I wonder if we may be selling our churches short. That is, by buying into the idea that Christian unity is built around assent to a statement of fundamental truths and then pouring energy into not falling out over non-essentials. Perhaps there is something more, someone better, that we are missing out on through this kind of thinking. Click here to go to my post on the Cor Deo site.
Category Archives: Preacher’s Personal Life
How can we improve at offering explanation that will help people at the lower range of understanding? Perhaps your preaching goes over peoples’ heads, but you want to explain the Bible in a way that is accessible to younger Christians or less biblically literate folk? Some suggestions:
1. Pray about it – Nobody cares about your listeners as much as God, so ask for His coaching.
2. Get feedback – Try to find out from people what is lacking. It could be that your vocabulary is obfuscatory, or your content is too dense, or your delivery is unengaging, or your words are indistinct and hard to catch, etc.
3. Watch and evaluate some great explainers – Watch a preacher who is especially effective at explaining and describing the biblical content and action. What are they doing well?
4. Vary the elevation of your helicopter – If everything is explained from 100ft, then your messages will be deadening. You need to be able to lift up to 5000ft for a brief overview of the Bible, and you need to be able to land the chopper when you are settling for a while in a verse. Too much content where you need to be flying higher will lose listeners in overwhelming detail.
5. Surrender prideful vocabulary – To put it simply: your mission is not to impress, but to communicate. Relegate your original language vocabulary, your technical grammatical vocabulary, your systematic theological terminology and any other impressive jargon to your study. Know it, understand it, and sometimes, if necessary, explain it, but generally speaking it is best to leave it behind when you go to preach.
6. Achieve more by preaching less and driving it in more – Speaking of leaving things in the study, try leaving more of your message there. Often we confuse people by trying to achieve too much education in a single sermon. Andy Stanley says that many sermons would make great series. Try to cover less and you will have time for clearer explanation.
7. Improve your outlining – A lot of messages are complex because the preacher hasn’t thought themselves through to a point of clarity. I typically point to the main idea at this point, since a clear main idea will create clarity throughout the message. So true. But also give some time to evaluating the outline. Is it as simple and clear as can be? Is each part of the message doing something specific? If at a certain point in your message you don’t even know that you are trying to explain, nor will your listeners!
What else would you add?
In case you didn’t see it yet, here is the link to last week’s Cor Deo post on the ways preachers use and present the Bible.
This week we have looked at two dangerous assumptions that can override good preaching preparation. One is overtly too human-centred, leading either to striving or enabled independence. The other is apparently God-centred, yet perhaps open to the charge of misrepresenting the God-centred reality presented in Scripture. One variation of this latter assumption makes God profoundly selfish, the other makes Him non-relational in His controlling. Let’s finish the week with a few miscellaneous other assumptions that could be causing us to misrepresent the Bible text we are preaching. Again, our goal is not to be negative, but to stir us to pray for God’s perspective on our handling of the Bible – let’s let God be the coach in all of this.
Dangerous Assumption C: It’s all about something else.
7. The power filter. This may just be a variation on some of what we’ve considered already. It is the notion that Christianity is about spiritual access to power on another plane. Somehow we have to tap into this secret energy source that will give us super-human stamina or impressive miracle power to wow the world. The Bible can then become a set of data to twist and use as leverage in accessing this heavenly fuel. Again, the marital and relational nature of true Christianity gets lost here. The Spirit who pours out God’s love into our hearts becomes the conduit for wow-fuel that leaves Jesus distant and enables our thoroughly dependent independence.
8. The nice filter. This is where the preacher filters out anything tough or challenging or difficult and makes everything soft and nice. In one form everything becomes syrupy and fluffy, without any hint of wrath or anger, etc. In another form, the wrath and anger of God become another “side” to Him that is somehow held in tension with his love. We therefore lean on the loving “side” of God and are spared the nasty side. Alternatively we celebrate nice Jesus who has delivered us from angry Father. Whatever version grips us, we have a problem. Unless we see God’s holiness and justice and wrath and jealous nature as part of His triune love, then we will have a God with a split personality or a divided trinity. Nice is not the issue, but His love might be more significant than we realise.
9. The hobby horse filter. This is where every passage is seen through lenses looking for a hobby horse issue. Consequently the pet topic becomes elevated disproportionately whenever a text offers a link. It could be a theological issue, a pet illustration category, or whatever. In fact, here’s another variation:
10. The agenda filter. This is where our personal or political or cultural agenda is imposed on any passage. We could all pick an issue in national or church politics and create a “study Bible” with notes linking almost any passage to the subject of our own choosing. Thankfully publishers don’t publish most of these potential study Bibles!
Let’s spend time with God asking Him to show us where our lenses are changing the hue of His self-revelation to us in the Bible. Our desire to be biblical preachers is to please the God who has spoken, who speaks, who has revealed and will be revealed by our preaching. He is more than able to point out where we may be misrepresenting Him, so let’s be sure to ask!
