A plea for balanced preaching

When I leave a church service, I ask myself the question: Which part of me need I not have brought here today?

Nearly thirty years ago Stuart Briscoe, the veteran preacher who seems to have discovered that 85 is the new 45, referred to this comment from Donald English. He went on to talk about preaching to the mind, to the will, and to the emotions.

I think the question is still valid: effective preaching needs to have a cognitive element (something to think about), an affective element (something to feel), and a volitional element (a course of action to follow).

It seems to me that the story of the reading of the Law in Nehemiah 8 illustrates this. The setting was Jerusalem, following the work to repair the city walls under the leadership of Nehemiah. At the request of the people, Ezra reads – at length – from the Book of the Law of Moses.

Cognitive: preaching to the mind

Nehemiah’s account of the reading notes the work of the Levites who helped the listeners to understand what was being read. Whether this was translation (from Hebrew to Aramaic), or interpretation (here is what this means), clearly they wanted to make sure that the minds of the listeners grasped what was being said.

Effective communication of God’s word does not need to bypass the mind. It certainly does not need to be pitched at a level that can only be reached by neuroscientists or astro-physicists, but it should be presented in such a way that it gives people something to thing about.

Affective: touching the emotions

The listeners in Nehemiah 8 were reduced to weeping. Doubtless they realised how far short of the standards set out in the Law they had fallen. Interestingly, they are told that that particular day is not a day for weeping, but they are to rejoice: in fact, ‘the joy of the Lord will be [their] strength’.

We are emotional beings. We don’t just think, we feel. We are not just head, we are heart. In fact, what we feel can often be more powerful than what we think. Perhaps its a fear of that that leads some of us to be leery of emotions, certainly of emotionalism.

Nonetheless, our emotions are part of us and preachers ought not to be fearful of them. Not that they should attempt to neglect the mind and preach purely at the emotions. There is a difference between an appropriate emotional reaction and being manipulated by a preacher with a repertoire of stories about labrador puppies and kittens!

But we should not regularly be leaving church without having some sense in which our emotions have been stirred.

Volitional: calling for action

Nehemiah 8 goes on to describe what happened on the day after the reading of the Law when various leaders came together for further study. They discovered the long-forgotten instructions about celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles. So they went off to celebrate the feast.

Homileticians tell us that application in preaching answers the questions, ‘So what?’ and ‘Now what?’ Biblical truth is not given merely to fill our heads or even merely to stir our emotions. It’s given to change our lives.

Old Testament prophets don’t restrict themselves to generalisations in their denouncements of sin. Jesus was not content to allow the rich ruler to escape with a general nod in the direction of most of the Law – he put his finger on the specific issue that was keeping him from eternal life. Paul balanced his doctrinal teaching with some very specific instruction on what it means to live out the Christian calling. The anonymous writer of Hebrews followed his ‘since’ with ‘let us’ (see chapter 10).

Simon Vibert (Excellence in Preaching,141). cautions against application that is overly vague and general.

Many preachers fall into the trap of ending their sermon with a general expression such as: “And may God help us to apply this to our lives today.” … a sermon should be applied much more specifically and directly than it often is, so that the congregation are not left wondering how to make personal and specific sense of the sermon in their own lives’.

Preachers will have their particular leaning or their particular blend of these three elements. Some of us are strongly didactic and our people never fail to have their minds stimulated and challenged. Some of us are ‘roll up your sleeves’ types whose listeners are really in doubt about what is required of them. Some of us may be master story-tellers and therapists for whom church is always an emotionally rich experience.

Whatever your strength, work to find a balance. Perhaps as part of your preparation you could ask how each of the three elements will be addressed in your sermon. Just make sure that no one is left justifiably asking the question at the top of the post!


Singing the songs or reciting the sermon?

You may have noticed at the end of church on a Sunday morning people will tend to go out singing the songs rather than reciting the sermon.

One Sunday a few years ago, the BBC broadcast a service from the famous Keswick Convention in the English Lake District. The music was led by modern hymn-writer, Stuart Townend, and the service included several of his songs, including In Christ Alone.

Before leading the congregation in singing that, Stuart spoke for about one minute on the significance of songs in worship, highlighting their teaching function and their capacity to allow us to express our feelings and emotions to God who in turn interacts with us.

He raised a few chuckles when he suggested that people are more likely to leave church singing the songs than reciting the sermon.

You may have noticed at the end of church on a Sunday morning people will tend to go out singing the songs rather than reciting the sermon.

The point is not that sermons should be done away with (the Keswick Convention would be an odd place to suggest that); it’s an observation about the power of music.

