Category Archives: Preachng
Usually when I post rookie’s guides, I’m writing to help rookies as someone who is a little less rookie myself. This is not the case with topical teaching or preaching. I’m far more comfortable with preaching expository sermons or writing Bible studies that work through books of the Bible.
So when it comes to topical teaching and preaching, I’m a rookie too. I’ve had quite a lot of opportunities to do it, particularly in my preaching, but I don’t consider myself to have even come close to getting the hang of it.
Therefore as one rookie to another, here are some tips that I’ve found helpful.
1. Work out your approach
Topical teaching requires a decision regarding how you’re going to use Scripture. Since your teaching surrounds a topic, not a text, you have to work out which texts and how to use them.
There are probably four ways you can approach a topical. I’ll list them below in order of least to greatest difficulty.
a. Anchor in one passage
Instead of trying to do everything from every part of Scripture, just choose one and stick close to that one. This is my recommendation for new preachers and those least experienced with topical teaching. Find a passage and basically do an exposition of that.
For example, if your topic is repentance, you might just want to keep yourself to the classic repentance passage of 2 Corinthians 7:10 and surrounding verses. You can draw on other supporting passages, but your anchor is in this one text.
Clearly there are disadvantages to this approach. You don’t get to cover the breadth of a topic. You can actually end up ignoring the key issues raised by a topic and end up skimming the surface of a topic. But you know what? I reckon it’s better to do a good exposition of a passage that’s relevant to a topic, than to do a bad job of the other approaches below.
b. Biblical theological
Some topicals lend themselves really well to tracing that theme through the progressive revelation of the Bible’s storyline. This can be really refreshing and helpful, especially if you’re teaching those who don’t have a good grasp of Biblical Theology. It also has the added advantage of imparting a method of reading the Bible and approaching a topic to those whom you’re teaching.
An example is the topic of ‘worship’. Tracing this idea through creation, fall, redemption, and new creation is one obvious way of teaching it.
c. Systematic theological
Other topicals can fit so well with classical Systematic Theology categories that it’s most helpful just to teach that aspect of Christian doctrine. Keep your Grudem (or your ST of choice) handy and use that as a basis for your preparation.
d. DIY synthesis
Now I know that both (b) Biblical theology and (c) Systematic theology are themselves methods that require synthesis. After all, any kind of theological approach requires synthesis. However, in (b) and (c) you get the advantage of utilising synthetic approaches that have been done for you, whether it’s applying Goldsworthy’s biblical theological schema to your topic, or canvassing Grudem or Horton for what they say about the topic.
Some topicals, however, require you to do that task of theology yourself. This is hard work, and requires a level of theological reasoning that most won’t be able to pull off (myself included), but it’s worth keeping it as an option in your arsenal. If your topic is something that leans towards theological ethics (e.g. abortion, politics, same sex marriage etc.) or current affairs (e.g. radical Islam and terrorism), this is probably the approach you want to take.
However there’s a reason why this is last on the list. It’s not easy. I wouldn’t recommend any fresh preachers/leaders to try this method.
2. Interrogate your topic
If you’ve been given a topic to teach, you really need to explore that topic well. This is where those trained in expository teaching tend to fall short.
In an expository sermon, I’m not supposed to just ‘springboard’ off the text. I’m supposed to spend my time exposing the text and let it speak for itself. And so my introduction, illustrations, and conclusions are there in a supportive role to my exposition. Read my post here for what I mean by this.
In good topical teaching, and especially if you use method 1(a) above, you more or less have to do the opposite. In topical teaching, you basically need to exegete the topic and use the text in support. More often than not, you have to springboard off the Biblical texts rather than delve deeply into them. Your introduction needs to really open up the topic, raise questions, anticipate objections and questions, and then lead from the topic into the body of your sermon/Bible study. Therefore your introductions may need to be much longer. Again, it’s not something you would ordinarily do in an expository sermon.
Now of course I’m not saying that we’re at liberty to teach passages out of context, or be indulgent with our introductions and illustrations. The point is simply that in order to do a good job teaching about the topic, you need to exegete the topic in a way that does justice to the topic.
