Details, Details!

There are details, and then there are details. There are textual details in your preparation. And there are textual details in your presentation. After all, every passage is made up of lots of details. There are nouns, verbs, adjectives, names, quotations, allusions, grammatical constructions, figures of speech, and on the list goes. Whatever kind of passage you are looking at, it is built with the basic building block of details.

1. Details in Sermon Preparation. We should begin the study process with an interest in every detail. To study a text is to try to figure out why each detail is present, what it is intended to do, and how they all combine to convey a message. It might also help to notice what is not included. Exegesis is more than the study of details, but it can never be less than that.

The Bible is not written with padding to reach a word count – it wasn’t written by procrastinating students! The Bible is not a cheap paperback, overly elaborating every incidental detail to give the impression of a complex plot. The Bible is sparing in detail, precise in its writing.

Our job as Bible students is to see and interpret every element of the text. We can’t springboard off a keyword and ignore the rest of the passage. We must make sure our understanding of every detail coheres. If one detail is left untouched, we can’t be confident that we have grasped the message as a whole. So we scour the text, moving back and forth between analysis of details and synthesis of the whole passage in its broader context. We alternate between microscope and binoculars.

As we study the text we start to recognize that some details serve a more significant role in communicating the message of the text. Some details are important in making our passage unique. Other details are “load-bearing walls” in this passage. Every detail matters, but not every detail carries equal weight in a passage. It is only through careful study that we can identify which is which.

2. Details in Sermon Presentation. When it comes time to deliver our sermon we are limited by time and motivated by purpose. What is our purpose when we preach? It is not to present every avenue of inquiry that we have pursued in our study. It is not to download all of our accumulated information to our listeners. Our purpose is tied to our main idea and its application in the lives of our listeners. Therefore we select which details to highlight in order to effectively communicate this passage to these people.

This selection process involves an evaluation of the passage. In light of the study, what are the critical “load-bearing” details in the passage? It also involves evaluating our listeners. Are there details that may distract our listeners, or would our failure to pay attention to a detail come across as evading it, or as a mistake on our part? Some details can be explained quickly and easily, others take more time, but we will never have enough time to explain every detail as much as we might like.

Preaching is not as simple as following a formula. It isn’t simply study a passage, write a message and deliver it. We need to be meticulous in our study, but selective in our sermon. We need to treat every detail like the treasure that it is – an inspired word in God’s Word. And we need to preach God’s Word in a way that honours the words, but always seeing them as part of the coherent message of the passage as a whole. We need to pray for wisdom to see the passage as the original author intended, and to hear the message as our congregation will hear it presented. May we all grow in the varied skills it takes to handle all these details!

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This resource may be helpful for you or others on the subject of studying Bible passages:

A Low Fence: Revisited

One of my early posts on this site was called “A Low Fence.” I have recalled that post many times, and since yesterday’s post related to the idea, I thought I’d give it a revamp:

When you have a single text for a sermon, you also need a fence.  The fence is there to keep you from wandering too far away from your focus.  

1. Erect a fence for the passage – If you are preaching John 3, put your fence around John (or maybe the section of John 1-4). If you are preaching Colossians 1, put a perimeter around Colossians. That fence means you try to keep your study, and your presentation, within John, or Colossians.

2. Study inside the fence – As you try to make sense of details within your passage, try not to spend all your time visiting other writers and other eras of biblical history. By staying within the writing of that author, or if possible, within this writing of that author, you will put your energy into the best evidence to find authorial intent within your passage. The fence marks off the best context for your study. Staying there will help you to spot the flow of thought within the passage, as well as the way the author is using a word or concept.

3. Preach inside the fence – As we thought about in the last post, it is often tempting to present a sermon in our own preferred terms (or preferred texts, cross-references, etc.) A couple of things can be said of cross-references. (1) Listeners don’t love a biblical “sword drill” and tend to switch off when a message becomes too textually complicated, and yet (2) Listeners seem to praise the preacher for being “deep” or some such non-compliment often misunderstood as endorsement. But it isn’t just about jumping around the canon. How easily we will preach a Resurrection passage in a Gospel using Paul’s terminology from 1 Corinthians 15. Or how easily our standard Christian terms get painted on every text so that the distinctive vocabulary of Luke or John or Hebrews or Peter is lost.

4. It only needs to be a low fence – I am not suggesting that you study, or preach, a biblical book in isolation from other inspired texts.  I am suggesting that you honour the author of the book both in your study and in your preaching.  With a low fence you can step back into the Old Testament to look at a passage that informs your preaching passage, or you can step over to other writings by the same author for a more complete word study.  With a low fence you can choose to step beyond the book for a quick presentation of how this apparently unusual idea is actually very biblical.  With a low fence you can choose to step forward to see the culmination of momentum found in your text.

