Evaluate Before You Preach

EvaluateIt is super helpful to evaluate your sermon after you preach it.  But it is also vital to evaluate it before you preach.  Here is a partial checklist that may be helpful:

  1. Think about the biblical text – have you answered the questions that the text raises as your listeners read it (for maybe the first time)?  Does your message still have the authority of the biblical text or has your message preparation led to any drifting from the meaning of the passage?  Is your main idea the main idea of the passage?  And is your main idea going to engage your listeners?
  2. Think about your listeners – is your message going to communicate the relevance of the passage to your specific listeners?  Is your support material going to connect with different demographics in the congregation (or do you only use sporting illustrations throughout?)  Does your message only communicate to the in-crowd in Church language, or will it communicate to any guests present?  Are there any points of connection between message and congregation that require extra sensitivity?  It is better to think that through before, rather than trying to fix damage later.
  3. Think about the communicator – how are you doing spiritually?  And relationally?  And physically?  Is there anything you need to put right or address in the time between now and when you have to preach?  Do you need to ask someone for help with a pre-preaching responsibility so that you can be in the best place personally to preach?  (Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and admit to a trusted friend if that is the case.)
  4. Think about the Spirit of God – apart from God working through this sermon, it will achieve nothing.  Have you prepared prayerfully?  Do you need to seek forgiveness for self-reliance or distraction and bring the congregation and the message to the Throne of Grace now?   

There is plenty more that can be evaluated before you preach.  Are you anticipating the need to rush because of too much content?  Are you still unclear how you will land the message?  Would you want to hear this message?  Does your message point people to themselves or to Christ?

Remember, you will never have a perfect message, but prayerfully do what you can.  In fact, prayerfully evaluate the message and you will probably have a sense of where to put your energies in the time you have left!

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!

Preach Don’t Overreach

It is so easy to overreach when preaching.  In fact, I wonder how many thousands of sermons are preached every week that are barely even Christian?

We should point people, via the Word of God, toward God/Christ.  We should clarify not only what the text is saying historically, but also what it means for us today.  We should lead the way in being responsive to God, inviting people to respond to His grace.  We can encourage people to respond and move in the right direction.  But it is not our role to create momentum, nor is it up to us to generate the force to determine speed of change.

It is the same with counseling, pastoring, parenting, etc.  We can orient hearts in the right direction, we can make clear what next steps might look like, and we can travel alongside the person we are caring for … but we cannot push them along at a pace to suit us.

Sometimes God generates an incredible rate of change in a life.  Sometimes forward motion is imperceptible.  As preachers, as pastors, or as parents, let’s not usurp the Spirit’s role and try to force things along.  When we do, we undermine the foundation of our ministry.  Remember the first step?  It is to orient hearts in the right direction, to point people to God/Christ.  Usurp the Spirit and you will quickly point people back onto themselves.

When we turn people toward themselves, toward their efforts, their failings, their discipline, etc., then we can quickly slip out of biblical ministry and into the role of a personal trainer or life coach.  Our calling is higher than that.

Every **ssage is Unique

A lot of preachers seem to scan their preaching passage for gospel words and then essentially preach the same message every week.  Their messages may be doctrinally sound and evangelistically clear, but they and their listeners are impoverished by this approach.

Every passage is unique.  Instead of scanning the passage for gospel words or harvesting imperatives for applicational teaching, my advice would be as follows:

Study the passage and seek to really understand it.  Don’t jump off that pursuit just because sermon material shows up in the text.  Keep studying and really seek to understand the passage.  Then prepare and preach a sermon that has a fingerprint as unique as the passage it is based on – so that every message is unique!

This approach will bless the preacher because you will enjoy the richness of God’s Word far more and find that God stirs your heart with layer upon layer of biblical truth.  This approach will bless the listener because they will not grow tired of hearing the same sermon dressed up in different clothes every week.  Instead they will start to appreciate the uniqueness of each passage, the beautiful diversity of Scripture, and the multi-faceted and highly relevant wonder of God’s character.

3 Approaches to Preaching

Here is a simplified summary of how preachers engage with the biblical text.  It is not an exhaustive summary, but I hope it will offer some helpful insight.

1. Springboard Preaching

This is where the preacher touches down in a passage only as long as necessary to bounce out of the text and into their own thoughts. A word or phrase may be taken on the journey through the message, but it has long since been ripped out of its passage context.  The preaching may be superficial and heretical, or it may be theologically brilliant, but whatever it is, it is not handling the Scriptures in a helpful or meaningful way.

2. Highlight Bounce Preaching

This is where the preacher is a little more aware of the context of the passage and moves through the passage noting highlights along the way. Typically these highlights will reflect the best bits of Bible study done in preparation, and if the message remains focused on the preaching text then it will tend to be a stronger message (there are exceptions to this, of course).  This approach is better than Springboard Preaching, but it can still feel like a fairly amateur approach to preaching.  That is not to say that there are not proponents of preaching styles that inadvertently advocate this approach, albeit with a greater emphasis on the unity of the message than the more rudimentary “random highlights” approach of an untrained beginner.

