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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Wanted: Expository Preaching Advocates

Expository preaching is a label that comes with baggage in many churches. And yet it is exactly what our churches need for health. And healthy Bible-preaching churches are what our culture needs for the gospel to spread. Personally I don’t care whether the label is used or not, but I care deeply whether expository preaching happens or not. And if you are willing to take on a role without a label for your LinkedIn profile, consider being an Expository Preaching Advocate.

1. It helps to understand the source of the negativity. A lot of people who are critical of expository preaching have never actually experienced a good example of it. Just like children who refuse something they’ve never tasted, they can be quite determined in their negativity. Especially when they are convinced that they have tried it before. They may be thinking of irrelevant historical lectures they heard in the past. Or perhaps tedious verse-by-verse explanations from a more studious visiting preacher. Whatever the source of negativity in their particular experience, it will help you to know what the issue is in your specific situation. Is it past experience, or present? Is it the perceived irrelevance, or the boredom of predictability, or a feeling of intellectualism?

2. It really helps to know what you are promoting. Expository preaching is not a specific style of preaching. It is not about length of passage, number of points, type of structure, or even tone of preaching. It is really a set of controlling values and commitments. It starts with recognising that God is a wonderfully effective communicator. It is built on the foundational thought that no matter how well you can communicate or how clever you are, you cannot make the Bible say something better than God made it say. Expository preaching is about a commitment to the effective communication of the true meaning and contemporary relevance of biblical text or texts.

If the label “expository preaching” carries too much baggage, why not switch over to “biblical preaching” – Haddon Robinson made that label switch, and I have tended to follow that same path.

3. It also helps to know to whom you are promoting it. Is there a general resistance in the congregation that can be won over by some effective preaching? Or is there a key person resisting change and maintaining the status quo? Maybe that resister is the current senior pastor, or perhaps it is a powerful and wealthy person of influence. You need to think carefully and pray much when you want to bring change to a church.

4. Prayerfully formulate a promotion plan. What goes into a plan to promote change in a church? Lots of prayer. You might think enthusiasm for your subject and in a sense, yes that is important. But many a good plan has been derailed by passion for a soapbox. Make sure you add in submission to those in authority, love and encouragement for those who preach, support for the wider ministry of the church, good example, etc. And then prayerfully consider the seeds you can plant: a carefully chosen book given as a gift, or recommended; a suggestion of a podcast; an invitation to attend a conference together; or a fully prayed through gracious suggestion, etc.

5. Be patient, but promote positively. Self-appointed church changers often blow their influence by pushing too hard and too fast. Don’t be negative. Criticism and complaining are easy, but they don’t fix things. Patiently and prayerfully implement a God-honouring plan. If you preach, humbly offer the very best example that you can. Look for opportunities to mentor and multiply others. Whether you preach or not, seek to promote biblical preaching – not a certain type of preaching, but a set of values and commitments that are desperately needed in our churches and in our world today.

What have you found helpful in promoting Biblical Preaching?

Active Engagement

Active2The Big Idea approach to preaching was birthed out of a clear understanding of the nature of communication.  When persons communicate they don’t simply fire words out into nowhere (I know some blogs may give this impression, but that doesn’t change communication truths!) Rather, communication involves seeking to lead another party to the point of understanding an idea that is being expressed.  Communication is about ideas and we want the other party to say, “I see what you are saying!”

Ideas change lives.  People give themselves to ideas.  And Christianity is a content-based faith – i.e. it can be communicated, it consists in ideas.  This is why a very high view of Scripture resonates with a commitment to expository preaching.  Bringing out from the text the meaning that is there and seeking to effectively communicate that truth to others with an emphasis on why it matters to them is a driving force in our lives as expository preachers.

But don’t miss a critical factor in all of this.  Too easily we fall out of true expository preaching and into historical lecturing.  This occurs when our focus becomes primarily zeroed on the historical event of the communication – i.e. Paul to the Colossians.  It is vital that we spend some time there since the original intent of the author is critical, but we cannot remain there.

The Bible is God’s communication to humanity, which includes my hearers this Sunday. What is it that God is intending to communicate and desiring them to see for themselves? That is not to say that there is a hidden message that we have to mine and offer this week.  We will be rooted in Paul’s meaning to the Colossians, but always with a profound awareness of the unique and fresh engagement that God desires with our hearers on this occasion.

Biblical preaching is not really about informing motivated folks from a trustworthy ancient text.  It is much more than that.  Biblical preaching is about God’s active engagement with His people right now.

Good Exposition is not a Recipe Tour

Recipe2Some people wrongly suggest that expository preaching is like explaining a recipe, rather than letting the listeners savour the flavour of a well-cooked meal.  A good meal is the goal, not an explanation of the recipe. For some preachers this is an accurate description of their preaching, but don’t judge expository preaching by bad examples of it.

