words aren’t crisp enough. Sometimes its the receivers fault. They just aren’t paying adequate attention. Sometimes something else comes along to intercept.

The challenge is both for the communicator and the receiver to pay attention to the process. Listeners need to work at their listening, but they’ll never have a chance to catch the message if the pass is inadequate.

Okay, I’ve probably overworked the metaphor, but you get the idea. Just because we’re preaching doesn’t mean we’re connecting with our listeners.


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.


Portraying the Truth

I had a fantastic opportunity today to sit in on a class taught by Tony Alcantar at the Vancouver Academy of the Dramatic Arts (VADA). Tony is a veteran Christian actor and comedian out of the Second City environment who is tired of listening to preachers who undersell their message. He contacted me because he wants to try and help preachers own “the truth” of their messages so that they can portray them more effectively. I was very pleased to spend several hours today sitting in on Tony’s work with a group of about 30 aspiring actors.

In one exercise, students were asked to write down actual events from their lives that could have been experienced by anybody in the room. Students were then given the opportunity to pull one of these experiences out of a hat and to tell the story as if it were their own. Three or four students would tell each story and the group would then vote on who offered the most truthful portrayal.

My first impression was how easy it was for these students to mess it up. Humans have tremendous built-in lie/truth detectors. Factual inconsistencies, vocal up-speaking (ending a sentence with an upturn in the voice), and mis-matched body language were all tell-tale indicators of falseness which we were all able to easily intuit. When someone was telling the truth, the difference was palpable.

Over lunch Tony and I discussed the nature of truth when presented from the stage. Actors are, in a sense trained liers. That is to say that they are professional mis-representers. This is fine and good because there is an unspoken agreement between the audience and the actor that in this communication transaction, the actor will offer us something that is true, like humor or insight, by presenting as real something that is not factually accurate for the actor. A good actor, however, will always draw upon some actual element of their real lives that help them to act in a way that is true at a deeper level. The truth in acting, then, is to portray the underlying reality that transcends the facts and allows for a deep connection on a human level.

Preachers aren’t actors in the sense that whatever they have to say is truth in fact as well as in its underlying nature. Yet, as Tony reminded me, actors portray things that aren’t true as if they matter, but often preachers offer truth as if it doesn’t matter. We suggest things instead of proclaiming them. We explain things more than we portray them.

We talked about the current trend toward dialogue in preaching. Tony had some choice words for this kind of preaching. In any stage presentation the relationship is 50-50, he said. The work is never complete until it’s been received and so there is an element of co-creation in the work. And yet, the preacher has to lead the dance, just like the actor leads the audience. We need to take ownership for the task and act as if we believe the things we’re preaching.

Some of us are uncomfortable talking about preaching from the perspective of the method actor because we don’t want to communicate that there is anything false about our preaching. Tony would say that there can’t be anything false about a fine piece of acting either. I remember one of my students took a course in stand-up comedy and found it tremendously helpful to his preaching. I understand why that this is so.

Good preaching is portrayed more than it is presented. It wouldn’t hurt us to think a little more about how it is that happens.


Dynamic Range

Having heard hundreds of students preach in my various classes, I’ve discovered that there is a limit to a person’s “dynamic range.” Like a musician that can sing over multiple octaves, some preachers are capable of hitting the high notes as well as the low notes, speaking loudly and confidently at one point of the sermon and softly and sensitively at another. Others, however, bring a narrower range. Their highs are not as high and their lows not quite so low.

Ideally, I would want all of my students to be able to expand their range. Professional singers always work to broaden the range of their voices and their emotional capacities. Preachers ought to also.

However, it seems obvious that there is a limit to what any of us are going to be able to reach. We are all limited by our personalities. Some of my students are soft-spoken by nature and will never be able to reach the boisterous levels achieved by some of the other more extroverted students.

This is not to say that a limited range necessarily makes for poorer preaching. I would suggest, however, that each of us ought to be working to explore the outer edges of our range. We need to vary our emotional tone. The changes can be subtle, but listeners need to sense some modulation in our voice and in our emotional intensity.

However wide your range, you ought to explore every note of it.


Sometimes the Sermon Comes Hard

There are times when the sermon comes easily. Everything flows and you know exactly what it is that God would have you say. At other times, however, the ideas come as slow as molasses (“in January” as a friend of mine used to say). I had one of those molasses sermons this past week.

