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Standard Sermon Shape: Why Not?

This week I’ve been trying to offer some nuanced critiques of approaches that we can easily take to preaching.  The verse-by-verse and word-by-word approaches seem to honour the text, but can often fail to communicate the the passage effectively.  Topical preaching seems to honour the need for relevance, but there is no direct correlation there. Today I’d like to address one more text related issue: the standard sermon shape.

There is a sense in which most messages are going to have some similarities.  They tend to have introductions and conclusions with something in between (typically, though not always!)  The Bible tends to be read and explain and applied in something like that order, albeit with lots of variation possible.  Most messages are either deductive or inductive in broad shape, or some combination of both.  All of this is fine.

However, there are some standard sermon shapes that can be imposed on any passage.  Perhaps three points and a poem.  Perhaps a problem, solution, application approach.  You may have another default shape that comes to mind.  Why do I think it is better not to default to a standard sermon shape?

1. It does not recognize the diverse nature and shape of biblical texts.  I remember cringing during a sermon on a Psalm.  I was studying the Psalms at seminary and loving the diversity, the poetic artistry, the powerful and emotive imagery, etc.  Then I heard someone preach a Psalm as if it just a logical argument.  First point.  Second point.  Third point.  It didn’t just fall flat, it felt like an assault had taken place.  Supposedly paralleled truths had been ripped out of their setting and the Psalm lay in ruins in the preacher’s wake.  If we are going to default to anything, why not default to reflecting the shape of the text in the message?  You can always choose a different approach, but that is a safer default.

2. It undermines the power of the genre.  A narrative text is powerful.  So is a discourse section or a poem.  But all are powerful in a different way.  For instance, a narrative works by engaging the reader/listener with character association, with plot tension and resolution.  It doesn’t sit there waiting to be pillaged for three parallel theological statements or descriptive labels.  I. Noddy’s Contention.  II. Noddy’s Conversion.  III. Noddy’s Contrition.  IV. Noddy’s Contribution.  I think we’d do well to leave that kind of approach alone and look for how we can actually communicate what a passage says, while also honouring the way that it does what it does.

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Review: The Good God, by Mike Reeves

Whatever else we may be or do, we present God to others.  We present God in our preaching of the Bible, and we present God as we live our lives.  A critical question, then, has to be this: which God do we present?

Mike Reeves’ new book, The Good God, from Paternoster, is exactly what the doctor ordered for the church today.  And not one of those miserable doctors that prescribes some yucky fluid in a plastic bottle.  I mean one of those doctors that suggests a break in the sun and a feast of good food to help you feel better from all that ails you.  The church today needs to bask in the sun and feast on the truth offered so gloriously and accessibly in this little book.

Mike introduces the reader to the God who is loving, giving, overflowing, relational.  With his light and accessible manner, Mike shares a profound taster of just how good God is.  Clearly Mike loves God and it shows throughout.  Some books on the Trinity can come across as a technical manual of heresies to avoid.  Others as an exercise in premeditated obfuscation.  This little book sizzles with energy, addresses the issues with clear insight rather than excessive technicality, and stirs the reader’s heart to worship, to delight, and sometimes even to laugh in sheer joy.

Mike’s biblical references scattered throughout don’t come across as a defensive attempt to prove a point, nor as a theological citation method that distracts the reader.  Rather they subconsciously stir the reader to want to get back into the Bible and see this good God afresh.  As you’d expect from a Reeves book, there are also enjoyable windows into church history as key voices from folks famous, and not so, pop up to share a thought along the way.

The book is shaped, well, um, trinitarianly.  An introductory chapter invites the reader into the pre-creation love relationship that is the Trinity.  Then the book looks at creation, redemption and the Christian life (as in, Father, Son, Spirit, although brick walls can’t be built between the roles of each in each chapter).  The book closes with a chapter that asks who among the gods is like you, O LORD?  I won’t give away the end of the book by sharing Mike’s answer, but I know if you start, you’ll want to read to the end anyway!

