Category Archives: How to . . . ?

97 Luther Thoughts for Preachers – Part 8

97LutherContinuing my preacher’s journey through Luther’s lesser known 97 theses:

68. Therefore it is impossible to fulfill the law in any way without the grace of God.

The gravitational pull of a post Genesis 3 world will always pull us toward a morality that is bereft of the presence of God. This is the tendency we have: to try to be like God, apart from God. Let’s never settle for obedient compliance over genuine relationship with God by His Spirit.

69. As a matter of fact, it is more accurate to say that the law is destroyed by nature without the grace of God.
70. A good law will of necessity be bad for the natural will.
71. Law and will are two implacable foes without the grace of God.

I want to leave these theses rather than summarizing them. As a human being I am naturally in total opposition to God being God. Telling me to behave by his rules will only incite rebellion, or . . .

72. What the law wants, the will never wants, unless it pretends to want it out of fear or love.

Unless the person is fearfully self-protective, or loving self in some way. Thus the written code will gain a variety of responses, from younger brother rebellion to older brother self-righteousness, but nothing on this continuum is actually a good result. Seems hopeless?

73. The law, as taskmaster of the will, will not be overcome except by the “child, who has been born to us” [Isa. 9:6].

Our only hope is Christ himself. Apart from him we are deeply in trouble with a terrible foe. So as a preacher? I must, must, must preach Christ – the only hope. But if I reduce Christ and start to preach law in some way, the result will not be greater godliness.

74. The law makes sin abound because it irritates and repels the will [Rom. 7:13].
75. The grace of God, however, makes justice abound through Jesus Christ because it causes one to be pleased with the law.

Only the grace of God can create a new taste, a new inner relish…hang on, I am drifting into Jonathan Edwards now. God can do what the law never could, stirring the heart with a new appetite for good.

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Preaching and the Tone of the Message

ToneHead2So assuming we agree that the tone matters, how are we to arrive at the tone of a message?  Three steps are needed here:

1. Consider the tone of the text.

As we develop sensitivity to the text and the setting of the text, we should be increasingly effective at grasping the tone of the author.  We need to go for a humble confidence rather than a brash confidence in this.  We are looking at lots of factors and weighing them up.

2. Consider the listeners to the message.

Who are you preaching to, and what is the occasion of the sermon?  Sometimes the occasion will influence the tone significantly (i.e. a funeral), sometimes it will be less significant.  It is not enough, though, to figure out the tone of the text and replicate that.  That text needs to be preached with sensitivity to these listeners.

3. Consider yourself as a preacher.

What is your natural or default tone?  Do you have a theological bias?  For instance, do you see everything as duty and expectation?  Do you see everything as gentle and joyful?  Do you turn any passage into a guilt trip?  The better you know yourself, the better you will be at selecting tone on purpose rather than defaulting into a tone that is less than helpful.

When you have evaluated all these factors, then there is still a bit more to consider.  Next time I’ll blog about the dangers and the needs as we think about preaching tone.

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Your Default Preaching Tone

ToneHead2When you preach, you probably have a default tone.  Most of us do.  If we are going to preach the Bible effectively, we need to get to know the tone of the text and the tone that we will default to using.  Only then can we think through effective communication in respect to the tone of the sermon.

So what is your default tone?  Here are a few possibilities to get us started.  You should certainly listen to yourself on a recording, and you would be wise to ask some listeners how they would describe it!

A. Dull Deliverer - This preacher is generally flat in tone.  Not much variation, not much energy, not much life.  This is a hard one to spot in the mirror as we tend to find ourselves more compelling than others do.

B. Energizer Engager - This is the opposite: pure energy and continual variation in tone (albeit mostly enthusiasm).  Massive energy, excessive movement, a tiring experience for most listeners, unless they are so relieved by the contrast it provides to a diet of dull deliverers, then they will be complimentary for a while.