3. Be very explicit in your logic
Following someone’s train of thought in an expository sermon is important, but in some ways, the way you present that logic depends greatly on the genre you’re preaching. Teaching a psalm or narrative in a rigid three point sort of way can sometimes strip the text of its beauty.
In topical teaching, however, I would argue that a clear and logical step-by-step organisation of your sermon/Bible study is vital. Even if you baulk at the idea of an 8-point John-Piper-esque sermon for your expository teaching, you’d probably want to head in that direction for your topical. In some ways, your topical sermon is structurally more like an essay or a persuasive piece of writing. In order to persuade me, you need to ensure that I follow your train of thought and argument well. And if you’re not in the habit of doing so, give your hearers detailed paper outlines if you can.
4. Don’t try to do everything
A 30 minute sermon, an hour-long Bible study – it’s impossible to adequately canvass most topics with those time limitations. Therefore we need to be realistic with what we can achieve in one session.
If you have any control over the teaching program, consider breaking the topic up into a teaching series that stretch out over a number of sessions. If, however, you don’t have that luxury, then don’t be afraid to just teach what you can teach in that one session, and give your hearers some resources they can follow up with.
I generally don’t do Q&As after normal sermons, but with topicals (and in particular thorny issues), it’s worth doing some. This can liberate you from having to cover everything in your sermon / Bible study. You can read widely, teach on one aspect, and allow people to raise issues that are pertinent to them.
What are some of your tips and suggestions? I’d love to read them. Comment below.
1. “Spring-boarding” off the text
This is probably one of the most common mistakes for rookies learning how to preach expositionally. Rather than letting your sermon flow from the main idea and logic of the passage, you find one of the interesting points of the passage and ‘spring-board’ into a sermon about those points. Your sermon becomes more ‘topical’ than ‘expository’; and while it gives the appearance of preaching from the passage, you could really preach a nearly identical sermon from any number of passages that also deal with that topic.
We all have hobby-horses that we like to flog endlessly. Rookie preachers tend to do this more and hide it less well. It’s probably because they have fewer insights from exegesis and life/ministry experience. So whether your hobby-horse is ‘5 point Calvinism’ or ‘heresy bashing’ or ‘The Westminster Confession’, if it’s not absolutely tied to the content or application of your sermon, learn to leave the horse in the stable.
3. Indulgent illustrations
Illustrations are great. Vivid and interesting illustrations are even better. But not when they go for 1/4 of the length of your sermon, or have so many interesting twists and turns that the relationship between your illustration and the point being illustrated is hanging by a very, very thin thread. Make your illustrations interesting and, by all means, do extended ones on occasion, but please don’t be indulgent with them. Make sure your illustrations actually serve the sermon, and not the other way around.
4. Saying too much
Rookie preachers can often forget that less is more. This is related to the above point about illustrations, as well as, in particular, introductions and conclusions. Neither have to be long and drawn out. Sometimes a short punchy intro is enough to get your listeners on board. And your conclusions don’t need to reiterate all your points again. Just tie it up and finish memorably. That’s enough.
Another way rookies say too much has to do with taking all that they’ve read (and/or in the case of seminary students and graduates – all that you’ve studied), and learning how to leave most of that in the study. You’ve heard of the iceberg principle? Only 10% needs to be above the water. The other 90% stays beneath.
And one last note. Rookie preachers should almost never preach longer than 30 minutes. Remember this?
5. Saying too little
Clearly this is the opposite problem to the above, but it’s not unrelated.
Sometimes in order to accommodate for the long illustrations or techy commentary-like stuff that you haven’t left on the cutting room floor, you don’t have time to take listeners deeper and further in other areas.
Sometimes rookies say too little when you quickly mention concepts and ideas that actually require more explanation. Don’t just throw out phrases like ‘all this points to Jesus’ and then just leave it like that. Tell me how it points to Jesus. Chances are that right there is a glorious point about the gospel you should say more about.
