Personalize Your Preaching

Preaching is person to person, so surely it should be personalized?  But if we are not careful our preaching can feel impersonal and distant.  We can learn how to prepare a sermon, then treat the process like a machine for generating messages – put in a text at one end, turn the handle, and out pops a three point outline ready for Sunday.

True biblical preaching is not primarily about outlines.  It is about heart-to-heart communication.  Ultimately it is God’s heart to our listeners’ hearts, but our heart is in the circuit too.  So how can we make sure our preaching feels personal when you stand to deliver this Sunday?

1. Make sure your study of the biblical text touches your heart.  Newcomers to preaching may think sermons are texts and ideas squeezed into outlines, but actually we need to be studying the text to understand it.  When we study it, we have to make sure our hearts are engaged and not just our heads.  This passage was put there by God to impact readers spiritually – how is it impacting me?  I need to be talking to God about that and not just looking for a sermon that will preach.  In fact, here are a few quick sub-points relating to this phase of preparation:

A. Ask God to help you understand what the text was intended to communicate to the original recipients – what was the spiritual impact supposed to be back then?

B. Ask God to help you understand what the text was intended to communicate to readers like you – it is part of a bigger whole that all points receptive hearts toward Him.

C. Ask God to convict you of sin, to motivate you for service, to make your heart beat with His and to stir you to worship as you spend time in the text.

2. Pray for God to give you His heart for the hearers as you prepare the message.  Before you start to shape your study into a sermon, come before God in prayer and really intercede for your hearers.  Whether it will be your home congregation or a group you have never preached to before, God knows and loves them better than you do.  Ask Him to give you His heart for them.  Don’t just pray for the message to “go well,” but pray for them as real people, in real situations, facing real difficulties.  Pray for those who are not His yet, and those that are.  Pray for His heart for them, and for their hearts to be ready to hear from Him.

3. Prepare a message that will give your best, vulnerably.  Actually this is two points.  First, preach your own message.  Don’t steal someone else’s sermon and preach it.  That is a shortcut that wastes time in the long run.  When you steal sermons you don’t get the benefit of the study, and they don’t get the benefit of hearing from you … instead they hear a poor version of someone else’s message.  If you choose to use a point or a quote, that is fine, just say that “someone put it this way…” and use it, but make sure you are preaching when you preach.  By faith you can trust God that your moderate ability will be better suited to these listeners than someone else’s impressive message.

Second, prepare to preach with vulnerability.  Let the you shine through.  There is no benefit to hiding behind your exegesis and presentation.  People need to know that you also struggle, that this moves you, that you are a real human.  Obviously you should think through what you will be saying.  It isn’t helpful to vent your anger or share a struggle that is too raw.  It also isn’t helpful to overstate your struggle or to share something that will distract or undermine your credibility.  But there is plenty of real you to share as you preach.  Plan to preach your own stuff, and plan so that it is really you that is preaching.

4. Grow in your ability to deliver sermons naturally.  We no longer live in an age of voice projection and concert hall oratory.  We live in a time when people value authentic, genuine, relational communication.  Some are taught to preach dispassionately, thereby avoiding emotionalism and manipulation with the opposite poison of disconnection (and a different form of intellectual manipulation at times).  Don’t be arms length from your material, preach from the heart and through your genuine personality.  If you are quiet, that is fine.  If you are out-going and enthusiastic, that can work too.  What matters is not the personality you portray, but that it is your personality as you preach.  As I often say when teaching preaching, it takes work to be natural in such an unnatural setting.  Do the work so that people can hear from you.

There is more that could be added, but that is four ways to try to inject the personal into your preaching.  What would you add?

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Clarification Not Choir-Celebration

There are lots of things we tend to say when we preach or speak in church-world that could do with clarifying.  I don’t just mean complex terms or obscure references.  In fact, in many cases, we would do well to eliminate many of these rather than simply clarifying them.  What is our real motivation for using technical language anyway?  No, in this post I am focusing on the common Christian words that season our sermons, words that seem to say something to insiders, but probably say very little to those looking in.

Why do I say we should add some clarification?  Because Christians respond to words and it is easy to feel encouraged by a false response.  You could call it “preaching to the choir.”  When you make a reference to salvation, sin, forgiveness, lordship, relationship, prayer or heaven, you will likely get an affirming nod or even a vocal response from some in the church.  If it were appropriate to then question those responders and ask what you specifically meant by what you said, a high ratio of them would struggle to give any meaningful explanation of what you meant.

