It Can’t All Be “We”

As far as authority is concerned, there has been a shift happening over the course of a couple of generations. We have shifted from authorities being respected, to not being respected, to being distrusted and even opposed. Think of the police, or politicians. Actually, let’s think about the preacher. People may like the preacher, listen to the preacher, even appreciate the sermons, but there is a resistance to the concept of the preacher speaking with authority. One result of this is the shift in perspective and tone from preachers. Preachers often preach as fellow observers and recipients of the biblical text. The sermons are much more in the “key of we” than they used to be. There are benefits to this approach, but also some problems.

Back in the 1970’s the issue of authority was addressed in Fred Craddock’s book, As One Without Authority. This was a hugely influential book and it brought the “New Homiletic” into the consciousness of many in the preaching community. While there is plenty to learn from writer’s like Craddock, there is an underlying issue that needs to be faced. The New Homiletic, built on an underlying New Hermeneutic, is strongly emphasizing a reader-response approach to the biblical text. While we should think about what we, as readers, bring to our understanding of any passage we are reading, we must never lose sight of the author and his/His intent in the text.

If we believe a(A)uthorial intent matters, which it surely must if there is to be any correspondence between truth and reality, then it would be inappropriate to preach completely in “we.” As a preacher, you prayerfully study the text in order to determine the author’s intended meaning as closely as possible. Then you prayerfully consider how to preach that text to your listeners so that they can relevantly hear the truth of God’s word in the tone of God’s heart.

Your crafting of the sermon should never obliterate your study of the text, or else you preach a message stripped of the authority of God’s Word. Your authority is not the concern. His is. So when you preach, there should be a humble (you) and yet authoritative (His) explanation of the meaning of that biblical text and its implications for your listeners.

Humble but authoritative does not mean we have to jettison the “we” completely and become bombastic, haranguing, nagging, drill sergeants (remember the “humble”). However, humble but authoritative cannot be merely suggestive, reactive, passive and soft, either. There may be nobody in the room who consciously considers your role as a preacher to be authoritative, but everyone should sense that what you say is more than a suggestion.

If “we” is at home anywhere in the sermon, perhaps it is in the more applicational elements. After all, a strong division between clergy and laity has far less biblical argument in its favour than the role of authorial intent. You speak as one who needs to respond to God’s Word as much as anyone else. You speak as a priest to priests.

So there must be plenty of “we” in a message – we need to hear from God, we need His grace, we need His instruction, we all have gone astray, etc. But make sure you don’t infect the explanation of the text and the declaration of biblical truth with the subtle yeast of “we” . . . if it loses its anchor point in authorial intent then we all drift together. Understand and explain the meaning of the text with humble authority, and then take a lead as one of the “we” responding to His authoritative Word!

8 Benefits of Effective Transitions

It is easy to put a lot of energy into explaining the passage, applying the message, adding interesting illustrations, and so on. But what about the transitions? These little moments can be treated as automatic, but by neglecting them we miss a vital part of sermonic effectiveness.

What potential benefits do the transitions have as tools in our preaching arsenal?

