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.

How about preaching a Bible Overview?

This post comes from John Percival, pastor of Ambassador International Church in Hong Kong.

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Many of us are used to a Bible Overview being taught through reading books, seminars, or Christian education classes. However, how about preaching a Bible Overview from the pulpit? We decided to do this recently. Here are some tips and reflections from our experience:

  1. We used an idea that originated with Andrew Reid (currently principal of the Evangelical Theological College of Asia) of eleven “Big Moments in God’s Story.” We preached one per week, looking at: creation, fall, promise, exodus, conquest, kingship, exile, return, cross, gospel and new creation. Of course, you could choose your own. However, this felt like enough of an overview without sacrificing too much detail. You can find the sermons and passages here.
  1. This was hard work. Sermon preparation time was more than normal. The main challenge was the amount of material to grasp before formulating an outline. I found it helpful to read as much of the Bible as I could for the relevant sections – easy for creation or the fall – less possible for the prophets!
  1. We wrote small group material to accompany the series. This gave our people an extra opportunity to interact with the sermons and gave the whole church a feeling of learning together. To ensure continuity, we cancelled two of our monthly prayer meetings to make sure all our small groups got a clear run at the material. Uploading the sermons promptly meant that anyone who missed the sermon could listen online before their group met.
  1. One challenge was the constant need to look both backwards and forwards in each sermon – i.e. backwards towards God’s promises to Abraham, and also forwards towards their fulfillment. This was even true for the life of Christ – which not only fulfills the Old Testament promises but also, of course, anticipates the new creation. Keeping the overview in view is important, especially for those who are visitors or might have missed the preceding week.
  1. This series was a good opportunity to hit “big picture” applications. These included:
  • See your little story as part of God’s big story
  • Learn to view God’s story as one story focused on Christ
  • Grow in reading your Bible in context – especially the Old Testament
  • Redefine your priorities now in the light of the future new creation
  • Remember that an application can be a “knowledge” application that changes our thinking – it doesn’t have to focus on our actions.
  1. We needed to make some tough choices in order to keep the story side of things moving. In the end, wisdom literature, much of the prophets, and in-depth teaching on the application of the Law were all casualties.
  1. There are some great resources available: Vaughan Roberts’ “God’s Big Picture” and Graham Goldsworthy’s “Gospel and Kingdom” are standard issue. Less well-known are Tim Chester’s “From Creation to New Creation” and Michael Lawrence’s “Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church.” We also encouraged families to engage with the series through “The Jesus Storybook Bible” by Sally Lloyd-Jones.
  1. We prayed for “light bulb moments” among our people as they saw how the Bible fitted together. For some, it helped them to get the main events of salvation history in the right order. For others, they came to realize that the Bible is fundamentally a book about God.

I was nervous about preaching this series, especially as I couldn’t find many examples of others tackling a Bible Overview on a Sunday morning. However, I’m really glad we did. I saw many connections I had never seen before, and believe it enriched the spiritual lives of many. At the moment, many of us will be planning our preaching schedule for next year. If so, how about including a Bible Overview?

Preacher Workshops – Glasgow & Edinburgh

2Tim4_logo_940x1982018 is just over the horizon. That means that church leaders such as myself, need to be getting ourselves into gear with regards to sermon planning.

The 2 Timothy 4 Trust wants to help us in this task. They are running two repeat seminars on Saturday mornings in November 2017, one in Glasgow the other in Edinburgh.

Peter Grainger, former pastor of Charlotte Chapel, will provide a seminar on planning a healthy preaching diet. I will then have the privilege of sharing some lessons learned from preaching a series on Leviticus. There will also be an opportunity for group discussion to cross-fertilise ideas in the field of sermon-series planning.

So the dates are…

  • Saturday 11th November – Greenview Evangelical Church, Glasgow (9.30-12.30)
  • Saturday 25th November – Charlotte Baptist Chapel, Edinburgh (9.30-12.30)

To book your place, email peter@2tim4.org. The event is free of charge.

 

In The Event Of Nuclear War, What Would You Preach?