Here are a few reflections on this – some for preachers and some for music directors and worship leaders.

For preachers:

  1. Let’s face it: he’s got a point. Have you ever heard someone reciting lines from your sermon in the car park after you have preached for 40 minutes? You may get the odd memorable line or two making an appearance on Twitter; and there may be some people leaving with a page or two of notes (what does anyone do with all those notes, by the way?)
  2. But that does not mean that we do away with sermons). However there is a challenge to us to do what we can to make our sermons more memorable.
  3. Which in turn does not mean you have to arrive in the pulpit having parachuted through the ceiling or driven up the aisle in a Formula 1 racing car; nor does it require you to replace the pulpit with a trampoline. All of these would make the occasion memorable, but possibly not for the right reasons.
  4. It may involve a judicious and creative use of some kind of visuals on the screen. If you are going to use Powerpoint or the like, try to make sure that it supports your message rather than distracting from it.
  5. It may involve the use of stories and illustrations. People who struggle to follow a detailed argument may come alive when you tell a good story. As with visuals, make sure it supports your message. (One of the dilemmas a preacher faces is when there is a great story, begging to be told, but it doesn’t quite fit the sermon.)
  6. Why not make use of a catch phrase or a tag line that accurately reflects the message of the passage you are preaching? You can repeat it several times during your message.
  7. Consider using alliteration or parallelism to outline the main sub-points of your message. For example – Preaching sometimes involves pulpits; Preaching should never include plagiarism; Preaching should always involve power.
  8. Ask the Holy Spirit to use the written word (Bible) to reveal the Incarnate Word (Jesus). Ask him to bring a word for the moment to the listeners’ lives. Ask him to open listeners’ hearts.

For worship leaders and song writers:

  1. Realise the powerful influence you have! Music sticks with people. How many times do you go through a day with a tune buzzing around your head?
  2. Since music is so powerful, make sure you get people to sing songs that are actually worth remembering. It works two ways. Silly, superficial words, set to a catchy tune, stick. Sometimes your dilemma will be that you have to ditch a song whose melody you really like, because its lyrics are not good enough. If some things are worth remembering, others are not.
  3. On the same lines, if you are a song writer, don’t waste your time writing nonsense! Give us things that we need to remember; give us things that will give wings to our spiritual lives.
  4. Remember the difference between songs that work really well at a rock concert, but don’t cut it in corporate worship. Corporate worship means the people sing, not listen.
  5. Writers – you need to write tunes that ordinary, not-terribly-musical people can sing and will remember. Don’t forget that while you can probably pick up a new melody after you have heard it once, some people will need to hear it, be taught it and practice it multiple times before it sticks with them.
  6. Consider working with the preacher to choose songs that will support the theme of what is preached. Even if it doesn’t work for every song in the service, work hard to make sure that the final song will reinforce what has just been preached. For example, if the preaching has focussed the grace and love of the father in the story of the Prodigal Son, why not finish with something like How deep the Father’s Love for us?
  7. If you are a writer, why not set yourself the challenge of writing new material to reflect a series that is being preached in your church. It will stretch your writing skills and it will provide a great resource to your church (and possibly the church wider afield).

(A version of this was originally posted in July 2012.)

Excellence in Preaching (a review)

With the prevalence of podcasting and live streams, it’s possible to listen to just about any preacher you choose.

Which has at least a couple of implications of this for those of us involved in the regular task of preaching in various local congregations.

One is that the people listening to us have experts available to them at the click of a mouse button; which means that it’s possible for the bar to be set at a fairly hight level when they turn up to listen to us.

Another is that, as preachers, we have the possibility of learning from a variety of voices as we seek to find our own.

Simon Vibert sat down to analyse the preaching of a dozen preachers (he acknowledges they are all Western voices) – the kind of preachers who have influenced him. The result is Excellence in Preaching: Learning from the BestHe devotes a chapter to each of preachers, usually analysing a sample of their preaching to highlight what makes them effective and what other preachers can learn from each of them. He includes three other chapters – one a brief introduction to the theme, one on Jesus, the preacher, and a concluding chapter that explores the question of what gives preaching its power.

