Spirit-Led Preaching at the EHS

I recently attended the meetings of the Evangelical Homiletics Society, hosted this year by Don Sunukjian and the team at Talbot Seminary. I have been going to EHS since it began in 1997 and have never failed to find there a warm and engaging group of people who value the preaching of the Word and want to see it done more effectively. jack hayford

This year’s theme was Spirit-Led Preaching, and featured Dr. Jack Hayford, the long-time pastor of The Church on the Way in Southern California. I was impressed by Dr. Hayford’s deep dependence on the Holy Spirit and with his unshakable conviction about the work of the Spirit in our preaching. How the Spirit’s work intersects with our work has always been a matter of mystery. Pastor Jack did not eliminate that mystery – nor would we want him to – but he did build our sense that when we speak the Word of God to people, the Spirit of God is at work. Of course this wasn’t news to anyone, but it was refreshing to hear from one who believes this truth so profoundly.

I have sometimes wondered how our preaching might change if we were able to deepen our sense of spiritual expectation. If we really did believe that God was actively present and that people were going to change as a result, how might that affect the preaching that we do? Would we be more hopeful? Would we be more energetic? Would we be more present to the moment? What might that even sound like?

One thing I think might change in my preaching is that I would become a lot less hypothetical. So much of the preaching that I do is anticipating some result postponed for another time. But in theory at least, I believe in a God who is present and active in the person of his Spirit. Why might God want to do by his Spirit right here and right now as I preach? How will the Spirit work to change us through this sermon in the present moment? If I were take more time to consider that question, I might be more open and responsive to the result.

So often we preachers think we have to do the Spirit’s work for him. We feel we have to be the eloquent one – the powerful one. This concern is obviously misplaced. The Spirit is going to do his thing. That you and I get to be a part of this is more our privilege than our obligation.

Evangelical Homiletics Society

Next week I will be attending the annual meetings of the Evangelical Homiletics Society, to be held at Talbot Seminary in La Mirada, California, October 17-19. The theme of this year’s conference is Spirit-Led Preaching, with Jack Hayford as the plenary speaker.

I always look forward to this intensive interaction with those people who are giving serious thought to the work of preaching in evangelical contexts. This year, I will even be presenting a paper, “Preaching the Gospel: Integrating the Elements that Form Us.”

If you are in the area, or if you have the ability to travel, I would encourage you to join us. Find more information at www.ehomiletics.com

How Long Should a Sermon Take?

So, how long should it take for me to preach my sermon?

I get the sense from listening to some folks that a sermon isn’t worth it’s salt at any less than 40 minutes. But maybe that’s the company I keep. In other traditions, anything longer than 20 is severely pressing the expected norm. Of course, those folks don’t really care about ‘biblical’ preaching – at least that is the perspective that is usually left unsaid.timeclock

The whole discussion strikes me as misguided. Why would it matter for how long we preach? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about how well we preach? Is there some special time frame in which preaching finds its power? Is duration the test of faithfulness in the preaching of a sermon?

Perhaps one of the critical factors relates to how we conceive of our task. If we understand our task to be the transmission of ideas and that the more information we can pass along the better our sermon will be, then it stands to reason that more minutes allows for more material. On that calculation, longer is better. Of course, if we buy the sense that less can actually be more, then we might find virtue in brevity. But that said, there must be some kind of minute minimum under which effectiveness in preaching could not be possible.

But as I have listened to preaching, I have found that it doesn’t really matter. I have heard many excellent long-forms sermons that have brought me to the cross and led me into Jesus’ presence. But then I have to say that some of the best sermons I have heard are short – 15 or 20 minutes that have brought me to my knees. And of course the converse is also true. I have heard short sermons that were a mess. I have heard long sermons that were similarly mangled.

Long sermons put a particular burden on the preacher to manage more material without loosing the thread. More words offer more opportunity to mess it up. We remember, of course, what James said about the tongue.

Short sermons put a similar burden on the preacher to be economical. In the effort to be concise, significant pieces can go sadly missing. If the sermon is a journey, it is going to need to take some time.

Maybe the whole question is wrong-headed to begin with. Maybe what we need to be thinking about is the purpose of the sermon. What is it that we are trying to achieve? If we had a solid grasp on what it is that we are doing, we will know exactly what it is that must be done, regardless how much or little time that it requires.

My basic rule of thumb is to focus on what is needful to the process. Once I know what it is the God is saying through his Word, I set about considering what it will take to proclaim it. If a piece is necessary I will include it. If it is going to get in the way,  I leave it out – even if the piece is good and right and worthy. I strive to use only what is needed. Then when I am done, I might check the clock to see how long that it has taken.

I will say this – holding attention over time through oral presentation is a difficult business. People don’t experience it many other places in their lives. We cannot afford to be sloppy, redundant, or unwise.

So I try to say only what I need to say – however long it takes. It usually requires less time than what I would have thought.

Preaching Through Your Church

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

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

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

 

This article was originally published in Preaching magazine.

We Could Do That!

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

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

What a relief!

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

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

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

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

We could do that.

Integration and Disintegration

I have long been struck by the integrative nature of Jesus’ life and ministry, particularly as it has been summarized in John 1:14. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, … full of grace and truth.” cross

In Jesus, we find the integration of the objective and the subjective (Word and flesh). I might suggest that this describes the vertical line that traces the distance between heaven and here. But according to John, we also find in Jesus the integration of cognitive and affective (truth and grace), which describes the horizontal line that intersects both head and heart. I would suggest that this verse, then describes the shape of the cross which serves both as the philosophical model as well as the theological means of transformative preaching.

Great preaching will integrate these themes, speaking truthfully of the Word, objectively given, but also with a measure of grace that appreciates the implications of our preaching for our lives today. Great preaching lives and breathes. It is not solely a standard by which we are measured. It presents a way of being that we can embody.

I am concerned about preaching that dis-integrates the two. So often we hear preaching that reduces the gospel to mere doctrine, as if reconciliation to God is solely a matter of intellectual assent. Of course, it can roll the other way also, where preaching is understood to be little more than an encouragement to better and more moral ways of being.

