Blessed Are The Critics

Shifting my weight from foot to foot, with all the uncertainty befitting a novice, I said goodbye to the faithful as they exited “the Chapel.”¹ I was dazed in the manner that every preacher is, five minutes post benediction – when you can’t compute where you are or quite how you got there.

I extended a sweaty hand to anyone feeling generous. What entered my grasp however was not a hand, but a note.

The stranger instantly scarpered, leaving me to uncrumple the curious parchment. In seconds I had read her raggedly written review:

“Too many points. Your headings – not distinct enough. You need to put in FAR MORE effort before you preach!” 

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For patently obvious reasons, that feedback has stuck in my unsticky memory. Yet on countless other occasions (‘at many times and in various ways’!) my sermons have been on the receiving end of critique.

What shall we say then?

Jars Of Clay

Let’s start by readily admitting that our sermons are often worthy of criticism. We’re not trying to get things wrong (indeed we’re all too aware of a stricter judgement upon bible teachers). But inevitably and often, we do fall short of the expository mark. It may be factual mistakes, interpretative errors² or some lack in clarity or delivery.³ God’s Word is perfect – his human messengers, not so much! 

Effusive praise of sermons then is almost always unwarranted  (praise is not the same thing as encouragement).  It’s probably also the case that many sermons aren’t as bad as some critics attest. The two common categories – ‘brilliant’ or ‘bad’ – are a far too frequent comment in the aftermath of sermons. In most evangelical churches, most sermons are faithful but fallible attempts to proclaim God’s gloriously infallible word. It is by God’s astounding grace that he uses such weak and feeble instruments as human preachers.

The Blessing Of Critics

So how might a sermon-critic be a blessing to the preacher of the word?

To begin with, they not only aid the herald’s preaching (sometimes); they encourage their sanctified progress  (always). How an expositor responds to criticism reveals not just the condition of their sermons, but their hearts. Pride, people-pleasing and placing my identity in ministry, are often graciously exposed when I chafe at a critical comment upon my preaching. Whether the critic is right or wrong is – in one sense – immaterial. What emerges from the sewer of my heart is often far more telling! 

Second, critics play their part because they help me assess the people to whom I am preaching. Biblical preaching is unchanging in content – but the context into which we preach is particular and variable. I need to know who I am speaking to. And for that, I need to listen. This means not just hearing feedback from the most theologically knowledgeable members, but from the average punter in the pew. Are they able to follow me? Is my preaching connecting with them?  (And if not, why not?). 

Further, when the same criticism comes from multiple people, my ears  tend to prick up. If a handful of people thought that illustration was unhelpful – or if several tell me that my conclusion went ’round and round’  – I will usually take that to heart and seek to learn from it.

I also try to bear in mind that when someone disagrees with an aspect of my sermon, they are not necessarily disagreeing with all of it! There’s a difference!

Building Up, Not Tearing Down

If we are the givers of feedback, how can we do it wisely?

a) I think it’s generally unhelpful to give strong critique in the immediate aftermath of a message. The preacher has just preached his soul out. In most cases, they have given God and the church their very best offering. They are exhausted, vulnerable and, don’t forget, human. It’s  good to bear this in mind if we’re planning on speaking the truth in love!  If we  offer critique, we should ensure that we say some positive things as well (if there are any!).

b) It’s worth considering too whether a criticism that could be given, always should be given. The wise parent will not ‘pick up’ on every infraction of a child. They know that there are times to cover over sin – for wisdom’s sake and sanity. And there are also times to check it. An overly long sermon conclusion, for example, may be a characteristic pattern – or it may just be a bad day at the office! A one-off story that seems to paint the preacher a bit too favourable might be the beginning of a pattern, or it may be just a one-off.

c) Be stronger in critiquing the substance of a message than the style. Not that style is unimportant but it is often linked to personality and preferences. We might not like non-linear sermons, without clear development of logic. We might struggle with preachers who are somewhat more Johanine than Pauline in their approach. But as long as the preacher is faithful to Christ and the text, we should critique their style farless than their substance. After all, we’re trying to encourage preachers; not create an army of ‘expository clones’! 

d) Pre-sermon feedback is even better than after the fact. Critique afterwards cannot improve the sermon preached! But evaluation before can lead to adjustments. This being the case, I often let my wife pre read my sermons. I also tend to’ ‘talk through’ my message with several other people during the week.

e) We need to examine our hearts when we’re giving critical feedback. Why are we doing it? Is it out of love for the person? Is it fortheir good and the congregations? Or am I trying to look clever, to put the preacher in his place, or avoid the challenge of the sermon?

The Feedback That Matters Most

There is a kind of feedback that we never ought to listen to. It’s that call to change the message because it seems too hard, too miraculous, too out of step with culture, or too narrowly exclusive. If the preacher preaches God’s Word, not everyone will want to hear them – and criticism will come. Yet we mustn’t see everyone as a devil who seeks to lovingly and truthfully critique!

