Category Archives: Preaching
How do we make decisions about what we preach from Sunday to Sunday?
Before sharing how we decide what to preach, it might be helpful to identify who the “we” is. Most of the time I initiate a discussion with Pastor Ryan about what I have in mind, and Ryan gives feedback or offers alternatives. Occasionally, I will ask for input from an Elder or the Elders. The congregation has a role to play in this process, but I will describe their part in a moment.
There are at least eight factors that contribute to how we decide what we preach to the people of Eagle Heights:
We start with the Bible and primarily preach through it, not around it. Because we truly believe the Bible is God’s special and sufficient word to His people, the majority of the preaching we do is through books of the Bible, a section of thought at a time. Do we do some topical exposition? Yes. But the majority of our preaching is sequential exposition to honor what the Spirit has inspired.
We strive to be balanced and Christ-centered. We preach from both the Old Testament and New Testament to show that all the scriptures ultimately point to Jesus as our only hope in life and death.
We strive to be pastoral. This gets back to the role of the congregation that I mentioned earlier. When considering what we might preach through or about, we consider the need of our people. For instance, about two years ago the Elders realized that in order to obey all that Jesus commands (Matthew 28:16-20), we needed to explain carefully and thoroughly Jesus’ commands regarding church discipline in Matthew 18:15-18. You often have to first preach what you practice.
We strive to be sensitive to our calendar context. We live in small city with a major university and so there are some very clear seasons in the life of our church. In the summer when most of our university student members are gone and many families are vacationing, we try to do sermons that can stand alone. For example, we have often used the summer to preach through selected Psalms. This summer we will be preaching through various sections of thought that highlight Christology. We also try to start preaching through books of the Bible when school starts so that our university members have the opportunity to experience the full context. We are not a slave to the calendar, but we try to plan through it with the whole church in mind.
We see societal moments as teachable opportunities. Several years ago there were several undercover videos exposing Planned Parenthood for selling aborted baby body parts. We took that opportunity to preach on the importance of the sanctity of life and the need to oppose those who prey on those who cannot defend themselves. This past year in Charlottesville, Virginia, racist groups rallied to espouse hate, but we used an opportunity for hate to speak about the biblical dignity given by God to all human beings regardless of ethnicity. These opportunities may come unexpectedly so they require some flexibility in our planning.
We embrace hard topics. God’s word does not shrink back from topics that may assault our cultural sensibilities. The Bible speaks to issues like sexuality, purity, divorce, government, judgment, false teachers, etc. When we see the need for it, we carefully and biblically move toward hard topics because the world needs to see that God has something to say about all of life. The world is talking and teaching about these kinds of things, the church cannot afford to run from them and hope they go away. We will plan sermons to deal with difficult passages and topics.
We are repetitive about some biblical topics. Generally speaking, we believe the doctrine of the church is under-explained by local churches, and so we try to teach about what the church is and what we should be doing. Because Satan wants to destroy God’s design for His people, we also emphasize personal relationships yearly. We also devote a month every year to mission and missions for the sake of mobilization and staying outward focused.
We try to plan several months ahead. Pastor Ryan has helped me considerably with this. It used to be that we would pick a book and we were done when we finished it, however long it took. Using biblical resources and the calendar, we try to plan in advance for the sake of scheduling preachers and helping our small groups decide about content (some small groups choose to follow the sermons). This also helps our people to know how many years they should expect to be in a book like Romans.
As you can see, there are many factors that contribute to sermon planning. If you are a member of Eagle Heights, pray for those of us who lead, that we will do what is best for our faith family. If you are a part of another local church, pray for your lead pastor and Elders as they makes decisions about what is best for the people they will give an account for. May God give us confidence that produces patience, trusting He knows what is best for us when we need it most.
Within the first minute of the sermon on Sunday, I was freaking out between my ears. Outwardly everything was normal, but on the inside I was in full panic mode – at least for a moment.
Our time of singing together was coming to an end, so I bent over to pick up my Bible off the chair next to me. Our worship leader began to pray, which was my cue to get ready to preach. While she was praying I slowly walked up to the podium, just as I do most every Sunday, and opened my Bible to organize my Bible, notes and bulletin/information guide.