Trigger Phrases

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

Developing Touch

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change by Accrual, not Transformation

I recently returned from the annual meetings of the Fellowship of Evangelical Seminary Presidents. This is a remarkable gathering of people committed to the management and development of significant academic institutions all over North America. As with every major institution in the 21st century, whether in business, academics, or the church, the major challenge for leaders has to do with managing change. change

Typically, when we think of the institutional leader as a change agent, we are thinking about transformational leadership – leadership that seeks to change the fundamentals of an organization so that it can abruptly and immediately morph. But while the nature of our cultures might seem to require such an approach , the truth is that leading change is almost never so dramatic.

Dan Aleshire, head of The Association of Theological Schools said to us this week that “institutional change is almost always more by accrual than it is by transformation.” This is to follow Ronald Heifetz, who in Leadership Without Easy Answers, suggests that leading change is more about understanding adaptation.

I found this to be encouraging. Whether presidents or preachers, we all feel the pressure to champion some kind of impressive, institution-wide transformation. But such attempts almost always run into opposition from people embedded in the institutional tradition, who will not be convinced of the need for such disruption. Disruptive, instead of adaptive change must always either run past people or run them over. That might not be unreasonable when the situation requires it, or when there are absolutely no other options. But such is very rarely to be the case.

More appropriately, an effective leader will look for incremental objectives that are achievable. A great leader will understand how to put the puzzle together piece by piece, so that the bigger picture change accrues over time. In this way, the changes will run deeper and have greater staying power, while fewer people will be lost along the way.

As I think about the great churches and seminaries that have stayed relevant and meaningful over long periods of time, there is no doubt that transformation has occurred, but this change has been accrued over time, the work of patient leaders who know the times and know the way and who can lead others in the require direction without losing them along the way.

The Gospel Persists

I am on a flight returning home from Boston where I spent the week teaching a group of ThM students at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. There is nothing like a full week of homiletic conversation to stir up my juices for this work of preaching. Working with this eclectic group of students renewed my passion for this great work that we share. images

One of my new student friends was preparing to return to Beizhing where he would be teaching hundreds of Chinese preachers how to preach more effectively. Another was preparing to engage student ministers on the campus of a major American university. There were a few freshly-minted young pastors full of promise and optimism about the ministry God was preparing them for. One man was in process of selling his cable media company so that he could devote himself full-time to the gospel. I even had the privilege of working with a couple of Army chaplain, one of which was with Special Operations in the Airborne division. This courageous man will soon be leading the training of hundreds of Army chaplain to preach.

As we worked together these days we gained respect for each other and for the ministries to which we had been called. I was personally humbled by the knowledge that the things I was teaching would be passed along by these students all over the world. Together, we all kindled a fresh appreciation for and passion for the possibilities of our preaching – particularly, integrative preaching.

We spent a good deal of time talking about the difference between merely “good” preaching and what we might call “great” preaching. Greatness as a quality in preaching can seem elusive. While we were able to identify a great number of potential markers of greatness, we settled on the idea that a great sermon is a sermon that changes lives. It has become of obvious to me that through these incredible people, a lot of lives are being changed – a lot of great preaching is going forth.

It is easy sometimes to take the view that preaching is past it’s prime and that it is not particularly well received in contemporary cultures. Yet I keep meeting people like these and I find it impossible to support the pessimism. The gospel persists – it goes forth. People are hearing from God and the Kingdom of God is being established in result. I am just happy to have some small part in the whole thing.

The Object of our Desire

Okay, let’s get one thing straight right off the top. We are subjective beings. In that the postmodernists are correct. We live locked in space and time. We are subject to our point of view, directed by our experience, our education, our parents, personality, and passions. We cannot escape it.  objectsubject

But this is not to say that there is no objective truth, nor does it suggest that we cannot know it. The very fact of our subjectivity requires there be an Object if there is any meaning in the world. Go back to your high school grammar – subjects point to objects. If we are subjects we must be subject to the Object of our existence.

Here is another thing that postmoderns are correct about. Subjects cannot know the object fully and with complete certainty. Subjects can observe, learn, test, and observe, but they can never be sure that they are fully in possession of all the pertinent facts or have not tainted these facts by things we prefer might be so. We can stumble upon the truth by accident. We can discern the truth through scientific observation. We might even be correct, but we can never be certain that we have achieved either.

Of course, there is another way that the subject could know the truth about the object. The object could make itself available to the subject – and this is exactly what has happened. It is, in fact, the nature of the gospel. It is the grounds upon which we find the voice to preach.

Preachers are not so wise to have been able to overcome the limitations of their own subjectivity in and of themselves. Preachers are not any more powerful in that regard than anyone else. Preachers simply have been given access to the Truth by relating to the Object. God is making himself known to his subjects. He has done it through his Word and he does it now through those who preach his Word.

The point is that subjective beings, by definition crave relationship with the Object of their being. Through preaching we can help to make the reconnection.

Lessons from the Lockout

As a hockey fan, I am encouraged to see that the lockout between the NHL and its players has been settled in time to assure at least a partial season for this year. The experience to this point has been highly frustrating for those of us who care, yet the truth is that this result is exactly what was expected. Anyone with any kind of perspective or experience with this sort of labor disruption knew that there would be brinksmanship and heated rhetoric resulting in a last minute compromise that would be unsatisfying to the purists, but which would allow for the resumption of work and some measure of temporary peace.th

Situations like this leave me longing for the Kingdom, that place in God’s economy where negotiations could be managed graciously, without rancour, and with an honest concern for the well being of the other. Personally, I serve in leadership within a five-school consortium. Our success in managing the situation is largely due to what we have called “the agape principle,” a commitment to the idea that what is good for one is good for all – kind of a ‘three musketeers’ approach to seminary leadership that would be foreign to the “billionaires and millionaires” negotiating the NHL lockout.

Typically, our approach is to take a zero-sum approach to negotiation, believing that there is only so much to go around and that whatever we give to one must be taken from the other. The fundamental premise is that both parties must be zealous for their self-interest, knowing that if they do not aggressively work for the protection of their own interest, the other side certainly will.

