That Succinct Single-Sentence Summary

What is the difference between one sentence and half an hour? That is a key question in preaching.

We work hard to understand a biblical passage. We look at the context, wrestle with the flow of thought, analyse the details, and work out what the author was trying to communicate. Our end goal in studying the passage is to summarize the passage with a succinct single sentence.

However, when we preach, we don’t just say a sentence and sit down. So what makes up the difference? Let’s assume that the single sentence is an accurate summation of the passage. As we prepare the message (the second half of the preparation process), we essentially have two options:

Option 1. We carefully plan how to land that main idea in the hearts of our listeners. What form of introduction will best draw people into the message, making them thirsty for the passage and eager to hear the main idea? When should we present the main idea in the message? Should we repeatedly drive it home using the movements of the message to repeat the presentation of the idea? Or should we create greater anticipation so that once it is stated it will hit deeper? To put that another way, will the main idea be like a series of well placed sniper shots, or will it hit home like a bunker-busting missile? How will we explain the text, prove the points, and apply the truth in ways that reinforce the main idea of the message? In every aspect of content creation, structural formation, and delivery nuance, we seek to make that main idea so clear, transformative, evident from the text and applicationally earthed, that we will genuinely have preached the text before we sit down.

Or . . .

Option 2. We fill the half hour with material that will drown out the main idea. This is where we instead choose to fill the time, not to support the main idea, but at the cost of the main idea. We provide a series of informational segments, background descriptions, vaguely connected cross-references, somewhat amusing anecdotes, random highlights from our exegesis, favourite soapbox digressions, and illustrations that may or may not be well-suited to this particular moment. While most of these could be helpful, if we are not careful they can end up putting down a cover of smoke to keep the main idea from landing. Or we might hide the main idea beneath three or four points that tie to the text, but do not hold together effectively. The listeners will have an array of mini messages from which to select their favourite, but they are unlikely to have noticed the main idea.

While we probably would not consciously opt for option 2, we do so inadvertently when we embark on planning a message without crystallising our main idea first. After all, if you don’t have a sniper bullet or a bunker-busting missile ready to go, surely a random spray of machine gun rounds might hit home?

Moving from the passage to a single sentence is the first half of the preparation process. Moving from a succinct single-sentence summary to a fully formed message is the second half of the process. Let’s be sure to take option 1 as our approach to preaching.

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John Wesley’s Advice – Part 4

The final part of the list of John Wesley’s advice to preachers.  Points 1-2, and 3-5, and 6-8 are already covered.

9. Take care to avoid anything awkward or affected either in your gesture or pronunciation.  It is interesting to see this from Wesley.  I tend to think of affected pronunciation as being related to vocal projection in vast unamplified venues – a concern that we no longer have.  But that would not be the only reason for it.  There is the awkwardness that comes from feeling self-conscious, or from attempts to be theatrical, or from a learned “pulpit voice” that attempts to sound more “hallowed.”  To connect with coal miners on Hanham Mount in the 18th century, or normal people anywhere today, it is better to communicate naturally and authentically.  Nobody likes listening to an actor.  Actually, the reason real actors are so good at what they do is that they convey that natural communication as someone they are not.  As preachers, our only goal is to convey natural communication as someone who we are!

10. Don’t just say ‘I read only the Bible’ in order to preach, read the most useful books, and that regularly and constantly… at least five hours in twenty-four… or return to your trade.  Can I be brief on this one?  I don’t know, but I suspect he wouldn’t include social media surfing in that at least five-hour goal.  Once we limit this to book reading, then it does feel like a big ask for many today.  Perhaps we should take this away and ponder it.  Are we neglectful of our calling, responsibility and opportunity to not give ourselves to as much reading as we should?  (And if you are a “lay preacher” – you can determine the appropriate goal for your circumstance.) 

11. There is no need to throw away old sermons just because they are old – the best can be reused.  I agree.  I would add that when reusing a sermon, it is helpful to spend some time refreshing it and making sure that it is current in your heart and not just present in your notes.

