Biggest Mistakes Preachers Make

Slip2This week I want to share some of the biggest mistakes preachers make.  Actually, these are the biggest mistakes I have probably made.  Perhaps this can help others pondering the wonderful privilege of preaching the Bible!
Mistake 1 – Simply Harvesting Imperatives
It feels easy, and it feels right, to turn proclamation into imperative presentation.  All you have to do is present the text and then make sure people know the imperatives: the “must do” or “should do” or “best do” of the passage.  Whether or not there is technically an imperative in the text, we so easily turn a passage into mere instruction and press for change as we preach.
Sidebar: Introducing the Imperative
The mood is one of several features of a verb.  In Greek, for instance, there are four moods: indicative, subjunctive, optative and imperative.  The mood presents the verbal action or state with regards to the verb’s actuality or potentiality.  The imperative mood is concerned with intention.  Thus the most common use of the imperative is to express a command.  However, it would be wrong to collapse imperative into commands (or assume all commands are imperative).  An imperative can be used to forbid an action (prohibition), to express a request (such as in prayer), a sense of resignation, a pronouncement, a condition, or even just a greeting.  So? Simply identifying and harvesting imperatives is not a shortcut to an instructional/applied sermon!

Remember the Context – Typically the epistles will offer lists of instructions, but never in isolation.  The chapter breaks and section headings may segregate a set of instructions or commands, but the letters were written as a coherent whole.  We are to present our bodies as living sacrifices . . . in view of God’s mercies.  We are to walk in a manner worthy . . . of the calling we have received.  We are to set our hearts on things above, where Christ is . . . the Christ presented in the first half of Colossians!

Remember the Mechanism – As long as we think lives are transformed by the pressure we can apply in our preaching, our ministry will be desperately restricted.  Lives are transformed by pointing the gaze of listeners’ hearts toward Christ.  In Christ, in Christ, in Christ . . . so walk worthy.  The captivating truth of what God has done in Christ is preached, the Spirit works in the heart, an appetite to please God comes forth like sap in a fruit tree, and the instructions are there to guide the growth.

Forget the Short-Cut – It feels like a short-cut: just find imperatives, or turn some content into imperative, and then pressure people.  You will even get encouraging feedback (the flesh loves this stuff!)  But you won’t see much true, genuine, abundant growth.  Forget the short-cut and preach the text, in context, pointing to the God it reveals, and the growth may be imperceptible (good fruit growth isn’t instant), but it will be definite, genuine, multiplying, healthy, Christ-honoring, loving, joyful, peaceful, etc., fruitful growth!


Every Conviction is Biblical – Applicational Faux Pas

People have an amazing ability to miss the point and make a point out of a minor point.  This seems to be especially prevalent in church world.  Here are some approaches people use, maybe people in your church.  Look for ways to gently and sensitively correct these approaches as you preach, while also modelling appropriate application of the text.

A.    The Selective Normative Detail Approach – If it is in there, automatically copy it.  I include the term “selective” since nobody can apply this consistently.  One person may choose to have a conviction about how to pray before eating based on the feeding of the five thousand, but they may not see the need to apply the same approach to the size of seated groups when a large gathering is to be fed.  It is amazing what details in a narrative can become normative for some.

B.    The Selective Absence as Normative Approach – If it is not in there, don’t allow it.  Again, this has to be selective because consistency would not be possible.  So since guitars are not mentioned, they may be deemed inappropriate, but many churches holding convictions about guitars are fine with carpet in the room.  Preferences are preferences.  They need not be considered biblical and moral convictions.

C.    The Equal Weight Normativity Approach – This is where every detail is considered equal.  If something is mentioned as a narrative detail, then it is considered as normative as a pattern or an instruction.  After all, it is in the Bible!

D.    The Ridiculous Application of Detail Approach – I’ve covered this already really, but I just want to underline it with another category.  One church springs to mind.  They felt they had to meet at 11am rather than 10:30am, because in the Bible it says, “when the hour had come, they…”

Feel free to add to the list . . .