But something was wrong. I observed that I had both pages of the sermon, but something was missing. Or were things just out of order? Nope, this was a real preacher’s crisis: I could not find my introduction:
Take your Bible and turn to Acts 14 and get ready to turn to Matthew 18
- My name is Brent, I am one of the pastors of this local church
- We are glad you are here and you are welcome to be here, no matter who you are and what you have done
- At the end of this preaching time, we will have a response time – meet us in the back.
- May God’s word move you to embrace God’s people as you surrender to Him, because He surrendered His life for us.
The intro is practically the same every week. It reminds me to introduce myself by name to our guests. It’s how I start every sermon, but it wasn’t there and the worship leader was about to say, “Amen.” What has happened and what am I going to do?
And then I realized what I had done, I had taken a duplicate copy of page two of my notes. In the process of fine-tuning and transferring notes I had two pages of the same notes. I had thrown my introduction away!
Truly, I was having a moment of preaching-panic.
What do I do? Should I just be honest and call timeout and tell everyone what has happened and I need to go to the recycle bin to get my first page of notes? Sometimes people need to know us preachers are human. I could ask them to pray – to pray I find my notes. And by the way, I worked really hard on that introduction. Do I just jump to the notes I do have, surprising everyone with a short sermon?
I have to make a decision. I have to say something. What do I do?
I have already preached this sermon three times to an empty room as a part of preparation, so I could try to preach the first page by memory. I am about to find out if my preparation has been adequate. I decide to go for it.
Here is the link to the sermon audio (A Defense of Church Membership and A Plea for Committed Community) and here is a copy of the first page of my notes:
Take a listen and look to see how I did. I left off a few things and mis-remembered a few references, but all in all, it wasn’t too bad.
What would you have done?
I have been regularly preaching for seven years and this is the first time that has happened and I hope it never happens again.
And by the way, pray for your pastor. He sometimes loses his notes.
We started a new sermon series yesterday and through the first sermon I wanted to communicate that one of the reasons we don’t speak of Jesus and share the gospel with more frequency is because we have a low view of God. We are not amazed by the presence of God.
So from Exodus 3:1-10, the 46th Psalm and Isaiah 6:1-9, I explained and concluded that “in every case, an unsettling encounter with God of awe and wonder preceded mission to others.” And after delivering the message two times, I felt pretty good about it.
Then came Monday morning, and I thought, “Oh no! I hope no one thought this…”
You can hear the sermon by clicking HERE and the sermon series is called Speaking of Jesus.
Here it is. Here is one implication that I would not want someone to draw based on what I meant.
I would not want someone to conclude they need an awe moment, or a regular awe moment to obey! Sometimes people say really strange and unbiblical things like, “I need to pray about whether or not I need to be a part of missions, or whether I need to speak about Jesus to others.” In other words, they spiritualize to excuse their decision not to trust and obey. A person might need to pray for help to do those things in the strength that God supplies, but they surely don’t need to pray about whether they should do those things.
The Bible is clear that some things are the will of God for everybody, and proclaiming the message of Jesus is one of them.
I would be horrified if someone came away from yesterday thinking, “I should wait to share the gospel until I have some sort of close encounter with God. That’s not what I meant or mean.
What I meant to say or want to say is this: Our lack of speaking of Jesus is very likely proportionate to the wonder we have, or don’t have, in response to God. I believe strongly that one of the reasons we don’t speak confidently about Jesus is because we see God as little and not awe-inspiring. People who have true wonder of God and awe for God, tend to be worshiping and obedient people. They tend to be people who delight to praise the God who captivates them.
Another way to say it is that our evangelism problem is a theology problem. Like looking through a microscope, we look at God through the lens of the world and believe God to be little. Instead, like looking through a telescope, we should have have been looking at the world through the lens of God’s word that we might see Him as He really is: BIG!