As well as clarifying what you mean as you preach, also clarify what you mean by applicational statements.  People may nod at vague references to “being more faithful” or “witnessing more boldly,”  but they might still struggle to meaningfully and tangibly explain what you are referring to by vague Christian applications.  Much better to be specific and give them concrete and tangible ways they might implement the truth learned in your message.

This clarification is for both believers and non-believers who are present.  Believers can sit very comfortably nodding at everything but actually being touched by very little.  Non-believers can sit perplexed at why the believers present seem so encouraged by things too vague or superficial to meaningfully engage with real life.

Those who are regularly involved in apologetic and evangelistic conversation with non-believers know that unclear communication is not helpful.  The danger may be greater for those of us who preach in church more often than we debate on the street-corner.

Instead of simply provoking a celebratory nod from “the choir” in your church, why not clarify what you mean in your explanation, and also clarify what you mean by way of application?  Do this for the sake of believers and non-believers present – everyone would be better off understanding what you are actually saying.

(Of course, this supposes that you know what you are actually saying too … how easy it is for us to use words without a clear understanding of what we mean, or without any specificity in application!  Maybe we are all guilty of using words without making sure we really know what we mean.  Perhaps the place to start is by asking God to help us see if we are doing what I have described in this post.)

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!

Life-Changing and Applicational Preaching – Same Thing?

Lots of people want to hear applicational preaching.  Is that the same as asking for life-changing preaching?  Surely it must be.  Aren’t these two ways of saying the same thing?  I think there is a difference.

Applicational Preaching typically refers to preaching that spells out practical implications and applications for the listener.  To caricature, people don’t just want to learn about ancient history, they want to know what to do with that information this week in their lives.  Since something that is irrelevant is not as helpful or as motivating as something that is relevant, people therefore ask for preaching with good clear application.  “Just tell me what to do!”

But Houston, we have a problem.  There is confusion in this logic.  This thinking would be true if the only alternative to relevant applicational instruction was antiquated irrelevant facts.  But preaching is not so simple.

In 2 Timothy 3:16 Paul writes that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful.”   Paul obviously didn’t realize that there are many pages of Scripture that do not contain “relevant applicational instruction.”  Or maybe Paul realized that the Scripture does more than simply tell us what to do.

When I teach application in preaching I tend to refer to the ABCs of application.  Yes, there is a C-level of application … and that relates to our conduct: what we ought to do.  But underlying that is a B-level of application which runs deeper … and that relates to our beliefs: what we ought to believe.  And underlying even that is an A-level of application which runs deeper still … and that relates to our affections: what response should be stirred within us.

Application is not just about conduct.  Or perhaps I should say, life-change occurs at a deeper level than just conduct.  When life-change occurs, it tends to change us from the inside-out – from the depths of our hearts, through our thinking, and into our actions.

So “just tell me what to do!” is a very problematic statement.  Are you sure that’s all you want to hear?  Don’t you desire that the preaching bring genuine, profound, heartfelt life-change?  If so, then just telling you what to do would be to seriously sell you short of all that God has for you!

Let me put it another way.  “Just tell me what to do!” would be evidence of a significantly broken marriage.  If one spouse has no interest in hearing the heart of the other, no desire to understand them, no longing to connect at a deeper level, then simply asking for the bottom line action requirement is evidence of significant relational brokenness.

Our relationship to the God of the Bible should be closer to a healthy marriage than to a pragmatic subservient slave anxious to get on with their duties for the week.

Preaching that only offers irrelevant historical information is not really preaching at all.  But true biblical preaching should always be potentially life-changing – and not at just the superficial level of traditional “to-do list” applications!

The Art of the Sermon Introduction

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There are lots of ways to introduce a sermon.  Here are a few common approaches:

1. The Bible reading – Some like to announce the text and read the text before saying anything about the text.  I understand the desire to put the Word of God in a pre-eminent position, but there is a downside.  With this approach people may or may not, in fact, probably won’t be ready for the text.  If you have had a genuinely stirring time of worship and the mood is absolutely focused, then maybe it might work for some.  Generally, although well-intentioned, this is not an ideal launch to a sermon.

2. The interesting or amusing anecdote – Some view the first couple of minutes of a sermon as the opportunity to tell a great story, after which there is a crunching of the gears as the preacher jerks the steering wheel and changes course to start the message proper.  This time could be used so much more effectively, so generally let’s not see this as a good approach.