It reminds me of the old joke where  one brother offers his other brother a plate with two pieces of pie. When the second brother chooses the larger piece, the first brother says, “if it was me, I would have chosen the smaller piece.” “What are you complaining about, the other brother said? You got the piece you wanted!”

Of course, this scenario assumes that there is only so much pie. But what if the pie could grow? What if we could adopt an abundance mentality, as described in Stephen Covey’s 12 Habits? Do you remember, for example, the old Jay Leno Doritos telephone commercial where he says, ” Go ahead. Eat all you want. We’ll make more.”

What the hockey negotiators didn’t seem to understand was that by collaborating graciously toward the development of the strongest possible league, they could create something that would allow the pie to grow for everyone, allowing all parties to prosper. A rising tide, as they say, raises all ships.

This kind of attitude, is consistent with the attitudes intended of Kingdom citizens, so it shouldn’t surprise us that this is not our experience today. Like with every experience of dysfunction and malfunction, as a disappointed preacher and hockey fan, I try to let these things develop in me a heathy longing for the kingdom.

It will not always be thus.

Merry Christmas

Songwriter Brian Doerksen recently tweeted that it was curious that North Americans use the more formal “Merry Christmas” as their seasonal greeting while the British use the more casual “Happy Christmas.” I think we, on this side of the water, got it right this time.

Christmas is a time for “merriment.” It is a time to be joyful. The long dark night of advent expectation is over. It is time for extravagant celebration. It is a time to eat, drink, and be merry.

This merriment is not for the sake of personal indulgence. It is not to drown the sorrow of an otherwise empty existence. It is to rejoice in the fact that hope has been established. It is to utilize the traditions of the season so that we might remember to be grateful – exuberantly appreciative for the fact that we, in Christ, have hope.

It is not surprising that those who do not have this hope might desire to wish a more benign form of address, but for those of us in Christ, let us wish each other and experience together the merriest of Christmases.

Joy to the world. Let earth receive her King!

Merry Christmas, indeed.

The Place of Compassion in our Response to Evil

Yesterday I said that evil exists and that its antidote is found in the gospel. Today I would like to add a word about compassion.

I remember a line from an old Steve Taylor song, “I just want to stay angry at the evil.” I have resonated with that line over the years as it has become increasingly convenient to find ways to get along with the evil in the world – to tolerate and coexist comfortably with things that are at odds with what is right and true and good.

But while I want to name evil correctly in the world, I also want to be sure to sustain a strong heart of compassion for those who struggle with evil and its consequences, consistent with our understanding of the gospel and its attendant grace.

To say that mental illness, like any illness or dysfunction, derives from an evil root, is not to say that we must not offer compassion to those who are caught up in it. I am not an expert in mental illness, and would not claim to be, but I can affirm that those experiencing such torment require us to respond with love and not with anger.  To be compassionate is to be gracious and grace is at the core of the gospel.

I cannot imagine the kind of mental anguish that would drive a person to commit the kind of atrocity that we saw on Friday. I also understand how a well intentioned society can exacerbate such problems through inadequate service and opportunity for care. Even the church (even people like me), can unknowingly  create the conditions where people feel a deeper sense of shame than welcome when they come into our midst, and that too is the incidence of evil – our inadvertent evil.

It might seem a little oxymoronic to speak of compassion in the same breath as we speak of a healthy abhorrence of evil, yet such is in the spirit of the gospel. It helps no one to merely mush into the middle. God hates our sin, but he loves us in our sin. To love like this is itself to war against the evil

See also: Evil and its Antidote

Also: Sermons, Souls and Shootings

Evil and its Antidote

Evil exists and we should talk about it.

Yesterday, I made some comments about the Newtown shootings. Among other things, I spoke of how sickness of soul is at the heart of these unspeakable situations. I mentioned how that it is events like these that remind us why we still need preachers. Where else are you going to hear anyone speak of the reality of evil and the answer provided in the gospel?

You certainly aren’t going to hear much of this in media, social or mainstream. Most of what I have heard in the last several hours has focused on mental illness, and while I would not want to discount or disparage the psychological aspects of the killer’s dysfunction, I would say that such explanations are far too simplistic. Chemical imbalances or mental anguish are not the reason for these shootings. Plenty of people experience mental illness without taking guns into schools.

Let us call this what it is. This is evil and evil requires a more than purely physical response. This is a spiritual problem and it is important that we see it as such. The Bible describes life as a struggle between powers.  The biblical worldview acknowledges that there is an Evil One who is actively engaged against all things right and pure and good. Evil is expressed as sin, which is far more than simply breaking social prohibitions. Sin, at its core, is a prideful rebellion against truth and righteousness. It is a self-pitying cancer that gives birth to pain and fear and mental suffering. When sin plants its seed it blossoms into every kind of evil, including the kind that we saw yesterday.

At a time like this we need preachers to help lead the conversation. We need people who can help us see the spiritual dimensions. We need preachers who can remind us that the gospel offers a meaningful response. In the gospel we have a means by which God reverses the gravitational pull of evil. In the gospel we realize the grace that says we don’t have to manage for ourselves, but that we can find meaning, truth, and forgiveness in the love of God expressed in Jesus Christ. The gospel is the antidote to evil and our ultimate response to human tragedy. These powers are not equal and evil does not exist entirely unrestrained. The gospel teaches that the day will come when all will be put right as God asserts his authority. But that day is not yet here and for now we must resist the influence of evil.

I understand that people do not always live out the implications of the gospel with integrity or with consistency, but that does not obviate the importance of the claim. In the gospel we have the opportunity to re-orient ourselves so that our internal compass points us true. Preachers understand this, and we need them to help us hear this truthful message.

Yesterday I made some comments about form and function and I turned those comments to the subject of guns and their control. I think it is probably wise to try and restrain the opportunity for evil through a simple thing like restricting access to instruments whose only possible function is to exacerbate the incidence of evil. That would help, as similar measures have helped keep people alive all over the world.

