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.

The Four Places of Preaching – 3

So the preaching process starts in the study, then the preacher needs to stop and pray (in an even less distracted place), but then comes the third location.

Place 3 – Starbucks.  Huh?

Let me clarify before I start into this that I personally don’t tend to pick Starbucks (or pray in a closet, for that matter), but the principle applies.  I have a good friend, and a preacher I highly respect, who does literally go to a coffee shop for this phase of his preparation.

He takes five 3×5 cards and puts names on the cards – the names of individuals in the church, a cross section, essentially.  With his five listeners spread out on the table, and surrounded by real life and culture, he is then able to prepare the message.  He can ask himself as he goes, “would this communicate to Jim?”  or “How would Kerry take that?

The goal in this place?  To prepare a message that will effectively communicate the prayed-through main idea of the passage to the particular listeners as an act of love for them and for the Lord.

The best biblical content will be wasted if it isn’t targeted appropriately.  Our task is not to make the Bible relevant.  It is.  Our task is to emphasize that relevance.  And by definition, something can only be relevant to specific people.  Relevant to this age.  Relevant to this culture.  Relevant to this community.  Relevant to this church.  Relevant to these individuals.

So John Stott was on target when he urged preachers to be at home not only in the world of the Bible, but also the world of the listener.  Haddon Robinson took the two worlds notion and expanded it to distinguish contemporary culture from the specific culture of the local church.  So we can misfire with  traditional presentations in a changing culture, as we can with postmodern engagements in a church that hasn’t gone there.

Whether we sit in Starbucks, or ponder the church’s phone list.  Wherever we spend time with church members and people from the community we seek to mark.  Somehow we need to make sure our messages are more than great biblical content.  They have to be on target, and to be on target, we must know the hearts we aim to reach.

The Four Places of Preaching – 2

After spending significant time in the study, without company, yet not alone, the preacher needs to move to the second location.  What comes out of the study is a deep awareness of the passage, its meaning, its intent, its contours and details, all summed up in a single sentence summary, and all held as a treasure in the heart because of the work of God during the time in the study.  Now to the next place:

Place 2 – Stop and Pray (The Prayer Closet)

In his very helpful book, Deep Preaching, J. Kent Edwards urges the preacher to take God’s Big Idea into the closet and allow the Spirit to work there for the sake of deeper preaching.  So true.

This place doesn’t need to be a closet (it’s hard to find one humans can fit in in some cultures!)  It does need to be a place without study resources and Bible software and shelves of books, not to mention phones and email and satellite whatevers.  It might be an extended walk in the woods, or a chair in the lounge, or even, one of my favourites, the empty church where the message will be preached.

What is the goal here?  The goal is to spend focused time in fellowship with God concerning the preacher, God, the passage and the listeners, in order to be able to then prepare a targeted message for them from that passage.

Where is the focus?  God was certainly involved in the study, at least, He should have been.  But it is important to recognize that the preacher is not primarily a purveyor of ancient wisdom.  The preacher is, or should be, in fellowship with the Living God.  So the step isn’t from commentary to outline, but from study to focused prayer.

1.  Preaching should involve enthusiasm for the text and what you have discovered, but it should be driven by who, rather than what.  Prayer closet time allows that personal connection and responsiveness to the God who reveals Himself in the Word to develop and drive the preaching.

2. Preaching should involve awareness of the meaning and impact of the text, but it should be sealed on the heart and experience of the preacher, not just held at arms length as new discovery.  Time in prayer allows God’s Word to be driven deep into our hearts.

3. Preaching should involve a message carefully crafted to communicate effectively to a specific audience, but for that to be an act of real love, then God’s heart for the people needs to be our heart for the people.  Bringing the people before God, alongside the passage, is thus critical to forming and delivering a message as an overflow of God’s love for them.

More could be written, but let’s leave it there.  Study.  Then stop and pray.  Then?  Some people will be very excited by the next location!

The Four Places of Preaching

There is a journey from text to message.  A journey consists of a sequence of locations, so I’d like to lay out the four places of preaching.  Perhaps this will be helpful to someone.

Place 1 – The Study

The first place the preacher needs to go is the study.  Just the preacher, the Bible, perhaps a desk, whatever study resources may be available, and a prayerful pursuit of the meaning of the text.

What is the goal in this place?  To be able to accurately state the main idea of the passage in a single sentence summary as a result of prayerful historical, grammatical, literary study of the passage in its context, with a heart laid bare before God.

