About Peter Grainger

Peter Grainger worked with Wycliffe Bible Translators in India, Pakistan and Nigeria for 20 years, served as a Pastor in three churches for 25 years (most recently from 1992-2009 in Charlotte Chapel, Edinburgh) and now directs 2 Timothy 4 (www.2tim4.org), ' strengthening Scottish preaching.' He is married to Nita and they have two adult children and a grandson.

10 Point Sermon Checklist


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)


  • 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.

Preaching from the Gospels

Don Carson

In July 2014, Don Carson led a seminar on  “Preaching from John’s Gospel” at the Faith Mission in Edinburgh. It is well worth hearing –  not least his opening comments on how to preach from any Gospel, in which he highlights a tendency among preachers which is, in my experience of reviewing several hundred sermons over the past five years, all too common.

“Many of us preach from the Gospels looking for immediate application to the lives of our congregants…The Gospels are not given to us first and foremost as discipleship manuals…as introductions to the importance of faith.  They are certainly not given to us as the provision of psychological profiles in conversion. That’s the way many of us have been brought up to preach Peter walking on the water. We analyse what is going on in Peter’s mind as far as we can from the text and thus we jump to an application about how people get attracted to Christ, and then they take the first steps out there in the storm, and then they look around and see the waves, and are terrified. And so suddenly pericope after pericope in the Gospels becomes a kind of source for psychological analysis in the steps of conversion or something along those lines.

What we have to remember is that the Gospels are  first and foremost accounts of Jesus. Preaching from the Gospels means telling folks a lot about Jesus and the point of each pericope, each unit, is first of all something to do with Jesus – who he is, what he says, what’s he’s done, and then where it fits into the larger storyline which brings us to the cross and the resurrection. And not only about Jesus but Jesus as he comes to us in history and fills in the gap between Old Testament belief and New Testament dawning…

If we preach the Gospels in such a way that we forget their historical locatedness, and go immediately to application to us today, what we lose is the ability of the Gospels to explain how we got from the Old Testament to the New Testament, how we got from there to here.

This may be one reason for something else I have observed – that evangelicals tend to preach far more from the Epistles than the Gospels.  But in an age of increasing Biblical illiteracy we need to be regularly and systematically preaching through the Gospel accounts – of which we are blessed with four! Each of the four Gospels is written with a particular audience and purpose in mind and we need to think carefully which particular Gospel resonates most closely with our particular audience. “Why Four Gospels” by Donald Bridge (Christian Focus Publications, 1996)  is a brilliant and readable introduction to this subject.

The Don Carson seminar was hosted by “2 Timothy 4” and can be accessed (in 8 x 20 minute sections) on www.2tim4.org

Peter Grainger

Director, 2 Timothy 4 Trust

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In a previous posting, I reviewed Philip Collins’ book, The Art of Speeches and Presentations – The secrets of making people remember what you say (Wiley 2012), in which he states that all speeches can be divided into at least one of 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.

He points all out that while all speeches will have more than one function, one will be dominant; and he states that this function should be persuasion.

What is true of speeches is also true of sermons and, as I have listened to several hundred over these past four years – in churches and from the preachers I mentor – my observation is that the great majority major on information, at the expense of persuasion and inspiration. You can actually estimate this (as I do) by timing how much of the sermon (or how much of the preacher’s notes) are devoted to each function. In extreme cases, a sermon can be 99% explanation of the text with 1% application which can be summarised as, “Go and do likewise.” 

 Understanding the problem

This problem is perhaps understandable for those of us who take seriously the priority of the exposition of God’s Word and authorial intent (as opposed to using the text simply as a launching-pad for the worst kind of reader-response message). However, this can mean an accumulation of a huge amount of information from every possible source in the fear that we night miss something related to the text (however incidental). I was surprised to learn from one pastor I mentor that he had consulted 20-25 commentaries on the passage from which he was preaching.

There are at least three consequences of this approach:

1. Preparation time takes longer.

2. Sermons last longer

3. Application along with illustration is squeezed out.

A personal example

I am only too aware (as were my hearers!) that this has been always been a battle for me so let me share how I have been trying to address this problem of information overload in an attempt to preach sermons that are:

  • sharper – focusing on the main point/”big idea” of the passage.
  • simpler – I am aware that congregations today are less Biblically literate than they were when I started preaching 50 years ago.
  • shorter – I now aim to preach for 30-35 minutes rather than 40-45 (and more!)

(please excuse the 3 alliterative points –old habits die hard!)

Let me suggest two pieces of arithmetic which may help to address the problem of information overload.


Edit your sermon by taking out information that is not essential. This information may be interesting and it should be accurate and orthodox, but if it does not relate directly to the main point of the sermon, leave it out.

