4 Reasons to Handle the Bible Well

designAny Christian leader will have opportunity to communicate biblical truth to others. It may be a sermon, or it may be in conversation; it may be to a group of Christians, or it may be an evangelistic setting, but we will all communicate the Bible to others. Let’s be sure to handle the Bible well.

What do I mean by that? I mean good basic biblical interpretation. Understand meaning in its immediate context, as the author intended, following the grammar of the text, making sure we see what it actually says, recognizing something of the historical and cultural setting, etc. I mean not imposing fanciful interpretations that make you appear either extra clever, or excessively creative or even downright oblivious to the plain meaning of the text itself. I am not saying we all have to have high level degrees in biblical exegesis before we can speak to others. I am saying we can all do our best to handle the Bible well.

So why is it important to pay attention to how we handle the Bible, whether in preaching or conversation? Here are four reasons:

1. Because of God. A basic assumption that would help all of us is to trust that God is a good communicator. That means that if God chose to inspire a collection of documents, then He would do a very good job. He did. So a personal commitment to handling the Bible as well as possible is an expression of my trust in God’s ability to communicate well. He did not inspire a poor Bible that needs our cleverness, our fanciful ideas, or our creative shortcuts. When we try to improve God’s communication by our own sophistication we insult our God. When we handle the Bible carelessly we demonstrate a lack of value for our God’s communicative nature. Let’s handle the Bible well because of God.

2. Because of the unsaved. Another important point to remember is that people who do not yet know Christ will come to know Christ because of the Spirit drawing them to Him, not because of our brilliant presentations. However, they are evaluating our presentations. If we claim that the Bible was given by inspiration of God, but then proceed to read it carelessly, or elevate our own “codebreaking genius” above a text we claim was given to us by God, then we should not be surprised if some do not take the gospel seriously and view us as being duped by an unthinking religion. When the Bible plays a secondary role to our communicative sophistication (or our sloppiness), those who are trying to evaluate the claims of Christ may be led to feel that it can’t be worth much if we appear to not take God’s revelation seriously. Let’s handle the Bible well because those who don’t know Christ are watching us.

3. Because of believers. Periodically I get to go to the doctor’s office and see the medical expert in action. I might get seven minutes, and I cannot see the screen they spend so much time looking at. I don’t learn much. Periodically I take my car to the mechanic and I might stick around and watch an expert in action. I might get to spend a little time, but I typically won’t see much. I don’t learn much. But every week I sit in a church and watch a Bible expert in action. I might get half an hour, or even more. Sadly, in many cases I would not learn much that would help me handle the Bible well. When we handle the Bible before people, they are looking to our example as well as our message. How we handle the Bible will make a mark on them. Are we setting a good example of observing the passage closely, interpreting accurately, and applying appropriately? Are we demonstrating an attitude to the Bible, and an approach to handling the Bible, that we are happy for our listeners to copy all week long? Let’s handle the Bible well because those who think we know what we are doing are watching us.

4. Because of me. I want to handle the Bible well for my own sake too. I want you to handle the Bible well for your own sake. How silly we must seem when we treat the Bible as if it has limited value, but believe that our clever communication is what people need. The truth is, when we short circuit the process and offer personal proof texts and hobby horses, we steal from ourselves the riches that come from having our nose in the text and our hearts open to the God who wants to meet us there. Maybe my message to others will be limited in value for some reason, but my own time in the Bible seeking to understand it and respond to God will be invaluable for me. Let’s handle the Bible well because even if our communication were to fail, our own time with God in His Word is eternally priceless.

Prayerfully ask God to search you and try you in this area. How are you handling the Bible when you preach? What about in conversation? Attention given in this area will never be wasted effort for those that love God!

Big Idea or Big Story? Lessons Both Ways

Tents2I studied preaching in the “Big Idea” school of preaching. We were required to read books from the “Christocentric” school of preaching.  In my experience, many preachers in both groups need to learn from one another.

