Exhortation

10 Questions Every Preacher Should Consider Before Preaching on Sunday

10 Questions Every Preacher Should Consider Before Preaching on Sunday

I have been a pastor for almost a decade. I spend between 12-15 hours each week thinking, researching, and writing before I deliver the first words in my Sunday sermon. The process of writing my sermon goes through a lengthy journey each week.  I contemplate several questions from Monday to Friday which force me to edit and re-edit my manuscript. There is no perfect sermon, but a sermon that goes through revisions and asks import questions has a much better chance of communicating with clarity than the self-assured preacher who engages the sermonic task with nothing more than academic lenses.

I have compiled a list of ten questions I ask myself each week at some point or another.

Question #1: Is this language clear? When you write a manuscript ( as I do) you have an opportunity to carefully consider the language you use. I make a habit of reading my sermon out loud which leads me to realize that certain phrases do not convey the idea clearly. A well-written sermon does not necessarily mean a well-delivered sermon. Reading my sermons out loud causes me to re-write and look for other ways to explain a concept or application more clearly.

Question #2: Is there a need to use high theological language in this sermon? Seminary graduates are often tempted to use the best of their training in the wrong environment. People are not listening to you to hear your theological acumen. I am well aware that some in the congregation would be entirely comfortable with words like perichoresis and Arianism. I am not opposed to using high theological discourse. Words like atonement, justification, sanctification are biblical and need to be defined. But extra-biblical terms and ideologies should be employed sparingly. Much of this can be dealt in a Sunday School class or other environments. High theological language needs to be used with great care, and I think it needs to be avoided as much as possible in the Sunday sermon.

Question #3: Can I make this sermon even shorter? As I read my sermons each week, I find that I can cut a paragraph or two easily, or depending on how long you preach, perhaps an entire page. This is an important lesson for new preachers: not everything needs to be said. Shorter sermons–which I strongly advocatea–force you to say what’s important and keep some of your research in the footnotes where it belongs. Preachers need to learn what to prioritize in a sermon so as not to unload unnecessary information on their parishioners.

While in seminary, I once heard a Presbyterian pastor preach the equivalent of three sermons in 55 minutes. I remember thinking, “If he finished now it will be a great sermon.” 40 minutes went by, and I thought, “If he finished his sermon now it will be all right.” After almost an hour I turned to my wife and said, “I pity his congregation.” Mistakes happen. Preachers lose track of time and people are generally very forgiving. But when this is a frequent occurrence it becomes a detriment. Preachers may turn into apologists for the Puritan era when they preached two-hour sermons. My response to this is very simple: “You are no John Owen!”

Question #4: Will my people hear a message about a great God or a convenient God? Sermons that do not lead people to serve God more faithfully have not fulfilled their purpose. The sermon needs to urge people to live more like their Lord and God. They can contemplate God, study or learn more about God (these are important), but if they leave uncertain as to how to serve their God more faithfully, the sermon has not pierced deeply enough. God’s people need to be consecrated by the Word of the Lord, pierced by the sword of the Spirit into action. Communicating only details about God can leave parishioners with a convenient God that demands knowledge but no sacrifice.

Question #5: What can I teach that will increase my people’s knowledge of the Bible? Every preacher must know: your people will remember between 1-5% of your preaching ministry throughout their lives. There is no statistic about this, the evidence is borne by daily experience. Exegesis of a verse in Hebrews will be forgotten perhaps before the sermon is over, but hermeneutical principles will remain if they are communicated succinctly. One common interpretational phrase I have used in many of my sermons is, “The Holy Spirit does not waste his breath.” This phraseb communicates that every detail of the text matters. I want my people to know in every sermon that every word in the Bible is meaningful and put in there for a reason. Many other principles will encourage God’s people to love their Bibles and learn more about it in their own studies and meditations. They may not remember my careful exegesis, but they will remember that the text is to be cherished.

Question #6: Do people follow me from point A to point B and C? I have heard my share of disconnected sermons over the years. Sermons need to have a message that is connected throughout. Themes and illustrations need to be connected to the central message. If illustrations have no purpose in the development of a sermon or if they are only used to get a laugh, people will inevitably leave confused and uncertain of the illustration’s purpose. Preachers need to be very aware of how point A connects to point B. Paragraphs need to smoothly transition, otherwise, you are beginning a new sermon altogether, and people are left wondering what the main point is. This is why manuscript preparation can help with transitional statements. On my last sermon, I repeated this phrase several times, “The future belongs to the child.” In fact, I generally title my sermons after my main point.

