Overly Narrow Application of a Principle

I’d like to build a little on the post from three days ago.  Here is a post I wrote a while back, but am fairly sure I forgot to post on the site.  It offers another angle on the challenges of application, again overtly leaning on Haddon Robinson’s work.

In simple terms the homiletical process involves three stages.  The first is the exegetical work of determining the original writer’s meaning.  The second stage involves abstraction of that meaning via theological principalization to derive a timeless truth.  The final stage is the earthing of that principle for the listeners sat in front of you – the homiletical application stage.  At this point our task is to not only demonstrate the meaning of the passage, but also to emphasize how it is relevant to the listeners.

Application is set up for illustrative material.  By definition, application involves demonstrating how the biblical principle might be applied in a contemporary setting, what difference it makes to us today.  At this point in the message, it makes sense to use illustrative materials.  But beware, there is a trap that is easy to fall into.

The incomplete variety of application error.  The meaning of a passage, and the derivation of principle, are both inclined toward single statement results.  That is to say, there is one meaning.  But how is that principle applied?  There are usually numerous possibilities.  If you only present a single example application, even if you state that this is one possible application, listeners will tend to presume that is specifically what you are preaching (or even, what the Bible is teaching).

Haddon Robinson gives the example of “honoring your parents” in a Pulpit Talk audio journal.  One possible application he gives from his experience with his own ageing father – that he ended up in a nursing home.  Another possible application he gives from their experience with his mother-in-law – that she was cared for by Haddon’s wife in their house.  To give one example without the other runs the risk of communicating only one option for applying the principle derived from the passage.

When you are applying a passage, demonstrating and emphasizing its relevance for your listeners, be sure to indicate the variety of possible applications, rather than leaving people with a faulty understanding of the passage because of an overly narrow applicational example.

Excessive Abstractions and Principles Too General

Preaching an ancient text to a contemporary congregation will usually require some level of abstraction.  To preach an ancient instruction simply as it stands is to present a historical lecture, rather than a relevant presentation of inspired truth.  Some preachers simply say what is there and effectively offer historical lecture.  Other preachers abstract from historical specifics to timeless abiding theological truth, but end up preaching vague generalities.

To grasp what Robinson calls the “exegetical idea” and move through the “theological idea” to get to the “homiletical idea” is not easy.  The end result needs to be clearly from the text or the authority has been lost.  Yet the end result has to be specifically clear in its emphasis on the relevance of that text to us or the interest is lost.  One temptation is simply to play it safe, perhaps too safe.

What I mean by that is that we might derive a general, borderline generic, principle from a passage and move from historical explanation (often curtailed) into general application of this general principle.  Was the message true?  Yes.  Biblical?  Yes.  Relevant?  I suppose so.  Life-changing?  Probably not!  Sometimes it is a fear of fully engaging the text that can lead to this “generic” preaching.  Other times it is a fear of fully engaging the listeners that leads to it.

John Stott’s metaphor of the preacher as bridge-builder is helpful here.  The best preaching will not only touch both the world of the Bible and the world of the listener.  The best preaching will be firmly rooted, planted, engaged with and connected to both worlds.  Let’s not preach vaguely biblical abstract generalities.  Let’s really preach this text to these people!

3 DQ’s – Dynamite Questions

Okay, that should be “developmental questions,” but they are dynamite.  Sunukjian and others have followed Robinson in making quite a fuss of these three questions.  I would encourage you to do the same.  The questions represent the three ways in which a stated idea can be developed.  There are no other ways to develop an idea than in these three directions:

1. What does it mean? (Explain)

2. Is it true? (Prove)

3. What difference does it make? (Apply)

The great thing about knowing these three questions is that they are so versatile:

Use them in studying the passage – Unless the writer is moving on to a new idea, these three questions can help you understand what is going on in the passage.  Not only do they move you toward an understanding of content, but also authorial intent – which is so valuable as you wrestle with a passage.

Use them in developing your main idea – Consider your listeners in order to determine which of the three developmental questions are needed to develop your message.  If they don’t understand the idea, there’s no point jumping to application without further explanation.  Just because people understand what you are saying, it doesn’t mean they are convinced – perhaps proof and support is needed?