12. Never preach without doors when you can with any conveniency preach within.  This is the advice that probably needs the most pondering.  For Wesley, his move to preaching outdoors was radical and had huge implications for his church relationships.  But once he got known for it, it is intriguing to think about this advice.  Maybe the point for us is not so much about whether we preach indoors or outside.  Perhaps the point is to not allow anything we do to become a gimmick.  Don’t get known for something and then keep working that thing to the detriment of what really matters.  Be a preacher of the Word.  End of.  Once you get known for a specific type of sermon, a particular location(!), a specific type of biblical text, or even a specific subject, then you have to reckon with this point of advice from John Wesley.  What does this mean for you and me?  Maybe nothing at the moment, but it is a good one to prayerfully ponder.

There we go!  All done.  I have enjoyed thinking through these brief thoughts.  I hope that has been helpful for you, too.

John Wesley’s Advice – Part 3

Continuing our walk through twelve points of advice from John Wesley.  So far we’ve looked at numbers 1-2, and numbers 3-5.  Let’s move on…

6. Speak justly, readily, clearly… Clearness in particular is necessary…because we are to instruct people of the lowest understanding… Constantly use the most common, little, easy words (so they are pure and proper) which our language affords.  Most of us are not preaching to uneducated miners like Wesley did, but don’t let out-of-date phrasing obscure the point he is making.  Our job as preachers is to communicate, not to show off.  If you don’t have a theological and grammatical terminology that is higher than your preaching vocabulary, then you are either aiming too high with your words, or you are too weak in your study.  Say the profound things that the Bible says.  And say those things in the simplest way possible.  Even if ten PhD’s walk into your church, you still need to preach so that people with the least understanding (by means of their education, church being an alien environment, English not being their first language, or whatever) will be able to understand what you are saying.  Be clear.  Simple.

7. Beware of clownishness… Avoid all lightness, jesting, and foolish talking.  Again, good advice.  There is a place for humour in preaching, but we do need to be very wary of entertaining or making the sermon about us.  I suspect that if we avoid jesting and foolish talk, as well as clownishness, then we are on safe ground.  We don’t have to come across as sombre in every moment, but we should speak as if we have a very important message to convey – which we do if we are preaching the text properly.  We need to be wary of inappropriate formality.  Just as wearing a tuxedo can feel out of place, so can a strange and affected formal tone or a presentational gravitas that is not consistent with our personality and natural demeanour.  In our fear of jesting, let’s not come across as unloving, lacking in warmth, or out of touch with the room.  

8. Never scream.  Never speak above the natural pitch of your voice.  This was probably a greater concern before amplification equipment.  Nevertheless, this point still applies.  There is a natural upper limit to your pitch, your power, and even your pace.  Don’t go above that level to achieve some kind of emphasis.  The screamer seldom communicates anything other than a loss of control.  In fact, it is good to consciously work on going down instead of up for emphasis.  Down in pitch.  Down in power.  Slow down the pace.  Emphasis sounds very natural in the opposite direction, but it takes unnatural work to develop the skill!  And even more foundationally, your emphasis and impact is not ultimately determined by your vocal delivery, but by God’s Spirit bringing conviction to your listeners.

Next time we will finish the list.

Vary the Crescendo

I remember sitting high up in the Royal Albert Hall for a schools concert some years ago. Impressive venue, electric atmosphere, and stunning music. All of the music was very good, but there is something unique about the 1812 Overture once the cannons are fired up in the rafters – it was so fun to watch the children’s faces (they didn’t know it was coming!) I am no classical music fan, but that always feels like a high point in any concert.

The thing is, music can’t all be a thrilling crescendo. And the musical impact is not all achieved by crescendo. There are variations of melodic themes woven together, changes from major to minor key to influence the mood, variations in rhythmic intensity, and so much more. It would not make for great music to simply string together and elongate every possible crescendo (or add cannons to every piece)!

The same principle is true in preaching. There are various ways in which we can start to lean on a powerful crescendo too much, and thereby weaken our preaching. Here are a few examples:

Your Voice – Undoubtedly you can run into a crowded room and get everyone’s attention by screaming. That doesn’t mean you should scream your way through a sermon. Naturally, when we are excited about what we have to say, our voice will tend to climb upwards. It will go up in pitch, up in volume, and up in pace. And the ability to pause meaningfully? That will go up in smoke! As a preacher, you will do well to learn the benefit, and the skill, of going down for emphasis too. You can go down in pitch, down in volume, and down in pace – all for a non-crescendo variation on emphasis. And bring the skill of pause back down to earth too, it really can help!

