A Low Fence: Revisited

One of my early posts on this site was called “A Low Fence.” I have recalled that post many times, and since yesterday’s post related to the idea, I thought I’d give it a revamp:

When you have a single text for a sermon, you also need a fence.  The fence is there to keep you from wandering too far away from your focus.  

1. Erect a fence for the passage – If you are preaching John 3, put your fence around John (or maybe the section of John 1-4). If you are preaching Colossians 1, put a perimeter around Colossians. That fence means you try to keep your study, and your presentation, within John, or Colossians.

2. Study inside the fence – As you try to make sense of details within your passage, try not to spend all your time visiting other writers and other eras of biblical history. By staying within the writing of that author, or if possible, within this writing of that author, you will put your energy into the best evidence to find authorial intent within your passage. The fence marks off the best context for your study. Staying there will help you to spot the flow of thought within the passage, as well as the way the author is using a word or concept.

3. Preach inside the fence – As we thought about in the last post, it is often tempting to present a sermon in our own preferred terms (or preferred texts, cross-references, etc.) A couple of things can be said of cross-references. (1) Listeners don’t love a biblical “sword drill” and tend to switch off when a message becomes too textually complicated, and yet (2) Listeners seem to praise the preacher for being “deep” or some such non-compliment often misunderstood as endorsement. But it isn’t just about jumping around the canon. How easily we will preach a Resurrection passage in a Gospel using Paul’s terminology from 1 Corinthians 15. Or how easily our standard Christian terms get painted on every text so that the distinctive vocabulary of Luke or John or Hebrews or Peter is lost.

4. It only needs to be a low fence – I am not suggesting that you study, or preach, a biblical book in isolation from other inspired texts.  I am suggesting that you honour the author of the book both in your study and in your preaching.  With a low fence you can step back into the Old Testament to look at a passage that informs your preaching passage, or you can step over to other writings by the same author for a more complete word study.  With a low fence you can choose to step beyond the book for a quick presentation of how this apparently unusual idea is actually very biblical.  With a low fence you can choose to step forward to see the culmination of momentum found in your text.

These are the three reasons I tend to step over the fence –

A. For the informing texts that help me understand my preaching text,

B. For the supporting texts that help others accept my preaching text, or

C. For a culminating passage that helps to conclude a trajectory in my preaching text. 

Otherwise, I’d say it is generally best to stay where you are.  I certainly don’t think we should spend much time going elsewhere just because other passages have similar wording, nor to offer “illustration” for the truth of our passage, and definitely not to fill time.  Dig in the text you have, honour the author by doing so, and give your listeners the best you can from this passage.  Next week it will be a different one.

(To see the original post with worked example from Hebrews 13:20-21 – click here.)

Expectation and Preaching

Somebody has said that we tend to over-estimate what can be achieved by our next sermon, but we under-estimate what can be achieved through the next five years of faithful preaching.

Here are some thoughts on expectation and preaching:

1. If our confidence is in anything other than Jesus, then our expectations are too high.  It doesn’t matter how well you have prepared, how well you know the passage, how on target the message feels for people in the congregation, etc.  We all have to fight the perennial temptation to trust in something other than Christ for the fruit in our ministry.

2. High expectation tends to lead to disappointment, but maybe it is better to have high expectations anyway. There are nuances to these things, but generally speaking it seems to take a toll to preach with high expectations.  Gradually preachers settle into a safer zone of not expecting too much so that they don’t feel too drained by regular disappointment.  But if having high expectation comes from, or leads to, more prayer for the people and for the occasion, then maybe it is worth the negative cost involved.  Maybe climbing back up again each week and choosing to trust Christ and preach again is worth it.

3. Other factors will influence your internal levels of expectation.  You may be drained from interrupted nights, or pastoral crises, or criticsm, or spiritual warfare, etc.  And there will be seasons where you struggle to expect much at all.  At these times it may be the best you can offer to simply keep going by faith.  (Of course, there may also be a need to seek help, be vulnerable, take a sabbatical, adjust your diet, start exercising or whatever might be needed – simply plodding on is not always the faithful next step – ask God and others for wisdom.)

4. Praise God that it is his ministry and not yours.  There will be times when you are fired up to launch a revival and instead your sermon falls as flat as a paper plane in torrential rain.  God knows what he is doing when he humbles us.  There will also be times when we feel like we have nothing to give and are shocked to find out that God uses us mightily in those meager moments.  God is God and we are not, let’s be sure to be good with that!

What do you experience when it comes to levels of expectation relating to your preaching ministry?

Of Lecterns and Pulpits

Lecterns and pulpits are worth thinking about.  After all, we so easily take them for granted.  Perhaps you’ve always had one, perhaps you’ve always seen preachers preach from behind one.  However, if our goal is to effectively communicate God’s Word to people, we need to consider every aspect of our preaching.  So here are a few thoughts on these pieces of ecclesial furniture.