Not only do we see this in in the three aforementioned passages, but we see it in Acts 2:41-43, as well as, in Paul’s conversion, his thereafter life and his epistles. The example and call to reverence and awe (Heb. 12:28) of God is all over the Spirit-inspired word and I believe it is closely tied to the desire to speak of Jesus regularly.
Amazingly, many of us who claim to be saved by grace through faith in Christ alone, have a low view of God and we are not amazed by the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. Ergo, we don’t speak much of Him. Can that be anything but wrong?
A.W. Tozer wrote, “Low views of God destroy the gospel for all who hold them.” He is certainly right!
One of the most important things a preacher must do is be clear. I clearly wasn’t clear this past Sunday.
I walked into our home on Sunday after preaching Romans 7:13-25 and I was soon asked in a very gentle and loving way, “So you think Paul wasn’t a Christian when he wrote Romans?” I knew then that I had blown it. I clearly failed at being clear and I had created confusion.
(To listen to the Q&A Podcast in which Ryan and I answer questions, click on this link: Q&A From Romans Part XXV)
It never occurred to me (an epic preaching fail) that someone would even consider that I meant to say that Paul was not a Christian when he wrote Romans 7; that Paul was unconverted as he wrote that text in the first person and present tense. Paul wrote Romans more than two decades after his conversion that is recorded Acts 9, which scholars estimate to be around 33 A.D. So again, let me be as clear as I can possibly be.
I believe Paul was a Christian when he wrote Romans 7.
What I was trying to communicate was that one of the interpretations of Romans 7:13-25 was that Paul was writing and portraying his own past struggle under the Law as an unconverted Law-Keeper. The present tense then, would be his attempt to identify with those who have and are experiencing the same struggle under the Law of Moses. If I could summarize my understanding of Paul from this interpretive perspective, it might go something like this: “Before I became a Christian, this is what my life looked like as I tried to live under the Law. I was constantly failing to do that which I knew the Law required of me to be righteous before God. The Law showed me what I should be doing, but without union with Christ by Faith in Christ, and without the Power of the Spirit, I was constantly failing in serving by the oldness of the letter (The Law – 7:6).”
That’s what I meant to try to communicate, and I apologize for any confusion I caused. I was not trying to start a new understanding of Paul.
Having confessed and made an attempt to clarify my textual mismanagement, I now raise a sincere concern. Please receive this. I hope what was clearly right about the sermon was not lost in what was unclear. Whether you hold to the position that Paul was saved, honest and struggling, or whether you hold to the conviction that Paul was portraying his once upon a time story as an unconverted Law-keeper, I hope that all Christians can agree on at least two truths.
First, no one earns righteousness by law keeping and nor can they produce sanctification by their own power. Jesus saves and the Spirit empowers. The wrong use of the Law prevents both.
Second, Romans 7:13-25 should not be used as an excuse to diminish the power of the Spirit to progressively kill sin in our lives. We are in fact a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17) by faith alone, though we groan in expectation of the renewal of all things (Rom. 8:23) when sin and death will be swallowed up in sweet victory by the power of God.
Those were the two points I wanted to make to make a difference in the lives of those who were listening. I hope that which is certain was not lost to that which is up for reasonable debate.
I appreciate all the emails, text questions and face-to-face questions that were the result of sincere concern. They make me a better Christian and preacher and I hope the discussion is edifying to you.
Sometimes Mondays bring clarity. I’m glad for clarity but then I think, “Why didn’t I say it that way yesterday?”
Here’s my summary of the first Psalm: There are two kinds of people in the world and only two kinds. There are the formerly wicked and the wicked.
- There are the formerly wicked. The formerly wicked are now the righteous and blessed by grace through faith alone in Christ. They are a new creation, though sometimes they act wickedly. However, when they do act wickedly (according to the flesh – Gal. 5:16-21) they repent because they have repented of sin and believed in Jesus Christ. They were wicked but now they are righteous and so they are becoming practically what they are positionally, and they do this by gladly obeying the Law of the Lord (Ps. 1:2). And when this reality sinks in for the formerly wicked, they don’t get self-righteous toward the wicked but they invite the wicked to join them in Christ. After all, the formerly wicked aren’t better than the wicked, they just know and trust the only perfect human who ever walked the face of planet earth.
