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…)

8 Benefits of Effective Transitions

It is easy to put a lot of energy into explaining the passage, applying the message, adding interesting illustrations, and so on. But what about the transitions? These little moments can be treated as automatic, but by neglecting them we miss a vital part of sermonic effectiveness.

What potential benefits do the transitions have as tools in our preaching arsenal?

  1. Clarity of Sermon Structure – You may have a very clear, balanced and organised outline, but without good transitions, your listeners won’t know! The transition is the cleared air that allows for the structure of the message to be clear. And when the structure is clear, the listeners get all the benefit of organised thought.
  2. At Pace: Breathing Space – After a few minutes of your preaching point, especially if it has been growing in intensity or pace, the transition allows everyone to take a breath. Some preachers may be ponderous, but others like to charge ahead at full steam. Listeners may appreciate energy and enthusiasm, but they also love to take a breath.
  3. Slower? Evidence of Progress – If your style is more ponderous, don’t underestimate the value of giving listeners a sense of progress. Maybe you tell them at the start that you have three points . . . the transition and its focus on moving to the next point may be exactly what some listeners need to hang in there!
  4. Re-entry Points for Listeners – Whatever your pace, listeners do get lost during the progression of a sermon. Someone drops something, a phone buzzes, a thought occurs, a helper from the childcare taps a shoulder, a siren passes . . . and people lose track of the message. The transition is a great moment to mention the main idea, review progress, and invite listeners back into the message.
  5. Restatement of Main Idea – Any opportunity to reinforce the main idea is worth considering. A handful of transitions in a message are as good a set of opportunities as you could ask for!
  6. Change of Pace – Sometimes you have a point that takes a fair amount of background or explanation, but the message needs to speed up. The transition allows for a deliberate change of pace and injection of momentum.
  7. Review of Message – As a message progresses the transitions allow you to review what has been said so far. This can really help the listeners to be ready for the later points and conclusion of the message.
  8. The Next Point – Maybe this is the most obvious benefit of all, but I have saved it for last. A transition allows you to take your listeners from your previous point into your next. It is like having a passenger behind you on a motorcycle. Take the turn too quickly and you lose them. Slow down, transition well, and they come right along with you into the next point!

Transitions are underrated. Focus on them and your preaching will improve!

Preaching: A Platform for Ministries

When we preach we tend to think about the people sitting in front of us.  Rightly so.  Whatever the size or apparent significance of this group of listeners, they are the ones God has prepared and convened for the public preaching of His Word, and so this is a key moment.

However, that Sunday sermon is also a platform for other ministries.  Let’s consider three:

1. Your other ministries.  While we don’t want to develop prideful delusions of grandeur, it is good to consider how to be a steward of your ministry.  The best thing you could do might be to put all your energy into improving what you do as a preacher.  But you might also consider whether the work that went into that sermon might feed into a shortened recorded summary for a different audience, or a blog post, or an article, or a book chapter, or a set of tweets, or whatever.  You may not have the global reach of some famous author/speakers, but if there are some people that would benefit, why not make best use of the work you have already invested in a message?

2. Your listeners’ ministries.  The people listening to you are not just there to be blessed.  They are also there to be developed and launched in their own ministries.  How is your preaching shaping the way they handle the Bible, communicate gospel truth, trust God in their spheres of service?  While every sermon will have its primary goals that you prayerfully hope to achieve which tend to be unique to each sermon, don’t forget that there are some secondary effects that also matter – how your listeners are motivating and trained to handle the Bible, how your listeners are equipped for ministry, etc.

3. Your church’s ministries.  The sermon you preach on Sunday is not just about that slice of time and those people in their response to it.  It also sets the tone for all the other word ministries of the church.  How is the Bible treated in small groups, or taught in Sunday School, or trusted in youth ministry, or seen as relevant in counseling, or birthing spiritual conversations, etc.  Sunday’s sermon will, especially over time, set the tone for the word-based ministries of the church throughout the week – both formal and informal.