C. Critical Cleric - This preacher is generally judgmental in tone.  Whatever the text, whatever the situation, whatever the opportunity for leadership and encouragement, the message will probably come across as a finger wagging critique of the listeners or the culture.  As with every default, this will get some affirmation. You can critique culture mercilessly in a way that would unhelpfully offend any visitor, but some in the congregation will celebrate you “saying it like it is” or something similar.  Don’t evaluate tone on feedback, but do get feedback to evaluate the tone!

D. Gym General - This preacher is similar to the Critical Cleric, but the emphasis is on pressurizing the listeners.  Instead of just critiquing, there is a continual arm twisting going on.  No amount of application is ever enough, so do more, more, more.  Again, some people are attracted by fleshly ascetic religiosity, so this approach will be affirmed.  That doesn’t make it healthy though.

E. Cheery Chatterer - This preacher looks like he thinks he is in a wedding photo shoot.  Upbeat, smiling incessantly, nice and happy, perhaps even plastic in tone.  It is good to smile and be warm.  It is good to connect with your listeners.  It is good to remember that the God we represent should be evident in our manner and demeanor.  Consequently, let’s be careful not to come across as simply cheery all the time.  God is good, but He is not an unauthentic salesperson.

F. Rushed Reteller - This preacher has more to say than time to say it.  Consequently everything has to go at a clip in order to fit.  Information transfer gives way to information statement and all aspects of effective delivery give way to the one over-riding goal of saying the message.

What would you add to this list of default preaching tones?  There are many more out there.


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Preaching The Tone

ToneHead2I’d like to point our thoughts to the issue of tone in preaching.  Not just our tone, but also the tone of the text.  Let’s start there.

Good Bible Study – Good Bible study methodology has to include awareness of context, both written and historical, as well as content, both details and flow of thought.  In fact, that is a fairly good summary of good inductive Bible study.  Looking at both context and content, we try to make sense of a passage.  If we lose any of those four elements, we won’t understand it properly.

Without historical context/setting, we will import our own culture into the meaning of the text.  Without written context we will pluck passages from the larger flow of thought in their particular book.  Without attention to flow of thought we will be explaining apparently random details and probably using them to springboard to our own systematic theology categories.  Without attention to details we will make errors in grasping the meaning.

Better Bible Study – As good as context and content are, without looking at the author’s intent we will not really grasp the meaning of a passage.  Again, there are at least two broad indicators of intent:

1. Stated intent – if the writer tells us why he is writing and what he is trying to achieve, that is great.

2. Tone of text – this is more subjective, but there will be plenty of clues in the text.  Unless we ponder the tone of the text, I would argue that we are not in a position to claim understanding or to write down the main idea of the passage.

Tone Matters – In any communication tone matters.  Every spouse knows this.  Every child knows this.  Every friend knows this.  And in written communication, tone is not always easy to spot.  How many times have people misunderstood your emails or text (do you even know?)  I can’t imagine that the Bible writers were oblivious to tone in their writing, and they probably gave attention to the tone that they intended to communicate.

Before we can preach a passage effectively, we need to understand it.  Before we can understand it, we need to pay attention to the tone.

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Webinar: Preaching Tones

logoNext Thursday I will be leading a webinar on “Preaching the Tone of the Bible” with a special focus on epistles.  The details are to be found here.

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Final Focus

mirror2In a recent discussion, my colleague made a passing remark that is well worth pondering for us preachers.

When the message ends, where are people focused?

Traditional preaching tends to leave listeners focused on themselves.  After an introduction, compelling and gripping or otherwise, then comes the body of the message, followed by an applicational conclusion.  So where are people looking as they leave?  If we are not careful, they will walk out with gaze firmly fixed on self.