- There are the wicked. The wicked have no righteousness because they have not received Christ by faith. Christ lived with perfect righteousness in our place and then bore sin in our place. Even on their best day, performing their best deeds, they are still wicked because they have no righteousness a part form Jesus Christ. So they are positionally wicked and they therefore act practically wicked. We should not be surprised when the wicked act wicked. Though we ought to be bothered because they need a righteousness that we have in Christ by faith.
There are only two kinds of people in the world. There are the righteous and the wicked, or to say it another way, there are the wicked and the formerly wicked. Every person is in one of these two categories and Jesus Christ is the pivotal and essential difference. Either you trust Him or you don’t. Either you are wicked or you are not. It’s really that clear.
Preaching is not as easy as it may look. I find every week to be a new challenge. The text challenges. The audience is a challenge. My flesh is a challenge, and so on.
It would seem then that this difficult task should be left to the trained and professional preacher.
But how do people learn to preach unless they are given the chance to preach? If only the “experts” preach then who will take their place when they have served their turn?
Additionally, I have written previously why I think it helpful for others to preach. Do You Let Others Preach? You Should!
If preaching is difficult, then how can others learn to preach in a way that benefits both their hearers and their own development as a preacher? How should a beginning preacher learn to preach?
Here is some beginning advice for those who aspire to preach:
- Abide in the text and ask the Spirit to open your eyes to see what the Spirit has inspired for the human author to record.
- Be yourself and ask the Spirit to sanctify your personality that your hearers might see the glory of God in Christ. You are not Matt Chandler, John Piper, Charles Spurgeon, or anyone else for that matter. Your voice and your mannerisms should be uniquely you.
- Have an introduction. The introduction should hook people and tell them where you are going by revealing the big idea.
- Keep it simple. It is better to be simply clear than clever and misunderstood.
- Have structure/outline (points). People need hangers to place ideas. Tell them with repetition what your big ideas are. This will also help them track with you through the text and connect the text to the sermon.
- Sprinkle the sermon with illustrations. Give them mental images that help the hearers understand your big ideas. This will also help keep attention. However, be careful with long and clunky illustrations. You don’t want to detract from the text or to use too much time telling a story.
- Apply each big idea. Make clear from the text what people should think and what they should do (James 1:22). Application is just as much thinking as it is doing. A person can’t do what is right if they don’t think what is right.
- Keep it short. If you are a beginning preacher, never preach longer than the regular preacher. Shoot for 30 minutes max. One of the hardest parts of preaching is editing what might seem interesting and keeping what is crucial to the hearer.
- Articulate the gospel. Don’t assume everyone there knows or is trusting the good news of Jesus Christ. Surely there will come a point in which you can say, “Jesus lived perfectly and took your place, paying for your sins on the cross, rising from the grave to beat sin and death. Surrender your sin to Jesus and trust in His finished and resurrected work.” The sermon is incomplete without this.
- Have a conclusion. Bring the sermon to an end with an illustration and one last application, imploring people to respond to God’s word.
There is much more to preaching but the point is to be personally prepared and to keep it simple so not to be overwhelmed and therefore underwhelm those listening.
I received the following from a person who meant well. I am led to believe that this is from a transcript (more than likely a partial transcript) from a pastor who gave a sermon in Virginia on the socialism of President Obama. Now let’s suppose that someone actually did say what is written below.
I ask, what’s wrong with this sermon? Politics aside – is anything wrong with it? Is this good exposition and creative application? Or is this a complete butcher job?
Good morning, brothers and sisters; it’s always a delight to see the pews crowded on Sunday morning, and so eager to get into God’s Word. Turn with me in your Bibles, if you will, to the 47th chapter of Genesis. We’ll begin our reading at verse 13, and go through verse 27.
Brother Ray, would you stand and read that great passage for us? … (reading) … Thank you for that fine reading, Brother Ray. So we see that economic hard times fell upon Egypt , and the people turned to the government of Pharaoh to deal with this for them. And Pharaoh nationalized the grain harvest, and placed the grain in great storehouses that he had built. So the people brought their money to Pharaoh, like a great tax increase, and gave it all to him willingly in return for grain. And this went on until their money ran out, and they were hungry again.