Let me give you a couple of examples from of a recent sermon I preached at Niddrie Community Church where we now worship. The pastors are making their way through John’s Gospel and I was asked to preach on John 11:1-44: the raising of Lazarus. I had preached on this section on several occasions before – in particular, two sermons each lasting 45+ minutes in Charlotte Baptist Chapel, which has a long tradition of expository preaching with a large, mostly well-educated congregation. Niddrie, in contrast, is a mixture of some mature Christians with an increasing number of new converts. So my goal was to preach a sermon that was simpler and shorter.

This, therefore, meant editing out some of the material I had used before. In my notes (I use a full script) I had set the scene at Bethany as follows:

The words “Happy Family” have become abused and over-used.  But in this case they are truly applicable.  In the  village of Bethany, some two miles down the road that led east out of the city of Jerusalem, lived a happy family in a spacious home –  two sisters, Martha and Mary, and their brother, Lazarus, whose name is a contraction of the Hebrew “Eleazar” meaning, appropriately as it will turn out – “he whom God helped.”. 

I edited out the explanation of the name of Lazarus – interesting but not essential (and not part of John’s purpose).

The story also raises the question as to where Jesus was at this time, for the sisters send an emergency message to him informing about the serious illness of their brother. We learn from John 10:40 Jesus had gone “back across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing in the early days”. But where exactly was this and, more importantly for the action that follows, how far away was it from Bethany? The commentaries have much to say on the subject – as did I when I first preached on it. But now I simply said that we can’t be sure where Jesus was but it was some distance away and, by the time he arrived back in Bethany, Lazarus had been ”in the tomb for four days” (which is the main point of his “delay”).

Now, taking out this kind of information gives a sharper focus to the main point of the sermon (I entitled it, “Where there’s death, there hope”) so that the listeners are not having to absorb and process non-essential information. It also creates space to now take a second step in addressing information overload.

+ ADD +

For me, using a full script, 1000 words is equivalent to 10 minutes of speaking. (this will vary from speaker to speaker and whether you use full or outline notes, and how much you ad-lib). So, taking out non-essential information, I reduce my notes from 4000 words (40 minutes) to around 2500 (25 minutes). This leaves me space to add two things to the sermon:

1. Illustration. Illustrations serve two functions – one obvious and the other not so obvious. The obvious function is to provide a window to illuminate the point you are making, a story to illustrate the truth you are teaching. But there is a not so obvious function which is to provide some “mental breathing space”to the listener before you move to the next piece of information you want him or her to absorb. Think of a sermon as climbing a hill in which there are, for example, three stages (as in a sermon with three points). You climb to the end of point 1 and then immediately progress to point 2, followed by point 3 and the conclusion. If, however, you build in an illustration at the end of point 1, it illuminates the point you have made but also proves a plateau for the listener to absorb what has been taught (rather than immediately being given new information). The climber is then prepared for the next stage of the journey.

2. Application. I listen to many sermons in which the only application is in the conclusion, following a lengthy exegesis of the passage. But while the conclusion should reinforce and drive home the main point and application of the sermon, there should be application in other parts of the sermon, otherwise people can switch off because they cannot see the personal relevance of the information that is communicated. So, in the sermon on Lazarus, I traced the story (and read the text) in three stages: (and again apologies for those who hate alliteration!)

  • Concerned (verses 1-4) – focusing on the sickness of Lazarus and the emotions it evoked and the action the sisters took.
  • Confused (verses 5-21) – focusing on the reaction of the sisters (and observers) to the response of Jesus in staying where he was and arriving on the scene four days late.
  • Convinced? (verses 22-37) – focusing on the purpose of the miracle: which evokes faith on the part of some and unbelief on the part of others.

After  each of these major points, I applied them to the hearers. So, for example, I concluded point 2 –“Confused” as follows:

No doubt as the sisters had sat at the bedside of their dying brother, they had said again and again to each other, “If only Jesus was here” And maybe they had said to each other, “Perhaps he’ll come today.”

But he had failed to show up – until four days too late! So no wonder they were confused about Jesus. Either

  • his word was unreliable – he couldn’t be trusted
  • or his love was fickle – he wouldn’t help
  • or his power was limited – he couldn’t help

Or all three.  Very confusing.  A personal tragedy has shaken their whole belief system in Jesus.  That is what is so distressing.  It is bad enough to face the sudden death of a loved one but even worse when the one person you believed could help and who promised to help, did not, could not, or would not.  No wonder they are confused and hurt!

Then I applied it to the listeners:

I wonder if you have ever been confused like that?  Maybe you are in a state of confusion at this very moment in your life.  You are a Christian and a crisis has arisen in your life.  It may be sickness, or sorrow or disappointment or whatever.  And, as a child of God, you have instinctively sent off a telegram prayer on your own behalf or that of another: “Lord, the one you love is sick.”(or sad, lonely, unemployed, bankrupt, or whatever)

It is a prayer that says, “Lord, help! I know your power and love” –

and the answer comes back from God’s Word and seems to offer hope. 