The other reason rookies may say too little has to do with lack of pastoral and/or ministry experience. That can only get better with time. It’ll come as you spend more time ministering to and teaching the people in the congregation, outside of the pulpit.
6. Shallow applications
This is related to the previous point. A lack of experience in both life and ministry will inevitably lead to applications that will often miss the mark. Again, much of this will improve with time and experience. But in the mean time, rookies need to be aware of the tendency to drift to shallow applications and so need to work just as hard on application as they do on the passage. If in doubt, regularly use a cross-section of the congregational leaders as sounding boards and test out your applications on them.
7. Speaking like you write
We write differently to how we speak. Most rookies use full scripts and so need to draft, re-draft, and re-draft again in order to replace those bits in their writing that sound too much like writing and not like speaking.
There are lots of good stuff on this floating around on the web, but for starters:
i. Avoid passive verb constructions (rather than: ‘the man was healed by Jesus, go for: ‘Jesus healed the man’).
ii. Don’t use words like ‘therefore’, ‘however’, and ‘moreover’ etc.. Try using ‘so’, ‘but’, and ‘the other thing is…’ instead.
iii. Chop up long complex sentences into shorter and simpler ones.
iv. Use things like pauses, repetitions, re-phrasings – basically things you don’t need to do in writing because they’re a waste of space. In speaking, use them liberally to help make your point clearer and more memorable.
v. Learn to script in slangs, contractions (didn’t, wasn’t, hadn’t), even grammatically incorrect things you use in speech that you’d lose marks for in essays.
8. Trying too hard to emulate someone else’s style
I get it, you’re starting out and so you don’t have your own style yet. Copying those you listen to (especially if you podcast them and listen to them A LOT) is unavoidable. But try not to consciously emulate someone else’s style. This isn’t a copyright thing. It has to do with the fact that the famous guys you listen to are generally very unique. If you try to do it their way, it’s most probably not going to work.
Let the Francis Chans and David Platts and Tim Kellers do their thing. You just keep your head down and work hard at improving being you.
9. Idiosyncrasies heightened
The interesting flip-side to developing your own style is that if you’re a rookie, the unhelpful bits of what makes you ‘you’ is going to be heightened.
Is your sense of humour cringe-worthy? Do you like using esoteric vocabulary or wax poetry in your every day speech? Do you like giving soap-box lectures to groups of friends, even if that group is only two big? Do you gesticulate a lot even when talking to your dog?
All of these things will likely be heightened in the rookie’s preaching, and you’re generally not going to even notice them.
10. Lack of good preparation method
Finally a lot of the above rookie mistakes can be addressed if rookies just remembered that they’re rookies. Which means that you need to learn a method, try it out a few hundred times, practise and practise and practise until you nail the method, and then you can freestyle a bit more.
Many rookies don’t want to do that, at their own detriment. Learn a method of preparation from the great teachers of preaching. My method of choice is Chappo’s (John Chapman, from Setting Hearts On Fire). It’s not the only one out there that’s good, so find another one that is and learn it.
When you’ve absolutely mastered the method, before you know it, you’re not making these same rookie mistakes any more. But just remember, ‘the first fifty years are the hardest’ (Chappo), so keep at it brothers and sisters. Soli Deo Gloria!
Okay I know. This is a somewhat controversial blog post title.
Yes, if you’re wondering, my sermons are over 30 mins. They average 45 mins. And perhaps some readers out there are of the opinion that no sermons should exceed that length.
I’m not going to argue that point or assume that all of my listeners like the length of my sermons. However, I do think there are good reasons for rookie preachers to adhere to the 30 min rule a little more than a lot of them do.
Firstly, why 30 mins? Well in my honest opinion, the ideal range is between 20 and 25 mins. In a normal Sunday gathering, anything less than 20 mins is on the ‘too short’ side. But anything more than 25 mins is on the ‘too long’ side. Therefore 30 mins is the absolute upper limit.
Now of course there are no hard-and-fast rules. And that’s why I do believe that there are exceptions. But I want to argue that for the rookie preacher, there better be a very very very good excuse why that 30 min upper limit should be exceeded.
