Why Gaining Attention and Interest Isn’t Enough in Our Introductions

I just completed a very satisfying week of teaching Doctor of Ministry students at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. That’s my excuse for not creating a blog post last week. The track is called, Preaching the Literary Forms of the Bible. Pastors and professors from all over the world made up the class and, as always, the final day or so is devoted to hearing them preach.

I was amazed at how many, regardless of where they were from or who trained them, chose to begin their sermon with some kind of attention-getting device. And in all cases, their opening stories or illustrations were effective in gaining attention and initial interest. But that’s not enough.

Over and over throughout the day I repeated and restated the same thing:

“Try telling us why we need to hear your sermon. How does this Scripture function for the Church?”

Homileticians sometimes refer to this as surfacing need in the introduction and I believe in the practice for the following reasons:

  • it shows our listeners in the opening minutes that the exposition of Scripture is relevant. This is critical because there are expositors who will begin their sermon and preach several minutes without ever telling their listeners that this affects their lives.
  • it’s an opportunity to clearly state how we will worship God as a result of hearing the exposition of Scripture. This keeps expository preaching from being a history lesson about the Text. This reminds us that preaching is an act of worship when we respond to the revelation of God.
  • it allows us to begin the process of application in the introduction instead of waiting till the end of the sermon or near the end of major points in our outline.

So, before Sunday, start with the “why?”, and not just the “what?” of your sermon so our Lord receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).


P.S. Some of you might be thinking that starting with “why” is giving too much information in the introduction. Some practice a much more inductive approach. My answer is that I want my listeners to know why this information/exhortation is being given from the start so that they can remember the purpose for our being together throughout the sermon.

Preaching Through Daniel (part 3): Choose an Applicational Theme


I was hoping these posts on preaching apocalyptic books like Daniel would relate to preaching other books. So far, so good.

Post #1 showed how the beginning and ending of Daniel provide clues to its message to the Church. Often, the Author/authors of the books of the Bible signal their intention at the beginning and end of a book (try this with Revelation).

Post #2 showed how the narrative of Daniel (chapters 1-6) leads the way for interpreting the visions (chapters 7-12). Again, the same goes for the early chapters of Revelation that contain the letters to the seven churches.

Now, before you begin preaching a series through any book of the Bible, select an applicational theme for the book. Let that theme provide continuity for the series. Let that theme be the focus for the series.

For my series on Daniel I selected: Remaining Godly in an Ungodly World.

If you decide to use a theme for your series through a book of the Bible, consider the value of an applicational theme. Every Sunday parishioners will hear how Daniel, for instance, functions for the Church. They will hear how Daniel’s theology affects them.

This will be especially important by the time you arrive at the visionary material. The tendency is to get lost in the impossible-to-interpret material. Keeping the applicational theme in focus will keep the sermon aimed at worship, not speculation.

The other alternative–doctrinal themes–have less impact. They provide information only. In many cases the title of your sermon series is the first exposure to your sermon. Better to lead them immediately to an act of worship than to pieces of solitary doctrine.

Before Sunday, even if you aren’t preaching through a book of the Bible, see if your sermon title is aimed at application, not simply information.

And preach a good sermon, will ya, so God’s reputation grows in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).


Bolstering Faith: The Big Picture of Sermon Application

The big picture concept.

One thing that helps me prepare for each Sunday sermon is reminding myself of the big picture. It’s easy for me to get lost in the exegetical details and even the specific application of a preaching portion. For example, preaching on Titus 2:11-14, I could think that urging us all to welcome the grace of God as a personal trainer to transform us into the image of Christ is sufficient. That is what that Text is saying and doing: the grace of God trains us to say “no” to two things and say “yes” to more things.

But, there’s a bigger picture than that. In Luke 18:1-8 Jesus asks, “…when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” That’s what God is looking for now and later: saving faith, sanctifying faith. A good proof-text could be from Hebrews 11:6 “But without faith it is impossible to please him…”

Before Sunday, look at your application (locate what your preaching portion is intended to do to the Church). Ask how faith in Christ is linked to that application.

In the case of Luke 18:1-8, for instance, making sure we’re praying when Jesus returns inevitably means making sure we believe the Gospel. We pray to the degree we believe. Luke said, “And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” What do you think is the condition of my faith if I have lost heart? Right. If I’ve lost heart, I’ve lost faith first. Or, you could at least say that I’m struggling with my faith when I’m very discouraged.