Question #7: Is this sermon going to connect to particular concerns of my people? I firmly believe that sermons need to connect in some way to everyone, from the young convert to the university professor. The more you preach, the more you begin to see people in your congregation with unique needs. When a pastor says “I have no one in mind when I preach,” he is likely ineffective in his preaching. Pastors are shaped by their conversations, counseling, and context. People I pray with and meet each week come to mind when I make applications. Of course, we need to be careful not to use the pulpit to deliver a privatized homily. A sermon on divorce the week after a congregant was divorced is unwise. Preachers need to consider the need of his own flock. For instance, “Does my congregation have a tendency to pride in their intellect or status?” A preacher is always preaching locally, though he can minister broadly. New Christians need to see their pastor’s words as applicable and rich to their own unique situation and this requires a good dose of wisdom and knowledge of particular needs in the congregation. Pastoral application becomes richer when there are pastoral encounters and engagement with the people. It is important to note also that we have our failures and shortcomings, but these should not keep us from addressing them corporately.c

Question #8: Is my argument persuasive? The sermon ought to leave the listener convinced that the Bible’s claim is right and true. Arguments can be phrased differently in every sermon. Some arguments will be demonstrably more persuasive than others. The preacher’s role is to give enough context and substance, so the main point becomes attractive. Persuasion is a difficult skill and needs to be considered again and again, which is why sermons need to be revised several times before they are delivered. One common problem is pastors trying to persuade people to death. Sermons are not commentaries. A preacher does not need to make his congregation turn to several Bible passages. A sermon is not an informal Bible study. Make your point. Make it desirable and succinct and move on.

Question #9: Where is the Gospel? A Gospel-less sermon is no sermon at all. Ask yourself, “Where is the Gospel?” Will my people be saved from their sins and misery after hearing this word? Will they find hope in Messiah Jesus? Will the broken-hearted see Jesus with greater joy? Will the single mom find refuge in Jesus and his Kingdom? Preachers cannot end a sermon in the desert. The Gospel is promised land. The sermonic journey takes the parishioner from darkness to light; death to resurrection.

Question #10: Is my application too general? Jesus says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.” My closing question is a question about how my applications speak to my congregation. There are a thousand ways to speak the truth, but not many ways to speak the truth in love. Application is truth in love. Love your congregation by applying specifically and carefully. It is one thing to say Trust God, it is another to say, Believe his promises in the middle of your cancer. Generalities sometimes are inescapable, but try to escape them as much as possible when applying the Word. If there is one part of the sermon that deserves great concentration, it is in the application of the Word to God’s people. Pastors should read good counseling books. Pastors should know their people well in order to apply God’s truth in love (see #7).

You may consider each question every Sunday, and after some time these questions will be a natural part of your sermon preparation each week. Not all sermons are created equal. Just delivering content is not the goal of preaching. Preaching is an art, and we can all learn to grow.

  1. By this I mean sermons no longer than 30 minutes  (back)
  2. I think first used by James B. Jordan  (back)
  3. I hope to address pastoral fears in another post  (back)

Mother’s Day and Child-Birth

“The seed of the woman shall bruise the head of the servant.”

It was through the seed of a woman that Messiah came and bound evil. Our hope did not appear out of nothing. The Virgin Mary conceived our hope. In I Timothy, we have the cryptic words of St. Paul, who said, “Women will be saved through childbearing–if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” This is a re-telling of Genesis 3: Women will be saved through the new Adam birthed from a mother’s womb. However, this salvation comes through faith, love, and holiness.

Moreover, I cannot think of a richer way to express the self-giving nature of motherhood, except through this triad of faith, love, and holiness. A mother’s faith is her salvation. Her love is her armor, and her holiness is her perseverance. Salvation comes through the glory of self-giving, even in the act of childbirth. It would demand the faith and love and holiness of millions of women through history to have confidence that a Messiah would arrive on earth through one of them.

We live in a day where motherhood is despised. We take a day to honor them, but truly what meager attempt to honor those who offer so much? Being a mother is now considered by many to be an interference in world economy. The United Nations began a decade ago an assault on motherhood saying that having children is keeping women from finding their fullest potential. As the world, the flesh, and devil go so go the United Nations. We need to realize that in our day any role that has been established by God will be confronted by evil, and such is the role of motherhood in our society.

