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.

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!

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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 – 1. What is Wisdom?

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!

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We’re going to think this week about preaching wisdom literature. It’s a big subject, so let’s pitch right in and ask, how can we improve our preaching of this important genre? Firstly…

1. …Understand what wisdom is.

What exactly is biblical wisdom? Perhaps the easiest way to answer this question, is to look at a passage – not in one of the wisdom books ironically – but a very important narrative in 1 Kings 12. Solomon, the archetypal wise king, has died and his son Rehoboam is taking the throne. The people of Israel come to him and say “Your Dad laid a heavy burden on us in taxes and so on, so lighten it for us.” What is Rehoboam going to do?

He starts well – he gets counsel. First, he listens to his father Solomon’s old advisers. They tell him “Do as the people say and they will serve you totally.” Next he takes counsel from his old school buddies, and they tell him that he needs to stamp his authority on this people, make a statement, show them that he is not to messed with. “My little finger is thicker than my father’s thigh… he disciplined you with whips, I will discipline you with scorpions.” That ought to do it – that’ll show them who’s boss. So who is Rehoboam going to listen to? – And here’s the point, because for a Hebrew reader, this decision has “wisdom” and “folly” written all over it. Solomon’s counsellors are older, they are experienced in helping to run a country, they have spent a lot of time with wise King Solomon and they would have learned from his wisdom. Rehoboam’s old school pals are young, have no experience of running a kingdom, and not much experience of life, either. To the Hebrew mind, it’s a ‘no-brainer’. A wise man is going to listen to the wise old counsellors and the foolish man is going to listen to the foolish young counsellors. Which will Rehoboam do? Will he show himself to be wise or foolish? I’m sure you know, and the rest as they say, is history.

And this is invaluable to us in understanding biblical wisdom. For us Westerners especially, when we think of wisdom our minds go very quickly to intelligence. We tend to think that the cleverer, the more educated a person is, the wiser he/she will be. But that is a Western idea, not a particularly biblical one. I imagine that Rehoboam’s young counsellors had a good education, but they were still foolish by way of their youth and inexperience. Many of us live in a culture which is obsessed with the idol of youth. We are drawn to young people with new, fresh ideas. But again that is a Western idea, not an expecially biblical one. In biblical cultures, older people were held with higher regard than younger people because of their years, their experience and hence their relative wisdom. Of course there are exceptions – you will find foolish old people and wise young people in the Bible – Solomon himself, as a young king recognised his need for wisdom and asked God for it – and that’s a big theme in Proverbs for example, of enabling the young to get wisdom. So let’s understand what wisdom is – it is not intelligence, education or information. Wisdom is the knowledge of God and how to live in His world. 

And tomorrow we’ll actually look at some of the wisdom books. I promise.

50 Summer Preaching Tweaks: 1-5

Summer50bAs we are all about to head into a new (school) year of preaching, how about a big collection of little tweaks for effective preaching?  In no particular order, here come the fifty summer tweaks to sift through and prayerfully consider:

1. Be mastered by a book.  Whether you regularly preach through whole books or not, make sure you spend enough time soaking in a book that it can truly grip you.  Be saturated so that when squeezed, you ooze the content of that book.  Then prepare a series to invite others into that blessing.

2. Invite others into the preparation process.  We all tend to go solo on preaching preparation.  Invite some folks to join you.  Perhaps in a group,  perhaps a series of conversations, perhaps ask for help on facebook or twitter.  Perhaps talk through the message, perhaps ask for help on support material, perhaps find out where others think the points of tension lie.  It will probably be better together.

3. Lean less on your notes.  If you are a manuscript reader, take only an outline. If you are a notes user, experiment with note-less.  Be as prepared as you can, but make the message simpler in structure, stick in a passage and run through it several times.  Going noteless is not as hard as you think, and the benefits might mean you never go back!

4. Stay put, dig deeper.  If you are a concordance freestyler, try preaching a message where you stay put.  You will find that you will tend to dig deeper in the passage and apply more fully in the present.  Both are good things!  Only cross-reference if there is a genuine need to do so.

5. Craft the main idea a little bit more.  Take an hour at some point and work on the main idea of the message for an hour more than you normally would.  How can it be more precise, more memorable, more relevant, more text specific, more encouraging, less wordy, less historic, less theologically phrased?

Don’t Just Get the Idea!

The Big Idea approach to preaching is birthed from an understanding of the nature of communication.  That is, when we communicate, we are not just firing words out into nowhere.  Rather, we are seeking to have the other party get the idea of what we are saying.  Communication is about ideas.  We want the other to say, “I see what you are saying.”

Ideas change lives.  People give themselves to ideas.  Christianity is a content-based faith.  Which is why a very high view of Scripture tends to resonate with a commitment to expository preaching.  That is, bringing out from the text the meaning that is there and seeking to effectively communicate that truth to others with an emphasis on why it matters to them.

But I don’t just want to extol the virtues of a “big idea” approach to preaching.  I also want to highlight a couple of potential misapplications of it.  Let’s use a very simple “communications” model:

WRITER > MESSAGE > RECIPIENTS

1. It is not just about the writer to the original recipients.  It is possible to be committed to discovering what the writer meant by what he wrote to the original recipients, and then to preach that.  Just that.  This can come across as textually accurate, but distant and irrelevant.  It can lose sight of the present and living nature of God’s Word.  We can become lecturers in ancient manuscript interpretation, even if we add on application by extension.  It is important to not lose the accuracy of original intent, setting, context, etc., but also to give a very clear sense that this is for us today.