Use them in developing each movement in the message – What works on a macro level also works in the chunks.  With these three questions as keys to developing your ideas as you communicate, you need never scratch your head for things to say (few of us struggle with that), or simply pad the message with pointless filler materials (some of us may struggle with that!)

I don’t advocate a predictable and slavish repetition of these three questions under each point of a message.  I know some that do and the result is both predictable and often unengaging, not to mention how it can turn every genre into a dissected discourse.  However, it is not a bad discipline to be asking yourself these three questions, both in study of the passage and in preparation of the message.

Surfacing Needs vs Felt Needs vs No Needs

Which approach do you take in your introduction?  If you are typical, you probably fall into the third category – no needs.  Most preaching tends to begin with some form of engaging content followed by the text, or even just straight into the text.  Whether or not people want to listen to that text preached is apparently a mute point (unless you could see into the heads of the listeners, then you’d probably never ignore the issue of “need” again!)

Some cling to a “no needs” approach to sermon introduction because they are concerned about a “felt needs” approach to preaching.  After all, we do not really start with the listener and then preach only to that which they feel they need.  We want to do better than that.  So perhaps its better to just get into the text and the message, rather than trying to address the needs of the listener in the introduction?

Thus Haddon Robinson carefully speaks of “surfacing a need” as a preacher.  It is not that the listener’s felt need determines the choice of text or even the meaning assigned to a text.  Nor does the speaker have to create a need for the text.  No, the text speaks to a need inherent in the creature, a need that the self-giving love of the Creator will meet.  So the preacher surfaces the need to which the text speaks.  This approach starts from the text, but the sermon starts with the listener.

So I suggest we don’t start disconnected (“ok, enough irrelevant humor, let’s have a reading” or even “last week we were in Lamentations 3, please turn to Lamentations 4.”)  Nor should we start with “felt needs” (“alright, you’re all asking me on facebook how to make life more comfortable and still be able to afford entertainment during the economic downturn, let’s turn to Judges chapter . . .”)  I strongly suggest trying to start by “surfacing the need” addressed by the text.  In your study it begins with the text.  Then in your message you start by highlighting the need in the listeners life so they are thirsty for the passage and the message.

Review: Preaching for Special Services, by Scott M. Gibson


They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.  In this case I think you shouldn’t judge a book by its size.  This short one-hundred page book is well worth having for several reasons that I will list below.  Honestly, I only picked it up in order to scan it and make space for a new book on my “preaching books to read” shelf.  I’m glad I did.

This book is focused on “special services.”  That means weddings, funerals, baptisms, infant presentations, the Lord’s Supper and a selection of other events in the final chapter including evangelistic sermons.  In each chapter Scott Gibson presents a brief but well-informed history of preaching on that occasion in Jewish and Christian history.  He briefly outlines elements of a theology of preaching for such an event.  Then he addresses the issue of developing the sermon, before the closing section on delivering the sermon.  There is a sensitivity and gracious spirit throughout.  The book follows the Haddon Robinson approach to sermon preparation.

Three reasons why I’m impressed with this little book:

1. It gives specific, helpful and gracious instruction for how to prepare and present a biblical sermon at these special services.  For many preachers these events tend to be an extra burden in the schedule, but for those present or involved, these events are long remembered.  Gibson offers help to the preacher, who will remain in the shadows of the event and yet brings a word in season for those gathered.

2. I suppose this book could be written simply with the sections on how to develop and deliver the messages.  I certainly wasn’t expecting the valuable historical and theological elements in these chapters.  Although short, these concise sections add great value to the book.

3. Scott Gibson does not try to re-create what Robinson has done so well in terms of the big idea approach to sermon preparation.  What Gibson does throughout the book is concisely and helpfully integrate and contextualize Robinson’s model (for example the careful concern for a sermonic purpose statement in each chapter).  Some who have read Robinson may find that elements “click” in their understanding when reading Gibson’s specific-occasion application of that model.

(And, a minor fourth point, unlike Gibson and Willhite’s Big Idea of Biblical Preaching, this book was almost bereft of editorial oversights.  There’s a sermon purpose statement error on page 97, and an extra word in a book title on page 99, otherwise the book seemed “clean.”)