And never forget too, that while we work hard at our sermons, we are not justified by them. The perfect homiletical construction never saved our soul, or anyone else’s. Sticking to Jesus and his word, the gospel in the Spirit’s power, is what will inevitably bring about the increase.


¹ Charlotte Baptist Chapel in Edinburgh.

² No less than Mark Dever tweeted this week that one of his elders picked him up on some interpretive errors he made in a sermon regarding John the Baptist. https://twitter.com/MarkDever/status/1168577165459431424?s=19

³ I once said in a sermon something along the lines of “God intends to harm you”, when I actually had meant to say “Satan.” In the context of what I’d been saying, it was hopefully clear to the congregation what I had meant. They were gracious. (And I only found out afterwards from my wife!)

Entering The Storm

I’m both daunted and excited to have begun a 6 part sermon series on Job with my church. These studies are likely to be moving, thought-provoking, but above all, I pray,  faith-strengthening. Here are some thoughts to help orientate us as we approach this book of darkness and storm.

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1. Job was a historical individual. Ezekiel and the New Testament say so (Ezekiel 14:14, James 5:11).

2. Job is highly poetic but it isn’t a parable. Like the flood account in Genesis, the description is highly stylised but the events are real.

3. The aim of Job is to equip God-fearers and God-trusters to go on fearing and trusting him when calamity comes. When they do so, this is wisdom (Job is part of the wisdom genre of bible books).

4. There are three main parts to Job: prose A (ch 1-2), poetry (ch 3 – 42:6), prose B (ch 42:7-17). The poetry reflects the long, emotional wrestle with suffering. It is long, because suffering isn’t easily untangled. The prose, though short, gives the context to the poetry.

5. The glimpses into the heavenly court (in ch 1 & 2) give the reader a key insight into things unseen. But these heavenly events are a mystery to Job. Key point: WE SHOULDN’T EXPECT TO KNOW THE REASONS FOR EVERYTHING WE SUFFER.

6. God is ultimately sovereign over all things. Satan is accountable to him and must ask for permission to harm Job. The Bible doesn’t present a Star Wars universe, but a cosmos in which God reigns over all things.

7. God’s ultimate control does raise some hard questions (eg. can God permit suffering and still be said to be good?). But let’s be clear on what the Bible insists in Job and elsewhere:

  • God is not the author of evil
  • God is good in all he does
  • God is able to superintend evil actions for his glory

8. What is more comforting: to think that God is not in complete charge, or to know that he is sovereign over every event and circumstance – even the most calamitous?

9. The heart of the book of Job is the question raised by Satan: does Job fear God for nothing? (1:9). The big question in Job is whether God is worthy of worship of fear, trust and love simply for being who he is.

10. Are we loyal to God only when he gives us what we want?

11. Little did Job know that his sufferings on earth was winning God a great victory in heaven over the forces of evil! Who knows what our sufferings are achieving in God’s purposes. Just because we cannot see a good purpose, doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

12. Connections between Jesus and Job should be obvious: Jesus was the blameless/innocent sufferer – there was no one else like him on the earth. Satan and evil men afflicted him but it was God’s sovereign plan. When afflicted, Jesus trusted and feared the Lord without sinning.

13. One more point (since informed by Job, we don’t believe in ‘luck’): The stoic faith and worship of chapters 1 and 2 need to be seen alongside the harrowing cries and darkness of Job’s lament in chapter 3. Don’t think it is easy to trust God in the storm. But it is possible.

Questions to the Preacher #1 – Did the Trinity Rupture At The Cross? :

THERE IS ONLY ONE GOD

Let’s start with the basic answer: no, the Trinity did not rupture at the cross. While the Bible makes astonishing claims about Calvary, it never goes so far as to state that there was a fundamental breach within the Trinity. If we think about it – metaphysically and logically – it is impossible for the Father and Son to be divided in their ‘being’. There is only one God, which means you cannot split the Godhead apart, any more than you could divide up your body and still have one unified entity. A fundamental breach of the eternal union between Father and Son would mean the discombobulation of the universe!

