A Low Fence: Revisited

One of my early posts on this site was called “A Low Fence.” I have recalled that post many times, and since yesterday’s post related to the idea, I thought I’d give it a revamp:

When you have a single text for a sermon, you also need a fence.  The fence is there to keep you from wandering too far away from your focus.  

1. Erect a fence for the passage – If you are preaching John 3, put your fence around John (or maybe the section of John 1-4). If you are preaching Colossians 1, put a perimeter around Colossians. That fence means you try to keep your study, and your presentation, within John, or Colossians.

2. Study inside the fence – As you try to make sense of details within your passage, try not to spend all your time visiting other writers and other eras of biblical history. By staying within the writing of that author, or if possible, within this writing of that author, you will put your energy into the best evidence to find authorial intent within your passage. The fence marks off the best context for your study. Staying there will help you to spot the flow of thought within the passage, as well as the way the author is using a word or concept.

3. Preach inside the fence – As we thought about in the last post, it is often tempting to present a sermon in our own preferred terms (or preferred texts, cross-references, etc.) A couple of things can be said of cross-references. (1) Listeners don’t love a biblical “sword drill” and tend to switch off when a message becomes too textually complicated, and yet (2) Listeners seem to praise the preacher for being “deep” or some such non-compliment often misunderstood as endorsement. But it isn’t just about jumping around the canon. How easily we will preach a Resurrection passage in a Gospel using Paul’s terminology from 1 Corinthians 15. Or how easily our standard Christian terms get painted on every text so that the distinctive vocabulary of Luke or John or Hebrews or Peter is lost.

4. It only needs to be a low fence – I am not suggesting that you study, or preach, a biblical book in isolation from other inspired texts.  I am suggesting that you honour the author of the book both in your study and in your preaching.  With a low fence you can step back into the Old Testament to look at a passage that informs your preaching passage, or you can step over to other writings by the same author for a more complete word study.  With a low fence you can choose to step beyond the book for a quick presentation of how this apparently unusual idea is actually very biblical.  With a low fence you can choose to step forward to see the culmination of momentum found in your text.

These are the three reasons I tend to step over the fence –

A. For the informing texts that help me understand my preaching text,

B. For the supporting texts that help others accept my preaching text, or

C. For a culminating passage that helps to conclude a trajectory in my preaching text. 

Otherwise, I’d say it is generally best to stay where you are.  I certainly don’t think we should spend much time going elsewhere just because other passages have similar wording, nor to offer “illustration” for the truth of our passage, and definitely not to fill time.  Dig in the text you have, honour the author by doing so, and give your listeners the best you can from this passage.  Next week it will be a different one.

(To see the original post with worked example from Hebrews 13:20-21 – click here.)

7 Ways to Not Really Preach a Passage

Here are seven ways to not really preach the text you claim to be preaching. You may notice that I will say nothing about heresy. I will assume that what is said in each type of sermon is biblically and theologically true. Nevertheless, in each case the preacher is not really preaching the text they claim to be preaching. After the list, I will suggest three reasons why this is a problem.

1. Springboard Preaching – This is where you read the text at the beginning and then leave it behind. You may go to some wonderful places in the thoughts that follow, but the actual text is long forgotten.

2. Trigger Word Preaching – This is where you allow words in your text to sequentially trigger you to preach other things. This is like a sequence of mini-springboards. Again, you may go to good places in what you say, but you aren’t saying what this passage says.

3. Cross-Reference Preaching – This is a variation where keywords in the preaching text trigger travel via the concordance to other, probably preferred preaching passages. I presume they are great passages, but this one is getting short shrift.

4. Preferred Text Preaching – This is similar to the previous one, but all the triggers take you to the same place. I once took a course in Pastoral Epistles, but the teacher seemed determined to spend as much time in Romans as possible. Wasted opportunity.

5. Meaning-Lite or Intention-Lite Preaching – This is harder to spot. It appears to be preaching in the preaching text, but the preacher has not wrestled with the text in context, or with the original intention of the author, so the text has become a superficial and context-less set of abstract thoughts for the preacher to play with. The preacher may say good things, but is the preacher saying what the author intended to communicate?