  1. Clarity of Sermon Structure – You may have a very clear, balanced and organised outline, but without good transitions, your listeners won’t know! The transition is the cleared air that allows for the structure of the message to be clear. And when the structure is clear, the listeners get all the benefit of organised thought.
  2. At Pace: Breathing Space – After a few minutes of your preaching point, especially if it has been growing in intensity or pace, the transition allows everyone to take a breath. Some preachers may be ponderous, but others like to charge ahead at full steam. Listeners may appreciate energy and enthusiasm, but they also love to take a breath.
  3. Slower? Evidence of Progress – If your style is more ponderous, don’t underestimate the value of giving listeners a sense of progress. Maybe you tell them at the start that you have three points . . . the transition and its focus on moving to the next point may be exactly what some listeners need to hang in there!
  4. Re-entry Points for Listeners – Whatever your pace, listeners do get lost during the progression of a sermon. Someone drops something, a phone buzzes, a thought occurs, a helper from the childcare taps a shoulder, a siren passes . . . and people lose track of the message. The transition is a great moment to mention the main idea, review progress, and invite listeners back into the message.
  5. Restatement of Main Idea – Any opportunity to reinforce the main idea is worth considering. A handful of transitions in a message are as good a set of opportunities as you could ask for!
  6. Change of Pace – Sometimes you have a point that takes a fair amount of background or explanation, but the message needs to speed up. The transition allows for a deliberate change of pace and injection of momentum.
  7. Review of Message – As a message progresses the transitions allow you to review what has been said so far. This can really help the listeners to be ready for the later points and conclusion of the message.
  8. The Next Point – Maybe this is the most obvious benefit of all, but I have saved it for last. A transition allows you to take your listeners from your previous point into your next. It is like having a passenger behind you on a motorcycle. Take the turn too quickly and you lose them. Slow down, transition well, and they come right along with you into the next point!

Transitions are underrated. Focus on them and your preaching will improve!

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!

7 Waste Points on Your Preaching Clock

Some preachers are incredibly aware of the clock as they preach.  For manuscript readers, the clock can be entirely predictable.  For others of us, time tends to move past quickly and sometimes erratically.  It is helpful to figure out where the time actually goes.

Here is one approach that could be helpful.

Step 1 – Before preaching try to anticipate how long the message will be, and how long will be spent on each section of the message (introduction, background, first point, second point, etc.)

Step 2 – After preaching try to evaluate how long the message was (if possible don’t check your watch!), and write down how long you felt you spent on each section of the message.

Step 3 – Using an audio or video recording, take notes on actual timings of each section and the whole message.

With these three steps under your belt, you are now in a position to evaluate the whole process.  Where did reality (step 3) differ from steps 1 and 2?  You may find that you are fairly careful with your timings, but lost track of time in one section.  Or you may find that time is lost repeatedly throughout the message.

Here are seven common trouble spots:

1. Introduction – Sometimes we can struggle to generate momentum at the start of a message.  Maybe more crafting and rehearsal is needed for a strong start.

2. Textual Background – Some of us get very excited when we have a chance to dive back into the biblical world and we end up giving more background than is needed for this message.  What is the most pertinent and helpful information for this message to communicate?

3. Illustrations – Sometimes illustrations just need too much time to explain, especially if our listeners look less familiar with the context of the illustration than we anticipated (beware of needing to tell whole Bible stories to make sense of a biblical illustration, or telling a whole movie plot, plus comments about spoilers, for the sake of a movie illustration).

4. Humour – Perhaps illustrations are ok, but when you say something a little bit humorous you can end up circling around that moment for too long?

5. Explanation – Some love nothing more than making sense of a biblical text for our listeners, but are we labouring the point longer than the majority need?  We would be surprised how long it takes to be truly heard, but how quickly we can annoy our listeners if we lack momentum.

6. Transitions – Perhaps your content is crisp, but your transitions involve too much review of earlier content?  It is easy for time to drift as we try not to rush ahead too quickly at transitions – a good motivation, but may need some work to do effectively.

7. Conclusion – Would your message be better if you simply landed the plane more directly?

Learning to Preach in Changing Contexts – Jonathan Thomas

Here is another clip from my interview with Jonathan Thomas, pastor of Cornerstone Church, Abergavenny.  I appreciate Jonathan as a friend and as a preacher.

In this clip he talks about what he has learned from preaching during lockdown – a lesson that we all need to keep learning whatever the circumstances we find ourselves in.

To see the full interview, you just need to sign-up to the Cor Deo mailing list and we will make the full interview available to you!  Click here to sign-up – http://eepurl.com/drPqj1

What have you learned in recent months, or what challenges do you anticipate in the coming months?

Your Culture and Your Preaching – Part 3

So our culture tends to show in how we preach.  We may accept that premise, but so what?  In part 1 we introduced the subject, and in part 2 we listed five ways our culture will be showing.