So to tweak the model:

WRITER > MESSAGE > RECIPIENTS

                                                                                 including the message to Us

2. It is not just about the human writer, it is part of God’s self-revelation in the Word.  This is where I’ve seen Big Idea preaching misapplied and fall short.  Understanding, distilling and effectively communicating the main idea of a passage is not the whole deal.  We are not trading in brilliant information transfer, back then or today.  We are handling the inspired Word of God, given to us to reveal His heart to us.  When the text becomes opaque, when the personal nature of the Trinity grows distant, then all our meticulous accuracy and sermonic craft is wasted.  We don’t just preach the written word, we preach Christ.  Our preaching must be theocentric, for the Bible is all about God.

Final tweak?

The Revelation of God, who inspired the                                                                                                                       .

WRITER > MESSAGE > RECIPIENTS

                                                                                   including His message to Us

True preaching happens in the present.  As Donald Sunukjian puts it, in his shortened definition of biblical preaching: “Listen to what God is saying . . . to us!”  Let’s preach so that our listeners can meet the God who still speaks through His Word today.

Get the Idea Really Well

A group of friends arrived back at the hotel where we were staying after visiting a famous church that morning.  We asked them, what was the big idea?  Their response?  He didn’t have a big idea, he didn’t a little idea, he seemed to have no idea!  Oops.  What are the characteristics of an effective and powerful main idea for message?

1. It will be an accurate synopsis of this text.  Looking at the passage, this stated idea gets a firm nod of recognition.  Or to put it another way: if just the idea were stated, then someone who knows their Bible well would be likely to pinpoint the passage from the idea alone.

2. It will be consistent with the Scriptures as a whole.  You may be preaching a single passage, but you are preaching from an open Bible.  The idea should not be contradictory to the rest of Scripture.  If it is, you need to keep working on understanding your specific passage.

3. It will be true to life.  There should be a deep sense of resonance in you as a preacher while you prepare the message.  It should ring true to those listening.  This isn’t trite, or simplistic, or out of touch, but profoundly true.  Good ideas stir people passionately, trite ideas just get a roll of the eyes.

4. It will be relevant to life.  You may be able to state a profound theological truth effectively, but if it isn’t stated relevantly, then you aren’t really preaching the Word.  God’s Word is relevant to life.  Make sure your main idea is too.

5. It will be pregnant with meaning and implications.  After stating your main idea, the follow up sentence shouldn’t be, “well, that’s about it, really.”  There should be plenty that flows out of it.  It is expansive.  It is rich.  It needs to be savoured.  It has to be pondered.  It begs development.

6. It will be precise.  This brings us back to number one, but with a nuance.  Not only must it be accurate to the text you are preaching – that text distilled into a single sentence.  It also needs to be precisely phrased.  No ambiguity (unless that is both an effective and accurate summary!)

7. It will probably not be perfect.  Just to add a slight caveat…most of the time you may only feel you have a decent idea, rather than a stunning one.  Accurate, clear, just decent ideas preached from God’s Word would bring significant health and growth compared to the standard fare in most churches today.  We can’t knock it out of the park every time we preach.  But decent ideas will transform lives.

They Might Get the Idea!

Why is it worth the effort?  Getting and giving out a big idea is not easy.  It is much easier to preach collections of thoughts, rather than seeking to present a message that holds together around one main idea.  If I could cut out the “main idea” phase of preparation, I could probably save 30% of my preparation time.  Here’s why it is worth being committed to pursuing the main idea:

1. Pursuing the main idea will force you to study the passage more effectively.  I think we are all experts in following bunny trails wherever they may lead us.  Bible study can be an endless vista of bunny trails.  But pursuing the main idea forces me to not only ponder the meaning of the details in a passage, but also to ponder how they are working together to communicate the author’s intent.  The writers weren’t drunk or frivolous.  Every word mattered, and every word was included to communicate something specific.  Pursuing the main idea of a passage keeps me focused on what the author was trying to communicate, rather than playing creative word association games where I end up finding things that would leave a panel of original author, recipients and God Himself scratching their heads at my ingenuity.

2. Having a main idea will give you a guide for shaping the message cohesively.  The beauty of a main idea is that it becomes the organizing factor for the content of the message.  Should an illustration be included?  What about the historical explanation?  And that word study?  How about that anecdote?  Hundreds of decisions in every message.  But actually the main idea gives a clear organizing factor – does including it help communicate the main idea?  If not, save it for another day.  The main idea is the message distilled into a single sentence, everything else is scaffolding, or a strategically designed support structure.

3. Offering a main idea will help listeners engage with what matters in the message.  Here’s the thing: human minds don’t hold conflicted complexity.  Its true in politics, its true in preaching, its true in most things.  Rather than hang on to four major points, thirteen sub-points and five telling illustrations, the listener will subconsciously sift and determine the central thought.  Problem is that they may well end up with that extraneous illustration being the main point.  Since you’re spending the week preparing the message and thinking about it, do the work and decide what you want them to see as the most important thing.

4. Giving a main idea means there is a hope that listeners will remember something helpful from the message.  People don’t tend to remember outlines.  When they do, they don’t tend to do much with them.  Even if they write them down.  But Robinson is right when he tells us that “what people do live for, what they do die for, is an idea, some great truth that has gripped them.”  Let’s give the greatest of truths every week.