Is Your Preaching Getting Better?


A while ago the following sentence caught my eye. It’s from Pandora’s bio on the singing group, Hot Chocolate:

“An interracial English funk and soul group, Hot Chocolate scored a pair of huge hits in the 70’s but were otherwise more enthusiastic than skilled.”


This immediately made me think of what someone could say about me or any other preaching pastor.

I recognize that skill levels vary with individuals. It’s that way with athletes. There is LeBron James and there are other basketball players (older blog readers insert Michael Jordan). And it’s that way with preachers. I’m no Tony Evans or Tim Keller.

This week I begin teaching Advanced Homiletics to a class at LBC’s northern Virginia campus. I’m also in the middle of working with a Baltimore pastor in an independent study in Communicating Biblical Truth. So, I’m thinking a lot these days about how to teach hermeneutical and homiletical skills. As always, it forces me to think about how I’m doing. How skillful am I at…

  • fighting the good fight of faith? At fighting temptation? At displaying the fruit of the Spirit?
  • interpreting how Scripture functions for the Church? At theological exegesis? At understanding the human heart?
  • communicating God’s Word in church? At speaking, pace, movement, energy, urgency? At relating to the learners?

Take a look at those three broad categories. What does it take to become more skillful in these areas. It takes intentional, intense prayer. It takes purposeful reading. It takes consistent pastoral interaction (loving and listening).

God help us preach better so that He gets glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).


P.S. Preach a good sermon, will ya?!


Preaching in Relatively Emotionless Bible Churches

TDT_Feeling Your Feelings

Our preaching portion for this past Sunday evening began, “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him…” (2 Thessalonians 2:1). So, I began the exposition with that concept. Our Lord is returning and we are going to join Him.

Nothing happened.

Preaching without notes means that, when I’m not looking down at my Bible, I’m looking at congregants. It’s a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing when I see them responding; it’s a curse when I see that their emotions are turned off.

Over the years I’ve half-joked with our faith-family something like this: “Let’s be careful. We’re a Bible Church. We know things; we don’t feel things.”

But, tell me how it’s possible for a Christian to hear about the coming of Jesus and not feel something! That tells me that my job is not just to teach what the arrival of Jesus means. I have to also urge them to feel it. I argue that if they don’t feel something, that says something about their faith.

Some of it’s habit: we’re in the habit of learning without feeling. Some of it is apathy created from living in America where we have things so good most of the time. Watch the reaction of young people when they hear about the arrival of Jesus. Then watch the reaction on the faces of elder people who are battling terminal illness. Circumstances do tend to affect the way we feel our faith.

It’s like when someone says, “I sure hope Jesus doesn’t come back until after our wedding.” You understand their sentiment.

Before Sunday, see if there are places in your preaching portion where an emotional response is the natural result of saving faith. Along with explaining the doctrine, think through what you can say to help switch their emotions on. Some congregants will beat you to it. Feed off them as you urge the faith-family to feel what they know so that God receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

And preach a good sermon, will ya?!


How Do You Handle All The English Translations Your Congregants Carry?


Our parishioners have lots of English versions of the Bible to choose from. On any given Sunday I can count on our faith-family members to carry ESV’s, NIV’s, NASB’s, KJV’s, NKJV’s, and NLT’s. And I’m probably forgetting some.

Most weekends, I try to familiarize myself with how those translations read. I want to know what my congregants are reading while I’m teaching. Sometimes the differences are minimal; other times critical.

My training at Dallas Theological Seminary and post-doctoral studies at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) equipped me to read Hebrew and Greek during my sermon preparation. This gives me a platform from which to understand why English translators are doing what they’re doing. Sometimes I pass that information on to our folks.

But that can create a problem. My attempts to explain why, for instance, the NIV is not the “best” translation of that word/phrase/verse, can give the congregants holding that translation the notion that their Bible isn’t reliable. I don’t want to do that.