But then what you feared most happens.  Worst of all, Jesus seems absent.  You are thrown into confusion.  Is Jesus who he claims to be?  Is his word reliable?  Is he powerless?  Does he really love me?  If so, why did he allow this to happen?

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

These are no easy matters and, if you think they are, you have yet to face such a situation when all that you hoped in and trusted in is shaken, and all that you prayed for is unanswered.  It is one thing to theorise about this or to give words of advice to another in these circumstances.  It is quite another to pass through it yourself.

And behind it all is our greatest fear: that life is without purpose and that death is the end of everything.  The only thing that will bring reassurance and hope is the assurance that after all someone is in control – not just of life but also of death, that “Where there’s death, there’s hope.”

This then leads into the final point – “Convinced?” – focusing on the action of Jesus in raising Lazarus and the faith it should evoke – “Do you believe this?”


As I concluded this article, I looked at the website of Niddrie Community Church for my sermon on John 11 which you can find on: https://www.niddrie.org/series/johns-gospel/

To my horror, it is listed as lasting 45.51 minutes! So much for all I have written on shorter sermons (it did include a long reading!) You can judge for yourself on its simplicity and sharpness. For me, it is a salutary reminder of the strap-line of 2Timothy 4, the Trust I direct:

Every preacher can become a better preacher”

“The Purpose-Driven Wife” (and other sermon titles)

In all my years of ministry, I have never preached on (never had the courage to preach on?) the Epilogue of the Book of Proverbs (Proverbs 31:10-31). But if I ever do, I have the perfect sermon title – “The Purpose-Driven Wife” ! It encapsulates the theme of this section and is certainly more memorable than the NIV’s “The Wife of Noble Character”, bearing more than a passing resemblance to a certain well-known book and course!

Not everyone likes or uses sermon titles. I understand that Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones didn’t, yet it is interesting that the editors of his published sermons usually added a title to each sermon – if for no other reason than to distinguish it from others, rather than just identifying it by the verses or passage on which it was based. I recently reviewed “Born of God”, the latest Banner of Truth publication of his final sermon series at Westminster Chapel. which contains 32 sermons from John 1, ten of them on verse 17, and eighteen of them on verses 12-13.  Most of the titles simply summarise the subject of the sermon – for example, “The Relationship of Law and Grace”, “The Abundant Riches of His Grace”, but a few are somewhat broader – for example, “Facing the Future”,Religion or True Faith?”

The Content Title

The simplest and most common title for a sermon is one that summarises its content: like the section headings in most modern English versions. They usually vary little – especially for narrative passages. For example, the NIV heading at the beginning of John  4 is “Jesus Talks with a Samaritan Woman”,  while the ESV has “Jesus and the Woman of Samaria”. However, while the ESV heading covers verses 1-45, the NIV has two further headings: “The Disciples Rejoin Jesus” (verses 27-38) and “Many Samaritans Believe” (verses 39-42). Even in doctrinal teaching in the epistles,where there might be more scope for variety, there is still a fair degree of uniformity. For example, the NIV introduces Galatians 3 under the heading “Faith or Observance of the Law”,  while the ESV puts it as a question: “By Faith, or by Works of the Law?”  The Good News Bible simply has “Law or Faith”.

This is a fairly random check (which might merit more detailed  research) but the content of a passage is not much of a source (if you will excuse the pun) of contention. And as the title for a sermon, it doesn’t tell the listeners anything more than they can read in the Bibles in front of them. For that we need a different kind of sermon title.

The Creative Title

First and foremost, any title must connect in some way to the main theme, the “big idea”  of the passage in question. Ideally, it should also be something which is memorable or “attractive“. So, for example, I once suggested to a colleague who was preaching on John 4 the title “Thirst things first” (which, perhaps wisely, he didn’t use!) But it does focus on the theme of the conversation between Jesus and the woman – and it is certainly memorable (if difficult to say without practice!)

I have just been in email discussion with John Percival, a former colleague and contributor to “Unashamed Workman”, who has invited me to speak at an evangelistic service at the church where he now ministers. We decided that the incident recorded in Mark 10:17-31 would connect with many of the issues facing people in Hong Kong but for advertising the event, rather than a title like “The Rich Young Man” (NIV & ESV),  a more engaging title would be “The Man who had Everything but lacked Something”.

Titles can be useful in highlighting future sermons and events, especially those such as guest-services. However, the title chosen needs  to be as “inclusive” as possible. I once saw a leaflet for a series in Luke’s Gospel which a new church were distributing in their local community. Inside the attractive cover were the dates with the passage and a title. Luke 8:40-48 was entitled “Woman with haemorrhage”  which, I would suggest, had a limited audience appeal! Something like “Hoping for Healing” or “Getting in Touch with God”  would have attracted a much broader interest.