The big idea folks tend to emphasize the particular passage open before them.  They never dismiss the big story of the Bible, but their primary concern is to communicate the message of this particular passage.

The big story folks tend to emphasize the big story of redemption, irrespective of which specific text they may be preaching.  They don’t dismiss the importance of a particular passage, but their primary concern is to preach the big picture gospel at every opportunity.

Both approaches can be highly effective.  And both approaches can be done very poorly.  One way both will fall short is where the Bible is mishandled.

Big idea folks focus on the specific passage, but this cannot guarantee accurate exegesis, nor effective presentation of the relevance of that passage to listeners.  If the preacher harvests the imperatives in a passage and preaches a pressurized message inviting the listener to self-initiate some kind of moral transformation, then the text has been abused and the message of the Bible corrupted.  If the preacher fails to effectively engage the bigger story of Scripture, then the particular passage could be mishandled in light of its whole Bible context.

Big story folks focus on the full history of God’s redemptive plan, but this cannot guarantee immunity from moralistic preaching, nor does it always generate accurate handling of the text.  If the preacher imposes fanciful shortcuts to get to the goal of the rest of the redemption story, then it may seem like the text before the listeners may be turned into a secret code that only the preacher can unravel.  When big story preaching does not handle each text carefully, it can have the effect of flattening the Bible so that every passage is essentially a vague reflection of the one big story that will get imposed on it by the preacher.  And even when the redemption plan is laid out, how easily moralism can creep in via pressure to choose belief as our great work.

Both schools of thought have a lot to offer and I would thoroughly recommend you read the best books in both groups. But whichever camp you choose to set up your homiletical tent in, be sure to benefit from what is good about the other group too.

2015 Blog Summary

designThis was an intriguing year for BiblicalPreaching.net – thank you for visiting the site! Let me share some highlights and stats with you.

Some of the Series – We began the year with a series of preaching resolutions that stirred some good comments, followed by another provocative series on radars preachers need to develop, and then 10 reasons why your listeners may not be satisfied with the preaching they are hearing. People always seem drawn to Biggest Mistakes series too, since we all make lots! So 10 Listener Fatigues is worth a mention too in a similar vein.

Monthly Opener – At the start of each month I have shared a longer post that has been picked up by the European Leadership Forum.  These included, Overflow Leadership: 2 Vital Ingredients, Jesus Nudges, Cracks are Serious, one that stirred lots of verbal response at a conference – 7 Ways to Guard Hearts at a Christian Conference (with its follow up regarding Guarding Hearts at Bible School, and also at Guarding Hearts at Church).

Book Launch – The end of the summer was given over to another guest series at the launch of Foundations – click here to find out more. Here’s the series intro, plus a couple of highlights for me?  Glen Scrivener on sin, John Hindley on being human, and Jonathan Carswell on a Passion for Books (have you heard about 10ofthose.com starting in the USA now? Please spread the word!).  Speaking of books, I also shared a chapter from Pleased to Dwell at the start of December (how can I nudge people to ponder the Incarnation during the rest of the year – all ideas welcome!)

There were quite a few other posts that seemed to stir response, such as Who Turned Preaching Into a Solo Sport? And probably the one that deserved the least attention, but somehow got quite a lot – Meaningless Chatter.

Most Popular Posts this Year?  Due to some friendly sharing from friends with big readerships, by far the most popular posts were these (can these posts get traction again on twitter? Feel free to share the links!)

10 Pointers for Young Preachers as well as 10 Pointers for Older Preachers

10 Pointers for Seminary Trained Preachers as well as 10 Pointers for “Untrained” Preachers

10 Pointers for Preaching Teams as well as for Preaching Easter, and Special Occasion Preaching, and of course, Evangelistic Preaching.  There was another on Planning a Preaching Calendar, and one on Planning a Series.

There you have it, another year of blogging. So much I didn’t mention, but thanks for reading this far!  What should I write about in 2016?  All suggestions welcome, most suggestions followed!