For the record, here are the preachers he includes and a key feature he identifies in their preaching:

  1. Tim Keller – a preacher who handles the cultural and philosophical challenges to the gospel
  2. John Piper – a preacher who aims to inspire a passion for God’s glory
  3. Vaughan Roberts – a preacher who lets the Bible speak with simplicity and freshness
  4. Simon Ponsonby – an example of a preacher who combines both Word and Spirit
  5. J. John – who uses humour and story to connect and engage
  6. David Cook – an example of what it means to create interest and apply well
  7. John Ortberg – a preacher who works with spiritual formation in mind
  8. Nicky Gumbel – an example of what it means to make much of Jesus Christ
  9. Rico Tice – a preacher who preachers with urgency and evangelistic zeal
  10. Alistair Begg – an example of persuading people with passionate biblical argument
  11. Mark Driscoll – an example of directness, relevance and challenge
  12. Mark Dever – who aims to bring all of God’s word to all of God’s people

The book was was published in 2011 – I imagine that Mark Driscoll may not have made the cut if Simon Vibert had been writing more recently (though he acknowledges some of the controversy around Driscoll at the time of his research). It’s a great idea and there are worthwhile nuggets to be gleaned from his observations. While there is a degree of sameness in that these are all white, Western males, there is nonetheless a variety of styles and even of churchmanship. (I wonder why he didn’t include a chapter on Dick Lucas whom he acknowledges as an important influence).

Further work might be able to elaborate on the similarities and differences between the various preachers in the sample. For example, the book observes Nicky Gumbel’s ability to speak to the wider needs of society (this is highlighted as a lesson for preachers), while the chapter on Mark Dever observes that Dever ‘[offers] little comment on contemporary issues’ (137). Should we follow Gumbel or Dever?

A little nitpick is the author’s habit of referring to each of the preachers by their Christian name – it strikes me as too informal.

Here is what the author says about the measure of good preachers:

Good preachers bring God’s Word alive for today’s world.

And there is this, on power in preaching:

The power of preaching is found in the dynamic interplay of Word, Spirit and the godly preacher’.

The encouragement to preachers is that rather than be intimidated by our congregations’ podcast favourites, we ought to make the investment to learn what we can from others whose ministries testify to their effectiveness as teachers and preachers as Simon Vibert puts it, ‘learning from the best’.

Do you like Christmas?

It’s a bit of a weird question to ask at this time of the year (though it’s almost been cold enough for Christmas): in fact, it’s a slightly weird question to ask anyone at any time of the year, unless his name is Ebenezer Scrooge.

A number of years ago, when I was working with Westlake Church in Switzerland, someone asked me. At Christmas time, too.

Of course I liked Christmas – and still do. In our church we made quite a big deal of it with candles and carols and special radio ads.

Yet this guy asked me if I liked Christmas.

Thing is that apparently the way I spoke in some of the Christmas services you wouldn’t have guessed it. I sounded kind of angry and annoyed. Not at Christmas, mind you, more at the people who were in the congregation.

Like a lot of churches we had people turning up at Christmas who didn’t tend to show up so much the rest of the year. It was great that they came, but somehow my desire to use the opportunity to challenge them about the lack of room for Jesus the rest of the year meant I was coming across a bit angry.

It can be a fine line for preachers. How do you preach to the spiritually careless, especially when you only get one shot at it every 52 weeks? Didn’t John the Baptist tell his brood of snakes they’d better produce fruit in keeping with repentance? It’s hardly being faithful to the gospel to do no more than leave people feeling good about themselves when they’ve basically shut out their Creator. Not that I think we should borrow John’s language, mind you!

The problem is that there is a kind of preaching that leaves people – even the faithful, as they listen week by week – with the impression that they are never good enough and can never do enough. I’m not talking about discouraging self-salvation at this point, it’s more about preachers who feel that their job description is all about challenge. No matter how committed the people are, they ought to do more. No matter how much spiritual progress they are making, they must not rest on their laurels. It’s preaching with a big stick. And it is potentially exhausting.

Why do we do it? Is it because we want to be faithful to God? Is it because of the doctrine of total depravity? Is it because we are fearful and strong words are the best way we know to keep people in line? Is it because we are preaching to ourselves and we are only too aware of our own shortcomings? It can be easier to scold someone else than change yourself!

I preached the other day about grace – or signs that we may not be living in its goodness as a day by day experience. It left people feeling ‘challenged’. I was conflicted about that; for it seems to me that there is something ironic in people going out from listening to a message about grace smarting from a challenge. What kind of grace would that be?

Preaching needs to comfort as well as confront. Too much of one without the other leaves it imbalanced. There is some truth in that old saying that the preacher’s task is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

That seasoned leader, Paul, wanted the Thessalonian church to ‘admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak [and] be patient with them all.’

If your preaching is all about admonishing, you need to add some encouragement.