(Published in 2001)

Shifting from Passage to Message – Idea

Two days ago we considered the move from passage to message in relation to the purpose statement.  Now let’s look at the other core move at the apex of the process, the move from passage idea to message idea.

Many rightly point out that really there are three steps.  To use some Haddon Robinson terminology, you begin by finding the exegetical idea (back then), then move that to a theological idea (timeless), before finally making the move to homiletical idea (contextualized for these people now).  This is absolutely right.  By simplifying the process I do not discount these steps.

The move to message idea involves several elements:

Recognize and remove historical markers – The passage idea should really be historically specific – Paul told Timothy that in the Ephesian church such and such should occur.  Details like Paul, Timothy, Ephesus, etc. are all historical.  The first step is to recognize these and remove them from the idea.  At this point the resulting half-way idea is really the theological idea in the three step process described above.  This will need testing.  Is the idea representative of the timeless teaching of the passage?  If not, adjustment will need to be made.  As ever, application is a minefield and so you should tread carefully – is this the lasting main point of the passage?

In a sense this first move is a negative one, removing historically specific ties.  Now there are two positive moves:

Take into account audience analysis and adjust the idea – Since the message idea is supposed to be specific to these listeners, how can the idea be contemporized in a manner that will register with them and be memorable to them?  This may be pithy, clever, contemporary, etc.  Often the best you will manage will be biblically accurate and relatively clear – don’t despise biblical and clear!

Consider the message purpose and adjust accordingly – The audience analysis and message purpose are both influences in the positive adjustment of the idea.  The passage idea and purpose may be rebuking in nature, but your message purpose may not be rebuking in light of the need of the listeners (my mind goes to the person who rebuked a meeting of hyper-faithful elderly ladies with Ezekiel 34 – evil shepherds of Israel!)  So the message purpose and tone influence the idea statement.

With these three considerations, you move from passage idea to message idea.  It may be that the result is exactly the same (biblical timeless truth preached in the terms of the text).  It may be that the result is different (but not so different: given the idea, someone who knows the Bible should be able to recognize which text it is representing!)

A formula for the engineers?  (Stage 4 minus historical markers)+Audience Analysis Adjustment+Stage 5 adjustment = Stage 6!

Apologetics for Homiletics – Part 3

So the critical matter of the role of the Spirit raised issues concerning evaluation of past “fruit,” and more importantly, the dynamic tension between good stewardship and self-reliance.  Now another objection:

Doesn’t homiletics create a methodological strait jacket? People with years of experience in reading a passage, soaking in it and then coming up with something to say may resist a more “formulaic” approach.  After all, “soak then say” preaching methodology seems a lot more flexible than Haddon Robinson’s 10 stages, or Mead’s 8, or Ramesh Richard’s 7, or Bryan Chappell’s 14, etc.  Here are a couple of thoughts to consider:

1. Good methodology recognizes the natural progression from text to sermon, it does not impose a rigid process. When I teach homiletics I follow the order of the stages, but I regularly recognize that thoughts may come for any part of the process at any time.  Hence it is good to work on loose sheets of paper so insights and ideas can be noted in the appropriate place, before returning to the current stage in the progression.  While thoughts may come randomly at times, there is reason for the order.  One cannot and should not be forming the message before understanding the passage.  In the first four stages one cannot determine the passage idea before studying the passage’s content and intent (intent becoming evident primarily from content), etc.  In the last four stages, there has to be a message before there can truly be an introduction or conclusion, and the message structure cannot precede determination of the idea, etc.  The order is logical, not arbitrary, it recognizes the progression, it doesn’t impose restriction.

Again, there is more to say, but I will defer that to the next post.

Why State Ideas Explicitly?

A while ago I was asked a very perceptive question:

Since our culture is shaped by the communication of implicit and pervasive ideas, and much of the Scriptures use a narrative communication with ideas implicitly conveyed, are we communicating effectively when we state explicit ideas in preaching?

I think a question of that depth requires a better answer than I am about to give, but perhaps this post and the next can challenge both our theory and practice.  A couple of thoughts in lieu of a full-orbed answer:

Preaching is different since listeners cannot soak in it. I would suggest that the pervasive influence of our culture is a soaking influence.  People are constantly and gradually bombarded with messages about life, reality, meaning, self, beauty, satisfaction, money, sex and so on.  This “implicit” pounding continues moment by moment, day after day.  Then we stand on a Sunday morning and hope to counter with truth from God’s Word.  From one perspective, it is hardly a fair fight!