Let Christmas Preaching Point Deeper

AdventDay2Christmas sermons can feel a little bit superficial. Nostalgic Christmas card scenes described with platitudes about peace on earth, etc. If we are not careful, we can miss a great opportunity to preach the gospel to visitors who may only come to church at this time of year.

The traditional way to get to the Gospel in our Christmas preaching is to paint an arrow from the crib to Calvary. This is certainly an important link to make. By all means let folks know why Jesus chose to come and where it was all headed.

But maybe in our eagerness to move the story forwards, we may be missing something. After all, our listeners may not be as surprised by the cross as we seem to think they will be.  Maybe they anticipate hearing about those old Bible stories and maybe they find Christmas and the Cross to be two of the familiar facts about Jesus. If so, then it can still all feel very “long ago and far away.”

Perhaps people might be surprised to discover that Christianity actually speaks to the heart of their daily struggle.

For instance, ever since the Fall we have all been saturated in the brine of self-solutions. I can get my act together. I should work my way out of this. I need to turn over a new leaf. I am the master of my own destiny. I, I, I.

Add in the Gospel and people may find it slightly foreign and a little irrelevant.  Maybe Jesus can bring peace on earth in some hypothetical future, but how does that help this week? It doesn’t stop wars today and my life is still a struggle.

So this Christmas, instead of simply drawing a line from Jesus’ birth to death, why not pause and ponder if there is a way to reveal an underlying theological issue that people feel. How about this – Christmas points away from “what-must-we-do” to “who-can-we-trust.”  And we need that.

Please take a look at a brief devotional post on this issue, it might help with your Christmas preaching this year.  Click here to go to the site dedicated to Pleased To Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation.

Meaningless Chatter

blabla2Apologies for a quiet couple of weeks on here . . . have been enjoying our new little girl and the sleepy first weeks with a little one in the house.

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Our culture seems to be an effective generator of meaningless chatter. I am not referring to relaxed conversation.  I am think more specifically of the excessive use of clichés and standard phrases that mean very little.

Listen in to folks chatting with each other and you will often hear a back and forth of relative nothingness.  One person will express an opinion. The other will counter with “we’ll just have to agree to disagree,” which stirs a swift, “you’re entitled to your opinion,” countered with a, “fair enough, free country,” or a reference to “freedom of speech,” a reference to “a bit of give and take,” and so on.  Before you know it, such free speech has moved a conversation nowhere over the course of many minutes.

Turn on the TV and listen to a footballer being interviewed and typically you can play cliché bingo with a line completed every 30 seconds.  A game of two halves, play until the whistle, a striker’s finish, he’s got a great engine, a game of cat and mouse, a bit cagey, etc.  (This list would be different in the USA, for instance, but probably similar in effect.) Every phrase is actually saying something, but it can all feel very predictable and slightly like rote behavior.  To someone not used to listening to British footballers it can seem like another language.

What about your preaching?  Do you have any stock phrases that come out too easily?  Do you preach in Christianese so that visitors don’t actually know what you are talking about?

Here are some categories of phrases that could very well be true, and yet still be classified by some as potentially meaningless chatter.  Since I am slightly sleep deprived, I won’t list the dozens of examples, but by all means feel free to list ones that come to mind in a comment!

1. Churchy language – gathering under the sound of the gospel, where two or three are gathered, the church is not the building, Sunday morning is like a mountaintop, let’s approach the throne of mercy, bring our prayers to a close, etc.

2. Preacher language – turn with me to . . . , by way of application, finally (this one is often confusing when 15 more minutes of sermon follows it!), as we all know (dangerous and pointless phrase, unless we like to alienate people), etc.

Remember, some of these phrases are profoundly true, but still might require some explanation so that they don’t sound like a pastor being interviewed on TV about the service and his message.

3. Theology language – its all about Jesus, Jesus is the answer, let go and let God, our problem is that we just don’t believe enough, its not about us, etc.

I am sure you could add to these lists.  By all means do.  And let’s prayerfully consider whether our language each Sunday actually communicates.  Maybe some of us will dare to ask some newer people in our churches to write a list from their perspective!

