Things I Wish I Had Known

I’m scanning through Preach the Word, edited by Greg Haslam.  There is an interesting chapter entitled “Thirteen Things I wished I had known about preaching” by Jeff Lucas.  Let me share a few of the thirteen:

1.    The pulpit is a highly dangerous zone.  By “highly dangerous” Lucas is referring to the complications of microphones that may be off when you think they are on, and on when you think they are off.  He is referring to knowing when you preach in the program of the meeting (ie. What comes before the message – will your opening story work after that moving solo?)  Basically, if something goes wrong, everyone notices.  Not exactly what I’d call “dangerous,” but true nonetheless.

2.    At least 25% of the preparation time should be spent on the first three minutes and the last three minutes of the sermon.  (Note that 97.1% of statistics are made up on the spot.)

4.    The voice is designed for variety.  Shouting is not the same as anointing.  Pace, pitch, punch, pause, etc.  Simple, but important to remember.

13. Where the setting is appropriate, always leave time for questions.  Something to consider, even in a formal traditional church setting – can we create a venue for questions?

If you want to know the rest, you’ll have to buy the book.  What do you wish you had known when you started preaching?  I think I would say this, “I wish I’d known that the goal in preparation is not to get a good message as soon as possible, but to really make the most of the spiritual study journey of preparation.”  You?

Essential Ingredients of the Best Preachers

Yesterday I listed Greg Haslam’s five ingredients for good preaching.  Today I’ll finish the chapter (11 in Preach the Word), by sharing his list of key ingredients in a good preacher.  Again, I present these for your thoughts, not to agree or disagree with his list.

1.    A compelling call from God. “In my view the number one reason why there is so much bad preaching today is because our pulpits are often occupied by preachers who do not have a divine mandate to be there.”  (p.155)  He urges every preacher to ask himself three questions – who put you there?  Who keeps you there?  Who can get rid of you?

2.    A growing, varied and fresh life with God. “We can think of preaching as the run-off or surplus of all that wells up in the life of the preacher.  But, sadly, many preachers are running on empty much of the time.  They have allowed other things to crowd their time with God.” (p.156)

3.    Happy with their own identity, both as a person and as a preacher. “My plea to all preachers is: be the genuine article. . . . We do not need clones of great preachers like Dr Lloyd-Jones or Billy Graham.  Since preaching is, as Brooks defines it, ‘truth coming through human personality,’ God surely wants us to be free to be ourselves.” (p.157)

4.    Increasingly liberated from the fear of man. “In order to be faithful to God, we have to become relatively indifferent to men’s resistance, criticism or opposition to us, as well as to their flattery or ridicule.”  (p.157)

5.    A genuine love for the people. “If it is true that fear drives out love, thank God it is also true that love will drive out fear.”  (p.158)

6.    A conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit. “As preachers we always need to be aware of our true source of power and we need to tell God how much we depend upon His Holy Spirit.” (p.158)

7.    Infectious in zeal and enthusiasm. “Absorbed in what they have to say, they will absorb the attention of others.  Often, even the most casual and indifferent hearer realizes something important is taking place.  If the truth of the message does not grab you, how can it be expected to grab anyone else?”  (p.159)

Again, points to ponder, but to keep the post from becoming too long, I won’t add comments.  Would your list of seven ingredients be the same?  Longer?  Different?

Essential Ingredients of the Best Preaching

According to Greg Haslam, there are five ingredients common to good preaching.  He lists and expands these in chapter 11 of Preach the Word, the hefty book he edited in 2006.

1.    Therapeutic – “All preaching that is God-centred and leads to encounter with God will inevitably be therapeutic, or healing in its effects.” (p151)

2.    Unconventional – “Within good preaching there is an element of surprise, so that it often startles and, dare I say, even shocks the hearer.” (p152)  Haslam urges the preacher to take some risks in preaching, becoming bolder in application of the Word.  He points to Jesus for several examples of unconventional, but powerful, preaching.

3.    Lucid – “A sermon is both a spiritual and an intellectual exercise.  It will make demands on the intellect and should engage it completely.” (p.153)  Haslam goes on to describe the need for prepared preaching, with purposeful planning, memorable points, etc.

4.    Illustrated – “I would go so far as to say that without illustration it is probably not possible to teach or preach from the Bible very well.”  (p.154)

5.    Passionate – “Our preaching must contain emotion and also evoke emotion in our hearers.  It should be full of pathos, energy and enthusiasm.  In the West we urgently need to reconnect the broken circuits between our heads and our hearts.”  (p.154)

The discerning reader might notice the alternative use of a famous acrostic in this.  Nevertheless, these are points to ponder.  Would you add to the list?  What if you could only have five ingredients?

Do We Get It Backwards?

