Hearing the Text

This post is not about amplification, nor about the place and role of the Bible reading.  Both issues would be worth considering, but not today.  I’m talking about the message itself.  It is troubling when you hear a sermon and can’t quite seem to hear the text coming through.

This is where the big idea approach to preaching is so on target.  If the big idea of the text is the control mechanism during message formation, then the text should be coming through.  Sadly though, too many preach generic messages that essentially disconnect from the text itself.

I suppose preaching is essentially very easy for some folks.  A thirty-five minute message is really only a couple of minutes of “worked material” that builds tenuous links between the text and the message.  Once the text is tied in somehow, the standard message content can flow freely without hindrance.  Easy.

Some people do this by leaving the text behind.  It is read, a couple of comments are made, and then the message moves on from the text into generic sermon zone.

Others do this by pulling from the text the three things they want to find there.  Perhaps something pointing to human sin, and something to do with God, and maybe something along the lines of consequences, or perhaps a vague segue to Calvary, or whatever.  Thus the narrative is plundered for intro links to the message the preacher intended to preach.

Let me encourage you to make the preaching text more than an introduction for the message, or an introduction for the points.  Allow the text to be master over the sermon.  

Seek to preach so that God’s Word is communicated and God’s voice is heard.  Seek to preach so that listeners can clearly hear the text and its influence on the entire message.  Seek to genuinely preach the Word.

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4 thoughts on “Hearing the Text

  1. Hi, Peter. I’d appreciate your thoughts on something I did a few years ago.

    I preached Jonah 1, and I looked at chapter two, and no outline would take shape in my brain, but isolated truths kept jumping out at me. Finally, I gave up, and decided to just take about 5 minutes to read and explain things that might be unclear (it’s fairly straightforward) and then gave “10 Thoughts from Jonah Two”.

    Just about all ten of them departed from the text somewhat as I spoke about them. But I got a lot of positive feedback on it — perhaps just because people were bored with my more standard approach? I don’t think so.

    In effect, I did pretty much exactly what you’ve said not to do in the first sentence of your penultimate paragraph, but it didn’t seem to be abandoning the text. Perhaps that is because it was a lot of points from the text, rather than only three, and so I kept re-attaching us to the text? I don’t know.

    I’ve done the same thing several times since (maybe once every six months), especially in historical narratives. It’s usually well-received, but maybe that is just because people like the things I’m bringing out, rather than the actual structure of the sermon. What are your thoughts on that kind of approach?

    • Hi Jon. Jonah 2 is a tricky passage, I was once assigned it in a series and had to preach on just that chapter (extra difficult when in a mixed-speaker series I didn’t know if the subsequent preacher would immediately contradict my exposition by saying Jonah had repented and all was well in chapter 3!)

      I suppose it is worth remembering that “read and explain” is far more central to the preaching task than transmitting an outline. Furthermore, if you shared ten thoughts from the text, then the listeners would have been subconsciously doing the work of distilling them into a main thought or picking a dominant thought (which is why I encourage preachers to do the work and bring that together for people). Again, I would say that as well as reading and explaining, distilling the thought of the passage is far more important in preaching than communicating an outline.

      I’m not sure whether your ten thoughts that departed from the text did so because they were fanciful, or if they departed in the course of developing each thought. Obviously I would be more comfortable with the latter if it were me. Narratives are interesting texts in that they do offer numerous mini-nudges to go off in so many directions, yet in essence narratives are more mono-pointed than almost any other genre. That is, the main point of a narrative is the main point – usually found in the resolution of the inherent tension. We do need to be careful not to jump off every possible launch point into preaching other thoughts (especially since it is so easy to moralize these kinds of points).

      Why do people respond positively to what you describe here? I wonder if it could be a variety of reasons. The points you make might be relevant to them; it might feel more fresh than normal preaching; they might feel more of your energy coming through; they might appreciate the vibe they get when it seems like you are not just going through a pre-cooked outline, etc. I recently preached a sermon in which I made the point that I hadn’t tried to be clever with the sermon, but just wanted to share from the heart. Truth is that I had thought about the message at length, but hadn’t tried to smooth out the points into a polished message. Some people really responded to that sense that I was “speaking from the heart” in a more rugged way.

      In this time there is an increasing passion for “authentic” communication styles. What might have impressed people some decades back will often get a glazed look now. As preachers we need to think this through. I think of some of the best preachers of our generation and they are brilliant at conveying the sense of “natural.” (Natural takes work!)

