The Power of Telling the Story

ourstory2There is more narrative in the Bible than any other type of Scripture.  People are surrounded by the power of narrative every day.  And yet preachers are often tempted to skimp on telling the story.  Why?

Life is lived in multi-layered narratives.  People engage with narratives all week: every film, TV show, sports commentary, most commercials, interactions at the coffee machine at work, catching up with spouse and children at home, chatting with neighbours over the fence – it is one mini-narrative after another.  Then they come to church and we too often leave the stories for children and preach a more “sophisticated” message.  Oops.

God gave us so much narrative in the Bible because of its power in engaging us with the wonder of his self-revelation.

So when you preach a narrative, tell the story.  It will be more effective than offering lists of instructions and points from the same passage (not to say that you shouldn’t clarify the main point and seek to demonstrate the relevance by means of possible applications).

How does telling the story work?

1. Listeners will identify with characters – if a story is told even relatively well, listeners will either be drawn toward a character, or repelled by a character.  We humans are wired to connect or pull back.  Neutrality to people is not a natural reaction (although in a fallen world we will be more neutral than we were intended to be).

2. Listeners will feel the tension of the plot – once the story moves from mere setting to some disequilibrium, listeners will typically feel compelled to listen for resolution.  We can’t help it.

3. Listeners will be marked by the resolution of that tension – that resolution, if the story has been told effectively, will register a mark in our hearts because we have been feeling emotionally engaged by the characters in their situation.

4. Listeners will find their lives superimposing on the image of the story – humans naturally overlay their own situations, struggles, feelings, doubts, hopes, etc., onto the stories of others.  This could be our empathetic relational wiring, or it could be self-absorption, but either way, we tend to be marked by stories not involving us because we connect somehow.

Preaching that tells the story is better than preaching that ignores the story and goes after just presenting propositions.

Foundations Guest Series Introduction

Foundations CoverWhat do you do when you have one opportunity to communicate the life transforming message of the Bible? Where do you go biblically to address the key issues people really need to hear today?

I had one series of just four sermons and desperately wanted my hearers to hear the critical building blocks of belief. I could have gone to Ephesians or another epistle. I could have gone to the Gospels. I decided to go to Acts.

Preaching from Acts is an exciting challenge because you are entering into other peoples’ sermons as well as their situations. The first apostles were communicating the timeless gospel to the first hearers as the message spread. Perhaps what they preached then would be ideal for expressing the life transforming message today?  It is.

Foundations: Four Big Questions We Should Be Asking But Typically Don’t is forthcoming from Christian Focus Publications. It is a little book that I hope will pack a big punch. In Foundations we see how the Apostles addressed the very questions that we should be asking, but typically we don’t.

Acts contains messages preached under the glare of imminent threat, thus making every word count. Acts contains messages preached to staunch Jews ready to defend the honour of their heritage, a couple of purely pagan crowds who did not know Othniel from Oprah, some brand new believers in Christ, and every other possible combination of listeners. In Foundations we hear Paul addressing the sophisticated philosophers in Athens, over-zealous pagans in Turkey, and some of the judges brought in to put him on trial. We see how the apostles united when the gospel faced its first major attack, and how they made it so clear how the foundational questions must be answered by all.

Underneath our beliefs there is a foundation, and often it sits there unchallenged. The most important issues for life and eternity are regularly engaged in the Bible, but we often ignore this foundation. We too easily think it is all so obvious that we would be wasting our energy to linger longer than it takes to give a momentary tip of the hat to these issues.

Foundations is a fast read, but I hope it will help preachers and listeners, young believers and those established in the faith. It might even be used to clarify the wonder of the gospel to those who are still looking in from the outside. This guest post series is going to run over the next weeks to help mark the launch of Foundations.

Thanks to everyone who will contribute to this guest series. And thank you to everyone who helps spread the word about Foundations – by encouraging others to follow on Twitter (@4BigQs) or Facebook (, pointing people to, or buying several copies to pass on to friends and pastors so that in a small way, the great wonder of the Gospel can grip the hearts of as many as possible.