NO CIVIL WAR

Another way we might err is in imagining that the Father and Son are at war on the cross. Yet the cross is not – if I might use a pop-culture reference – “The Trinity: Civil War.”  Scripture is clear that to redeem a lost world, the Father and Son were united in loving purpose  (Luke 22:42, John 5:19, John 10:18, John 17:20-23). To quote the erudite John Calvin: “There is no suspicion anywhere in the New Testament of discord between the Father and the Son, whether by the Son wresting forgiveness from the Father or by the Father demanding a sacrifice from unwilling Son…On the contrary, their wills coincided in the perfect self-sacrifice of love.” ¹

THE WRATH WAS REAL

Notwithstanding all the above, we affirm that Jesus did however experience a genuine sense of God-forsakenness. The word experience here is important, for some will argue that the unbreakable eternal union between Father and Son excludes the idea that Jesus experienced God-forsakeness. But to the contrary, the sheer strength of biblical language suggests a true degree of anguish. To be “smitten by God” (Is 53:4), to be “crushed” (Is 53:11), to “become a curse for us” (Gal 3:13) and “made sin” (2 Cor 5:21), all imply an experience of anguish and horror that is not just a legal fiction. Furthermore, Jesus’ reaction when he contemplated drinking the cup of wrath  (Mat 26:36-46) should tell us all we need to know about the genuineness of his anguish.

HUMAN SUBSTITUTE

A final thing that will help us is if we can gain a better understanding of Christ’s person and role. Thoughtful bible-readers have long spoken of Christ as being one person, having two distinct natures (divine and human).² These natures cannot be divided, but they can be distinguished. Applied to the cross, we could argue that the forsakeness pertains primarily to the human nature of Christ. Of course, Christ’s divinity and humanity cannot be divided – so it would not necessarily be wrong to say that “God [in Jesus] was forsaken on the cross.” However, the point I’m making is that Jesus is being forsaken as he suffers in our place as a human representative. God for sakes Christ Jesus, the man who represents us as the mediator between God and sinners.³ This is not to say that Christ’s divinity wasn’t crucial for redemption’s accomplishment; only that Christ’s rejection by God was due to him adopting our human nature.

IN MY PLACE CONDEMNED HE STOOD

So in summary, the eternal Trinity did not rupture on the cross. That would be metaphysically impossible and theologically incoherent.  At the same time the forsakenness Jesus experienced on the cross was real. God the Son took on human flesh, and for a hellish moment in history, the Father turned his face away from the sinner’s representative.

 

¹ Quote in John Stott, The Cross of Christ, p151).

² ” So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God, and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.” (Westminster Confession, Ch 8.2)

³ Notice that Psalm 22 is not cast in the form “My Father, my Father, why have you forsaken me”, but “My God, my God”, since it is Jesus in his position as human representative who is experiencing the God-forsakeness. Similarly in Isaiah 53 there is an emphasis on the humanity of the servant (Is 53:2-4).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why preaching MIGHT be a walk in the park

pexels-photo-730894Some of my sermon preparation doesn’t look like preparation.  In all honesty it can look rather like walking.

I’m doing this more and more: going for a gander, Thursdays, in a verdant country park. Among the dog walkers and grounds maintainers, there I am wandering the paths of Pollok.

To the uninitiated, I look like a man on a morning stroll. I might be noticed to be glancing at my phone, or muttering under my breath, but the true purpose of my walk is probably obscure.

What I’m actually doing is biblical meditation. Having read myself full on my subject, I’m looking over my notes¹ and starting to wrestle. This is like the part in the baking process where the dough is being kneaded. The ingredients are all there, but before you can bake the finished product, you need to ‘work’ them.

This is where I’m especially praying for insight. “Lord, help me see what you’re saying to us through this text!” “Father help me apply this – to myself and to others.”

This is where I’m asking questions. What is the central truth I need to communicate? What will be the sermon’s structure? What will be the order, the flow of the message?

And after I’ve asked these questions, I ask even more questions.  How might I introduce all this? What needs to be explained, and what doesn’t? What does it say to the young, the old, the sad, the joyful, the encouraged, the discouraged, the believer and the unbeliever?

  • I churn. I ponder. I ruminate. And as I mull things over, a conflagration of things start to happen. They don’t come in a particular order. They just emerge, somewhat at random, from my mind.
  • I see the point I really must start with.
  • I glimpse a “connection to Christ” that makes my heart sing.
  • Proportions start to emerge – I see what is significant, and what might be less so.
  • Lines from hymns come to me.
  • I’m reminded of an incident from my own life that illustrates a point in the passage.
  • I remember a book that has a great section on this topic.
  • I see a connection between something happening in this week’s news and the text.
  • I think of a person in the congregation for whom a certain point may be close to the bone.
  • I think of another for whom a certain verse will be a particular comfort.
  • Then suddenly, a flash of creativity. A phrase comes – a powerful way to capture the whole sermon.
  • A ‘way in’ to the talk comes to me, or a structure that seems to be simple and unforced. (This is the 1% of inspiration that accompanies the 99% perspiration!)
  • I pause and praise God! The help of his Spirit!

As I return to my office an hour later, it may look like I’ve gone for a walk.² What has really transpired is an important stage in my sermon prep. I have thought the sermon over in my own mind. I have started to build a bridge between study and sermon. When I sink back into my chair, I’m ready to write a sermon plan. As I return to my blank screen I now have something to write. I have direction! The embryo of a sermon!