Before I go into the reasons why, you should know that I passionately believe in training preachers. I’m constantly listening to sermons by rookie preachers and giving them feedback. My main congregation, ACTS 11, also believes in training lay preachers. Aside from our ministry interns and student ministers, I currently have four lay men who preach regularly to my congregation, all of whom have only been trained to do it in the last year. I love training preachers, and I greatly value the men who are willing to take up the challenge to learn to preach, especially when they are also busy husbands, fathers, workers, and lay leaders.
So as an ardent supporter of preaching and rookie preachers, let me now put my cards out on the table. Please rookie preacher, keep your sermons between 20-25 mins. And please, whatever you do, don’t exceed 30 mins.
Here are my reasons:
1. Practise packaging
One of the most important skills in sermon preparation is the packaging. Rookie preachers need to learn how to spend as much time on the packaging as they do on the text. Without good packaging, even a 10 min sermonette can be extremely painful and confusing to listen to.
One of the best ways to push yourself to hone the skill of packaging is to ‘leave more on the cutting room floor’. Rookie preachers don’t yet have an intuitive grasp of what, among the mountains of material they have, ought to be left out of a sermon. They almost always leave too much in rather than cut too much out.
Keeping to an upper time limit is a disciplined way of honing your skill of cutting and packaging so that only the very best stuff stays in. After you do that for a few years, it becomes a little more intuitive. In other words, keeping it short as a rookie is a good discipline to train you for a lifetime of preaching.
2. You don’t know as much as you think
Rookie preachers are either not theologically-trained lay preachers (or youth leaders etc.), or recently theologically-trained new pastors.
If you’re not theologically-trained, then understandably you’re going to lack a certain depth with the exegesis and handling of the text.
If you’re newly theologically-trained, then you’ll probably be brimming with biblical knowledge but lack a lot of knowledge of the people you’re speaking to. This is why most rookie pastors struggle with meaningful and deep applications.
Either way, you don’t know as much as you think you know. Therefore to preach long sermons will tend to take your sermon into the land of the ‘hobby-horse’. When we’re drawing on a limited pool of knowledge (whether exegetical or practical), we tend to default into speaking about the things that we feel most familiar with and passionate about. Now that’s all fine and good for us, but it may have nothing to do with the text or with the people you’re preaching to! That’s called a ‘hobby-horse’.
3. You’re not as interesting as you think
I always remember fondly the time when one of my Bible college preaching tutors, in answer to the question: ‘How long should a sermon be?’, replied: ‘It should feel like 20 minutes.’ Great answer! It gets to the truth of the issue since sermon length has a lot to do with the giftedness of the preacher. There are some preachers who can hold your attention for 90 mins and make it feel like 20. And at the end of their sermon, you wished they talked more. Therefore it is unrealistic and unreasonable to expect that all sermons should be of a certain length.
…Unless of course you’re a rookie preacher.
We always like to think of ourselves as more gifted and interesting than we are. This is especially so when our models are extra-gifted speakers who can preach for 90 mins and make it feel like 20. Part of learning to preach is to figure out what kind of a preacher you are and be happy with how God’s made you. The vast majority of preachers are 20-25 min preachers. So as a rookie, rather than assume you’re one of that special lot who can speak for longer than 30 mins, it makes better sense to assume the opposite. Assume you’re average. Keep your sermon in that range . And if, down the track, people keep asking you to speak for longer, then maybe it’s a hint that you should speak for longer.
My point is simply: it’s unwise for the rookie to assume it.
In all honesty, of all the rookie sermons I’ve listened to, I can’t think of one instance where I wished the preacher had spoken for longer. Don’t get me wrong, some of these are brilliant and delivered by extremely gifted rookie preachers. And sometimes my feedback has been for some areas (usually application) to be developed further. But even when I’ve wished certain parts of the sermon had been more detailed or longer, it’s always been in the place of another part of the sermon rather than in addition to. I don’t want the sermon to be longer. I just want it repackaged.