Some Engaging Examples

One of the best exponents of stimulating titles, especially from the Old Testament, is the American preacher and professor, Dale Ralph Davis. In his book, “The Word Became Fresh – how to preach from Old Testament texts” (Christian Focus Publications, 2006),  he tells how, on the Sunday before one Christmas, he preached on the long lists of genealogies in 1 Chronicles 9 under the title, “A Whole Bunch of Dead Folks for Christmas”!  He comments, “We were, I am confident, the only church in the whole USA that carried 1 Chronicles 9 on its bulletin cover.”

Here are a few of my favourites from his “Looking on the Heart – Expositions of the Book of 1 Samuel”  (Christian Focus publications,1994):

  • 1 Samuel 17 (David &  Goliath): “Glory to God in the Highest and on Earth – Thud!”
  • 1 Samuel 24 (David in the cave with Saul at his mercy): “This is the Day! Or is it?”
  • 1 Samuel 27:1-28:2 (David among the Philistines): “What can a Godless Text teach us?”
  • 1 Samuel 29 (David sent back to Ziklag): “Accepting the Philistines as your Personal Saviour”

Notice in two of the titles the use of questions – questions which are asked of the text and also of the hearer.

Sometimes, a creative title can replace a familiar yet misleading title.  This is especially true of the parables of Jesus. Everyone who has preached on “The Parable of the Sower”  knows that the distinguishing point of the parable is not the sower (or the seed or his sowing method) but the soil, so the title “The Parable of Soils”  is  more accurate. Similarly, “The Parable of the Prodigal Son”  is not about one but two sons, the elder of whom (representing the Pharisees) is the main point of the parable. And the main character in the parable is the father which is why (way back, pre-Keller!) I preached on it under the title “The Parable of the Prodigal Father”  (using the secondary meaning of prodigal – “extravagantly generous“) to catch people’s attention.

Jonathan Gemmell, pastor of Bruntsfield Evangelical Church in Edinburgh, recently preached on Mark 13 (“Signs of the End of the Age“) under the title “Is the Fat Lady Warming up?” and entitled a previous sermon on Lot’s Wife “From Sodom to Sodium Chloride“! These kind of titles are not for everyone but once the hearers (and you!) have heard them, they are unforgettable.

Here are a few of my (much more conservative!) examples:

  • “The strength of meekness” (Matthew 5:5)
  • “Back to the future” (Matthew 6:10)
  • “A surprising prayer in a strange place” (Jonah 2:1-9)
  • “The green-eyed monster” (Genesis 37:1-11)
  • “Just say,’No'” (Genesis 39)
  • “From eternity to here!” (John 1:1-18)
  • “Where there’s death, there’s hope” (John 11:1-44)
  • “Give up your great ambitions”  (Jeremiah 45)
  • “War and Peace” (Psalm 2)
  • “24” (Mark 1:21-34)
  • “Closed minds or open mouths?” (Acts 5:17-42)
  • “Can you sing in prison?” (Acts 16:16-40)
  • “People matter more than pigs” (Mark 5:1-20)
  • “The mathematics of a miracle” (John 6)
  • “Forty days with Jesus” (Acts 1:1-5)
  • “The most alarming verses in the Bible” (Matthew 7:21-23)
  • “A tale of two cities” (Acts 17:1-15)

Titles for Sermon Series

When preaching through a book of the Bible, it is often helpful to highlight a title theme for the whole series. The tradition in Charlotte Chapel in Edinburgh where I ministered for 17 years, is that we would preach through a book from the Bible for the year, and choose a title and a key verse for the sermon series.

Here are some examples:

  • “Living in Hope” (Jeremiah – key verse 29:11)
  • “Building on the Rock” (The Sermon on the Mount – key verse  Matthew 7:24)
  • “Good News for Bad People” (Romans – key verse  1:16)
  • “The Lion Roars” (Amos – key verse  3:8)
  • “Treasure in Jars of Clay” (2 Corinthians – key verse 4:7)
  • “Shining like Stars” (Philippians – 2:15-16)

(See my “Firm Foundations”, Christians Focus Publications, 2011, for 15 sermon series and over 200 sermon outlines with titles, and the sermon archive on www.charlottechapel.org for over 800 sermons!)

Planning ahead

Although many churches produce a programme card for each “term” giving sermon topics and titles, I have found that, unless I am very familiar with the passages in question or have preached from them before, it is difficult to choose the right title ahead of time. I have tried to do this but often found, when I have done my intensive study in the week before the sermon that there is a better title (based on a different “big idea“) than the one I chose three months previously. For this reason, I would tend to give the passage but no title ahead of time unless it is for a special event. I also find this is a problem as I now preach around churches and in University Christians unions – that I sometimes have to introduce  my sermon explaining why the title they chose for the passage on which they want me to preach is not the best (or even completely misses the point!).