¹ The notes compiled from my exegesis and commentary reading on a Tuesday and Wednesday.

² As an alternative in colder months I either wander up and down the church aisles, or stand and write on the whiteboard as I meditate upon the passage.

30 Minutes Or Less: Why Less Is Sometimes More


In the last church I served I often preached for 45 minutes. One time when I fell short of that mark a dear brother encouraged me to “give us a little more.” From that point onward, I frequently did.

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Now just for the record, I’m not against 45 minute sermons. I’m not against them, any more than I’m against a 60 minute preach; or one that’s done and dusted in 20 flat. Despite what people tell you there isn’t a rule about sermon length.

What needs to be applied is wisdom – something that is always more complicated than law. There are a nexus of considerations  (the cultural context, the preacher’s ability, the passage – to name but a few) that may be factors in deciding what duration might be edifying.

But let me come totally clean. Since returning to Glasgow, I’ve reduced my time in the pulpit. I preach for around 30 minutes. OK, sometimes it’s more like 35 (I’m verbose), but I do try to manage it.

Now depending on your perspective, that either sounds painfully long or restrictively short. I can say with some confidence, that there is a desire in our church to hear God’s Word. But I also think we value preachers getting to the point.

Not waffling is seen as a virtue. Tangents are seen as a vice. Overwhelming the listener with verbosity is not the goal of regular preaching.

So how have I (and the church?) benefitted from me preaching shorter sermons?

Less intrusive intros

Back in days gone by, I could have spent 5 to 7 minutes on an intro. These grand sermon entrances took oodles of time to construct. They were the most time consuming part of my  sermon prep, yet they arguably added little to my message.

In some cases, they may have even been a distraction. (Do extended intros perhaps subtly give the impression that there is something more interesting to say than what is in the text?). Though I still see the value of introductions, I now follow ‘the one paragraph or two’ rule before getting to the sermon body.  Intros should introduce, not intrude upon the message! 

Commentating less, summarising more

Some of my past sermons probably sounded like a verbal commentary. Though I’ve never preached ‘verse by verse’, I’ve often been explanation heavy. The background would need to be unpacked. The details  would have to be analysed so that we would know as much about the passage as humanly possible.

Of course I still believe that context matters, and I am sold on examining some of the details in the text. But having less time to preach has forced me to prioritise. And I’m learning from experience that not everything needs to be explained. Nor is everything equally important. In fact, the big truths of a passage can sometimes be lost in our comprehensive commentary!

Less controversy

Because of the shortage of time there is little scope for excurses into controversy. Don’t get me wrong: I sometimes take 5 minutes on a difficult matter. If the issue is important enough, I will lay out different interpretive views and then explain my own. But with many bible passages this is just not possible. When recently I preached on Revelation 11 I found that almost every verse was disputed! You can’t in 30 minutes get into the thick of every issue.

The upside, however, is that sermons don’t get stuck in an interpretive quagmire. At the end of the day we are preaching passages, not debating them. If I want to say more about an issue, I may encourage people to ask me questions afterwards.  I might recommend a book or maybe write a blog post!

More application

You’d assume that preaching for longer would guarantee more sermon application. But this isn’t always the case. I actually reckon I’m taking more time these days in showing the passages’ significance. Better summary and selectivity leaves more space for the ‘so what’ question.

As I recently listened to some of my favourite bible teachers, I was surprised by how much time they spent applying. Part of the blessing of gifted preachers is that they explain things concisely. They leave enough space to show the relevance of the text. Application, paradoxically, is something that shorter sermons may help us do better.

Unwrapping Revelation

I’m having a rather strange afternoon and an even stranger Christmas. While Christmas lights twinkle in the corner of my eye, my head is stuck in commentaries on Revelation.

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It’s not normally what I do in the month when Christmas jingles hum away in the background. It’s just that we’re planning to preach Revelation in the first half of 2019.

Given the magnitude of the material, I’m doing a ‘tad’  more than usual in forward prep.

So for those who might be interested (and hopefully that’s every Bible reader!) let’s see if we can ‘unwrap’ Revelation just a little. This book is one of God’s greatest gifts to the church!

Reading Revelation Well

1. Our conviction should be that Revelation is just that – a revelation (or disclosure) from God. Thus while some things are hard to interpret, Revelation does not present itself as an impenetrable book. God is not trying to bamboozle us. 

2. Allied to the first point,  the major themes of Revelation are mainstream. Its big ideas aren’t novel. Or quirky. One could could even argue that Revelation is a summary and climax of  Biblical story and  doctrine. Creation; divine sovereignty; Christ’s death, resurrection and return; the overcoming of evil; the victory of the church; the final judgement and new creation – these are not exactly new themes! It’s true they are presented in an unusual and climactic form. But behind the strange imagery is glorious old Bible and gospel. 