Okay, these are just three reasons. I’m sure there are more. Feel free to suggest more or push back on the points I’ve made.
But in closing, I know there’s one niggling question at the back of your minds: ‘when does a person stop being a rookie preacher?’
Great question. I don’t really have an answer to that. Perhaps Chappo would say ‘after the first 50 (hardest) years’. But you know I don’t believe that, or else I’d be a total hypocrite since my sermons are over 30 mins.
Maybe there’s no ‘line in the sand’ answer. Maybe it’s one of those tacit things that you and your congregation just know. Or maybe it’s when you’ve clocked up 200 sermons (roughly 5 years of preaching if you preach weekly, with a few breaks). I have no idea. But whatever it is, if you are a rookie and you and your hearers know it, please, I beg you: keep it under 30 mins!
A Bible-talk (on my understanding) essentially conveys the idea that the speaker wants to talk about the Bible. in other words, the term suggests that it’s a lecture about the Bible. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s quite legitimate to talk about the background, language and meaning of the Bible. The question is: is it enough? Is this what is meant by “preaching” in Scripture? I don’t think it is.
The difference between a sermon and a Bible-talk or lecture is that a sermon is meant to be a sharp arrow that is aimed at the heart. Paul says to the Thessalonians that the gospel he preached came “not in words only but also in power, in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction”. Incidentally, the conviction that Paul refers to is not simply conviction in the hearers; it’s conviction in the preacher as well. A preacher must be absolutely convinced of the truth of what he is saying. Unless the preacher is convicted he is not going to convict anyone else. This means that preaching must be aimed at the heart whereas the terms “lecture” or “Bible-talk” suggest that their main aim is to impart information.
(The Rt. Rev. David Jones, Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia. Quoted from the Spring 2012 edition of AP Magazine. For the full interview http://www.totalweb.com.au/AP/2012/AP8.12/AP8.12.pdf)
Thirty-to forty-minute sermons don’t work with Gen-Xers. Doing a service which does not incorporate video and contemporary music for the most part does not work with Gen-X. […] Some of the fascinating churches I have visited that are trying to reach Gen-X and are doing so well may have a thirty-minute sermon, which is broken into three segments during the course of the service. You have a ten-minute introduction to the topic, then you have an eight-minute video on that topic. Then the preacher comes back and preaches another ten minutes. Then you have a drama sketch for five to eight minutes, and the service is closed with ten minutes of preaching. That fits their communication style. It fits their attention span. It fits their style of thinking — the “mosaic” style of thinking. (George Barna)
George Barna wrote this a generation ago, but his words still have application to the modern church context. Preachers today are under enormous pressure to make preaching more savvy, more visual, more multisensory, or perhaps just get rid of preaching altogether in favour of multimedia presentations. What are we to make of this?
In my previous post I began a three-part series trying to answer the question: ‘why privilege preaching?’. In this next post, I want to tentatively suggest that preaching as a medium best corresponds with God’s primary medium in revealing himself to humanity.
Marshall MacLuhan famously said that ‘The medium is the message’. In other words, how we communicate effects what we communicate. For example, the evening news on TV – which is primarily driven by 30 second to 2 minute news segments mostly consisting of fragmented video footage, strung together by brief commentary, then broken up by commercials and ending with a heart-warming story about puppies being rescued from Chinese restaurants (joke) – communicates something about the news in addition to communicating the news. It’s saying something about the nature of life and the relative importance of world events – i.e. life is rather fragmented; news = sound bites; and puppies are as important as massacres in Syria. The medium is the message.
When you begin asking why God chose a particular medium of communication in revealing himself to humanity, it may have implications for the medium of communication we privilege to deliver his revelation.
In short, God chose words. More specifically God chose to speak his words. Even the words that he caused to be written in Scripture are, to a large extent, intended to be read aloud, re-preached, re-told, and re-verbalised, especially in the public assembly (1 Tim. 4:13; 2 Tim. 4:1). I don’t think it’s just a matter of God choosing the lowest common denominator in a predominantly pre-visual and pre-literate age (though that is true to a certain extent). I think it has to do with the nature of spoken communication.