Here’s a provocative quote from Charles Kraft:

The amount of crucial information involved in Christianity is, I believe, quite small.  The amount of Christian behavior demanded in response to all that information is, however, quite large.  We have, however, given ourselves over to a methodology that emphasizes the lesser of the two ingredients. (Jesus Model for Contemporary Communication, 123)

I essentially concur with this and want to make a couple of comments.  Obviously Kraft is not saying that Christianity is simplistic or lacking in content.  I’m sure he’d agree that we will never exhaust the riches of God’s Word.  However, for each truth in that Word, there are numerous necessary applications to real life behavior.  As preachers we tend to explain, explain, explain some more and then finally squeeze in a couple of minutes of application.  Perhaps we would do well to follow the advice of Don Sunukjian along the same lines, when he says we should explain as much as necessary, then apply, apply, apply.

In reality I find a lot of preaching is lacking in application, but not really because the text is being over-explained.  I would suggest, perhaps provocatively, that I rarely find a text even decently explained.  What many preachers tend to do is fill time with talk.  Random details in the text, other texts, illustrations lacking in defined purpose, filler words and noise.  I find it so refreshing when a preacher actually explains a text, and it is time to celebrate when there is specific and substantial application added to the mix.  I know there are still some exegetically heavy lecturers getting into pulpits, but probably far less than in the past.  However, it would be wrong to flatter many preachers who lack in application by suggesting they explain too much.  In reality many preachers neither explain nor apply well.

Many preachers tend to feel they have not done their job if they only preach one text, one main idea, one truth and then apply it well.  They perhaps feel that such preaching might be too lightweight or thin on content.  So they try to pack in more information, more texts, more truths, etc.  What could have been a powerful, penetrative, convicting, focused, applicational and memorable sermon becomes an overwhelming speedboat charge through the jungle of the catechism, or through systematic theology, or through all things Bible (complete with the resulting spray in the face that makes you do that squinting, blinking thing with your eyes!)

If it means actually seeing lives changed, let’s preach lightweight.  Actually, I don’t believe that.  Let’s preach one text well.  Well focused, not going anywhere else without good reason.  Well explained, but not an information dump.  Well applied, specific and with the appropriate grandeur for such a biblical truth.

The Battle of the Pulpit

Greg Haslam’s opening chapter of Preach the Word has been my food for thought in these days.  He writes about the battle raging over the pulpit.  Since the church expands primarily through preaching, the enemy will obviously target this part of the ministry.  So we have a barrage of popular opinion that people can’t concentrate on the spoken word any more, that they need entertainment and fun.  In response, so much preaching is like firing corks from a pop-gun, or endless repeaters from paintball guns – lots of smoke, but no fire.

Here are John Stott’s words quoted to energize the preacher:

“In preaching, God is bringing to each person’s notice what holy Scripture has made publicly and permanently available, so that His timeless word comes to timely announcement, so that people believe the message and commit to the Saviour it announces.”

Earlier Haslam points out that the term homiletics can carry the sense of saying the same thing as something outside of yourself.  So?  So through preaching “we should be saying the same thing that God would say in a given situation.”

Later in the chapter he quotes William Willimon in respect to preaching, “Call it a burden, call it a privilege, a duty.  You know that it is worthy of your best talents, worthy of a lifetime’s labour and dedication.  On any Sunday you can give it your all and still know that the Word deserves more.  It is no small task that the Church has set upon your shoulders.  Being called to preach the gospel, you can do no more than to promise as long as you have breath and there is someone to listen, then by God’s grace you will give them the Word.”

How Would Jesus Preach – Part 2

Continuing the list of ten characteristics of Jesus’ preaching, as observed by a chapter in Preach the Word:

(6) Visual in its Appeal – Jesus painted word pictures.  He didn’t speak in abstractions, but he helped his teaching to form in the minds of the listeners (whether they were intended to really understand that picture is a different matter!)  For instance, imagery in Matthew’s gospel includes salt, light, gates, roads, trees, houses, foxes and birds, brides and bridegrooms, wine, farmers, weeds, seeds, bread, treasure, fishing, plants, pits, dogs, weather, rocks, mountains, sheep, vineyards and lamps.

(7) Varied in its Approach – Jesus varied and adapted his methodology, using parables, stories, proverbs, pithy statements, paradoxes, riddles, word plays, etc.

(8) Practical in its Application – Jesus taught his disciples to pray by giving them a prayer and not just a pattern or theory.

(9) Courageous in its Directness – He was through and through a God-pleaser, rather than a men-pleaser, which gave courage to Jesus’ ministry.

(10) Potent in its Impact – in just three years of ministry, Jesus’ impact far surpassed the combined decades of teaching of the finest philosophers of antiquity.  His words inspired the greatest art of history.  His teaching motivated the music and poetry of the greatest composers of the ages.  His preaching continues to change lives today.