6. Theological Overlay Preaching – This is a variation on number 5, but it is harder to critique. After all, the preacher might be presenting an amazing theological lecture, but the issue is that if it isn’t the intention of the passage, then it is an overlay being imposed rather than having the credibility of coming out of the text.

7. Anecdotally Dominated Preaching – This is where there is a tip of the hat to the text, but the real energy is invested in anecdotes and illustrations. These don’t serve the preaching of the passage, they swamp it. Now, they might be theologically brilliant quotes, stories and examples, but what about the passage?

That is a quick menu of seven ways to not really preach the text you purport to proclaim. But if these sermons are biblically and theologically accurate, is it a problem? Here are three reasons why it is a problem:

A. Your preaching text is good, why miss it? The alternative may be attractive, it may be more preachable, and it may even be what they need. If it is, preach that text. But why pretend to preach this passage and then not really preach it? In your preaching calendar it will say that you preached it, so it won’t get another opportunity for several years. Why not let them have this particular passage’s truth – it is unique, it is God-breathed, and it is profitable.

B. You are shrinking the canon, why do that? When your preaching text does not control your content, then you will naturally move to easier texts, to pet ideas, to personal soapboxes. Even if these are all true, they are also too few. God gave us a whole Bible of self-revelation. When we reduce that to the extent of our preferences, that will always make for a much smaller canon. What you want to say will never be as rich, diverse, interesting and helpful as what God has said and wants to say through the preaching of the Bible.

C. You are undermining God’s credibility as a communicator, why teach that? What example are you giving your listeners, especially the more discerning ones? When they look at a text and sense that what you have said isn’t really what that text is saying . . . but you imply that it is . . . what do they learn? The Bible is not good communication? This preacher does not believe God to be a good communicator? I should let the text trigger disconnected thoughts when I read it too?

Please add more ways this happens and more reasons it is a problem in the comments. And let’s resolve, prayerfully and passionately, to always seek to really preach the passage we claim to be preaching!

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Same Passage, Same People

Sometimes it becomes necessary to preach the same passage to the same people.  How do you handle that?

For instance, maybe you used a passage in a topical series, or on a special occasion, but then a later series is working through that Bible book and so you need to preach it again.  This happened to me this weekend.  The prayer of Acts 4:23-31 fit perfectly in our current Acts series.  But I preached it as a fitting New Testament conclusion to an Old Testament series on revival from 2 Chronicles less than two years ago.

So it may be the same passage, to the same people, but the series and the situation is different.  In fact, everything feels very different in 2020 than it did in 2018!  Here are four ways to handle this type of situation:

1. Same frame, different colouring. If your outline is a close representation of the passage, one approach is to use essentially the same outline, but adjust the illustrative details, the introduction, the conclusion, etc. (Yesterday my intro, conclusion, application and illustrations were all different to last time.)

2. Same frame, different emphasis. Another approach is to preach the same outline, but to shift the emphasis.  For example, the first time I preached the passage my emphasis was on the actual petition of the prayer – they asked for boldness.  This time my emphasis was on their view of God that led them to pray as they did.

3. Different outline.  It is possible to vary the outline of a message on a repeat passage and still be true to the text.  Effectively this is what I did yesterday.  In my first sermon I used three points to overview and present the content of the prayer relevantly to my hearers.  Yesterday I used a sequence of seven truths as they emerged from the prayer to preach the passage to a contemporary situation.  On this occasion the shift in emphasis naturally adjusted the outline (from their prayer for boldness, to their view of the God they were praying to), but I believe I preached the passage with an expository approach both times.