But at the end of the day, the problem we are dealing with has little to do with illness or government policy. The problem is that there is evil among us. The problem is that evil exists. The limiting influence of the gospel is being itself limited by those who want to re-imagine evil as something less dramatic.

But perhaps tomorrow as we gather in our churches, with the memory of eighteen slaughtered children on our minds, we might be better positioned to hear the message of the preacher – that evil exists and that it has to be extinguished. The gospel is that extinguisher. The gospel must be preached.

See: Sermons, Souls, and Shootings

Sermons, Souls, and Shootings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Eternity is Everything

I was recently asked to do a series of brief devotional pieces for a new Bible to be published by Scripture Union. The project is called theStory and is seeking to make the Bible accessible to a new generation of readers. Here is one of the pieces that I wrote in response to the assignment…

Luke 6:12-16 – Eternity is Everything

They say that ‘timing is everything.’ ‘Here today and gone tomorrow,’ the benefits we enjoy today may not endure forever.

The people coming to Jesus were looking for healing. They wanted a better life – a healthier, happier existence. Who doesn’t?

Of course, Jesus does heal them, though his words deny somewhat his actions. ‘Blessed are the poor,’ he says. Blessed are the hungry, the hurting, and the disempowered. Blessed are the ones, he says, who are not healed.

It is not that health and prosperity is not valued. These blessed ones will prosper – their stomachs will be filled. They will be satisfied and honored – they will know joy, just not right now. They will receive all that they are looking for – rewarded one day in heaven, though perhaps not now on earth. Those who receive their reward here on earth are the ones to be pitied – ‘woe to them,’ Jesus says.

Eternity, we learn, is everything.

You can have your rewards now or you can have them later. The rewards we realize today are temporal and fleeting. The rewards we reap in heaven are eternal. The whole of Jesus’ mountainside sermon will continue this refrain – that there are ways of being that are focused on the present and ways of being that are attuned to the eternal. Given that eternity is eternal, it doesn’t seem much of a choice.

To be ‘blessed’ is to be fully and finally satisfied. It seems oxymoronic to say that a hungry person could be sated or that a poor person might in actual fact be rich. It is hard to feel contentment when one is lacking the essentials.  But all of this might simply be perspective. In Christ, it is all just a matter of timing. Eternity is everything.

Mechanical Accuracy

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

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

Find the full blogpost here.

Preaching with Visuals

I published this several years ago. I think it still holds up!

 

The primary tool of a preacher is his or her voice. Of course, effective preachers have always understood the added power of a well-chosen visual aid. Jeremiah once hid a linen belt under a rock in order to help his audience visualize the ruin of Judah and the spiritual decay of Jerusalem (Jer. 13). Today’s methods are more technologically advanced, yet they serve much the same purpose.

 

Using PowerPoint

How it can help: Still image project helps the preacher to focus the attention of listeners on key ideas and propositions. It can assist the preacher in sharpening focus, deepening impact, and enhancing listener retention.

How it can hinder: Building an effective PowerPoint presentation takes a lot of time. For many, the energy taken to develop these presentations comes at the expense of the time that might have been invested in study of the Scriptures. In the end, the preacher might have a pretty presentation without much worth presenting. People are accustomed to viewing professional quality presentations on their televisions and in their workplaces. Few churches are able to come close to matching the people’s expectation without investing huge amounts of time in the process. The answer might be to delegate the task, but this is not as easy as it sounds. Effective presentations require the integration of technical, graphic, and theological acumen. A computer geek might not have a good eye for graphics. A graphic designer might not have the theological insight necessary to know how to actually enhance the sermon. In the end, the preacher may decide that it is easier to do it alone at the expense of other aspects of sermon development.

How to use it well: Despite the challenges, still image projection is likely to grow in use. Preachers can make it work for them if they pay attention to a few basic concepts:

Start with the Sermon: The best way to build a great PowerPoint presentation is to have great material. Garbage on the page will be garbage on the screen. A good presentation starts with a good sermon, clearly conceived and carefully constructed. The first thing is to make sure the preacher has a clear grasp of the big idea of the sermon. PowerPoint will expose any fuzziness in sermon design so the words have to be sharp. Theme statements ought to be short (12 words or less), simple (no conjunctions), declarative statements (not phrases) that can actually be spoken by the preacher. The heading for this paragraph, “Start with the sermon” is an example of the kind of focused wording that will communicate on screen.

Create Visual Metaphors: Preachers need to use fewer words and more visual metaphors in their PowerPoint presentations. Slides should highlight words or phrases, rather than offering a point-by-point breakdown of the sermon. The visual presentation ought to reinforce the point rather than duplicating it. Images come from a variety of sources. Some images can be found online for free. Other fee-for-service websites like photos.com or worshipphotos.com can be helpful. Some preachers will take their own digital photos in order to get just the right image. Remember that PowerPoint is the software that allows you to present the image. The best slides are often created using Adobe Photo Elements (the cheaper version of Photoshop) or some other image production software that allows the designer to creatively merge words with images in ways that communicate an overall concept. The completed image can then be imported into PowerPoint.

Less is More: Like a child with a new toy, preachers initially want to make use of all the bells, beeps, and transitions the technology offers. Wise preachers understand that more is not necessarily better. Simple images and constructions are almost always stronger. As a general rule of thumb, 25 words on a single slide might be a maximum, and 12-15 slides in a presentation might be an outside limit. For further hints on slide construction, check the information and links found at powerpointers.com.

Aim to be Seen: All our efforts will not be worth much if the slides cannot be seen. Try sitting in the back row with a normal Sunday morning light array and ask how easily the screen can be read. Font sizes of less than 28 points might be difficult for some to read. Generally, white fonts against dark backgrounds read well. Colors ought to contrast without clashing. Sometimes, the technology itself causes a problem. A weak projector that offers images too dull to be seen from the back row will frustrate more than it will help. If you’re going to spend the money, spend enough money. 1800 lumens might be a minimum standard for a small church building.