Compare the spoken word with visual communication – e.g. radio vs. TV; a phone call vs. a text message. The spoken (and heard) word is more intimate than purely visual forms of communication. That’s why radio is called a ‘warmer’ medium than TV. The spoken word is also more relational. The further one gets from face-to-face verbal communication the ‘colder’ communication becomes, since so much of communication is meta-communication such as intonation (i.e. how we say it). Visual images and the written word have to find ways to “code in” that meta-communication in a way that the spoken word doesn’t (just think about how much more likely an email is misunderstood than a spoken word!). And lastly, spoken words have an immediacy about them that images and written words don’t. Images especially need higher levels of interpretation that are circumscribed by one’s culture. It’s not that spoken words don’t need interpretation, it’s just that since language and culture have a symbiotic relationship, once a word is spoken (or for that matter, written) in a particular language, the interpretation is more ’embedded’ in its actual usage. That’s why if you’re wanting to warn people, you’re more likely to use spoken words than simply show a picture or a sign. (A red sign in our culture means danger because that’s how we interpret the colour red, but for a Chinese person, red symbolises prosperity.)
So isn’t it interesting that when God wants to relate to people – variously to befriend them, bless them, expose their sin, judge them or give them hope – he uses words? He speaks. He preaches. He declares it so we can hear it and heed it. And note how the declarative speech-acts (such as prophecy and preaching) carry with them a certain authority. They are uniquely suitable mediums for God to communicate his words since when God speaks there’s a certain non-negotiability about it. He doesn’t leave his words open to uncertainty and leave postmodern audiences to interpret them however their personal or cultural biases might take them.
Isaiah 55:10–11 As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, 11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
In other words, there’s a reason why God speaks his revelation, tells his revelation, preaches his revelation, even sings (?) his revelation. The reason is the message – the gospel (by this I mean the gospel in the fullest and widest sense: i.e. God’s message of Christ’s Lordship and salvation in the whole of Scripture). In fact, the word ‘gospel’ itself reflects this since the gospel is news. News needs to be declared, announced, proclaimed and preached. When you preach the gospel (medium) you are saying something about the message – i.e. that it’s personal and relational, and yet urgent and authoritative. Thus on the flip-side it’s worth asking the question: if we decide not to preach the gospel but privilege other forms of communicating it: visualise it, enact it, multimedia it, Q&A it, does something get lost? (I’m not saying here that there aren’t many different and helpful ways to communicate the gospel; there certainly are. I’m just asking the question of ‘what do we lose?’.) Does the gospel message itself privilege the spoken medium over others?
So coming back to my initial point about preaching: I believe that because God himself privileges a particular medium of communication to deliver his gospel message, this, in some measure, constrains us also to privilege spoken and declarative communication – i.e. preaching. Multimedia may be helpful supplements to our teaching and preaching, but I think were the church to downgrade the privileging of preaching, we would lose not only a Biblical medium, but perhaps a whole lot of the message along with it.
An interesting opinion piece in this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald, ‘University Lectures Are A Legacy of Our Pre-Digital Past’, got me thinking about preaching. Is preaching as a medium of communication also a legacy of the pre-digital past? This one-person monologue, delivered in countless churches week-by-week – isn’t it also something we should reconsider given the proliferation of the type of instant, multi-sensory digital means of communication that we are consuming every other day of the week? If university lectures need re-examination, then surely so does preaching, right?
I guess a broader question is: of all the different kinds of valid means of reading and teaching the Word of God (e.g. public reading of Scripture, personal encouragement, one-on-one Bibles study, small groups, video and net-based ministries), why privilege preaching?
In the next series of posts, I thought I’d rehash a seminar I delivered at a preaching conference last year and get the conversation going (so please comment away).
In this first post, I’d like to begin with definitions. What do we mean by Biblical preaching?
Here are a number of definitions I came across:
- Sociological: ‘A public formal monologue to the congregation.’
- Peter Adam: ‘The explanation and application of the Word in the assembled congregation of Christ.’