In conclusion

Not everyone has the imagination to think of creative titles, and I see nothing wrong (providing you give due credit – see the recent article on plagiarism) with borrowing a good title from someone else. You may have noticed that some of my titles from above are borrowed from people ranging from William Shakespeare to Leo Tolstoy, and from Charles Dickens to Stephen Spielberg!







“Who do you think he is?” (a further Christmas text)

Following on from Colin Adams’ excellent article on what to preach at Christmas, let me suggest a further passage of Scripture, and some ideas on how to preach it. “The Genealogy of Jesus” with which Matthew begins his gospel (Matthew 1:1-17) is rarely used at Christmas. “What’s the point of a list of names?” the uninitiated might ask. And “How can I pronounce all those Hebrew names?” (the only time my reading of Scripture was followed by spontaneous applause was after reading through Luke’s genealogy!)

Matthew’s purpose

Of course Matthew, writing his Gospel for a Jewish audience, gives us his reason for beginning with the genealogy in his opening statement: to demonstrate the pedigree of Jesus Christ: “the son of David” (in the royal line), “the son of Abraham” (in the patriarchal line). And the genealogy at least demonstrates that Jesus is a  real human person with named antecedents – not some mythical figure. There is a story of a team with Wycliffe Bible Translators who completed the Gospel of Luke for the first time in a language – except for the genealogy. There was minimal interest in the story from the people group in question until the missionaries finally decided (believing that all Scripture is God’s breathed”) to translate the genealogy – a fairly simple matter of adapting the names using the sound-system of the language. The response when it was read out was astounding and the key to the reception of the gospel in that community.  In a group that prized their ancestors (and could name them many generations back) they realised that this Jesus Christ was a real person – unlike the mythological figures who featured in their own religion.

Surprising people!

But there is even more in Matthew’s genealogy. Kenneth Bailey, whose book “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes – Cultural Studies in the Gospels” (SPCK, 2008) is a must for every preacher (especially at Christmas), points out that Matthew, written for Jews, includes four women in his genealogy and asks why:

Matthew 1 contains a genealogy of Jesus that few bother to read. But a second glance reveals some meaningful surprises. Amazingly, along with the men, Matthew includes the names of four women. Middle Eastern genealogies are expected to be lists of men.  Sirach began his list by saying, “Let us now praise famous men’ (Sirach 44-50) and Luke 3:23-38 is a list of seventy-six men without the inclusion of a single female. Along with a list of forty men, why does Matthew include four women?

And not just any old women! The four listed are all of dubious reputation or background:

  • Tamar (verse 3) See Genesis 38:1-30 – pretended to be a prostitute to entice her father-in-law and got pregnant and was almost killed  by him!
  • Rahab (verse 5) See Joshua 2, 6:24-25 – a Canaanite prostitute
  • Ruth (verse 4) See the Book of Ruth – a member of the Moabite nation, excluded from worship in Israel.
  • Bathsheba (verse 6) See 2 Samuel 11:1 – 12:25 – and Matthew won’t even write her name but refers to her as “the wife of Uriah” (a Hittite!)

Yet Matthew deliberately includes them in his genealogy. Why? Bailey answers his question:

“With such a list, Matthew gives us a clue about the kinds of people that the Messiah came to save. He was to be a Saviour for women and men who were both saints and sinners, Jews and Gentiles. This genealogy is truly comprehensive. Many can look at the stories of these women and men and find some reflection of themselves.”

Matthew’s Gospel continues…

Little wonder then that Matthew’s Christmas story features foreigners who come to worship Jesus (Matthew 2:1-12) and concludes with the Great Commission given by Jesus to his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations (people-groups)” (Matthew 28:18-20)


Any preacher should be able to work out the contemporary relevance of this genealogy. One of the most popular shows on British television with 8 million viewers is “Who do you think you are?” in which well-known people trace their ancestry – with many surprising discoveries.

Some people find out that they have royal blood – others that their great-great-great-grandfather was transported to Australia for stealing a sheep! And many are moved to tears – as was even Jeremy Paxman, the BBC’s “rottwelier” interviewer when he learned of the tragic background of one of his forebears.  Yet Matthew is not embarrassed to include people of dubious reputation people in the genealogy of Jesus – indeed he deliberately (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) includes them. Who do you think he (Jesus) is? Matthew tells you, beginning with the ancestry of Jesus Christ.

“Who do you think you are?”

Here is Christmas gospel/good news for everyone: no matter what your pedigree or background, no matter who you think you are. You can be included in God’s family through faith in Jesus. Here are some useful connecting Scriptures:

You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.  (Galatians 3:26-29)

 Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. (Hebrews 2:11)

 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.  (John 1:11-13) –

In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons, through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will – to the praise of his glorious grace which he has freely given us in the One he loves.  (Ephesians 1:4-5)

Gospel opportunity!

