10 Ways to Half Preach a Text – Part iv

Sometimes it is just a good idea to finish a list.  Let’s go, two more items to add, especially for preachers who like to tick the “expository preacher” self-description box:

9. Explain it, but don’t apply it.

This is a common error among those who say they are most committed to expository preaching.  They will give in-depth explanation of the preaching passage, sometimes avoiding every item on the list so far.  Carefully explained text in context with focus on historical situation, authorial intent, and perhaps some linking into the broader sweep of theological and salvation history.  Solid stuff.  Then they stop.

One of the reasons I use Haddon Robinson’s label of “biblical preaching” for this site, rather than “expository preaching” is because of the baggage people have with the latter term.  Some people grew up listening to endless dry Bible lectures and whenever they questioned its value they were silenced with a war cry for “faithful expository preaching!”  Problem is, preaching without emphasizing the relevance to the listeners is not expository preaching, no matter how good a Bible lecture it may be.

We simply can’t abdicate our role as preachers when it comes to applicational relevance and hide behind the notion that this is the work of the Holy Spirit.  This is to suggest that I can handle the illumination of the text, but will hand the baton over to the Spirit for application of the text.  Sorry, it is both/and.  The entire process of preparation and delivery, of explanation and application, is a process in which the Spirit is at work, and so is the preacher.  We must apply what we explain.

10. Commentary it, but don’t proclaim it.

This is another one for “expositors” to keep in mind.  Either due to a certain approach in training, or as learned behavior from examples observed, too many preachers preach sermon points that are actually commentary titles.  “The next point in my sermon is Saul’s Contention!”  Uh, no, that is the next subtitle in the commentary you are reading out to us.  There is a big difference between biblical commentary and biblical proclamation.

When we proclaim a text, we look to speak it out to our listeners.  Oral communication does not match written communication.  We don’t speak in titles, we speak in sentences.  Let me encourage you to make your points into full sentences, and why not make them contemporary rather than historical if possible?  This will keep us from sounding like we are reading our personal biblical commentary, and listeners are more likely to sense that God’s Word has been proclaimed and they have heard from Him.

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Saturday Short Thought – Preaching to Listeners

This week I have blogged about listeners.  I was preaching at a Christian Union gathering again this week, this time in Northampton.  I preached from Matthew’s gospel to a gathering of missions agency reps and students.  Since numbers were down on last week, it was more tempting to try and please the reps, rather than speak specifically to the students.  I hope I managed to keep the message on target for the listeners that were the focus of the message.

I’m reminded of John Stott’s great book on preaching – Between Two Worlds.  In it he introduces the metaphor of the preacher as bridge-builder.  I often come back to his thought that we have to land the message on both sides.

Some preachers start in the Bible text and build straight up to heaven, without landing the world of the listener.

Other preachers start in the world of the listener and never make any real connection in the world of the Bible text.

True biblical preachers have to be at home in both worlds and make sure their messages are firmly planted in the text, and land solidly in the realm of the listener.

Simple thought, but so important.  As you preach tomorrow, are you well-rooted in the text?  Good, but don’t forget to land very clearly and relevantly in the experience of the listeners too.

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Next week – Preparing to Preach Christmas Messages

Preacher, What is Your Role – Part 2

Yesterday we listed five pseudo-preaching roles that people fall into.  Let’s finish the list and in doing so remember that to preach the Bible is to speak God’s Word into the lives of contemporary hearers.  So we already considered advice dispenser, public entertainer, time filler, worship balancer, and life coach.  Furthermore, preacher, you are not supposed to be:

6. Guilt Giver – It is a generations-old tradition.  Selectively quote, misread your passage, partially preach the text.  Pound the pulpit, point the finger, induce guilt at every opportunity.  After all, waiting for God to touch hearts and change lives can feel like a slow process.  So why not hurry it up by coercing people through guilt?  Don’t shortcut.  Preach the Word.

7. Revelation Provider – The Bible, to some, seems to feel so passe, so old-school, so done.  Much more exciting to seek to always offer new revelation.  In some circles this is about fresh “thus saith the Lord” declarations, in others this is done surreptitiously through the “I prayed about this and God gave me…”  If He truly did, great, give it to us.  Yet the preacher has a lifetime of wonderful objective truth to expound.  Preach the Word.

8. Exegetical Innovator – Along similar lines, when you are looking at the Bible your job is not to see something new.  You don’t have to find obscure little references in Chronicles, nor do you have to see something nobody has ever seen before in Psalm 23 or Romans.  This tends to lead into subjective typology and fanciful interpretations.  Be faithful.  The freshness is still there.  Preach the Word.