3. The Deeper Passage to Life Approach

This is where the preacher has studied the passage in its context and is able to present the message of the passage to some depth.  The depth and focus of the passage engagement also allows for effective targeting and penetration in contemporary life application.  This is not a series of mini-messages on various passage details, nor an oversimplification of the passage that offers a set of parallel preaching points.  Instead, it seeks to allow each detail to work together to convey the single thrust of the passage in a message that really represents the passage in question (rather than forcing the passage to support a standard sermon shape as often happens in the previous approaches).  Obviously the depth of the message and the accuracy in application will vary depending on the skill and maturity of the preacher, the time available for preparation, and the capacity of the listeners.

This third approach should honour the text in seeking to communicate what is actually there.  It should stir the preacher who is actually studying a passage rather than simply shaping a message with different material.  It should impact the listeners because the unique message of this passage will be planted in their hearts.

Let’s evaluate our approach to preaching and seek to stay in the text more than the first approach, and then seek to probe the text more than the second approach.  And if we get into the realm of the third approach, then there will always be so much more to learn and improve!

Spot the Moment for Momentum

A lot of good messages struggle through a lack of momentum in a certain phase of delivery.  Here are two skills to prayerfully develop:

1. Learn to anticipate that momentum moment – As you look at your sermon in outline form, or the manuscript, whichever approach you take, you should be able to spot where the sermon could start to feel sluggish.  It could be a heavy section of explanation, or a sequence of interconnected thoughts, or the second of two similar points.  Or it could be that you tend to lose momentum as you move through your last point toward the conclusion.  Knowing yourself and knowing your preaching will increasingly help you to anticipate where a sermon may start to drag.

2. Learn to listen as you are preaching – As you are delivering your message, learn to listen to yourself and your listeners.  Are you starting to bore yourself?  Do something about it.  Are they starting to shuffle around, glaze over, look at their watches, or cough?  Do something about it.  New preachers may deliver in a state of panic and sheer focus, but if you have experience with public speaking you should be able to prayerfully be aware of yourself and your listeners.

Don’t just trudge on through a dull phase of a message.  Add some energy, break the moment with an illustration, make a humorous (but appropriate) aside, review and build momentum at the next transition … do something that will help.

Please, No Hooks!

I have heard the word “hook” refer to two aspects of a sermon: the introduction and the main points.

The introduction is sometimes called the hook because it is supposed to grab the attention of the listener.  The main points are sometimes referred to as hooks because they are supposed to serve as suitable hardware for hanging the preacher’s thoughts on.

I don’t use the word hook for either.  Please don’t think I am being petty.  I just think there are better things to aim for in both areas:

1. Introduction.  The introduction to a sermon should grab the attention of the listener, but there is so much more to be achieved here.  The introduction should stir motivation in the listener for listening to the preacher, for reading the passage, and for listening to the message.  Simply arresting attention is a very inadequate introduction.  I keep hearing messages that start with an engaging or humorous story (great! Attention grabbed!) and then an awkward transition to the message.  Don’t be satisfied with just getting their attention, aim to stir their motivation.

2. Points.  The points of a message are the skeleton of the strategy that you use to deliver your main idea and its relevance to your listeners.  The goal is for them to encounter God as they have an encounter with God’s Word.  But what happens when we start to think in terms of “hooks to hang thoughts on” … ?  Well, listeners start to assume their task is to remember the outline of your message.  In the same way as a handout tends to turn the preaching moment into a classroom lesson, so memorable hooks tend to make the listeners into learners.  As Haddon Robinson used to say, your outline is for you, not for them.  Make your points complete thoughts, full ideas, that develop and progress the communication of the main idea of the message.  Maybe you need a memory aid to simplify your task as a preacher, then have simplified bullet points, but don’t make memorizing those points the point of listening to your sermon.

You can hook your listeners and then give them nice hooks to hang thoughts on if you like, but I wonder if the terminology might inadvertently (or even, advertently – what is the opposite?) lead to preaching that arrests attention but fails to stir motivation, and then offers memorable outlines for future reflection, while wasting golden opportunty for meaningful encounter in the present.

The Goals of Biblical Preaching Are Not Pragmatic

Good preaching should be biblical, clear, engaging and relevant.  At first sight we may be tempted to think that only the first, being biblical, is a theologically driven goal.  At first sight we may feel that being clear, engaging and relevant are more pragmatic goals.  I disagree.

There is a theological foundation for each of the goals.

When we preach we can be more or less clear in both content and delivery.  We can be organised in our material to help our listeners follow us, and we can be easy to understand in our delivery: through our diction, enunciation, body language, expression, and so on.  It is easy to think of clarity as a pragmatic issue.  It is more than that.

When we preach we can be more or less engaging in both content and delivery. We can offer content that seems aloof and tedious, or content that is captivating and connecting.  We can deliver our messages in a manner that feels odd and distant, or we can speak with a contagious enthusiasm and energy for the preaching event that arrests our listeners’ attention and holds their interest throughout.  It is easy to think of being engaging as a pragmatic issue. It is more than that.