4. Same message, new context.  There may be occasions where it is appropriate to preach the same message with essentially the same emphasis, the same outline, and the same illustrative material to the same people.  However, this should not be done because the preacher didn’t do the work to prepare for this particular Sunday. Here are three quick thoughts about the same message being repeated to the same congregation:

A. A long time ago.  If it is years later, it can be interesting and helpful.  “On my first Sunday as pastor, twenty years ago today, I preached this message.  I was looking through my notes and decided to preach it again on this anniversary Sunday because the truth of this message is still so important for us all to hear…”  I can imagine that being appropriate and helpful. (Technically, this is very unlikely to be mostly the same people listening!)

B. A recent repetition. If it is a fairly recent repeat, then the preacher is essentially suggesting, implicitly, that the listeners need to hear it again, or maybe haven’t applied its message yet.  Again, you will need to be clear with the reasons for re-preaching your message.  Better they hear your motive than guessing it.

C. A secret repetition. Whatever the time lag, I would suggest not trying to sneak it past your listeners as a new message.  If it is essentially an old message, from old notes, then be honest about it.  You don’t want listeners feeling a weird sense of unidentifiable familiarity, nor do you want a keen listener to suspect you of pulpit foul play, nor do you want the discouragement of nobody having the slightest recollection of it!

Generally speaking, old notes do not equal a shortcut for this Sunday’s message.  A familiar text may require less exegetical work, but be sure that your listeners are getting fresh preaching because you have prepared your heart as well as your message, in anticipation of this Sunday!

Weight of Evidence Preaching: 5 Lessons Learned

Generally my default approach to preaching is to preach a single passage.  Sometimes I will preach a more topical message where each point is the idea of a text and the points together make up the main idea.  But there is a variation that might be called a weight of evidence sermon.

This is where the main idea of the message is repeated multiple times in the Bible.  So while you may use multiple texts, it is not primarily to build the main idea, but rather to reinforce the main idea.  For example, this past Sunday I essentially preached Isaiah 41:10, “Fear not, for I am with you.”

In one part of the message I quoted Genesis 26:24; Deuteronomy 31:8; Joshua 1:9 and Jeremiah 1:8 – all of which say the same thing in a variety of ways.  I anticipated that I would be able to find examples of the main idea that addressed different circumstances in life, but then in my study found that the “fear not” part of the phrase was either overt or in the context of almost every text I found with “I am with you” or similar phrasing.  So since over 90% of the 30+ passages I looked at had that fear context, I focused the message on God being with us, so we should not be afraid.

I touched down briefly in Hebrews 13:5-6, Psalm 23:4 and Matthew 28:20.  He is with us when threatened by people, when facing death, and in our service for Him – all contexts in which we feel fear.

Here are 5 lessons learned on weight of evidence preaching:

1. This should not be the default.  Typically our goal should not be to touch down in as many different verses as possible.  Padding sermons with unnecessary cross-references is very common and often a detriment to healthy preaching.

2. Be very focused. If the message uses multiple texts, then the main point needs to be very clear and obvious.  Otherwise the multiplied verses will confuse and lose listeners. For instance, there were verses in my list where the world noticed God being with his people and it causing them to fear, or verses that spoke of believers loving one another as the context of God’s dwelling with them.  This message could have lost focus and therefore lost its force.  Be selective in what you preach.

3. Keep their finger on one text.  Preaching is not a Bible sword drill where we try to make people find multiple references.  So I encouraged people to open to Isaiah 41:10, but I projected the text of the other verses used.

4. Feel the force of the frequency.  The point of a weight of evidence message is to help listeners feel the force of the frequency.  Time and again God’s word says this, so we should be sure to hear it!

5. Make follow up study possible. People may respond positively, but make sure the list of passages is available to any who want to study it for themselves.  There is the benefit of the main idea punched home in the sermon, but there is also the possibility of people enjoying the Bible study chase for themselves, if they have the references.

I’d be interested to hear any more thoughts on this approach – both the pros and the cons.

Thousands of People

When we read the Bible we tend to gravitate to the “big names” – Abraham, Moses, David, Peter and Paul.  Perhaps there are another fifty characters that get significant attention in our churches.  But there are at least another thousand people mentioned by name, some counts going much higher.  (Forgive me for not researching this number myself for this post!)  Perhaps we too easily skim over these more minor characters that fill the pages of our Bibles?