- John Stott: ‘To open up the inspired text with such faithfulness and sensitivity that God’s voice is heard and God’s people obey him.’
- Phillip Jensen: ‘Preaching the gospel by prayerfully expounding the Bible to the people God has given me to love.’
Not ever content with just going with what someone else said, I feebly attempted my own amalgam of the above and came up with this as a definition of Biblical preaching:
Biblical preaching is declaring God’s Word to people by faithfully expounding the Scriptures through the power of the Holy Spirit for the glory of Christ.
With my definition I’m trying to capture three elements:
1. I want to define BIBLICAL preaching. Preaching as a means of communication is pretty universal. Parents can preach to their kids; sales-people can preach to their prospective buyers; other religious leaders can preach to their congregants; motivational speakers are preachers too. But I want to attempt to capture what Biblical preaching is. It is, first of all then, tied to faithful exposition of the Scriptural text.
2. I want to capture the VERTICAL dimension of Biblical preaching. God is actually speaking his Word through the preacher. There is therefore a power that must be at work for hearers to change. I guess this vertical dimension is what old-school preachers (like Martyn Lloyd-Jones) would call ‘unction’ or ‘anointing’. John Calvin wrote:
It is certain that if we come to church we shall not hear only a mortal man speaking but we shall feel (even by his secret power) that God is speaking to our souls, that he is the teacher. He so touches us that the human voice enters into us and so profits us that we are refreshed and nourished by it.
3. I want to capture the HORIZONTAL dimension of Biblical preaching as well. The preacher is preaching to God’s people in order to edify them. As he expounds Scripture and applies it, he is simultaneously exhorting his hearers (Peter Adam). Both the vertical and horizontal dimensions are key. Without the vertical, preaching is powerless. Without the horizontal, preaching won’t grow the church and bring about conversions.
Put simply I believe that Biblical preaching is PROPHETIC TEACHING. By this I am referring to prophecy in the broadest terms. (Note: I do believe in the continuation of the gift of New Testament prophecy as a smaller subset of this, but that’s for another post on another day perhaps). Here I simply mean prophecy in the ‘men spoke from God’ sense of the term (2 Peter 1:21). This is the vertical dimension in operation.
But preaching is also teaching because of that horizontal dimension. Therefore preaching is anchored in study, preparation, understanding and analysis of both the world of Scripture and the world of the hearers (John Stott).
Now the mix of prophecy and teaching can vary from preacher to preacher or even from sermon to sermon. It’s unimportant to distinguish which bits of a sermon correspond to which. However, I believe that Biblical preaching must have both elements. In other words, it is not just a spontaneous prophetic message; nor is it just a prepared lecture or seminar or workshop. It is God speaking to his gathered people through a prophetic teacher who expounds and applies the Bible. Nothing less than that will fulfil God’s mighty purposes for this ministry for the glory of Christ.
(Another note: different church traditions seem to privilege one over the other. Charismatic/Pentecostal traditions tend to emphasise the prophetic element of preaching and will tend towards spontaneity and less systematic exposition of the Biblical text, while Reformed Evangelical traditions tend to emphasise the teaching element of preaching and will sometimes be indistinguishable from a lecture. Which does your church tradition lean towards?)
So why privilege preaching? Well, I’m not quite at a full answer just yet. Next post I’ll be proposing that preaching as a mode of communication best reflects God’s own primary speech-act. But in the meantime, I’d love to hear your comments and critiques, so fire away!
When I was doing a ministry apprenticeship, my trainer advised me to get a filing cabinet organised in terms of books of the Bible and topics that are relevant to preaching. Whenever I came across an article or an idea that would vaguely serve as an illustration, I would then file it in the relevant section. In time, I would have a heap of potential sermon illustrations just waiting in folders for me to appropriate when the time came.
It was a great idea, and I certainly filled many folders worth of clippings and articles and ideas. However I must admit that over the years I haven’t gone back into those files very often. I now have a big filing cabinet that I very rarely use.
