Some Listeners May Not Think They’re Sinners (part 6 of What Are Our Listeners Thinking?)


In this post I’m continuing my summary of the book, Belief Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious, by Linda Mercadante. Of all the things I learned about the spiritual but not religious (SBNR), what surprised me the most was how prevalent is the notion that human beings are basically good.

This information is important to me, not because I have many SBNR’s in our faith-family, but because their mindset is in the air we breathe. These notions are at war with our Christian faith.

Look at how prevalent the belief in human goodness is: “The one thing nearly everyone said—the one thing they most often started their comments with—is that human nature is inherently good” (p. 129). Here are some telling quotes:
“I think we’re born all good in terms of spirit” (p. 130)
“I think that the little child is born in goodness”
“I believe in essential goodness….Basically we’re very good.”
“We are good and doing wrong is out of character.”
“I think people are essentially good. Each one of us has a nugget of basic goodness.”
“I feel like every person is born pure and innocent, good all the way around.”
“We’re all divine….We’re all masters….We’re all perfect and all we have to do is remember that.” (p. 134)

Did you think it was that blatant? I didn’t.

It reminded me how important it is to explain original sin and sin in general whenever preaching portions contain those concepts. I can’t assume everyone knows our predicament. No predicament, no need for the Gospel. Or, how about this? Decrease the belief in our sinfulness and we decrease the need for God’s grace for our growth.

Anyway, remember that belief in human goodness is in the air and that air leaks into the sanctuaries each Sunday.

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


Preaching a Prayer (part 12 of preaching through Daniel)


Daniel 9:1-19 might be one of the easiest assignments if you’re planning to preach through Daniel. It records Daniel’s lengthy prayer.

All through this series of blog posts, I’ve been hoping that some of the strategies for preaching through Daniel will help you when you’re preaching through other books that contain similar genres. So, for instance, there are many other prayers recorded in the Old and New Testaments. Here are some things to think through when preaching a prayer.

  • What’s the situation that causes the person to pray? In Daniel 9 Daniel has learned “the number of years that…must pass before the end…namely seventy years” (v. 2). Things are going to remain messy or God’s people for quite a while.
  • What kind of God are we praying to? Cf. vv. 1-2, 4, 7a, 9a, 12, 14a, 15a for a description of our God. Daniel’s prayer is a great opportunity to teach our congregants a mini-course in Theology Proper.
  • What kind of people are we? Quite the opposite. Cf. 3, 5-6, 7b, 8, 9b-11, 13, 14b, 15b. Look closely at how I’ve listed the verse divisions and you’ll see that Daniel’s prayer contrasts God with God’s people. God’s character and our condition prepare us for our petition.
  • The only logical thing to ask: “O Lord, hear; O Lord forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act. Delay not, for your own sake…” (v. 19).

You might ask your congregants how often they need to pray such a prayer. What do you think they’d say?

Another vital question when preaching on any prayer in the Bible is, “Did God answer that prayer?” or “How is it possible that God could answer that prayer?” This accomplishes two things. First, it forces us all to ask ourselves whether we will respond to the Word of God (think about Paul’s prayers and ask whether or not God answered them; it will depend on whether Paul’s readers responded favorably to his teaching). Second, that question inevitably teaches about Christ-crucified, God’s Gift that provides forgiveness. God’s people broke the covenant agreement, but Christ kept it for us as we are spirit-led (cf. Romans 8:1-4).

Anyway, enjoy preaching the easy part of Daniel 9. Next up, the infamous “seventy weeks.” Yikes! We don’t have a prayer!

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


Preaching So Visions of the Future Fuel Faithfulness in the Present (part 11 of preaching through Daniel’s Gospel)


Even if you are not currently preaching through the book of Daniel or not even thinking about it (can’t blame you!), you may encounter apocalyptic literature in the Gospels, Revelation, and other OT prophets. If and when you do, I hope that these limited insights will help you.

Remember that all visions and prophecies of the future are designed to urge the Church to faithful living now. They are not designed to give God’s people insights into what the future will look like in order to satisfy their curiosity. They do give comfort because, as in the case of Daniel 8 below, God’s people get a glimpse of how great, political superpowers are overpowered by our omnipotent Creator in the end. They do spur us on to faithful living by showing how Daniel’s faith allowed him to work hard for an ungodly regime and still remain faithful to God.

So, in Daniel 8 we worship through Daniel’s vision of the supernaturally powered (cf. v. 24 “not by his own power”) kingdoms of the world (the ram, goat, and little horn) raising havoc throughout history. The fearful destruction that’s coming is described in vv. 1-12 and 15-25.