Team Up: Few preachers bring expertise in homiletics, theology, computer technology, and graphic design. A team approach, however, could bring all of these together. Rather than seeing this as a burden, preachers could see this as an opportunity for collaborating on sermon development. The design team could serve as a kind of sermon consulting group, giving the preacher helpful feedback on the sermon while the cement is still wet.

Throughout the sermon, the preacher needs to retain the focus of the listener. The technology must always be in the service of the human event that is the sermon. Preachers don’t have to ignore the screen, for instance. Referring to the image, pointing at the screen, and reading from the screen, can help to keep the listener focused on the human preacher while still making use of the projected image. Remember that the screen does not always have to be illuminated. It may, in fact, enhance the dramatic flow of the presentation to have the screen darken at a strategic moment, when the preacher is calling for response, for instance.

 

Using Video

Computer projection units also offer the preacher opportunity to show motion picture clips, either those prepared in-house, or taken from popular movies and other public sources.

How it can help: The use of video allows the preacher to connect with listeners on their own terms. Video is the language of contemporary culture in just about any part of the world. Not only does it add variety, color, and motion to the preaching experience, it shows that the preacher is relevant and in-touch with the culture. Inexpensive access to digital video cameras and editing software allows churches to customize sermons with locally produced “on the street” interviews, dramatizations, and music-video style enhancements. Such approaches allow the preacher to involve people in the process of putting truth into the context of life. Digital video cameras can now be found for less than $400. Simple video editing packages start at less than $100. Apple Computers bundle iMovie, a simple, intuitive, editing package, with their computers for free.

How it can hinder: A video clip is a kind of super-charged sermon illustration, subject to all of the strengths and weaknesses of such illustrations and then some. Video can eat precious time and interrupt carefully designed sermon flow. Further, a video clip creates a world for the listener to inhabit. Many times that world is more compelling than the world of the sermon itself. Listeners can get lost there, losing touch with the actual intent of the sermon itself. Preachers need to be particularly careful with clips taken from movies which can be seen to give license to listeners to view things that might be substantially less than the pure and lovely things of good report that Paul describes in Philippians 4:8.

How to use it well: Preachers who want to make good use of video would do well to keep a few simple principles in mind.

Keep it Legal: Copyright issues must be respected. Using clips taken from copyrighted motion pictures without consent of the rights holder is theft. Gaining consent usually requires paying a fee. Blanket licenses can be obtained. Whatever the fee, it will not equal the cost of a preacher’s integrity.

Keep it Short: Using a movie clip often requires some kind of contextual “set up.” If the clip requires too much explanation, it probably isn’t worth using. A clip of more than two or three minutes (10 percent of the sermon duration) is probably as long as can be sustained without damaging the sermon itself. Shorter is always better.

Keep it Flowing: Transitions are critical. Video does not do well as a stand-alone piece in worship or in sermons. In most cases, it might be best to use the video clip as a lead-in to the sermon or as a post sermon piece. Either way, videos need to fit the flow of the overall worship experience or they could be more trouble than they are worth.

Keep it Clean: Remember that showing a movie clip in church is equivalent to offering a blanket recommendation for the whole movie. The clip the preacher shows might be clean, but what about that graphic sex scene forty-five minutes later in the movie? If a preacher can’t recommend the whole movie, then he or she should not use it at all. 

Still and video projection are only two of the more contemporary uses of visual enhancement in preaching. While perhaps not as trendy, a good old-fashioned object lesson still has power. Using real human beings in the sermon is another low-tech way of enhancing the sermon experience. Either through using brief dramatic sketches or through personal testimony or interview, the preacher can use the experience of real people to humanize, contextualize, deepen, and accredit the ideas the sermon presents.

 

Visuals are valuable, but they should be used with the confidence that the greatest visual effect inherent to preaching is the image of the preacher standing and delivering. Preachers are going to have difficulty competing with Hollywood or with the multi-media found on cable. But no one excels the preacher in terms of standing up and speaking. It might be worth asking whether the preacher actually needs technological reinforcement. The strength of preaching is that a human being, having heard from God, helps others hear the same. The energy and passion of such a preacher might be visual stimulation enough.

 

 

 

 

 

 

28 Benedictions and Doxologies

I really appreciated Eric McKiddie of the blog Pastoralized and his work in compiling a list of New Testament doxologies and benedictions. 
 

Find the original list here…

A List of NT Doxologies and Benedictions

1. Rom. 8:38-39 – For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

2. Rom. 11:33, 36 – Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

3. Rom. 15:5-6 – May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

4. Rom. 15:13 – May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

5. 1 Cor. 15:58 – Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

6. 2 Cor. 13:11 – Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.

7. 2 Cor. 13:14 – The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

8. Gal. 6:18 – The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen.

9. Eph. 3:17-19 – (May) Christ dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

10. Eph. 3:20-21 – Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

11. Eph. 6:23-24 – Peace be to the brothers, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible.

12. Phil. 4:7 – (May) the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

13. Col. 3:15 – And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.

14. Col. 3:16-17 – Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

15. 1 Th. 3:12-13 – May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

16. 1 Th. 5:23-24 – Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.

17. 2 Th. 2:16-17 – Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.

18. 1 Tim. 1:17 – To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

19. 1 Tim. 6:15b-16 – He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

20. Philem. 25 – The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

21. Heb. 13:20-21 – Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

22. 2 Pet. 3:18 – (May you) grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.

23. 2 John 3 – Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love.

24. Jude 24-25 – Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.

25. Rev. 1:5b-6 – To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

26. Rev. 5:12, 13 – Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing! …To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!

27. Rev. 7:12 – Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.

28. Rev. 22:20-21 – He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.

Mark 3:7-18 – A Text Worth Preaching

Mark 3:7-18 – On how authority is shown through discipline.

 

Engage the listener with a problem:

Sometimes I don’t get Jesus. I mean I love Jesus, but sometimes I don’t understand him. Like here, in the early chapters of the gospel of Mark, Jesus has been healing people, blessing people, astonishing people – I love this about Jesus. The people are responding to him, his ministry is growing, to borrow a phrase from Malcolm Gladwell, Jesus has reached his “tipping point.” All he has to do is push it just a a little bit further and he would have the whole world at his feet. It seems a strange time to go to the lake.