3. The overall purpose of Revelation (to present suffering believers with a vision of God’s purposes that will sustain them to remain faithful to the Lamb) must constantly be borne in mind. Without this purpose anchoring us Revelation quickly becomes academic and speculative. Worse still,  a little knowledge of Revelation can translate (and inflate!) into a big head. So we read Revelation for kudos, to impress our friends with our ‘eschatology’ (see how I wowed you with that big word?).

Yet Revelation isn’t designed to grow our ego. It is meant to enliven our faith, strengthen our perseverance and enrich our worship. 

4. Revelation combines three ‘genres’ from a literature standpoint, and each of these genres is significant.

Remembering that Revelation is a letter will keep us from de-historicizing it. 

Remembering that Revelation is an apocalypse will keep us from over-literalising it (it is highly symbolic, though the symbols do have reference reality).

Remembering that Revelation is prophecy will keep us from de-supernaturalising it (it is God’s word spoken into the present and future).

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5. Whatever interpretation approach we lean to (there are at least four main ones), there is probably some truth in each of them.

Clearly, parts of Revelation need to be seen in light of their first century background (Preterist). There are undoubtedly many predictions about the future (Futurist). Revelation does have applications to every age of church history (Historicist – though I do not think Revelation is prophesying the entire church age). And yes,, there are certainly big ideas that are meant to instruct the church (Idealist).

This is not to suggest that we should minimise  differences between interpretations. It is only to say that they shouldn’t be presented as entirely separate options. For myself, I am probably a blend of Preterist, Idealist and Futurist perspectives. Yet I think that any of these approaches, taken to an extreme, can restrict and skew the correct interpretation of certain passages. We must let the text lead us to whatever it leads. 

6. The structure of the book is difficult to discern, but we can certainly note the letter’s opening and closing, the introductory vision and letters (ch 1-3), the opening vision of God’s throne (ch 4-5), the visions that focus largely on God’s purposes being worked out in destruction (6-20) and in a new heaven and new earth (21-22).

There is a growing consensus that chapters 4-5 are something of an introduction to the following visions. They establish the hidden spiritual reality of God’s sovereignty in creation, redemption and judgement. In the rest of Revelation, we see God through Christ bringing to pass his sovereign purposes. It is also often argued that the number 7 is significant in the book’s structure. It may be that the book has seven or even eight sections (among others, Revelation scholar Greg Beale argues this). 

7. The order of the book is not entirely chronological. As is true in other apocalyptic writings, Revelation seems at times to ‘spiral’. There is a cyclical nature to it. The ‘end’ seems to come more than once in the book! Rev 11:15-20 seems a particularly clear example of the final end of history. Yet the visions and the book continue! 

8. The Old Testament is an interpretive key to Revelation. There are more than 400 Old Testament ‘allusions’ (not quotes) in the book. It is important that we don’t simply guess at what the images in Revelation may mean. We should ask: where have we seen this image before in the Bible? (eg. The vision of Christ in Revelation 1 uses images largely drawn from the book of Daniel). 

9. We should interpret the text symbolically (not literally) unless shown otherwise. This is a highly significant choice in terms of interpretation. Some readers take the opposite approach: they assume a literal interpretation unless they are forced to interpret symbolically. 

Everyone accepts that there is at least some symbolism in Revelation. For example, everyone recognises that the slain lamb is symbolic of Christ, and not an actual lamb. Yet more literal interpreters refuse to recognise that most of the book is symbol-laden. 

In my opinion, this literal approach fails to recognise the genre. We wouldn’t read poetry in a rigidly literal way. Nor should we do so with apocalypic/prophetic material. 

Note: Recognising symbolism is not the same as saying that there is no literal meaning beneath the symbol. Christ isn’t a physical lamb, yet the image has real meaning (he was slain as our perfect substitute sacrifice).

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10. There will inevitably be some points of disagreement when it comes to understanding Revelation. Some see much of Revelation as being fulfilled in a coming tribulation at the time of Christ’s return. Some discern a future millennium period when Christ will return on earth. Others see none of these things.

We need to lay out alternative views respectfully. We need to argue our own position, and recognise the points of agreement where we can.

This is where the Idealist approach can prove helpful. People of different end times convictions can still rejoice in the overarching thought of Christ’s reign (Revelation 20), or speak of the need to persevere through trials and tribulations, or agree that (however it will happen) Christ is coming again. 

I heard of a seminary professor who totally disagreed with the Left Behind books. Despite his reservations, he wasn’t that bothered that his kids were reading them. He would share his different views if they asked, but was happy that they were growing in their longing for Christ’s return.

11. At the end of the day, this is difficult stuff. We’re not going to get all of it right. We need to be humble about the conclusions we reach.