If you are preaching in the U.S. and want to create a stir, let your folks know that the U.S. government somehow fits into this scheme if it’s still around in the end. Or, ask your conservative congregation if they think the anti-Christ will be democrat or republican.

You will be tempted to spend significant time rehearsing the historical details of each kingdom. It’s probably better to summarize the destruction that will occur “at the latter end of the indignation, for it refers to the appointed time of the end” (v. 19) and maybe the methods (especially of the “little horn” in vv. 10-12, 23-25).

Then, you can generate hope by watching powerful earthly kingdoms come and go as history moves toward God’s ultimate judgment. Finally, God’s people will be home! The Kingdom of God will rule in a new heaven and earth.

In the meantime we must be prepared to be faithful in the midst of intense pressure to assimilate to the culture and face persecution if we don’t. Which brings us to Daniel’s reaction to the vision in v. 27 “…Then I got up again and carried on the king’s business, but I was appalled by the vision and did not understand it.” Daniel went back to work for a king ruling an ungodly kingdom. That was God’s will for him.

We do that because we know our Savior “disarmed the rulers and authorities” (Col. 2:13-15) when He died on the cross and rose from the dead. That final kingdom listed in v. 25 “will be broken without human agency.” There is hope for us who by faith remain godly in an ungodly world.

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


Church Has Left A Bad Taste In Their Mouth (part 5 of What Are Our Listeners Thinking?!)


In this series I’m highlighting some of the insights gained from reading, Belief Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious (by Linda Mercadante). I wanted to get a better understanding of what many of our congregants bring to the equation each time we preach. This kind of information affects sermon content and delivery.

For instance, many of our listeners have had previous relationships with other churches (it would be interesting to know what percentage of our parishioners have no history with a prior congregation). And many of those relationships were not good. This was one of the experiences shared by all five types of spiritual but not religious (SBNR’s) interviewees.

That means they already have a bad taste in their mouth when they sit down at your table and eat your spiritual food. One person reported:

“my mother and father would get mad at the church and pull us all out and I was too young to have a voice in the matter…” (p. 44).

Mercadante summarizes a common refrain: “[they] would find a tenet with which they disagreed, or they became disappointed with the all-too-human qualities of the average congregation, spiritual group, leader, or participant. Either they found the beliefs ultimately unbelievable, or felt that members were not living up to them.” (p. 52)

Here’s what I’m trying to do to help them reconnect with our church while I preach:

  • before Sunday morning, pray for their healing
  • showcase the relationship I have with the connected congregants through friendly sermon dialogue (it has a way of showing the hesitant that this is a safe place for their souls; they tend to get caught up in the relationship)
  • let them know you know they might disagree with a statement and address their concern as you prove your point (quasi-apologetics)
  • talk frankly about what one of my colleagues calls being a “messy church” (admit that we don’t always live up to what we believe; be honest about who we are)
  • mix in genuine smiles with all the serious sermon stuff (I’m still amazed at how strangers react to smiles in and out of church)

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


How Daniel’s Visions Fuel Faith And Faithfulness (part 10 of preaching through Daniel’s Gospel)


When you preach through Daniel, prepare to fuel your parishioners’ faith and faithfulness. The strange visions in Daniel do that. Especially the visions in chapter 7, one of the most important chapters in all the Bible.

I communicated the chapter along the following path (sometimes it helps me to see how someone else outlines a passage for preaching):

  • a terrifying look at the kingdoms of this world (vv. 1-8, 15-17, 19-21, 23-25)
  • a glorious look at God’s kingdom (vv. 9-14, 26)
  • a hope-filled look at our future kingdom (vv. 18, 22, 27)

Don’t worry about the details in the visions you can’t explain (like, for instance, what does a beast look like that is “like a leopard, with four wings…” (v. 6). Be prepared to highlight these powerful, monstrous kingdoms of the world, how they treat each other and especially how they treat God’s people (vv. 21, 25).

In the middle of that succession of fearful monsters our faith is bolstered by seeing “the Ancient of Days” take His seat on the throne (v. 9), judge the beasts (vv. 11-12), and present “one like a son of man” with “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away…” (vv. 13-14).

Finally, our faith and faithfulness are fueled when we learn a little-known doctrine: “saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever, and ever” (v. 18, 22, 27). We are going to rule with Christ forever! We live in a “present evil age” (Gal. 1:4) now, but one day…!