It is amazing what people will do with the Bible, and what they miss by focusing on this kind of thing.  But if we, as preachers, don’t model and instruct otherwise, nothing will change.

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Every Conviction is Biblical

Many Christians will readily admit that they struggle to apply the teaching of the Bible to their own lives.  Strangely though, very few will admit that their convictions may not be thoroughly biblical.  Every church, every tradition and every denomination has its own little quirks and unique approaches to things.  What is true of churches is true of the people in the churches too.  The problems come not from having quirks, but from defending them as biblical when in fact they are not.

How should the church service proceed, how should it be led, how should the music be handled, what is not acceptable in terms of instruments, what can happen in the church building on a Sunday, what time should the service begin, how exactly should the communion table be set out, how many cups can be used, and the list goes on.  It is amazing what church details people will hold as strong biblical untouchable convictions.  After all, they have a verse to support their position!

So it seems to me that preachers have a prime responsibility to guide, instruct and model in this minefield of application.  Some preachers never apply.  Others always offer the same applications (trust God, go share your faith, live good lives, etc.)  But if we don’t go beyond this, then people will never learn to apply in the areas of the sometimes bizarre church convictions.  Surely we want the people in our churches to be enjoying the fullness of personal relationship with the Trinity through Christ, rather than perpetuating sometimes bizarre convictions about all sorts of details and almost believing that Christianity consists in those convictions?

In the next post I want to share some thoughts on application in preaching, specifically in reference to the kind of “incidental detail of Scripture held as deep biblical conviction” that we sometimes come across.  Hopefully there is none of this in your church.  But don’t be surprised if there is.

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Overly Narrow Application of a Principle

I’d like to build a little on the post from three days ago.  Here is a post I wrote a while back, but am fairly sure I forgot to post on the site.  It offers another angle on the challenges of application, again overtly leaning on Haddon Robinson’s work.

In simple terms the homiletical process involves three stages.  The first is the exegetical work of determining the original writer’s meaning.  The second stage involves abstraction of that meaning via theological principalization to derive a timeless truth.  The final stage is the earthing of that principle for the listeners sat in front of you – the homiletical application stage.  At this point our task is to not only demonstrate the meaning of the passage, but also to emphasize how it is relevant to the listeners.

Application is set up for illustrative material.  By definition, application involves demonstrating how the biblical principle might be applied in a contemporary setting, what difference it makes to us today.  At this point in the message, it makes sense to use illustrative materials.  But beware, there is a trap that is easy to fall into.

The incomplete variety of application error.  The meaning of a passage, and the derivation of principle, are both inclined toward single statement results.  That is to say, there is one meaning.  But how is that principle applied?  There are usually numerous possibilities.  If you only present a single example application, even if you state that this is one possible application, listeners will tend to presume that is specifically what you are preaching (or even, what the Bible is teaching).

Haddon Robinson gives the example of “honoring your parents” in a Pulpit Talk audio journal.  One possible application he gives from his experience with his own ageing father – that he ended up in a nursing home.  Another possible application he gives from their experience with his mother-in-law – that she was cared for by Haddon’s wife in their house.  To give one example without the other runs the risk of communicating only one option for applying the principle derived from the passage.

When you are applying a passage, demonstrating and emphasizing its relevance for your listeners, be sure to indicate the variety of possible applications, rather than leaving people with a faulty understanding of the passage because of an overly narrow applicational example.

Application Weak Spots

Last week I was teaching preaching alongside another instructor in a preacher’s training conference.  At different times we both pointed to three levels of application, and we both pointed out a weak spot . . . but the two sets of categories were very different.  I suppose this should be two posts really, but here are the lists of three:

Targets of Application – Mark Meynell offered three levels of application.  The first, and the one we tend to be best at, is at the level of private application (for instance, our personal spirituality, ethics, devotional life, etc.).  The second level is the relational (for instance, relationships in the home, the workplace, the church, etc.) and he stated that we tend to do okay on this level.  The third level, however, is the weakest.  This is application at the social level (engaging with the world).

