By Kenton C. Anderson and Robert Campbell
Orignally published in Preaching magazine.
While on mission to Indonesia, an American pastor felt insulted that the group of national pastors to whom he was preaching did not look him in the eye. For the duration of the sermon, these pastors kept their faces down, fixed solely upon their papers. Of course his concern was alleviated when he learned that each one was actually listening with extra care, given their intention to pass along the same sermon soon after. A sense of insult transformed into a sense of honor.
When we preach, we don’t just preach to our church but through our church. We preach in order to create conversations that follow in small groups, at dinner tables and in coffee shops. What we offer from the pulpit needs to be able to be served at the table as a palatable meal by our people. These are the people we walk with daily and the ones who will walk the good news we preach into every corner of our community while we are home recovering from the sermon.
We have found that the integrative form of preaching is particularly useful in encouraging preaching through our churches. This sermon form described in Choosing to Preach (Zondervan 2006) and Preaching with Conviction (Kregel 2001), shapes the sermon around four significant questions. It is our experience that sermons shaped around such questions are more readily assimilated by our listeners and are then passed along more effectively within small groups and through informal conversation.
What’s the story?
Every text tells a story and is an integral part of the larger biblical story that describes God’s rescue of the fallen world through the good news of Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection. Identifying the details of the story can help our people see the humanity in the text, creating an experiential encounter with the message that will not easily be shaken off. This first question asks the listener to look at the scene in the biblical passage as the curtain opens: “Who is on stage? Where is the action happening? What has been happening up to this point?”
Take, for example, the story of the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion in Luke 23:26 and following. Clearly, the goal of a sermon from this text would be to lead people to appreciate the sacrifice made by the Son of God on the cross and the salvation that it makes possible. In order to appreciate that point, however, the congregation needs to be lead to identify with the human situation. The best way to achieve this, is through helping listeners identify with the human characters who carry the story in the text.
As an example, we could tell the story through the eyes of Simon from Cyrene. What motivated his “spur of the moment” decision to carry Jesus’ cross? What did he risk by making this kind of move? Was he trying to identify with Jesus, or was he showing sympathy for Jesus’ plight? Was he hopeful in that moment, or was he resigned to the failure of Jesus’ cause?
Of course, to make this powerful, we have to actually tell the story, painting a picture of the situation, so as to place the listeners in the text. If we are successful at helping listeners feel present to the story of the text, it will embed within them, emotionally as well as intellectually. Such sermons have staying power and are more likely to be re-told or re-presented by our listeners in the days to come.
What’s the point?
We want to teach the truth of the text to the people. If the truth is going to become portable for our people, then it needs to be framed in a memorable way. Following Haddon Robinson, we might ask “What is the ‘Big Idea?” If we can encapsulate our message in a single, memorable statement, repeated often in the sermon, we give our listeners the means to share the message with others as it comes to mind during the week.
One of our recent sermons was taken from Acts 23:1 and its context, where Paul states to the Sanhedrin, that he had “fulfilled his duty to God in all good conscience.” Having established the story of Paul’s legal defense through a series of trials and appeals, the “big idea” of the sermon was framed as follows, “The best defense is a clear conscience.” This turned the common wisdom that the best defense is a good offense on its ear, providing a memorable way to summarize the truth presented in the final few chapters of the book of Acts.
A few days after having preached this sermon, a listener showed us an email stream that she had participated in at her office. In the context of a discussion on being asked to compromise one’s ethics in business, this listener made the point that “the best defense is a clear conscience,” and in so doing, re-preached the sermon to her co-workers. She reported a tremendous sense of empowerment for the gospel through this experience.
It is critical that our big idea is fully derived from the intent of the text. It is important to dig into the details of the text. We want to make sure that we are getting the text right, because it is the Word of God that needs to travel through our churches, not just the opinion of the preacher. We want our people to walk away with a clear understanding of the author’s intent and how it addresses them, as we help them hear the voice of God in the text of Scripture. We need to remember that our own thinking sounds considerably less clever when it is passed along and repeated throughout the church. Repetition of our own thinking may help the church to grow, but it is the repetition of the Word itself that will convert sinners.
