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!


Preparing to Preach OT Narrative – 3

I am preparing to preach a series from the book of Ruth.  This week I’ve been thinking out loud about aspects I need to keep in mind as I head into the preparations.  I’ve thought about the unfamiliarity of the context for the listeners, as well as their perception of the irrelevance of something so far removed from today.

Today I’m pondering a temptation I know I’ll face in preaching the narrative genre.

It is always tempting to multiply applications.  I suppose this is a response to yesterday’s concern with apparent irrelevance.  The preacher can fall into the trap of turning every detail of the text into a point of application.  “Look, Ruth isn’t an irrelevant book, we are only five verses in and here are four principles for keeping your family together!”  Oops.

As a preacher with a desire to be relevant to the listeners, I have to guard against illegitimate application of details in the narrative.  Just because a character demonstrates it, doesn’t make it an instruction for the reader.  Just because it happened, doesn’t mean it should.

As a general approach, perhaps I should put it this way – (1) my effort in preparation should go into grasping the thrust of the whole passage, and then seeking to clearly apply that main thrust.  And there will be ways to multiply the applications of that main thrust.  This will be better than multiplied mini-thrusts based on particular details plucked out of their unique role in the passage as a whole.

That is, all the details matter, but not all the details need to be applied.  Every detail in a narrative is working together to make the whole plot work.  But not every detail is there as a teaching point.  The plot as a whole (either the whole plot, or the plot of a scene if I preach it section by section), the plot as a whole carries a certain thrust that we would do well to open our hearts to and be changed by.

Tomorrow I’ll add a couple more thoughts on applying the narrative.

Application Is Not Always Pragmatic – 2

Yesterday I suggested that preaching with applicational goals is entirely appropriate.  Furthermore, if done appropriately and sensitively (not to mention specifically), application that is very pragmatic certainly has a place in our preaching.  But we have to see the rest of the list too:

2 – Belief (the head) – It is important to recognize that behaviour is driven by belief.  If we only ever seek to fix behaviour, we will be frustrated because of the influence of underlying belief.  If a message calls for thinking a certain way about God, about life, about salvation, about conflict, about ministry, about whatever . . . then don’t feel bad about applying accordingly.  Sometimes a message transforms lives without a call to action, but with a call to respond in belief, in changing perspective, in thinking well about something.

1 – Affection (the heart) – If behaviour and conduct is driven by belief and thought processes, then it is important to recognize what drives our thinking and belief . . . the affections of the heart.  It is the heart that supplies values which function like software in the mind.  It is the hardening of the heart that stood at the root of the wrong thinking and bad behaviour of “the Gentiles” Paul wrote of in Ephesians 4.  And it is a new heart that is so transformative in the new covenant.  How easily we try to live new covenant Christianity as if we still have hearts of stone!  Applicational preaching needs to reach deep into the hearts of listeners and not settle for pragmatics or information transfer alone.

I know it is the work of God’s Spirit to change hearts.  But isn’t it only the Spirit who can truly influence thinking and action too?  Apart from me you can do nothing, Jesus said . . . so we must lean fully on the Lord as we preach His Word, but part of our task is to emphasize the relevance of the preaching text; the relevance to our conduct, to our beliefs, to our affections.

Five Major Failings – Part 2

Carrying on from yesterday’s two failings, here are the rest:

3. Vague Phrasing – Preachers seem hardwired to eschew all vivid verbs and concrete nouns, with the result that they sound vague and uninteresting.”

A lack of energy in delivery, a lack of facial engagement, a lack of passion, a lack of effective sensory description and so on are all factors adding to the vague and uninteresting nature of much preaching.

4. Sub-Christian Resolutions – There is not enough gospel-insight.”

This is a good observation.  If our application and resolution of the message is that we should try harder, do better, be “good-er” or whatever, then we are falling short of Christian preaching.  In my opinion we need not always force a jump to Calvary and Christ, there are times when a theocentric message need not move to the first Easter, but every message should be theocentric.  A try harder message is really anthropocentric (it’s all about us, our needs and our response).