And all because, on the cross, our Savior died at the hands of one of those beastly superpowers, disarming the powers (Col. 2:14-15) so all who believe could enter the Kingdom of God. No wonder Jesus kept telling His disciples not to be afraid! I remember saying to our folks: “The last thing we need to worry about in this current political climate is losing our tax exempt status.”

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


P.S. Note how this chapter functions for the Church by juxtaposing visions of the beasts with visions of the rule of God.

How Daniel’s Mission Becomes Our Mission in the World (part 9 of preaching through Daniel)


One of the most neglected, yet important, facets of the theology of Daniel is how his personal mission in Babylon informs the Church’s mission in the world. One value of preaching through Daniel is that your congregants who work for a living gain insights into their mission.

In Daniel 6:2 we learn Daniel’s job description: “…so that the king might suffer no loss.” That was Daniel’s job as one of the king’s “three high officials.” Verse 3 records that Daniel surpassed them all.

Imagine Daniel reasoning this way: “The king is ungodly, therefore I cannot put my heart into making sure he suffers no loss.” Lots of Christian people feel this kind of tension. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a Christian who said, “My mission for God in this world is to make sure my boss succeeds.” I’ve met tons who said, “My mission for God in this world is the share the gospel.”

Caveat: I am all for evangelism. God, however, was interested in us seeing another kind of evangelism. Let’s call it, evangelism by excellence.

In his commentary, Duguid writes, “[Daniel] had now served the empire faithfully for almost 70 years….Daniel’s life was…completely free from corruption and negligence.” What a great testimony! Imagine helping your parishioners catch a vision for surviving their exile as strangers and aliens by serving the earthly empire in which they find themselves. It’s quite a mission. When the king stated Daniel’s mission, he put it like this: “O Daniel, servant of the living God…whom you serve continually…” I thought Daniel was serving the king?

Of course, Paul wrote, “…all that will live godly…suffer persecution.” In Daniel’s case, he the whole lion’s den scenario didn’t occur because he verbally defended truth. He was about to suffer because he lived a godly life. The whole narrative is about persecution: the persecution we should expect (vv. 1-9, 14-18), the reaction we should exhibit (vv. 10-13) and the power God has to deliver us (vv. 19-28).

While we can’t promise our folks that God will always deliver us from death, we know He will ultimately deliver us through death because His Son, our Savior, didn’t fare so well as Daniel. At least not at first. The lion devoured our Savior, but God raised Him from the den! Those who trust Him embrace their mission.

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



Preaching What’s Definitely Wrong in the Narrative (part 8 of preaching Daniel)

everything's fine

Daniel 5:1-31 presents a challenge due to its size. But it only takes the first four verses to see that something’s definitely wrong. The something that’s wrong the ultimate act of idolatry. Verse 4 concludes the party scene with: “They drank wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.” It’s a slap to God’s face.

The writer of Daniel let’s us know that this is wrong by recording Daniel’s speech to the idolatrous king in verse 23: “but you have lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven….And you have praised the gods of silver and gold….but the God in whose hand is your breath, and whose are all your ways, you have not honored.”

So, in verse 23 God provides us with the problem and solution. Our sermon is a time to urge all the faith-family to “go and do otherwise.” Genuine Christians do not follow the king’s example. We keep ourselves from idolatry of all kinds, especially the American idols. We praise “the God in whose hand is [our] breath.” We honor Him and Him alone.

The famous scene of the divine handwriting on the wall and Daniel’s interpretation of that pen-on-plaster describe God’s reaction to the king’s arrogant idolatry. It also advances our application and links us to the Gospel.

First, each one of us at the judgment will be weighed in the balances. Apart from the righteousness Christ, all of us will be “found wanting” (v. 27). But the cross shows us a Savior, the only human ever to live a perfect life, found wanting because of our sins. Because God found Him wanting due to our sins, we have the assurance of facing the judgment without fear. Genuine Christians live a life that reflects the fact that we praise and honor God alone.

For anyone who wonders whether this decision is the right one, give them a good look at how Daniel fares in this chapter.

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



Connecting Pulpit and Pew: You Need to Read

I just completed reading Bellinger’s, Connecting Pulpit and Pew: Breaking Open the Conversation about Catholic Preaching. You can look for my review in a future issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society (JEHS).

Here’s why. The author surveyed over 500 Catholic high school students to ask them how well sermons connect with them. I don’t know if I’ve ever read any homiletics material devoted to how teens hear sermons.

We know it’s important to connect with our listeners and this book helped me want to do that even better. Bellinger’s surveys of young people and clergy will provide an opportunity for you to evaluate your own preaching.