Don’t hide. I suppose this is the basic thought in this post.  Don’t hide.  Remember that communication includes body language, which means that people need to be able to see your body language.  Be careful not to slouch or lean on the pulpit.  If they can’t see a significant percentage of you, then you probably need to elevate your energy levels to appear normal in your expression.  Be deliberate in letting your gestures show above and beyond the pulpit (reach higher and wider).  Seriously consider coming out from the castle!  Let the pulpit hold your notes, but don’t feel obligated to stay there yourself.

Do familiarize. Make sure everything is ready ahead of time.  If it is adjustable, adjust it appropriately (which doesn’t mean it should be up to your armpits just because you’re tall!)  Make sure any notes you use will be visible (why are some lecterns at such a high angle?)  Make sure you have a glass of water if you need it, etc.  If there is anything more technical than a glass of water, make sure you know how it works ahead of time – any light, controls for visual media, etc.  Obviously if you’ve preached from the same pulpit for a while, then this isn’t as necessary, but it’s always worth double checking before the meeting.

Don’t criticize. You may understand the negative impact of “barrier furniture” to communication, but be very careful not to criticize it.  Even if it holds your notes in a near vertical position, makes your water glass nearly inaccessible, blocks your listeners from hearing “with their eyes” and looks like a wooden battle ship, or upended casket, or whatever . . . keep these thoughts to yourself.  You can move to the side, or make the best of the situation from behind there.  But if you give voice to these thoughts you will not come across well, and the person whose father built the monstrosity in 1924, or who donated the money to buy it in honor of their spouse’s homegoing . . . well, you know how they’ll feel!

Preach First and Last Sermons

I don’t know if you count.  My temperament tends to count.  I keep track of what I’ve preached, when, to whom, etc.  I keep records partially out of necessity and partially out of interest.  Whether or not you count sermons, take a guess, which one is today’s?  Is it number 15, or 100, or 1250, or 3500?

Let me encourage you today to preach as if it is your first. Preach with all the naivety of a new preacher.  Remember?  Back when you expected lives to be changed immediately by the sermon you preached.  Back when the spring in your step conveyed an excitement about what God is doing in your life and what He wants to do in their lives.  Forget the nerves, the mistakes, the unrefined skill, and so on.  But remember the enthusiastic expectation of that first sermon.  Preach like that today.

And preach as if it is your last. Imagine that today’s sermon had to count because there would be no more.  Imagine that all the weight of God’s work in your life had to be transferred with urgency today to those sitting before you.  Forget the slowness of mind that may come, or the feeble frame that you may have to carry up those steps.  But imagine how powerful the weight of matured passion and perspective will be in your last ever sermon.  Preach like that today.

Be You

There are many elements of style that can be studied and worked on.  But one thing that is really important is to be you.  Philips Brooks’ famous definition of preaching as “truth through personality” is important to remember.  It is truth through your personality!

Preaching, like much of Christian ministry, is incarnational in nature.  And the flesh the truth takes on is yours.  That means your strengths and your weaknesses.  Your personality.  Your humor.  Your mannerisms.  Your temperament.  You.

AJ Gordon referred to preachers taking on someone else’s personality as moral plagiarism.  The temptation is always there, but we must resist.  We can learn from others and even take onboard aspects of the style of others, but there is a fine line between that and taking on a personality that is not yours.

This is no excuse for poor communication.  There are aspects of our personal style that each of us could strive to improve for the sake of effective communication.  However, to merely introduce the personal style of another is not the solution.  It will not be you, and therefore, it will not be effective.

The Tone of the Shepherd

One of the central roles of a church leader is to protect the flock from false teaching.  It is a responsibility to take seriously.  However, without very deliberate thought it is easy to fall into one of two extremes.

Extreme 1 – Just Really Nice Shepherd. Your desire to be liked drives you to avoid any controversy and confrontation, leaving your preaching as a parade of niceness.  I’ve heard plenty of this in my time.  It is the kind of preaching that seems to skirt any issue that might offend.  The desire is unity at all costs.  I sense that where this kind of preaching prevails, it reflects a situation where Evangelical Christians are perceived to be irrelevant, unaware and standing for nothing.  Let us not set that tone from the pulpit.

Extreme 2 – Angry Bashing Shepherd. Your desire to be right drives you to bash freely at every person, idea or stream of Christianity you disagree with.  I remember sitting through a very painful retreat where the famous speaker seemed to take every opportunity to have a go at top Christian evangelists and ministry leaders.  It was unhelpful for the immature believers confused by it all and would have been offensive to any unbelievers present.  We must be aware of how we are perceived.  Non-christians see us as very angry people who just can’t get along with each other.  Let us not reinforce that from the pulpit.

Why do we fall into one extreme or the other?  I think our personality will influence it.  I think our culture will influence it (in my experience I see the English church often falling into the former extreme, whereas the North American church often tends toward the latter extreme – obviously there are exceptions in both cultures).  I think fear drives both extremes – fear of any confrontation or discord on the one hand, and fear of not having all the answers in our personal theology and philosophy of ministry on the other.  I think a lack of thought leaves us at one extreme or the other.

As preachers we must think carefully about our role as shepherds.  Sheep want neither a nice shepherd too polite to offend the prowling mountain lion, nor an angry shepherd lashing out at every bush, shepherd or other sheep that crosses their path.