Details, Details!

There are details, and then there are details. There are textual details in your preparation. And there are textual details in your presentation. After all, every passage is made up of lots of details. There are nouns, verbs, adjectives, names, quotations, allusions, grammatical constructions, figures of speech, and on the list goes. Whatever kind of passage you are looking at, it is built with the basic building block of details.

1. Details in Sermon Preparation. We should begin the study process with an interest in every detail. To study a text is to try to figure out why each detail is present, what it is intended to do, and how they all combine to convey a message. It might also help to notice what is not included. Exegesis is more than the study of details, but it can never be less than that.

The Bible is not written with padding to reach a word count – it wasn’t written by procrastinating students! The Bible is not a cheap paperback, overly elaborating every incidental detail to give the impression of a complex plot. The Bible is sparing in detail, precise in its writing.

Our job as Bible students is to see and interpret every element of the text. We can’t springboard off a keyword and ignore the rest of the passage. We must make sure our understanding of every detail coheres. If one detail is left untouched, we can’t be confident that we have grasped the message as a whole. So we scour the text, moving back and forth between analysis of details and synthesis of the whole passage in its broader context. We alternate between microscope and binoculars.

As we study the text we start to recognize that some details serve a more significant role in communicating the message of the text. Some details are important in making our passage unique. Other details are “load-bearing walls” in this passage. Every detail matters, but not every detail carries equal weight in a passage. It is only through careful study that we can identify which is which.

2. Details in Sermon Presentation. When it comes time to deliver our sermon we are limited by time and motivated by purpose. What is our purpose when we preach? It is not to present every avenue of inquiry that we have pursued in our study. It is not to download all of our accumulated information to our listeners. Our purpose is tied to our main idea and its application in the lives of our listeners. Therefore we select which details to highlight in order to effectively communicate this passage to these people.

This selection process involves an evaluation of the passage. In light of the study, what are the critical “load-bearing” details in the passage? It also involves evaluating our listeners. Are there details that may distract our listeners, or would our failure to pay attention to a detail come across as evading it, or as a mistake on our part? Some details can be explained quickly and easily, others take more time, but we will never have enough time to explain every detail as much as we might like.

Preaching is not as simple as following a formula. It isn’t simply study a passage, write a message and deliver it. We need to be meticulous in our study, but selective in our sermon. We need to treat every detail like the treasure that it is – an inspired word in God’s Word. And we need to preach God’s Word in a way that honours the words, but always seeing them as part of the coherent message of the passage as a whole. We need to pray for wisdom to see the passage as the original author intended, and to hear the message as our congregation will hear it presented. May we all grow in the varied skills it takes to handle all these details!

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This resource may be helpful for you or others on the subject of studying Bible passages:

Before The Sermon

One of the challenges of the pandemic has been preaching to a camera without people present. Thankfully we are currently able to meet, but there have been many Sundays of just preaching to a camera. When there is an actual gathering of people, and you are preaching, there are lots of things to be aware of between the beginning of the service and the sermon itself.

1. The Time – this is number one for a reason. Sometimes delays happen. End of service still needs to arrive on time. Maybe the announcements take too long, song introductions become mini-sermons, a technical hitch slows things down. What is the result? Well, you need to preach shorter. Be aware of where you can trim time from your message (an illustration that can go, a shortcut through the introduction, removing the review of the series so far), and be careful not to edit out important elements (the major points, the key transitions, etc.) Pray that you will not be annoyed by the adjustment. People can read people and at least some of your listeners will sense it.

2. The Pre-Message Messages – between the announcements, any interviews, prayers, songs, etc., there is usually quite a bit said before you get to preach. Listen to it and maybe you can integrate elements into the message. Especially if someone has done something nerve-wracking like a testimony, be sure to acknowledge and thank them. However, you have a sermon to preach, so make sure an engaging opening (or a terrible one) doesn’t distract you and weaken the message. (And if you are like me, there are sometimes quite amusing comments that come to mind in relation to what has happened earlier in the service. These are often better left behind when it comes time to preach!)

3. The Speaker Introduction – especially if you are a guest speaker, you don’t know what they are going to say about you right before you preach. Generally just say thank you and get on with it. Clever retorts made without time to evaluate can really backfire. (A note to those introducing a speaker. Please only say what is helpful. Too much praise, too much humour, or too much time all make it harder to preach effectively!)