One way to think of this is:

Every act of disobedience is first and foremost an act of unbelief.

That means in order to attack disobedience, we should first attack unbelief. The opposite is also true: every act of obedience is first and foremost an act of faith. So, to urge obedience, we should first urge faith.

Preach well for God’s glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Eph. 3:21),


What Do You Do to the Bible To Create A Sermon? (part 2)


In this series I’m exploring what I consider to be the most neglected part of my own teaching of Homiletics, how sermons are created. In order to create sermons, we all perform a variety of operations on the Bible (unless, of course, you simply read the Text and pronounce the benediction!). I expect that even radically different kinds of sermons on the same Text use similar rhetorical devises.

Part 1 listed explanation as the bread and butter or meat and potatoes of expository preaching. I want to spend a moment talking about preaching on purpose, announcing to our congregants the shape worship takes as we respond to God’s revelation in our preaching portion.


Sermonic purpose is similar to application, maybe the second step of application (the first step being to urge Believers to believe the Gospel or, what I call, faith-first application; you can see this explained in earlier posts). Preaching on purpose means letting everyone know how your preaching portion generally functions for the Church. As a result of hearing God’s Word, those with ears to hear will think, feel, and act in ways determined by the preaching portion.

Lately, immediately after the corporate reading of God’s Word, I’ll begin my sermon by saying something like, “This is God’s Word. The shape of our worship this morning will be putting into practice Jesus’ instructions concerning handling our own sins and also the sins of others (from Luke 17:1-6).” At that moment, everyone in the house hears how this preaching portion functions in life. Throughout the sermon and, certainly near the end, I’ll restate this purpose. Other rhetorical devices such as illustration and explanation contribute to preaching on purpose. It’s difficult to overestimate its importance for soul-watchers.

Before Sunday see how God displays His intention (what your preaching portion is intended to do to the church) and clearly write out the broad shape worship will take.

Preach well for the sake of His reputation in the Church and in the world.


How Many Minutes In Your Sermon Are Actually Spent Preaching?


My mentor, Dr. Haddon Robinson, used to talk about two angles on preaching. One, the preacher talks to people about the Bible. He functions much like a history teacher. Two, the preacher talks to people about them from the Bible. He functions as a theologian for the church. The first angle is heavy on explaining the ancient, biblical world. Congregants learn lots of interesting information, if they happen to like history. The second angle is heavy on applying that ancient, biblical Word. Congregants learn how to enter God’s world being portrayed by that ancient, sermonic history.

In his book, A Theology of Preaching: The Dynamics of the Gospel, Lischer writes, “After several years in an academic environment, theological students and teachers start preaching about the text rather than letting God preach through the text” (p. 46).

As I wrestle with preaching portions and develop sermons each week, I catch myself sounding too much like a history teacher. As I listen to sermons, I hear the vast majority of minutes devoted to teaching history. I fear that many people are listening to the History Channel each Sunday.

Think about your own preaching style. How many minutes in your sermon are actually spent preaching? How many minutes are spent giving a history lesson? Now, it’s true, biblical theology is conveyed through biblical history. So, part of preaching is telling parishioners what God did back then. The question is do we retell the history from the stance of the theologian who shows how Scripture functions for the Church. Ortlund said of one of Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “Eighty percent of the sermon is application…” (A New Inner Relish, p. 53). 80%!

Here’s some ways I avoid contributing to the History Channel each Sunday:

  • My introductions include a brief statement about what the preaching portion is intended to do to the Church (the shape or form worship takes when life is applied to that Scripture).
  • My perspective is always on us and our lives, even when I’m retelling the fruits of exegesis.
  • After minutes delivering biblical history, I remind us again how it’s shaping us.

Preach well for the sake of God’s reputation in the Church and in the world.


How to Balance Saint-Sanctifying, Seeker-Sensitive Preaching (part 5)


In this series, I’m summarizing some of the things effective preachers do to hit both outsiders (unbelievers) and insiders (saints who entered the building with ears to hear) with an insider-directed message (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:24-25 for an example). These are ways in which men like Jonathan Edwards, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and Tim Keller (of Redeemer Presb’ in NYC) reach both audiences.