This guest post comes from Peter Grainger, former pastor of Charlotte Baptist Chapel, and Director of the 2 Timothy 4 Trust

nuclear-weapons-test-nuclear-weapon-weapons-test-explosion-73909

Following the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower in London in June with the loss of over 80 lives, and the ongoing enquiry into how it happened, I wonder if anyone has preached on the topic “Who was responsible for the tower tragedy?” based on Luke 13:1-3 in which Jesus addresses the subject of a tragic event surrounding a tower in which 18 people were killed?

Of much wider consequence, in relation to growing alarm over the actions of the Kim Jong-Il of North Korea, what is the response of churches and preachers to the potential threat of nuclear war? More specifically, in the event of nuclear war, what will you preach?

Here’s an example from the introduction to a sermon by a famous preacher when the prospect of nuclear war loomed even larger than today:

Why have we had the crisis of this past week? Why are the nations of the world trembling as they are this morning? What is the cause of all this? Well, I want to suggest that ultimately the cause of these problems is a failure to understand the truth concerning the law of God. This is not some theoretical question; it is the most practical, the most urgent, question facing the world today. It is of vital importance throughout the whole of life, for Christians and for non-Christians.”

(D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones Born of God Sermons from John Chapter 1, Banner of Truth Trust, 2011)

The editors of the book in which the sermon is found, give a helpful footnote:  The Cuban missile crisis. This sermon was preached on 28th October 1962.  The preacher was Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones and his text was John 1:17:  “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.”

Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones

Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones

Rather than church being a place to escape the world and all its problems, the worshippers in Westminster Chapel on that Sunday morning were confronted with the current crisis by the preacher and directed to the Scriptures to enable them not only to understand the cause of the crisis but also its resolution.

 

Today I suspect that this may not be the case in many churches where the Sunday service has little engagement with the world, nation and community outside its own narrow orbit. This was first brought home forcibly to me back in 2001 when I visited a number of churches during a sabbatical. One of them was what I would call a “dateless service” – one in which someone listening to a recording of it from beginning to end would not be able to identify when it took place (other than the dates of the hymns within the last 100 years!). The only name mentioned by the leader was someone named Jim who needed prayer as he was in hospital – only for someone to shout out that he was now home (Praise the Lord!) Yet it took place on the Sunday before a General Election and in the week in which the Crown Prince had murdered all the members of the Nepali Royal Family!

As I now travel around preaching in different churches, I am becoming increasingly concerned by the loss of the “intercessory prayer”  in which “prayers, petitions, intercession and thanksgiving be made for kings and all those in authority”  (1 Timothy 2:1-4). In the event of nuclear war, I don’t expect this will change but instead the hatches will be battened down to await what will be the (increasingly predicted imminent) return of Christ.

But, to return to the topic – in the event of nuclear war, what will you preach? For those of us who preach consecutive expository sermons and have our preaching programme planned out for months or even a year, will we continue to preach what we have planned regardless? It is interesting to note that the sermon quoted above by Lloyd-Jones was part of a series of 32 sermons on John 1, so that he adapted or shaped the thrust of his sermon to the current situation.

Many of would perhaps lack the ability and flexibility to do that, so perhaps there is a place for a break in the planned series to respond to a particularly significant situation. In my own ministry, two such events spring to mind – the Dunblane massacre and the death of Princess Diana (which is still a live and painful event for many even now on the 20th anniversary of her death).

So, in the event of a nuclear war, what would you preach? The neat and right answer is of course “the Gospel” and the history of past crises show that these are occasions for evangelistic preaching as fearful people seek answers. But what specific Scriptures might be particularly appropriate? There may be parallels with current events (tower tragedies) or moments in history – for example, the fall of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile. Or are these occasions for preaching from apocalyptic literature, especially the Book of Revelation? And many of the Psalms are especially relevant – for example, Psalm 46 in the event of a nuclear war:

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.”

I’d be interested to know from other preachers

  • Have you broken into a series and for what occasion?
  • Do you have a “crisis” sermon on file?
  • What Scriptures have you found especially relevant?

And especially, in the event of nuclear war, what would you preach?