So when they went to Pharaoh after that, they brought their livestock – their cattle, their horses, their sheep, and their donkey – to barter for grain, and verse 17 says that only took them through the end of that year. But the famine wasn’t over, was it? So the next year, the people came before Pharaoh and admitted they had nothing left, except their land and their own lives. “There is nothing left in the sight of my lord but our bodies and our land. Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for food, and we with our land will be servants to Pharaoh.” So they surrendered their homes, their land, and their real estate to Pharaoh’s government, and then sold themselves into slavery to him, in return for grain.
What can we learn from this, brothers and sisters?
That turning to the government instead of to God to be our provider in hard times only leads to slavery? Yes… That the only reason government wants to be our provider is to also become our master?
Yes. But look how that passage ends, brothers and sisters! Thus Israel settled in the land of Egypt , in the land of Goshen . And they gained possessions in it, and were fruitful and multiplied greatly.” God provided for His people, just as He always has! They didn’t end up giving all their possessions to government, no, it says they gained possessions! But I also tell you a great truth today, and an ominous one.
We see the same thing happening today – the government today wants to “share the wealth” once again, to take it from us and redistribute it back to us. It wants to take control of healthcare, just as it has taken control of education, and ration it back to us, and when government rations it, then government decides who gets it, and how much, and what kind. And if we go along with it, and do it willingly, then we will wind up no differently than the people of Egypt did four thousand years ago – as slaves to the government, and as slaves to our leaders.
What Mr. Obama’s government is doing now is no different from what Pharaoh’s government did then, and it will end the same. And a lot of people like to call Mr.Obama a “Messiah,” don’t they? Is he a Messiah? A savior? Didn’t the Egyptians say, after Pharaoh made them his slaves, “You have saved our lives; may it please my lord, we will be servants to Pharaoh”? Well, I tell you this – I know the Messiah; the Messiah is a friend of mine; and Mr. OBAMA IS NO MESSIAH! No, brothers and sisters, if Mr. Obama is a character from the Bible, then he is Pharaoh. Bow with me in prayer, if you will…
Lord, You alone are worthy to be served, and we rely on You, and You alone. We confess that the government is not our deliverer, and never rightly will be. We read in the eighth chapter of 1 Samuel, when Samuel warned the people of what a ruler would do, where it says “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day…”
And Lord, we acknowledge that day has come. We cry out to you because of the ruler that we have chosen for ourselves as a nation. Lord, we pray for this nation. We pray for revival, and we pray for deliverance from those who would be our masters. Give us hearts to seek You and hands to serve You, and protect Your people from the atrocities of Pharaoh’s government. In God We Trust…
I have recently been spending a few moments learning from Richard Baxter (1615-1691). Dr. J. I. Packer described Baxter as “the most outstanding pastor, evangelist and writer on practical and devotional matters that Puritanism produced.” I have also found him to be a helpful teacher and mentor and this morning I was deeply challenged by this paragraph about the sermon and pride. Baxter writes:
And when pride hath made the sermon, it goes with us into the pulpit, it formeth our tone, it animateth us in the delivery, it takes us off from that which may be displeasing, how necessary soever, and setteth us in pursuit of vain applause. In short, the sum of all is this, it maketh men, both in studying and preaching, to seek themselves, and deny God, when they should seek God’s glory, and deny themselves. When they should inquire, what shall I say, and how shall I say it, to please God best, and do most good? it makes them ask, What shall I say, and how shall I deliver it, to be thought a learned able preacher, and to be applauded by all that hear me? When the sermon is done, pride goeth home with them, and maketh them more eager to know whether they were applauded, than whether they did prevail for the saving of souls. Were it not for shame, they could fin in their hearts to ask people how they liked them, and to draw out their commendations. If they perceive that they are highly thought of, they rejoice, as having attained their end; but if they see that they are considered but weak or common men, they are displeased, as having missed the prize they had in view.