Surprise your congregation (who are expecting wise men after shepherds last year!). More importantly, connect with the  visitors who only attend church at Christmas and offer the gospel of hope to rootless people who are “without hope and without God in the world”.

For further ideas,  see the videoed seminar “Preaching Christ at Christmas” on http://2tim4.org/index.php/2009/11/preaching-christ-at-christmas/  and contact me if you would like any of the PowerPoint presentations at peter@2tim4.org


Room For Improvement?

For those who haven’t heard, and for those who would like reminding (especially any Aussies!) England became the top test cricket team in the world last summer following their victory over India who were the current champions. There was even worse news for the other cricketing nations of the world – England were not resting on their laurels.  After the final match in the 4-0 whitewash of India, Andrew Strauss the England captain said that there was still “room for improvement”. (recent results over the past year have certainly reinforced this!)

But what about something far more important than sport and a role far more important than that of the cricketer. What about preaching and the preacher? If you have been called by God to be a preacher of his word, are you resting on your laurels? Or is there “room for improvement”? For myself, and I suspect for most preachers, the answer is “yes”. I am my own worst critic and I can honestly say that, even after, especially after, 50 years since I first preached a sermon, I aspire to be, a better preacher. The strapline of 2 Timothy 4, the Preaching Trust I direct is “every preacher can become a better preacher”. But the problem is – how?

How to be a better preacher

The first essential (without which all else is in vain) is the help of the Holy Spirit as the apostle Paul reminded the church in Thessalonica:

For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you,  because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. (1 Thessalonians 1:4-5)

But as Paul reminded his young protégé, Timothy, that didn’t absolve him (and doesn’t absolve us) of personal responsibility:

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15)

So is it just a matter of “doing your best” – studying harder and praying harder to produce and preach better sermons in order to be a better preacher? Am I becoming a better preacher?   Or have I reached a certain level and plateaued out? And how can I judge? Do I need, and would I benefit from, the judgement of others?

The fear of feedback

As Tim Bridges pointed out (This might sting) the feedback from the critic in the church can be painful! However, I would caution against dismissing all feedback on the basis of the motives or maturity of the critic. I suspect, for some (maybe many?) preachers, feedback of any kind can feel threatening. In the tradition to which I belong, you “preach with a view” – that is, the members of the church vote for you (or against you) as their pastor on the basis of your preaching, usually on a set Sunday (you don’t/can’t “pastor with a view” though the wise leaders of a church evaluate your non-preaching gifts and character before putting you in the pulpit). This can then lead to the danger that your identity is tied to how well you perform in the pulpit week by week.  So any criticisms of your preaching is felt as a threat to your security (sometimes your literal security).

Now, this is a not a healthy state to be in for the security of any preacher (and any Christian) should be rooted in a far more secure foundation. This subject might merit another post, but the lesser danger I want to focus on here is that such insecurity can cut the preacher off from helpful feedback which could help to make him a better preacher.

The merits of mentoring

One effective way of providing such feedback is through a process of mentoring in which a more experienced preacher works with a less experienced preacher (in a similar relationship described in the Epistles of older men/women discipling younger men/women). This can work within a church – especially within a larger church with a team ministry in which younger pastors/preachers are mentored by more senior staff. However, it doesn’t always work and can sometimes lead to strains in relationships. And in many smaller churches, the first-time pastor is the sole pastor/preacher and may struggle to find effective help.

In such cases, “outside help” may provide a solution in which an experienced preacher can be linked with a less experienced pastor to provide feedback that is both constructive and confidential. In “2 Timothy 4” we have been trying this on a small scale, as I have been mentoring some ten pastors in Scotland during the past three years, ranging from those in their first churches to one with over 20 years of experience, serving in congregations ranging in size from 30 to 600.

This has been well received, but we are keen to encourage a culture of mentoring beyond “2 Timothy 4”, both within and beyond Scotland, and across denominations. We would like to know your experience (if any) of mentoring along with any other ways which have helped you to become a better preacher. Can I ask you to spare 10 minutes to answer 10 questions in a confidential questionnaire which will help us and help one another to become better preachers of God’s Word? If we get a large enough response, we will collate and publish the results.

Click here for the questionnaire.

Unlike cricket, the goal is not to become the best preacher in the world, but the best preacher I can be with the gifts with which God has entrusted me.

Recommended reading from a surprising source

A book by Tony Blair’s chief speech-writer might seem a surprising resource for preachers. But there is much in  “The Art of Speeches and Presentations – the secrets of making people remember what you say” by Philip Collins (Wiley 2012) to encourage, help and challenge the preacher.

Encouragement for preachers

How many preachers have (haven’t?) been told that a sermon is an outmoded monologue in an age of mass-media in which people can only absorb 30 second sound-bites? Here is the opening to Collins’ book:

Speeches still matter, even in a technological age. The act of persuasion is ubiquitous in professional life and very many people need to master it. The act of making a speech is a medium that has remained essentially unchanged through the ages.