Who is involved?  This place is where the preacher is in prayerful pursuit of the meaning of the passage.  So there is a historical focus, a sense in which the preacher is seeking to go back then to the time when the human author wrote the passage.  There is a deep concern with making sense of the text as it was intended, as inspired, with the historical and written context, the inspired choice of genre, the content of the passage in terms of its details and its structure or flow, and the intent of the writer.

So the preacher is studying, exegeting, interpreting.  Yet in that quiet place of wrestling with the text, the text is also wrestling with the preacher.  This is not some sort of abstract and entirely objective study.  The preacher is there.  When the Bible speaks, God speaks, and when God speaks, lives change.  So the preacher has the privilege of being marked by the text as the Spirit of God first applies the passage to the life of the preacher.

The study is a place of deep fellowship between the preacher and God.

Why, then, the study?  Should this not be the library, after all, studying involves resources?  No, this should be a study, because a library is a place of people pursuing information for a variety of purposes.  The preacher’s study is a place where the preacher meets with God as the biblical text is studied both exegetically and profoundly devotionally.

Should this not be the office, after all, ministry is a complex business these days?  No, this should be a study (whatever the room actually is), because an office is a place of action and interaction, of incoming emails and phone calls, a place where multiple plates are kept spinning.  No great and profound preaching can come out of an office.  (If your study is too much of an office, then study elsewhere – borrow a room and leave your phone behind, study in your car in the woods, but go somewhere where you can be with the Lord in a “study”.)

Tomorrow, place 2 . . .

Jesus, How Should I Preach?

Yesterday I had the joy of leading a morning seminar that overviewed the preaching preparation process.  I guided the participants through the 8-stage path that I advocate on this site and find so useful in my own ministry.  But I think there is another way to look at the process – in effect a view from a greater height, a helicopter view of the preaching process.  Dare I say that this might even reflect Jesus’ approach?

I would love to get the in-depth Jesus preaching seminar.  Surely it would involve issues of speaking with authority unlike the scribes, and how to select compelling images, effective storytelling, memorable motifs, etc.  But I want to suggest a slightly higher level, helicopter (or should I say more heavenly) view of the preaching process.

The gospels don’t give us the answer to how should we preach.  But as well as His example, there is also the consistent pattern of Jesus’ theology.  How should we pray?  He answered with a variation on the theme of what is the greatest commandment?  Since the pattern was so common in his teaching, allow me to speculate on an overview of the preaching preparation process from Jesus’ perspective.  Jesus, how should we preach?

1. Love God.  The first phase of the process is to be loving God by sitting at Christ’s feet.  Stop being manic and busy for God, but instead sit at His feet and allow Him to minister to you.  Don’t search the Scriptures and miss the person that is there, but seek the Lord in His Word and you will find Him.  Treat the Bible as if God is a good communicator and so diligently study and wrestle with the text, allowing it to do a work in you before you even think about offering it to others.  Love God in response to His self-revelation in His Word.

2. Love your neighbour (congregant, listener, audience, etc.).  That is, pray for the people who you will speak to.  Really spend time with God concerning them.  Then as you start planning your message, plan it prayerfully with a deep concern for them to understand, to stay engaged, to be able to follow, to feel the import and impact of the message of the text.  And as you preach it, preach with the winsomeness and grace of God permeating your demeanour, because God is passionately excited about incarnating His grace and truth!

I could be wrong, but I wonder if Jesus might give an answer along those lines.

Clarity: More Than Thinking

Yesterday I offered three implications of the doctrine of Biblical clarity for us as preachers.  Since the Bible is written by a master communicator who made sure it could be understood, therefore we need to work hard at understanding, we should help others know it can be understood, and we should strive to be clear in our own preaching.

There’s one more issue that I wanted to add to the list.  This might be the one we need to ponder more than the others.  Clarity is not really about intellectual capacity.  The brightest scholars can make the biggest mess with interpreting Biblical texts.  The simplest Christian can profoundly understand God’s Word.

Intellect is a blessing, but it is not a requirement.  Formal training is a privilege, but it is not the definitive necessity.  Reference resources are helps, but they are not preconditions for understanding.  We have to grasp the fact that understanding communication is not an exclusively brain-defined exercise – our brain, or anyone else’s.

Dr B may be a very intelligent individual.  Mr S may never have finished school and struggle to read.  But which of these two is most likely to understand the nuances of Mrs S’s communication?  Probably the husband who loves her.