These are the three reasons I tend to step over the fence –

A. For the informing texts that help me understand my preaching text,

B. For the supporting texts that help others accept my preaching text, or

C. For a culminating passage that helps to conclude a trajectory in my preaching text. 

Otherwise, I’d say it is generally best to stay where you are.  I certainly don’t think we should spend much time going elsewhere just because other passages have similar wording, nor to offer “illustration” for the truth of our passage, and definitely not to fill time.  Dig in the text you have, honour the author by doing so, and give your listeners the best you can from this passage.  Next week it will be a different one.

(To see the original post with worked example from Hebrews 13:20-21 – click here.)

7 Ways to Not Really Preach a Passage

Here are seven ways to not really preach the text you claim to be preaching. You may notice that I will say nothing about heresy. I will assume that what is said in each type of sermon is biblically and theologically true. Nevertheless, in each case the preacher is not really preaching the text they claim to be preaching. After the list, I will suggest three reasons why this is a problem.

1. Springboard Preaching – This is where you read the text at the beginning and then leave it behind. You may go to some wonderful places in the thoughts that follow, but the actual text is long forgotten.

2. Trigger Word Preaching – This is where you allow words in your text to sequentially trigger you to preach other things. This is like a sequence of mini-springboards. Again, you may go to good places in what you say, but you aren’t saying what this passage says.

3. Cross-Reference Preaching – This is a variation where keywords in the preaching text trigger travel via the concordance to other, probably preferred preaching passages. I presume they are great passages, but this one is getting short shrift.

4. Preferred Text Preaching – This is similar to the previous one, but all the triggers take you to the same place. I once took a course in Pastoral Epistles, but the teacher seemed determined to spend as much time in Romans as possible. Wasted opportunity.

5. Meaning-Lite or Intention-Lite Preaching – This is harder to spot. It appears to be preaching in the preaching text, but the preacher has not wrestled with the text in context, or with the original intention of the author, so the text has become a superficial and context-less set of abstract thoughts for the preacher to play with. The preacher may say good things, but is the preacher saying what the author intended to communicate?

6. Theological Overlay Preaching – This is a variation on number 5, but it is harder to critique. After all, the preacher might be presenting an amazing theological lecture, but the issue is that if it isn’t the intention of the passage, then it is an overlay being imposed rather than having the credibility of coming out of the text.

7. Anecdotally Dominated Preaching – This is where there is a tip of the hat to the text, but the real energy is invested in anecdotes and illustrations. These don’t serve the preaching of the passage, they swamp it. Now, they might be theologically brilliant quotes, stories and examples, but what about the passage?

That is a quick menu of seven ways to not really preach the text you purport to proclaim. But if these sermons are biblically and theologically accurate, is it a problem? Here are three reasons why it is a problem:

A. Your preaching text is good, why miss it? The alternative may be attractive, it may be more preachable, and it may even be what they need. If it is, preach that text. But why pretend to preach this passage and then not really preach it? In your preaching calendar it will say that you preached it, so it won’t get another opportunity for several years. Why not let them have this particular passage’s truth – it is unique, it is God-breathed, and it is profitable.

B. You are shrinking the canon, why do that? When your preaching text does not control your content, then you will naturally move to easier texts, to pet ideas, to personal soapboxes. Even if these are all true, they are also too few. God gave us a whole Bible of self-revelation. When we reduce that to the extent of our preferences, that will always make for a much smaller canon. What you want to say will never be as rich, diverse, interesting and helpful as what God has said and wants to say through the preaching of the Bible.

C. You are undermining God’s credibility as a communicator, why teach that? What example are you giving your listeners, especially the more discerning ones? When they look at a text and sense that what you have said isn’t really what that text is saying . . . but you imply that it is . . . what do they learn? The Bible is not good communication? This preacher does not believe God to be a good communicator? I should let the text trigger disconnected thoughts when I read it too?

Please add more ways this happens and more reasons it is a problem in the comments. And let’s resolve, prayerfully and passionately, to always seek to really preach the passage we claim to be preaching!

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Great Movies & Great Sermons

Last night we had an impromptu discussion at the dinner table about movies. What makes a movie great? We probably weren’t at the level of discussing every aspect of script, characters, acting, timing, sound, visuals, etc. But it did strike me that there may be some elements of a good movie that might teach us a thing or two about good preaching. I know, a sermon and a movie have massive differences (budget, labour hours, purpose, etc.), but still, it might be worth chasing this a little.