4. The Service Mood – sometimes a congregation is laughing after you’ve been introduced, sometimes they are in a deep and sombre moment. Perhaps they have been bored to death already, or maybe they are distracted by the crying infant. It is helpful to read the congregation and launch accordingly. Adapt your introductory comments as appropriate.

5. The Congregation – as well as evaluating the mood of the congregation, it doesn’t hurt to be aware of the people. If you are not in a position where observing would be awkward, observe and pray for your congregation. This sermon is not about you preaching it, it is about them hearing it. Pray for their hearts to be open and for yours to be beating with Christ’s heart for them.

6. The Journey – minor detail, until you make a mistake. Be sure to check your journey from where you are sat to where you will preach. Any steps? Any microphone cables? I remember one church where I had to climb a literal staircase to get to the pulpit. I was thankful for those extra moments when my introduction came far earlier than expected (and my end time was pre-determined by being a live radio broadcast – I did a lot of thinking and praying on my way up those stairs!)

7. The Focus of the Preacher – it is good to be aware of all these things and probably other things too. At the same time you are thinking about the message. In the midst of it all, remember to pray. You want to preach focused rather than distracted or distressed.

Anything else you would add to this list?

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Great Movies & Great Sermons

Last night we had an impromptu discussion at the dinner table about movies. What makes a movie great? We probably weren’t at the level of discussing every aspect of script, characters, acting, timing, sound, visuals, etc. But it did strike me that there may be some elements of a good movie that might teach us a thing or two about good preaching. I know, a sermon and a movie have massive differences (budget, labour hours, purpose, etc.), but still, it might be worth chasing this a little.

For me, a good movie includes the following:

  1. It is believable. I don’t mean the story has to be true to life, even though I tend to prefer those that are. But the visuals, the acting, the props, etc., should all reinforce the world created by the movie. If the acting is wooden, or the set wobbles, or the knight on horseback is wearing a watch, then I consciously know I am watching people trying to make a movie and it loses its impact. I wonder in what ways we might lose believability as we preach – lack of genuineness of preacher, lack of passion for content, excessive reliance on notes, unfortunate pauses and uncertainty?
  2. It is engaging. A movie could be completely believable, but inherently dull. I have seen a few. Somehow the plot tension needs to combine with the character development to engage me. It is not enough to be well-made, it needs to make me care about the story. I think the same is true in preaching. We can present solid truth well, but it can still be dull to our listeners. As preachers we need to make sure we engage with our listeners both in content and delivery so that they care to listen.
  3. It appropriately blends surprise with satisfaction. When a movie is predictable from the opening scene, it is going to struggle. There needs to be surprise. However, some predictable movies are still much loved. Everyone knows Rocky will win the final fight, so how does that kind of film succeed? (It came up in our conversation.) Along with sufficient plot twists and added challenges along the way, there is also something to be said for the satisfaction that comes when a plot’s tension resolves. That is what keeps children returning to the same bedtime story request night after night. They know what will happen, but they want to feel it again. Preaching is not dissimilar. If we are merely predictable, then our congregations will grow tired. But we can’t generate surprises at every turn in every sermon – after all, our listeners tend to have our passage open in front of them! Somehow good preaching blends some surprise with a more predictable, but satisfying, resolution to the tension. Preaching reminds people of truths they know they need to hear again.

This is all true, but then we also thought about one more aspect of the discussion. What takes a good movie and makes it a great movie?

4. Lingering Impact. A lot of movies are enjoyable escapism. They create a bubble for us to enter for a couple of hours. Then when the story ends, we move back into normal life. Great movies make more impact. There is a lingering affect on our lives. (This is why Hollywood is such a powerful political tool!) Some movies, although probably not as many as overly emotional actor interviews suggest – some movies actually shape the way people think and change the way they live. In a similar way it is possible for a sermon to be good, in itself. Maybe it engages its listeners for the time it is being delivered, and technically it ticks all the boxes. But when it ends, do the listeners just step back into “real life” again? Maybe they are grateful, but essentially unmoved? When we preach we should be praying for, and planning for, a lingering and life-changing impact. By God’s grace, sometimes it happens!

What would you add? Any more helpful links between movie-making and effective preaching?