When we preach we can be more or less relevant in both content and delivery. We can launch distant content over the top of peoples’ heads, or we can target our content into the very nitty gritty of our listeners’ lives.  We can deliver in such a way that listeners have the sense that we don’t care, or in such a way that they know we are relevant and so is our content.  It is easy to think of being relevant as a pragmatic issue.  It is more than that.

We should be clear, engaging and relevant for theological reasons.  God is a good communicator.  His ultimate communication was in the incarnation, the human to human dynamic that makes our union with Christ possible.  We speak as human to humans, as representatives of the communicator God, the incarnating God, and so we represent him not only in what we say, but also in how we say it.  Nobody cares about the listener being able to follow, knowing it is for them, and wanting to listen, as much as God does.  As his representatives, therefore, we should be stirred toward ever-growing clarity, engagement and relevance in what we say.

Building Preacher-Listener Connection – Part 3

connections2We have thought about the personal life of the preacher and the pastoral ministry of the preacher. Let’s think about the actual content of the message.  Is it designed to connect?

9.    Really get to know the Bible and your text better. Preaching is not like a relaxed conversation between friends. It is a presentation. One person is presenting both truth and application to others. In every situation where one person is expected to speak with authority, they need to convey credibility. It is true in a sales transaction, in a doctor explaining a treatment plan to a patient, in an educational setting, and it is no less true in preaching. Not only do you need to know what you are talking about, but your listeners need to be able to sense that you know what you are talking about. As Bert Decker’s book title put it, you need to be believed to be heard. Do not try to shortcut to this by showing off knowledge. You need to carry knowledge with humility. The only way to achieve this is to genuinely know the Bible and your text as well as possible.

10.    Internalize your message. If you met someone for the first time and were making conversation, you would feel nervous if they had to check their notes for what their job was, or where they met their spouse. It is hard to trust truth that is not fully owned. So in preaching you need to get the content of your message into you before it can convincingly come out. We will come back to this one tomorrow.

11.    Reflect on personal response and application before preaching. It is not enough to know the content of your message. That content needs to have been filtered through your own life in some way so that you speak not only the truth, but you also speak from the impact of that truth.  This means we would do well to …

12.    Extend lead time before preaching a message. It is difficult if you are preaching at least once per week to have anything more than five days of lead time before preaching a message. Some of us end up with just a couple of days to prepare messages, which is far from ideal. The ideal plan would be to extend the lead time by bringing preliminary study forward before your previous message. If you cannot do a good chunk of initial study well ahead of time, then at least try to give some thought and prayer to forthcoming messages in advance so they can percolate in the background. Unless the speaker has fallen ill and you are stepping in at the last minute, it is not good to start from scratch the day before you preach.

13.    Connection between humans is a heart to heart phenomena. It is easy to present information to inform. It can also be easy to pressure your listeners to perform. But good preaching will always present Christ in such a way that listeners might be drawn to him, stirred by him, motivated to love and trust him. Preaching to the heart is primarily about content, not manner. Evaluate whether your content is offering a God that listeners may find delightful, and whether it is proclaiming a present tense invitation to that God rather than merely giving a historical lecture.

We need listeners to connect with the message, not just the messenger. That is why the content is important. Tomorrow we will think about the delivery.

Sermon Planning Strategy

chess2As you plan your message you have some critical strategy decisions to make.  Let’s consider a couple of them:

  1. Where will you make the relevance of the message show?
  2. Where will you reveal the complete idea of the message?

The answer to the first one should be fairly simple.  My suggestion is to demonstrate relevance at every opportunity.  Don’t assume people will listen to 90% of a message before hearing some sense of relevance in the form of application.  You can demonstrate relevance in your introduction, in the wording of your main points, in your “illustrations” (illustrate application when you can), in your transitions, etc.

The answer to the second question is more complex.  Will you reveal the main idea early in the message?  This approach, known as a deductive sermon, has some definite advantages.  It tends to be strong on clarity, it can be strong in respect to simplicity, and it also allows for re-accessibility (i.e. when someone has to go out to the nursery for some reason, they can re-enter the message at the next transition point).

But there are negatives to consider too – the deductive sermon will tend to be predictable and reject-able.  People may fill in the rest of the message as soon as they hear the idea and they might not like what they anticipate is coming.

Another option is to plan an inductive sermon, which is where the question being answered is given at the start, but the idea is not completed until later in the message.  The impact of a well-worked inductive sermon can be immense and long-lasting.  Furthermore it tends to be less offensive at the start if people are not going to agree with the substance of the message.

However, it is difficult to maintain tension for the amount of time necessary.  If listeners have to check out (or if you lose them and they mentally check out), it can be much harder to re-enter the listening experience.  Worst of all, if you promise well, but under-deliver, then the whole experience can be very negative.

As you plan the strategy for your message you will need to take into account the text you are preaching, your strengths as a preacher, and who the listeners are going to be.  Pray about it and make a plan – a meandering message lacking in strategy will tend to be the worst of all worlds!