There is a time to confront and there is a time to comfort. When grace exposes us, it is not to leave us exposed, but to lead us to a place of shelter and restoration.

Think about Jesus and Peter. Breakfast by the lake. The grace that restored Peter first asked Peter the searching question: ‘Do you love me?’

When grace-filled preaching confronts and challenges, it is ready to pour in the comfort of the good news of a Father’s love that comes to us through his Son.

If you’re always scolding, how will your people know that you love them?

Maybe that’s what was wrong with my Christmases.

I don’t remember your sermons but I remember your friendship

Sermon takeaway

A little bit of humour for preachers here. I posted it on my Facebook page today and an old friend from Swiss days commented that he didn’t remember my sermons but he remembered my friendship.

What to make of that?

Two general thoughts:

1: Neither my friend’s comment nor the (tongue in cheek) pie chart should discourage my preaching friends from their task. If you are faithfully preaching the word of God, it  is the word of God. You may not be able to measure the incremental ways God has spoken through your preaching to challenge an attitude, to encourage faith, to speak into a decision that someone in your congregation needed to make. You might not remember the details of every cooked meal you have eaten over the past 30 years, but without those meals, you would not be who you are today!

2: At the end of the day you may not turn out to be one of the 21st century’s great pulpiteers. You may preach few sermons whose content proves to be truly memorable, but your people will remember if you were kind. They will remember if you loved them.

By all means prepare well (it’s Wednesday evening as I write this and the countdown to Sunday is underway): you will serve no one by preaching a badly thought out sermon.

But it could be that, once all is said and done, and you have done preaching, you will be remembered more for the way you related to people than for the splendour of your expositional skill!

Ron Boyd-Macmillan’s 6 elements of great preaching

I’ve written a short summary of Ron Boyd-Macmillan’s book on preaching. In this post I want to outline in more detail what he describes as the six elements of great preaching.

The six elements are drawn from this definition of preaching:

Reaching the whole person, where they live, with the word from above, in love.

  1. The oral test – do I have a central focus? The preacher has to reach the hearers and preaching is an oral event. ‘One of the most basic implications of this is that preachers must be careful to make a singular point in their sermons.’ Boyd-MacMillan suggests that the best piece of advice we will ever receive on preaching is this: ‘Speak up. Keep one focus. Make it memorable. Sit down!’ Apparently the more points a preacher makes to the audience, the more points the audience makes up. If preachers want the audience to get the point, they need to keep to one point or, if they make several points, they need to make sure that these serve the one overarching point.
  2. The experience test – does my sermon enable the hearer to experience the truth I am preaching? It’s about the whole person and not just the mind. The preacher should ask if the sermon that is about to be preached will create in the heart of the listener the thing that the preacher is going to talk about. Will that sermon on the love of God help to produce an experience of the love of God in the listeners?
  3. The reality test – am I describing the real world of my listeners (‘where they live’)? ‘To have credibility, preachers must demonstrate an understanding of the reality in which their listeners live.’ He gives the example of a preacher who was preaching on ‘do not be anxious’ and whose message, in Boyd-MacMillan’s view basically boiled down to effectively telling people to try harder. A preacher has to be able to provide an authentically complex description of reality; provide a genuinely insightful explanation of reality and reframe reality in a way that is biblically liberating. ‘… the preacher has to talk in such a way that the audience feels like they know how to live as a Christian in the real world.’
  4. The exegetical test – am I preaching the divine insight from the Bible (the word)? ‘Preaching ultimately is not merely relating the thoughts of the preacher, but the giving of the time-transcendent word of God as revealed in Scripture.’ It’s always interesting to read how a preacher goes about the work of preparation and under this heading, Boyd-MacMillan gives a window into his method of exegesis. ‘Exegesis begins with being gripped by the passage, and continues with checking that the truth we have been gripped by is in line with the author’s intent.’
  5. The grandeur test – am I preaching the greatness of God and addressing the universal questions of life (the word is from above)? ‘Most preachers do not set out to be trivial, but often they end up giving us coping skills to deal with life, instead of giving us God who is life.’
  6. The tenderness test – do I really love those to whom I am speaking? The preacher has the example of Jesus and his compassion on a crowd who were not merely hungry (they eventually needed to be fed), but were lost (sheep without a shepherd). The preacher needs to know that to see well is to teach well and to love well is to teach well.

While these are the main elements/tests – and they need to be drilled into the preacher – three others are suggested: the foolishness test, the theological test and the persuasion test.

Tim Keller on Preaching

I posted on Tim Keller’s reasons for expository preaching yesterday. Having read the book (well, I didn’t read all the footnotes – and there are a lot of them!), here is a summary.