What should we do about it?  Here is a six-step action plan…

1. Write an initial list of your assumptions.  What comes to mind when you think of a typical preacher from your culture?  It is good to have a starting point so that as you think and research further you will see what you have learned.  Maybe start without any real categories, just what seems obvious to you.

2. Start to analyze your culture using categories.  In the last post I listed five: self, authority, confidence, humour and emotion/passion.  You might also consider organizational style and clarity (in respect to sermon content), use of visuals and expectation of the audience to read during a presentation, body language, smile and facial expression, and more.

3. Triangulate a new vantage point.  This is especially hard if you have only lived and attended church in one culture.  But it is still possible.  Select a culture that is not your own, but you have some awareness of … for example, most British Christians have some exposure to podcasts and speakers from the USA.  Listen to some good examples (not the extreme stereotypes that people like to use to dismiss “everything American” but preachers that you can enjoy and appreciate), listen not only to benefit from their preaching, but also to try to identify what makes their preaching distinctly American (or whatever culture you select).  Obviously there are always caveats, three white conservative evangelical preachers will help you to spot some common traits, but you will have missed the massive tradition of African-American preaching, etc.  You are not doing this to generalize or to label, but rather to gain a vantage point for your own culture.

Do the same with a culture you are not familiar with.  For instance you might find a handful of examples of preachers from a third continent.  Be careful not to just watch a handful of preachers with a different ethnic background who also live, study and preach in the USA or the UK – the distinct differences will be reduced by their assimilated context.  A totally new culture can give you the culture shock of unfamiliarity that will help this process.

Once you’ve started to recognize some commonalities in these two other cultures, making notes for your own use, then try step 4:

4. Watch your own culture from the vantage point of step 3.  Maybe find a handful of preachers from your own culture and watch them.  How do they differ from what you observed in the two cultures of step 3?  Be careful not to just feel at home and simply affirm them as generically good preachers.  Recognize that they have strengths and weaknesses from their culture.  Maybe having had a dose of a different culture or two you can start to spot some idiosyncrasies that may not be so helpful after all?  If you only see positives in your own culture, then go back and repeat step 3!

5. Ask questions. Sometimes you can gain a lot of ground quickly by just asking someone who is from outside your culture but will be honest enough to answer your question.  This will be more helpful after doing some good thinking yourself.  If you just jump to this then the benefit will be reduced, but it is still worth doing, especially if that person is in your church and you are preaching to them regularly.

6. Evaluate and adjust.  The more thoroughly you do steps 1-5, the more likely you are to take stock and start to make some adjustments.  This will involve not only understanding more of what is stereotypical in your culture, but also evaluating what traits you personally reflect from that culture, and thinking through who your listeners are too.  If they are from different cultural backgrounds, then that creates some obvious opportunities for adjustment.  But even if everyone in your church is saturated in your own culture, there may still be cultural idiosyncrasies that you could choose not to reflect in order to strengthen your communication.

Maybe you have travelled and become more aware of your own culture? Maybe you are ministering outside of your home culture? What other categories might you add to what has been mention in this short series

7 Quick Ways to Improve Your Preaching – Part 3

So far we’ve mentioned cross-referencing, quoting scholars and meandering in part 1, then apologizing and illustrations in part 2.  Now, let’s finish this list of seven quick fixes with part 3 of the list:

6. Stop trying to be funny.

To put it bluntly, either you are funny or you are not funny.  But trying to be funny is not funny.  It is annoying.  That is not to say there can be no humour in our preaching, but let it be more natural.  Unless you are a great joke teller, don’t invest minutes of a sermon in telling a joke.  Trying to entertain or seek approval by laughs is not fulfilling your role as a preacher.  Instead let your demeanor be saturated with genuine gospel joy and enthusiasm that comes from living in the text you are preaching and walking closely with God.  It will be more sincere and people will appreciate it more.  If they want stand-up comedy then the internet is replete, ready and waiting.