There are at least three benefits that can come as we focus in on the more minor characters of the Bible:

  1. The fact that they are noticed, noted and named is an encouragement in itself. Most of us don’t feel like major characters in the epic history of God’s great plan as it is being worked out in our generation.  We know we are minor characters.  And if we have our eyes open to see the minor characters in the Bible, then we can be encouraged to know that our small part in God’s big plan also matters.
  2. Whenever we see any detail about a character in the Bible we will tend to see them involved in real life situations (since that is the nature of God’s inspired Word) – and consequently we can see both good and bad examples that can be so helpful for us in our contemporary circumstances. It would be naïve to think that there is nothing to learn from the many examples presented in Scripture, but it would also be a real shame to stop at mere example.
  3. God inspired the Bible so that the characters in it are more than examples to copy or learn from, they are also part of a story that is pointing the reader to God – his redemptive character and plan. The Bible is not a collection of historical tales with good moral lessons to be gleaned.  It is God’s self-revelation to a world that desperately needs what only God can offer.

Let’s look at an example.  Elizabeth only appears in one chapter in the Bible (Luke 1).  It is a story with two or three major characters, as well as two very significant babies, and Elizabeth is relatively minor in comparison.  There is the angel Gabriel bringing a message to Zechariah in the temple, and then several months later to young teenage Mary in Nazareth.  Two very different recipients, in two very different locations, with two significantly different responses.  Then in the second half of the chapter we see two great exclamations of praise – first Mary’s “Magnificat” and then Zechariah’s “Benedictus.”  These two passages are triggered by two events.  For Zechariah it is the birth of his son John, and the reinstatement of his voice.  For Mary it is the declaration of Elizabeth when the two mothers-to-be met.

What can we legitimately learn from looking at Elizabeth in Luke 1?  First of all, let’s evaluate some of the observations we might make.  It is right to observe the details in the text, but not every observation should be applied in our lives.  Some things were specific and not intended to function by way of example for us.  Generally, the more we know our Bibles the easier we will find it to not apply observed details inappropriately.  For instance, the rest of the Bible does not teach people to go into hiding when they discover they are pregnant.  Nor does it support the idea that when a child moves inside the womb we should interpret the significance of that movement prophetically.

However, the rest of the Bible would support several possible observations from this passage:

  1. God hears and answers prayer – even if the years have passed and hope has apparently dissipated, God hears and answers prayer. We should continue to trust in God’s goodness and God’s plan.  (See Luke 1:13)
  2. Every moment matters – Elizabeth, like most characters in the Bible, is offered to us in light of one incident in her life. What about the other 60 or 70 years?  God noticed and noted their blameless living (see Luke 1:6).  While our righteous choices don’t earn, they do matter.
  3. Our most significant role may still be future – Elizabeth supported her priestly husband faithfully over the years. This was her ministry.  But then, out of the blue, came a role she never anticipated – she was to be the mother of the forerunner of the Messiah.  That role is finished, but it is fair to say our most significant moment of ministry may be completely unknown to us and still future.
  4. For those of us who are parents, our most significant ministry may well be the children we raise – This passage, like many others in the Bible, underlines the significance of the children God gives to us. We live in a world that may seem desperate to protect children (at least those who have been born), but it is a world that constantly undermines the value of parenting.  Time in passages like Luke 1 will reinforce our confidence that time invested in our little ones is time well spent.

These are some Biblically supportable observations from the story of Elizabeth.  But these are somewhat at the level of surface observation, even if the points are theologically important.  What does the text itself underline for the careful reader?

