Explain Well – 4 More Thoughts

explain2Yesterday I shared four thoughts on how to explain a biblical text well.  Here are four more.

5. Explain visually, not just conceptually.  When an idea becomes clear to a listener, they don’t say, “Ah, I grasp your conceptual logic!”  No, people say, “Ah, I see what your saying.”  What do they see?  A clear picture of the idea being explained.  We need to engage listeners at the level of imagination.  There is a screen in the hearts of listeners and by fault it begins foggy and confused.  Clear the smoke and form images as you explain the text, or as you describe the application.  If you can see it, they will.  If you are grasping for concepts, they see smoke.

6. Let the structure do its work.  As you help people see the structure in a passage, it will begin to explain itself.  Orient listeners to the “chunks” before diving into the details.  Give a newcomer to town the landmarks before explaining details of smaller side streets.  Highlight connectives or repetition in content so the shape starts to form on the page – “Notice how many verses begin ‘By faith…’ in this section.  As you scan down the page you can see, ‘By faith…’ in verse 3, ‘By faith…’ in verse 4, etc.  Eighteen times the writer does that.  But then in verse 13 that pattern is broken.  This four verse thought in the middle is being marked out as the central pivot of the passage.  Let’s zero in on that pivot…”

7. Take people there, or bring the truth here.  Decide whether you are going to transport listeners to back then and describe things so vividly that they can smell the air, or whether you are going to bring the biblical truth to today with a contemporary simile, “this is like…”  Weak explanation tends to flow from indecision about listener location.  Take them there, or bring the Bible to today.  Actually, do both, but do both deliberately and definitely.

8. Judiciously use explanation from others.  Don’t get me wrong, there are thousands of people who are better at explaining that text than you or me.  We should be ready to take advantage of that.  But they aren’t standing where you are.  They might be Martin Luther, but your listeners may be ready to dismiss him because of some perception they have of him, or they may be hard-pressed to distinguish him from his namesake in the twentieth century.  They might be a great contemporary scholar and commentator, but your listeners may be distracted by their funny sounding name (they don’t know anything else about him/her), or by your superior learning (they don’t have books like that).  When you use someone else’s explanation, start with “one preacher put it like this…” and then add further details judiciously for your particular listeners.

Explain Well – 4 Thoughts

explain2Preaching is a complex ministry, but one of the core ingredients is effective explanation of the biblical text.  If this is removed, then it is difficult to see how what remains can be biblical preaching.

Yet it can be tempting to remove explanation.  Why not simply read a bit of Bible and then say what you want to say, making the odd vague connection?  This passes for preaching in many places.  What’s more, surely that can be more interesting than dull explanation?  Of course it can, but the answer to the problem of a poor version of something good and important is not to replace it, but to do it well.  How?

1. Recalibrate your appreciation of God’s ability as a communicator.  Unless you are gripped by the fact that God is a great communicator, everything else I say here will fail to register.  Know that if your listeners could really see the richness and relevance of what God is saying in any passage, they would be gripped and transformed.  But if you don’t see it, they are going to struggle.  Many Christians trust God to have created everything, to have worked out a redemption plan and to have final justice and a glorious eternity all worked out, but at the same time to be a poor communicator.  This is mystifying.

2. Give appropriate amounts of engaging context.  Too much context will turn the sermon into a historical lecture.  Too little will strip the text of meaning.  The biblical text is not a random set of assertions that have mystical power by virtue of inspiration.  God gave us inspired text that was always set in a historical and situational context.  Rather than being dull background stuff, this is often a key way to forge connections between the text and your listeners.  Get to know the background context and determine where the points of engagement are for your listeners today.

3. Set the scene textually.  Many of the biblical books were written to be digested whole, but we tend to cut and slice.  That doesn’t mean we have to preach a whole book in every sermon (although that is an option to consider sometimes).  It does mean that we can’t just drop people into an alien text without any orientation.  Be sure to orient your listeners to what is going on in the big picture of the book before expecting them to be gripped by the specific text of your sermon.

4. Don’t explain every word with equal effort.  Recognise that in any passage there will be a gravity centre.  Take people there and help them see why that is the case.  Explaining seven introductory clauses to get there will numb your listeners and they will lose track of the point of the passage.

Tomorrow I will add some more thoughts to this list.

Application Is Not Always Engagement

HammerEveryone lauds preaching that connects with the congregation.  Many imply that the key to connecting is giving applications.  But is it possible to be totally applicational in a message, and yet completely unengaging?