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Please check out Cor Deo on YouTube for helpful resources – https://www.youtube.com/c/CorDeo

How Long to Prepare a Sermon?

A good sermon should leave people thinking about God rather than how long it took you to prepare it, but still, the question does arise. Some people have a very definite view on how long sermon preparation should take: a certain number of hours for a certain length of sermon. In reality, life is not so simple. Here are several factors to keep in mind:

A. A shorter sermon may take longer to prepare. We can’t just say it takes an hour for every minute of sermon, or whatever. In reality I can preach an hour long sermon fairly easily, but a twelve minute sermon takes much more effort to craft.

B. Every sermon is different. One passage may be effectively new ground for me to study, while another passage may be very familiar from previous teaching and preaching ministry. One congregation may feel straightforward, while another, or the same one on another week, may feel like a minefield of potential traps to carefully navigate.

C. It is impossible to measure the pre-study. I might take however many hours to work on a message for this Sunday. But what about the time I took on the same passage some years ago? What about the years of life experience and study of other related passages? What about the years I spent in the classroom laying a foundation of understanding? There really is a lifetime feeding into any sermon.

D. No preacher lives in a vacuum. Real life happens, which means preparation is never predictable. Even if you plan well, the realities and crises of church, family and home have a habit of crowding in anyway. There will be times when we all have to stand and preach with a profound sense of preparation deficit (and that is not something that it generally helps to broadcast in your introduction).

I suppose it is worth asking the question: who is asking the question?

If a listener has appreciated the sermon and is interested, figure out how to accept the encouragement of their appreciation and turn the focus back onto the object of your sermon. Don’t let your ego jump into the conversation and hold centre stage. It really isn’t about you, is it?

If a church is asking the question because they want to know what is appropriate to give by way of reimbursement for time invested, then perhaps ponder these quick thoughts: (1) Preaching has cost the preacher, so reimburse generously. (2) If you are unable to reimburse generously, rest assured that all good preachers are motivated by serving God rather than gaining income (but it might be kind to be honest with them ahead of time – they do have bills to pay too). (3) If the preacher is asking about how much they will receive, or setting a fee, usually this indicates something is not right. Be wary. (4) If you are worried about being too generous, remember that the preacher can always give excess funds away (and if you don’t trust them to be good stewards of money, why are you letting them near the pulpit anyway?) You probably don’t withhold business from an optometrist, a plumber, or a surgeon in case they end up with too much, so why hesitate to be generous with a preacher?

If a preacher is asking the question about time, then I am hesitant to give a definitive answer. What if he simply can’t dedicate the time that I can? What if he needs to dedicate longer to be ready? Here is a simple two-part answer:

1. As much time as it takes – to prayerfully select a passage, study the passage in context, determine passage purpose and idea, then evaluate congregation, define message purpose, craft the message idea, design the preaching strategy (outline) and fill in the details, then also prayerfully preach through the message a few times.  Realistically that could add up to quite a bit of time.

2. As much time as you have – You must take into account the reality of life: ministry pressures, other responsibilities, leaking pipes, family illnesses, hospital visits with your injured child, late night crisis counseling with dear friends in marital meltdown, and so on.  God knows about these things and perhaps sometimes allows them to keep us from trusting in our preparation routine.  If you procrastinate preparation and only take a couple of hours, that’s between you and the Lord (in which case, repent and get things right before moving forward!)  But if life hits and you honestly only have limited time, God surely knows and will carry you through.

One thing that I know from many thousands of hours of sermon preparation over the years. It may be a struggle, even a battle at times, but every moment is a privilege.

7 Waste Points on Your Preaching Clock

Some preachers are incredibly aware of the clock as they preach.  For manuscript readers, the clock can be entirely predictable.  For others of us, time tends to move past quickly and sometimes erratically.  It is helpful to figure out where the time actually goes.

Here is one approach that could be helpful.

Step 1 – Before preaching try to anticipate how long the message will be, and how long will be spent on each section of the message (introduction, background, first point, second point, etc.)

Step 2 – After preaching try to evaluate how long the message was (if possible don’t check your watch!), and write down how long you felt you spent on each section of the message.

Step 3 – Using an audio or video recording, take notes on actual timings of each section and the whole message.

