Listening to Yourself While You’re Preaching

Every once in a while I realize I’m listening to myself while I preach. And it’s a good thing because sometimes I need to back up and correct or clarify myself. If only we had an autocorrect feature built into our sound system! It would be helpful because, if you’re like me, you don’t naturally pay attention to what you’re saying while you’re saying it.

In his theology of preaching, God’s Human Speech, Bartow writes: “Preachers are self-critical, that is to say, throughout the homiletical process, in the preparation and delivery of sermons, and, afterwards, when the preaching moment is revisited. This does not mean that preachers are ‘uptight,’ forever second-guessing themselves. But it does mean that they are self-aware, conscious of what they are doing, not just before and after, but also while they are doing it.” (p. 129, emphasis added)
It was the “while they are doing it” part that jumped out at me. Being self-critical during sermon delivery is not automatic, but the congregation is better for it when it happens.
Here’s what I’ve experienced that helps me listen carefully to myself while I’m preaching:
  1. The better I know the material, the easier it is for me to listen to myself while I’m preaching. I’m not thinking about what I’m going to say next. When I’m prepared in heart and head I’m in the moment.
  2. There are times in the sermon when I know I didn’t use the right word. When I catch myself, I can back up and use a better word. There’s no shortcuts to expanding one’s vocabulary. Next to my Bible, my thesaurus gets a tough workout every week.
  3. There are times when I know I wasn’t clear. Writing out the sermon manuscript word for word helps decrease the chances of being unclear on Sunday. But there’s usually times when a puzzled look in the congregation tells me it’s time to pause for clarification.
Bartow writes, “Somehow we know that something just said needs modification, amplification, correction. Somehow we sense our involvement or lack of it, our believability or unbelievability. We sense the involvement or lack of it of our congregants too. And we take action as needed on the basis of our tutored (by our criteria) instincts.” (p. 130)

So, before Sunday be ready to listen to yourself preach so that God’s glory is enhanced in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Avoiding “Ping Pong” Preaching

Not that long ago I finally finished reading Bartow’s, God’s Human Speech. I say, “finally,” because for years I’ve read authors who quoted Bartow. In the book he says,

“there is no need for what has been called ‘ping pong’ speech, exposition followed by application: ‘This is what the text meant then, here is what the text means now.’ Whatever the exegetical method behind the sermon, in it, with texts of Scripture, God speaks to us in the present….It may deal with the past. it may look to the future. But its stance from beginning to end is in the here and now.” (p. 131)

There is no need for ping pong preaching because of the nature of Scripture. In Scripture God is addressing us. But expositors, in an effort to be biblical, often spend precious sermon seconds in background material and historical exegesis. As I’ve written before, preachers are often more historian than theologian (real bloggers would now write, “tweet that”).

Remember, our task isn’t to talk to our listeners about the Bible, but instead, we talk to them about them from the Bible. God is addressing us every Sunday.

To avoid bouncing back and forth and giving your congregants chronological whiplash, try the following:

  • begin the sermon with a clear, concise statement about how we will worship in response to this revelation (somewhere in the introduction, say, “This morning we worship by…”)
  • think in terms of “you” and “us” and “we” instead of “the Corinthians…”
  • translate as much exegesis as possible into theology that functions for and addresses the church (as opposed to historical, exegetical fragments about the text)
  • repeat and restate the intended worship response at strategic moments/minutes in the sermon (as opposed to only thinking about a big idea that summarizes the content)
  • rhetorically speaking, speak in such a way that your listeners never forget that God is addressing us.

Before Sunday, especially this coming Easter Sunday 2017, write your sermon manuscript–yes, you should write it out and leave it in your study (another topic for another time!)–with as little ping pong approach as possible.

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

Randal

Preaching the Intention of Difficult Texts

Yesterday morning, I preached the end of 1 Corinthians 13. Calvary Bible Church of Mount Joy, PA is a typical non-charismatic, revised dispensational church that expects to hear that the phrase, “when the perfect comes,” (cf. v. 10) refers to the completed New Testament.

You might recall from a recent post about preaching through the head covering section that I find it helpful to warn congregants up front as to what they won’t hear. That’s right. Won’t hear.

In yesterday’s case, I wanted to prepare them for my not spending much time on what “the perfect” is, when it “comes” and what “the partial” is that “will pass away.”

