Not Every Exhortation is Necessary

Haddon Robinson uses an illustration to make this point. He imagines a friend borrowing his car and then finding they have a flat tire. They call for advice. So over the phone he tells them where the spare is, where the tools are, how to release the spare wheel from its cage, and so on. At the end of the explanation he suggests it is not necessary to finish with the exhortation, “Now I exhort you: change the tire!”

That friend is already motivated to put the instruction into practice, they just need the instruction to be clear. In the same way there are some things that are preached with great life impact simply through clarity of explanation. The listeners are already stirred and motivated to implement the teaching in their lives as soon as they understand it. If that is the case, the added exhortation may do more harm than good.

This is something for us to ponder not only in respect to the practical applications for believers, but also in respect to the offer of the Gospel. We should be persuasive and there will be times when an exhortation is exactly what is needed. But there will be others times when bringing clarity to the message will be all the motivation that is needed to bring about life change.

Let’s learn to sense when our exhortation is helpful and when it might only antagonize or patronize our listeners. Let’s also make sure that our explanation is so clear that people are really understanding what is being said. Let’s pray for sensitivity to people and to God so that we know when to exhort, when to invite, and when to let clarity do its deep work in souls.

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Exegesis and Exposition

What is the difference between exegesis and exposition? Haddon Robinson put it this way, “Exposition is drawing from your exegesis to give your people what they need to understand the passage.” This implies that the preacher will have a lot more material after the exegesis than they are able to present in the sermon.

Here are three implications for us to ponder:

1. Passage Study Before Message Formation – When you move too quickly from studying a passage to preparing the message you will not have much left over from the exegesis phase. This will result in preaching that lacks authority, that is biblically thin, and that is more an imposition of your ideas onto a passage than the message God intended from that passage.

2. Sermon Preparation Takes Time – If you start the sermon preparation on the Saturday, then Sunday is already looming and you are already looking for the sermon. You have to work your schedule so that the pressure of preaching is not squeezing out time for exegesis and meditation. It takes hours to prepare a message, over many days, built on top of many years. The years of biblical soaking feed into the times of biblical study that bubble up into sermons worth preaching.

3. You Have to Know Better Than You Preach – When you are grasping for a sermon you will be preaching a passage that you have not grasped and that has not grasped you. Aim to know a passage so well that an informed listener can engage you in an extended conversation about the nuances of the passage after they’ve heard your sermon. You may or may not choose to create a venue for that further exegetical presentation, but being able to do that means you are preaching within your range of study, not beyond it.

Hungry People Pay Attention to Food

I read an article Jeffrey Arthurs wrote about getting and keeping listeners’ attention. He built his article around the point that hungry people pay attention to food. It is so true. Recently I sat in a home where I was being hosted for a meal, waiting for the final guest to arrive so that we could sit down and eat. I was hungry. Consequently every waft from the kitchen, every comment about final touches to the meal, every hint about what was to come had my full attention.

The same is true of preaching. Listeners can ignore Bible passages for years, but when a preacher helps them to see that this passage is relevant to their deepest needs, they will give it their full attention. But this is not easy to do. Too easily we settle for an introduction that is interesting, but doesn’t surface a need. It is not enough to introduce the context for the text back then, we need to show the context for its relevance today.

How can we do that? One key skill is to incorporate awareness of what Haddon Robinson calls the Depravity Factor into our passage study. What is the impact of Genesis 3 on this passage? How does fallenness in this passage mirror brokenness in our contemporary world? It is not always sin that presents itself, sometimes it is hurt, it is need, it is fear, it is inadequacy … but always the fallenness of this world shows in the passage you are studying.

A study of the passage and of our listeners should yield complementary facets of fallenness. Help people to taste their need for security, for hope, for forgiveness, for life, for whatever this passage will address, and then watch them care about the passage like never before.

“Welcome to today’s sermon, turn with me to Bible Book chapter 4, verse 1…” Stop. Start that sermon again. Not just with a joke or an anecdote, but with a real taste for the goodness to come. Help the listeners sense their inner craving for that goodness and your sermon will be off to a much better start!

Pulpit Humour: Five Pointers

Some churches get very upset if the preacher uses any humour in the pulpit. I suspect heaven will be a shock to their system!  Other churches esteem humour above all else that comes from the pulpit.  This is also a problem position.  But what of the rest of us somewhere in the middle?  We know that humour is neither inherently sinful, nor the point of preaching, but it can be a minefield.