So how shall we then live on this Mother’s day?

First, we live honoring our mothers. We rise and call her blessed day after day after day. Children, if you want to live a long and fruitful life, honor your mother with your words and actions.

Secondly, we care for our aging mothers. We have seen several examples at Providence of sons and daughters caring for their aging mothers until her last breath. This selfless act is refreshing in an age where many mothers die alone in their homes or nursing homes.

Thirdly, I encourage those of you whose children are no longer at home to function in a motherly role towards our young, soon-to-be mothers and wives. If there is ever a time when young ladies need the wisdom of our mature ladies, it is now.

Fourthly, for those who grieve today because of the recent/past death of a mother or a mother/figure, we grieve with you. When the ancient Israelites grieved the loss of a loved one, they told stories; be refreshed by the memories of your mothers.

Fifthly, for those who grew up without mothers, this can be a difficult day as they watch everyone celebrating their moms.  On this day, find comfort in the love of God. He spreads his wings over you as a mother cares for her own.

Finally, let’s together honor mothers and their love of Christ and the Church, our heavenly mother. Let’s sing their praises and shout at the mountaintops. Providence Church desires to be a place where diaper changing, doing the dishes, educating, singing while cooking a meal, writing a letter of thanks, kissing and hugging children, disciplining children, equipping younger mothers are all activities that are praised and not mocked. Happy Mother’s Day: Your labors in the Lord are not in vain!

 

How to Have a Better Self-Image?

How to Have a Better Self-Image?

Self-image? How many times have those words assailed our culture? Promises of a better you; promises to improve your self-image. This is all a gigantic, titanic, tsunamic lie.

You cannot become a better you by trying to fix yourself. All the options our culture offers to a better you always end up the same way: by eventually offering you an alternative option to the option of a better you. When you try something man-made long enough to fix your self-image problem, you eventually get tired and try something else.

Don’t misunderstand me: the problem of self-image is a true problem. But the problem is resolved not by promises of self-help, but by the promises of God.

In worship, you become a better self. Why—because you look to God. When looking to God you understand yourself. When looking to God and His Holiness you look to self and realize that the self is in deep need of surgery; and you realize that the only way to develop a healthy view of self and image is to realize that the value of self and image does not come from what you do, but from what God has done in you through His Son Jesus Christ.

Worship is here to fix your self-image problem, because the problem is the self. By the time this covenant renewal service is concluded we pray that your self-image problem will be fixed, because you will have confessed to your God that sin has done damage to your image, and realized that the problem with your self is that you look too much to your own interests and not the interest of others. Your image of self is only healthy when you have a healthy image of your need for God. I know I am not going to make a million dollar with that message, but I guarantee you, that’s the only way to view yourself accurately this morning.

So, come and worship and bow down and let us look to our Triune God to shape us that we might view ourselves more accurately before God and man.

The Temptations of Self-Examination

The Temptations of Self-Examination

There are forms of self-examination that are morbidly introspective. We can meditate so much on our sins and short-comings that we begin to doubt the objective union we have with Christ. We may kneel for confession with tremendous passion, but when we are called to rise for the absolution, we are tempted to stay down and not receive the forgiveness and grace God gives us in Christ Jesus. Our evangelical culture has done a disservice in this area and the result has been a multitude of godly saints growing up with tremendous uncertainty and frustration in their walk with God.

But let us remember that there is a healthy form of self-examination. We are to genuinely look to see if there is sin in us. Sincere repentance is seen in those who examine themselves and allow God to uncover both our mistakes and our sins. Healthy self-examination is quick to kneel before God, to see sins for what they are—opposition to the laws of God—but then to not dwell in them perpetually, lest we forget the goodness of God towards His children.

Today, as we kneel to confess our sins and exam ourselves, let us not be tempted to remain kneeling, but let us arise to receive the Lord’s forgiveness and delight in His fatherly care.

Worship is Warfare!

Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Worship is warfare! We are royal people fighting the war we were called to fight. But as we look at the opposing army with their sharp tools, eloquent spokesmen, our enemies appear to be so much taller, stronger, and efficient than we imagine. Sometimes we spy out their land and all we find are gigantic beasts with their gigantic grapes. Sometimes the enemy curses at us and say: “Where is your God now?” Sometimes their culture seems so much more developed than ours with their eloquent spokesmen and devout following. They have everything and we have so little.

Or so they think?