I do believe that the battle to please God rather than people is probably the most difficult sort than any pastor fights. If we seek first to please God, is it not true that God will use us to help people see and seek Him? But if we seek to please or entertain people, then people will see and seek us and not God. Our pride then is not only bad for us but then becomes deadly for others. If week to please ourselves by pleasing people then we will never cease to want. If we seek to please God we will have more than we need.
Preaching looks easy enough. Someone stands up and talks to (or at) a bunch of sitting people, telling them what they need to know and do, and hopefully they use the Bible and mention Jesus and His teachings. If it is a good talk, the preacher shares something new and he yells a little to keep it real.
If only it were that easy.
I’m sure Mark Driscoll isn’t the only one to have said this, but I do recall him tweeting the following words: “Preaching is hard work. It is a man’s work.” My preaching professor was fond of saying: “If you can’t think then you can’t preach.”
I was recently reminded of both of these things when I was asked, along with two other pastors, to share at a meeting how we planned and prepared to deliver a sermon each week. This exercise was probably as beneficial for me as it was for my hearers because it made me think through what I do to prepare each week. I thought maybe it might be beneficial to others who are preaching or who want to preach. Here is what I compiled:
I’M STILL LEARNING AND ADAPTING After two-plus years of regular preaching, I’m still learning to prepare and deliver, and I suspect that will be the truth for the rest of my preaching life.
PERSONAL PREPARATION I can’t take people where I have not been. Do I want people to commune with God and be impacted by the Holy Spirit through the inspired text? Of course I do and so I need it also. I often pray a verse of scripture like Psalm 119:18: “Open my eyes that I might see wonderful things in your law.” Then I ask that I would be gripped and taught by the text I am to preach. I continue by asking that God would give me the humility to be taught as I would want my hearers to be. As I prepare the sermon and preach the sermon, I want to come from the angle that I am not only preaching to others, but that I am preaching to my own heart and mind.
LONG TERM PLANNING We preach through units in books or through the books of the Bible. The conviction behind this plan of preaching is that it is never a bad idea to follow the outline the Spirit inspired. We do at times take excursions away from sequentially working through the book we are preaching through. For instance, on Easter we believe a sermon on the resurrection is imperative. Additionally, as we are working through books we may take on a topic or issue that is in the text. As an example, while working through the book of Acts and coming to chapter eight, we see that Philip was baptizing those who believed (8:12; 8:38). This enables us to focus on, and devote a whole sermon to an important church practice, while maintaining the continuity and flow of Acts.
WEEKLY PREP – HOW IT HAPPENS Before I go to work on the next sermon, I go back and try to learn something from my most recent sermon. On Sunday I will usually ask my wife what she thought about the sermon and what she was able to learn from it. I know my wife will tell me the truth, but with gentleness and love. I will also read her sermon notes. If her notes match my notes, then I know in part I have preached with success because it is evidence that I was clear in what I was trying to communicate.
On Monday I listen to Sunday’s sermon as soon as it is available on podcast. It is a painful experience to listen to yourself, but I value deeply hearing where I can be a better preacher. Doing this is especially helpful in avoiding repetitions that might become distractions. Recently I said in a sermon eight times: “I suggest….” Because I listened to the sermon, I was able to identify that and correct it.
On Monday afternoon I talk to our worship minister and we do a podcast of about 30 minutes based on questions that were submitted in response to the sermon via text message. After we record the podcast we then talk about the coming week. Sometimes we talk more about planning and the various elements of the worship gathering, but we also look at the upcoming biblical text and try to identify a general direction or angle for what we will be preaching through. He sometimes raises questions that he would wonder as a sermon listener. Our discussion doesn’t mean that the focus of Sunday won’t change; it often does to his chagrin. But at least he has an idea of where I might be going with the application of the text.
All week I am reading through the text devotionally at least once a day. I have a wide-margin NASB Bible that I keep notes in and I also carry a small black book (5 x 3 in.) with me wherever I go. Just this week I was on my way to a meeting and a thought popped into my head. I safely brought my car to a stop and jotted down a note for later. Not only do I read the text devotionally, but I also study the text critically. I will do lexical studies and read as many commentaries as I can during the week. Occasionally, in addition to what I have already said, I will have the staff help me by asking them questions about the text during our staff meeting.
