Category Archives: Stage 8 – Message Detail

Prayerfully Pondered Impact

impact2For many years people considered communication to consist merely in the transfer of propositions from one mind to another.  Many preachers still do.  Actually there is a lot more going on.  Without getting too technical, Speech-Act Theory analyses communication using three measures instead of one.  There is quite a bit of scope for this communications theory to help preachers consider their task.  Here are the three measures:

A. There is the actual set of words that comprise the communication, which can be evaluated for meaning, but only incompletely.

B. What the theory underlines is that speech doesn’t just say something, it is always delivered with the intent to do something.  Some acts of speech are typically used as clear examples, such as, “I pronounce you husband and wife” … in the right context, those words actually do something.  In reality every act of speech is given with the intent to do something.  There is the intended impact of the speaker that is communicated with and by the actual words used.  So you might use the same set of words, but with different intent depending on numerous other factors, to communicate the following: a threat, a promise, a flirtatious hint, etc.

C. Once we open up the realm of the intent of the speaker beyond mere analysis of propositions (which we automatically do as listeners), then there is a third measure to bring into the mix . . . the actual effect of the speech-act.  What actually happens may be intended or unintended, and it may be multi-layered.

If you want to chase Speech-Act Theory, by all means search for it, or for the terms locution, illocution and perlocution.  For now I want to probe this final element described in respect to preaching…

Do the actual effects of our preaching match our intended effects?  Obviously we have a significant added dimension as preachers – that God brings conviction, transformation and growth.  Nevertheless, it is definitely worth pondering our impact prayerfully.  Here are some possibilities:

1. Do people take our tone in the way we intend?  You might mean to come across as loving in what you say, but actually be felt to be antagonistic, negative or aggressive.  You might intend to couch certain content in a tone of hope, but come across as uncertain and hesitant.

2. Does the main goal of the message get through?  We do look to God to bring about transformation, but that doesn’t excuse us from prayerfully intending certain impact.  Are we seeing that impact over time?

3. Do secondary but significant goals get achieved in your preaching?  For instance, you might intend for your listeners to be motivated to read their Bibles during the week, but does your preaching bring about that motivation?  Prayerfully pondering actual impact might lead to some tweaks in your preaching that will help your church.

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Jesus Was Not 50% Human

FiftyPercentbThere is a phrase that I suspect we would do better without.  It is only introductory to another thought, but it tends to lead somewhere potentially unhelpful.  It goes like this, “Jesus, in his humanity…” or “Jesus, in his divinity…”

I understand why we use these phrases.  There are times when you are preaching a Gospels text and you want to underline the fact that Jesus fully entered into our world and experience (albeit without sinning), so the first phrase is used to highlight some aspect of the true humanity of Christ.  There are other times when we preach something in the Gospels and we want to underline that this isn’t “just” a human, but he is also God.

God the Son did step fully into our world via the Incarnation and this is a glorious truth, but I suspect the introductory phrase often undermines the fullness of the union.  That is, Jesus is fully God, fully man, and fully one.  But often we can give the impression it was a 50:50 split.  That is, look at the human side, then later, let’s look at the divine side.  Let me give an example that will hopefully help.

Here we see Jesus, who, in his humanity, … is feeling compassion for the crowds stood before him.”  Or “…is dreading the forthcoming agonies of the cross.” Or “…is angered in the face of death.”

Yes, we do see Jesus’ humanity as he sheds tears of compassion for a shepherd-less people, anticipates the agonies of Calvary, or is stirred by the sheer wrongness of a funeral.  We see Jesus’ humanity in every episode of the Gospels.  But we also see Jesus’ divinity in each one too.  Jesus told his slow to believe disciples that if they had seen him, they had seen the Father.  I think I am slow to believe too.  Here I am, two millennia later, still falling into wrong assumptions about God the Father, despite reading the Gospels so many times.

When we see Jesus feeling compassion for the crowds, in Matthew 9 or Mark 6, we are seeing God’s heart for the people.  If you see Jesus, you see the Father revealed.  When we see Jesus feeling the weight of what lay before him at the cross and in separation from perfect communion, we see the heart of God revealed.  When we see Jesus respond in both empathy and anger at the death of Lazarus, God’s heart is shining out for all to see.  If you see Jesus, you see the Father revealed in him.