Warning: Over Hyped Intros

Hype2The first moments of a message make a massive difference. Just jumping into the message without any real introduction is a wasted opportunity. But there is the other extreme to beware of too: the overly hyped intro.

Yesterday I sat down to watch a DVD set that I thought might work for the small groups in our church. They won’t work.  The speaker, who I have enjoyed in the past, turned the introduction to a short series of messages into an infomercial of hype. The first ten minutes of the first message, and then the first five minutes of the second, were taken up with what felt like sales hype.

“I was speaking at a conference, but my message wasn’t working, so I turned to such and such a passage, and I didn’t know what I was going to say next, and then out came this message that I am going to share with you…” Which was followed by a bigger conference, tens of thousands, repeat of the message, lives transformed forever, etc., etc.

Maybe I am just too cynical. I know many Christians would love that and talk in eager tones about how amazing that experience was and how faithful God was, etc. But for me, this kind of “God gave me this miraculous and direct” type of introduction left an empty feeling. I also wonder how it would sound to someone on the fringes of the church.

An introduction to a message is not the place to tell your audience the global impact this one message (via this one messenger) is going to have, or even has had. By pointing listeners to other, bigger, international, church leader audiences, there is a sense in which the introduction is crossing some line we shouldn’t cross. Are these listeners now obligated to speak in exaggerated terms about the message? If the message is so powerful, wouldn’t that power hit home even without the opening sales pitch?

Don’t get me wrong, the opposite extreme can be really unhelpful. That is, “turn with me to this passage…” and no attempt at forging a connection.

The introduction is the time to connect with your listeners, to connect them with their need for the message, and connect them with the passage with an engaged sense of anticipation.

But when the intro becomes sales hype, these connections become tenuous at best. They could feel disconnected from you, the speaker, because you are such an out-of-their-league big shot. They could feel disconnected from the message because God gave it somewhere else for other folks. They could feel disconnected from the passage, because the implication of your introduction is that direct revelation is what makes this message special. And they could feel a general distance from the whole scenario if they suspect any stretching of the truth in what you say.

Even if the hype is true, just introduce the message in a way that is relevant for this group of people and let God’s Word and God’s Spirit do his work. Introduce effectively, but hype and sales pitches aren’t necessary.

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.

A Quick 9-Point Illustration Checklist

Lamp2A lot is said about the importance of illustrations in preaching. Some of it is true. Hopefully this quick checklist will be helpful as you plan your next message:

1. People need to see what you are saying, which means preaching an image and not just a concept.

2. What images are right there in the preaching text for you?  Poetry, wisdom, and prophecy are packed with visual imagery.  Narrative is imagery.  Epistles can give less images to use, but check the context and remember the setting (that is a narrative).

3. Before you jump to adding other illustrations, could you do a better job of describing what is in the text more effectively?

4. Don’t add illustrations.  Be more purposeful than that.  Add explanations where necessary.  Add proofs where needed.  Add applications where you can.  Remember, an “illustration” is a vague entity often used without good purpose.  Much better to purposefully add exactly what is needed at any given point in a message.

5. Are you adding material to add interest?  Slow down, what are you saying?  Is the text boring?  Are you boring?  You might be, but the text shouldn’t be.  Consider whether you are underlining the relevance of the text by what you add, or are you underlining the assumption that the text is irrelevant?  If you aren’t convinced the text is incredibly relevant, please spend time in prayer and personal study, not in searching for illustrative material.

6. Explanations should add light to your presentation of the text.  Proofs should add weight to your preaching of the text.  Applications should add relevance to your explanation of the text.  Whatever you are adding, is it distracting focus from the text and from the God revealed in the text?  If so, think twice.

7. How long does that added material need to be?  Sometimes we can get so caught up in the “illustration” that we take an age to emerge the other end.  That is unfortunate and will mean that the weight of presentation is imbalanced.  Sometimes we offer added material too quickly and don’t allow time for the necessary clarity to emerge.  This is unfortunate because such material would then qualify as “distractions” rather than “illustrations.”  Actually, if we take too long or are too brief, either way we distract and the time is wasted.