4. Preachers have to both recognize and model that understanding is not primarily a matter of intellectual capacity or formal training, but alignment of heart by the Spirit.  We can so easily purvey the notion that scholarship and intellect are pre-eminent distinctives of effective biblical study.  The Word of God makes wise the simple.  But there is a profound spiritual and relational aspect to understanding the Bible.

Notice how Jesus speaks of the role of the soil in the parable of the good soils (Matthew 13, Mark 4, Luke 8).  In his explanation the repeated issue is their hearing.  He continues on in Mark and Luke to speak of a lamp under a jar, then returning immediately to the issue of hearing.  He warns them, “Take care then how you hear, for the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.”  

So how is the good soil defined?  In Matthew it is the one who hears and understands.  In Mark, it is those who hear and accept. In Luke, it is those who hear the word, holding it fast in an honest and good heart.

As preachers we can easily give the impression that the issue is intellect.  It isn’t.  The real issue is the alignment of the heart, its responsiveness to the God whose word is being spoken.  It is more about Spirit enlivened relational capacity than genetically transferred intellectual capacity.  As preachers of God’s Word, we must both recognize and model that.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to NewsvineLike This!

Beyond Guilt – Part 2

This week I am pondering how to preach with a more nuanced approach than mere guilt pressure.  As I’ve written already, there is a place for genuine conviction of sin, and I am not hiding from that.  But equally, I am not just hiding in that, nor avoiding the danger hiding in a non-nuanced guilt approach.

How can we hide in a guilt approach?  I suspect some see no other way to help lives change than to pile on the pressure.  Every passage is turned into a guilt trip.  Doesn’t matter what tone the passage takes, the message will have been filtered into a guilt and pressure tone.

And what danger is hiding in such an approach?  There is an implicit danger with guilt focused messages.  I say you should feel guilty.  If I convince you, then you feel that you must change.  Guilt alone will not drive people to God.  It will drive them to despair or to efforts of the flesh.  Neither result is good.  Guilt has to come in a package with hope, with grace, with access to life transformation that has to come from God, not from self.

So, yesterday we looked at the issue of stance.  Here’s another element, perhaps an obvious one, but still important nonetheless.

2. The Preacher’s Tone.  Too many people think too simplistically.  As if communication is about information transfer.  But the truth is that communication involves a complex of signals, some of which can override others.  So my body language can contradict, and overwhelm my words.  So too can my vocal presentation.  Voice and body language combine in regards to the tone of my communication.

If my tone is close to that of an angry prophet, that will override the most gracious of poetic content.  If my tone is akin to that of a Victorian school master, then my words, my message, will take on a whole new meaning.

Children know this.  If a parent says their name with a certain tone, they know they’re supposed to feel guilty.  It’s voice, expression, posture, etc.  But it boils down to tone.

Do you have a default tone that is guilt inducing?  Can you make the most encouraging passage into a pressure text?  Can you turn Psalm 23 into a rebuke for not being a good sheep?  Can you take Jesus’ yoke and burden, which are easy and light, and make them tricky to put on properly if your listeners aren’t living just right?

Let’s be sure that when we preach, it is not just our words that reflect the meaning of the text, but that our tone also reflects the tone of the text, and the tone of the God who is speaking to these people on this occasion.

Stance and tone can be adjusted to avoid a guilt-only approach.  They can be factors in a better motivational methodology.  But tomorrow we’ll zero in on a key factor in preaching to encourage and motivate.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to NewsvineLike This!

Saturday Short Thought: Rooted Preaching

John Stott wrote about preaching as requiring a certain familiarity in two worlds – the world of the Bible and the world of the listener.

Haddon Robinson takes this a step further by adding two more “worlds.”  The world of the listeners is the world of the congregational culture, as well as the societal culture at large.  Then there is the world of the preacher’s inner life.

It isn’t easy to live in multiple worlds at once.  There is always a danger that we will give diminished attention to one of these worlds.  That was a point Stott made.  Instead of building a bridge from one world to the other, there is always a tendency to build heavily on one side only – either being in this world only or building a tower from the Bible straight to heaven.

How do we measure our engagement with each world?

The world of the listener – prayerful concern for specific people and watchful awareness of the cultural influences, local and national?

The world of the Bible – prayerful fascination with the text, the culture, the people, the politics, the geography, the history, etc?

I was struck by this quote from John Smith, in The History of Virginia.  A nudge to keep history and geography tied together:

As geography without history seemeth a carcus without motion, so history without geography wandereth as a vagrant without certain habitation.

Preaching isn’t a simple task, but what a privilege!

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to NewsvineLike This!