In his commentary on Luke’s Gospel, Fred Craddock writes:

Some parishioners will need help with such textual variants lest the mood of uncertainty about the text become erosive to faith. The preacher and the teacher want always to give the Bible to the listeners, not take it away (p. 289).
How can we explain the different English translations of our Sunday preaching portions and still instill confidence that this is God’s Word?
  1. Remind them that translators are wrestling with original-language sources that read differently. Sometimes, just knowing that helps. Sometimes.
  2. Show them why their particular version works. Avoid saying, “Your version is wrong!”
  3. Tell them that choosing between these exegetical options is all good: “It’s okay. Relax.”

Before Sunday, check to see if you have any places in your preaching portion that require this kind of interaction. Give them confidence in the Word of God and contribute to His glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

And preach a good sermon, will ya?!


“Some scholars believe…”: Harmless-Sounding Sermon Segments

Sunda Slow Loris (Nycticebus coucang), Gunung Leuser National Park, Northern Sumatra, Indonesia

Sunda Slow Loris (Nycticebus coucang), Gunung Leuser National Park, Northern Sumatra, Indonesia

Two Sundays ago, I preached on Hebrews 9:22-28. Verse 28 reads, “so Christ…will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” Before that, I preached through the book of Daniel and encountered phrases like, “it would be for a time, times, and half a time” (12:7) or, “Blessed is he who waits and arrives at the 1,335 days” (12:12).

No, I’m not a sucker for punishment. I just happened to be in a series that forces me to explain and apply some very difficult Scripture.

But that makes me susceptible to saying things like: “Some scholars believe that before Jesus appears the second time on earth, He will…” Or, “Many believe that what the angel was saying is…” Or, “Others believe that the 1,335 days mean…”

At first these kinds of phrases might appear harmless. I means, let’s face it, what harm can it do to give congregants exegetical or interpretive options? The more I’ve thought about this habit of mine, the more I’ve come to think that those minutes are not as harmless as they look. Those minutes…

  • take me away from my primary task of announcing truth and urging faith and a worshipful response.
  • eat up precious time that I usually wish I had as the sermon comes to a close.
  • muddy the waters and distract listeners from their worship-response.

Before Sunday, examine your notes and see if such harmless-looking minutes exist. Decide whether those minutes help you complete your responsibilities to watch over souls.

And, for the sake of God’s glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21), preach a good sermon, will ya.


What I’m Learning About Preaching From American Idol Judges


I admit it. I enjoy watching competitions like American Idol and The Voice. Partly because I love to hear good singing. Partly because the judges teach me about effective communication to contemporary listeners. Even though I focus almost entirely on the hermeneutical side of homiletics, I still try to think about effective communication.
There are many similarities between good singing performances and good preaching (notice I did not add, “performances,” because I do not like to think of preaching in terms of a performance).
So over the years, over and over again, I hear the judges tell a contestant:
“You need to make a connection with the audience and the way that happens is by losing yourself in the lyrics and telling the story so it’s believable. When you feel what you’re singing about, your audience will feel it too and believe your story.” Or something like that.
Do you see how this applies to preaching? A preacher losing himself in his sermon and telling the Story so it’s believable? A preacher feeling what he’s preaching about and conveying such feeling that his listeners find themselves believing it too?
Now, let’s ask ourselves what happens when we preach without doing this. How do you think we connect when we preach without losing ourselves in the message or without conveying the fact that we believe the Story? Not very well.
One of the authors in, Preaching the New Testament, included Jana Childers’ observation found in her book, Performing the Word: “In her view too much contemporary preaching lacks passion and does not sound like the preacher believes what he is preaching” (p. 236 of Preaching the NT).

I can tell you that many young preachers in my classrooms over the years have heard me say something very similar about their sermons. I wonder what the judges would say about my preaching.

Before Sunday, be sure your faith in the message allows your to lose yourself in the sermon and tell the Story in a way that’s believable. Feel what you’re preaching about and convey that emotion to your congregants.

For the sake of God’s reputation in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21), preach a good sermon will ya?!


How Much Speculation Is In Your Exposition?



Shortly after graduating from Dallas Theological Seminary, I preached a sermon in chapel at Appalachian Bible College. I was working at the time for, what used to be called, Washington Bible College/Capital Bible Seminary. I don’t remember the sermon, but vividly remember the late, beloved preaching professor of ABC, Dr. Paul Reiter, giving feedback.