Here are some pointers:

1. Be authentic in your humour.  That is, don’t pretend to be something you are not.  If you are not a joke-teller in conversation, then don’t tell jokes in the pulpit (it won’t work).  As long as it is appropriate, go with your natural style of humour.

2. Be joyful rather than silly.  We have so much to celebrate and should be a people marked by “Easter joy.”  However, the dynamics of a responsive crowd can stir our flesh into looking for laughs.  Don’t make that your pursuit, you will be selling out on the great goals of preaching!

3. Be loving to all.  Don’t use humour that is critical, destructive, racist, sexist, etc.  Don’t use restrictive humour, that is, humour that only those on the “inside” will understand.  It can be okay to say something that some will find amusing, but it is not okay for those who don’t to feel like they are being left out.

4. Be selective.  Don’t always use the same kind of material.  For instance, it may be the cutest thing you ever heard, but not everyone in your congregation wants to hear what your child said this week at bedtime.  For some a continual diet of those comments can be like rubbing salt in an open wound.

5. Be humble. If it goes wrong, don’t hesitate to apologise.  I inadvertently mixed up two brands when giving an illustration and managed to reference something highly inappropriate … it certainly got a laugh, but I needed to both apologise and explain how I ended up saying what I did!

What would you add?  Any pointers you’ve found helpful?

Building Preacher-Listener Connection – Part 4

connections2The connection between preacher and listener is a multi-faceted and complex thing. We’ve scratched the surface of the preacher’s personal life, their pastoral ministry and their content. Now let’s ponder some suggestions for improving your delivery to increase the preacher-listener connection.

14.    Manuscript in preparation but use less notes when preaching. To put it simply every moment you are looking at your notes you are not connecting with your listeners.  In an ideal world I would like to fully manuscript each message and always preach without notes. The manuscripting allows for careful and prayerful consideration of exact wording. Preaching without notes increases connection exponentially. I do not always follow this ideal, but I know that as much as I move away from that, I move away from connection.

15.    Watch yourself on video to check your visual presentation. Watching yourself on video will help you see what others see. Do you convey warmth? Is your energy contagious? Do you smile? Are your gestures appropriate? That is, are they big enough for the audience and venue? Are references to time or progression moving from left to right from the perspective of the listener? Do the gestures appear natural or forced? Do you seem comfortable?

16.    Listen to yourself on audio to check your voice.  Does your voice convey enthusiasm and warmth, or nervousness and tension? Do you sound natural or, to be blunt, do you sound weird? People are experts in reading both visual and vocal signals, and they do so to determine whether there is a connection or not. They do it all day every day. So they are still doing it when you preach.

17.    Interpersonal connection’s golden ticket? Make eye contact!  Whatever you can do to increase eye contact is worth doing. Less notes, change of position, adjustment of lighting, more run throughs, better sleep . . . pray about what you can do to improve meaningful eye contact with your listeners.

Lots more could be said about delivery, but it does matter. Tomorrow we will finish the series with one more important category.

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.

Share Scars Not Wounds

scar2Knowing how much to share of ourselves is a challenge for preachers.  Some tend toward over-sharing, others veer the opposite way.  When we share nothing we can give the impression that our lives are perfect, or that we don’t care about listeners because we treat them as recipients of our education efforts rather than the richer fullness of our preaching.

Preaching is so much more than education.  It is an incarnational ministry that involves not only the words we communicate but the fullness of our communication.  That is, we give of ourselves when we preach.  We should do so because we are speaking not only as information transmitters but as ambassadors of Christ.  How would he preach?  At arm’s length?  Dispassionately?  Surely not.

So when we speak for Him and of Him, we need to represent Him.  Part of that is to be real and give of ourselves so that when we have served in preaching we have expended more than the energy needed to simply stand and speak the words.

But when we decide to share from our own lives, how can we know what to share?  Here is one way to evaluate whether something is appropriate or not (the idea was shared by a friend, but it may well come from a book that I do not know)…

Is it a scar or a wound?

A scar is evidence not only of failure but also of healing.  Scars speak of the difficulty of life, but also of hope when life hurts.  Maybe the scars are from personal failure, or from personal suffering, or from opposition we have faced.  Every scar can be a source of hope and help to others as we speak with the credibility of the hope that they can find in Christ in the midst of their current challenges.