Preach to the people in front of you, but prayerfully ponder how the Sunday sermon can shape more than just that moment.

Biggest Mistakes Preachers Make – pt 4

Slip2This is a series of big adjustments rather than fine tweaks.  We’ve thought about content and audience, but here is another big issue:

Mistake 4 – Starting Too Late

There is all sorts of mythology around about the hundreds of hours some preachers invest into a single sermon, and even about some who only prepare minimally.  Perhaps the bigger issue is not simply the total time invested, but the spread of the time invested.  Here is a simple and healthy guideline:

Before God, give as many hours as you can, over as long a period as you can, to prepare the best sermon you can.

1. Before God … that is, you answer to Him.  Don’t make decisions based on what others think (although people telling you your sermon seemed unprepared is a red flag to take onboard!)  Our ministry is ultimately a stewardship and God knows the balance that makes sense for us.  I could sacrifice the health of my marriage, my family, and other aspects of church life, as well as personal health and hygiene in order to give every conceivable moment to preparing a sermon.  I doubt God would be impressed.  It is before God that we make the value judgments on time.  Equally, if emergencies crowd lots of allotted preparation time, or if we step in at the last minute, then God knows that.  So before God…

2. Give as many hours as you can … that is, it takes time to do the work of preparing to preach.  It takes time to study a passage.  It takes time to properly pray for the people.  It takes time to wrestle with the wording of the main idea.  It takes time to thrash out the best sermon strategy.  It takes time to work out the best support material.  It takes time to get past logjams in our preparation.  It takes time to preach a message through out loud and make adjustments.  It takes time.  Wider reading, targeted reading, related research.  It takes time.  Don’t try to impress people by minimalist preparation.  And don’t appease your own conscience in some twisted way by giving minimal time and then saying you did the best you could.

3. Over as long a period as you can … here is the crux of the matter for this post.  If you start on Friday or Saturday, you might be able to technically do what is necessary, but only just, and probably not at all.  That is, only just in terms of reading, study and research.  Having longer allows you to stew on research, ask others and develop ideas in conversation, read commentaries and articles in a more considered way.  And secondly, you probably can’t do what is necessary at all in the sense of letting the passage do its work in your heart and life.  Deep appreciation of a biblical passage on a Saturday night may lead to a special moment of worship, but it doesn’t forge true conviction in the inner matrix of your heart and soul.

There are benefits to planning series months ahead to allow for drip feed study, prayer and research.  There are benefits to starting 10 days before a Sunday, rather than 5 days before on the Tuesday.  Starting unnecessarily late may be undermining the potential for God to work in you, and through you.

Apologetics for Homiletics – Part 3

So the critical matter of the role of the Spirit raised issues concerning evaluation of past “fruit,” and more importantly, the dynamic tension between good stewardship and self-reliance.  Now another objection:

Doesn’t homiletics create a methodological strait jacket? People with years of experience in reading a passage, soaking in it and then coming up with something to say may resist a more “formulaic” approach.  After all, “soak then say” preaching methodology seems a lot more flexible than Haddon Robinson’s 10 stages, or Mead’s 8, or Ramesh Richard’s 7, or Bryan Chappell’s 14, etc.  Here are a couple of thoughts to consider:

1. Good methodology recognizes the natural progression from text to sermon, it does not impose a rigid process. When I teach homiletics I follow the order of the stages, but I regularly recognize that thoughts may come for any part of the process at any time.  Hence it is good to work on loose sheets of paper so insights and ideas can be noted in the appropriate place, before returning to the current stage in the progression.  While thoughts may come randomly at times, there is reason for the order.  One cannot and should not be forming the message before understanding the passage.  In the first four stages one cannot determine the passage idea before studying the passage’s content and intent (intent becoming evident primarily from content), etc.  In the last four stages, there has to be a message before there can truly be an introduction or conclusion, and the message structure cannot precede determination of the idea, etc.  The order is logical, not arbitrary, it recognizes the progression, it doesn’t impose restriction.

Again, there is more to say, but I will defer that to the next post.

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.