I will say this though, the advance of anti-theist “new atheism” gets a clear response in the final chapter.  Oh, and for one final twist, just when you feel like there’s nothing left to add, he also addresses three of the big issues that Christians sometimes throw out in opposition to an emphasis on God’s loving relationality. Superb.

This book is a must read and a must share.  As you read it you will think of others you wish would read it – from atheists to strident single-author-reading Christians. But most of all, I think you will be thankful that you read it. I am genuinely excited about how God will use this book in the years ahead!

To pre-order your copy in the UK, click here or the book image above.  Note – the book will be released in the USA later in 2012 by IVP under the title, Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith.

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No Ads to See

Apparently individual posts on this site were carrying adverts placed there by someone other than me.  Today somebody found the ad to be inappropriate.  I have paid the fee to remove ads from the site.  Apologies for any annoyance from ads in the past, and I hope this helps make the site better for you.

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Idea as DNA

The goal of the passage study process is the single sentence summary that distills the message of the passage into a short statement.  This sentence then acts as sheriff of the sermon preparation process, determining whether each element of the message should be there or not.  The sermon is all about the effective delivery of the main idea.

If you have thirty seconds to preach, then the main idea is the message.  Given the bonus of two more minutes, then you can give an overview of the text to support the main idea.  Given the frivolous extravagance of an extra thirty or forty minutes, you can develop every element of the structure in order to drive home the main idea as effectively as possible.

In the message preparation process you begin with one concise, pregnant sentence.  As you move through the process, the message grows and develops.

My wife has been pregnant four times.  Each time it is exciting to consider the growth of the child inside.  Now it is too small to see, now it is the size of a peanut, the size of a strawberry, like your fist, the size of your outstretched hand, etc.  When that baby is born it seems so tiny, but then it grows and grows.  All the necessary information for that unique individual is contained in the individual imperceptible cell at the beginning of the journey.

The same is true of a message.  The short, pregnant sentence of the message idea is ready to grow and develop into the message.  So no time spent on the formulation of that sentence is wasted.  Rather it is an investment in the message to come, with all its uniqueness and biblical potency.

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Sharing Posts

Until recently I included a rather obvious Sharing button after each post.  This is no longer necessary as WordPress has included a helpful share feature.  If you read a post and want to share it on facebook, email, twitter, etc., just click on the title of the post, and then you’ll see the share feature at the bottom of the post.

Thanks!

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10 Ways to Make Your Listeners Uncomfortable – cont.

Continuing ten ways to disturb the comfortable with your preaching:

6. Don’t make it clear when you are starting a rhetorical question. If the question slips in and people miss it, they then land in the pause as uncomfortable outsiders, unclear what it is they are supposed to be responding to.  Be sure to verbally, vocally, or even non-verbally, mark the start of a question intended to engage (even if rhetorical and they aren’t expected to answer out loud).

7. Give the impression that the answer to a rhetorical question is obvious, when it isn’t. Nothing like making people feel thick to add discomfort to their emotive experience inventory.

8. Give the impression that you need their facial response, but you’re not getting it. If you need it, look around and find someone whose face is encouraging (sometimes the grisly faces are grimacing in concentration – it’s the totally uninterested faces to be concerned about!)  If you request response too much and give the impression that you’re not getting it, then your listeners will grow uncomfortable trying to make you comfortable.  That’s not really their job.

9. Give a series of “it/this” statements without being clear what the “it/this” was. If they missed your original reference and then you string “it” sentences together, they’ll feel lost for long enough to grow uncomfortable.  “What difference would this make in our church?  What would it do in our nation?  What if your family put this into practice?  How might it change your life? Etc.”

10. Go for a big finish after a message that has barely got out of second gear. I was taught to make my introduction proportionate to the message – i.e. don’t overpromise and under-deliver.  The same is true of conclusions: don’t under-deliver then finish with an excessive bang.

