6 Questions About Illustrations – part 2

Yesterday I gave four questions to get us thinking purposefully about what we are doing with an illustration and where we are getting it from.

Here are two more questions that we need to consider:

5. Even if it is a good illustration, is it self-destructive? You might have a great idea for an illustration, but beware of some that self-destruct. Here are some to watch out for:

  • The Overpowering Illustration. If the emotional impact is too great, then people won’t hear the point, or even the sermon. (Details of your car crash, your surgery, your pet dog’s death, etc.)
  • The Morally Questionable Illustration. If the morality of your illustration raises concerns, then people won’t hear your point, or even the sermon. (It doesn’t have to be sinful to trigger this outcome – referencing some movies, or hobbies, etc., might trigger a “sin!” reflex in some of your listeners.)
  • The Complicated to Explain Illustration. If the backstory or complexity is such that it takes too much effort, then people might forget your actual point. (Many movie illustrations trigger this outcome – unless literally everyone knows the film, or the set-up can be really swift, it may be worth looking for something else.)
  • The Tribal Illustration. If the story elevates a sports team where the listeners may be tribal (some don’t like that team), or where some listeners are tired of sports illustrations, or if you push a political perspective or person (and some aren’t onboard with your perspective), then people will likely remember their reaction to this rather than the point you were making.

6. Are you missing the value of the non-illustration? Sometimes we can be so in the habit of finding illustrations for our preaching that we forget the value of the non-illustration. I don’t mean speaking in a monotonous complicated and academic lecture. I mean recognizing that sometimes the explanation of the context of a passage, or the presentation of the passage itself, can be so vivid and engaging that it feels like you are illustrating when actually you are not. Narratives tend to offer us the potential for powerful storytelling. Poetry tends to offer vivid imagery. Even the epistles sometimes offer illustrations built into the passage. Don’t rush to your illustration file before checking if the text can engage the listeners with a vivid presentation and a sense of resonating relevance.

Illustrating a sermon is not easy, but hopefully these questions might help. What else would you add?

6 Questions About Illustrations

Good preachers make illustration look effortless, but for most of us it can be a real struggle. Here are a few questions that I find helpful:

1. What’s the purpose of your illustration? Too many preachers default to simply adding in illustrations because there hasn’t been one for a few paragraphs, or because they think they should. It works much better to define your purpose. At this point in the message will your listeners be needing explanation to clarify the point you are making? Or will they need support to prove the point? Or perhaps application to picture themselves applying the point? Generally it is better to identify what you are trying to achieve and you will probably achieve it more successfully. Explain, prove, apply . . . or perhaps give a break in the intensity to allow them to re-group. Decide what is needed and then you are more likely to find it.

2. Are you relying on their knowledge, or does it touch their experience? People will always connect more with what they have experienced than what they know. People are more likely to remember cross-country running at school than have experience of running in the Olympics. They know what it feels like to get stuck in traffic, but probably not what it feels like to step out of a spacecraft. Instead of going for the more exotic, consider if more mundane might connect better.

3.  Have they experienced it, or are they simply having to hear about yours? The best illustrative material tends to be experienced by both speaker and listener. It is easy for you to describe and easy for them to imagine. If this isn’t possible, then consider whether you can do the learning and speak of what they know personally, rather than always asking them to imagine what you have experienced personally. It won’t always be possible, but worth the effort when you can.

4. Are you falling into the laziest and weakest forms of illustration? There are plenty of illustrations that fall outside your experience and knowledge, and their experience and knowledge. The illustration anthologies are full of them. Obscure anecdotes and clever quotes from yesteryear. Wartime speeches, heroic moments, distant pithy quotes. Generally speaking these will seem far more effective on paper than they do in actual preaching. At the very least, can I suggest that if you love this kind of illustration then at least try to balance these with something more immediate and normal? (You may love your 1950’s football stories, or WWI trench poetry, but your listeners may not be so enthused.)

It takes work to illustrate well. Sometimes we have to go with something weaker than we’d prefer. That is preaching. But let’s try to do the best we can. (And tomorrow I will share the final two questions…)

We Are Not Performers

Whenever we preach we will be tempted to perform – our flesh will see to it. We know it is not supposed to be a performance, and we may feel strongly opposed to any notion of entertainment, but still the temptation is always there.