What’s the problem?
The truths of the Bible are not always easily accepted. If we offer biblical truth with honesty and integrity, there will be conflict in the hearts of those who hear. By intentionally utilizing these conflicting elements, we help our listeners struggle to bring their own presuppositions in line with God’s truth. Through this means our abstract ideas are pointed such that they become consequential for the listener. We actively invite consideration of the problems that our preaching imply, calling our listeners to take these things personally and inviting a deeper engagement.
The problems we have could be factual, theological, or personal. In another of our sermons, taken from the famous “Armor of God ” text in Ephesians 6, we chose to follow the textual imagery, challenging our listeners to “just stand there” – to stand firm, to stand against – in short, to “stand our ground” in confidence that the armor we wear is sufficient for the struggle we must face. Commonly, we would move on from this affirmation, pleased that we had articulated the need to be stalwart in the face of opposition and that our listeners would appreciate having been so challenged.
This time, however, we chose to go a little deeper. We chose to engage the fact that people are not so quick to stand up to opposition. We decided not to duck the discomforting implications of our message. We put our fears on the table and tried to understand them. Afterwards, one woman expressed to us her deep fear of engaging “the struggle against flesh and blood” because she had been hurt so deeply in the past. Of course, it shouldn’t surprise us that people are actually going to have to contend with the truths we sometimes too blithely offer to our listeners. Together with this particularly honest woman, we were able to apply the gospel directly to that fear, taking seriously the woman’s problem, and ultimately seeing born a new freedom that only comes as the Spirit of God applies Word of God to human hearts.
Take the time to address those problems and you will address the the deep concerns of your listeners. Through this means, our preaching will start to show up in their conversations long after we have quit our preaching. Hearts don’t change without a fight. Good conversations can get under the surface and deal with the cognitive objections to powerfully affect our people. As they are transformed through the address of the Word to their hearts, our preaching penetrates through our listeners into the contexts and relationships that make up their lives. Preaching through your church is when the preaching of the Word of God goes through their hearts first.
What’s the difference?
Every text intends to make a difference in us and through us. The question is whether we will have the courage to take our preaching beyond the merely hypothetical and get it to the place where we can anticipate God doing something tangible through the sermon by his powerful presence. Can we speak as if speaking the very words of God, expecting the ground to move and the doorposts to shake.
The final question, then, is “What’s the Difference?” This question calls us to imagine the result if we really believed that God intended to move through our preaching and through our church as the sermon finds tangible expression in the life of the congregation.
Another of our recent sermons was based on the story of the young men who expressed their faith in Jesus by their unwillingness to be hindered in their efforts to find healing for their paralyzed friend (Mark 2:1-12). Of course, this text is not about friendship. It is about faith that recognizes the authority of Christ. Faith always has an object – in this case, the person of Christ. Yet faith also always has a context, and in this text, that context is personal relationship – the passion these young men had for their friend.
The “difference” we called to in this sermon, then, was to challenge people to think of their own friendships through the lens of faith in Jesus. What would it mean for people to exercise faith in the authority of Christ in the context of their own friendships? What is “different,” is that our listeners were challenged to recognize the purposes of Christ for their friendships, allowing the sermon to preach through into the relationships that extended beyond the ones present for that sermon.
We have found the four questions of the integrative model to be powerful in creating sermons that echo beyond the first preaching of the actual sermon. Our goal is preach in ways that help our listeners to live and to articulate the message over and over again, allowing the sermon to take on new forms of life and proclamation long after our expression of the sermon. We must not just preach to our churches, we must preach through them as they “go” in obedience to Jesus who gave the command to preach in the first place.
Robert Campbell is pastor of Santa Margarita Community Church