I was preaching from John 1:14. The discovery process was delightful. I thoroughly enjoyed thinking through the implications of the text. It was wonderful until I got to the part where I tried to build the sermon. I put together at least three different ways of conceptualizing the sermon until I settled on the one that I ended up using. I was drawn to the text because of the juxtaposition between word and flesh; grace and truth but I had a hard time creating a compelling set of images and sermon structure, that would focus on those themes. I was also struggling with the fact that I was going to be preaching this sermon to a largely immigrant church in the near future.

I always tell students that the best place to look for sermon imagery is in the text itself, and this proved to be the case with this sermon. As I was thinking about the listeners and the hard choices that they made to settle in this part of the world, I found myself drawn to the phrase “made his dwelling upon us” in the text. God made his choice to migrate down to earth and to live among us. That thought process opened up a fresh way of looking at the passage and the sermon. I ended up with a sermon that identified with the listener’s experience of migration while emphasizing the hope that comes from knowing that wherever we might go in search of the good life, that God has gone there ahead of us so to make his dwelling in our heart. It turned out to be a pretty good sermon.

My point with all this is to challenge us to keep pushing, even when the sermon comes hard. It would have been easy to back off the go with one of the earlier versions, with much less satisfaction. But I would have missed out on the blessing that God had in mind. People afterwards told me how that I had spoken to things that they had been talking over at home that very morning and that God had prepared me to speak directly to their need. That wouldn’t have happened if I had not been willing to make the extra investment to stay with the sermon until I got it right.

At times it felt like I was spinning my wheels and wasting my time. Perhaps there was some wastage, but only just a little. Time spent chewing on a text and on a sermon is never wasted, even if some of the material is jettisoned later on. I think the multiple stages of development I experienced only served to deepen my understanding and commitment to the truth that God had for me to offer.

So my encouragement is that you stay with the process even when the sermon doesn’t come easily. Don’t let yourself off too quickly. Push yourself. Listen carefully to God so that you don’t settle for ordinary sermons.


The Sermon Epilogue

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

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

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



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.


Ready to Preach

Last week I was part of the examination committee for a Doctor of Ministry dissertation written by Pastor David Acree from Lethbridge, Alberta. David’s dissertation examined the matter of the preacher’s sense of readiness to preach. I’m pleased to say that he passed the exam and will graduate this spring.

The question is interesting. Every pastor knows what its like to not quite feel ready to preach. No doubt some of thus is simply human. Sometimes we’re tired and under-motivated and there isn’t much to be done for it. But perhaps, given the spiritual nature of our task, we could build a routine that might help intentionalize the process of being ready to go into the pulpit to preach.

Acree thinks there is. He counsels the preacher to pay attention to things like their personal sense of identity, their expectations for the event, and the allowance of adequate time. He deals with the expected aspects of prayer and attendance to the Spirit. He challenges preachers to care about the listeners, spending time with them and helping connect them to the Word.

“When God’s preacher,” Acree says, “enters the pulpit in God’s power to deliver a message from God appropriate to the people of God, that preacher is ready to preach.”

In my own preaching, I would have to say that I know when I am ready and when I am not. I’m not sure the readiness formula is all that surprising. I know what it takes to prepare a solid sermon plan and when that plan is only partially cooked. I know when I’ve rushed things and when I’ve taken the time that is necessary to engage God and to engage the message from His Word. Elsewhere I have written about “assimilation” and I think that this is essentially what we are talking about. When I feel full of the message and the sermon burns inside me I am ready to preach. What God will do with it in result is up to him.


Pre-Judging the Text

I ran into the same problem with two of my students yesterday. Both of them submitted sermon plans that required a little help. When I suggested alternate and more appropriate ways of approaching the text, they both agreed with me. The problem, they said, was that the texts and themes had been assigned to them by their Senior Pastors. It seems that these pastors had divided up their texts and assigned themes without taking their study of the text to the necessary level. In essence, they had prejudged their texts.

I understand that there is value in knowing what we are going to be preaching on well in advance. The worship leaders like it. It definitely helps with marketing. Still, could I simply ask that we don’t determine what the text is saying until we actually study the text?

The first step to understanding a text is to read it. I mean that we must read it with enough diligence and thought that we aren’t emerging with what we want the text to mean but what it actually means as God intends it. Is this too much to ask?


Let the Fish Run

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

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

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

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

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