That’s the thing with Jesus, just when things really start to get going he seems to undercut his own momentum. Just when things are really heating up, he goes on retreat. Just when people really want to hear what he has to say, he puts out a gag order. Just when people are really starting to buy into who he is, he downloads the authority to his lower level people. It’s like he is doing everything he can to subvert his authority.

 

Instruct the listener with an idea:

It is all about authority, after all, not just celebrity, and not even just power. Who has authority over disciples, over disease, over demons? For Jesus there was no question. The demons understood – “You are the Son of God,” they said, which was the same message that Jesus authorized the disciples to go out preaching. Jesus wasn’t engaged in a desperate attempt to assert his authority. Jesus wasn’t worried about attracting crowds. Jesus wasn’t trying to show his authority through his dynamism. Jesus was displaying his authority through his discipline. Authority is shown through discipline.

Jesus was playing a deeper game, exercising authority through self-limitation – the same authority that brought him down to us from heaven. Jesus didn’t need a trumpet. Jesus used a towel. Jesus didn’t need a crowd. Jesus used a cross. Jesus wasn’t not concerned about reaching a tipping point. Jesus had his own agenda – his own timeline – and he would see it done. Jesus came with authority – a disciplined plan that would not be thwarted either by our opposition or by our enthusiasm. He didn’t have to prove himself. He was too busy working out his plan.

 

Convict the listener with a picture:

Imagine Jesus on that boat. Does he look worried to you? You would think he ought to be. He has just entrusted a motley crew of fickle men who have very little chance of holding the crowd. You can already see them going home – many of them disappointed – many of them confused. This is not what they expected. This is not what they were used to. But Jesus doesn’t seem concerned as he rests out there on the water. He has a plan and this is not the time. The time will come, and when it does, all heaven and earth will shake before its consequence, but for now its time to rest. For now its time to wait.

Could we wait with him? Could you trust him for the moment? I know how hard it is to wait of the Lord – to trust that he has it all in hand – that there is an end game and that it is certain. That’s why we call it faith. Faith is believing in a future that looks different than what we see today. It is investing in that future day after day – making the counter-intuitive moves – the moves consistent with the gospel that don’t always seem to be the most productive, given the contours of our culture. It takes discipline. It takes patience. It took discipline for Jesus to stay out there on his boat. If we have confidence in his authority, we can join him in that discipline.

 

Inspire the listener with a story:

There are leadership lessons we could take from this text – the easy pickings that don’t quite get it. When things get crazy – head to the lake. When the rhetoric gets overheated, control the message. When you can’t handle everything yourself – empower others. There is a certain sense to it, but to boil this whole thing down to these moralistic applications is to really miss the point.

By 1948, Billy Graham’s reputation as an evangelist had begun to grow, but Billy and his team were worried about the challenge of celebrity. They met together in a motel room in Modesto, California to describe a set of disciplines that would help them stay faithful and to have integrity. Some said that the principles they determined, such as publishing all of their financial records, and supporting the local church leadership was at best unnecessary, and at worst, created a drag on their ability to move their ministry forward. But the “Modesto Manifesto” as it came to be known proved to be the thing that kept Billy Graham and his team rooted in their calling under the authority of Jesus.

Discipline does not serve its own sake. But when the authority of Jesus shows itself in discipline, consistent with our calling and in service to our Lord, the Kingdom goes forth and the gates of hell cannot stand against it.

Preaching Against Caricatures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on Multi-Ethnic Preaching

This week I am attending the annual meetings of the Evangelical Homiletics Society where the subject is “multi-ethnic preaching.” The keynote speaker is Bryan Lorritts from Memphis, Tennessee. I have deeply appreciated his emphasis upon the importance of displaying the diversity that is the Kingdom in our churches. He has much to say about the ways by which we can encourage a greater integration around the gospel. 

One of the complexities I have been noticing as I listen is how different my experience is on the west coast of Canada from what it is in places like the American south. In Memphis, multi-ethnicity is about the challenge of integrating long-entrenched cultures – black, white, and Hispanic primarily. Where I come from, the challenge is very different.

My part of the continent is one of the most diverse places on the planet, but the variety of cultures we experience are not well entrenched. Most of the diversity in our part of the world is the result of recent immigration, primarily from places like China, India, Korea, and Pakistan. Segregation, in these cases has to do with the natural desire of the immigrant to band together with others of a similar background and experience.

The difference, between these cases has to do with the experience of the second generation. Where I come from, one of the most hopeful things is the way by which the second and third generations seem to be able to integrate fully with people of a variety of ethnicities. I don’t want to say that they are color-blind, but many others have. While this is not a specifically Christian phenomena, the good news is that we are not seeing a strong entrenchment of culture distinctiveness beyond the first generation.

What I am thinking is that given the freshness of our experience of diversity, we have a unique opportunity to create diverse congregations among the second and third generations, before they become entrenched. This kind of “multi-ethnicity” might require an even different array of considerations than what we have so-far managed. Perhaps there are cultural approaches that transcend ethnicity.

For example, Lorritts described his experience visiting Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City. Tim Keller and his team has been effective in developing a multi-ethnic congregation which is, conversely, largely mono-cultural. That is to say that while the people come from a variety of ethnic experiences in their backgrounds, they are largely united in terms of their youthfulness, their urban-ness, often their singleness, and their interest in a highly cognitive presentation.

When that is the case, I wonder whether we are as diverse as we might think. It is natural for people to gravitate toward people they are comfortable with regardless of their ethnicity. But if we truly want to represent the Kingdom, we will figure out how to transcend all of these distinctives. In other words, maybe the Kingdom would be most fully represented when we have those second and third generation people of every ethnicity integrated with the older folks of every background. Maybe we need a whole array af multi-interests – multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-generational and more.

Clearly we still have some work to do.