So far we’ve noted the following effective rhetorical devices:

  1. Categorizing your listeners according to their spiritual condition
  2. Searching the hearts with probing questions
  3. Motivating listeners through both love for God and fear of God

Today’s tip is attacking the sin behind the sins.

In Murray’s introduction to Lloyd-Jones’, Old Testament Evangelistic Sermons, he writes, “Sin must never be preached as though it were primarily a matter of actions. Sinfulness is a graver problem than sins” (p. xxiv).

It’s easy to preach against sin-as-a-matter-of-action because that is what the preaching portion is often doing. In order to reach both kinds of listeners, effective preacher/theologians attack the sin behind the sins. That means talking about one’s unbelief and alienation from God.

So, for instance, think about the common, “Five ways to manage your anger”-type sermon. It’s important to delve into a discussion of what’s in the human heart that’s causing the anger. Then, if you feel the need to offer the five ways, you’re not only addressing the sin, but the sin behind the sin. As you’ve probably heard before, we don’t only want to address the symptoms, but the cause too. In the following example, the first Q & A deals with the symptom; the second with the cause:

Why are you angry? Because I didn’t get my way.

Why are you angry? Because getting my way is what makes me happy. Now we’re onto something that can be addressed by the Gospel. As you develop your sermon for this weekend and, if your preaching portion pinpoints a particular sin to be avoided, ask yourself is you are attacking only that sin or the sin behind the sin.

Preach well for the sake of God’s reputation in the Church and in the world.


Creating Saint-Sanctifying, Seeker-Sensitive Sermons: Working Towards A Balanced Approach


A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of conducting a preaching workshop at Lancaster Bible College. Our afternoon focused on creating saint-sanctifying, seeker-sensitive sermons: working towards a balanced approach. This post begins a short series on this important topic. Lord willing, I’ll be conducting this seminar in detail at LBC’s campus in Greenbelt, MD on the afternoon of April 3, 2014.

The topic is important because:

  • Seeker-sensitive approaches continue to be very influential and many of us feel some measure of pressure to adopt effective methods.
  • We are creatures of extremes which means some of us might be out of balance (too seeker focused or too saint focused). Or, to put it another way, maybe you have totally dismissed the seeker-senstive approach or you have bought into it whole-hog.

First, let me ask you to analyze your own approach and setting. Do your sermons and approach lean more towards being seeker-senstive or saint-sensitive? What percentage of your listeners on an average Sunday morning would declare to you that they are non-Christian (an important question as we search for balance)?

Alright, let’s look at areas of theology and ministry that are affected by this discussion.

Theology: What did Jesus mean when He said, “Anyone who has ears to hear, let him hear”? Does a certain kind of sermon create ears that can hear?

Hermeneutics: Is the standard approach to reaching seekers the best way to read the Bible? Is, for instance, the “five ways to manage your anger”-type sermon the best interpretation of Scripture selected to support such a sermon (yes, my selection of the word, “support,” is loaded).

Homiletics: Have we paid so much attention to the interest of our listeners that we have forgotten the listener’s spiritual condition and need for theology (as opposed to self-help [defined as moralistic improvement from Scripture apart from faith in Christ)?

That being said, it is not my intention in this series to debunk seeker-senstive, topical preaching. I do want to help bring some clarity to what it means to be seeker-senstive. I especially want to show from 1 Cor. 14:23-25 that we should be and can be more seeker-sensitive with an insider-directed message from God’s Word.

1 Cor. 14:24-25 gives us hope: “But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.”

So, the only way to be seeker-sensitive is not creating an outsider-directed message and delivering it on Sunday morning. We know from v. 22 that these words were “for believers.” Be assured that your sermons aimed at the saints have the potential to reach the outsiders who join us each Sunday morning. More on how that happens in future posts.

Preach well for the sake of Christ’s reputation in the Church/world.

A Fresh Angle On Sermon Application


My friend, Dr. Abraham Kuruvilla, has written an excellent book, Privilege the Text! A Theological Hermeneutic For Preaching (Moody). In his attempt to interact with the subject of Christ-centered preaching, Abe presents a fresh angle on application. He advocates what he calls, Christiconic interpretation, utilizing the Greek word, eikon, in Romans 8:29. “God’s goal for his children is, ultimately, to conform them into the image…of his son, the Lord Jesus Christ, the only one who perfectly exemplified ‘faith-full’ obedience. He alone fulfilled divine demand. Thus every pericope [every portion of Scripture you select to preach] points to a facet of the image of Christ; to that facet God’s people are to conform, in the power of the Holy Spirit” (p. 269).

