Due to sickness earlier in the week, my Elders strongly suggested I only preach once yesterday. That meant I had the privilege of listening to one of my colleagues preach. Like many of you, I don’t get the opportunity to listen to someone else preach live too often. I learned that:
- Our relationship with our listeners is an important part of preaching. My friend has great rapport with our faith-family and it showed in his preaching and our worshiping in the Word.
- Powerful illustrations can overpower the sermon point. He told a “killer” (literally!) story about Zwingli’s brutal treatment of Anabaptists. The next thing you say after the story is over is critical for regaining attention back to the message. That’s the time for a succinct, well-worded sentence or two of how the Text affects the listener’s relationship with God. If you don’t do that, the sheer force of the illustration can hijack the sermon.
- Don’t break eye-contact when you arrive at your key statements. You probably have them written down in your notes. You want to say them just right, but you also need to impress it on your listeners and that happens best while you’re looking at them.
- Work extra hard to maintain good energy while covering a long list of commands. In the preaching covered yesterday there were at least seven commands in a row. It is difficult, next to impossible to keep a congregation engaged as you explain each item. Carefully consider how you’ll pace yourself through the list. Think about an approach–cover each equally (say a minute and a half each?), focus on a few, or group some of them. Whatever you decide, remember how difficult it is to keep a sermon’s energy high as you move through the list.
- My mind wandered during the sermon. I know, right?! But it did. It’s difficult to keep our listeners with us as the minutes go by. It’s critical, then, to keep bringing them back, especially by reminding them of the big idea.
May these takeaways add to God’s glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21),
P.S. For what it’s worth, that sermon was very good!
Michele and I enjoyed a profitable trip to San Salvador, El Salvador to visit a church plant we are privileged to be a part of. I had the privilege of conducting preaching workshops to area pastors and preaching in the church plant and the mother church. My translator, Edwin Garcia, was incredible (unlike Michele, my Spanish is horrible!).
But what I learned about the connection between faith and obedience was interesting.
Once during the preaching workshop and once during a sermon, it became very clear that I had to be crystal clear that faith in Christ creates the desire and capacity for Christians to act in ways the Scriptures demanded.
At one point during a workshop the senior pastor asked to comment. He was fearful that his parishioners were hearing a kind of salvation-by-works message. That’s because I was explaining the need to obey Christ’s teaching. He didn’t know that I hadn’t gotten to the part where I would say:
“Obedience to this teaching doesn’t make you a Christian. You do not become a Christian by doing this, you do this because you are a Christians. Faith in Christ creates the desire and capacity to do this.”
The pastor was relieved when I finally got to this point. I don’t blame him. But as I watched the faces of participants and congregants that week, I realized how important it is to show the connection between faith and obedience.
Take a look at your preaching portion for Sunday. If there are instructions which Christians are supposed to put into practice, ask yourself if you are being clear about the connection between faith and Christ and obedience. Every time I make this clear, whether in our faith-family or elsewhere, I see the light come on.
We’re not moralists, we’re Christians. We’re not saved by works, but by a faith that works. The default setting of our hearts is such that we need this reminder over and over again.
Preach well so God receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).
Even though I regularly preach through books of the Bible, I am always on the lookout for a good, topical/exposition preaching series. I recently completed a study of 25 “one another” instructions found in the New Testament. If you haven’t preached these “one another’s”, I highly recommend it to you.
Why? Because the “one another” instructions help us resist the gravitational pull of our society toward a disconnected or isolated spirituality. More and more I’m reading of professing Christians who believe in Jesus, but do not believe in being vitally connected to a local church. These “one another” instructions teach us why we need the Church and why the Church needs us. It is difficult–maybe even impossible at times–to obey the “one another” instructions without close association with a faith-family. If you plan on some pulpit time each year dealing with what it means to be a local church or with your church covenant, the “one another” study is a good option.
If you decide to preach all or some of the 25 “one another’s” (and the count may vary depending on what English translation you follow), here are a few things I learned. They affect virtually every individual instruction:
- show the connection between “love one another” and many, if not all the other instructions. The much repeated/restated command seems to function as an umbrella under which all the other commands occur. Love is the first thing to go. If I don’t love you, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for me to pray for you.