But we also need to see that much (even most?) of Revelation isn’t controversial.

The Lamb wins.

Surely we can all agree on that and be encouraged! 

 

Challenging a preaching orthodoxy that may not be (quite) right

It’s absolutely wrong to ‘rank’ books of the Bible. But if I were to do so (just hypothetically) Philippians would be in my top three.

I love the letter of Philippians. Over years of following Jesus, God has encouraged me through it time and time again. This buoyant epistle has restored my joy. It has rebuked my stubborn pride and helped me regain my focus.  This letter has revealed so very much of Jesus, and the manner of life I’m called to in him.

Yet preaching the book of Philippians is another kettle of fish. This letter (IMO) is not easy to preach. In preparing notes recently for our preaching team, I was reminded of the scale of the challenge. Philippians may only be 4 chapters (and 109 verses) long, but summarising it is no mean feat.

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Speaking of main themes, it’s become a hardened dogma in many preaching circles to insist upon identifying one. Every sermon we’re told should have ‘a big idea’, and every book of the Bible should be studied till it yields one.

These big ideas of books, incidentally, have fast become an ‘interpretive orthodoxy’ all in themselves. So Romans (as we all know) is about the gospel. Exodus is about redemption. Hebrews is about sticking with Jesus. And 1 John gives us tests of assurance.

Of course sometimes these big ideas are challenged. A few years ago, I heard a preacher quite persuasively argue that the theme of 1 John is not the testing of assurance. 1 John was written to reassure believers. It is not so much an exam to be passed, as it is the test results!

To a great extent, I don’t have a quibble with these sorts of summaries. I believe in the notion of authorial intent and reject the idea that there are an infinite range of meanings to texts. I’m not convinced that we should all be ‘finding different things’ biblical material; it seems to me that many Bible books do have a rather obvious theme.

And when applied to sermons individually, I agree with Mark Dever that normally “the point of the passage should be the point of the sermon.” From a communication perspective we might also add that sermon unity often aids listener clarity.

My question, however, is whether such unity is always present.  To use Dever’s terminology, can we always isolate the point of the text?

I would argue that this can’t always be the case.

Take our uninspired communications as an example. When I text message a friend, I may be communicating one idea (“I’ll see you at 7”). But in a longer communication I will often intend to communicate multiple ideas. The email to a friend might be designed to: 1) cheer them up, 2) give them my news, and 3) offer a piece of advice.

Now if (for some unlike reason) future generations were to stumble across my email, they might surmise that one of these purposes was my main point. But I can tell you now I was actually trying to convey three things. Each point had similar weight and value in my mind.

To further the argument, I return to my recent forays into Philippians. Philippians is a particularly difficult letter when it comes to the elusive ‘big idea.’ The trouble arises partly because Paul is not writing primarily with a doctrinal or ethical purpose (Philippians is a thank you letter). It is also questionable whether we can confidently identify a theme verse or central passage in the letter (though people will make their case for 1:27-30, or 2:1-11, or 4:10-20). There are a number of repeated ideas in Philippians, but are these necessarily the main idea? (eg. I don’t think Philippians is just a letter about joy).

The confusion continues when we turn to the commentators. While there are shades of overlap, there is a surprising range of opinions about the letter’s core-theme. So depending who we read, Philippians is about:

  • the gospel of Christ and the community of Christ (Walter Hansen)
  • a letter of friendship, emphasising the gospel, the Trinity, Christ and eschatology (Fee)
  • standing firm in gospel unity and following role models (St Helen’s Philippians notes)
  • unity, opposition, eschatology and the person of Jesus Christ (Motyer)
  • multiple purposes – 6  (O’Brien)
  • “manifold”: warning against error and encouraging them in the face of pagan opposition (Thielman)
  • to encourage a spirit of unity among them (FF Bruce)

This range of “takes” on Philippians illustrates the challenge of always finding a definitive big idea. I am not extrapolating from this that we toss out the attempt.  I am querying whether this is always possible. Perhaps what we need is a little more humility in some cases. We need to stop trying to sound as if we have ‘cracked’ the meaning of a clearly complex book.

I believe there is a wonderful unity to Scripture. But I’m not so sure that the Triune God always communicates one idea at a time.

10 Point Sermon Checklist

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1. What is the main purpose of my sermon?

In a book of interest to preachers, Phillip Collins writes:

“All speeches can be divided into at least one of the three functions: 

1. Information: a speech whose principal function is to leave an audience better informed than they were before you began. 

2. Persuasion: a speech whose principal function is to persuade an audience of a case that, before you began, had either never occurred to them or to which they had been actively hostile. 

3. Inspiration: a speech whose principal function is to inspire the audience to do something that they had previously not considered doing or had been refusing to do or, occasionally, to carry on doing something.”