8. How relevant is your added material? If you are taking listeners to a whole new realm (i.e. the civil war or feudal Japan), then you are going to have to paint a whole new picture with lots of detail.  Is it worth it?  Try to add material that is both relevant to them and helps with a sense of the relevance of the text.  (Incidentally, this means that illustrating with other Bible passages may not be as helpful as you were trained to believe!)

9. Preach so that the main idea is communicated clearly and relevantly, so that listeners encounter the God revealed in the text and are invited to respond to Him.  Where necessary and helpful, “illustrate.”  And when you do, make sure listeners are still pointed toward God and not distracted by gazing at themselves.

What would you add to this list?

10 Listener Fatigues – part 3

yawningman2We have looked at textual genre fatigues, and some preacher-related fatigues, but there are still more . . .

8. Outline Fatigue. If your sermons always follow the same structure, then you may well be draining some energy from your listeners.  I know some preachers follow a prescribed pattern and claim that listeners love to spot how they make the turn to Jesus.  But since every text has its own uniqueness, let’s look for ways to reflect the diversity of the text, and add some variety to sermon structure too.  Can you introduce an inductive approach (building to the main idea), or a combination of inductive and deductive (build to the idea and then develop the applications), or perhaps preach an epistle text with a narrative shape?

9. Text-Length Fatigue.  If you are preaching through a book, it will be easy to fall into making every text roughly the same length.  Half a chapter per week through an epistle can get monotonous.  Why not mix it up and cover a larger section sometimes, and a very tight section at other times?  Why not introduce, or conclude the series with a big sweeping overview?  Perhaps a long series needs a mid-point big picture message?

10. Disconnect Fatigue.  Listeners can’t help but grow tired if the preaching goes too long in a disconnected mode.  That is, preaching historical and explanatory information without demonstrating its relevance (or even your relevance) to the contemporary situation.  The one exception is probably narrative where it can, if told well, grip people for longer than other types of text.  Nevertheless, if you make people listen too long without any hint of relevance to them, they will grow tired of the message.

What would you add to this list?

10 Listener Fatigues – part 2

yawningman2Continuing our list of potential preaching fatigue that we might be able to avoid for our listeners…

(Yesterday we thought about genre, key text and main point fatigue)

4. Preacher Fatigue.  After a while your listeners might just get tired of hearing you.  You may try to vary what you do, but you will always be you and that creates some limitations for your preaching.  Don’t be afraid to share your pulpit. Develop other preachers, invite other local pastors, give yourself a break and your listeners too.

5. Illustration Fatigue.  One way we can be predictable is in the use of illustrations.  Do you often reference certain sports, or your own family, or the Napoleonic Wars?  Beware of tiring listeners with something that doesn’t mean as much to them as it does to you.  Some preachers default to the same category of illustration.  Others default to a collection of specific illustrations.  I’m feeling drained just describing it!

6. Vulnerability Fatigue.  Some of us don’t share enough vulnerability in our preaching.  But some of us share too much and too often.  When listeners start to feel like they are the counsellors for your self-disclosure, they will grow tired of hearing about your constant struggles.  Do be vulnerable.  Don’t be constantly sharing your struggles.  Remember that the spotlight in your preaching is not on you.

7. Contagious Fatigue.  If you are preaching fatigued, then it will be infectious.  Sometimes you can’t avoid being up all night with a child or a church member in crisis.  Be careful that you don’t get into a rhythm of preaching fatigued.  If your preparations are draining you, maybe you need to revisit your preparation schedule.  Perhaps you don’t get enough sleep, or exercise, or your sugary snacks while you work on the sermon mean you preach in a weekly sugar low?  Be careful that you don’t simply preach tired.  Listeners will pick up on your lack of energy, or your extra edginess.

Tomorrow we’ll finish the list, but feel free to add any more at any time!