After pondering variations on the assumption that it is all about me (either in the direction of striving or divinely enabled successful independence), yesterday we probed the issue of an “all about God” assumption – namely, the glory filter. Here’s another “all about God” filter that may be corrupting our reading and preaching of the Bible:
6. The takeover filter. There is no question that God wants to be God in the life of the listeners. The Bible says a categorical No! to our autonomy from God. But we must be careful not to misrepresent the salvation plan. The predominant biblical motif is that of marriage, not dictatorial control. I have been crucified with Christ and no longer live, but there is also the life I now live. Huh? Captivated by our groom and united with him by the Spirit, we are invited into a marital relationship, not a bizarre state of hypnosis and unthinking passivity. The Bible does not invite us to enter into a non-communicative and non-reciprocal relationship with a takeover Spirit. We are not invited to go beyond the Bible into a higher level of spirituality that is impossible to describe, yet worthy of our greatest efforts to pursue personal surrender to it.
The Bible invites us to know God and to be in fellowship with Him by His Spirit in response to His love. It is a relationship of hearing His heart in His Word and responding to Him in prayer and walking with Him and keeping in step with His Spirit and being both dead to self and yet more alive than ever (since life is, by definition, knowing God). There are various unbiblical and sub-biblical versions and perversions of Christian spirituality. Some do sound very Christian, but even when the focus is apparently all on God, it is still possible to corrupt the Bible and misrepresent what He is saying.
Dangerous assumptions lurk below the surface of our preaching preparation, always ready to undermine our most diligent exegesis and expositional planning. We can diligently do everything well in our study and message preparation, but the tinted glasses of our own dangerous assumption will colour the end result and undermine the preaching process. Our goal in pondering these assumptions is not to throw stones at others, but to prompt us to pray and ask God to help us see where we aren’t seeing clearly. It can be painful to discover an errant agenda in our preaching, but if our goal is to please Him, then surely we must ask Him to show us if there be any dangerous assumption in us.
So far we’ve looked at some variations of the assumption that it is “all about me” – both in the direction of pressure to perform for God and in the direction of getting God to perform for us. But there’s another assumption we need to be wary of too:
Dangerous Assumption B: It is all about God.
5. The glory filter. There is no question that everything should be done for the glory of God. But some have morphed this doctrine into a form that seems to have lost the relational and motivational moorings of Scripture. Rather than seeing the delightful glory-giving nature of the Triune God who is revealed by Scripture, glory becomes this dutiful commodity that a self-absorbed God demands from us constantly. There is a real danger that glory can become the measure of behaviour demanded of listeners, without their hearts being stirred by the glory of God’s glory. Haman glorified a man he despised from the heart. But God the Father has always glorified the Son because he loves him (John 17:24).
Should we be stirred to glorify God by the preaching of His Word? Absolutely. Who would ever come up with a God who is all-glorious, yet also lovingly gives glory to the undeserving? The danger is when we twist the God behind the text into a glory-grabbing tyrant and preach every passage accordingly. It will sound very biblical, but it may end up being a slightly sanctified variation on the duty filter that turns everything into a human-centred preaching model.
Tomorrow we’ll think on another variation of an “all about God” filter that may not be consistent with the Scriptures.
The assumption that Christianity is all about me has many variations. Whatever version we propound, there will be problems as we try to preach the Bible faithfully. Yesterday we considered the duty and guilt filters – two ways that preachers can reframe any passage to preach pressure on those present. In these approaches, the Bible comes across as a whip to stir the lazy or the guilty into striving action. But there is another pair of angles to consider here:
3. The selfish filter. Here is a perversion of the same problem. Instead of turning the listener inwards with guilt or pressure to perform, this feeds the self-absorption in the other direction. Not “you are nothing” but instead, “you are god!” Somehow the self-absorption of the preacher has been corrupted so that the Bible is twisted to support selfishness. The text is read as a means to an end, and the end is a sanctified sinfulness. Suddenly God is the great slave of all who get their ducks lined up so that He will do their bidding. Suddenly the manifold grace of God to the undeserving becomes the heavenly affirmation of our incurvedness as we take advantage of plucked promises and twisted truths. The preacher here is the life coach and guru for sanctified sinfulness (in all its variations).
4. The success filter. Perhaps this is a low-level version of number 3. It doesn’t claim that God is our great slave who delivers freely for our selfishness, but it does still see life as essentially independent. The preacher becomes the life coach for personal success in all areas of life: marriage, parenting, work, leisure, health, etc. The Bible is seen as the instruction manual for successful Christian living, and the listeners are invited to have their self-focus affirmed in the continual pursuit of relevant applications.