- spend time teaching the hurdles that must be overcome in order to put the “one another” instructions into practice. For instance, if you are preaching on “put up with one another” (my favorite, non-Christian sounding one!), what is it about the default setting of our hearts that make that difficult to do? Often, it is some form of selfishness or self-focus. Sometimes, however, the hurdle is the other person–what they’re like or how they act.
- balance the imperative (the “one another” command) with the indicative (what God-in Christ-through the Spirit has done in us). The “one another” series tips the scales each weekend on the imperative side. It’s easy to forget that these instructions are organically linked to detailed indicative sections with which most NT epistles begin.
Preach well for the sake of God’s reputation.
I learned from Jesus’ application of His own parable of the four soils that every teaching time in church is urgent. He teaches us in Luke 8:18 “Take care then how you hear…” This is Jesus’ primary application, after He showed us four kinds of hearing of the Gospel. This means that every sermon requires immediate action or attention. I’ve identified four kinds of hearing that take place in faith-families (I’m sure you can add to this): Congregants can
- hear and not understand.
- hear and don’t care.
- hear, understand, care, but not change.
- hear, understand, care, and change.
Jesus’ stern warning in v. 18 has helped me realize how important it is each Sunday to explain why it’s important to hear and respond to God’s Word. In an earlier post I mentioned how Jesus continually divides us all into two categories. In this case, we have the have’s (“…for to the one who has, more will be given…”) and the have not’s (“and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.”). Your theology will probably dictate how severe the warning is (loss of rewards–demotion, versus loss of spiritual life–destruction). Either way, I want to be sure my preaching matches Jesus’ sense of urgency. I do not want to be guilty of allowing parishioners to “think” they have what they don’t have.
Say that the title of this blog five times fast!
One of the more difficult interpretive moves I attempt is connecting the Gospel to practical instructions such as James 5:16. The book of James is difficult in this regard because the letter/sermon doesn’t begin like other NT letters. James doesn’t give a clear statement of the Gospel at the beginning. The first I encounter is James 1:18 and James 1:21. Another one is in James 2:1. So, in many of my teaching times, before I urge the faith-family to implement James 1:16, for instance, I try to take a moment to explain who faith in the Gospel creates the desire and capacity to obey the instruction. There are times when I can make a creative connection. For instance, our healing began when Jesus died on the cross. He was the only Person who did not have sins of His own to confess. When Jesus died He took our sins on Himself so we could be healed and forgiven. Wording it like that allows me to make a connection to the Gospel directly from the wording of my preaching portion. Now I can urge Gospel-driven obedience or what I’ve referred to elsewhere as faith-first application.
This past Sunday I had the privilege of preaching on Romans 12:16 “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited.” Sometimes it’s helpful to make people see the awkwardness of carrying out some commands. For instance, in order to “associate with the lowly,” you must make a judgment call on them; you must acknowledge that they are actually in that category. The term “lowly” doesn’t reflect God’s estimate of them, but their estimate of themselves and possibly the estimate of some in the faith-family. Anyway, don’t shy away from pointing out how uncomfortable such a command can be. One congregant said to me afterwards, “I hope too many people don’t come up to talk to me after this teaching because it will make me feel like I’m lowly.” Exactly. We have to come to grips with how uncomfortable a command is for us at times, before we can know what it means and how to apply our lives to such Scripture.
Romans 12:12 reads, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” I have found it helpful to explain the meaning of commands by exploring the opposites of these attitudes and actions. If you decide, for instance, to preach verse 12, each command becomes one major thought block. Each thought block might contain a brief segment on how the un-renewed mind thinks and acts (cf. the context of Romans 12:2 where the renewing of your mind is the way the transformation of a Christian occurs). So, instead of being patient in tribulation, the un-renewed mind is focused on the irritation the troubling circumstances are causing and wants out. The contrast helps everyone understand the meaning of being patient in tribulation.