Preaching Christ, Not Moralism

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

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

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

When Motivation Becomes Manipulation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Multi-Cultural Preaching at the Evangelical Homiletics Society

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

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

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

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

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

Misrepresenting Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Church: Christ Church London
Church Website: christchurchlondon.org

Getting Psyched to Preach

From my friend, Lee Eclov in Leadership

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

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

Weight for the words

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

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

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

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

Power beyond my own

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

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

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

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

Remembering Calvin Miller

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

Calvin Miller’s Legacy

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

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

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

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.

Kids Who Preach

http://natgeotv.com/uk/kids-who-preach/videos/tiny-preachers

This link is a bit disturbing. I do understand that many of us discerned our call to preach at an early age, but this just smacks of sensationalism. It also raises the question as to whether this is actually preaching.  Truthfully, I don’t take these things very seriously. We are hardly over-run by an excess of prepubescent preachers. Still, perhaps it is a reminder for us that the call to lead the congregation in the hearing of God’s voice through his word is a serious responsibility requiring discernment and spiritual maturity. It is not a spectacle, such has been provided by these sad cases.

The Relentlessness of Preaching

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

It is a lot to ask.

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

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

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

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

Avoiding a Preaching ‘Style’ – Pitfall #6

Richard L. Eslinger Pitfalls in Preaching, Eerdmans, 1996, 19, 20

I have no doubt that our preaching tends toward certain styles, yet as Richard Eslinger says, we might be best to avoid the search for such a style. In fact, it might be best if we can let the text of Scripture give us some indication about the style we might aspire toward.

“If we do achieve a distinctive style, we are thereby assuming that all of the incredible variety of meanings and images within our preaching are susceptible to bring expressed in that one style. A liturgical analogy old be the assumption that all of the forms of expression in the Psalms could be adequately rendered by a single musical setting or tune.”

“Rather than settling for a single style, we would be wise to accumulate an entire palette of stylistic speech, all styles available in the service of the single meaning at stake during a given move or sequence in the sermon.”

As an exercise, consider certain texts of Scripture and what style of presentation might be appropriate. A text describing God’s promise of judgement might require a different tone, for example, than one that champions God’s mercy. Just as a text describe the hope of Christ’s soon return might require a different approach than a sermon that speaks to the technical dimensions of God’s sovereign call in the book of Romans.

No doubt, we will still express all of these in ways unique to our own voice. It is to say, however, that rather than seeking to find a generic preaching voice, we see ourselves as giving voice to the Scripture and to whatever style is appropriate given the biblical presentation.

The Language of the Affections

Choosing to Preach excerpt, p. 109.

When God commissioned his tabernacle, he wanted a beautiful building, which is a little surprising to some of us. I was raised in a conservative denomination, heavily influenced by the Puritans. Our buildings were never beautiful; they were utilitarian but never physically attractive. These days I visit the old cathedrals of Europe, and I marvel at their majesty. I know, of course, the danger of worshipping structures and how a building can be more a testimony to the builder’s ego than a gift of worship to creator God. Still, a large part of me longs for a sense of beauty in the places that I worship.

The sermons I grew up listening to were not beautiful. Just like the buildings they were offered in, the sermons I heard were more functional than they were inspirational. They offered ideas and precious few images. Hey worked on my head but offered very little for my heart. The sermons were meaningful but they were not beautiful, and I think we were the poorer for it.

God exceeds my attempts to understand him. While he honors and encourages my exercise of intellect, my finite mind has its limits. There are aspects of God’s character and will for which there are no words. At such times, we come closer to understanding him with an image or with words that describe a picture. There comes a point when all I can do is stand with my mouth hanging open, lost in wonder, love, and praise. At times like this, only these images of awe, the language of the affections will suffice.

Ranting is Not Preaching

From Tony Merida, Assistant Professor of Preaching at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and pastor of Imago Dei Church in Raleigh, North Carolina.

http://tonymerida.net/2012/ranting-is-not-preaching/

A few years ago, Dr. Chuck Kelley gave me this “Torah Pointer.” It is used for the reading of the Torah, indicating the sacredness of the text. Dr. Kelley gave this to me to illustrate this simple charge: “Keep your finger on the text when you teach and preach.”

I was thinking about his gracious gift, as I was preparing to preach on this passage:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.

2 Timothy 3:14-4:4 ESV

Timothy is being urged to keep his finger on the text, as he continues in the ministry of the word.

The opposite of this, of course, is to get away from the text.

And that seems to be quite popular. It was then, and it is now.

So what is preaching? Preaching is saying what God has said in his Word, and declaring what God has done in Christ. When the Word of God is truly preached, the voice of God is truly heard. In contrast, when the words of man are at center stage, then the words of man are heard (though often mistaken for the Word of God).

Ranting is not preaching.

Ranting may be entertaining. It may get you on Youtube. It may even get you a large podcast following. But it isn’t preaching. Preaching is rooted in the text.

What I’ve observed of late is a fashionable trend among a lot of popular preachers, to go on these thirty-minute rants about issues like manhood, church planting, Calvinism, the president of the U.S., or how to dress.

While we need to apply the text to a given congregation, does this mean we just use a verse to jump into some agenda of ours? No. That’s not preaching. I have one word for the ranters out there: Keep your finger on the text when you teach and preach. And I will try to do the same.

God has not called us to rant, he has called us to preach the word – faithfully, consistently, pastorally, patiently, and theologically.

Prosperity gospel preachers and other false teachers use the rant method, and this same method seems to be employed by others, but they don’t get called out because they are orthodox theologically.

Let’s remember that the thirty-minute rant is dangerous. Why?

  • It is dangerous because you lose authority when you leave Scripture.
  • It is dangerous because you are feeding the flesh of people. Every generation has people who want to find teachers to “suit their own passions.”
  • It is dangerous because it feeds the cult of personality movement in our culture. People come wondering, “what will he say this week?” instead of preparing to hear a faithful exposition of Holy Scripture.
  • It is dangerous because it disregards our holy mandate as preachers and teachers. We will be held accountable for how we’ve handled the word (James 3:1, Heb. 13:7,17).
  • It is dangerous because we don’t want people putting their faith in man’s wisdom but in God’s Word.

May God raise up a new generation of faithful, responsible expositors of Scripture who keep their finger on the text, as they teach and preach.