My reason: because that whole discussion is not vital to preaching the intention of chapter 13. And I am intentional about preaching the intention of the Text. I’m not so concerned about preaching the incidentals of the Text.

So, I was delighted to recently read Walton and Sandy’s, The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority, and learn how the Bible is authoritative. Along the way of explaining how oral cultures passed down authoritative teaching, the authors review one main contribution of Speech-Act Theory: understanding “that communication is an action with particular intentions” (p. 41).

Speech-Act Theory provided us with three helpful categories of communication, all of which affect preaching God’s Word.

God’s Word involves:

  • locutions–the genres, words, sentences, and grammatical structures
  • illocutions–what God intends to do with those words (instruct or make a promise)
  • perlocutions–the response God anticipates His hearers to experience as a result of His Word (think application).

The middle one–the illocutions–is most important when preaching difficult texts like 1 Corinthians 13:10. W and S write, “The important point is that if we misread the illocution, we are likely to also misinterpret, because understanding the illocution provides the doorway into interpretation” (p. 42, note 5).

So, when preaching difficult texts, texts with exegetical pitfalls, focus on the intention, not the incidentals. Imagine a congregation that “knows” what the perfect is, when it arrives, what the partial is that will pass away when the perfect arrives, and yet has no love.

Before Sunday, nail down the illocution, the intention, of your preaching portion so God receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Preaching as an Act of Translation

I missed my usual Monday or Tuesday post due to traveling to El Salvador with two colleagues. On Sunday afternoon I had the burdensome joy of preaching in Eglesia Bautista Nejapa. Through a translator.

That changes everything.

If you’ve preached through a translator, you know you have to think about the translation process before the sermon begins. It reminded me that preaching is a form of translation even when we’re preaching in our own language.

So, before I preached last Sunday in El Salvador I had to think about:

  • What is the dominant response this Text demands of Christians? (I often ask, “What does God intend this Word to do to Christians?”)
  • What is the big idea (in proverbial or abbreviated form)?
  • What two or three key words are going to be repeated throughout the sermon?

Pretty important questions. I’m asking them before preaching in El Salvador because I’ve got to find the right words. Words that will translate well. Words that the listeners will resonate with. I know what I want to say, but it’s sometimes clearer in my mind than out of my mouth.

The little exercise made me clearer than normal. My listeners at Calvary Bible Church would appreciate that.

Before next Sunday, ask yourself those three questions. Work for even clarity on all three for God’s glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Lessons I Learned From Preaching About Head Coverings

It was inevitable. I am currently preaching through 1 Corinthians and it was just a matter of time before reaching chapter 11 and the subject of head coverings. Yikes!

Jesus didn’t come back in time.

So, here’s what I learned. Maybe this will help when you preach a variety of difficult texts:

  • “I will disappoint many of you. Thank you for loving me anyway.” I said that more than once preaching about head coverings in chapter 11 and spiritual gifts in chapters 12-14. I said it to prepare parishioners for what was coming and not coming during the teaching times.
  • If ever there is a time to model hermeneutical humility, it is while preaching such multiple-ways-to-understand texts!
  • I had to fight against the fear of losing some congregants because of my approach. It took more courage than normal to say to a non-hat-wearing faith-family: “We need to give this instruction a fair reading regardless of our current practice.”
  • I needed to remember that, for some listeners, their past experience in churches will keep them from hearing this teaching. So I needed to try to show why what God is saying may not be equal to what “turned them off.”
  • I trusted my leadership to hear the Word that Sunday and respond appropriately. I do that every Sunday, but it seemed more important due to the controversial subject matter. We agreed that no head covering “policy” was needed but that everyone should take seriously the need to maintain God-created gender distinctions in church.
  • That last sentence was important theologically. Paul wrote about head covering in order to address a more foundational issue (cf. 11:3; look for that with other difficult concepts). That issue of responsibility within a relationship was key. And in a culture that is blurring many lines, God’s Word needs a fresh hearing in the Church.
  • Finally, I learned that nothing beats some measure of pastoral longevity when having to preach difficult texts. One of God’s good gifts is the opportunity to be a part of a faith-family that will love me and think hard about difficult truths in the Word of God.

For what it’s worth…

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

Randal

Consider Preaching a Post-_______ Mini-Series

Sometimes, when I’m done preaching through a book of the Bible, the “completed” series feels more like an episode of This Old House. Meaning there are some cracks to fill.