Sincerely, thank you.

Topical Sermon vs Topical Series

OpenBibleA1Topical sermons and topical series are not the same thing.  A topical sermon typically uses multiple texts to make the overall point intended by the preacher.  This is not wrong and can be very effective.  A topical series could use a single text each week, but not sequentially through a book.  This is not wrong and can be very effective.

I am much more wary of topical sermons, however.  Why?  Because it is much easier to abuse texts when you need to get through three or more of them in the same sermon.  You don’t have the time to explain context, develop content, linger over the passage and its impact, etc.  The danger is that the text becomes a proof text and a servant to the preacher.

It is possible to preach an expository-topical sermon.  This takes significant time to work with each passage and let it be the boss of that section of the message.

It is easier to preach an expository-topical series.  It still takes more time than preaching through a book, but working with a focus text each week will allow you to let the text be the boss more easily than when you have multiple texts.

Some readers are in churches where expository-topical series would be a dream (because as things stand every message is non-expository).  Other readers are in churches where it takes the annual Nativity season to break the pattern of preaching through books.  Here are a couple of nudges for both:

Preach Through A Book: This is how God gave us the Bible – in books.  People in our churches need to be people of the books in order to be people of The Book.  Working through books means that we will not bypass the awkward or challenging sections.  Preachers (and listeners) will benefit from time in a single book as they will hopefully get to know it as a whole and the impact can be reinforced.

Preach Expository-Topical Series (where each message is an exposition of a key text): People in our churches need to grasp the key texts and see how the Bible addresses key issues, or how the values of the church are biblically rooted.  Working some series this way means that we will help people see what the Bible is saying without having to remember multiple threads over multiple months.  Preachers (and listeners) will benefit from multiple genres and key texts from multiple books that will hopefully motivate them to pursue more for themselves in those places.  It may be that a good single message from Jeremiah will motivate people to get into the book, whereas a long series in Jeremiah may put people off returning to it for a while (obviously this works both ways and depends on both the preacher and the listeners!)

I think preaching through books or sections of books is the best staple for a church diet.  But I am not convinced we should avoid expository-topical series – judicious use of this approach can be highly effective if used appropriately.  Whatever we do, let’s avoid non-expository preaching where the text is not the boss of what is said.  That is a move we can’t afford to make.


12 Pointers for Effective Epistle Exposition (pt.3)

envelope2And to finish off this series of pointers on preaching epistles, here are the final four:

9. Root imperatives in their own soil.  It is tempting to simply harvest imperatives and preach a to-do list.  Don’t.  Instead let each imperative be felt in its own context, including the earlier sections of the epistle where our gaze was pointed to Christ.  Don’t let application sections become self-focused when they actually are intended to present guidance for what flows from the doctrinal sections.

10. Be clear.  You can never be too clear in the way you structure the message and present the content.  Look for ways to help your listeners follow you, and also follow the author in his thought.

11. Preach the text.  The church has a full history of preaching messages from texts, but instead preach the message of the text.  There is a world of difference.  God inspired the Bible as it stands, He doesn’t promise to inspire every thought that is provoked in our minds as we read the text.

12. Engage in conversation.  Don’t just sit alone with your preaching notes.  Get into conversation.  First, with God.  Second, with others – commentaries and co-preachers, as well as listeners, etc.  Conversation about your sermon will almost always improve your sermon!

12 Pointers for Effective Epistle Exposition (pt.2)

envelope2Continuing the brief list of a dozen pointers from yesterday…here are four more:

5. Master the whole.  Don’t just preach chunk by chunk through the epistle without getting to grips with the flow of the whole.  You cannot accurately preach a portion of an epistle without a good grasp of how the whole is working together.

6. Get the author’s logic.  Don’t read a section and look for three preachable parallel points.  Instead wrestle with what the author is trying to do in this particular section.  Sermon outlines can always adjust to fit the text, and they should do so.  Don’t adjust the text to fit your outline.