Elizabeth stands at the hinge of the story, between the two angelic visits and the two great exclamations of praise.  She is not just the hinge of the chapter, she is the meeting point of the two pregnancy stories.  She was the one who lived in hiding with this miracle child inside her. Surely, she quietly longed for conversation while her husband lived in wide-eyed silence because he had not believed the angel’s words.  Then when the angel told Mary the great news of her soon-to-be pregnancy, he anticipated her need to talk things through with someone that would really understand, and so mentioned that her cousin was also with child.  When Mary greeted Elizabeth there was a leaping of John within, and the Spirit of God poured out on her.  The silence was broken, a great cry came out, and Elizabeth’s celebratory exclamation builds to the climactic point: “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

She’d lived with the consequences of disbelief, and now she could not contain her joy at the blessing of belief.  Trust what God says and experience the blessing that follows.  You and I will never have the same role as Mary or Elizabeth (for several reasons!), but that exclamation stands true for us today: let us trust what God says and experience the blessing that follows.  At work, at home, in parenting, in ministry, in life.

Marginally Helpful Preacher Metaphors – Part 3

We have thought about the preacher as a video painter, and as a gallery guide.  Here’s the third in my list:

A Quirky Detective – When you are preaching epistles it may be helpful to think of yourself as a quirky detective.  You might be thinking that quirky is a strange qualifier to add, but hang in there, I have a paragraph to come up with a justification for that bit.  Epistles are powerful.  They offer a unique presentation of gospel truth and application of theology to a specific situation.  When an epistle does its work, it can really work in the heart and mind of a listener.  So what is the preacher to do?  Are we supposed to ignore the contextual features and offer sterilized theological argumentation using a blend of biblical and theologically loaded terminology?  Or are we supposed to hold out the epistle in all its uniqueness, helping listeners to see how the letter was designed to change lives then, and consequently, watch them feel the force of it now?  A good preacher of epistles ignites the imagination, clarifies the thinking of the writer, demonstrates its compelling relevance to today, and allows the text to do what the text was inspired and designed to do.  A detective holds up something as apparently insignificant as a piece of mail and shows how it unlocks and clarifies a real life (and death) situation.  And since people might expect an epistle to be just another boring letter, it probably doesn’t hurt to be a bit quirky too (all the best TV detectives are a little bit unique!)  There is more to preaching epistle than that, but there shouldn’t be less.

As before, feel free to add your own metaphors in the comments and I might develop some (giving credit).

Marginally Helpful Preacher Metaphors – Part 2

Last time we looked at the preacher as a video painter, particularly when preaching biblical narratives.  Let’s add another metaphor that will not become a classic, but may be helpful for now:

A Gallery Guide – When you are preaching biblical poetry it may be helpful to think of yourself as a guide in an art gallery. You might be thinking that you don’t enjoy art galleries so perhaps you should skip this point, but hang in there.  Poetry is powerful.  Through stirring imagery and crafted structure, listeners are moved in a way that prose could never achieve. When biblical poetry does its work, it can really work in the heart and mind of a listener.  So what is the preacher to do?  Are we supposed to strip out those poetic features and coldly present the results of our analysis of an ancient poem?  Or are we supposed to preach that poem in words that help the listeners to appreciate the depth of feeling and thought that was stirring in the artist’s heart and life as he wrote the poem?  A good preacher of poetry does for listeners what a gallery guide might do for me: lead me beyond first impressions, cause me to slow down and start to feel with the artist as he or she begins to plumb the depths of the piece before me.  When the preacher does that, he allows the text to do what the text  was inspired and designed to do.  There is more to preaching poetry than that, but there shouldn’t be less.

Next time we will add one more metaphor.  Feel free to make up your own in the comments … I might even develop it as a post (giving you credit, of course).

Marginally Helpful Preacher Metaphors – Part 1

Perhaps you have read Between Two Worlds by John Stott?  It is a classic textbook for preachers.  In it, Stott lists the biblical metaphors for a preacher: a herald, a seed sower, etc.  Then he reverently adds his own – the preacher as a bridge-builder.  Well, this is not a classic textbook, this is a blog post.  And I am not John Stott.  So I am going to offer several only marginally helpful metaphors for the preacher.  They are probably helpful as far as they go, and it is also helpful to not go too far!