My approach through the years has been to preach through books of the Bible, but without being exhaustive (and hopefully not exhausting!). In other words, I keep the pace of the series moving by keeping my preaching portions each Sunday as large as the genre allows, short of feeling like I’m skimming over important material.

It’s a judgment call every preacher makes. Some very effective preachers spend years on a book that I determine to cover in a fraction of the time.

However, that means I will often follow-up a series on let’s say, Revelation, with what I call a Post-Revelation mini-series. I am counting on those post-book series to fill in the cracks.

So, while you’re preaching through a book of the Bible, record some of the areas where you’ve said to your parishioners: “I wish we could devote more time to this.” Use the post-book series to do that.

You’ll find that the post-book series will allow you more time to develop a detailed exposition of critical doctrines. You will have already dealt with the context and rudimentary understandings of the doctrine. Now you can fill in some of the cracks to create a smoother finish.

I find this approach helps me keep the original sermon series through a book moving along without sacrificing the necessary nuancing some doctrines may require.

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

Randal

How to Preach the End of a Series (part 4 of preaching the gospel of Ruth)

Preaching through Ruth provides a good test case for exploring how to preach the end of a series. That’s because it is so short. The space between the end of the book and the beginning of the book is small. It is relatively easy to conclude with a comparison or contrast to the beginning.

So, when you conclude a sermon series consider:

  • re-emphasizing the series theme (in Ruth: Discovering God as “the Restorer of life” conveniently found at the end in 4:15; chapter 4 provides tons of opportunities to re-explain facets of redemption, including our need to become mini-redeemers in our world)
  • showing how far we’ve come from the beginning of the series (especially important in a narrative like Ruth; we began at the end of the Judges with no king, in great need of one, and end Ruth with an announcement of King David in 4:22; plus in the middle Ruth and Boaz are two characters who do not do what is right in their own eyes)
  • teaching how the book contributes to the Canon of Scripture (in this case, what does Ruth add to the Story; this will overlap some with the first bullet point above; if you didn’t have Ruth, what would we miss?)
  • reminding congregants about what God has done in Christ (especially important if you are completing a series through a NT epistle of Paul; usually, the letters will begin with the indicative and move on to imperatives; the end of the series is a good time to remind us all of the indicatives which were the foundation of the more practical sections)
  • convey a sense of corporate accomplishment (“We’ve traveled a lot of biblical ground together during this series…”; ending a series is a bit emotional, bitter/sweet; I have found that congregations that experience such travels begin to anticipate the next journey with you)

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

Randal

P.S. If you’re preaching Ruth chapter 4, consider the following path:

  1. Two kinds of redemption (spiritual and material; a time to carefully define redemption in its various forms in the story)
  2. The redemption we’re responsible for (vv. 1-10 and how God’s laws create opportunities for us to be mini-redeemers for those in need)
  3. The blessing that came and comes through redemption (vv. 11-22; here we find the wonderful announcement of our selected theme and the trajectory created by Boaz and Ruth’s son)

Let the Main Character Determine Your Sermon Idea

If you’re preaching through Ruth’s Gospel and reach chapter 3, you’re wise to let Naomi determine the subject of your sermon. She does that through the first recorded words in v. 1,

“My daughter, should I not seek rest for you…?”

Read through the chapter quickly and when you arrive at the end of the chapter you’ll hear Naomi repeat your sermon idea,

“…the man will not rest but will settle the matter…”

In any narrative it’s wise to allow key speeches of main characters have a say in our sermon themes. In the case of Ruth chapter 3, staying focused on the theme of “rest” will prevent us from focusing too much attention on the planning (vv. 2-5) and executing the plan surrounding the risky–some would even say, risqué–threshing floor scene (vv. 6-15).

The narrative means something because (1) we desperately need the kind of rest this narrative highlights. In his commentary, Webb says it’s “rest…from spiritual emptiness and alienation from God….acceptance…provision, a future, and a life worth living.” Jesus taught us about it in Matthew 11:28-30 and Hebrews tells us that it’s still future (4:1-11).

The bulk of the story involves (2) our search for rest. It’s an interesting combination of working and waiting. Ruth displays incredible faith in Naomi’s zany, even dangerous plan (an unmarried woman walking around in the middle of the night!).