      Overall I don’t think people are really evaluating the structure of a sermon, and sadly, they aren’t generally evaluating the biblical accuracy of our sermon. They are looking for clear, engaging, interesting, relevant (or in some cases, they are looking for fulfillment of a traditional/religious expectation). We need to be giving clear, engaging, interesting, relevant messages, and making sure that we are honouring the Word of God as we do so. My commitment to expository preaching and my view of Scripture affects my philosophy of preaching – meaning that I would expect a thoroughly text influenced message to be better than a text nudged, or text connected, message. That is not to say that sometimes a text-nudged message is always a bad thing, especially if the preacher is Bible-saturated so that the further and added thoughts are real Bible gold. This can and does work well (but it does create issues in terms of the authority of the message, and the example of the preacher in how he’s handling the text!)

      Random thoughts, but hope this is somehow helpful.

      • Thanks, Peter. A lot of good thoughts there.

        Perhaps I should be more specific, though. The question as I asked it was general, and you responded in kind, but an example will perhaps further the discussion, and I’ll use one that ties in to the personal experience with the passage that you related.

        My Thought #8 was, “God accepts imperfect repentance” (from verses 9-10). This was pretty firmly tied to the text. I developed that with five sub-points:
        – He never expressed remorse, or even regret
        – He never acknowledged the heart problem
        – He never specifically said he was wrong at all
        – His closest statement to acknowledgment of wrong was at least somewhat selfish – “forsake their own mercy” (v 8)
        – Jonah DID express an intent to do what God commanded, and a dependence upon Him
        – God accepted this, and delivered him

        Thought #9 was, “God is not permanently satisfied with imperfect repentance.” He is going to deal with Jonah further in chapter 4. Some could argue this was a complete departure from the text of Jonah 2, though obviously not unrelated. No one would object to this as a toss-in statement, but I took several minutes to develop the thought of God’s progressive dealing with people, and mentioned other examples in Scripture.

        If I’m reading you correctly, I think you would say it would be better to keep that point (#9) very brief while in chapter 2, and make it a discussion for the preaching of chapter four instead. Is that accurate? Or am I putting too rigid an interpretation on your comments?

        By the way, I love this site. I was able to get a Master of Arts in Bible, with Greek and Hebrew training, I had an excellent hermeneutics course, but it never worked out for me to have any formal homiletics training. I wish I could find time to go back and read everything here. I greatly appreciate what you are doing.

      • Thanks Jon. I’m not looking at the text right now, and going from memory. But let me engage as best I can. In terms of thought #8, Jonah was delivered from the wake-up call that was the fish’s stomach, but we don’t want to suggest that this equates to full salvation in New Testament terms (something that easily happens with the spiritual application of historical stories). I’m not saying you did that, but I would want to be alert to that since people tend to impose black and white simplicity on anything we say when preaching (especially in the OT). The fact that he didn’t fully repent, as you note, is clear from chapter 4, as well as seeming to be absent in chapter 2. I suppose I would struggle with point #9 because I don’t see a temporary satisfaction on God’s part . . . Jonah is returned for a continuation of the narrative, but I’m not sure I’d see him as being fully “clean sheet” at the start of chapter 3.

        Now, in terms of what you’re actually saying (since this is just an example text), was point number 9 a departure from the text? In a sense I would say it was, but only inasmuch as it was looking forward to the rest of the narrative. That seems much more rooted in the context than a leap into something only tenuously linked to the story. Actually, preaching a narrative in “scenes” creates difficulties that usually require reference to the rest of the narrative since stories tend to function as a unified whole. I suppose I might prefer what you suggested in your comment – namely to develop it at length once into chapter 4 – so that listeners can have their finger on the text in some way. But it would be something I would wrestle with, not a rigid rule that must be obeyed. There may be reasons to develop the imperfect repentance theme while preaching chapter 2, in order to allow the focus to be on the “personal affections as a foil to divine affections” theme of chapter 4 when preaching chapter 4.

        I don’t want to give the impression that I am about hard and fast rules. Actually I love the freedom that comes from a good understanding of expository preaching. We have far more freedom than most people realize, yet there is a massively significant constraint that most feel free to ignore – namely the text. Constrained by the text, free in form and delivery, that is almost expository preaching in a nutshell. My goal is to stimulate us (myself included) to think about how best to preach texts in order to best honour God’s intent in them and see lives maximally transformed.

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