For me, a good movie includes the following:

  1. It is believable. I don’t mean the story has to be true to life, even though I tend to prefer those that are. But the visuals, the acting, the props, etc., should all reinforce the world created by the movie. If the acting is wooden, or the set wobbles, or the knight on horseback is wearing a watch, then I consciously know I am watching people trying to make a movie and it loses its impact. I wonder in what ways we might lose believability as we preach – lack of genuineness of preacher, lack of passion for content, excessive reliance on notes, unfortunate pauses and uncertainty?
  2. It is engaging. A movie could be completely believable, but inherently dull. I have seen a few. Somehow the plot tension needs to combine with the character development to engage me. It is not enough to be well-made, it needs to make me care about the story. I think the same is true in preaching. We can present solid truth well, but it can still be dull to our listeners. As preachers we need to make sure we engage with our listeners both in content and delivery so that they care to listen.
  3. It appropriately blends surprise with satisfaction. When a movie is predictable from the opening scene, it is going to struggle. There needs to be surprise. However, some predictable movies are still much loved. Everyone knows Rocky will win the final fight, so how does that kind of film succeed? (It came up in our conversation.) Along with sufficient plot twists and added challenges along the way, there is also something to be said for the satisfaction that comes when a plot’s tension resolves. That is what keeps children returning to the same bedtime story request night after night. They know what will happen, but they want to feel it again. Preaching is not dissimilar. If we are merely predictable, then our congregations will grow tired. But we can’t generate surprises at every turn in every sermon – after all, our listeners tend to have our passage open in front of them! Somehow good preaching blends some surprise with a more predictable, but satisfying, resolution to the tension. Preaching reminds people of truths they know they need to hear again.

This is all true, but then we also thought about one more aspect of the discussion. What takes a good movie and makes it a great movie?

4. Lingering Impact. A lot of movies are enjoyable escapism. They create a bubble for us to enter for a couple of hours. Then when the story ends, we move back into normal life. Great movies make more impact. There is a lingering affect on our lives. (This is why Hollywood is such a powerful political tool!) Some movies, although probably not as many as overly emotional actor interviews suggest – some movies actually shape the way people think and change the way they live. In a similar way it is possible for a sermon to be good, in itself. Maybe it engages its listeners for the time it is being delivered, and technically it ticks all the boxes. But when it ends, do the listeners just step back into “real life” again? Maybe they are grateful, but essentially unmoved? When we preach we should be praying for, and planning for, a lingering and life-changing impact. By God’s grace, sometimes it happens!

What would you add? Any more helpful links between movie-making and effective preaching?

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Please check out Cor Deo on YouTube for helpful resources – https://www.youtube.com/c/CorDeo

6 Questions About Illustrations – part 2

Yesterday I gave four questions to get us thinking purposefully about what we are doing with an illustration and where we are getting it from.

Here are two more questions that we need to consider:

5. Even if it is a good illustration, is it self-destructive? You might have a great idea for an illustration, but beware of some that self-destruct. Here are some to watch out for:

  • The Overpowering Illustration. If the emotional impact is too great, then people won’t hear the point, or even the sermon. (Details of your car crash, your surgery, your pet dog’s death, etc.)
  • The Morally Questionable Illustration. If the morality of your illustration raises concerns, then people won’t hear your point, or even the sermon. (It doesn’t have to be sinful to trigger this outcome – referencing some movies, or hobbies, etc., might trigger a “sin!” reflex in some of your listeners.)
  • The Complicated to Explain Illustration. If the backstory or complexity is such that it takes too much effort, then people might forget your actual point. (Many movie illustrations trigger this outcome – unless literally everyone knows the film, or the set-up can be really swift, it may be worth looking for something else.)
  • The Tribal Illustration. If the story elevates a sports team where the listeners may be tribal (some don’t like that team), or where some listeners are tired of sports illustrations, or if you push a political perspective or person (and some aren’t onboard with your perspective), then people will likely remember their reaction to this rather than the point you were making.

6. Are you missing the value of the non-illustration? Sometimes we can be so in the habit of finding illustrations for our preaching that we forget the value of the non-illustration. I don’t mean speaking in a monotonous complicated and academic lecture. I mean recognizing that sometimes the explanation of the context of a passage, or the presentation of the passage itself, can be so vivid and engaging that it feels like you are illustrating when actually you are not. Narratives tend to offer us the potential for powerful storytelling. Poetry tends to offer vivid imagery. Even the epistles sometimes offer illustrations built into the passage. Don’t rush to your illustration file before checking if the text can engage the listeners with a vivid presentation and a sense of resonating relevance.

Illustrating a sermon is not easy, but hopefully these questions might help. What else would you add?