3. The context of the passage – Perfect if your congregation have been pestering you all week to tell them about the reign of Zedekiah or the troublesome deceivers on Crete. Not so many phone calls about that?  Probably shouldn’t start there then.

4. The hesitant run-up – Like a child preparing to do a daring leap, the preacher seems to try and get going several times before daring to actually do it.  It’s exciting for the preacher.

5. The meandering round about approach – Like a hesitant tour guide going around the houses before eventually starting into the house you came to see. It may be reassuring for the preacher, but it will be tedious for the listeners.

None of these approaches are very effective.  Here are three things to keep in mind when planning a sermon introduction:

A. Make it as long as necessary and as short as possible – A great introduction does its job, no less and no more.

B. Stir motivation in the listener to hear you preach this message from this passage Ask yourself, does this introduction motivate the listener to hear me, this message and this passage?

C. Make sure they want you to continue – Once you are done, they should want you to continue.

There is no one-size fits all introduction.  Sometimes a story is perfect, sometimes you need to ask a question, or describe a problem, or engage the imagination, or read a headline, or share a struggle.  Whatever you do, keep these three guidelines at the forefront of your preparation.

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.

Unique Passage

In the normal flow of church life, the passage you preach on Sunday will not be preached again for quite a while.  If it is in a series on a specific Bible book, how many years until you plan to preach from that book again?  If it is a seasonal text, like an advent passage, there is a chance you will preach it next year, but probably it will be a couple of years at least.

So, the passage you preach on Sunday will not be preached again for quite a while.  Here is something to ponder:

Will your preaching of that text really bring out the uniqueness of the passage for your listeners?  Will the message be text specific?  Will it make clear that passage’s main idea?  Will it draw out that passage’s implications?

It is so easy to start in a passage and end up preaching a generic message.  The problem with that is that you could preach a generic message from any passage, or from none.  Even if the truth you share is stunningly rich and wonderful, what about that passage?

If we have a high view of Scripture then surely we also need to have a high level of confidence that if you have selected a passage to preach, then the listeners should get that passage.  Just as every fingerprint, snowflake, dog’s nose is unique, so is every passage in the Bible.  Every passage is saying something about something in a unique way.  Will your listeners get that passage’s unique something this Sunday?

If not, if you just slide into a generic message, then it will be years before that passage has a chance to be preached into their hearts and lives again.  Don’t miss the opportunity!

Why Keep Humour Subtle?

I was talking with some friends yesterday about humour in preaching.  We decided that it always seems to work best when it is subtle.  Why?

Imagine a line running through your sermon.  It is the progression of your main idea – that combination of unity, order and progress that keeps your message coherent, structured and moving.  It is possible to use humour below that line, in a subtle way.  Or it is possible to interrupt that line and feature some humour above that line.

When we generally keep our humour below the line, i.e. subtle, it means that the progression of the message is uninterrupted.  It means that the message is treated as the most important thing.  It means that listeners are free to engage the humour or ignore it.  Actually, it means they can catch the humour or miss it, but they won’t feel like they are missing something that is key to understanding the message as a whole.

I am not suggesting that our humour should be tricky, or an “inside joke” – that is typically rude to those who notice it but don’t understand (which is why saying, “sorry, that is an inside joke” never feels good to listeners, no matter how much you smile, laugh, apologise, etc.)

I am suggesting that humour is a complicated thing.  I think we should be extremely humble about it.  If you think you are funny, you probably aren’t.  If you think you can tell a joke, you probably can’t.  If you think your funny remark will make sense to everyone, it probably won’t.  And if you think other cultures will easily get what you are saying, well, you probably haven’t watched a mix-culture crowd react to preaching much.  (That was a very sour sounding paragraph!  I don’t mean to sound sour, I just want to encourage humility in this area.)

What happens when we “feature” humour and let it break through the line and become a significant thing in the message?  We interrupt the flow of thought and require listeners to both understand and appreciate our humour.  We run the risk of making the humour a feature of the message, and sail very close to being an entertainer, which is a far lesser calling than being an engaging authentic proclaimer of God’s Word.  We risk alienating individuals, groups or cultures within our congregation.

I absolutely do not believe we should avoid all humour in our preaching.  I do not believe in dispassionate, disconnected or dull preaching.  I think we should prayerfully take onboard helpful feedback as God continues to sanctify our sense of humour over time, but then generally let the humour be an appropriate, loving and subtle element of our preaching.

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.