Your Points – It is so easy to find a formula that works for a point in a message and then find yourself repeating that same formula for each point. Perhaps the flow moves from stating the point to explaining it textually and then applying it with an exhortational forcefulness that works well in point 1. That does not mean that point 2 must also have the same crescendo at the point of application. Be sure to look at how your points serve each other. Sometimes a point works better without forcefulness – let it fulfil its function in the message.

Your Support Material – It is always tempting to think that a certain type of “illustration” will always work well because one particular example did. Maybe your sermon seemed to soar when you recounted the moving story, shared the humourous anecdote, or let rip with the fiery rebuke (you know your tendency in terms of preferred “illustrations!”) Great. Be thankful that it worked. But don’t start to lean on that type of material to the exclusion of others. People grow tired of perfectly placed emotional stories, side-splitting humour, or repeated rebuke. The repetition will not achieve greater impact but will move listeners to start to see your preaching as manipulative, your goal as to entertain, or your pastoral concern as haranguing.

Your Series – Last Sunday I was preaching the passage after God rescued Isaac on Mount Moriah. That had been a crescendo message in an Abraham series stretching back for many weeks. People commented and appreciated and responded to the emotional impact of that sermon. So what to do the week after? It was tempting to try to continue the crescendo. Why not keep up the same emotional pitch for maximum personal impact? Instead, I chose to deliberately preach in a much more relaxed “teaching” style that allowed us to consider the new passage before us. I think it was the right choice. There was still some emotional impact, but it was not through the perpetuation of the crescendo. The message was in a different key, the music made its own impact, and it didn’t try to roll out the cannons again.

Where else can we find ourselves leaning on crescendo to the exclusion of other helpful options?

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Fighting Flat

Part of our challenge as preachers is to fight flatness in our preaching. This could be in terms of delivery, structure, or content. Perhaps you would add more areas too.

Basic Principle – When we stand in front of a crowd, which is an unnatural environment, then we have to fight a tendency to become restricted in all types of variation. What seems varied in our minds can sound flat, or monotonous, to our listeners. We have to fight against that flatness to be as engaging as possible.

Delivery – I am resisting the term monotony, because technically, that only refers to tone. Tone is certainly included, but we can become flat communicators in other areas too. The added pressure of speaking to a crowd, even if we are not nervous, will push us toward a restricted range of vocal tone. Or physical movement. Or facial expression. Or range of gestures. Or volume. Any aspect of our delivery can easily become repetitive and restricted rather than varied and interesting. Naturally, we will tend to bore rather than grip. So let’s fight the flatness in order to be engaging.

Structure – What happens with delivery, can also happen with the parts of our sermon. We can easily present the content in a flatter way than we anticipated. The nerves, or just the dynamic of a crowd, can cause us to progress through the passage at a fixed height. It is easy to lose the moments of greater overview to help our listeners, instead of either plodding at a fixed height or jumping between details without showing the connections. It takes a clear mind to remember to make the transitions clear and helpful. It takes a deliberate approach to give high-level overview and then dip down for details with clarity. If we don’t think about it, every sermon point will simply be the next natural step in our progression through the text. Naturally, we will tend to slide through the text rather than showing the contours and enlighten listeners regarding the passage as a whole. Let’s fight the flatness in order to be engaging.

Content – The same thing can happen with other aspects of our content. It is easy to get in a rut with how we explain the details in the text, or the kind of illustrations that we use, or the emotional energy in the support material shared. Five sporting analogies in a row is typically not as thrilling as we might feel internally. Always using cross-references in every point is not biblically engaging, it is dull. Don’t fall into a pattern of always offering illustrative material that is merely interesting, but never personal, or always personal, but also mundane. Listeners need variety in content to distinguish parts of the message and to offer the velcro for their minds and hearts to stay engaged. We have to fight the flatness in order to be engaging.

How else do you see monotony, or flatness, creeping into a sermon? It is also possible to get into a rut between messages, too. For instance, always using the same shape sermon, always quoting the same source (Spurgeon, anyone?), or always ending with the same emotional force.

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?