We do not preach to fill time. We preach to stir people and see lives being transformed by God. And we will notice how dull presentation has less impact than enthusiastic, or passionate presentation. In fact, we may notice quite a number of things that seem to make a difference, and before we know it, performance can sneak into our ministry.

Here are three ways to protect the pulpit from you . . . I mean, three ways to avoid performing:

1. Let preparation marinade. Last minute preparation can lead to pre-sermon desperation. In that state we may start to believe that certain strategies and tactics are our only hope. (Last minute preparation is sometimes necessary, but how quickly we forget that God understands that and is so gloriously gracious!) As much as possible, give your preparation time to soak in. Generally plan your schedule so that you are not living in the desperation zone. Let your messages, and even your series, soak in so that they become part of who you are. Then instead of “lines through an actor” it has more opportunity to be “truth through personality.” Preach what you truly believe, not what you only latterly found or formulated.

2. Avoid the natural presenter’s fallacy. I just made up that label, but what do I mean? I mean the idea that if I prepare less then my presentation will come across more naturally. Fallacy. Prepare less and you will come across unprepared. Not preparing on purpose is a path that leads to meandering introductions, illogical transitions, incomplete thoughts, unhelpful illustrations, mistakes in explanation, missed objections, circling and looking for a landing spot, etc. Put in the work: craft your message, sweat during preparation, wrestle, pray, think, think more and talk it through with others. That kind of work does not lead to performance, it leads to better preaching. In fact, good preparation should lead to more genuine, from the heart, textually solid and sensitively targeted preaching.

3. Pray as if this matters. Over time we can grow really complacent. I’ve done this before and I can do it again. Really? Stop the “bless my sermon” prayers and pray as if you are actually reliant on God. Wrestle with God who is at work in you. Persist in wrestling for those who will be listening. There is a great spiritual battle raging around you and around them. Don’t step into the pulpit to fight a battle you have not first heavily engaged, and even won, in the prayer closet.

What would you add?

Asking Better Questions

As preachers we often think in terms of giving answers. After all, we are the ones who need to study for hours in order to communicate God’s Word in a way that emphasizes its relevance to the people in front of us. Here are a few quick thoughts, not about answers, but about questions.

1. Every unit of thought in the Bible is answering a discernible question. In preaching terms, this would be the Subject-Question – that is, what is the passage about? We need to discern that question in order to then identify the answer being given – the Complement-Answer, that is, what is it saying about that? We will always help people with our preaching more effectively if we discern the implicit question being answered by the text we are preaching.

2. Every listener of a sermon has questions. Some may be technical theological questions stirred by hearing the Bible passage read. Most will be more mundane, but critical: why should I listen to you? Is this message relevant to my life? Is there any hope for someone like me? We need to make sure we are not so soaked in academic thinking that we preach only answers to questions that most will not be asking.

3. Our culture is training us to be controlled by certain questions. Take the situation we find ourselves in today. Our culture has proactively shaped the question that dominates our thinking and therefore our lives. Where the question maybe used to be, “how can I be happy?” or “what will satisfy me?” or whatever variation of self-concerned worldviews were dominant, now the question seems to be: “what must we do to stay safe?” In just a few months our culture has made this question absolutely dominate the thoughts of the people in our church.

4. The questions controlling our minds must be questioned. Identify what is driving the people you speak to each Sunday. Then question it. Overtly. In fact, let the Bible’s values offer a transformative interrogation of assumptions that nobody dares to question in our culture. For example, how many biblical passages would support something different driving us in these days? Surely there is more to life than just trying to stay alive? Merely articulating that query could stir significant change in people. Yesterday I preached the final message in our Christmas series and we landed on Simeon and his “Now dismiss me…” prayer. His eyes had seen God’s incarnate, controversial, global salvation and he was ready to die. In a time when all are overwhelmingly concerned about staying alive, it was very timely to ask a Simeon-shaped question: “are you ready to die?” and the other side of that same coin: “what does it mean to really live?”

5. As preachers we must continually grow in our ability to ask questions. We need to question the biblical text. We must question the values and thoughts of our listeners. We should be asking lots of questions about the paradigms and agenda driving our culture. We would do well to question our own assumptions, influences, etc. And when we preach, let’s look to not only prepare using better questions ourselves, but also help our listeners to also ask better questions too.

