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.

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.

Pondering Passage Purpose

arrow target2As a preacher studying a passage it is tempting to be purposeful in pursuing your own message, but to ignore the purpose of the passage. Maybe you are intrigued by the passage, or perhaps wondering how it could be preached.  Yet somehow, in the mix, we seem to lose sight of looking for why the writer wrote the text.  That is, rather than simply looking for what the writer wrote, we also need to ponder why the writer wrote it.

1. Look at the context – It is vital to look at any passage in its context.  What is going on around the text you are focused on?  What is the flow of thought or logical progression in the book?  What does the book generally say about its purpose (perhaps in the introduction, conclusion or “letter-frame”)?  If you have ever studied hermeneutics at all, you should be committed to the importance of context – not just for words, but also for sections.

2. Look at the content – This tends to bear the weight of our study efforts.  What words are used?  What are those words referring to?  How are sentences structured?  And so on.  Content is very important, especially when it is understood in context.  But combining contextual study with analysis of content is not the whole process.  Don’t miss the next one for a fuller grasp of the meaning of any text:

3. Don’t forget to consider the intent! – Content in context will do a lot to explain the “what” of a passage.  But unless we are deliberate, we can fail to recognize the “why” of a passage.  This may seem circular, but unless we are alert to the “why,” then we can’t fully grasp the “what.”  Look for clues in context, in content, in tone, in attitude, in the presence of imperatives, etc.  Some of this is hard objective analysis, some of it requires more of a subjective feel . . . which is not license to impose intent, but recognition that we must really listen to a text and be gripped by it, rather than merely passing it under the microscope of our preconceived expectations.

Passage purpose is easily neglected, but if it is, our preaching may feel like analysis . . . without vitality.  If we start to prayerfully get to grips with the intent of the original author, then we will tend to find the Divine Author getting to grips with our hearts through the passage.  Once we find some clarity on the purpose of the passage, then we also have a great starting point to consider the purpose of our message.  Pursuing the author’s purpose tends to fit with God’s purpose in my heart, and then helps with clarity on His purpose in my preaching that passage to others.


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).


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.

Guest Series: Preaching Wisdom – Part 4

wisdom1Guest blog: My good friend, Huw Williams, has offered this series on preaching wisdom literature.  Huw is the pastor of the International Church in Torino, Italy, where he lives with his wife and daughter.  Here is his personal blog.  Thanks Huw!


4. Areas for special attention

So let’s try and get down to nuts and bolts. What practical steps can we take to try and improve our preaching of wisdom literature?

1. Beware of self-improvement. It is all too easy to focus on the fact that Job ended up with more stuff at the end of the story than he had when it started, or to preach Proverbs 22:4 in such a way that we motivate our listeners with the prospect of material blessings now, rather than the glorious treasure that awaits us when Christ appears. It’s true, wisdom literature seems at times to focus on material blessings in this life, but I think there is more going on here – and more on that later.

2. Beware of making promises out of proverbs. Yesterday, I mentioned the example of Proverbs 22:6 (“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”), we need to teach this in a way which both understands and communicates that proverbs are generally true, they not promises. This proverb is saying that if 100 sets of parents train their children up in the gospel, more will become followers of Christ than won’t, but this is not a promise that 100% will. Wisdom literature often provides us with general truths, not promises to be claimed.

3. Preach thought units. In his excellent book “Preaching With Variety”, Jeffrey Arthurs points out that Proverbs are often grouped together, though the connection between them can be quite subtle and not always obvious. Look hard, reflect, pray to identify those units of thought. And don’t be afraid to use a good commentary. Arthurs also suggests taking a more thematic approach to Proverbs, where you can draw together a few proverbs on the same theme (laziness, alcohol, parenting, old-age and youth) from different parts of the book. Also, there’s nothing wrong with simply preaching a whole sermon on one proverb.

In other wisdom books, the units of thought are often much larger. I’ve heard of someone preaching through Job a verse a week, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

We will complete this list next time . . .

Guest Series: Preaching Wisdom – Part 3

wisdom1Guest blog: My good friend, Huw Williams, has offered this series on preaching wisdom literature.  Huw is the pastor of the International Church in Torino, Italy, where he lives with his wife and daughter.  Here is his personal blog.  Thanks Huw!


3. Be aware of the challenges in preaching wisdom literature.

I’ve already mentioned some of the challenges in teaching wisdom. But there are other challenges – how about the theological question of preaching wisdom literature? Think of some of the big Bible themes – creation, sin, promise, redemption, and so on. When you dive into wisdom literature, it can seem as though these big subjects get very little development as we read through the wisdom literature. And even when they are mentioned, it might be hard to see how our understanding is developed therein. Song of Solomon is a good example – I mean, what is it about? There’s a whole lot of stuff in there on men and women and well… you know what I mean. But what has this got to do with those important big Bible doctrines? If you’ve read anything on the Song of Solomon, you’ll see this tension getting to people – there’s a big debate going on – some people will tell you that it’s basically some kind of sex manual for happily married Christians, others will tell you that it is nothing of the sort, that it is a book about Christ and his church. I’ll leave you to do the reading on that, but I’m convinced that the argument itself comes from this apparent disappearance of the grand narrative of the Bible story. I say apparent because we’ll pick up on this later in the week.

Another problem, more practical perhaps, comes when we try to preach from a book like Proverbs. How should we divide the text up? A chapter at a time? A verse at a time? Is there really a connection between these proverbs that can help us draw our thinking together into a unified sermon message? And what about Job? Even breaking the text up into sizeable chunks is still likely to make for a lengthy sermon series. Or Ecclesiastes – how many messages are you going to take to get through this book? One or more?

Then there’s the issue of how wisdom literature functions. Think of verses like Proverbs 22:6 (“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”) or Proverbs 15:22 (“Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.”) Don’t many of us will know godly parents who faithfully taught their children the gospel all their lives, and whose hearts are now breaking for those same children as they are far from Christ? And didn’t Rehoboam surround himself with not one but two teams of counsellors?

I’ll attempt some answers tomorrow, but for now let’s be aware of the challenges in preaching wisdom literature, and not rush in without a proper respect for the sophistication of this beautiful genre.