9. Societal Commentator – Oh it is inevitable that we do speak about and into the contemporary state of society.  But that is not our main job.  Instead of waxing forth on societal ills, speak to the people listening.  They need to hear from God’s Word.  If your main aspiration is to be a commentator, write for the local paper.  If you are going to preach, preach the Word.

10. Rhetorical Artist – Maybe you’ve noticed how many contemporary preachers have become so “natural” in delivery style.  Surely something is being lost.  Don’t descend into maintaining earlier generational styles of hyper-alliteration, tongue-rolling flourishes, affected vocal delivery and wooden gestures deemed appropriate only for preaching.  Preach the Word.

What would you add to this list?

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Preacher, What Is Your Role?

Donald Sunukjian’s short definition of preaching is “Listen to what is God saying . . . to us?”  Simple, maybe overly so, but helpful nonetheless.  Preaching is something about God speaking through His Word to us now.  But somehow it is easy to slip into some roles that really aren’t preaching.  Preacher, you are not supposed to be:

1. Advice Dispenser – You may think people have a high view of your wisdom, or your office, but don’t descend into constantly offering your advice.  People may pay big money to go hear Self-Help Gurus, but they are almost certainly not coming to your church primarily because of your advice.  Preach the Word.

2. Public Entertainer – Of course you shouldn’t be drab and dull, the Bible is exciting and energising and it is good news.  This is precisely the point.  Don’t feel you need to “make it interesting” and get caught up in the excitement of making people happy and descend into the role of public entertainer.  Preach the Word.

3. Time Filler – Sometimes church can feel like a routine that must needs be fulfilled week after week.  And sometimes it does seem that you could waffle and say nothing much between end of sung worship and closing hymn (and still get affirming handshakes afterwards).  Don’t descend into filling time.  Unique opportunity.  Preach the Word.

4. Worship Balancer – You may never have thought of this, and I don’t want to give ideas, but some seem to see it as their job to bring balance.  After all the love and tenderness of the singing (especially some strains of modern worship), don’t descend into a balancing act of bringing the punch, the guilt, the stress, the duty.  Whiplash.  Preach the Word.

5. Life Coach – Speaking of self-help gurus, we have a massive arsenal of feel good stories to use in the anthology of self-help called the Bible.  Oh wait, don’t do that.  Shifting to a human-centred handling of the Bible guts it of its power and point.  Don’t descend into some sort of life coaching role.  Better spouse.  Better parent.  Better bill-payer.  Stop.  Preach the Word.

We’ll finish the list tomorrow, but feel free to add your own…

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Get the Idea? – Part 2

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This is the middle post in a series of three on Big Idea preaching.  Specifically, I’ve been struck by how many people recommend Haddon Robinson’s book, yet seem to not have grasped what it teaches.  I understand that they are impressed by the well written chapters dealing with various elements of sermon preparation and delivery (I was impressed first time through), but the powerful notion of the Big Idea is not instantly grasped (took me a while!)  So yesterday we thought about The Big Idea being about communication.  But more than that . . .

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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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A Point on Points

As you outline your message you will probably have some points.  My suggestion is to write full sentences that are applicationally/relevantly focused on the listeners (rather than historical/biblical summary statements).

But, you may say, I like to preach the point inductively and arrive at the application toward the end of the point.  Of course, that is the normal approach.  My suggestion should not therefore be dismissed.  Why?

1. Because a brief taste of relevance early in the point will increase the listener’s motivation to listen. You can quickly go back to the text and develop things from there, ending up with a more focused applicational element.  Just like in a message, though, if your point starts historical and takes a while to feel relevant, listeners may not be with you once you get there.

2. Because what you write as your point in your outline does not have to be stated at that point in the message. It is a common fallacy that a sermon has to follow its outline so that every line is said in order.  The “point” can be the target toward which that section of the message progresses.  The advantage of this approach is that you preach with a purpose, rather than starting with a historical summary statement and then expanding that, eventually moving on to the next point after a token attempt at applying the text (sometimes not fully thought through).  In a sense, then, your outline point is your fully thought through main idea of that section of the text.  Whether you state that at the outset, or later on, is up to you (perhaps you can choose a marker in your notes to indicate that this shouldn’t be stated up-front).

3. Because the commentary-like summary statement is lacking on several fronts. As I already stated, it leaves you open to fading away before you arrive at the point of connection between the world of the Bible and the world of your listeners (you may not effectively build the bridge).  Furthermore, a commentary-like summary, or a pithy alliterated heading, is not typically a complete thought.  Better to plan a full sentence since thought is transferred by the speaking of ideas, requiring full sentences.  To preach with sub-headings sounds like a read outline and requires the listener to fill in the rest of the thought.  Generally it is not wise to trust the listener to fill in much of anything in a message (not because of their lack of ability, but because you may not have fully gripped their focus so that they desperately want to do part of your job for you!)

