Marginally Helpful Preacher Metaphors – Part 2

Last time we looked at the preacher as a video painter, particularly when preaching biblical narratives.  Let’s add another metaphor that will not become a classic, but may be helpful for now:

A Gallery Guide – When you are preaching biblical poetry it may be helpful to think of yourself as a guide in an art gallery. You might be thinking that you don’t enjoy art galleries so perhaps you should skip this point, but hang in there.  Poetry is powerful.  Through stirring imagery and crafted structure, listeners are moved in a way that prose could never achieve. When biblical poetry does its work, it can really work in the heart and mind of a listener.  So what is the preacher to do?  Are we supposed to strip out those poetic features and coldly present the results of our analysis of an ancient poem?  Or are we supposed to preach that poem in words that help the listeners to appreciate the depth of feeling and thought that was stirring in the artist’s heart and life as he wrote the poem?  A good preacher of poetry does for listeners what a gallery guide might do for me: lead me beyond first impressions, cause me to slow down and start to feel with the artist as he or she begins to plumb the depths of the piece before me.  When the preacher does that, he allows the text to do what the text  was inspired and designed to do.  There is more to preaching poetry than that, but there shouldn’t be less.

Next time we will add one more metaphor.  Feel free to make up your own in the comments … I might even develop it as a post (giving you credit, of course).

Psalms: A Disconnect and a Nudge

Point 1. At a recent preaching seminar the organiser admitted that he had only ever chosen to preach from the Psalms once.  He asked everyone present how much they choose to preach from the Psalms when they have the choice on what to preach.  The general consensus was almost never.

Point 2. Speak to any Christian who has been walking with the Lord for more than a few years.  Ask them what book of the Bible has been dear to them during the most challenging times in their experience.  Times of hurt, of doubt, of grief, of loss, of fear, of insecurity, of loneliness, of pain, of betrayal . . . the times when life was as life often is. The answer, time and again, will be the book of Psalms.

The Disconnect. People come to church in the midst of life in all its colour and complexity.  People are hurting, doubting, experiencing, struggling, suffering.  A significant proportion of people in our churches every Sunday are dealing with a significant level of life’s complexity.  Yet as preachers many of us seldom if ever choose to preach from the book that countless Christians have grown to love precisely because it does engage with the harsh realities of life in a way that we can identify with.  This is a disconnect.  (Not to mention the fact that when some do preach the Psalms, they have a habit of dissecting into theology-sized chunks that feel like an epistle in presentation – that’s something I’ve written about in other posts!)

The Nudge. Why not preach from the Psalms sometime?

Single Verse Sermons

The site received this comment from Peter D:

I have been studying Charles Spurgeon’s sermons. He would often take one scripture and expound on it from every direction he could, would that be thin blooded? I’m preparing a message for later this month and want to focus on one verse within Psalm 63 – it sticks out to me and brings the whole psalm to life, for me at least. In your opinion is it best when dealing with psalms to preach the whole psalm in it’s entirety or can focusing on one part bring it to life for the members?

This is a good question.  Regarding the Psalms I would suggest it is always important to study a Psalm in its entirety, but it may be effective to focus on one part if that seems appropriate for the situation (i.e. when covering the full text in a longer psalm would prove overwhelming or unachievable). 

But what about single verse sermons? Certainly in the past there were many more preachers who preached on single texts, often going from those texts to a sometimes comprehensive canon-wide presentation of the pertinent doctrines suggested (or sometime not suggested) in that text.  Sadly there are many who try to copy the approach of a Spurgeon without achieving a comparable level of personal spirituality and biblical maturity.  There is certainly a place for doctrinal preaching, as well as better and worse ways to do it.  Perhaps there should be a post on that subject sometime . . .

But what can we say about single-verse sermons?

1. If a single verse is a complete unit of thought, great!  For instance, many proverbs stand alone as a complete unit of thought and can be profitably preached as such.

2. If a single verse conveys the main idea of the unit of thought, great!  In some passages there is a single thought that encapsulates the main idea of the passage and it might be effective to preach the verse, while choosing how much of the context to refer to at the same time (depending on situation of sermon, listeners, etc.)

3. If a single verse conveys a significant proportion of the main idea of the text, this might be effective.  As above, the surrounding context will need to be brought into the message in some way or other, but appearing to preach a single verse may work well.  In Peter’s comment above, I noticed how he still tied the single verse to the message of the Psalm as a whole, which makes me think it might be very effective.

4. In a topical message, a single verse may act as sectional manager for that section of the message, but that manager must not act autonomously from the influence of the full unit of thought.  That is, the verse must be understood in its context.

5. If a single verse is used without awareness of context, or to preach a point it wouldn’t give if understood in context, or if preached without studying the context . . . well, please don’t.

Feel the Force: Poetry

When we preach poetry, do our listeners really feel the force of it?  Poetry is found in the Psalms and wisdom literature, of course, but also in the historical books and the prophets too.  All too easily we can preach to the head, but not move the listeners with the force of the text.

A couple of thoughts on this:

1. Word images may not carry instant force, so we should build it. For example, when the Psalms speak of the heavens, the stars, the sun and moon, etc., there is a big difference between most listeners today and the original hearers of the text.  They lived under the stars.  Once the sun went down the rhythm of life changed and stargazing was as normal as TV gazing is for some today.  So a brief reference to how amazing it is to look at the stars and feel so small (as in Psalm 8 ) will simply not move contemporary listeners like the original reference would have done.  Today we have to build an awareness of our smallness (thankfully we have NASA and the Hubble telescope to help generate a sense of smallness!)

2. The structure of a poem, the shift in content, may not be apparent to our listeners, so we should clarify and demonstrate it. If the poem was read carefully straight through, the discerning reader would probably pick up on the transition that occurs.  The problem with preaching though is that the extra words may obscure the transitions instead of clarifying them.  There is a major transition at the mid-point of Psalm 73.  Yet if the preacher is droning in their voice, or simply moving methodically through a series of points, that dramatic transition may easily be missed.

3. Emotive language can so easily be made informational. As I’ve probably written elsewhere on this site, it is so easy to dissect a frog to learn how it jumps, but in doing so we stop it doing so.  A dissected poem is not enough for effective preaching.

People listening need to feel the force of poetry so that it can mark their lives deeply, as God intends.