Especially convicting was the thought that many preachers are winging it and allowing other pastoral duties to squeeze out sermon preparation time.

So, if you want to spend some time thinking about audience analysis, this is a helpful little read. If you preach to young people or you have a youth pastor in your church, you will certainly benefit from reading the book or telling your colleague about it.

One of the values of reading outside my own church culture is the exposure I get to other authors. For instance, Bellinger introduced me to a book written in 1942, How to Make Us Want Your Sermon: by a Listener (O’Brien Atkinson). Speaking of our listeners, he writes, “We have one advantage. Whoever you are, wherever you preach, however lowly or lofty the occasion, the prosperity of your sermon will rest with us. If we say it was over our heads, or hard to follow, or dull and wearisome, there will be no appeal from that verdict. You may think us stupid, and we may be stupid, but our verdict will be final” (p. 55).

Enjoy. And preach a good sermon this Christmas Sunday, will ya?!

May our Lord receive glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).


Top Four Questions The Spiritual-But-Not-Religious Are Asking: Part 4 of What Are Our Listeners Thinking?!)


One of the things I learned from Mercadante’s book, Belief Without Borders, is that the spiritual but not religious (SBNR) routinely ask the following questions:

1. Is there anything larger than myself, any sacred or transcendent dimension, any Higher Power?

2. What does it mean to be human?

3. Is spiritual growth primarily a solitary process or is it done with others?

4. What will happen to me, if anything, after death? (p. 15)

These four themes kept coming up in Mercadante’s interviews and it reminded me of the need to keep them in mind during sermon preparation and delivery.

You may have seen similar lists. The concept of creating a sermon series from such questions has been around for a while. Number 4, for instance, is certainly not new.

However, while the sermon series idea has merit, I find it more effective to include these questions and answers in any sermon where they apply. Over the long haul of pastoral preaching week in and week out, congregants will benefit more from hearing answers to these questions embedded in sermons that are not particularly aimed at these questions.

Although the SBNR are not represented solely by one age bracket, I find the younger crowd asking these questions. Young professionals and artists voice their concerns more readily than my parent’s generation. If you have younger people in your church they will appreciate any time you address their questions.

You won’t have any trouble identifying questions #1 and #2 in most preaching portions. Virtually every Sunday affords opportunity to spend a minute or two on them.

Question #3 caught my eye. As the years go by, more and more people are believing less and less in the local church. The days of Mrs. Jones teaching Sunday School for thirty years seems to be gone. Question #3 will continue to be an issue pastors will have to address for years to come. In churches over 200 attendees, a smaller percentage of parishioners are involved in small groups. A greater percentage only attend Sunday morning worship and have little, if any, contact with others throughout the week.

Before Sunday, see if any of these four big questions can be addressed so that God receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).



Bookend Theology: The Key to Handling Daniel 4:1-37 (part 7)


I’ll get right to the point: the bookends of Daniel 4:1-3 and 34-35 lead the way to showing how a large chapter functions for the church. Those bookends anchor meaning.

Daniel 4 begins and ends with the king’s confession of the sovereignty of God. The king’s dream (vv. 4-18), Daniel’s interpretation of the dream (vv. 19-27), and God’s fulfillment of the dream (vv. 28-33) all contribute to explaining how the king got to the point of repentance and confession of the sovereignty of God.

Such a large chapter requires this kind of analysis. Unless you want to spend three or four sermons on this chapter, knowing how the parts fit together is critical.

And the bookends? Well, they show the king displaying the kind of attitude towards “the Most High” (cf. vv. 2, 34) that every true Christian displays.

In the middle is our nemesis: arrogance that thinks we’re god and God is not and all the sins that accompany such pride.

I title this message: Embracing the Humble Faith “that heaven rules”: Remaining Godly in an Ungodly World.

In his book, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis has a chapter called, “The Great Sin.” On page 114 he wrote, “The first step [to becoming humble] is to realize that one is proud.” The king in Daniel 4 shows us how proud we are. Actually the king’s pride expresses human pride: our naive thinking that we can ascend God’s heaven and overtake His rule (cf. v. 11 “The tree grew large and became strong, and its height reached to the sky, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth”).

God graciously forced the king to recognize his pride. The bookends of the chapter show a humbled king and his stance is shared by every genuine Christian. That’s because our Savior humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross (Cf. Philippians 2:1ff.).

I hope this helps you see how such a long apocalyptic chapter can function for the church for His glory (Ephesians 3:21).