With these three steps under your belt, you are now in a position to evaluate the whole process.  Where did reality (step 3) differ from steps 1 and 2?  You may find that you are fairly careful with your timings, but lost track of time in one section.  Or you may find that time is lost repeatedly throughout the message.

Here are seven common trouble spots:

1. Introduction – Sometimes we can struggle to generate momentum at the start of a message.  Maybe more crafting and rehearsal is needed for a strong start.

2. Textual Background – Some of us get very excited when we have a chance to dive back into the biblical world and we end up giving more background than is needed for this message.  What is the most pertinent and helpful information for this message to communicate?

3. Illustrations – Sometimes illustrations just need too much time to explain, especially if our listeners look less familiar with the context of the illustration than we anticipated (beware of needing to tell whole Bible stories to make sense of a biblical illustration, or telling a whole movie plot, plus comments about spoilers, for the sake of a movie illustration).

4. Humour – Perhaps illustrations are ok, but when you say something a little bit humorous you can end up circling around that moment for too long?

5. Explanation – Some love nothing more than making sense of a biblical text for our listeners, but are we labouring the point longer than the majority need?  We would be surprised how long it takes to be truly heard, but how quickly we can annoy our listeners if we lack momentum.

6. Transitions – Perhaps your content is crisp, but your transitions involve too much review of earlier content?  It is easy for time to drift as we try not to rush ahead too quickly at transitions – a good motivation, but may need some work to do effectively.

7. Conclusion – Would your message be better if you simply landed the plane more directly?

5 Preaching Paradoxes

John Stott listed five paradoxes in preaching.  This is his list, but the comments are mine:

1. Authentic Christian preaching is both biblical and contemporary – We will tend to incline one way or the other.  Are you strong on biblical studies but not so in touch with the world of your listeners?  Or are you in touch today, but weak on the biblical side of this?  The solution is not a 50:50 formula for study time.  However, it would be wise to prayerfully take stock every so often.

2. Authentic Christian preaching is both authoritative and tentative – What is your dominant tone?  Some have learned to speak everything with unsupportable authority. Others seem hesitant to suggest anything for fear of coming across too strongly.  Listen to a recent sermon and take stock of your tone – there should be both authority and humility.

3. Authentic Christian preaching is both prophetic and pastoral – Preaching should speak into the world of your listeners with declarative and incisive authority, like a prophet of old.  At the same time, these sheep really need the tenderness of a self-sacrificing shepherd.  Perhaps it is worth asking some listeners how they feel when you preach?  Is it helpful confrontation by the truth of God’s Word, or is it the tender care of God’s shepherd heart?  Remember, they need both.

4. Authentic Christian preaching is both gifted and studied -I was always impressed by my teacher’s ability to both preach and teach preaching.  He was clearly gifted, but he also really knew his stuff.  Some good preachers are poor teachers of preaching.  But that double dynamic is at work in preaching too – we need the gifting God has given us (personality, ability, strengths, etc.), and we need to do the work in our study to be able to preach well.  Have you started to lean on your gifting to the detriment of study?

5. Authentic Christian preaching is both thoughtful and passionate – Just thoughtful becomes ponderous and sends you to sleep.  Just passionate can get very loud and annoying when the absence of substance becomes obvious.  Learn what you need to learn, but make sure that study, prayer and life work together in you to generate a passion for what you preach.  They can’t catch the disease unless you are properly contagious.

I am not a fan of balance as a default, but in these five areas, I think Stott’s list is really helpful.

5 Radars Every Preacher Needs – #3

RadarScreen2So far we’ve pondered a radar needed in textual study, and another needed in considering our own theological assumptions.  As preachers we mustn’t go too far without thinking of the listeners, so here’s another early warning system to ask God to develop in you for your growth as a preacher:

Radar 3. Resistance Radar (in your listeners)

It is naïve to think that clearly explained and relevantly applied Bible passages will automatically result in changed lives.  More mature preachers prayerfully ponder where their listeners will resist what the biblical text is presenting.  This radar can only be fully developed by knowing the people you are preaching to each week.  Perhaps this radar has two tones of beep.