He sets the scene:

A man steps forward out of the dark, alone, trailed by a spotlight. He walks slowly towards the podium which is the only thing that decorates the otherwise naked stage….He walks into a strange isolation, for he knows, as does his audience, that he is about to beg their undivided attention for at least 25 minutes, probably more. There is no other setting in which we permit anyone to speak, uninterrupted, for so long.

Well, Philip Collins probably isn’t a church-goer! But he is convinced (and convincing) about the enduring power of public speech:

The technological means of transmission is, at once, simple and sophisticated – the medium of speech. Let’s go back to that man who is walking onto a stage. He approaches the podium where he stops, clears his throat and starts to speak. The normal rules of conversation are about to be suspended for the time it takes him to expound his argument. Against all the expectations and regular predictions of its demise, public speech still counts. It always will and it is a skill that needs to be mastered.

Help for preachers

How this skill can be mastered, Collins explains in his book in detail – literally, as he uses the word DETAIL as a mnemonic  (“there is a little known law that, unless your book contains a mnemonic that summarises the case, your publisher is allowed to kill you”!)

Delivery: the speech is written to be spoken. You need to think how you can make your delivery as effective as possible.

Expectations: what do the people you will be speaking to expect from the day? Just as important, what do you expect? What do you want people to do once they have heard your speech?

Topic: 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.

Audience: who are you trying to reach? Who will be in your audience and what do they think about the topic that you are set to address? Will they be favourable or hostile to your approach?

Individual: a speech should be delivered by you. It should not just be any old speech. It needs to present the best possible version of you, which is subtly different from the hopeless advice to “be yourself”.

Language: use simple terms and say nothing that an intelligent layman would not understand. It is not big and clever to use jargon and vocabulary that nobody would ever use when talking to their friends.

If you follow these rules nobody can promise that you will be a brilliant speaker. But there is a good chance you will not be a poor speaker.

Collins helpfully distinguishes between the different functions of a speech (sermon?)

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.

He points all out that all speeches will have more than one function but one will be dominant, and he states that this should be persuasion. He also adds one other specialised function:

There is actually a fourth type of speech. This is the ceremonial address that commemorates an occasion such as a wedding or the eulogy at a funeral.

In addition, the book covers a variety of topics of interest to preachers such as:

  • being true to  your personality (“The importance of not being Barack Obama”)
  • the preparation of a full text (“Don’t ditch the script. Almost nobody speaks well off the cuff though almost everybody thinks they do”)
  • the problem of jargon (“A dozen dreadful jargon terms, dead metaphors, terrible cliches and assorted horrors”)
  • the ideal length for a speech (“As short as possible…aim for 20 minutes”)

Challenge to preachers:

Obviously, there are some connections between a speech and a sermon that do not match – not least the potential outcome for which every preacher prays – that his message may come “not just with words, but with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction”. None the less, the challenge to strive for excellence which Collins advocates should be all the more compelling for the preacher:

Your job is to do your job as well as you can. It is to be the best speaker on the podium that you are expected to stand at, doing the best speech that you can do on the topic that you have been asked to address.

There in no greater topic than that which the preacher has been “asked to address” (and address every week rather at the occasional special event).

There is one sentence in the book that has stuck in my mind. Answering the question why there are so few great speeches today, Collins writes:

The first and most important reason why great speech is so much harder now is that there are fewer causes that demand greatness.

*The recommended price for the book is £14.99 but you can download on Kindle for £7.12



From Preacher To Listener

Since stepping down as Senior Pastor of Charlotte Baptist Chapel in August 2009, after 25 years of continuous ministry in three different churches, preaching most Sundays, often twice in my early days (849 of my sermons are listed here!) I have transitioned from being mostly a preacher of sermons to a listener of sermons.

This is partly through now worshipping at Niddrie Community Church under the stimulating leadership of Mez McConnell (see his blog ) – and can I encourage you if you are a pastor/teacher not to always use the occasion of a visiting preacher to go and preach elsewhere but to acquire good listening habits. But it is mostly through my present role as Director of 2 Timothy 4 (www.2tim4.org) a Trust set up in 2009 with the purpose of “strengthening Scottish preaching”. This involves me in teaching – in two colleges and at workshops for preachers – and also in mentoring a number of preachers, ranging from those starting out to one who has been preaching for over 20 years.

This has meant listening to several hundred sermons over the past two and a half years. At a Board Meeting, one of our Trustees asked if I could summarise the main thing (a good practice for every preacher!) I had learnt thus far from listening to preachers (all of whom would be in the broad evangelical tradition). My answer was/is that most preachers are stronger on either explanation or application. Let me expand on what I mean and then use an example from a passage of Scripture.