Preparing to Preach in 2021

We don’t know what 2021 will bring, but we can guess. We can guess there will be more to the COVID story. We can guess there will be further political and social tensions in various parts of the world. We can guess that it won’t feel like preaching during a honeymoon period of stability and global contentment.

As we leave Christmas behind and start to move towards a new year that we know won’t be simple, what can we do to prepare? The simple answer would be to pray, but what should we pray about, specifically related to preaching? Here are seven things to pray about, just to get you started:

1. Love. Pray that your love for God and your love for your listeners will not be neglected in the coming months. Difficult times can helpfully toughen us, but they can also unhelpfully distract us from ultimate priorities. Pray for the love of God poured into your heart to flow out in devotion to Him, and Christlike selflessness towards others – including in your preaching.

2. Wisdom. Pray that your ministry will be marked by a profoundly biblical discernment in the coming months. We live in a swirl of contradictory information and sometimes the most affirmed realities are the most worthy of profound questioning. We cannot minister with our heads only in our Bibles, we also need to spend some time in the “newspapers” too – but be wary of simply parroting cultural values driven by the media of our time. It is easy to offer a slightly sanctified culture-shaped spin. Pray for wisdom to be able to know and speak God’s truth clearly in a time of great confusion.

3. Courage. Pray for courage in your ministry. It will be harder to speak the truth boldly in this decade than in the last. We may be able to anticipate where the pressures will be coming from, but we do not yet know how great those pressures will become. Your church does not need a bulldog in the pulpit, but neither does it need a wimp being pushed around by the increasingly brazen demands of the world. Pray for courage to speak God’s truth incisively in the coming year.

4. Patience. Pray for patience in your ministry. Someone said we can easily over-estimate what can be achieved in a single sermon, but should never under-estimate what can be achieved through a steady diet of solid biblical preaching. Pray for patience to keep on in your biblical ministry.

5. Endurance. Pray for the endurance that you will need in your preaching in the next year. This year has been draining. Take COVID – it is tiring to minister during uncertainty, with continual changes of government rules and guidelines, with uncertainty hanging over everyone, with different perspectives on the situation throughout the congregation, with the need to continually adapt and re-create church momentum, etc. Take a deep breath. Acknowledge that 2020 was difficult and tiring. And pray for endurance as we head into 2021.

6. Growth. Of course we should pray for the growth of our listeners, but pray for your own growth too. Pray for God to help you grow in your handling of Scripture, your theological insight, your pastoral sensitivity, your communicative ability, etc. Pray that you will become a better preacher this year.

7. Fruit. Don’t forget to pray for fruit. It would be easy to allow global events, national lockdowns, family struggles or even personal issues to distract you from the obvious. Pray for fruit in your ministry. Pray that people will come to faith in Christ this year. Pray that believers will grow closer to Christ this year. Pray for marriages to be healed this year. Pray for lives to be transformed deeper and further this year. Fruit doesn’t ultimately depend on your love, your wisdom, your courage, your patience or even your growth. Fruit depends on God’s kindness, so pray for Him to be powerfully at work whether you are “preaching well” or not, whether your church is meeting in person or not, whether your country is falling apart or not.

What would you add to the list?

___________________________________________

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?

How Does Preaching Change Lives? – Jonathan Thomas

Here is a great little three minute clip from Jonathan Thomas, pastor of Cornerstone Church, Abergavenny.  Click here for the clip.

To see the full interview, which is well worth it, please sign up to the Cor Deo Online mailing list and we will give you access when it is released later this week.  Click here to sign up.

Thank you to Jonathan for the interview for Cor Deo Online – it has proved to be a very helpful series of clips for this site too!

The Pastor’s Job – Jonathan Thomas

Last week I interviewed Jonathan Thomas, pastor of Cornerstone Church, Abergavenny (Wales).  I’m linking to a clip from this interview because I think you will really appreciate what he has to say.

Jonathan talks about how easy it is to reduce ministry down to a litmus test for evangelical orthodoxy, but then tells his own story of growing into a fuller appreciation of the magnificence of Jesus.