7. Preach to today.  Don’t just present a set of commentary labels and then try to apply “back then” truths to today.  Instead, preach the text to today, and go “back then” to substantiate what you are saying.  Wrestle with how that audience is similar to, and different from, your audience today.

8. Let truth be felt.  Epistles can lull us into a false sense of abstraction.  Don’t give theological theory, preach the gospel applied to real life (both then and now).  Preach tangibly, use implicit imagery, be vivid, help images to form on the heart-screens of your listeners.

The final four tomorrow.

12 Pointers for Effective Epistle Exposition

envelope2Epistles are often seen as the easiest texts to preach.  After all, they tend to be logical, structured and, since they are written to churches, easy to apply.  Here are some reminders that may be helpful for effectively preaching epistles:

1. Grasp the narrative.  Hang on, I thought we were talking about epistles?  Indeed.  By exploring the historical setting, especially by paying close attention to the details in the epistle itself, plus any Acts context, we can start to get a sense of the narrative that lies behind the letter.  The letter itself is one side of a conversation at one moment in time.  “Narratives” can be preached with tension, with feeling, with imagery, etc.

2. Learn the background.  Not just the specific occasion of the epistle, but whatever background understanding would help you.  For instance, how much do you really know about slavery in the Roman Empire?  What about proto-gnostic religions?  And the geography?  Take the chance to learn more, don’t just try to replenish what you once knew.

3. Familiarise like crazy.  Don’t read a letter then preach it.  Read it.  Read it.  Read it again.  Each time through, the flow of thought will become clearer and clearer.

4. Focus on the frame.  The “letter-frames” often get short shrift from expositors.  They shouldn’t.  Look at the beginning and end of the epistle: what is included, how conventions are followed or broken, each and every clue to the situation of author and readers.

Tomorrow I’ll share the next four…

4 Common Ways to Mis-Distill a Passage

distill2The process of moving from passage to message involves distilling the passage text down to the passage idea.  The goal is a single sentence summary of the passage – a more concentrated representation of the whole.  I find the image of distilling the text helpful because it suggests that the details, the character, the tone and the balance of the passage should all influence the final statement of the passage idea.

But we humans love to short-cut.

When we short-cut this process we can seriously mis-distill what is there, with the end result that the passage idea does not carry the true content, nor the character, of the passage we claim to be preaching.

Here are 4 ways to mis-distill in preaching prep:

1. Seek out the best verse. Occasionally a passage conveys its main idea in a single verse (and everything else in the passage is related to that verse).  Typically this is not so.  Don’t pick a punchy verse and primarily preach just that.  Your goal is to summarise the whole text, so that the whole text is influencing the single sentence summary.

2. Seek out a meaty truth. Always a lively temptation, we must resist this. If your goal is to be a biblical preacher, then don’t abuse the Bible by using it to preach your weighty doctrines of choice.  Preach the Bible text itself.  The passage you are studying may beep on your theological radar and cause you to ponder its broader implications (hopefully challenging and changing your theology, rather than the influence going the other way).  It takes prayerful care to make sure a minor point in a section does not take over because it happens to be a major theological issue for you.

3. Seek out imperatives. Speaking of your theology . . . if your theology says that people are essentially self-moved and need to be both informed and exhorted to action, then you will probably get over-excited when you spot imperatives of any sort.  “Aha!  Action points!  I sense a sermon!”  Take a deep breath and look carefully.  The process that takes you from passage to passage idea is one of distilling the weight of the whole into a single sentence.  It is not an imperatival mood filter that strains out all content to leave a me-focused to-do list.  What is the passage doing in its context?  What is going on in the passage?  What is the nature and function of the imperative details in the passage?  Seek to preach the passage, not to be a purveyor of preachy points.