The issue in all of these angles is not just the broken view of sin (i.e. not seeing the self-oriented nature of the fallen human heart), but also a poor view of God and salvation. The Bible does not suggest salvation is the divine provision for independent living. As preachers of the Bible, if our view of God does not grip our hearts and reorient everything, then we will misrepresent the Bible in our preaching and corrupt application into some form of self-serving exercise. God’s goal has never been our independent functioning, but rather the privilege of participation in His fellowship. Preaching that makes it all essentially about me will be problematic, whatever the flavour.
Good preachers will preach the passage they claim to be preaching. Even in a topical message with several passages being presented, the preacher should be sure to say what that text is actually saying. Using texts to say what the preacher wants to say is an indication of a pride problem in the preacher. However, even the diligent preacher of the passage before them can undermine their good work by dangerous assumptions that undergird their work.
These assumptions come various sources, but they tend to be theological paradigms that cause the preacher to see any text in a certain way. They are like tinted glasses that change the hue of everything. This will lead to misrepresenting the Bible and potentially to some significant false teaching in the church. Over the next days I’d like to try to highlight some of these tints in the hope that some might be prompted to pray and ask the Lord to expose their own false or dangerous assumptions. It would be good for us all to do that.
Dangerous Assumption A: It is all about me.
There are many potential angles here.
1. The duty filter. This could be driven by a faulty view of God, an errant understanding of the gospel, a separation of gospel from Christian living, baggage from childhood abandonment, theological pride, personal guilt and a whole lot more. Whatever the root, the result is that every passage is seen through lenses that underline and embolden imperatival content, or even introduce this tone where it is not present. So the preacher takes any story or psalm or passage and turns it into a set of duties for the listener to strive toward.
2. The guilt filter. This is associated with number 1, but it seeks to transfer feelings of guilt onto the listeners. This is perhaps less optimistic. Whereas in the previous angle the listeners are pressured as if they can simply choose to obey and be diligent, this lens turns the text a shade of sour. Now the goal is not so much to instruct and pressure, but to make the listeners feel guilty and therefore pressured. The motivational effectiveness of guilt is questionable in the extreme, but this approach to preaching can have the feel of desparation about it. Like all of the filters in this sub-set, it tends to skim over the problematic issue of turning listeners in on themselves, which is at the very heart of the sin issue we are claiming to address as we preach the Bible.
There’s another side to this, which we’ll ponder tomorrow.
3. Life is not boring. Even in a safe neighbourhood where nothing seems to happen and people may complain of being bored, life is not boring. With all its complexities, doubts, troubles, questions, issues, fears, hopes, changes, challenges and memories, life is not boring. As we preach we preach from the inspired text to people desperately in need of what God has to say through the Word to them. Preaching with relevance should not be so hard, as long as we are in touch with life and its challenges.
4. Church is not boring. Many churches are, in fact, boring, but church itself is not. God’s glorious plan to call out and redeem a bride for His Son, working with materials that are still very much “works in progress” to build a beautiful temple, that is anything but dull. Now when we turn church into our own little kingdoms and lose any real awareness of what God is doing, then church can become a dull place of petty politics and personal preferences, but church from God’s perspective is never a dull matter.
So why is there dull and boring preaching? It must be something to do with the preacher! Hate to say it, but perhaps this can be a nudge to ask God to search our hearts and show us if there is any of the sin of boring people with the Bible in us? Actually, why not pray and then ask a few folks? It could be delivery, it could be personal manner, it could be that all the enthusiasm we generate for conversation about sport and family evaporates when we stand to preach. It could be a lack of personal vibrancy in our walk with the Lord. It could be a lack of sleep (perhaps due to number 4 above!) It could be something easy to change. Or it could be that we genuinely are finding God and the Bible and life and the church to be boring. If so, let this post be your call to a sabbatical or urgent action. Boring people through preaching is too dangerous to let it happen even once more.
Too much preaching is boring preaching. Sometimes it is due to the content, sometimes the delivery, sometimes the attitude, sometimes the preacher’s own personality. Whatever the reason, it should not happen.
1. God is not boring. Actually, God as a concept presented in a lot of theology has become personality-free. For many, He has essentially become an It, definable by a set of truth statements, but essentially unknown in his personhood. God has a personality. Our role as preachers is to pursue Him and chase Him and long to know Him more, so that we can represent Him effectively.
2. The Bible is not boring. How many classes and sermons and story times and lectures and presentations have turned the vivid and gripping self-revelation of God in His Word into a dull set of archaic moralistic tales? Sort of a set of ancient fables without as much of the talking animals as we might prefer. But the epic sweep of Scriptural history, the diversity of genres, the human personalities and the divine personality, the issues to wrestle with, the irony to catch, the pain to feel, the exhilaration to experience, and so much more . . . there is no collection of books like this one!
Tomorrow we’ll add a couple more factors and try to get to the root of the issue: Why is some preaching dull?