N.B. Don’t miss the great opportunity to highlight the description of Ruth in v. 11, “…for all my fellow townsmen know that you are a worthy woman.” It’s the same word used in Proverbs 31:10. In Ruth 3:11 it’s the reason Boaz gives for redeeming Ruth and Naomi. That reason will surely test your theological acumen!

Finally, (3) the source of our rest is still found in Boaz, the redeemer. This is repeated in vv. 2, 9, 12-13. Campbell defines him as “[the one who] takes responsibility for the unfortunate and stands as their supporter.”

And, if you’re looking for how Ruth and Boaz send us on a trajectory to Christ, like Ruth, Jesus becomes an alien/stranger on our behalf in order to bring us into true family status. Like Boaz, Christ brings us into His family so that we can enjoy the rest of God.

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

Randal

When Exemplars and Christ-Centered Combine: Preaching Ruth (part 3)

I know some pit Christ-centered preaching versus exemplar preaching (“go and do likewise” in the case of good examples or “go and do otherwise” in the case of bad examples). But it’s hard to deny that Ruth contains some narratives that provide good examples for Christians to follow (think, Boaz). But Ruth also functions for the Church by placing us in a narrative trajectory that leads to our Savior, the Source of God’s favor. It’s both/and, not either/or.

Boaz was the source of favor for Ruth and Naomi. Chapter 2 opens by drawing attention to him: “a worthy man…” He’s the kind of man God creates and is there for us to emulate. The narrative does more than provide an exemplar, but not less than.

Campbell suggests, “the Ruth story is basically about extraordinary caring and concern, kindness that is above and beyond the call of duty.” In the overall message of Ruth (discovering God as “the restorer of life”), what happens to Ruth and Naomi provide a picture of how God restores life by extending kindness.

The theme of the narrative is located in Ruth’s statement about her spiritual instincts: that she would “find favor” in someone’s field (cf. 2:2, 10). Often the statement of a main character contains the seeds of the big idea for a narrative scene or series of scenes.

To make sense of the chapter, focus on the concept of “favor.” You could outline it this way:

The source of favor (vv. 1, 4-5, 8-9, 14-16, 19-20) is Boaz and the laws God put in place to care for those in need.

The need for favor (vv. 2-3, 6-7, 13, 17-18, 21-23; these two main points could switch places, even though the source of favor occurs in v. 1) is a picture of every one of us spiritual unfortunates.

The reason for receiving favor (vv. 10-12; if you like theological challenges, you’ll love the reason provided in v. 12, “The Lord repay you for what you have done…”) is the faith Ruth had in the “system” God put in place.

As I said above, Ruth’s Gospel does more than provide Boaz as an example to follow. Naomi describes him in v. 20, “The man is a close relative of ours, one of our redeemers.” It’s a great opportunity to remind everyone how God extended favor to us in the person of His Son, to restore life.

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

Randal

Preaching Ruth’s Christo-centric Narrative (part 2)

If you’re planning on preaching any Old or New Testament narratives these days or in the near future, my approach to Ruth may help.

For instance, (1) the entire narrative begins with a sovereign God allowing (bringing?) a famine, multiple male deaths in the family, but also good news that food was now available (vv. 1-7). It’s an example of the judgment God’s people could expect if they disobeyed Him (cf. Lev. 26:19-20).

Remember that all OT narratives meaning something within the context of the blessings and curses announced in the Covenant.

(2) Ruth’s decision to follow Naomi and her God is crucial to the story (vv. 8-18, 22). Our congregants need to hear that only the God revealed in Christ is the source of all truly good things in this life. That’s especially important in a time when an estimated two-thirds of Christians believe that many religions can lead to eternal life and half of all Christians believe some non-Christian religions can lead to life eternal. Of course, our parishioners are probably not trying to be Christian and Hindu, let’s say. More than likely they, like us, try to be Christian and still allow our affections to land on more sophisticated idols.

(3) Finally, we read this candid reaction of Naomi to all the “bitterness” the Lord brought into her life (vv. 19-21). So many tidbits. Naomi’s not recognizable (v. 19). She knows exactly what God has done to her (v. 20 “…the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me”). A great opportunity for us to explain a theology of trouble/discipline (cf. Heb. 12:3-11), the purpose of the “bitter.”

And, if you’re wondering about how to get from Ruth 1 to the Gospel, you might think: on the cross, the Almighty dealt very bitterly with Jesus (v. 20) and the Lord testified against Jesus and brought calamity upon Him (v. 21) because of our sins.

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

Randal