I believe it is possible.  If there is no personal warmth between preacher and listener, and if there is no vertical warmth between the preacher and God, then a highly applicational message could easily become an instructional rant based on a text.  Listeners will not feel connected with the preacher or the preaching.  They may just feel got at.

The problem is that if we think being relevant and applicational is all it takes to connect, then we can overlook the fact that communication is best offered in the context of interpersonal warmth.  Our listeners need us to have that reality in both dimensions!

A good friend of mine has a stock of great sayings, one of which goes, when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  This is so true in preaching.  A chilling of the temperature in our personal walk with God will show in our communication with others.  Even the most winsome of texts can become an opportunity to hammer on the duty theme again, for example.

Instead of just plugging in applications, let’s pray about what it really takes to connect with listeners.  This will include our manner and delivery, sermon content and presentation of the Bible, as well as pastoral connection outside of the pulpit.  People need preaching that engages them more than just preaching that gives application.

10 Pointers for Evangelistic Preaching

10 targetepThere are far more qualified voices on this subject, but nevertheless, here are 10 pointers to ponder as you anticipate preaching evangelistically.

1. God can work despite your weaknesses as a communicator, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give your best – this is true in an individual message, and in a lifetime of ministry.  So look for ways to improve and grow in what you do as a preacher of the gospel.

2. The Gospel is good news, so proclaim it – somehow it is easier to talk about it, than to actually proclaim it.  We have great news to share, so let’s take the opportunity to get it presented.

3. The Gospel is a proclamation of what God has done in Christ, not what people should do in response to your message – “Repent and believe” is not good news, it is a way of phrasing an appropriate response to the news.  The good news declares what God has done in sending his Son to earth, to us, to the cross, and what that means for people today.

4. You are representing a person, not just a set of truths – Somehow people can become quite aggressive when they declare sets of truth, but they don’t when they speak of someone they love.  Please ponder the love of God for you before you proclaim the message of his love for others.

5. You communicate by more than your words – There is also your attitude, your expression, your demeanour, your tone, your body language and your personal warmth.  Please align all of these with your message.

6. Make people want it to be true before you try to convince them that it is true – There is absolutely a place for declaring the truth and seeking to be convincing about it, but remember that simply proving your point will never usher souls into the kingdom.  We flatter ourselves if we think the world is waiting for us to be clever and convincing enough before they will respond.

7. Don’t let the truth of the truth be foggy – We live in a relativistic age that assumes you don’t even really believe what you are declaring, so be sure to undermine the fairy tale/personal crutch idea and invite them to engage with truth, history, etc.

8. Be biblical in what you say, whether or not you cite your source – Some like to point to Acts 17 and suggest Paul never quoted the Bible in his message to the philosophers in Acts.  This is simplistic and misleading.  Paul’s message was saturated in biblical truth, he just didn’t give the references all the way through.  Please be biblical.  God is a great communicator.  (There is definitely a place for preaching a passage – evangelistic exposition can be incredibly powerful, but when you aren’t “preaching a passage” please be thoroughly biblical anyway.)

9. Pray for wisdom to blend patience with boldness – It is easy to assume this is the only opportunity and present awkwardly.  It is easy to assume this isn’t the key opportunity and present weakly.  Somehow we need wisdom to find the right blend.  Cumulative evangelistic ministry is very powerful, but for some people this may be a unique moment.  We need both boldness and patience.

10. Always remember that it is the Holy Spirit who changes lives – Not your technique, nor your message, nor your learning, nor your cool persona, nor your stunning powerpoint, nor your well-worked structure.  It is a work of God to save a hell-bound sinner and draw them into his family.  Pray passionately.  Proclaim persuasively.  Depend completely.

I can already think of more to add.  What would you add?

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

10 Pointers for Special Occasion Preaching

10 targetsoPreaching at a wedding, a funeral, a baptism, a baby dedication, or some other special occasion is a great opportunity to preach to people who would normally not be sitting in the church.  Here are 10 pointers to ponder.

1. It isn’t about you – Don’t try to draw attention to yourself.  At a wedding, people are there for the couple.  At a funeral it is about the deceased and their family. It isn’t about you.  Don’t try to draw attention your way.  Gracious service to others goes a long way.

2. It isn’t the time to be clever – Don’t preach in character with a costume at a funeral.  Don’t attempt a complex science demonstration for an illustration in a wedding sermon.  There are times to preach with creativity and originality, but the special occasion is not one of those times.