Before we just say, “that’s Jesus, He’s different,” let’s be sure to not only praise the Lord for his ministry, but also look to learn from it as we continue to represent Jesus in preaching to the body of Christ and the world that needs Christ.

How Would Jesus Preach?

Haslam’s book, Preach the Word, has a chapter entitled “Learning from Jesus.”  To some it is obvious that we should look to Jesus, who was, after all, the finest of preachers.  But I suppose some would overlook Jesus as a model of preaching since, well, we’re not Jesus.  In this chapter, the writer points out ten characteristics of Jesus’ teaching.  It’s not an exhaustive list, but it is a list worth pondering:

(1) Revelatory in Content – intimacy with the Father added an authority to his teaching, quite unlike the teaching of his contemporaries.

(2) Anointed by the Spirit – another key element in his authority was the role and freedom of the Spirit in the empowering of Jesus’ ministry.

(3) Biblical in its Source – Jesus knew, quoted, cited, explained and preached the Hebrew Bible.  While he was able to add to it in a way we cannot, he never contradicted it.

(4) Always Relevant – Jesus knew who he spoke to and he connected his teaching to their lives.

(5) Compassionate in its Motivation – Jesus really loved those he sought to draw to faith, and it showed in his communication.

I’ll give the other five tomorrow, we already have enough to ponder for one day!

Why Preaching is Ailing – Part 2

Continuing Greg Haslam’s list of reasons why preaching is ailing (first chapter of Preach the Word):

5. Some are too polite and too politically correct. It is easy for the message to be so diluted that it fails to rattle or challenge listeners.  Preaching is not for cowards, but political correctness tends to foster them.

6. Some are too distracted. Things that have their place, but are not the priority.  Social life, spectator sports, hobbies and interests.

7. Some are too hard of hearing. “Waxy deposits have formed in their spiritual ears.”  Deafened by the noise of man’s opinions, some are unable to respond to the Spirit of God in the situations they face.

8. Some are disillusioned. Under-developed preaching skills, combined with little helpful feedback and the weary slog of ministry, all combine to make many discouraged ministers, desperate for personal renewal.

That’s a great list, well worth pondering.  Make sure the finger points more toward yourself than others.  This series of posts is not about condemning others, but spotting areas of potential weakness in ourselves that might be strengthened with God’s help.

Why Preaching is Ailing

In his opening chapter for the book he edited, Preach the Word, Greg Haslam lists eight reason why preaching is ailing.  Here are the first four with a summary of his point for your consideration:

1. Some are too busy. The busy schedule of hectic ministry and social life is simply keeping some people out of the study.

2. Some are too lazy. Stott is quoted as giving a minimum preparation time of one hour for every five minutes of message.  For those that aren’t willing to give at least that time, their preaching will suffer.

3. Some are too ambitious. By this he refers to climbing an ecclesiastical ladder of success (one which demands much in the way of networking, but at the expense of direct preparation).  This ladder, it may turn out, leans against the wrong wall, because of how God defines success.

4. Some are too nervous. These are too afraid to speak the truth because they might be disliked or alienated by their congregation (or, I might add, by some key individuals in the congregation).

Schedule check time.  Heart check time.  Is your preaching ailing because of factors such as these?  Tomorrow, four more.

Preaching Trends

We need to be aware of preaching trends.  Like all trends, they come and go over time, influencing some while leaving others untouched.  Trends can be overt and in your face, or subtle shifts that sweep people along unawares.  For instance, D.A. Carson writes concerning the current focus on preaching narrative:

The current focus on narrative preaching has rightly broadened the older emphasis on discourse passages from the Bible.  If it helps us better handle all the genres of Scripture faithfully and responsibly, it will be to the good.  If it merely tips us from one cultural preference (viz., discourse) to another (viz., narrative), we have not gained anything.  Indeed, because narrative is intrinsically more hermeneutically “open” than discourse, the move may merely contribute toward moving us away from truth.  How much better to remain faithful to biblical truth yet simultaneously focused on Scripture’s existential bite. (Preach the Word, 185.)

This quote helpfully points out several truths about “trends.”  (1) A trend is neither good nor bad in itself, it should be evaluated as part of the broader picture of church ministry.  (2) A trend may be justifiable on one level, but may bring with it side effects or net results that are more sinister. (3) Potentially sinister net results do not automatically disqualify a trend as worthy of our consideration.

Let’s be neither shallow homileto-fashionistas, jumping from one pulpit bandwagon to the next, nor stubborn traditionalists unwilling to learn, thinking we know all we need to know, and committed to increasing irrelevance.  We need to be aware of preaching trends.  We need to be discerning.