Fast forward 15 years and now I collect my illustrations in a different way: a much simpler and technologically-aided way. I use Evernote, which is just a superb app for so many things. But for sermon illustrations, whether it’s an article, a blog, a video, a picture, a site… whatever, I simply clip it and store it in my Evernote account, which is automatically synced to my desktop and devices. The clipping function is an add-on that I downloaded to go directly on to my browser (I use Chrome). Whenever I come across something, I simply click the icon and it clips the page I’m on and stores it into my Evernote folder titled ‘Illustrations’. I then tag it with the relevant words to enable searching when the time comes.
So that’s me. I wonder, what do you use to collect sermon illustrations?
We’ve all been there. A gorgeous wedding. Perfect day. Bride and groom look sparkling and splendid. Guests are enthusiastic. Wedding service goes off without a hitch. Then… the wedding sermon ruins everything.
It’s too long. It’s too preachy. It’s too generic. It’s too vague. It’s too specific. It’s too cringe-inducing. It’s frankly just soooo boring.
Now it is a wedding so out of politeness, people will put up with it. But chances are there are a large number of unchurched in the congregation as well. And their impressions of the church, your church, and especially the preached Word can be seriously damaged by that one bad wedding sermon.
So what do we do as preachers?
Well, I don’t have all the solutions. But I did have an excellent mentor when it came to teaching me how to craft better wedding sermons. My MTS trainer Dominic Steele of Village Church Annandale and Christians in the Media preached at our wedding in 2000, and since my very first wedding sermon in 2005 (I’m now up to sermon #24 this weekend), I’ve been rigorously applying his ‘formula’.
So maybe it’s time to share what I’ve learnt in the hope that it would improve this very important public ministry of our churches.
- Keep it short. A wedding sermon should be no more than 15 mins (Dominic went for under 10 mins at my wedding!). No matter how accommodating the bride and groom are (or even if they request a full 30 min sermon), resist the temptation to go for more than 15 mins. No matter what you tell yourself, no one’s interested in anything longer.
- Be realistic about your aims. Your aim is not to exegete a passage or lay-out Two Ways To Live. A more realistic aim would be to plant a gospel-seed in the hearts of unbelievers there, or perhaps give a glimpse of God’s wonderful blueprint for marriage, or maybe even both. But whatever it is, be modest in your aims.
- Be winsome, humorous, and don’t be preachy. Treat it like an evangelistic sermon that you’ve been invited to speak at. Don’t take audience interest for granted. Help them ‘get aboard’ the train before you go on your sermonic journey.
- Try and steer clear of Ephesians 5 and 1 Peter 3 Biblical submission passages. It’s not that we don’t believe them or are shy about standing up for male-headship in the home. However with a 15 min wedding sermon with lots of unbelievers and believers from all walks of life present, you have to cover a lot of ground to make sure people see these passages as God intends. You are fighting a defensive battle from the get-go from the moment these passages are read aloud. I’ve preached wedding sermons on them, but I strongly prefer not to.
- Choose instead a passage that highlights marriage themes such as love, grace, commitment etc. It’ll also be easy to then take that nugget of an idea and relate it to the gospel. And of course it means that we must…
- Preach the gospel. Regardless of what your other aims are, the wedding is an excellent opportunity to speak about Jesus and plant that ‘gospel-seed’ in people’s hearts.
- Personalise the wedding sermon around the couple’s courtship and relationship. This is the most important thing I learnt from Dominic. I find out as much about the couple’s courtship as I can, especially details like first impressions, how they first starting dating, funny stories, engagement stories, how they’re different etc. Then I weave their story into the main idea of the Bible passage and use their story as an extended introduction to the idea of the passage. This is quite a lot of work, especially initially. I do it via email. I ask the couple the same set of questions and get them to email me back detailed answers separately (it’s more fun if they don’t show one another). Then I do the hard work of integrating the relevant bits into the sermon. Sure it’s more time and effort, but I see it as my personalised gift to the newlyweds. Also be assured that you’ll have all of the congregation still with you when you bring their attention to how this story (of the couple) relates to a bigger story (of the gospel).
- Did I mention, keep it short?