Category Archives: How to . . . ?

Preaching Holiness

Holiness2Holiness is a huge theme in the Bible.  It should be a huge theme in our preaching.  Sadly, what is often preached about holiness seems to fall woefully short of the richness of the biblical reality.

I remember hearing one preacher say confidently that what our nation needs is to be moralized.  I suspect he didn’t understand what he was saying.  Moralizing is a danger in preaching, not because we don’t want to see society transformed, but precisely because moralizing won’t do the job.  Pressuring people to conform to certain standards won’t generate holiness in our churches or our land any more than pressuring a tone deaf choir to sing in tune will lead to sweet music.

Here are a few key thoughts to ponder on holiness and preaching:

1. People don’t make themselves holy, God’s Holy Spirit makes people holy.  It is so tempting to pressure people to conform to some standard, but we must preach out of a conviction that God changes lives.  The clue is in His title, the Holy Spirit.  This reality should influence our pre-preaching prayer, our content and our manner in the pulpit.

2. When we only present holiness as being “set apart from” something, it can sound so sour and empty.  What passes for holiness in many churches is so sour and strange that it seems a million miles from the wholeness of life and love we see in Jesus as we read the Gospels.  True holiness is not pinched, it is fully alive.  True holiness is not a barrel of vinegar, it is a feast of true and abundant life.

3. God’s holiness is not sour, it is infinitely beautiful and attractive.  When we present God as a celestial killjoy, we misrepresent the God whose abundant heart created and infinite generosity created unfettered joy and vibrant life.  God’s holiness is not the sterile hygiene of an operating theatre, it is the fullness of the rich loyal love He enjoys within the Godhead…

4. God’s holiness is not balanced against His love – it is the reality of His loving Tri-unity.  Too often we offer strange balancing acts that seem somewhat foreign to the presentation of Scripture.  God is not infinitely loving, but only 50% that way.  It is not true that He is love (but also something else, with the “but” being an adversative).  God is love.  And that love is perfectly faithful, loyal, pure, just, righteous and holy.

The list continues tomorrow…

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Creative Christmas Sermon Options

Christmas Dog2Christmas services are just a few weeks away.  You might be getting excited, or dreading another Christmas and the need to generate more messages when the obvious options feel well worn.  Here are some other angles to consider:

Prophecies - there are some key Old Testament prophecies, such as Isaiah 7:14, Isaiah 9:6, Micah 5:2, even Jeremiah 31:15.  Why not take an Old Testament approach to Christmas hopes this year?

People – maybe you have preached through Matthew’s opening chapters, but have you preached the four other ladies in Matthew’s genealogy . . . Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the one “who had been Uriah’s wife.”  Four ladies with question marks over their morality, rightly or wrongly, that set up the lady who has to be in the genealogy (also with a question mark hanging over her morality, wrongly in her case).  Or perhaps you might trace the Gentiles in the genealogy to show the greater scope of the Christmas hope?

Themes – why not track a theme this year that could be developed with one week in the Old Testament, one week in the Christmas narratives and one week later on in the gospels or epistles.  For example, consider the Immanuel theme from Isaiah 7:14-9:7, emphasized in Matthew 1, continued for our age in Matthew 28:20.

Less Obvious Passages – perhaps you might consider the less obvious Christmas passages, ie. those that aren’t in early Matthew or Luke.  You have the prologue to John’s Gospel, giving the other side of the story, if you like.  Or you have references like Galatians 4:4 and similarly Incarnation focused passages like Titus 2:11-14.

Christmas Titles – it would be interesting to explore the titles used in the Christmas narratives – Jesus, Saviour, Immanuel, King, etc.

Carol Theology – while some are keen to cut down the errors in the carols, there are some great truths encapsulated in the carols too.  Perhaps you could take Hark the Herald Angels Sing or another carol and trace the biblical background to a verse each week.  Different, but for some congregations this might be a blessing.  Remember that you are preaching the Bible, not the carol.

Contemporary Emphases - you could take key emphases in the world’s view of Christmas and present a positive biblical engagement with each one.  Gifts, peace, goodwill, family, etc.