A. The first is a human nature beep (i.e. people everywhere tend to resist in this regard).  It doesn’t matter what the culture, or the education levels, or the demographics of the community, or the age of the listeners . . . some truths are universally resisted or twisted.  Grace is a prime example.  It is not a lack of understanding that makes us resist God’s grace, it is our fallenness.  We don’t want God to be God, and we want to be God.  But to receive God’s grace without some effort at payment or cooperation, that is to admit that I am not God and I need God.  We must not think that this does not apply to those who have received Christ and joined God’s family . . . our flesh still rebels and seeks to corrupt God’s grace into an exercise in shared effort.  It may be as illogical as a starving person turning down food, but in a post Genesis 3 world, it makes perfect sense for us to resist or twist grace.

B. The second is a specific humans beep (i.e. this congregation, or this individual, will resist this message because of such and such). When you know the people in your church, then you can better spot where the resistance will come.  Maybe it is not grace, the example I gave above, that is the point of resistance for some in your church.  Maybe it is the notion of close relationship with God.  Perhaps the notion of a loving father is frightening to some.  Maybe holiness has been perilously pickled in the perspective of some.  Perhaps legalism has turned some listeners into collectors of instruction, rather than seekers of wisdom.

Grow in understanding of humans in general, and people in your church in particular, so that this radar becomes well tuned and messages can more effectively hit home.

Resolved: Preach Christ

resolved2Here’s another resolution to throw into the mix as we head into another year.  How about making a prayerful determination to preach Christ, rather than the tempting alternatives?

Here are some tempting alternatives that are worth dumping in favour of Christ:

1. Don’t preach issues – It is tempting to be contemporary and to buy into the idea that what people really value above all else is contemporary relevance.  Of course the Bible is relevant and Christ is relevant, but that doesn’t mean your preaching should be salted with relevance like meat in a medieval barrel.  Some preachers are so concerned about being up-to-date that they lose sight of what they have to offer those sitting before them.  Relevance is important, but it is not the primary and central goal in preaching.

2. Don’t preach tips – Of course God’s way is the best way and lives gripped by the Gospel tend to work a whole lot better than lives lived according to the values of the world.  And yes, the Bible does include a lot of insight into living life, both legitimate and moralized.  But our job is not to be the weekly top tip provider for a people totally absorbed with successful living.  There should be a huge difference between our preaching and the self-help guru folks may pay a fortune to hear on Friday night.  The gospel will transform lives, but we are not called to be known as life coaches.

3. Don’t preach pressure – With all the best intentions we can easily undermine the work of the Gospel in the lives of those we preach to each week.  That is, we want them to be thriving spiritually and in life.  We know the damage sin can do.  So we will always be tempted to twist arms and pressure people to conform to an outward Christianity.  It makes church life easier if all messes are hidden and people act appropriately.  But pressure preaching assumes that listeners can fix themselves and that we can achieve God’s goals without any meaningful involvement from Him.  There will be moments where we seek to appropriately apply the pressure of God’s Word, but that is not what defines us as true Christian preachers.

4. Don’t preach yourself – Over the years our own flesh has this amazing ability to get used to being the centre of attention.  If you are naive enough to believe the polite comments you receive after preaching are objective evaluations of your ministry significance, then you can easily start to buy into your own hype.  Please don’t.

5. Do preach Christ – The Gospel is not a self-starting life-change program, it is good news that involves us introducing listeners to God in Christ.  Don’t preach self-help programs, or church programs, or Christian morality, or even Christianity . . . preach Christ.  Make 2015 a year marked by a weekly introduction to a heart-capturing Saviour!

Homo Homileticus

Still I withhold the name of the book I’m reading, but I’ll share another thought nonetheless.  In fact, I’ll quote (and if you want the source, you’ll have to ask, although I’m on vacation and won’t check comments until the end of the month!)

“Homileticians as a caste are extinct in the UK.  Not in a single theological or Bible college, or university, will you find anyone whose full time job is to teach homiletics.  Makes you think that there ought to be a homo homileticus on display in the British Natural History Museum, the skeleton of W.E. Sangster perhaps!”

Now I wouldn’t want to overstate the importance of this, but it is interesting.  Equally I cannot validate the truth of this statement since I have not searched every possible faculty corridor in order to “prove” the extinction of this breed.  The general perception, though, is that anyone can step out of their own discipline and teach preaching.  Perhaps the general fruit of such a perception is worth evaluating?