However, a wound is different.  A wound can be very small but will result in a strong reaction if it is poked.  Maybe someone is opposing you at the moment.  Maybe you are struggling in the aftermath of personal sin or failure.  Maybe you are facing a physical trial right now.  It may be possible to share from this as you preach, but be very careful that what is shared is not excessive or inappropriate.  If someone is making your life difficult at this time you may describe the situation unhelpfully or say something that you would better keep to yourself.  If you are in process in regards to some failure then you may not yet have the credibility to speak of hope for others in that struggle.

This is not a hard and fast rule.  Rather it is a helpful guideline.  What clarifications would you add?  Scars can be powerful preaching aids, but open wounds rarely are.

Subtlety – A Key in First-Person Preaching?

stones2Recently I enjoyed a first-person sermon from a student in class.  He preached as an observer of Jesus’ healing the paralytic in Mark 2.  What he did well made me think about effective first-person preaching.  Specifically, he managed to make the first person details subtle.

Let’s see this on a scale:

Zero “Experienced” Detail – This is where the preacher tells the story from an eyewitness perspective, but essentially it is just a grammatical change.  Instead of third person, now it is told in first person.  Imagine preparing a message normally, then switching to first person at the last minute.  Your mind can make the grammatical shift, but there is no added detail.  There is essentially nothing that makes this sermon have to be first person.  It may add some interest, but the listeners may end up wondering why you did it that way.

Excessive “Experienced” Detail – This is where the preacher tells the story from an eyewitness perspective, but ends up overdoing the added detail.  Suddenly we get quotes from all sorts of added characters, extra biblical elements abound, and the listeners are led merrily further and further away from the main point of the text into a fanciful demonstration of historical imagination.  This will be intriguing, but the listeners will hopefully end up wondering why you felt the Bible had nothing to say.

Subtle “Experienced” Detail – This is where the preacher tells the story from an eyewitness perspective, but carefully selects only limited experienced detail.  In the case of the student I heard, he made an early and late reference to his annoyance at the mud falling on his cloak as the roof was dismantled.  That was enough.  He didn’t need to pile up layer upon layer of complex imaginations.  This made the sermon engaging, and the listeners ended up gripped by the passage that was being preached.

I would suggest that we should aim for subtle rather than zero or excessive experienced detail in a first-person sermon.  This is the content equivalent to a similar dynamic in respect to “costume.”  If you are telling David’s story with Goliath, much better to have a stone in your hand than to be wearing authentic shepherding garb from 1000BC.  If you are telling the Christmas story as a shepherd, much better to just have a crook than to wear full curtains and false beard.

First-person or in character preaching takes a lot of extra effort.  It involves studying a passage fully, but then probing further into geographical and cultural background issues to make sure that you can speak of the biblical text with eyewitness accuracy.  Put that extra effort into your study for the message.  Don’t put that extra effort into fanciful and unrestrained imagination (or an all-out quest for total costume!)

Illustration Variation

image1Be careful that you don’t get stuck in a rut with your illustration material.  Here are some favourites that preachers sometimes find themselves repeating:

1. Sports – it may be your favourite team, or the sport you played in college, or sport in general, but remember, there are people listening who don’t relate to sport in general, and even more to your sport in particular.  Variation needed.

2. Stats – some preachers love nothing more than a statistic.  Barna surveys get lots of attention.  Again, some people appreciate stats, but others can’t connect with them at all.  Variation needed.

3. Anecdotes/Quotes – you might be one of those preachers that loves nothing more than dipping into your stash of Churchill quotes, or General Lee anecdotes, or Bono lyrics, or whatever.  It can all seem a bit distant.  Variation needed.

4. Movies – some preachers love to tie their message to some scene from the big screen.  I won’t get into the complexity of citing movies here, just to say that some people won’t appreciate a constant flow of movie quotes and references.  Variation needed.

5. Family – your family is a constant source of illustrative material, but it may not be wise to use too much of that great store.  For one thing your family might appreciate not being the focus.  For another, there will be people listening who feel an inner pang at a steady stream of marriage stories or children stories.  Variation needed.

Maybe you have another rut, or maybe you have struggled listening to another rut.  None of these are bad sources of illustrations, just be sure to vary it for the sake of your listeners.

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!