But when we use the introductory formula, “in his humanity…” then we can inadvertently hide the Father.  Jesus, in his humanity, is feeling … but the Father remains aloof and unmoved, without passion, compassion, anger, empathy or true love?  And before we know it, without even saying it, we have reinforced the traditional view that the true essence of God is completely opposite to all we know and experience, and therefore God is really out of reach.  We should think long, hard, and biblically, before we choose to stay there theologically, or imply this homiletically.

John 1:18.  John 14:8. Colossians 2:9.

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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).

 

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Sermon Strategy

Strategy2Part of the preaching preparation process is the sermon strategy phase.  After studying the passage, determining its main idea, prayerfully deciding on your goal for the sermon, and the wording of the sermon’s main idea, then it is time to plot your strategy.  Here are the big questions to be asking:

1. When do I reveal the main idea?  Do I reveal it early and repeat it often?  Do I build up to it and reveal it later?  How does the text set up the communication of the main idea?  How does my audience influence when the main idea should be given?

2. When can I demonstrate the relevance of this message?  How early can I form a connection between preacher/message/Bible and listeners?  As well as the conclusion, can I show relevance in the introduction?  How about in the wording of the main points or movements?  What about in the transitions?  Can I drop hints into the explanation of the text itself?

3. How can I do what the text does, as well as saying what the text says?  Since this passage is unique, how will it influence this sermon so that it too is genuinely unique?  Since God inspired the author and God is a great communicator, how does genre choice influence the way this sermon is preached?  Where can I replicate the force of the text – perhaps the tension of a narrative, or the imagery of a poem, or the forcefulness of a discourse, or the provocation of a parable?

4. How can I reinforce the flow of the sermon with delivery details?  Can I reflect the energy or warmth of content in the manner of delivery?  Perhaps I should sit on a stool for some, or be able to put my Bible down for a part, or have the freedom to step away from the furniture, or would a prop help, or . . . ?  Am I spotting danger areas where I may feel rushed, or may become monotonous, or may lose momentum?

5. What is God’s heart in all of this?  Have I allowed my own strategic planning to become a private thought process instead of a prayerful dependence on God?  Can I talk all this through prayerfully instead of privately so that I lean on God?  Can I talk all this through with a team from my church so that I can benefit from their perspective before I preach it and enable them to pray more intelligently too?

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Guest Series: Preaching Wisdom – Part 6

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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And to finish off the list . . .

6. Be aware of who is truly wise. Step back and think of wisdom literature as a whole genre for a moment, consider the dynamic that is going on. In it’s simplest form it is this – a wise person is offering his wisdom to someone who is less wise. Remember this is not the same as knowledge or information, it is personal not abstract, it is applied in the complex situations of life, and we all stand alongside Rehoboam while the offer is made – who will we listen to – wisdom or folly?

The wise person comes to us in the written word, as a person of authority, of greater wisdom, or greater experience of what it means to live in God’s world, and in God’s way. That wisdom runs right through Proverbs, it is what is being searched for in books like Ecclesiastes. Think of the massive climax towards the end of Job when God breaks into the discussion with His wisdom – it’s huge, isn’t it? In wisdom literature, the wise person offers their wisdom for us to benefit from, freely. Can you see where this is going? Wisdom finds its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Listen to what Paul says in 1 Cor 1:26-31:-

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

That’s why I said earlier in the week that when we get into wisdom literature, it can seem as though those big themes of the Bible have been laid aside for a while. They haven’t been, but we might need to work a little harder to see them and we need to need to be very wary of preaching wisdom in a way which is purely focused on temporary benefit for us. Proverbs are too often preached as “super-tips” for a better life now only. Be wary of approaching Song of Solomon in a way which only celebrates human sexuality in this life. Watch out for an understanding of Job that gives answers to suffering in this life without lifting our eyes to eternity. Let’s not preach wisdom in a way which only celebrates His gifts without lifting the eyes of our listeners to the wonder of the giver.