I found the discussion helpful because it gives me a way to tie sermon application to the larger picture of God’s goal for every Christian. It also helps me realize that the divine demand in every preaching portion is calling me to one slice of the life of Christ. Without this angle, it’s possible that we will only talk in terms of morality. Abe’s angle on application helps keep application distinctly Christian.

For instance, the wisdom and humility of Christ is displayed in Luke 9:49-50 “John answered, ‘Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.'” When I encouraged us to adopt the humility that does not attack other Christians and other ministries, I was urging us to take on part of the image of Christ. He was secure in His relationship with God and wise enough to have such perspective and balance. God wants the same for His children.

What part of the image of Christ did your preaching portion call you and your people to yesterday?

Making Sure Our Congregants Are Among the Great in God’s Kingdom


Some of you recognize the young Cassius Clay in the above picture. He once said: “I said I was great, even before I knew I was.”

In Luke 9:46-48 Jesus teaches that we must all be great in order to qualify as a Kingdom-of-God citizen. Here is another example of the need to add theological thinking to your exposition (see August 13, 2013 post) and to thicken your sermon with theology (see October 7, 2013 post). Like many of Jesus’ parables (and I take it that this instruction is a quasi-parable), Jesus ends the teaching in a way that forces us to evaluate whether or not our faith is well-executed. In this case a well-executed faith replaces arrogance and ambition with true humility. This is required of all true Believers and we must explain this to our listeners so all of them can be counted among the great that get into God’s Kingdom.

This requires us to show the connection between saving faith and a certain kind of lifestyle, something that occurs throughout Jesus’ teaching. According to v. 48 anyone who receives a child in Jesus’ name receives Jesus, which is equal to receiving God (“…receives him who sent me…”). By the way, virtually no one in our churches thinks of being saved as receiving God. Most all think of receiving Jesus. The attitude and accompanying action of receiving a child in Jesus’ name is synonymous with being “least.” And being “least” is being “great” (according to God’s criteria of greatness). Craddock writes, “Whoever welcomes the lowliest has shown humility appropriate to the kingdom.” The humility authenticates our faith in Christ. The humble are great in God’s Kingdom.

I think most of us preaching Luke 9:46-48 would do fairly well explaining why the disciples’ argument about who was the greatest among them was ugly and completely inappropriate. I think we would explain the significance of receiving the child. I hope that we would also preach in such a way that our parishioners would feel compelled to make the same choice Jesus’ hearers were forced to make: “Am I going to be great by grace that makes me least?” If you follow Jesus’ theology and logic, you will inevitably urge the proper response that constitutes worship during the teaching time.

Fight the Urge to Be Exhaustive (and exhausting?)


I remind myself regularly, “Lord willing, we’ll cover that another time in another Text.” I’ll say that to parishioners periodically on a Sunday. It’s one of the benefits of preaching to roughly the same listeners each weekend. We do not have to worry about being exhaustive in every sermon.

If you’re a bit neurotic like me, you might be thinking: “That sounds like an excuse for shoddy sermons.” But that’s not my reason. Take, for instance, Luke 9:18-20 which contains Jesus’ crucial question, “Who do you say that I am?”, and Peter’s confession, “The Christ of God.” That paragraph begins in verse 18 with: “Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him…” I had to fight the temptation to elaborate on Jesus’ prayer life.
I fought that temptation because Luke provided no commentary; just the fact. Although Jesus’ prayer life–like yours and mine–was crucial to His relationship with God, it was incidental in this scene. On that particular Sunday I intended to communicate what God was saying through Luke and Luke wasn’t saying much about prayer. Here’s why often, less is more:
1. Less is often more because covering less leaves more time on Luke’s theology and intention for the Church. I’m finding that, as I develop as a preacher, I am consistently cutting out incidental, biblical data from my sermons. The longer I preach, the more I realize the need to spend more time on the parts of a preaching portion that contain theology that functions for the Church.
2. Less is often more because covering less also leaves more time for application. I can’t tell you the number of times I look at the clock on Sunday and wish I had an extra five minutes. Those extra minutes could be used to make sure we all know how to implement the theology when we leave church.
Obviously, this is not the only way to approach preaching in church. But in your attempts to be biblical, consider the value of accomplishing more by covering less.