November is here, Christmas is coming.  Let’s not have our pulpits filled with preachers trying to hide a creative fatigue over such a great subject.  Let’s take a new angle, dive into the Bible and preach with hearts spilling over!

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Identifying with Bible Characters

film3The Bible is full of stories.  Stories are very effective ways to communicate.  When a story begins, people tend to do two things – first, they identify with (or disassociate from) characters, and second, they feel the tension in the story, anticipating the resolution.  So when we preach Bible stories, let’s be sure to help listeners connect with what is going on.

1. Don’t give a history lecture, preach the story to today.  It is easier, perhaps, to dispassionately tell what happened back then.  But it is not easier to listen to that.  It is, typically, dull.  However you may choose to do it, please make it clear to your listeners how the ancient story impacts contemporary life.  That doesn’t mean you have to constantly make up-to-date references (sometimes telling a story takes time and making lots of links to today can become distracting), but do frame the sermon with relevance so people know there is value in engaging the story fully.

2. Don’t caricature the characters, encourage identification with their fallen and frail human-ness.  It is easy to pick on one solitary feature of a character in a story, but fail to give a fair representation of them.  Peter puts his foot in his mouth, but he also has the guts to get out of the boat.  Zechariah doubted the angel, but was also a faithful pray-er over many decades.  Don’t simply beat up listeners with a quick connection to the failure of a character.  Stories work slowly as the listener engages with a character all the way to the point of resolution in the story.  Simply pointing out a flaw and applying it carries all the sermonic tension of a limp rope.  Try to reflect the fullness of the character portrayal offered in the biblical narrative and its context.

3. Don’t identify without theocentrizing.  It is also possible to present the characters effectively so that listeners can identify with them, but miss the point that God is at the center of biblical narrative.  It’s not just Joseph’s kindness and personal character quality that is significant in Matthew 1, it is also very much focused on God’s revelation of His plan to both save His people from their sins and His presence with His people.  Joseph is a great example of a “fine, young man.”  But the passage presents this fine, young man responding to the revelation of God’s purposes.  Jesus, Immanuel.  That is the information that Joseph acted upon.  The amazing thing about Christmas narratives is that the theocentric truth is bundled up in a tiny human infant.  (And we get to preach the amazing truth of the Incarnation soon!)

Christmas preached as just peace and happiness and quaint idyllic scenes is a travesty – Christmas is also a set up for theocentric preaching (but don’t lose the humanness of the other characters too).

 

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The JtB Principle

ForkSignYears ago I experienced a weekend of preaching that marked my own ministry for life.  Our church had managed to book a very well known speaker for its annual retreat.  That weekend, his preaching was a disaster.  As my wife and I drove home we reflected on the weekend of ministry and I knew this was a key moment in my life and ministry.  Reflecting on how he had ended up preaching like that stirred me to choose a different path.

I am convinced we all need to settle this core issue now, whatever stage of life and ministry we are at:

The John the Baptist Principle: Jesus must become greater, I must become less.

There is a fork in the road before us all.  One pathway is signposted “Jesus” and the other one is signposted “me.”  For all his good ministry over the years, this particular preacher seemed to have been okay with promoting himself through his preaching.  It felt so uncomfortable for us who were listening.  I decided that I wanted to choose the other option.  What does that involve?

Instead of seeking to impress listeners, let us seek to communicate - Our flesh and ego will be tempted to bust out our lofty learned vocabulary and heavy-duty theological terminology.  But if we are on the “Preach Jesus” pathway, then we will seek to be as clear and simple as possible.  We will be more satisfied to hear that a twelve year old listened attentively, than we will be to be told our preaching was “deep” (i.e. over the head of the person seeking to give polite feedback).

Instead of seeking to impress listeners, let us seek to equip – Again, our fleshly tendency toward pride will naturally want to make folks want to hear us again.  It is nice to think that people are dependent on you for their weekly dose of truth.  But if we are on the “Preach Jesus” pathway, then that will include a desire to equip them to read the Bible for themselves, meet Jesus for themselves, feed themselves, etc.  If every sermon is primarily about presenting God through an accurate, clear, engaging and relevant presentation of that text, may every sermon have a secondary goal of motivating listeners to want to engage with God in His Word during the rest of the week.