Personal Targets of Application – I offered the following three categories of application, again noting that one is usually considerably weaker than the other two.  The first level is the level of conduct, or “the hands” – that is, application in terms of what to do.  The second level is the level of belief, or “the head” – that is, application in terms of what to know/believe.  Depending on the preacher, one of these is usually stronger than the other.  Some seem very quick to present practical applications (often forgetting the inherent value of “belief” application), others tend to emphasize applications in respect to belief.  Both are necessary and often appropriate (depending on the passage and the listeners).  There is a third category that lies underneath both of the first two, but one which is often ignored.  The third level is the level of the affections or “the heart” – that is, application in terms of core values, love and spiritual relationship.  If people do, based on what they know, then there is still another step deeper into the functioning of humanity – to the level of the affections, values, desires, loves.  Consider Ephesians 4:17ff to see how Paul moves deeper than conduct to knowledge, then deeper again to the role of the heart.

Application is not easy.  Two different sets of categories, both pointing to an area of specific weakness.  How can we better apply in respect to engaging with the world?  How can we better apply in respect to the affections of the listener?

When Do Listeners Switch On?

You know what I mean.  People are sitting and listening, sort of, until you say a key phrase, then suddenly everyone is really listening carefully.  Let’s make the assumption that having people really listen is a positive thing.  Now let’s consider some examples of “switch on” phrases and consider the implications for our preaching:

“How does this apply to us?” – People do tend to listen more when the message is about them, their lives, their needs, etc.  We could critique that theologically and point to the self-obsession of humanity.  Or we could be thankful that all Scripture is both God-breathed and “useful” – i.e. life changing.  And then we could stop leaving application to the last three minutes of a message and look for ways to include it throughout.  Compare and contrast an introduction infused with relevance and applicational preparation for the message to follow, with the standard switch off phrase “Last week we were deep in 2Chronicles 17, please turn with me to 2Chronicles 18 . . .”

“Let me tell you a story . . .” – People of all ages love a good story.  “Once upon a time” does wonders for children of all ages.  This kind of phrase is much more of a switch on than “let’s talk about the story.”  I’ve said it before, when the passage is a narrative, tell the story!  Even when it is not, how can the message be engaging and interesting, rather than mere lecturing and information transfer?

“Here’s how I struggle with this . . .” – People are always interested in appropriate vulnerability from the preacher.  Haddon Robinson urges preacher to neither be the hero, nor the jerk, in the stories they tell by way of illustration.  He is right, but he is not saying be absent from your illustrations.  People are far more interested in you as a real person, than they are in Napoleon or Lenin.  It is good to personalize aspects of the message, as long as it doesn’t make you look too good, or too much of an idiot.  Credibility and interest can increase or crash with personal stories.  Choose wisely, but choose some.

Some things switch on listeners, but integrity demands that we don’t use them.  Over-promising and then under-delivering, offering success guarantees in a messy world, promising healing or wealth when the text doesn’t support that application.  We must have integrity so that we’re not mere pragmatists.  However, it is easy to go to the other extreme and fail to learn from the reactions of listeners.  What other phrases switch on the listener?  What might be the implications for our preaching?

Chatting Through Sunday’s Sermon

Sunday’s coming and hopefully your message is not too far away now.  Allow me to engage you in a brief conversation about your message.  Perhaps this is the kind of conversation you have with your spouse or a staff member of your church.  So we chat about the passage, the main idea as you see it, perhaps the tension you plan to build into the message.  We go back and forth, all very cordial and maybe with some humor thrown in.  Then I ask,

“How will you apply this message?”

What is your answer?  If your answer is vague and fluffy, this says a lot about how you will preach the message (although the question might prompt some extra preparation in this area!)  If your answer is specific, with concrete and tangible contemporary examples of the message applied, then things are looking good for Sunday.

So.  How will you apply the message?  There . . . I asked.  Now it’s over to you.  The answer that matters is not one you give me, but what you give them on Sunday.  (Thinking about it, perhaps I should ask me that question too . . . )

Necessary and Possible

In simple terms, how much of a message should be spent on explaining the passage, and how much should be spent on applying it?