Culture, Bible and Preaching all influence both implicitly and explicitly. While the question recognizes the implicit nature of communication in both culture and the Scriptures, it fails to recognize that all three use both implicit and explicit communication.  Culture is implicit in the communication of the general main ideas of the world, but when “soaking” is not possible, it can become very overt.  An ad campaign that will be seen many times can be subtle, but witness also the numerous explicit “big ideas” communicated daily in advertizing, film, music, etc.  According to Robinson, the Bible communicates eight or ten big “big ideas” repeatedly throughout the canon.  Spend a life soaking in the Word of God and those ideas will mark you deeply.  Yet each passage also conveys its idea more directly – with language, propositional statements, images painted with words, even narratives that leave a mark on the reader (whether or not the reader bothers to try and put exact words to the idea that has been presented therein).  Preaching also communicates both implicitly and explicitly.  Over the years, listeners who soak in your preaching will be marked by implicit messages and attitudes conveyed in your preaching – attitudes toward God, toward truth, toward the Bible, toward people, etc.  Yet we also make explicit that which the listener should not miss – the idea of this passage, presented to us today.

Tomorrow I will add a couple more thoughts in response to this question.

The Discouraged Preacher – Part 3

We’ve considered unhelpful “pseudo-feedback,” and lack of the best feedback of all (life change).  Here are a couple more categories to consider:

6. Ministry drain. This can sneak up on a preacher.  Preaching takes a lot out of you.  It uses up stores of energy.  Not only physically, but spiritually, mentally, emotionally and relationally too.  Many preachers point to the post-preaching lethargy they experience.  Most non-preachers are unaware of this phenomenon.  The danger is that we forget it and then misread the drained feeling for discouragement through failure or whatever.  Answers are as common as paperbacks in a bookstore – rest more, exercise more, eat better, drink water, pray longer, pray earlier, have dates with God, have dates with your spouse, wrestle with your children, take Mondays off, etc.  No easy answer, but don’t misread the source of the discouragement.

7. Unhelpful Comparison. Number 1 was comparing your preaching to what you imagined it would be like ahead of time.  This time it is comparing your preaching to others.  It’s good to learn from others.  But don’t beat yourself up because you are not Robinson, MacArthur, Piper, Stanley, Miller, Craddock, Swindoll, Kaiser or whoever your personal favorite might be.  Super-preachers are a blessing to many, perhaps even to us as we listen to them on the radio or at mega-events.  But the people that hear you on Sunday morning need you on Sunday morning.  You may not be super-smooth or super-polished or super-funny or even a super-scholar, but you are a super-blessing as you faithfully preach the Word out of love for God and for them!  Be careful not to get down through unhelpful comparison.

I don’t want to make a post too long, so instead I’ll extend the series.  Another post to follow.

Stage 8 – Message Details: Conclusions

Haddon Robinson’s teaching and example always lurk in the back of my mind when it comes to conclusions. His teaching? “You can recover from a bad intro, but not from a bad conclusion.” His example? A consistent nailing of that last poignant and powerful line. Conclusions are easy – get to where you are going, review the journey briefly, encourage application of the idea and stop. But conclusions are hard – they are hard to give enough time for in preparation, they are hard to not modify and over-extend while preaching, they are hard to do well. The key is planning. First, plan to have enough time after preparing everything else in the message so that you can prepare the conclusion fully. Second, use that time and keep up the motivation in order to plan an effective conclusion. Third, generally stick to the conclusion you had planned when preaching, many extra thoughts become unnecessary extensions to a journey. Too many extensions will make the flight of the message uncomfortable and people will be reaching for the folded paper back in the pew in front of them!

Previously on this site – To put it simple, when you get to the end, stop. This is important, but you’ve got to know where you are going! Like flying a plane, your passengers value very highly your skill in landing the bird). The last line, as Haddon Robinson usually exemplifies is critical, so don’t miss that opportunity (although there are some opportunities to be missed). The main thing is to not short change the conclusion.