5. Trivial Applications – The gospel is shrunk down to an individualistic technique that we can use on a Monday, all in the name of relevance, but the grand scope of the gospel as a message that speaks for all time, to nations and tribes as well as individuals, gets lost.  I actually heard someone starting a sermon: ‘The toothpaste squirted out all over my jacket, my alarm failed to go off, and in the shower I used rubbing alcohol as shampoo.  I was having a bad day.’  This was to introduce a biblical twosome who were having a similar bad day – the Emmaus pair.  Come on!”

We do need to differentiate between trivial Monday morning applications and genuine Monday morning applications.  Too much preaching resists the trivial and replaces it with the spiritual-sounding vague applications that all affirm, but none grasp for their own lives.  I agree, let’s cut out the trivial applications, but let’s do so in a way that retains genuine relevance.

Do We Get It Backwards?

Here’s a provocative quote from Charles Kraft:

The amount of crucial information involved in Christianity is, I believe, quite small.  The amount of Christian behavior demanded in response to all that information is, however, quite large.  We have, however, given ourselves over to a methodology that emphasizes the lesser of the two ingredients. (Jesus Model for Contemporary Communication, 123)

I essentially concur with this and want to make a couple of comments.  Obviously Kraft is not saying that Christianity is simplistic or lacking in content.  I’m sure he’d agree that we will never exhaust the riches of God’s Word.  However, for each truth in that Word, there are numerous necessary applications to real life behavior.  As preachers we tend to explain, explain, explain some more and then finally squeeze in a couple of minutes of application.  Perhaps we would do well to follow the advice of Don Sunukjian along the same lines, when he says we should explain as much as necessary, then apply, apply, apply.

In reality I find a lot of preaching is lacking in application, but not really because the text is being over-explained.  I would suggest, perhaps provocatively, that I rarely find a text even decently explained.  What many preachers tend to do is fill time with talk.  Random details in the text, other texts, illustrations lacking in defined purpose, filler words and noise.  I find it so refreshing when a preacher actually explains a text, and it is time to celebrate when there is specific and substantial application added to the mix.  I know there are still some exegetically heavy lecturers getting into pulpits, but probably far less than in the past.  However, it would be wrong to flatter many preachers who lack in application by suggesting they explain too much.  In reality many preachers neither explain nor apply well.

Many preachers tend to feel they have not done their job if they only preach one text, one main idea, one truth and then apply it well.  They perhaps feel that such preaching might be too lightweight or thin on content.  So they try to pack in more information, more texts, more truths, etc.  What could have been a powerful, penetrative, convicting, focused, applicational and memorable sermon becomes an overwhelming speedboat charge through the jungle of the catechism, or through systematic theology, or through all things Bible (complete with the resulting spray in the face that makes you do that squinting, blinking thing with your eyes!)

If it means actually seeing lives changed, let’s preach lightweight.  Actually, I don’t believe that.  Let’s preach one text well.  Well focused, not going anywhere else without good reason.  Well explained, but not an information dump.  Well applied, specific and with the appropriate grandeur for such a biblical truth.

Stowell’s 4 Power Dynamics

Joe Stowell, in a session on preaching, listed four power dynamics that are critical for preaching transformationally, that is, preaching for changed lives.  Nothing new here, but a helpful reminder for us all:

1. The Preacher’s Life – This is number one for a reason.  Consider the true value of our integrity, our walk with Christ, our willingness to apologize when necessary (and periodically it is for we all fail).

2. The Text – Do we need any comment here?  After all, this site is about Biblical preaching!

3. The Context – Not the hermeneutical overarching principle for Bible study, but the context in which you preach.  Stowell pointed out that no church would continue to finance a missionary who refused to consider issues of culture, language, etc.  Yet many preachers allow themselves the same nonsensical freedom when it comes to the ministry in the pulpit!

4. Clarity – If the feedback stated is “Wow, that was deep!” then the message should be translated as “I didn’t get what you were talking about!”  Be clear.

Simple stuff, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who needs these reminders.