6 Questions About Illustrations

Good preachers make illustration look effortless, but for most of us it can be a real struggle. Here are a few questions that I find helpful:

1. What’s the purpose of your illustration? Too many preachers default to simply adding in illustrations because there hasn’t been one for a few paragraphs, or because they think they should. It works much better to define your purpose. At this point in the message will your listeners be needing explanation to clarify the point you are making? Or will they need support to prove the point? Or perhaps application to picture themselves applying the point? Generally it is better to identify what you are trying to achieve and you will probably achieve it more successfully. Explain, prove, apply . . . or perhaps give a break in the intensity to allow them to re-group. Decide what is needed and then you are more likely to find it.

2. Are you relying on their knowledge, or does it touch their experience? People will always connect more with what they have experienced than what they know. People are more likely to remember cross-country running at school than have experience of running in the Olympics. They know what it feels like to get stuck in traffic, but probably not what it feels like to step out of a spacecraft. Instead of going for the more exotic, consider if more mundane might connect better.

3.  Have they experienced it, or are they simply having to hear about yours? The best illustrative material tends to be experienced by both speaker and listener. It is easy for you to describe and easy for them to imagine. If this isn’t possible, then consider whether you can do the learning and speak of what they know personally, rather than always asking them to imagine what you have experienced personally. It won’t always be possible, but worth the effort when you can.

4. Are you falling into the laziest and weakest forms of illustration? There are plenty of illustrations that fall outside your experience and knowledge, and their experience and knowledge. The illustration anthologies are full of them. Obscure anecdotes and clever quotes from yesteryear. Wartime speeches, heroic moments, distant pithy quotes. Generally speaking these will seem far more effective on paper than they do in actual preaching. At the very least, can I suggest that if you love this kind of illustration then at least try to balance these with something more immediate and normal? (You may love your 1950’s football stories, or WWI trench poetry, but your listeners may not be so enthused.)

It takes work to illustrate well. Sometimes we have to go with something weaker than we’d prefer. That is preaching. But let’s try to do the best we can. (And tomorrow I will share the final two questions…)

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!

Get the Idea? – Part 1

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Over the past few years I’ve come across quite a number of people who talk about preaching and recommend Haddon Robinson’s book, but don’t really understand Robinson’s teaching on the subject.  It seems that some people are impressed with aspects of the book, Biblical Preaching, but don’t really grasp some of the core teaching of it.  In particular, the nature and power of the Big Idea in preaching.  Today I’d like to focus on communication, but will continue the series tomorrow in respect to biblical studies, then finish with a focus on the Spirit of God.  Do we really get the Big Idea?

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The Theology Bridge

When we think through the expositional process, we are really concerned about three stages.  The first stage is understanding the text (exegetical).  The final stage is producing the sermon (homiletical).  The link between the two is the bridge in John Stott’s metaphor (in Between Two Worlds).  The bridge is the theological abstraction process.  In Haddon Robinson’s book you’ll find reference to the exegetical idea, the theological idea and the homiletical idea.  You could equally refer to the “at that time” – “timeless” – “at this time” progression of the stages.  This basic concept is important to grasp.  In order to accurately preach the message a passage today, we have to first consider the timeless theological abstraction of the main idea.  Here are a couple of questions to consider as you move from the exegetical to the theological stages of the process:

1. What does this passage say about God? Whether God is mentioned directly or not, every passage should be considered and preached theocentrically.  The Bible is God’s self-revelation, and since He doesn’t change, the timeless truth of a passage will relate to God in some respect.  This does not mean that the passage is stripped of human interest, but that God is recognized as the key character, whether or not He is mentioned in those specific verses.

2. What does this passage say about humanity in relation to God? Throughout the Bible we see humanity interacting with God.  Some respond with faith, others with self-trust.  Some love Him, some hate Him.  Bryan Chappell refers to the Fallen Condition Focus that can be observed in each text.  In respect to a fallen humanity’s response to God, contemporary listeners will always have a point of connection.

3. Where does the teaching of the passage fit in the flow of progressive revelation? It is always worth thinking through where the passage sits chronologically and progressively in God’s plan of self-revelation.  Technically I suppose that asking this question in the exegetical stage of the process might lead to presenting the meaning of a text in a way that the original readers could not have understood it.  Nevertheless, contemporary readers have to understand a passage in light of the whole canon.  Whether the broader understanding needs to be emphasized will depend on the particular passage and audience.

We study the text to understand what the author meant at that time (exegetical idea).  We abstract the timeless theological truth of that idea (theological idea).  Then we shape our presentation of that idea for our particular listeners at this time (homiletical idea).