By Thursday my goal is to have a rough draft finished. I wish this happened more than it does, but a goal is what it is. The hardest part of sermon preparation for me is synthesizing the sermon (bringing it all together into something that a person can listen to and understand). On Friday my plan is to do nothing that is sermon related. That is a family day, but I am still thinking about the text because by this time I have it roughly memorized. On Saturday and Sunday Morning I am constantly tweaking the sermon and fine tuning it. I try to get to the church on Sunday Morning early enough (6 to 6:30) to preach it before anyone else gets to the building. I then tweak it more, and then I preach it silently in my office before I finally give birth to the finished product.
PREACHING OBJECTIVES – THE STYLISTIC MEANS What am I trying to accomplish with the sermon? What are the means, or styles that I use to fulfill the ultimate goal of having my hearers obey Christ?
Before I give the three that I use, I want to start with a foundation that informs and guides all that I do in preparing the sermon and then delivering the sermon. The foundation is this: “God’s Spirit uses God’s word.” This means ultimately I trust the Spirit to use the word that He inspired. My conviction about who has the power and who does the transforming and what means He uses will drive how I preach and dictate how I use the three styles or means to prepare and deliver the sermon. Who empowers for transformational obedience? The Holy Spirit using the word He inspired. Here are the stylistic categories I try to incorporate as I prepare to preach:
- I want to explain the text. I want to teach the text. I want to show people what the text means and I want to give evidence for how I came to my conclusion. I want to ask questions like: “Would my interpretation of the text offend the human authors?” Because if it offends the human authors that were inspired by the Spirit, then I can know that I have deviated from what the Spirit intended. This also helps me to examine myself to see if I tried to lay my own meaning on top of the text. Explaining the text is very important for a number of reasons, but for me personally there are two that stand out. First, if I show the text means something outside of my subjective desires, then I am establishing the word of God as the objective authority that it should be. I don’t want people thinking something like: “Brent is giving his opinion again.” They may think that anyway, but I want to give them reason to think that my opinion is informed by a devotion to what God says and not what I want God to say. Second, I live in a university town. I therefore preach to people who are mostly used to an academic setting and they are going to want to have the word of God explained. For me, teaching is a contextual necessity.
- I want to keep interest. I want to entertain, so to speak. Just because I teach does not mean that I need to give a dry lecture. As I preach I want to use interesting expressions, ask questions, raise and lower my voice, illustrate truths, etc. Good expositional preaching doesn’t have to be boring. Bad expositional preaching is always boring and God is not boring. Boring preachers are boring.
- I want to persuade. Now I think this might be my weakness, but I do want to plead with people to actually correct their thinking and act in light of that correction. I want to teach people to observe all that Jesus commanded. I want to give people gospel-driven reasons for obeying God’s reliable word. I want to illustrate and broadly apply the text. And sometimes I might give a specific directive. The last thing I want to do is fill people’s heads with some interesting facts and let them feel comfortable or glad that they learned something that they don’t need to do anything about. Jesus has called us to believe with our hearts and minds and act with our lives. I want to persuade the people I preach to, to do both.
PREACHING DIAGNOSTICS So I have established that I have a plan, but what is it that I want to accomplish by explaining, keeping interest and persuading? How do I know I did these things well? Because I might actually do these things well and fail. Here are some of the end goals that I work toward by which I judge my sermon. I ask:
- Did the sermon make much of Jesus, showing Him as the ultimate answer to all things (Ephesians 1:10; Colossians 1:16-17; Hebrews 1:1-4)? Though not every text teaches Jesus, did I show that Jesus is the answer to every text? Did I get to the gospel and show that the gospel is the foundation and informs all of life? Because to be a disciple and make disciples is about all of life. Nothing else matters a part from this truth, but every part of life matters when this truth is established, loved and lived.