Instead of seeking to impress listeners, let us seek to introduce – Our fleshly inclination to present ourselves as the centre of the universe will nudge us toward assuming personal introductions are over as our sermon introduction begins.  That is, “I am here now, and I am preaching.”  This will typically be followed by an attempt to impress people with my knowledge, or my wisdom, or my suggestion for their betterment, etc.  But if we are on the “Preach Jesus” pathway, then we will feel compelled to introduce the person of our God, typically by pointing to His Son, throughout the message.  The personal introduction is the core of the message and the person being introduced isn’t ultimately us, but Him.  And when lives aren’t transformed as we prayed they would be, then our prayer will tend to be, “Lord, please help me do a better job of introducing you . . . because I know that if they could just catch a glimpse of you, change would follow.  PS Please let me know you more before next Sunday too!”

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Preaching Big Books

BigBook2Perhaps you shy away from preaching series from the bigger books in the Bible?  Maybe it would help to think differently about big book series.  There is more than one way to preach a series from a big book (like a major prophet or Acts):

The one way – the traditional approach would be to start at the beginning and work meticulously through each passage.  It might take a couple of years to get through, but it might be worth it.  God can certainly use a book like Isaiah or Chronicles to shape your church.  At the same time, people may grow slightly disenchanted after a while.  So perhaps you’ve avoided these longer books?

Other approaches:

1. Whole Book, Varied Text Length – Just as the label suggests, you can still preach the whole book, but don’t always preach the same length textual units.  To cover a few verses one week and a few chapters another week can add energy and momentum to a series.

2. Whole Book, Highlight Texts - Again, my labels are giving the game away here, but you can also preach the whole book by offering sample highlights from each section.  Carefully done this can motivate people to read the whole for themselves, which is never a bad by-product of your preaching.

3. Section of Book – God did give us 66 whole books, but I think it is allowed to take a key section and preach it methodically.  Some sections of books are bigger in size and richer in content than other entire books, so why not?  Just remember to keep the section in its larger context as you study and preach.

4. Whole Book in One, Plus Whatever – To start or finish the series, why not preach the book as a whole in some way?  By doing this you give the benefit of the big picture, and also have the freedom to not cover every detail in the rest of the series.

5. Section Overview, then Highlights – Another approach is to give a big picture of a section, followed by a highlight passage in that section.  Then the next two weeks do the next section.  For instance, you could preach an overview of Isaiah 1-12, followed by a week in Isaiah 6 alone.  Then overview Isaiah 13-27, followed by Isaiah 25 alone.  Etc.

There are other approaches too.  Feel free to share any ideas I’ve missed here…

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Sermon Strategy

Strategy2Part of the preaching preparation process is the sermon strategy phase.  After studying the passage, determining its main idea, prayerfully deciding on your goal for the sermon, and the wording of the sermon’s main idea, then it is time to plot your strategy.  Here are the big questions to be asking:

1. When do I reveal the main idea?  Do I reveal it early and repeat it often?  Do I build up to it and reveal it later?  How does the text set up the communication of the main idea?  How does my audience influence when the main idea should be given?

2. When can I demonstrate the relevance of this message?  How early can I form a connection between preacher/message/Bible and listeners?  As well as the conclusion, can I show relevance in the introduction?  How about in the wording of the main points or movements?  What about in the transitions?  Can I drop hints into the explanation of the text itself?

3. How can I do what the text does, as well as saying what the text says?  Since this passage is unique, how will it influence this sermon so that it too is genuinely unique?  Since God inspired the author and God is a great communicator, how does genre choice influence the way this sermon is preached?  Where can I replicate the force of the text – perhaps the tension of a narrative, or the imagery of a poem, or the forcefulness of a discourse, or the provocation of a parable?