4. Seek out triggers for your pet points.  This could be theological pet points or imperatival pet points.  It could also be cross-referencing pet points (“Cool, I can preach Romans 3 under the guise of this passage too!”), or historical background pet points (“Great, this reference to the circumcision party will allow me to explain first century Israeli politics, my favourite subject!”), or church/cultural commentary pet points (“Jesus tells him to go to the priest, which is good because I want to critique our contemporary church culture on slack church attendance!”)  Find a better venue for sharing your pet points, but don’t sabotage any biblical preaching opportunity to do so.

When you are wrestling with a passage, be sure to distill the whole passage down into the passage idea.  Any other approach and you won’t be preaching the whole passage.

10 Pointers for Planning a Preaching Calendar

10 targetpcHere is another little list of 10 pointers, this time on planning your preaching calendar.  (I understand that some churches are tied into a lectionary, which will restrict the value of this list, but for the rest of us…)

1. Pray and ask what the congregation needs to hear in the coming months – We are under-shepherds, but the Good Shepherd has the best perspective on how to care for the sheep.  It is no more spiritual to plan at the last moment.  In fact, it may be less spiritual to work that way.  Pray and plan.

2. Be alert to the church calendar (within reason) – If people come to church just before Christmas and you are preaching part 34 in your Ezekiel series they will find that strange.  They would be right. Preach Christmas leading up to Christmas, Easter leading up to Easter, etc. Beyond those two seasons, select appropriately for your context.  A rural setting may make a big thing out of harvest time, while an urban setting probably won’t.  Some events can be marked without a full sermon (perhaps Mother’s Day?)

3. Recognize key seasons for the church – While Christmas and Easter may be prime time for visitors, other seasons are key for church life.  September and January are two key months for leadership and vision casting.  August may be the time people are away and you need to plan a series of stand-alone messages instead of a tight series.

4. Beware of extended series – Lloyd-Jones preached through Romans for many many years.  You are not Lloyd-Jones.  4-8 weeks seems to be ideal these days, with a little bit of flexibility at either end.  A new series creates energy and opportunity to invite folks (so don’t make the next new series too far off).

5. Plan buffer weeks – Having a flexible week or two between series will be useful.  It is easier to fill a week than to find a week when you need it.

6. Be aware of canonical balance over time – Different cultures, church cultures and preachers will tend toward a certain part of the Bible.  Don’t always preach Gospels, or Epistles, or 2 Chronicles.  Mix it up over time and seek to offer a balanced diet over the course of a few years.

7. Every series does not have to be the same – It is great to go through a book, or a section of a book, but it is also helpful to mix in an expository-topical series now and then (that is, a selected set of passages that are still preached carefully according to their intended meaning), or a character study, or a few key values of the church.

8. Avoid predictability within each series – Galatians in six weeks does not have to be one chapter each week.  Consider a whole book introduction or review at the end.  Preach longer chunks and shorter sections.  Preach thematically through a book.

9. Strengthen the series beyond the preaching itself – See if the music team can mark a series with a fitting song.  Tie the series together with careful branding and imagery.  Get input into the series from people in the church, or even people in the community (what would you ask God if you could?) . . . those who input tend to come and listen more attentively!

10. Plan, but be prepared to change – A national or local disaster may require sensitive reshaping of a series or preaching calendar.  Prayerfully and carefully plan, and where necessary, prayerfully and carefully adjust those plans.  The calendar is for the church, not the church for the calendar.

(Previously in this series we have had 10 pointers for younger preachers, older preacherstrained preachersuntrained preacherspreaching Easterteam preachingspecial occasion preaching and evangelistic preaching.)

Genre Shock

Shock2Can a church experience genre shock?  Maybe.

Let’s say you have been preaching through a narrative series – perhaps a gospel or the life of Abraham or David.  Then you start a series in Romans.  This could be a shock.  From flowing plots and character development to tight and complex logical sentences, abstract theological explanations and loaded terminology.

Is there a way to ease the transition?  And if there is, is it necessary?  I would say probably not in most cases, unless the last series has been a long one and the shift in genre is stark.