A Video Painter – When you are preaching biblical narrative it may be helpful to think of yourself as a video painter.  You might be thinking these metaphors are only marginally helpful because this is not a real thing, but hang in there.  Narratives are powerful.  They grip listeners with the tension of a plot.  They stir identification and association with the reality of the characters.  When a narrative does its work, it can really work in the heart and mind of a listener.  So what is the preacher to do?  Are we supposed to strip out those narrative features and perform an autopsy on a dissected and dead story?  Or are we supposed to preach that story in words that paint moving pictures on the internal video screen of our listeners’ imaginations?  A good preacher of narrative ignites the imagination, paints pictures that move, and allows the text to do what the text was inspired and designed to do.  There is more to preaching narrative than that, but there shouldn’t be less.

Next time we will add another!

Preaching Bigger Books in Shorter Series

Let’s say you want to preach from a bigger book, but you like the idea of shorter series – is that possible?  Here are a few suggestions:

1. Preach a shorter section – instead of feeling obligated to preach a whole book every time, why not preach a contained unit from a book for a series.  You don’t have to give equal coverage to the whole book in this particular series, you can always come back for another section another time.

2. Have a Gospel/book of the year – we had a season in our church (over a year) where we were in Mark’s Gospel, but we didn’t want to be preaching it for months on end.  We planned so that we had the Easter section at the right time of the year, but in the months before that we had covered some sections in midweek groups instead of on Sundays.  This meant that our shorter series on Sundays were more focused and could be “branded” separately to allow for renewed energy in each mini-series.  We also had breaks from Mark to spend time in other types of series and other types of biblical literature.

3. Preach a landmark tour – this is a way to preach a book without giving every verse equal attention.  You can preach the landmarks of a Bible book over the course of a few Sundays.  For example, you might preach Romans by starting in 1:16-17 to launch, and then touching down in other keys texts like 3:21-25; 5:1-8; 8:1; 12:1-2, etc.  Obviously, you will need to give some overview of the flow for this approach to work, but it allows you to zero in on the golden passages. If done well then the church will be motivated to read the whole book.  You can also supplement with midweek discussions that cover more ground, although that is only one approach to take.

4. Preach different sized chunks – this is similar to number 3, but is more intentional about covering the whole book.  You could launch a Romans series with 1:1-17, but then cover greater ground with a couple of the messages in a series covering several chapters.  For instance, you might have a message covering 1:18-3:20, then maybe one covering 3:21-5:21, etc.  You could preach an 8-week series with three or four of the messages covering three chapters and then the other four focusing in a bit more – i.e. chapter 8 on its own, or chapter 12.

Have you found other ways to run shorter series on longer books?

The Big Advantage of Shorter Series

I have friends that preach through a Bible book over the course of many months. It seems to work for their churches. I tend to think that there are advantages to shorter series.  Here’s why:

1. Shorter series mean more launch points – if you only start a new series every six months then you only get that launch point twice each year.  If you start a new series every 4-8 weeks then you might have 6-8 launch points per year.  Launching a series is an opportunity to invite people in and to invite people back in who might have drifted from regular attendance.

2. Shorter series naturally allow more schedule flexibility – that is, you can juggle the series to fit the calendar.  So you can do a year-starter leadership series, and then something else before a pre-Easter series.  Shorter series’ also means potentially more “buffer weeks” where there is some wiggle room for when you need to make changes to the schedule.

3. Shorter series avoid monotony – you have to be an amazing preacher to keep people engaged in a six month series in Jeremiah.  You are not Martyn Lloyd-Jones and nor am I.  Both preacher and listener benefit from not getting to the point where a series starts to drag.

4. Shorter series avoid genre overload – some people love Proverbs, others thrive on Psalms, some respond well to historical narratives, others eat up the epistles.  Multiple shorter series allow for a schedule that resonates with more people.  Even the most ardent prophecy fan will appreciate some weeks in another part of the Bible.

Next time I will share some thoughts on how to do bigger books in shorter series.