He kindly urged me to get rid of phrases like, “I think…” or “I believe…” His reasoning was that these phrases took away from the authority of Scripture and from my responsibility as a preacher. I took his critique to heart.

Through over 20 years of preaching each Sunday, teaching preaching students, and listening to hundreds of sermons, I’ve come realize we preachers have a strong tendency to pepper our exposition with speculation. Instead of breaking news, we announce breaking speculation.
The fact that it happens frequently says something about the Bible and something about our understanding of preaching.
First, the habit highlights the need to carefully understand the doctrine known as the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture. I believe in that doctrine, but also believe it downplays the difficulty of Scripture. It is the difficulty of Scripture that causes us to frequently announce breaking speculations in the form of, “Well, I think Paul is saying this…” or “Scholars believe that Paul is…”
In his commentary on 2 Corinthians, Harris writes, “Although Paul has not identified the ‘thorn,’ commentators have not been slow to attempt the impossible.”
And I am far too guilty of wasting valuable sermon time announcing breaking speculation. Never have I been so aware of this as while recently preaching through the book of Daniel. Imagine what our exposition of Daniel would sound like if we stuck with exposition sans speculation!
This habit also says a lot about our understanding of preaching. God didn’t authorize me to announce speculation, but His revelation. Dr. Reiter was right when he told me to preach, “This is what the Lord says, not what you think.”
Before Sunday, look over your exposition and see how much speculation is in it. Ask God to help you balance good scholarship with faithful preaching so He receives glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).
In emails or Facebook posts to my preacher friends, I’ll often end my note with the playful challenge, “Preach a good sermon, will ya?!” I consider you one of them, so…
Preach a good sermon, will ya?!

What I’m Learning About Preaching From Atheist Attendees


Two events produced this post. The first event happened a few years ago and lasted over a three or four-year time period. The second event happened yesterday. Both events involved atheists attending church and overhearing worship during the teaching time. Both events continue to teach me valuable lessons about preaching.

First, atheists listen more critically to what we say than our faith-family. In this way, in a small way, I feel what Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian feels about preaching in New York City. He said he always has to make sure he has his facts right in NYC because he knew his listeners will verify his words.

My two atheists–one regular attender and one, one-Sunday visitor–listened more closely than most regular attending Christians. It means I have to pay attention to my facts during illustrations (I find that’s the time I’m most apt to misspeak). But actually, having experienced atheists in the house has made me realize how important it is for me to do my homework. I don’t want to take advantage of Christian listeners who are not as critical listeners. I don’t want to lead them astray with false data.

Second, my interaction with the two men helped me realize that our Christianity rests on faith that God’s revelation explains the reality of our world. I’m currently reading, Belief Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious, by Linda A. Mercadante.

Over and over again I’m reading excerpts of people believing that human beings are basically good and that they will do the right thing given enough education. Very different perspective than the anthropology of Scripture. I was challenged to continue to make it clear that God’s Story is our story. We believe that what God says in His Word is reality. We continually assess whether the lives we’re living match the reality of God’s Word.

Third, my time with the self-proclaimed atheists, both of which left the Christian faith, confirmed for me that no apologetical skill will turn a committed atheist into a committed Christian. I am responsible to preach the Word. Apart from the Spirit of God, I can’t force someone to believe God’s Word is real.

I remember hearing Dr. Norman Geisler, one of my former professors at Dallas Theological Seminary in the ’80’s say, “Apologetics is effective in helping a person who’s on the fence.” These two atheists, one of which is my friend, are not on the fence. And my best attempts at being an apologist will not win the day.

(Some readers might be interested in learning that the well-known Yale Old Testament Biblical Theology professor, Brevard Childs, once wrote me a letter stating that he felt that an emphasis on apologetics was detracting from the preaching of God’s Word.)

Anyway, there you have it: what I’m learning about preaching from atheist attendees.

Preach well so God receives glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).


“I do not think it means what you think it means”: Carefully Defining Your Definitions


First, I hope you’ve seen the Princess Bride. But, that’s not important right now.