1. Is there a problem with fixing the gaze on self?  After all, isn’t our goal to have people working harder to be good christians?  I hope we have a more gospel-oriented goal than that!  The turn toward self was the fruit of the fruit tasting back in Genesis 3 (take a look at the passage and trace the “nakedness” theme starting in 2:25, for example).  The turn toward self is the constant tendency of our flesh in its autonomous rebellion.  The teaching of the Bible should not be throttled down to a set of to-do items that leave us self-oriented and self-concerned.  To get to that we have to evaporate the very life from the Bible!

2. So where could or should listeners be looking?  The Bible is God-centred, and Christ-targeted.  A healthy message will surely leave people more God aware and more Christ focused.

3. But what about getting better behaved believers?  If all we have ever witnessed is pressured people striving to live up to the pressure of applications, perhaps it is time for an experiment . . . try getting some folks’ to gaze on Christ and watch the transformation that will come.  The gospel really is not about work, at least, not our work.  It is about Christ and His work for us.  And I am convinced that while short cuts to conformity are tempting, the harvest will be meager.  Try working messages to the point that the end stress is on God and not on the listener to perform.  The results may be significant in behavioural terms, and so much more.


Filed under Audience Analysis, Christianity, Homiletics, How to . . . ?, Preaching, Religion, Stage 5 - Message Purpose, Stage 8 - Message Detail

Preaching Layered Story Sensitivity

WeavingJust a little post to finish off this mini-series.  So you have decided not to pluck a story and lift sometimes imaginary life lessons from it.  You have studied it in its context and started to note the layers of intricate story within story crafting that the author has done.  Maybe you’ve been nudged to recognize the meaning of the story with the help of commentaries too, of course.  But how do you preach it?  This can seem overwhelming.

1. Determine the main idea of the story.  In light of its context, what is the main thought of the story you are actually preaching?

2. Figure out how much context you need to set.  This is determined not only by the story itself, but also by your context.  Some groups of listeners are ready to handle the bigger picture more than others.

3. Decide which layering details help communicate that main idea.  There will be so much you could spot and point out, but some of it will not make sense to listeners, or will seem like exegetical trivia if you can’t give a full sweep and explanation.  But if you don’t give some “fingers on the text” observations, listeners may think you are making up your own take on the meaning of the story.

4. Be sure to tell the story.  So easy to think our task is to share exegetical insights and theological profundities and applicational nuggets.  Remember that God inspired the story to mark lives.  Let it do that.  Tell the story.

5. Make the application the theocentric application intended by the text.  It is about God and it is supposed to mark us in response to God.  Don’t drop God out for the sake of a top-tip for creative truth telling in foreign lands.

6. Don’t forget to invite people into the text.  Your preaching, with sensitivity to the flow of the book, should motivate listeners to want to read and dig for themselves.  Don’t be shy to suggest that.

So much more could be said, but let’s leave it there for now . . .


Filed under Christianity, Genre, Homiletics, How to . . . ?, Old Testament, Preaching, Religion, Specific text, Stage 5 - Message Purpose, Stage 6 - Message Idea, Stage 8 - Message Detail

Developing Layered Story Sensivity

WeavingYesterday I suggested that we shouldn’t be plucking stories and presenting little life lessons.  So what to do?  I pushed the idea of seeing little story accounts in the context of the bigger sweep of stories in that section, and then seeing that section in light of the bigger story of the book, and the book in light of the biggest story of the whole Bible.  Yes, but how?

1. Read the big sweep, then repeat.  It is very hard to grasp the big picture of the Bible without reading large chunks of it.  Simply digging deep into the meaning of a sentence will not give the big picture awareness that the Bible invites.  Even checking commentaries and reference tools will only offer a limited awareness of the sweeping sense of Scriptures.  While some commentaries are becoming more alert to the structuring and flow of a book, nothing can replace the benefits of knowing the big picture for yourself.

2. Look for the links between smaller narratives.  Develop a sensitivity for links and contrasts offered by the biblical writer.  Check the little theme of laughter ribboned through Genesis 17-21, and it isn’t simply Sarah and Isaac.  Look at the relative locations of Jacob to his family either side of the wrestling match.  The Bible is fairly sparse on detail compared to modern fiction writers, but what is there is there on purpose.