7. Stop scratching at your passage.

Ok, this is probably not a quick fix, but it is significant.  A lot of preaching barely scratches the surface of the preaching text.  No matter how much you add careful illustration and clear structure, you can’t overcome the lack of biblical rootedness in this kind of preaching.  Instead of adding filler, or jumping around the canon, or whatever else you might do, dig down into the text you are preaching and make sure the message has the fingerprints of this specific passage all over it.

That was quite a random list, but maybe one of two of these quick fixes fit for you?  Feel free to comment with other things you have tweaked that helped you, or what you need to do next!

7 Quick Ways to Improve Your Preaching – Part 2

Sometimes a little tweak can make a big difference.  Yesterday I started the list with stop excessive cross-referencing, excessively quoting scholars and meandering (click here if you missed it).  Here is the next installment of the list.  Do any of these quick fixes fit for you?

4. Stop apologizing.

I don’t know if you do this, but if you do, don’t.  Apologies for lack of preparation, or for complexity of subject, or for lack of illustration, or for lack of time to do justice to the subject (you’d have had more if you didn’t apologise for not having enough!) … there are probably a dozen opportunities to apologize in every sermon.  Generally speaking, don’t.  I apologized the first time I was up front at church.  The visiting missionary thanked me afterwards and told me not to apologize because everyone else was encouraged to see me up there.  Then the first time I took a lecture for one of my profs at seminary I apologized for not covering every aspect of my subject.  He firmly told me to let people think they have the full meal deal.  Generally speaking, with some careful exceptions, don’t apologize.

5. Stop using illustrations that don’t work for most listeners.

Illustrative material generally should either work for all, or be combined with parallel illustrations that together will cover the congregation.  For example, I have some teens in my house.  If I talk about parenting teens then what about parents with smaller children, or those who couldn’t have children, or empty-nesters whose memory has faded?  (Plus, what about my teens who have to sit through the illustration – maybe your own family isn’t as good a source of illustrations as you might think!)  Then there are my hobbies, or my film choices, or my life experiences…all of which are quite specific to me.  Actually, finding illustration material that most can relate to is not easy.  But being irrelevant to a group of people for too long in a message is too damaging.

I will finish the list tomorrow…watch this space!

7 Quick Ways To Improve Your Preaching

Sometimes a quick change can make a big difference.  Let’s say you drive your car with the handbrake only partially released.  Release it properly and your driving will immediately improve.  Here are 7 quick fixes to markedly improve your preaching.

1. Stop excessive cross-referencing.

There are lots of reasons we cross reference with other passages, but not many good reasons.  I tend to think that reinforcing a point as biblical when it seems unlikely, or clarifying the background of a text quoted in your text are two of the good reasons to jump out of your passage.  But some of the bad reasons?  To fill time.  Because that’s what other preachers do.  To show off knowledge.  Because older listeners expect it.  These are not good reasons.  I remember someone saying that too much cross-referencing confuses younger Christians because they can’t follow along, and it causes older Christians to sin because it feeds their pride.  There are reasons to cross-reference, but remove the excess and your preaching will improve.

2. Stop excessively quoting scholars.

Adept transitioning between the insights of various commentaries can be like good gear changes in driving.  Referencing every scholar along the way makes those gears crunch.  Generally, it is worth asking what is added by naming the scholar?  If you use particularly specific wording and the name of the scholar is helpful, then by all means name them.  Otherwise generally decide between preaching without any reference, and making a vague reference…”One book I was reading put it like this…” (Remember, people can always ask for your sources, even though they almost never do.)  There is no requirement that you identify three commentaries and include a Spurgeon quote in every sermon.

3. Stop meandering.

Listeners will listen gripped by well organized and well-presented material.  But listeners can also spot meandering and filler like a dog can sniff meat.  Don’t look at your notes and assume it will come out ok when you are preaching.  It is much better to preach it through and make sure it can come out of your mouth and not just look good on paper.  Meandering transitions, conclusions and even whole points are counterproductive.  And with decent preparation, they are really unnecessary.

I will continue the list tomorrow, but what would you add?