3. It is a good time to communicate the gospel, gently – Unless strongly invited to go strong, the best approach is prayerful gracious gospel presentation.  People typically need more than one exposure, so it probably isn’t the moment for an altar call, but it is a key moment for those who are present.  Remember that pushing too hard does not increase the effectiveness of the gospel, but it might increase the negative impact for those who do not respond.

4. Your regulars don’t need originality – If you need to say things that are familiar to regulars, so be it, they will know what you are doing.

5. Don’t come across as a sales pitch – We meet at this time, we have good snacks, we’d love to see you next Sunday, etc.  Cringe.  Serve the people getting married, burying a loved one, getting baptised, or whatever, don’t look like you are taking advantage for the sake of the church.

6. Graciously demonstrate that this is not a service for hire – Visitors may assume that you are speaking because they paid a fee and therefore you showed up.  If you know the people involved, by all means let some humanness come through so visitors know that you know the people involved.

7. Personalise where you can – Was there a favourite passage or hymn for the deceased?  Does the person getting baptized have a favourite passage (less likely with infant baptism!)  I spoke at a baptism for a lady and asked about this – she loved James.  So I gulped, and preached the gospel from James.  It set her up for conversations on familiar territory with the multiple guests coming to see her baptism.

8. Recognise the uniqueness of the occasion – You may do a lot of weddings, funerals, baptisms, etc., but this is a genuinely special occasion for all involved.  Pray accordingly.  Preach accordingly.  Do not have one funeral sermon to squeeze into any funeral.  Don’t speak as if a known sinner was a secret saint.  Don’t preach about marriage to a “golden years” couple as if they are in their twenties.

9. Watch the length of the sermon – It is generally wise to be shorter than you would be on a normal Sunday, but it is not as simple as “be shorter than visitors expect.”  If they have limited exposure to some church backgrounds then anything over 6 minutes is too long.  But recognising that caveat, generally it is better to preach for 15-20 minutes than 35-45 on a special occasion.

10. Undermine expectations wisely – They may expect formal, this doesn’t mean you should try to shock with your attire or vocabulary.  However, a genuinely heartfelt message with warmth and sincerity may rock their world.  Do it.

There is much more that could be said here . . . feel free to add your experience, observations and thoughts in the comments below.

Previously in this series we have had 10 pointers for younger preachers, older preachers, trained preachers, untrained preachers, preaching Easter and team preaching.

7 Thoughts on Relevance in Preaching

7890bWhen you are planning your message, consider your relevancy strategy.  When and how will you demonstrate the relevance of your message?

The Bible is relevant.  We don’t need to “make it relevant,” but we do need to demonstrate how it is relevant.  Here are seven quick points to consider:

1. There is a logic to the traditional Application-at-the-End strategy.  Logically we do explain the text before we can apply the text.  This means that the traditional idea of taking the final few minutes to offer some applications makes sense.  However . . .

2. There is a flaw in the traditional Application-at-the-End strategy.  If people don’t feel that the message is relevant to life, then they are unlikely to listen through half an hour of distant and theoretical material in order to still be listening by the time the relevancy is demonstrated.

3. Generally look to demonstrate relevance throughout the message.  As a general rule, seek to demonstrate relevance throughout the message.  This would include:

A. Introduction – take the opportunity to show that you are not a Bible history lecturer, but someone who is aware of real life.  Show that the message will be relevant to listeners’ lives.  Point out that the passage itself is relevant.  Three hits before the message has even begun!

B. Message Idea – make sure the wording of your main idea is contemporary.  You can support it biblically, but word it for us, today.

C. The wording of every point – word the points “us” and “we” rather than historical labels for Biblical content.

D. Explanations, Proofs and Applications throughout – traditionally called “illustrations,” make good use of contemporary experience and applicational description rather than offering lots of historical (and therefore distant) anecdotes and quotes.

E. Transitions – between each point you can offer a glimpse of the relevance of the message again.

F. Conclusion – see point #1, above.

4. Recognise that there are exceptions to #3.  If you are telling a biblical story with tension, then you probably don’t want to break that tension for an overt contemporary illustration.  Know that the story will grip people if told well.  And know that little asides can keep listeners subconsciously aware of the relevance of the message even as you tell the story.  (For instance, a passing comment that the woman who found her lost coin texted her friends to invite them to celebrate with her won’t break the story, but will show you aren’t stuck in another world.)

5. Know there are many ways to demonstrate relevance in preaching.  Forget the simplistic idea that relevance comes from exhortations to behave a certain way.  There is more to relevance than to-do lists.  It includes your attitude and manner as a preacher, perhaps even your dress sense.  It includes vocabulary.  It includes delivery style.  And then there are numerous potential approaches to explaining the text, proving the truth, and applying the message.