There are other things, but I suppose I’d summarize some of this in this way.  Don’t be dependent on your listeners wanting you to succeed and being willing to go hunting for the message in what you are trying to say.  Instead prayerfully seek to be an arresting, engaging, confident, winsome, human and compelling communicator.  If you are uncomfortable, they will be doubly uncomfortable.  Once for themselves, and once for you.

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But Wait, They Can See My Notes

Yesterday I wrote about some of the challenges that come from our listeners not being able to see our notes.  We preach orally, but tend to prepare in literary forms (manuscript, indented outlines, etc.)  I mentioned the issue of transitions – very different animals in spoken than in written communication.  I mentioned the need to indicate sense of progress, or purpose of illustration.  But wait, isn’t there a shortcut to circumvent this whole issue?

The Potential Powerpoint Shortcut – Wouldn’t it be better to just project your notes so they can follow along on a powerpoint sermon outline?  I would urge you not to make a projected outline your strategy to overcome these issues.  Your outline is for you.  If you use powerpoint, use it well (i.e. for images, minimal words, lots of blank screen, perfectly timed, etc.)

What Happens if You Powerpoint Your Outline? Projecting your outline will give the impression your primary goal is to educate and inform, it will spark frenzied note taking, it will cause people to try to memorize three sub-points rather than being marked by the one main point, it will distract from the deeper impact and applicational emphasis of your message.  What’s more, what is gained in visual communication via the screen is typically lost in visual communication and connection via the preacher.  It takes real skill to powerpoint in a connecting and engaging manner (a skill rarely found in ecclesial settings).

So I Should Never Use Powerpoint? Use powerpoint by all means, but usually not for your outline.  The outline is a skeleton, it is for you and it is for you to think through how to communicate as effectively as possible.  One of the first posts I wrote was entitled “What do you want them to remember – the outline?”

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The Height of Application – 2

On Friday I wrote about raising the bar without just cranking up the pressure. But any talk of application must also bring us back to take a prayerful look at ourselves.  I read a comment in Michael Quicke’s 360-Degree Leadership, a quote from someone, R T Warner, I think.  It said that the early church “out-lived the pagans, and out-died them, and out-thought them.”

Many of us today are living in unprecedented luxury compared to the rest of the world today and throughout history.  We have access to resources, and standards of living, and health care and on and on.  We shouldn’t feel bad about all that, but give thanks and make the most of the blessings we’ve been given in order to bless others.  However, we don’t want to become spiritually lethargic unawares.

We can urge others to respond to the teaching of God’s Word with total abandon, with radical commitment, etc.  But in a very real sense we can only “raise the bar” for others to the level it is raised in our own lives.  We don’t need to flaunt our own commitment or sacrifices, but they do speak loud and clear to our listeners.  So we should be sure to prayerfully take stock of our own responsiveness to the Lord.

Here’s a quick checklist:

1. Walk with God – all that is involved in that . . . listening to His Word, prayer, intercession, meditation, etc.  Do we . . . as much or more than we urge others to . . .

2. Resources – use of time, of money, of energy, of abilities, etc.  Just because some of us have more time freed up for ministry, doesn’t mean we are giving more.  Remember the widow’s offering – how would that apply to our use of time and other resources?

3. Sacrifice – do we really, or do we just, you know, sort of?

4. Holiness - easy to bang on about pet peeve sins, but how is the Lord dealing with issues in your life?  You know you’re not perfect, but are you complacent because your sins are not those sins?

5. Okay, I’ll stop, but we do need to prayerfully address the whole issue of personal “application” in response to God’s Word.  Actually, conversing with the Lord about these things can be such a blessing . . . perhaps it should really be an ongoing conversation – not about me, but about my response to Him.

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Christmas Break

No posts for a few days.  Enjoy your Christmas and please check back soon!

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Evening Seminar – Chicago Area

Just a quick post to say that we are planning to visit the Chicago area in the first half of May, 2010.  If you’d be interested, I’d be happy to offer an evening seminar on some aspect of preaching, or a full Biblical Preaching Seminar, in your church.  If you are in the Chicago area and might be interested in hosting a day or evening seminar, please contact me via the comment option below.  Thanks.

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