4. How can I reinforce the flow of the sermon with delivery details?  Can I reflect the energy or warmth of content in the manner of delivery?  Perhaps I should sit on a stool for some, or be able to put my Bible down for a part, or have the freedom to step away from the furniture, or would a prop help, or . . . ?  Am I spotting danger areas where I may feel rushed, or may become monotonous, or may lose momentum?

5. What is God’s heart in all of this?  Have I allowed my own strategic planning to become a private thought process instead of a prayerful dependence on God?  Can I talk all this through prayerfully instead of privately so that I lean on God?  Can I talk all this through with a team from my church so that I can benefit from their perspective before I preach it and enable them to pray more intelligently too?

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What Does Transformational Preaching Transform?

Ripped2Almost everyone agrees that preaching should be transformational.  But we need to define what it is that we are seeking to see transformed?

1. Conduct – This is the most obvious area of transformation.  We all love to see a life transformed from worldly conduct to “christian” conduct.  But we also need to be wary.  Consider Frank.  Frank was a drinking champion.  He could drink more than anyone else and still be standing – that is how he got respect in the pub.  Then Frank saw a beautiful young lady going into the church next door.  He started attending.  He quickly realised he got no respect for his drinking abilities, but would get respect for church attendance.  Everyone in the church celebrated the transformation of Frank – “look at what the gospel can do!”  Really?  Self-concerned glory hunting gave way to self-concerned glory hunting in a new context (worldly Frank in the pub became worldly Frank in the church).  Not exactly gospel transformation.  That’s the problem with conduct.  It can be faked.  It can also be manipulated from the outside.  Peer pressure and cultural conformity can bring about impressive results.  But God’s involvement is not required.  A Christ-gripped life will manifest transformed conduct, but it also goes much deeper.

2. Character – Again, let’s both affirm this and be wary of it.  Character tends to be measured as the sum of the parts of conduct.  Consistency in multiple areas of conduct looks like character.  But if one area of conduct can be faked (for Sunday morning), then multiple areas can also be faked for each time someone is watching.  The Gospel will change a character both profoundly and gradually, but if we aim to change character in people, we are still liable to apply pressure and treat them as self-moved autonomous beings (wasn’t that part of the lie in Genesis 3?)

3. Belief – Unless people are transformed in what they believe, any change in character and conduct will remain superficial.  Belief is more than knowledge.  I can inform people with knowledge, but how do I influence what they actually believe and trust in from the heart?  That seems to go beyond what I can achieve.

All of these things are good and all will be transformed by biblical preaching in one way or another.  Ultimately though, if we are talking transformation, we have to go to the next level:

4. Affections – Call it heart, call it values, call it appetites, whatever.  The gospel transforms a life from the inside-out, from the heart outwards.  It takes the Spirit to plant an appetite (a relish) for Christ in the affections of someone.  This is where I feel relieved of the pressure to bring about transformation, but also the incredible privilege of my position as preacher.  I don’t twist arms to conform to behavioural standards for the sake of church conformity.  I do present Christ and the Gospel in all its wonder and majesty and sweetness, and I do so absolutely dependent on God to bring about transformation.

Biblical preaching transforms lives, but it occurs from the inside-out.  Anything more superficial will tempt me into acting like a mini-god pressuring mini-gods into self-moved determination and that just smacks of a fallen world perspective on the whole thing.  God’s Word invites us to trust Him, we should do the same.

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Webinar on Poetic Literature

webinar_bannerThis Thursday I am leading a webinar on “An Introduction to Poetic Literature” at 18:00 GMT.  It is free and if you would like to join, you just need to register on this page.

The Union Podcast Interview continues today as I am asked “How is Christ becoming man vital for our salvation?”  (I believe there will be five episodes this week.  I won’t post every day, but will list the links after the series completes.)

 

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Bruce Fong – Inspirational Incarnational Influences on Expository Preaching

a9a01de9-2aa2-44ea-a921-0f1077786e8b-220My first ever seminary class was with Dr Bruce Fong sixteen years ago.  It was such a joy to walk through half the Bible under Bruce’s contagious laugh and delight in the Scriptures.  We have both changed jobs a couple of times since then, but he is now the Dean of Dallas Theological Seminary’s Houston Campus.  Bruce blogs regularly on brucefong.com.  As we continue this series marking the release of Pleased to Dwell, Bruce shares with us some thoughts on the difference the Incarnation makes to expository preaching.