- Was I clear with what I was trying to say and mean? I love to probe the text and ask questions. I love to see truths and ideas and applications that I have never seen before. But just because I have a lead or an idea doesn’t mean it is good to preach it. I must guard myself from trying to wow people with something new. If I don’t understand or know what a word or sentence or paragraph means and I try to teach it, I can be sure that my hearers won’t understand because I don’t fully understand. And worse case scenario, I may tell them something that is not true. If I see something but I am not sure about whether I should say it, then I shouldn’t say it, and I should back up to what I can say with certain clarity. Am I clear? I need to be as clear as I can be. Confusion is not a fruit of the Spirit.
- Did I say what I said in love? Was I loving to those I preached to? This is a question that I have begun asking myself on a regular basis. How is this sermon helping someone obey Christ? I define Love as doing what is best for others. So how then are my words beneficial to those who hear them? Now this does not necessarily mean saying what others want to hear. I believe it was Tim Keller who said that the job of a preacher is to: “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I want to encourage, edify and comfort, but I don’t want to preach a K-Love sermon that lets people be fine with a lethargic and status quo “Christian” life, when Jesus has called us to urgent action for the glory of God and the sake of the perishing nations. By the way, I have to preach this to myself a lot.
So this is the short of my preaching prep. I have many people to thank for helping me learn to preach and I have much left to learn. I am no expert in preaching, but I do know that preaching is not easy. It is hard work and I won’t be useful at it without a plan to do it and a plan to get better. Maybe my preaching journey will help a few people along the way to be the preachers God would have them be.
After Two Years, I Am Obviously Still Learning To Preach
Yesterday, I ambitiously tried to do too much. I tried to preach Acts 6:8 through 7:60. That is 71 verses. Am I crazy? Probably, but my intention was sane. I wanted to give the whole story of Stephen’s trial and speech so not to shred the context and muddy the argumentation. I wanted people to see the whole story of the Holy Spirit working in the life of Stephen to be a gospel witness for sake of Jesus.
Do to the amount of text I took on I also had to jettison several parts of the sermon to be able to finish. When I got to 7:44, I essentially hit overdrive to finish. I looked at the clock and thought about stopping, but there was no rest place at that point in our journey. I wanted to finish and I wanted to finish it all.
But in the process of lightening the sermon to expedite its conclusion, I had to gut the strongest part of the sermon. I had to remove explanation and illustration and application. So what will I do? I am going to go back and pick up at verse 44 and go through 60 and drill down on that which I treated superficially. There is too much goodness and help not to treat the text as thoroughly as it deserves. All scripture is God-breathed and useful.
So what’s the takeaway? I am learning a hard lesson about preaching: “I can’t say everything.” I have a tendency to often want to over-explain things, and what sometimes happens is a loss of clarity.
Reflecting on Acts 6:8-7:60
Here are some applications and questions from the sermon as I reflected on the text for my own edification:
- It is sometimes the most devout and pious religious people who really reject God and His word (The Law). The fathers rejected God and so now their “religious” children are doing the same. The Law (Torah) points to Jesus (Eph. 1:10).
o How am I guilty of being so religious and rigid that I reject Jesus?
- God blesses people not places. If it looks like He blesses places it is because He blesses people in a place, but not because of the place. Almost every instance sighted by Stephen of God blessing those in the Old Testament is away from the “Promised Land.” The temple became and idol. A relic. A charm. Jesus said in John 4 that true worshipers will worship in Spirit and In Truth, not in this place or that.
o Have I idolized a building or thing that God meant as a means to point me to Him through Jesus?
- God is a patient pursuer of people and He will eventually give them what they want – even themselves and their sin.
o Do I really want to worship myself? Romans 1:24-25
- Stephen is full of the Spirit. He is bold, calm, respectful, biblical, wise, opposed. He is like Jesus, with his eyes fixed on Jesus, right up until his death.
o Am I like Stephen? Or am I like the religious leaders?
- People make disciples. It is impossible not to pass ourselves on to others – whether good or bad. Acts 7:51
o Am I passing on to those I love, Spirit-empowered obedience or Spirit-resisting idolatry?