Overall the book is excellent; and while it will appeal first and foremost to preachers, there is some valuable material on understanding where the culture is and how to engage some of its foundational narratives.

The material is set out in three main sections. The first – Serving the Word – consists of three chapters on preaching the word, preaching the gospel every time, and preaching Christ from all of Scripture.

It’s in the first chapter that Keller discusses the value of expository preaching (see yesterday’s post). Raising the question of how effective expository preaching is likely to be in a culture that resists religious authority (and is not too keen on most kinds of authority), Keller uses Spurgeon’s analogy of defending a lion (just let the lion out). Preachers should invest their energy in preaching the Bible more than describing it or arguing about why people should believe it.

Those who are already familiar with Tim Keller’s ministry may recognise the themes of the next two chapters – on preaching the gospel every time and on preaching Christ from all of Scripture. If the message of the Bible as a whole is ‘salvation comes from the Lord’, and this through Jesus, then a preacher has not finished expounding a text until the text has been set in this canonical context. As Spurgeon said, every town in England has a road in it that leads to London: the preacher has to find the road from text to Christ.

Keller argues that both legalism and antinomianism are enemies of the gospel and that both are healed only by the gospel.

Chapter 3 proposes that ‘the key to preaching the gospel every time us to preach Christ every time.’ This means preaching Christ from every genre or section of the Bible, preaching Christ through every theme of the Bible, in every major figure of the Bible, from every major image in the Bible and from every deliverance story line.

Preaching is not just about the preacher’s responsibility to the word, but must also include the preacher’s responsibility with regard to the audience; so the middle section of the book comes under the heading of Reaching the People. This section also consists of three chapters: preaching Christ to the culture, preaching and the (late) modern mind, and preaching Christ to the heart.

In chapter 4, Keller sets the scene by describing the changing situation of an increasingly secularising Western world. He goes on to suggest six practices for preaching to a culture:

  • Use accessible vocabulary (in other words, avoid the jargon)
  • Employ culturally respected authorities
  • Demonstrate an understanding of doubts and objections
  • Affirm in order to challenge baseline cultural narratives
  • Make gospel offers that push on the culture’s pressure points
  • Call for gospel motivation

Chapter 5 develops the theme of late modernity’s narratives, drawing on the work of Charles Taylor. The argument is basically that before the impact of Christianity, ‘virtually all cultures had a fundamentally impersonal view of the universe.’ Against that, Christianity taught that the universe has been created by a loving God who made people for a personal relationship with him. Late modernity has taken the results of Christian ideas (for example the progress of history, the dignity of individuals) but has cut them loose from their roots. Keller proceeds to work his way through five of these narratives. At the end of the chapter, reflecting on the teaching of Paul on wisdom and his witness in Athens, Keller says that,

The philosophies of the world will come and go, rise and fall, but the wisdom we preach – the Word of God – will still be here.

Chapter 6 rounds out the middle section of the book by discussing how to preach to the heart – not merely the emotions, but the centre of the personality, the centre of someone’s attention and commitment.

What the heart most wants the mind finds reasonable, the emotions find valuable, and the will finds doable.

Preaching has to do more than communicate truth to the mind: it has to make truth real to the heart. Keller proposes several components:

  • Preach affectionately – ‘If you want to preach to the heart, you need to preach from the heart.’
  • Preach imaginatively (the use of illustrations)
  • Preach wondrously – ‘we should always strive to let the wonder sink in’
  • Preach memorably
  • Preach Christocentrically
  • Preach practically

The chapter closes with a number of suggestions on application.

The final main section of the book – In Demonstration of the Spirit and of Power – has just one chapter – on preaching and the Spirit. The chapter underlines the difference between ‘gift operations’ and ‘grace operations.’ In our ‘age of technique’, society has emphasised results, skill and charisma, but neglected character, reflection and depth. Outstanding giftedness may mask the lack of grace operations in a preacher’s life.

You must be something like a clear glass through which people can see a broken but gospel-changed soul in such a way that they want it for themselves.

The whole thing is bookended by an introduction and a prologue at the front and an appendix on writing an expository message at the back. In the appendix, Keller clarifies that he has not written a complete text book on preaching; nonetheless he concludes with a chapter on the ‘how to’ of preparation, which he sums up in four stages:

  1. Discern the goal of the text
  2. Choose a main theme for the sermon
  3. Develop an outline around the sermon theme
  4. Flesh out each point with, among other things, illustrations and practical application.