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Every preacher is challenged to build a bridge between the sermon and the souls of people.  These two worlds of earth and eternity were stunningly linked by the life of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself when He was incarnated at His birth.  The Scriptures tell us that He gave up the expression of who He was as the Son of God in order to identify with mankind and ultimately sacrifice His life on their behalf.  This incarnation of the Christ to be Jesus of Nazareth is a model for every preacher to do the same.

When an expositor successfully follows the example of Jesus’ incarnation they ultimately blend culture with the Gospel by way of four emphases.  He modeled each of these qualities in His coming to earth. They are humility, a new mind, a renunciation and a new identification.

First and foremost of these incarnational elements is Christ’s example of being sent to be born as a human.  He did not argue, complain or resist the Father’s plan.  Instead, He humbled Himself and became human so that He could die as a substitute for sin in our place.  The expositor lives a humble life in compensation, Spartan lifestyle and public affirmation.

Second, somewhat related to His humility Jesus Christ demonstrated a new way of thinking.  His incarnation led to an existence that was never self-absorbed.  He did not worry about losing public status but instead was absorbed with an unending interest in His assigned mission, bringing the Gospel to the whole world.  In the same way expositors by virtue of their mission selflessly bring attention to their Lord.

Third, before Christ came to earth as a Galilean Jew He first “emptied himself”.  This was a sacrifice.  He renounced His status, his independence and his immunity.  Voluntarily He set aside what was rightfully His.  Pride and the pursuit of fame has no place in the life of an expository preacher who is following the incarnational model of the Savior.

Fourth, Jesus had a genuine solidarity with man by becoming a true human, sharing in the limitations of flesh and blood, through both life and death.  He lived among the people, embraced them and served them.  Expository preachers will be more effective when they live among and embrace the people to whom they bring the Word.

The incarnation that Jesus followed and modeled is our example of His devotion for us.  Furthermore, it is the example that should be the driving motivation for every expository preacher.

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88 Questions Because Delivery Makes a Difference – III

Questions2Let’s conclude the list of questions to ponder about effective delivery:

14. Are your word choices appropriate for subject and audience?  Is there an appropriate combination of dignity and authenticity?  Do you sound like an academic?  Do you sound like a stereotypical preacher (whichever stereotype comes to mind)?  Are your words understandable, condescending, flippant, crass, attention-seeking, natural, coherent?

15. Do you actually make sense when you speak?  Are your sentences fully there?  Do you rely too much on people to get what you mean, or can you consistently say what you mean?  Do you lose volume or change pace at the end of your sentences?  Do you garble words, or skip them entirely?  Do you rely on awkward filler terms like, well, you know, so, umm, like those?

16. Is what you wear appropriate for your listeners or distracting?  Do you fit with the culture of your church?  What message does your attire give off?  Are listeners thinking about your excessive formality, your unkempt appearance, your distracting clothing choices?

17. Do you have any idiosyncratic quirks that should be eliminated?  It could be in your voice, vocabulary, expression, gesture or movement, but if people have heard you a couple of times, could they name something distracting about your delivery?

18. Is the combination of everything we’ve seen already coming across as genuine?  Do listeners meet the same you when they talk to you afterwards?  Does your spouse or child recognize the person preaching in the pulpit?

19. How goes your prayer about delivery?  Do you pray out of love for self and your reputation?  Do you pray with a heartfelt concern for your listeners?  Do you pray for your fame, or God’s?  Do you pray about delivery at all?

20. What is your strategy for developing as a public speaker?  Do you seek feedback from helpful people?  Do you give them permission to be honest about delivery issues with you?  How often do you listen to yourself preach?  When do you plan to get videotaped and see yourself?  Do you have one or two things that you are consciously working on and praying about at the moment?

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