(Philip Collins was a former speechwriter for Tony Blair:  The Art of Speeches and Presentations: The Secrets of Making People Remember What You Say, 2012)

I ask the preachers I mentor to examine what proportion of their sermons are devoted to these three functions. In my opinion, most evangelical preachers are weak on persuasion, even weaker on inspiration, yet strong on information! Interestingly, Collins suggests that while all speeches should have more than one function, persuasion should be dominant!

2. Have I fully understood the passage from which I am preaching?

This involves the spadework of studying words and phrases along with the cultural background and context. Exegetical commentaries can aid us here. Check how different English versions translate the passage from which you are preaching, ranging from those at the “formal equivalent” end of the scale, to the “functional equivalent”, and those in between.  

The test of whether you clearly understand any passage is that you can explain it to your hearers in accessible language.

 3. What is the big idea of my sermon?

Philip Collins asks: “What is your speech essentially about? Tell me in a single sentence. If you can’t do that, you don’t know. And if you don’t know you aren’t ready to do a speech.”  

Pastor Paul Martin has written in a similar vein: “There is a tendency to want to say everything about many things as opposed to saying the most important things about one thing….Every sermon ought to be explained by one sentence…When you are finished the preparation of your sermon you should be able to quickly answer the question, “In one sentence or less, what is your sermon about?” If you cannot do that, you do not know what your one big point is and you need to do more preparation and study.” 

The big idea is best summarised in a title for the sermon and the best kind of title is not in the form of a statement (which means what follows will focus on information) but a command or, even better, a question: both of which demands a response from the hearer. For creative idea for sermon titles, see this article.

4. Does the introduction to my sermon highlight the big idea and engage with my hearers?

I am not and have never been a typical Welsh preacher. I felt that in preaching the first thing that you had to do was to demonstrate to the people that what you were going to do was very relevant and urgently important. The Welsh style of preaching started with a verse and the preacher then told you the connection and analysed the words, but the man of the world did not know what he was talking about and was not interested. I started with the man whom I wanted to listen, the patient. It was a medical approach really – here is a patient, a person in trouble, and ignorant man who has been to the quacks, and so I deal with all that in the introduction. I wanted to get to the listener and then come to my exposition. (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Volume 1: The First Forty Years 1899 – 1939, Iain Murray, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982) 

As the saying goes:“If you don’t strike oil in the first five minutes, stop boring!” For this reason, the sermon introduction should be carefully scripted and practised. Nowadays I tend to do the introduction first and then read the Bible passage. If you read the Bible passage first, Christians can think they already understand it while non-Christians won’t see the relevance. If you start with the big idea which catches the attention of the hearers, you can then say, “Let’s turn to the Bible which addresses this issue.”

5. Is my sermon set in its context?

A text without a context is a pretext for a proof-text.”  Every sermon needs to be placed within ever-widening circles of context

  • In the passage/chapter in which it occurs
  • In the book of the Bible in which it occurs (and maybe the sermon series)
  • In the metanarrative of the Biblical story-line
    • Old Testament – looking forward to the coming of Jesus
    • New Testament – looking back to the first coming of Jesus and looking forward to the second coming of Jesus

Beware of “synagogue sermons” when preaching from the Old Testament. Sermons which a good Jew would be happy with (ie. that don’t mention Jesus) or which only mention him peripherally or briefly in conclusion, are not what we should be aiming for. Look for text or theme connections which link with the New Testament and the coming of Jesus.

6. Does my sermon have a structure which makes it easier to follow? 

Any structure needs to be derived from the passage in which it occurs:

  • In narrative, it can trace the time-line of the events described
  • In teaching, it can follow the development of the argument/logic
  • In wisdom literature it can often be like spokes of a wheel which radiate out from the  hub (the central idea)

Note:

  • Sermons do not need to have three points! Quite often, the text lends itself to two contrasting or parallel points.
  • Points do not need to alliterate! If you can find something that works and is memorable, use it. But don’t force it.

7. Does my sermon have helpful illustrations?

Illustrations serve two functions. Most obviously they illuminate the point you are making, like windows letting in the light. Less obviously, illustrations provide breathing space for thinking. Rather than constantly adding new information to assimilate, illustrations provide a plateau to absorb what has been said before ‘moving on up’. It is the difference between a series of steps and one steep gradient.

8. Does my sermon have an effective conclusion? 

There are at least two kinds of conclusion to a sermon:

  • The summary conclusion where you review what has been taught.
  • The climax conclusion where you return to the big idea and apply it directly (and succinctly!) to the hearers – individually or corporately.

Whichever you use, the sermon you need to answer the “So what?” question: i.e. what exactly do you want your hearers to do as a result of this message? Praise? Repent? And about what? This can be followed by a prayer which also needs to be prepared (at least in bullet points if not full text) to allow the people to respond to the message.