6. Prayerfully pursue the motivation for relevance.  That is, pray for God’s heart for the people who will be listening to your message.  If you love them, you won’t be aloof, distant and irrelevant.

7. Never dismiss the importance of this issue.  In some circles it is fashionable to abdicate this aspect of preaching with a super-spiritual idea that it is God who makes the message relevant to listeners.  You can’t change lives, God does that.  But preaching is communication of Biblical truth that is intended to change lives.  Fully preach in line with the goal, and fully rely on God to be at work in listeners.  It is thoroughly biblical to preach relevantly . . . watch the prophets, Jesus and the apostles.  Most of them were spiritual in their approach.

Turning Blah Blah to Wow!

wow2A lot of people in our churches read a lot of the Bible as filler and waffle.  They wouldn’t state that overtly, of course.  After all, it is the word of God!  But actually, in practice, a lot of the Bible is read without real engagement.  Consider the epistles, for instance.  Why does this phenomena occur?

1. Because of complex sentences.  It can be hard for any of us to truly track a sequence of sentences from Paul.

2. Because of unfamiliar words.  Stewardship. Saints. Manifold. Rulers.  Not necessarily unknown words, but not words most people tend to use in normal life.

3. Because it seems to lack direct relevance.  We can’t help but look for what it is saying “to me,” which means the rest can seem distant or theoretical.

4. Because of familiar words.  Hang on, didn’t we say unfamiliar words were the issue?  Actually, Christian terms can grow too familiar – grace, given, revelation, promise, gospel, church, wisdom, boldness, confidence.

I am looking at Ephesians 3:1-13, for an example.  Paul begins a prayer in verse 1 and then gets distracted before returning to the prayer in verse 14.  Why does he get distracted?  Because he mentions his imprisonment for the sake of “you Gentiles.”  This triggers his explanation of why those Gentiles in Ephesus shouldn’t feel the way they probably do feel – i.e. losing heart.  (Actually, it was Trophimus, sent from Ephesus, who indirectly led to Paul’s arrest and imprisonment in Acts 20, so they probably felt an extra burden over Paul’s imprisonment!)

So to lift their hearts regarding his sufferings for them, and therefore to make clear their glory (i.e. their value expressed in his sufferings as part of God’s plan), Paul goes off on a theological digression that should thrill our hearts as well as it did theirs!

But instead most people read it as “blah blah blah…Gentiles…blah blah…grace…blah blah…wisdom…blah blah blah”

Enter the biblical preacher!

The preacher’s role, is, in part, to slow people down in this text and to help them make sense of what Paul is actually saying.  No word is wasted, and no word should be lost under an indiscriminate “blah blah” flyover reading.  So?

1. God gave Paul a key role in unveiling new news – God gave Paul a key role in his forever plan for the sake of the Gentile believers, which was to reveal the momentous new news of the Gentile co-equality in the gospel!

2. God gave Paul grace to preach Christ and explain the news – God gave the ultimate-sinful-nobody, Paul, grace to do two things – first, to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ; and second, to make clear God’s great plan, the new news about the Gentiles.  Why? So that the church can be God’s trophy cabinet to show off his multi-coloured wisdom to the spiritual realms!

3. God’s plan gives us Gentiles stunning boldness! – God’s plan in Christ means that we Gentiles have ridiculous boldness when it comes to entering God’s presence (don’t forget the temple imagery in the previous section)!

So, the Gentiles in Ephesus shouldn’t lose heart, but instead they should be thrilled at their glory/value demonstrated in Paul’s suffering for their sake!

This is true for us too, just as the scars of Christ are beautiful to us because they show God’s love for us.

(I wouldn’t preach these three points as they stand, but I would make it my aim to help listeners hear the content of a section like this, turning the blah blah blah into Wow! after Wow!)

Challenge Without Condemnation

GavelxGood preaching should be challenging, without feeling condemning.

No challenge, no condemnation – this is entertainment preaching.  Actually, it could be tedious waffle, but essentially this will tend to be entertainment, ear scratching type of stuff.

Challenging by condemnation – this is burdensome preaching.  People feel the challenge of God’s Word on their lives, but the weight of condemnation is a pressure we aren’t intended to carry.

Condemnation by challenging – this is shortcut preaching.  The shortcut is the assumption that just pressuring people will lead to conformity in behaviour.  It might.  But it will be forced.  And the fruit will ultimately be minimal.