Explanation & Application

The first task of the preacher approaching any text or passage of Scripture is to understand what message the writer, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21) intended to communicate (“authorial intent” in contrast to “reader-response” or some other new hermeneutical models). So, using the training he has received and the skills he has acquired, along with commentaries and other resources, he exegetes the text. In his sermon, he then explains this in understandable terms and with appropriate illustrations to his listeners.

For some preachers, that is it – the text explained, they largely leave it to the listener, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to work out the implications. Someone told me recently of a trainee preacher who did just this – explained the passage accurately and clearly for 30 minutes and then, in conclusion, paused and said, in effect, “Now go and do likewise”!

But he has only answered the first (and essential) question – “What does it mean?”  What is missing is the answer to a second question – “What must I/we do?” in consequence. So, for example, you can (and must) explain the background to the issue of “eating meat offered to idols” in 1 Corinthians 10, but not many of us here in Scotland will be taxed by the dilemma the Corinthian Christians faced when we are invited around for Sunday roast with our non-Christian next-door neighbours!   However, the principles of “whatever you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” and “Do not cause anyone to stumble” have a universal implication which needs to be thought through and applied in practical terms in every specific cultural context.

That is the application – but it must be built on the explanation. Otherwise, you can end up with a sermon with a powerful (and orthodox) application – but one that is not derived from or faithful to the text in question. Most of us have heard such sermons – and some of us have preached such sermons. The very first sermon I ever preached as a teenager (50 years ago!) was based on the words of King Agrippa to Paul in Acts 26:28 – “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” and I preached a sermon challenging any present who were on the brink of commitment to Christ (concluding with a moving Sankey hymn “Almost persuaded now to believe, almost persuaded Christ to receive” with a final verse “Almost – but lost”). I hope God used it but the King James Version from which I had read and studied the text obscured Agrippa’s incredulity/sarcasm and led me to conclude that he was on the brink of responding to Paul’s altar-call!

An Example

So, let me look at an example of explanation and application from Exodus1 (as Exodus seems a popular recent choice for an expository series). The danger is to impose the big idea of redemption from slavery (which is the major theme of the Book of Exodus) onto the opening chapter and apply it to our slavery to sin and redemption through Christ. But the opening chapter doesn’t lend itself very easily to this application. The Israelites are forcibly enslaved and abused and the only people who are mentioned who feared God and experienced his kindness and blessing are the Egyptians midwives!  And there is no mention (yet) of Moses the redeemer!

The key which unlocks the meaning (and application) of the opening chapter is the word with which it and the whole book begins, which is not translated in (m)any English versions: literally:

And these are the names of the sons of Israel who went down to Egypt with Jacob, each with his family

Even the English Standard Version which loves sentences beginning with “and” (29 out of 43 sentences in Mark 1!) omits it.  But, starting the process of sermon preparation with explanation/exegesis, any good commentary makes the point:

The initial “and” found in the Hebrew makes it clear that Exodus is not a new book, but simply the continuation of the Genesis story, and the fulfilment of the promises made to the patriarchs. (Alan Cole, Tyndale Old Testament Commentary).

So the opening verses of Exodus 1 are taken verbatim from Genesis 46:8ff and pick up the story from the last verse of Genesis which concludes with the death of Joseph and the embalming of his body (Genesis 50:26). Genesis concludes with the Israelites comfortably settled in Goshen – not just to see out the original famine but (it appears) forever (between the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus is a period of 400+ years!)

But the people of Israel don’t belong there* for God has a promised land and a plan of salvation – not just for them but through them for the whole world. So how will he get them (and how does he get us – must be some secondary application here?!) out of their comfort-zone and persuade them to move en masse after four centuries back to a place where they own a field with a cave? By making it a discomfort-zone through using a mass building programme with the Israelites as forced labour.
So what’s the big idea of Exodus 1? One of the preachers I work with summarised it in his title: “God’s irresistible plan of salvation”. God is working out his plan of salvation that began in Genesis (or “before the foundation of the world” if you want to be picky), continues through rescue from slavery in Egypt in Exodus, climaxes in redemption through Christ in the Gospels, expands towards “the ends of the earth” through Acts and is concluded in Revelation. And nothing can stop it/him.

And what’s the application? That through faith in Christ we can belong to God’s people and be participants in his plan of salvation.  What a message for post-moderns who we are told don’t like metanarratives but need to hear this story!

* In a cautionary response to the many who have enthusiastically embraced the exodus in the cause of liberation theology,  Jon Levenson, Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School, writes that “the implication would seem to be that the exodus is more directly about the repatriation of aliens than the emancipation of slaves” (see Jon D. Levenson, ‘Exodus and Liberation’, Horizons in Biblical Theology 13, 1991). An interesting and controversial perspective from a Jewish scholar engaged in biblical studies at the interface of Judaism and Christianity.