If you’re an expositor, you spend a lot of sermon time defining key terms in your preaching portion. For instance, how many times over the years have you explained that grace is God’s unmerited favor? That is a good starter-definition, but it needs some fleshing out.

For instance, what is the “favor” part? We probably do a better job explaining the “unmerited” part. But the “favor” part is very important. Especially since the word, “grace,” to most of our listeners doesn’t do anything to them. Grace does something for them (even though they might not know exactly what that is).

So, I try to be careful to define my definitions as much as possible/needed. In the case of grace, for instance, I want to make sure everyone in the house knows that the unmerited “favor includes things like God’s forgiveness and cleansing and supernatural assistance to live for Him. Stuff like that.

Carefully defining our definitions is especially helpful with very familiar Christian terms like grace, mercy,  and salvation.

Before Sunday, see if your sermon contains key terms that needed extra special attention. Look for those terms that you keep using in the sermon and make sure your definitions are defined. This will add another layer of theological depth and clarity to your preaching. Plus, you may find there are some well-known definitions that could use a makeover.

Preach well for the sake of God’s reputation in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).



When God Repeats Himself: Discovering the Meaning of Luke’s Record of Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus


Often, repetition is a key to the meaning of Gospel narratives. Meaning the main idea of my sermon needs to match the meaning conveyed through repetition. That’s important to remember in long narratives like Luke 24 where Jesus approaches two men who were walking toward Emmaus.

Among so many promising ideas, is the repeated idea of recognizing or not recognizing Jesus.

V. 16 “But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”

V. 31 “And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.”

V. 35 “…and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

So, the sermon centers on this idea of being able to see Jesus. There was a reason why they couldn’t see Him. They didn’t believe in His resurrection from the dead. More importantly for us is why we can’t see Him at times. We live in a time when we follow Jesus without seeing Him. That means we have to believe in Him as recorded in Scripture. We know we’re on track because Jesus “interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (v. 27).

Read to see Jesus; read to believe in Jesus.

Also important for us is noting that they finally did see Jesus during a Communion service. God opened their eyes while they were eating with Him. Every Sunday, the Word and the Lord’s Table (if you’re fortunate enough to celebrate it each Sunday) provide opportunities to see Jesus.

Whatever else you feel you need to say about these scenes, the repetition guides our exposition.

Before Sunday, see if there are repeated concepts in your preaching portion that are significant enough to yield dominant meaning. In the case of narratives, significant repetition is repetition that is connected to the storyline.

Preach well for the sake of His reputation in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).


Surprising Help from a Critical and Historical Commentary!


It is not often that a critical and historical commentary delivers consistent help to preachers beyond technical, exegetical fragments. That’s why I was surprised to see the Daniel commentary in the Hermeneia Series contain a segment called, Structure and Unity.

As Collins goes through each large segment in Daniel’s gospel, along with the brilliant technical stuff, he includes a brief treatment of the segment’s structure and unity:

Major points are listed (I, II, III, etc.)

Verse parameters (I. 3:1-7, for instance)

Summary statement (I. 3:1-7. Introduction)

Summary of the section (two or three sentences describing the content of the section)

For the past few years, I’ve been assigning a similar assignment to my students. I call it, Major Thought Blocks. I believe it to be the most important aspect of developing genuine expository sermons. It’s the first phase of my own study every Monday morning. Here’s why…

Theology is conveyed through the structure of your preaching portion. Unity of thought is also conveyed through the structure. Disregard or break from the structure and, chances are good (within the realm of the sovereignty of God, of course!), that you will stray from the theology and unity of the preaching portion.

So, I add only one more thing to the list above. Along with major points, verse parameters, summary statement, and summary of the section’s content, add logical transitions between the major points. That allows you to track the Author’s/author’s flow of thought. It’s that flow that communicates the theology (whether narrative or epistle).

Before Sunday, see if you have identified these components in your preaching portion. See if your sermon idea matches what is being communicated. If your sermon’s structure and unity is different from the preaching portion’s, check to see how different your message is from the message of the Text.

Preach well for God’s reputation in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).