An expository preacher is primarily concerned with communicating the point of the passage, not seeking to explain the point of every detail.  Expository preaching is about effectively and accurately communicating the text, not using the text to offer a lecture in sermonic method or applied theology.

A good expository preacher knows that a story has its own way of carrying and conveying its point, and that a poem works in a different way.  Thus a good expositor preacher, preaching a story, will not dissect it into a lifeless and experience-free recipe, but will communicate the story as effectively and accurately as possible.

1. We start with the text as it is.  Expository preaching is about the text being boss of the message, not the message squeezing the text into an outline or idea that doesn’t quite fit.

2. We ponder what needs to be added to help the text communicate effectively.  Is any explanation necessary to allow it to communicate?  Perhaps an underlining of the point, exposing it for clarity, yet timed appropriately to not undermine the impact of the text?  Maybe it would help to make explicit the contemporary relevance of the story, or maybe how it fits into the bigger story of God’s Word and our world?

3. We try to avoid any undermining material.  Unnecessary and endless explanation of details, numerous unnecessary or disconnected illustrations, ill-timed statements of the main thought, commentary style titles for each segment of the passage, or even a personal delivery manner that contradicts or leeches away the emotion, tension or energy of the text.  Anything unhelpful should be purged from the message so that we are preaching the message of the text, not preaching a message using a text.

When you preach a story, or a poem, or whatever, be sure to be expository . . . but not the wrong kind that feels like the explanation of a recipe!

 

Expository: Why?

All week I have been raising concerns about different approaches taken to preaching.  There are others, but I wanted to finish with a reminder of the core requirements for expository preaching.  It isn’t about sermon shape – all four approaches mentioned this week might be used in an expository ministry.  Yet none of them define it.

1. The best preaching will always involve the work of God’s Spirit.  He is the one that searches the depths of the heart and communicates that.  We need to be sure that we are pursuing His heart as we study His Word.  We must prayerfully pursue the whole process of preparation, all the time being open to learning and changing and growing ourselves.  We also need to pursue His heart for the people to whom we preach.  Prayer has to be a critical thread throughout the whole preparation process.

2. The best biblical preaching will always be genuinely biblical.  That is, the text is not being used, but offered.  It isn’t a data source for anecdotes, for launch pads or for proof texting.  It is the inspired Word of God that we seek to offer to others as we preach.  This means that we take the form seriously, we take the meaning seriously, we take the relevance seriously.  The Bible is not something that serves us, it is something that changes us, and it is something we consequently serve to others.  And the more effectively we communicate the Word, the clearer the path for listeners to not only gain information, but to be transformed by encountering the God who gives of Himself in His Word.

3. The best preaching will always take the issue of communication seriously.  So it isn’t enough to pray hard and study well, producing a textually accurate and even a congregation specific relevant message.  If we don’t take our role as communicators seriously, then we can be a real bottleneck.  Communication is more than just a crude explanation of exegesis with some illustrations stapled on to the outline.  Communication is concerned with the mood of the text, the persons to whom we are speaking, the situation, etc.  It is concerned with the words we choose, the way we say them, the body language that reinforces or undermines.  Our communication matters because God places such a high value on communication.

4. The best preaching will always emphasise the relevance to the listeners.  We don’t make the Bible relevant.  We show how it is relevant.  And so we don’t perform a sermon to show off our own knowledge, nor even to simply declare God’s truth.  We preach to communicate to people.  So we care, and we prepare in order to communicate.

God. Bible. Communicator. Listeners.  All critical features of expository preaching.

Verse-by-Verse Preaching: Why Not?

Preaching through a passage verse-by-verse seems to fit with a high view of Scripture, so why shouldn’t we settle for that as a preaching approach?

This is an important question.  After all, many people equate expository preaching with a verse-by-verse approach.  But there are some differences.  As I offer some counter points from a genuine expository perspective, please bear in mind that we may still take an apparently verse-by-verse approach at times in our preaching.  Nonetheless, these thoughts need to be kept in mind:

1. Verse-by-verse preaching can flatten out inspired texts and fall into a running commentary approach.  That is, a verse is an artificial division of the text.  The real division is the natural unit of thought that the author was seeking to communicate.  In a Psalm this might be the strophe, or the parallelism, not to mention the psalm as a whole.  In an epistle it would be a paragraph.  As preachers we need to communicate the thoughts intended by the author, which may not happen if we treat each verse as a unit of thought.

2. Verse-by-verse preaching can treat the text as a data source, rather than honouring its intended function.  Following on from number 1 above, when verses are treated as micro-units, then there is a temptation to view the text as a collection of data to be mined for interesting snippets.  This is very different than honouring every detail as part of the whole communication effort.  Every detail matters, but we need to communicate the “distilled thought” of the whole unit, as opposed to selecting highlights from a flattened text.