Challenge without condemnation – this is healthy preaching.  The Word of God is making a call on the lives present, it is engaging them and inviting them forward, but the mechanism of change is not pressure, but engagement with the gospel, and ultimately, with a person.

Biggest Mistakes Preachers Make – pt 3

Slip2In this series we aren’t looking to tweak at the fringes of preaching, but rather to get a big wrench to the major parts of the ministry.  We’ve thought about “harvesting imperatives” and “not preaching the passage.”  Here’s another:

Mistake 3 – Not Preaching to the People Present

Preaching is a pastoral role.  We are not being called to perform, but to shepherd.  We can, and must, do the role of a shepherd as we preach.  A shepherd feeds, leads, cares and protects his sheep.  In order to pastor through preaching, we need to know and love the people we are preaching to each Sunday.

Obviously if you are visiting a church, or speaking at a special event, then you may only have half an hour to get to know the specific group of people present.  Do what you can.  It is also important to know people in general, so that you can preach to people in particular, but always seek to preach to those who are present.

Here are some alternative listener profiles to root out of our preaching.

Don’t preach to people who are missing.  Some preachers seem to have allowed the richness of the gospel to evaporate into a duty of church attendance. These preachers are then liable to preach frustration toward those who “should” be present, but aren’t.

Don’t preach to an audience your favourite preacher attracts.  You might have a favourite preacher who preaches to a cool crowd in some other city in America or somewhere, but if your listeners are from rural Somerset, they aren’t a “Seattle” crowd.

Don’t preach to a culture that isn’t in your church.  The culture may be increasingly postmodern, but lots of church congregations aren’t.  Don’t seek to overcome issues that your listeners aren’t facing in any meaningful way.

Don’t preach to land another job.  I hate to say it, but there are some preachers who are preaching so that their sermon is attractive to a “better” church they’d like to get a call from.  Be faithful to your congregation and God will help you adapt if you need to move church for some reason.

Don’t preach to spar with foes.  It is very possible to preach targeted comments toward people acting likes foes in your congregation, so technically they are present, but still this isn’t wise.  But don’t waste energy preaching to foes not present.  Having a go at a high profile atheist doesn’t achieve much.  By all means equip your listeners to handle what they are hearing in the media, but that would mean preaching to them.  Taking pot shots at people not present isn’t impressive.

Get to know and pray for the people you are preaching to each Sunday. Then your preaching can pastor their souls. If you don’t care about them, don’t preach to them.

 

Biggest Mistakes Preachers Make – pt.2

Slip2It is easy to focus in on little details, but this series is about the big things that we need to be clear on for healthy biblical preaching.  Often we won’t see these mistakes in ourselves, but let’s pray for God to show where some of them might be true of us:

Mistake 2 – Not Preaching the Passage

There are many directions we can head after we finish reading a text (whenever that occurs in the message).  Here are some options that fail to preach the passage, and then I’ll share some reasons why this happens:

A. We can head off into our own ideas – whether they are self-help tips for living, self-absorbed personal anecdote sharing, personal soapboxes or targeted rants . . . the passage is not doing the work here.

B. We can head off on a biblical safari – it is easy to fill time with multiplied cross-references.  It is also easy to get positive feedback, but this may be for superficially impressing people rather than for saying anything meaningful.

C .We can head to the passage we wish we were preaching – maybe everything is Romans 3 for you, or perhaps Philippians 4, or whatever.  But what about this preaching passage, when will this get any coverage again?

D. We can linger in, but not preach the passage – dwelling on minor details or offering pleasant platitudes, even if we stay superficially in the passage, but don’t really preach it, then we are still digressing.

E. We can dive into our theological prof persona – do you wish you were teaching theology in a classroom?  Don’t work out that issue in the pulpit.

F. We can head for the newspapers – in our quest for relevance or to be a political voice, we can abdicate our role as preachers of the Bible.  By all means be relevant, but not at the expense of the text.

Why does this happen?  Some people know no better.  Some preachers were trained poorly.  Some churches push the preacher toward an unhealthy approach to the text.  But ultimately, the biggest reason that we have to face is this: not preaching the text is an evaluation of God’s ability as a communicator.

If God inspired the text, and if he did a good job, do we think that we can improve on that communication by our alternative methods of preaching?  Give everything you can to actually understanding and presenting the text so that its message is communicated, its revelation of the character of God is revealed and so that your listeners are able to experience exposure to this unique and wonderful passage!