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Guest Series: Preaching Wisdom – Part 5

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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Continuing the list of areas for special attention, so far we have had beware of self-improvement, beware of making promises out of proverbs, and preach thought units.  Last in the list:

4. Consider what it means to preach a reflective genre… reflectively. We have already seen that wisdom literature requires reflection. How might this impact our sermons in this genre? We need to give serious thought as to how we can encourage reflection in our listeners, even if it is only for the time we are standing up there preaching. Two thoughts on this; firstly avoid information overload. This is true for preaching any genre, but nowhere is it more important that in preaching wisdom.  Don’t bombard people with dozens of different thoughts or ideas; it doesn’t encourage reflection, it encourages confusion, headaches and people to stop listening altogether.

Conversely then, create space. Create space to work out illustration and application – “You cannot serve both God and money” isn’t a proverb, but it is a good example of a relatively short journey from original context to contemporary application. But wisdom like Proverbs 15:5 “A fool spurns a parent’s discipline, but whoever heeds correction shows prudence.” will take some time to unpack. How does it apply for people who don’t have God-honouring parents? What about people whose parents have died or who no longer under their parents’ authority in the way they once were? Does this proverb no longer apply to them? If so, how? And what are the subtle ways we all try to squirm out of correction – wherever it comes from? Be creative, take time to explore this piece of wisdom from as many angles as you can. Finally, create space to think, respond, pray. Why not give people time to do this at some point in your sermon (and not necessarily just at the end)?

5. Identify the central issue of a book. This is crucial. In a book like Job, it is easy to forget that the central tension of the book is presented very clearly in chapter 1, Satan says to God that Job loves God not for who He is, but for what He gives Job. The accusation is that Job loves God’s stuff more than he loves God. And the tension of the rest of the book is, in many ways, an exploration of that accusation – will Job’s faith stand up to the accusation, or not? It’s important to work out everything which follows in light of this. In Ecclesiastes you have to go to the end of the book to find the central issue – (12:13–14) Keep this conclusion as your focal point as you drive those windy roads of Ecclesiastes!

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Preaching and the Tone of the Message

ToneHead2So assuming we agree that the tone matters, how are we to arrive at the tone of a message?  Three steps are needed here:

1. Consider the tone of the text.

As we develop sensitivity to the text and the setting of the text, we should be increasingly effective at grasping the tone of the author.  We need to go for a humble confidence rather than a brash confidence in this.  We are looking at lots of factors and weighing them up.

2. Consider the listeners to the message.

Who are you preaching to, and what is the occasion of the sermon?  Sometimes the occasion will influence the tone significantly (i.e. a funeral), sometimes it will be less significant.  It is not enough, though, to figure out the tone of the text and replicate that.  That text needs to be preached with sensitivity to these listeners.

3. Consider yourself as a preacher.

What is your natural or default tone?  Do you have a theological bias?  For instance, do you see everything as duty and expectation?  Do you see everything as gentle and joyful?  Do you turn any passage into a guilt trip?  The better you know yourself, the better you will be at selecting tone on purpose rather than defaulting into a tone that is less than helpful.

When you have evaluated all these factors, then there is still a bit more to consider.  Next time I’ll blog about the dangers and the needs as we think about preaching tone.

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Final Focus

mirror2In a recent discussion, my colleague made a passing remark that is well worth pondering for us preachers.

When the message ends, where are people focused?

Traditional preaching tends to leave listeners focused on themselves.  After an introduction, compelling and gripping or otherwise, then comes the body of the message, followed by an applicational conclusion.  So where are people looking as they leave?  If we are not careful, they will walk out with gaze firmly fixed on self.

1. Is there a problem with fixing the gaze on self?  After all, isn’t our goal to have people working harder to be good christians?  I hope we have a more gospel-oriented goal than that!  The turn toward self was the fruit of the fruit tasting back in Genesis 3 (take a look at the passage and trace the “nakedness” theme starting in 2:25, for example).  The turn toward self is the constant tendency of our flesh in its autonomous rebellion.  The teaching of the Bible should not be throttled down to a set of to-do items that leave us self-oriented and self-concerned.  To get to that we have to evaporate the very life from the Bible!