3. Verse-by-verse preaching can lose sight of the inspired genre and form of a text.  This may be restating the same thought from a different angle, but it is important.  God didn’t just inspire the meaning of the text.  We have to take the genre and form as vehicles in which that meaning is conveyed.  Consequently we must read a poem as if it were a poem, and a section of discourse as exactly that.  It does not help to preach a Psalm and a prophecy and a narrative and an epistle in the same way.

4. Verse-by-verse preaching can lose tension and emotion from a passage.  Not only does it tend toward treating verses as data banks, it can also flatten the emotive force of a passage.  There is often a tension to be felt, or a resolution to be experienced.  Verse-by-verse preaching easily can lose sight of such realities.

Submitted via comment, thanks David: 5. Verse-by-verse preaching tends to reinforce the tendency of many believers to focus on “proof” or “key” verses, rather than learning the argument of the author. Context can be lost and, ultimately, verses come to mean something other than they were meant to.

Bottom line.  For some preachers, a verse-by-verse approach would help increase their biblical content and focus.  However, a strict verse-by-verse approach doesn’t inherently recognize that while every verse is fully inspired, not every verse is created equal.

Preparing to Preach OT Narrative – 4

So I am preparing to preach Ruth.  I know that all preachers are tempted to overcome the perceived lack of relevance by multiplying applications from the details of the story.  Yesterday I suggested that the details are there for the sake of the plot, rather than as automatic teaching points. But there is more to be said on this matter of applying the text.

Furthermore, (2) I have to remember that narratives were not given to us merely to instruct our conduct.  It is not just conduct that matters in facing the horrors life can throw at us (Ruth 1), it is also truths applied at the level of personal belief, and even affection.  Ruth didn’t cling to Naomi, and give up everything to go with her, based on knowledge of “the right things to do in this situation.”  She did it all because of the God that had gripped her heart.

I don’t want my listeners to have lists of behavioural applications, but untouched hearts.  That would make a mockery of the force of Ruth.  Relevance doesn’t have to be just a to-do list.  Relevance is more to do with the impact of the text on the heart of the listener so that they leave the service as a changed person.

Finally (although not definitively), (3) I need to recognize that the relevance in the text is not on a merely human level.  It is tempting to look at people interacting with people and consider applications that can come straight over into our seen world.  But all biblical narratives are about the seen intersecting with the unseen.  There is a God alive and yet often not seen.  The narrative is about lives lived under the constant question of trust or non-trust in the Word of God.  If my listeners finish with great insight into an ancient narrative, but without a greater sense of God (both then and now), then I have failed to be truly relevant.

Tomorrow I’ll ponder another practical issue in preparation…

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.

Saturday’s Thought: Preaching for Response

No preacher would admit to preaching in order to fill time, or to fulfill an obligation, or to fill a pulpit.  We say we preach for response.  After all, what other motivation could we cite?  I know, some will quickly rush to language of glorifying God.  But God isn’t pleased by time filling or untouched listeners.  So what do we mean?

Do we mean that preaching should get more than a polite thank you from the gathered listeners?  Sure.  Do we mean that preaching should get a positive or exuberant statement of reception from the listeners?  I don’t think so.  The Lord’s preaching certainly seemed to polarize rather than please all.  Some will be stirred and drawn, others will be offended and withdraw.

This is where it gets interesting for me, and here’s the thought for the day.  What is the division or polarization created by our preaching?  Simplistically we might assume that it is a sorting of sinners and saints.  You know, those in sin pushed away by how seriously we address sin and the godly encouraged; the culture upset and absent while the churchy folks pleased and present.  But that didn’t seem to be the result of Jesus’ preaching, did it?

What if we realize that the gospel is not about preaching a message of pressuring responsibility?  That is, what if we preach the glorious loving grace of God that stirs and warms and draws hearts to Christ?  Instead of whipping our listeners with burdens, what if we preach the One who was whipped for them?

This kind of preaching typically offends the religious who feel responsible for their own goodness.  These are the people who don’t see their own efforts and diligence and pride and self-centredness as being at all sin-stained.  This kind of preaching typically draws the broken and hurting and weak.

When we switch from preaching responsibility to actually preaching for a response we may find that the polarization both switches and increases.  When we recognize the difference between responsibility and response, then certainly our preaching will change.  It is so easy to preach to pressure people to be good.  It takes something more to preach how good Christ is, so that listeners might be drawn to Him.  What is the something more?

I suppose it comes down to me on my own with my Bible and my Lord.  Is it all about me?  Or about Him?  Is it about what I must do (responsibility)?  Or about what He is like (response)?

Preaching for response requires clarity on the distinction between response and responsibility.