Full sentence, relevant points will make your outlines stronger.  They may not make the best 200 word Christian newspaper outlines, but remember, your goal is to preach a sermon.  Let your editor turn it into written language before you go to print, don’t make your listeners translate in order to understand!

Expository Preaching – Showcasing What?

I am strongly committed to expository preaching.  But a lot of what is called expository seems to fall short.  For many it seems to have become an exegetical showcase, or a structural/creativity showcase, or a prideful showcase of arrogant orthopraxy.

Exegetical Showcase. For many, expository preaching is essentially to be equated with effective outlining of a text to demonstrate the skill of the preacher in accurate exegesis.  Actually, I hesitate to say skill in accurate exegesis, because often outlining of texts seems to lead to a message other than the text’s message – perhaps a show of doctrinal orthodoxy, or an exercise in structural balancing.  Nevertheless, for many, expository preaching has become an opportunity to show the fruit of their exegetical labour as if that were an end in itself.  Be accurate, please, but don’t think that accurate presentation of a text is expository preaching.

Structural / Creativity Showcase. I hinted at this above.  This is where the sermon is an opportunity to demonstrate the ability of the speaker to create a balanced, parallel, aurally or visually appealing and supposedly memorable outline based on a text.  There tends to be a value placed on tripartite structuring and balanced insertions of “illustrative” materials.  The connections to expository sermonic expectations are clear on many levels, but the connections to the text can be strenuous at times.  This isn’t what expository preaching is about – this is a culturally defined expectation trained into listeners (and yielding very affirming feedback!)

Arrogant Orthopraxy Showcase. I suppose this is tied to the previous point.  This is where the preacher is concerned, perhaps subconsciously, to demonstrate that their preaching is in line with their heroes (usually in the current generation, sometimes historical figures).  The concern seems to be to declare that “I am a true expository preacher!”  It is amazing how much insecurity we see in the church as people seem desperate to play the association game, name drop, seek approval, etc.

Expository preaching is not about displaying the preacher’s skill in exegesis, or craft in sermon construction, or association with a certain camp of evangelical Christianity.  Expository preaching should come from an accurate understanding of the nature of Scripture, not a commitment to sermonic form or fashion.  Expository preaching should come from a passion for God’s inspired and relevant Word to be communicated clearly to specific people that they might respond to Him.

Chrysostom on Applause

Way way back many centuries ago, not long after the Bible ended, there was a famous preacher called Chrysostom.  I thought I’d share a bit of his thinking today.  He’s reflecting on the tension created by the applause that was culturally part of the public speaking event, and had come into the church too:

There are many preachers who make long sermons: if they are well applauded, they are as glad as if they had obtained a kingdom: if they bring their sermon to an end in silence, their despondency is worse, I may almost say, than hell.  It is this that ruins churches, that you do not seek to hear sermons that touch the heart, but sermons that will delight your ears with their intonation and the structure of their phrases, just as if you were listening to singers and lute-players.

Then he offers a helpful simile to show the dangerous temptations facing preachers (still today, I would say):

We act like a father who gives a sick child a cake or an ice, or something else that is merely nice to eat – just because he asks for it; and takes no pains to give him what is good for him; and then when the doctors blame him says, ‘I could not bear to hear my child cry.’ . . . . That is what we do when we elaborate beautiful sentences, fine combinations and harmonies, to please and not to profit, to be admired and not to instruct, to delight and not to touch you, to go away with your applause in our ears, and not to better your conduct.

Finally, he gives a vulnerable and honest insight into the inner struggle he faced as a preacher.  Let’s face it, the flesh is a potent feature in every preacher’s experience.

Believe me, I am not speaking at random: when you applaud me as I speak, I feel at the moment as it is natural for a man to feel.  I will make a clean breast of it.  Why should I not?  I am delighted and overjoyed.  And then when I go home and reflect that the people who have been applauding me have received no benefit, and indeed that whatever benefit they might have had has been killed by the applause and praises, I am sore at heart, and I lament and fall to tears, and I feel as though I had spoken altogether in vain, and I say to myself, What is the good of all your labours, seeing that your hearers don’t want to reap any fruit out of all that you say? And I have often thought of laying down a rule absolutely prohibiting all applause, and urging you to listen in silence.

Most of our churches don’t have applause breaking out mid-sermon.  But we still have the flesh!

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This quote taken from S. Chrys. Hom. xxx. In Act. Apost. c. 3, vol.ix. 238., quoted by Edwin Hatch in The influence of Greek Ideas and Usages upon the Christian Church, 1897, p111.