To see the full interview, you just need to sign-up to the Cor Deo mailing list and we will make the full interview available to you!  Click here to sign-up – http://eepurl.com/drPqj1

3 Likely Outcomes of Bible-Lite Preaching

You can save a lot of sermon time if you simply summarize the passage, or only briefly touch on the text.  It allows you so many more precious minutes for application and relevance.   But at what cost?  What is lost by eliminating any extended explanation or retelling of narratives?  What is the cost to listeners of not really entering into the world of the passage being preached?  Here are 3 likely outcomes of Bible-lite preaching:

1. Biblical immaturity.  People shaped by Bible-lite preaching will not grow towards the kind of biblical maturity that they will need to thrive in this complex and difficult world.  Knowing a few popular proof texts and surface truths liberally mixed with applicational anecdotes and motivational missives will not be enough to weather the storms of life in this world.  To be mature believers they need the soul-reinforcement that comes from deep biblical-rootedness.

2.  Anemic Devotions.  For half an hour on Sunday our people observe a “mature Christian” handling the Bible.  They will copy what they see.  If you skim the surface in order to share superficial suggestions for life that aren’t deeply rooted in the Word, then guess what they will learn for the rest of the week?  Superficial engagement with the Bible on a personal level.  In fact, they are more likely to make some good worship music on the way to work their daily devotional content and leave the Bible on the shelf.  Why? Because your sermons don’t demonstrate that the Bible has any real weight, personal significance, genuine relevance or divine authority.

3. Godless Christianity.  What is Godless Christianity?  I don’t know, it is an oxymoron.  But I do know, sadly.  It is the kind of christian culture that reinforces itself week after week in many churches – the kind of nice and encouraging sub-culture that has a thin veneer of christian labeling attached to a set of behaviours and attitudes like a set of post-its … that is, not very solid under the slightest wind of difficulty or purposeful inspection.  Bible-lite preaching may encourage people to try to live out the Christian life, but without drawing them deeper into the source of that life – relationship with the Trinity.

As preachers we have a double-duty, or even a double delight: to enable people to encounter the God of the Bible as they enter into His Word, and to be changed by that encounter.  These two go together.  But don’t short-change the first by skipping to the second.  As the world seems to spin further and further away from the anchors of Biblical truth, people need to be more biblically literate and mature, not less.  Today, people need to have more exposure to God’s self-revelation in the Bible, not less.

A Contagious Pulpit

I remember Haddon Robinson saying that a mist in the pulpit will result in a fog in the pew.  It seems so obvious to say it, but there is a strong connection between what is going on in the preacher and what will go on in the listeners.  This is true both positively and negatively.  Here are some examples with brief comment:

Negatively

1. Nerves & Stress.  If you are nervous, they will join you in that.  If you seem stressed, you will put them on edge.  Whatever your preparation has or has not been like, make sure you go into preaching by faith rather than self-reliance, or self-concerned stress.

2. Coldness & Distance.  A congregation is like a dog in this regard: they can always sense if you don’t care for them.  Pray until your heart beats with God’s heart for these people, especially when you sense that indifference and lack of love that so easily creeps in for all of us.

3. Boredom & Disinterest.  Nobody wants to listen to someone who is not particularly interested in the passage they are preaching or the God they are speaking about.  In fact, they won’t listen.  Your disinterest will transmit so that they mentally leave the venue long before you leave the pulpit.

Positively

4. Warmth & Connection.  Maybe you have met somebody so warm and congenial that you found yourself warming to them as the conversation progressed.  The same is true in preaching: your love for them and enthusiasm for the God you speak about will increase their temperature toward you and Him!

5. Clarity of Image.  Whether it is an illustration or the retelling of a narrative, this principle applies: if you can see it, so will they.  Be prepared enough to be able to see what you are describing and you will be surprised how much more your listeners feel like they are immersed in the movie, not just enduring a monologue.  Blow the fog away, describe what is vivid to your mind and it will be clear to theirs, and engaging to their hearts too.

6. Responsiveness & Worship.  This goes way beyond enthusiasm and even interpersonal warmth.  This is about response to God.  If you are moved by the passage and the message to worship and obedience birthed from stirred affection, then that will increasingly be the response of your listeners too.

There are many ways in which we  will infect our listeners as we preach.  What “diseases” do we want to carry to them?