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.

Word Studies 2 – Identifying Key Terms

This week we are pondering the specific skill of word study in preaching.  Today I’ll focus on identifying key terms, then tomorrow we can consider the actual processes involved.

So how do you identify words to define more carefully?

1. Prayerfully read and study the passage.  Sounds silly, but until you get some decent familiarity with the passage, you can’t start identifying words.

2. Recognize that not every word is equal.  All words are equally inspired, but not all words are equal in a passage.  You might assume this is obvious.  After all, a weighty word like justified or righteous must be worth studying, while a normal word like in or of is obvious, right?  Sometimes wrong.  A “weighty” word may not be a key term in a particular passage (it may be given in the build up to the point of a prayer, for instance), while an obvious word may be the key to the whole section.

3. Recognize that your time is restricted.  It would be great to do a full chase on every term in a passage.  Actually, hypothetically it might be great in your study phase, if you had infinite time.  But in reality studying every word equally will distract you from the force of the passage in your study, and it will certainly confuse people in your preaching.  For instance, in Ephesians 1:15-23, I would cover the first 47 words fairly briefly.  Why?  Because I want the focus to be on the point of the passage, which is what Paul is actually praying from the end of v17 onwards.  If I give detailed explanations of faith, Lord, love, saints, prayers, God, Father and glory in my sermon, people will be numb by the time I get to Paul’s actual request.

So how to identify key terms?

A. Look for repeated terms.  In Ephesians 3:1-13, the term mystery is repeated and seems important. (Dynamic equivalent translations may hide repetition of terms, prefer formal equivalence for focused study.)

B. Look for structurally important terms.  Down in verse 8, grace was given to Paul with the results being the rest of verses 8-10.

C. Look for key connections or little words.  In this passage, the as, of verse 5 feels significant when the passage is read carefully (even better, when the passage is broken down to a phrase by phrase structural outline, or disagrammed if you have that skill from Greek).  Incidentally, once you start looking at the structure of epistle text like this, a good formal translation needs to be the working text, not a dynamic equivalent text.

D. Look for key terms in the wider context.  A term may only be used once in the passage, but be critical in the flow of the book.  For example, stewardship in verse 2 is important in the flow of Ephesians 1-3.

E. Look for key terms that are missed by the other guidelines.  Here’s the catch all.  It forces you to keep looking and observing the text.  In this case, it allows you to notice that glory in verse 13 is massively significant.  Doesn’t look it structurally, but actually Paul digressed in verse 1, so completing that thought in v13 is a big deal here.

Heartfelt Explanation – Preaching to the Heart

A common mistake is to assume that the explanation of the text will be dull, but the application should make up for this by riveting relevance and powerful personal punch.  An alternative, but sibling error, is to think that the illustrations will be the source of heartfelt energy, while the text explained remains dull.

Some preliminary thoughts on preaching to the heart:

1. The text is a heartfelt composition, it makes no sense to sterilize it.  Sometimes we need to re-tune our theological ears so that we hear inspired human communication, rather than just theological proposition transfer embedded in inspired packaging.  If you don’t hear a heart beating in the Psalms you are really in trouble.  And what about narratives written by someone who cares deeply that the story be heard?  And even the epistles are far more rich in tone than we tend to make them sound.

2. The text communicates to the heart, don’t neutralize it.  Epistles don’t just inform, they were written to stir, to encourage, to rebuke, etc.  Poetry, almost by definition, is meant for pondering and heartfelt response.  Narratives, by nature, will captivate, characters drawing us in to identify, or causing us to disassociate, tension in the plot gripping the listener for more than just a statement of truth, but for truth dressed up in real life.  We have a habit of disengaging truths from the packaging in which they come.  This is not to minimize the importance of truth, but to recognize that God’s choice of genre packaging was intentional and effective for life transformation.

3. God reveals His heart in the Word, don’t hide it.  The Bible is, supremely, God’s self-revelation.  But we’re often too quick to cover over that self-revelation.  Oh, that’s just an anthropomorphism (using human form descriptors to communicate about God who is Spirit and absolutely nothing at all like us), or worse, an anthropopathism (same again, this time removing any possibility that God might have any passions at all)!  Really?  God only pretending to have emotion?  Our theological assumptions can quickly override the plain truth of Scripture and leave us with a God so distant and uncaring that he might as well be the god of the Greek philosophers, and a Jesus only feeling and loving and dying “in his humanity,” and other such confusion.

Preaching to the heart is not primarily a matter of homiletical technique.  It is an issue of our theological assumptions and the accuracy of our exegesis.  Tomorrow I’ll add another three thoughts.

Effective Explanation: 15 Suggestions, part 2

Yesterday I started this list.  The goal is to avoid explanation of Bible text becoming dull and boring:

6. Do honour the whole text.  It may be tempting to dump half the passage and preach the preachy bit, but often seeing how the whole works actually can add focus to the more obviously powerful section.  There will be times to zero in, but don’t always do so and miss the text as a whole.

7. Do recognize and explain the text in light of its own structure.  This follows on from the previous suggestion.  Help people learn to see the structure in a passage.  If it is a poem, help them spot the stanzas (even if you use the technical term “chunk” instead of stanza or whatever sized unit you have).  In an epistle help them see the logical flow of thought.  Very rarely are texts three equal and parallel points.  Help people spot the textual structure, rather than predictable sermonic structure that you impose on the text.

8. Demonstrate the structure of the passage by means of the connectives and content.  One way to show the structure is to highlight the change of content.  Another way is to point them to the connectives.  “Scan down verses 11-16, notice how he says ‘and also,’ ‘you also,’ ‘again’, ‘and you also’ . . . he is really piling up the blessings here, isn’t he?”

9. Do describe the scene so effectively that people can see it.  Here’s a big one.  Too much explanation is too arms’ length and abstract.  Explanations can feel so dull, but when the narrative or situation (or potential application, but that’s for another time), when the situation is so compellingly described that listeners can actually see it in their hearts . . . they also start to feel it.  This is the power zone of explanation.  Help people with good description and they will thank God for your preaching.

10. Develop a contemporary simile.  “This is like . . .” here we enter into the realm of so-called illustrations.  I prefer to name them what they are.  All illustrations are either explanations, proofs or applications.  If you think the best way to explain the text is to use a contemporary example or simile, go for it.  As long as you know what you are trying to achieve, there is a good chance you will be successful.

Five more tomorrow, but your thoughts are invited at any point.