2. So where could or should listeners be looking?  The Bible is God-centred, and Christ-targeted.  A healthy message will surely leave people more God aware and more Christ focused.

3. But what about getting better behaved believers?  If all we have ever witnessed is pressured people striving to live up to the pressure of applications, perhaps it is time for an experiment . . . try getting some folks’ to gaze on Christ and watch the transformation that will come.  The gospel really is not about work, at least, not our work.  It is about Christ and His work for us.  And I am convinced that while short cuts to conformity are tempting, the harvest will be meager.  Try working messages to the point that the end stress is on God and not on the listener to perform.  The results may be significant in behavioural terms, and so much more.

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Preaching Layered Story Sensitivity

WeavingJust a little post to finish off this mini-series.  So you have decided not to pluck a story and lift sometimes imaginary life lessons from it.  You have studied it in its context and started to note the layers of intricate story within story crafting that the author has done.  Maybe you’ve been nudged to recognize the meaning of the story with the help of commentaries too, of course.  But how do you preach it?  This can seem overwhelming.

1. Determine the main idea of the story.  In light of its context, what is the main thought of the story you are actually preaching?

2. Figure out how much context you need to set.  This is determined not only by the story itself, but also by your context.  Some groups of listeners are ready to handle the bigger picture more than others.

3. Decide which layering details help communicate that main idea.  There will be so much you could spot and point out, but some of it will not make sense to listeners, or will seem like exegetical trivia if you can’t give a full sweep and explanation.  But if you don’t give some “fingers on the text” observations, listeners may think you are making up your own take on the meaning of the story.

4. Be sure to tell the story.  So easy to think our task is to share exegetical insights and theological profundities and applicational nuggets.  Remember that God inspired the story to mark lives.  Let it do that.  Tell the story.

5. Make the application the theocentric application intended by the text.  It is about God and it is supposed to mark us in response to God.  Don’t drop God out for the sake of a top-tip for creative truth telling in foreign lands.

6. Don’t forget to invite people into the text.  Your preaching, with sensitivity to the flow of the book, should motivate listeners to want to read and dig for themselves.  Don’t be shy to suggest that.

So much more could be said, but let’s leave it there for now . . .

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Letter Frame – Preacher’s Treasure 5

PenInk2Yesterday we saw that there are a host of ingredients that could go into an epistle closing section.  One way to use the closing is to select an element and preach an overview of the whole epistle using that text.  Some examples:

1. Preaching Final Personal Remarks – Galatians 6:14-15

Paul keeps on reinforcing the big themes of Galatians: it is all about Christ crucified, the promised deliverer, and the work of the Spirit in making us new creatures in relationship with our Abba.  Here Paul gives a Christ and Spirit (New Covenant shorthand term) summation, just to reinforce the point already made in chapters 3-4, in the summary of 5:5-6, etc.  From these two verses you could effectively preach the whole letter.

2. Preaching Concluding Exhortations – Romans 16:17-20

Paul addressed the issue of a disunited Roman church from the beginning of the letter.  The applicational climax in 15:7-13 is brought back here in the final verses of the letter.  Romans could be preached or reviewed with this text, as it could with the doxology to follow in 16:25-27.

3. Preaching Closing Prayer – 1 Thessalonians 5:23

Again, the big themes of the body of the letter are clearly evident in this single verse: sanctification and anticipation of the Lord’s return.

4. Preaching Prayer Request – Colossians 4:2-4

Not only does Paul offer a “practical” prayer request, but it is focused on the key issue of the whole epistle – the person and mystery of Christ.

5. Preaching Greetings – Romans 16:3-16, 21-23

Paul’s list of connections in Rome gives an insight into the constitution of the church in Rome – several Jewish names among a predominantly Gentile group.  This is tricky, but if handled well, this could be a gateway into the issue that Paul has been addressing theologically throughout the letter.

Tomorrow I will almost wrap up the series by looking at doxologies, and then will offer a final post with some big letter-frame preaching suggestions.

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