Here’s how not to avoid genre shock – preach every text as if it is an epistle.  This is certainly a popular approach for some, but it has real weaknesses.  For instance, narratives get choked by multiplied principles and preaching points.  Poetry gets dissected so that the emotive force of the imagery is lost in a torrent of triple-pointed outlines.  And epistles feel like more of the same, when they should be like theological dynamite for the life of the church.  Let’s not go with this “every-text-an-epistle” approach.

Here are a couple of ways to transition from one series to another of a vastly different genre.  I am certainly not saying these ideas are necessary, but they certainly are ideas:

1. A genre intro message – Let’s say you are going from a gospel to a prophet.  Instead of diving into the complexity of apparently disordered prophetic burdens about places we’ve never heard of, why not preach a message that introduces people to the blessings of being in the prophets . . . and then start into the specific book the week after.  This might allow time in a more familiar passage by way of transition and preparation.

2. A new series intro message – Let’s say you are going from the Life of David to an epistle.  Instead of getting bogged down in the opening verses and complex sentences, why not introduce the series with the story of the letter.  If it’s history is rooted in Acts, then you have the chance to give the setting in a narrative fashion.  Tell the story, set the scene, taste the epistle by previewing the series and maybe put the main idea of the book up front so it doesn’t get lost in the progression of passage after passage.

3. A big story bridge message – Let’s say you are going from Genesis to John or Philippians.  Instead of forgetting Genesis like yesterday’s newspaper, why not take a message to trace the story you saw in Genesis through the canon to set up the next book?  Most people in our churches do not know the big biblical story as they could.  Why not use a message to trace the story forwards and set up the next series?

Whatever you do, make sure the transition message actually has a main idea and is not mere buffering.  You may be preaching something creative, but be sure you are preaching something.

6 Ways To Be a Whole Bible Preacher

OpenBible3Some preachers have their pet books and topics, but how can I be a whole Bible preacher?  Here are six suggestions to get us started:

1. Read the whole Bible.  Seems obvious, but if you only read certain bits, then you will probably only preach from certain bits.  Read the whole thing as if God wrote it and reveals Himself there (which He does).  Remember, reading for 10 minutes a day will get you through in a year, but you will be reading with a noisy mind and heart.  It is easier to read for 30+ minutes a day and enjoy the clear heart and mind that comes beyond about 10 minutes.  Easier to read more?  Yep.

2. Preach from the whole Bible.  Don’t go at it a chapter at a time.  Instead, keep track of where in the Bible you are preaching.  When you need to pick a new series or a standalone message, take a look at where you haven’t been for a while…prophets, OT history, wisdom literature, Revelation?

3. Preach with whole Bible awareness.  When you preach a passage, preach that passage.  Don’t go crazy trying to quote the rest of the Bible in that message (many seem to have this as their great goal, bizarrely).  However, preach that passage with an awareness of the whole Bible.  Your awareness of the whole will gradually help others to see how the different parts work together.

4. Preach a whole Bible series.  I have a good friend who picked the ten key passages to tell the big picture story – the Bible in Ten.  Could you tell the big story over 6 weeks, how about 4, or maybe go big and do a whole year / whole Bible series? Any whole Bible series will be good for you, and I can almost guarantee there will be people in your church who will be helped by getting out of the details to see the bigger picture unfold.

5. Preach a whole Bible message.  Can it be done in a single message?  Why not?  Actually, I’ve never done this, but how about a series of whole Bible messages?  One week trace the fall and redemption from beginning to end.  Another week follow the seed promise from Genesis to Galatians.  Another week trace the biblical covenants.  Another one on God’s presence.  Another on five key characters (Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus – you pick the number).  Another from the perspective of heaven and spiritual warfare.  Creation to new creation.  I could go on, but that big picture overview multiple times, if done well, could set some folks on fire for the Bible!

6. Offer a whole Bible seminar.  Why not break people out of their passive pew position?  Interactively trace the story of the Bible on a white board for a couple of hours (this has been an amazing experience for many in our context).  One I’d love to try is to take a group on a journey through the Bible using a large hall and a rough map (tape on the floor). Be creative – outside of a formal church service there is all sorts of freedom!