Spend as much time as necessary explaining the passage. If you don’t explain the passage, your application will lack authority.  People need to understand the meaning of the passage, they need to see how the details of the text work together to convey the main point.  They need to see how it fits in the flow of the section.  They need to have confidence that any application you present is built firmly on the teaching of the passage.

Spend as much time as possible applying the passage. Once people understand the meaning of the passage, they need to see how it relates to their life.  In fact, don’t fall into the trap of explaining and then applying as two sequential elements in the sermon.  Certainly application will show up at the end and be significant in the conclusion, but it should also present itself right at the start, in the introduction, in the wording of the main idea and in the phrasing of the main points of the message.  However, proportionately, this guideline is important to bear in mind – give as much application as possible.

Don’t reverse these guidelines! It is easy to get this backwards and end up giving as much explanation as possible.  After all, you may have spent hours digging in the text.  You were excited by all that you learnt.  You enjoy Bible study.  Therefore it is easy to make a sermon an exegetical information dump.  Don’t.  Select carefully and give what is necessary, but don’t over-prove, don’t overwhelm.  Make sure you never skimp on connecting the truth of God’s Word into the nitty gritty of real life.

Simple guidelines, but I find them helpful.

Drop Down the Ladder

Many great sermons turn out to be good sermons.  Sermons looking set to be good often end up average.  How is it that the last few minutes of a sermon can change it from powerful to pleasant?  One key element is the final descent of the preacher down the ladder of abstraction.

The text must be understood in its original setting for the detail to make sense.  Then the process of theological abstraction moves the preacher toward relevance for the contemporary listeners.  But this is not enough.  It is easy to stop at this stage of the process, and a natural place to let off the preparation pressure (after all, surely listeners can take the abstract and apply it specifically in their own situation?)  Actually no, listeners do not generally apply abstracts to their own lives.  Don’t stop with “trust God!” or “love God more!” or “love one another!” or “be faithful in your relationships!”  These are all abstracts.

To really cement the message as a great, not for the sake of your reputation, but for the sake of lives changed to the glory of God, push through for specific application.  This means re-contextualizing the application for the sake of your listeners.  What will it look like to trust God for some of them this week?  How would greater love for God show up in their daily lives?  What specifically might one do to demonstrate genuine love for another believer in the church this week?  Where is faithfulness tested and proven day by day?

Don’t finish a great message in mid-air and thereby transform the great into the good.  Be sure to earth the message through specifics, stepping down the ladder of abstraction so that the rubber can meet the road of real life.  Listeners generally struggle to take hold of an abstract and apply it specifically, but they are very adept at hearing a specific that fits the life of another in the same pew, and translating that specific into a specific that relates to their version of real life. The Bible is relevant, just be sure to demonstrate that reality for some of your listeners.  The rest will gladly translate for themselves!

Discourse: The Danger of Spiritualization

We’ve noted that there are discourse passages in almost every section of Scripture – history, wisdom, prophet, gospel, etc.  Awareness of the broader plot within which discourse is placed is helpful both in understanding the passage meaning and purpose, and also for preaching the passage with contextual understanding and tension.

So if we decide to preach a discourse in a typical analytical manner – for instance a deductive sermon – what should we be wary of?  Be wary of direct transference of relevance to a different audience.  Joshua 1 does not give direct promises to contemporary readers that wherever we place our feet, we can claim for God.  Equally it does not mandate military action on our part.  Yet the passage yields much that can be so relevant to us.

Be careful to work through the process of exegetical analysis (in that context), drawing out the abiding theological implications (in any context), and recontextualizing the principles (in this context).  Be careful not to then re-attach original phrasing in a careless manner that might imply direct transference of details by a spiritualization process (i.e. let it show that you are not simply reading the text and then telling people to “claim land” as God instructs us to “march” over what we should “conquer”).  By showing some process in our preaching, we can protect our people from bad practice in their own Bible study.  By showing awareness of audience (original and contemporary) and passage purpose (original and preached), we guard our people from inappropriate application.