3. Ask why stories are neighbours.  Why does the story of Abraham with Gentile Abimelech come after the story of Lot being dragged out of Gentile Sodom, which is really a story about Abraham watching God’s justice and promise in action?  Without becoming dogmatic based on the limited links you might recognize, do probe the flow of the text and ask good questions.  Don’t only probe within a text.  Think about the contrasts and comparison points between Joseph in Genesis 37 & 39 and Judah in Genesis 38 . . . leaving the land, garments, goats, compromise, etc.

4. Don’t focus on little life lessons, look for how the text reinforces bigger realities.  Life isn’t ultimately about how we do business, or how we do wrestling, or how we do temptation, or how we do sojourning.  Life is primarily about how we relate to the one true God who makes promises and keeps them, who is involved in life yet sometimes apparently distant, etc.  Preach about God and living in response to His self-revelation.  Don’t just tip your hat to God and focus on how we can be more like a Bible character in our quest to live essentially independent lives of obedience to divinely inspired example (stretched to make preaching points).

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Layered Story Sensitivity

WeavingWe are trained as children to pluck out Bible stories and learn a lesson.  Let’s try to fix that as adults.

You know the routine.  You select a story, such as Abraham and Isaac on the mountains of Moriah.  You tell the story.  You offer a lesson…be willing to obey God whatever He asks.  Job done.  And the children go away thinking that that is how to handle the Bible.  Pluck the story, point to a life lesson.

Then as adults we can easily do the same thing.  You select a story, such as Jacob wrestling with the stranger at night.  You tell the story.  You offer a lesson…or maybe several (adults can cope with more): three top tips for handling complex threats.  (I’m making this up, although it is true that preaching this way doesn’t require much time.)  Be careful what situations you put yourself in.  The dark is dangerous.  Fight hard because God doesn’t let anything happen to you that you can’t cope with.  (Forget that last one, it is problematic on so many levels!)

God did not give us a compendium of life lessons dressed up as character stories.  The Bible writers were masterful in crafting the historical accounts into literary masterpieces.  The brevity of individual stories woven together into epics of grand proportions.  So what to do?

1. Study stories in the context of the bigger stories.  Abraham and Isaac heading to the mountains of Moriah is the climax of a twelve chapter, decades long faith journey for Abraham and God.  It wasn’t a random test coming out of nowhere.  It was a heartbreaking and confusing test in the context of a story that had stretched as long as many of us live on earth.  Promise, travel, gradual response, family separation, land assignment, further travel, false starts, wrong-headed plans, bizarre marital failures, repeated promises, eventual faith, later covenant sign, divine protection over the marriage and very late promise fulfillment.

2. Study bigger stories in the context of the bigger stories.  So don’t just make sense of Jacob’s wrestling in the context of Jacob’s bigger story, see it as part of the sweeping story from Abraham’s promise down through the generations.  Jacob was a deceiver, as was Laban, and the threat of Esau was massive . . . but was God a deceiver?  Could He be taken at His word?  Was Jacob’s big issue really his problematic relatives?  Or was it himself and his own view of God?

3. Study bigger stories in the context of the biggest story.  While this shouldn’t override the passage and completely change its meaning from what it could have originally meant, we have to be sensitive to the whole Bible epic of God’s dealings with humanity.

Tomorrow I’ll poke at this issue from another angle.


Filed under Christianity, Homiletics, How to . . . ?, Old Testament, Preaching, Religion, Specific text, Stage 2 - Passage Study, Stage 3 - Passage Purpose

Preaching Epistles Webinar

The traditional sermon was always built around a list of parallel points.  But what if the passage does not work that way?  How can we reflect the flow of thought in a passage in order to not only say what it says, but also seek to do what it does in our preaching?

This webinar is on Thursday the 30th of January at 6pm UK time.  Click here to register.


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