Banquet or Buffet: How to Speak to Diverse Audiences

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

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

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

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

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

Elephantine Intros: Pitfalls in Preaching #5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 Questions Francis Chan Asks Before Preaching

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

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

2. Do I genuinely love these people?

3. Am I accurately presenting this passage?

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

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

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

7. Do the people really need this message?

Four Steps from Good to Great in Preaching

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

 

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

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

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

 

The Four Elements of a Good Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

 

Moving our Preaching from Good to Great

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

The Responsibility of the Gospel

Reading in the book of Acts, I am struck by Paul’s deep sense of responsibility before the gospel. In chapter 20, verse 18-20 he says,

“You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. I served the Lord with great humility and with tears, although I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews. 20 You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house.”

Just a few verses earlier we read how Eutychus fell asleep as Paul talked “on and on” (verse 9). I always saw that verse as humerous, until I stopped to think about the earnest of Paul’s conviction, such that he would instruct his people with such persistence.

“I have not hesitated to preach to you the whole will of God,” he said. “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” You need to bear a sense of responsibility before God for these people. “Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears. Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.”

I understand that the power of the gospel is the power of the Holy Spirit and it is up to him to work graciously and powerfully among us his people through our preaching. But that doesn’t relieve us of our sense of responsibility. I am reminded of what Paul said to the Roman Christians (10:13-16), that without a preacher, no one can hear the message of grace that could save their souls if only they were to call upon the name of the Lord.

I know that deliberate and consistent instruction in the gospel feels tedious to some. Of course, this doesn’t mean we cannot offer our teaching in compelling ways. We are accountable for our stewardship of the gospel. We will give an answer for how consistently we preach it.

Why We Still Need Propositions in our Preaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Head and Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Helpful is Multi-Media?

There was a time, and not so long ago, when it was considered cool to utilize multi-media in our preaching. The idea was that by utilizing power-point, video, texting, and social media in our sermons, that we would be able to show our relevance to an emerging generation. But like most things, I am starting to wonder whether such methods may have past their best-before date. These media forms are so ubiquitous that it may be that by their use, we are diminishing one of our unique and notable strengths – the power of an individual standing vulnerable before a crowd to speak truthfully.

Writing in the blog, College Ministry Thoughts (http://www.collegeministrythoughts.com/2012/06/13/college-students-dont-like-media/), Chuck Bomar, observes a shifting mentality among the next generation with respect to media use.

“As I write this I’m sitting in a coffee shop overhearing a conversation.  College students (or at least, college age people) have been talking in a group for about 30 minutes.  The discussion is about finding a church – what they like and what they don’t about churches in the area.  One of the most fascinating subjects discussed (it has all been fun to listen to and they don’t know I pastor a church) has been about ‘pastors that use media’ in the church services.  Specifically, they have mentioned both videos in sermons as well as in musical worship.

“They are all, and I mean all, saying they don’t like it when ‘media’ is used in church.

“One girl just made the following statement: ‘My days are filled with media.  When I go to church I just want to listen to a message about scripture, learn, meditate and worship.’

“Fascinating conversation to eavesdrop on, for sure.  And one that flies in the face of much of what many think is needed in our college ministries – or ministries in general.  Interesting, if you ask me.”

Of course, I am not suggesting that there is no longer any place for media use in the church. When used to good purpose and with sufficient technical ability, such things can still serve effectively. However, if we use media simply to keep up, or because we think that it is the only way to communicate with people today, we may already be falling further backwards than we think.

Preaching as Detection

A Choosing to Preach excerpt, pp. 163-64

“Sometimes sermons raise more questions than they answer. That can happen when you are listening to God. The mysteries of life will not be entirely resolved this side of heaven. But God encourages us to come to him with our questions. Good preachers understand the ancient rubric: “faith seeking understanding.” We trust God, but we’ll do our level best to understand what he is doing. After all, that is the reason he gave us his Word.

“I enjoy most mystery stories – Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Rebus – I like them all. My favorite fictional detective, however, has to be G.K. Chesterton’s crime-solving theologian, Father Brown. Father Brown understands the <em>inductive</em> nature of solving mysteries. Detectives start with an unsolved questions it exists in life and move to discover a credible explanation for observed phenomena.

“In “The Blue Cross,” Chesterton describes the search for the elusive criminal Flambeau. “He remembered how Flambeau had escaped, once by a pair of nail scissors, and once by a house on fire; once by having to pay for an unstamped letter, and one by getting people to look through a telescope at a comet that might destroy the world.” Father Brown “thought his detective brain as good as the criminal’s, which was true. But he fully realized the disadvantage. ‘The criminal is the creative artist; the detective only the critic.’,” This is insightful. Not that God’s creative actions are criminal, but that detection is required to understand him.

“Detectives are always playing catch-up. They don’t set the agenda. They can only respond, and this is as it should be. Inductive process appreciates that we always come to God somewhat in a fog. We don’t understand. How could we? Gd, the ultimate creative genius, sometimes makes as much sense to us as Flambeau to Father Brown. The detective can get the measure of the creative mind, however – at least to a degree – by applying his powers of deduction.”

Missional Preaching

From The End of Evangelicalism by David Fitch, Wipf and Stock, 2011, pp. 138-39

“Our preaching, for instance, moves away from the traditional evangelical expository techniques where the goal is correct exposition – word for word – so as to dispense accurate doctrinal information and practical guidelines for how to live the Christian life. In this way of preaching, the person in the pew takes notes, learns some principles, in cognitive fashion, applies these principles in the hopes of an improved Christian life. Taking good notes can lead us further along in our sanctification. When, however, this approach emphasizes individualized control of truth – three points and an application to take home and use according to me own personalized, Spirit-guided prompting – it promotes distance and control. …”

“On the other hand, preaching – where Scripture is the drama of God’s mission in Christ – proclaims the grand reality of God’s work among us and then invites God’s people into it. It demands a concrete hermeneutic as part and parcel of the authority that the Scriptures bear in Christ by the Spirit. Such preaching unfurls God’s mission before us, funding the imagination of all who would hear and inviting everyone to join in.”