9. Does my sermon address all those present?  

The application of your sermon is largely determined by the profile of the audience/congregation. If the congregation is largely made up of Christians, focus not only on the individual and the local church, but (depending on the subject) place your sermons and them in the wider context of both the national church and the broader culture of which we are all part. And always include an evangelistic emphasis and challenge – if only to remind Christians present of the greatness of the gospel and to wish their non-Christians friends were present (and maybe bring them along).

10. Could I make changes in the presentation of my sermon?

 Would my sermon benefit from…

  • a change in length?

“So for how long should you preach? The answer for me is around 23 minutes. The answer for Gary is around 21-30 minutes, with an average around 25. The answer for Tim Keller is as long as he likes. The answer for all of us? Plan to stop a minute or two before people start wishing you would. (And stop thinking you’re Tim Keller).” (Gary Millar & Phil Campbell, Saving Eutychus – how to preach God’s word and keep people awake” , Matthias Media, 2013)

Learn to estimate how long your sermon is going to be by the length of your notes. For me (using full notes) 1000 words = 10 minutes so I try to edit down to a maximum of 3000 words (allowing time for ad-libs).

  • more variety in pace and volume? (especially in the conclusion – see point 8)
  • the use of PowerPoint?

I find that using PowerPoint helps the hearers to see where I am going and helps me to clarify the structure of my sermon. My rule of thumb for its use is that it is an aid, not a substitute, for the spoken word. Someone only listening to the sermon should not miss anything substantial from not seeing the PowerPoint.

Flashback: 10 Questions Revisited – Tim Keller

It has been over 10 years since we interviewed Tim Keller about his preaching. Here is that post (from April 2007) in it’s entirety.

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1. Where do you place the importance of preaching in the grand scheme of church life?
It is central, but not alone at the center. Pastoral ministry is as important as preaching ministry, and lay ‘every-member’ ministry is as crucial as ordained ministry. I wouldn’t make a hierarchy out of these things–they are interdependent. But pastoral ministry and lay ministry is no substitute for strong preaching.

2. In a paragraph, how did you discover your gifts in preaching?
I preached about 200 different expositions a year for the first nine years of my ministry (when I was age 24 through 33.) During that time I was considered interesting and good but I never got a lot of feedback that I was anything special. I’ve grown a lot through lots of practice.

3. How long (on average) does it take you to prepare a sermon?
I pastor a large church and have a large staff and so I give special prominence to preparing the sermon. I give it 15-20 hours a week. I would not advise younger ministers to spend so much time, however. The main way to become a good preacher is to preach a lot, and to spend tons of time in people work–that is how you grow from becoming not just a Bible commentator but a flesh and blood preacher. When I was a pastor without a large staff I put in 6-8 hours on a sermon.

4. Is it important to you that a sermon contain one major theme or idea? If so, how do you crystallise it?
I don’t know that I’d be so rigid as to say there has to be just one Big Idea every time. That is a good discipline for preachers in general, because it helps with clarity. Most texts have too much in them for the preacher to cover in one address. You must be selective. But sometimes a preaching-size text simply has two or three major ideas that are too good to pass up.

5. What is the most important aspect of a preacher’s style and what should he avoid?
He should combine warmth and authority/force. That is hard to do, since temperamentally we incline one way or the other. (And many, many of us show neither warmth nor force in preaching.)

6. What notes, if any, do you use?
I use a very detailed outline, with many key phrases in each sub-point written out word for word.

7. What are the greatest perils that preacher must avoid?
This seems to me too big a question to tackle here. Virtually everything a preacher ought to do has an corresponding peril-to-avoid. For examples, preaching should be Biblical, clear (for the mind), practical (for the will), vivid (for the heart,) warm, forceful, and Christo-centric. You should avoid the opposites of all these things.

8. How do you fight to balance preparation for preaching with other important responsibilities (eg. pastoral care, leadership responsibilities)
See my remarks on #3 above. It is a very great mistake to pit pastoral care and leadership against preaching preparation. It is only through doing people-work that you become the preacher you need to be–someone who knows sin, how the heart works, what people’s struggles are, and so on. Pastoral care and leadership is to some degree sermon prep. More accurately, it is preparing the preacher, not just the sermon. Prayer also prepares the preacher, not just the sermon.

9. What books on preaching, or exemplars of it, have you found most influential in your own preaching?
British preachers have had a much greater impact on me than American preachers. And the American preachers who have been most influential (e.g. Jonathan Edwards) were essentially British anyway.

10. What steps do you take to nurture or encourage developing or future preachers?
I haven’t done much on that front at all, and I’m not happy about that. Currently I meet to with two other younger preachers on my staff who also preach regularly. We talk specifically about their preaching and sermon prep.