The reality is their giants are not really that tall if all it takes is a stone to bring them down. The reality is their kings are not really that powerful if all it takes is a woman dropping a stone to crush their heads. The reality is their lands are not their lands, they are ours. Paul says we are heirs of the whole world. The reality is if some spies come back discouraged, there will be always be spies that come back ready to take over. The reality is ultimately they have nothing and we have everything. The reality is the King of Glory is with us, the Lord of history who takes the weak and foolish things of this world to confound the wise. Let us prepare for warfare!

Prayer: O God, your glory is above the heavens; your majesty is all around us. May our mouths proclaim your praise and strengthen us against our enemies that your victory may be known in all the earth. Amen.

A Father’s Day Exhortation

Happy Father’s Day!

There is a hunger out there. It is not a hunger for food, money, power; it is a hunger for fathers. This is what Douglas Wilson referred to as “Father Hunger.” Sons and daughters are craving for them. And they do not come neatly packaged. They usually come with imperfections and without an instruction manual.

But this is all right. They usually have a pretty good sense of what is right and wrong, and when they make mistakes they don’t justify themselves, but they seek forgiveness.

Where are these fathers today? They are nowhere to be found. We can find their shell in their homes, but we can’t detect their fatherly souls. This is tragic. And we do want to emphasize the important roles that fathers play in the home. But in order to do so, they must be present.

So to fathers who are present, what we want to do is to encourage you to be servants in the home, lovers of truth, carriers of joy, and examples of repentance and faith. Our children will mirror our worst traits, and this is frightening indeed. But God has not left us hopeless. He has provided Himself as an example of true fatherhood. Even those without a father today know that you have a heavenly father; One who does not leave the orphan or widow, but who cares and proves his perfect fatherhood each day.

Fathers, I urge you to take dominion over your role. You only have one shot at it, but remember that no circumstance is too late or too far gone. Every prodigal is within reach. Every prodigal still would prefer dad’s table to the table of doom. Be encouraged and hopeful.

Fathers, you are what you worship, and your children will worship joyfully the God you worship most joyfully. So worship most joyfully the God of your Father Abraham. Do not idolize your children, but teach them to crush idols. Do not serve mammon, but teach them to use mammon wisely.

This is the charge to fathers in this congregation. It is a noble and mighty charge: to love your children and to conquer their hearts, before others conquer them. Learn early and often that you are a servant of your heavenly father. If you do not serve him alone, you will be another absent father in our culture. May it never be! May God grant you strength and wisdom as you lead your families, and may He lead you to your knees, beautify your words with truth and grace, strengthen your faith with biblical conviction, and renew you daily. Amen.

Prayer: O God, our Father, we have at times failed you. We have viewed ourselves as too mighty. We have repented too little, and suffered for it. May we be fathers that delight in You, our great Father. Do not leave us to our own resources, but be our present help in times of trouble. May our hearts be aligned with yours, even as your heart is aligned with your Son, Jesus Christ, in whose Name we pray. Amen.

Keep Yourselves from Idols

In one of the most lovely letters written in the Bible, I John– which we will be studying during Sunday School in July–the apostle encourages us by the example of Christ that our joy may be full. And then in chapter 5:21, which is the last verse of John’s first letter, we read this remarkable little exhortation: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”

We will consider this in the sermon more fully, but before we bow down to the only true God, what idols are we carrying along with us, even this morning?

All those virtues that we treasure: love, trust, hope; all of them can be turned on their head. What do we truly love, hope, and trust in during times of pain? Who do we seek when our lives are turned upside down? If any of these answers do not find their joy ultimately in the God who is righteous and just (I Jn. 1:9), then we have not heeded John’s warnings.

Brothers and sisters, as we come and confess our sins this morning, confess that you have not loved, trusted, and hoped in God as you ought. Confess that you have sought other gods before him. Confess them, and be still, and know that He is God, and there is none other before him.

Prayer: God Almighty, Father, Son, and Spirit, strengthen us today by your great mercy and transform us into the image of your own beloved Son, whom we love, trust, and hope. Amen.

Exhortation: Remembering the Works of Yahweh

In Isaiah 43, Yahweh, the Covenant Lord, says that He is making something new. He is re-creating the world. He proves that by making a way in the wilderness and making rivers run through the desert. Why would God perform such works? “That the people He formed might declare His praise.”

The Lenten Season is a season to remember the works of God. As Christians, we meditate with gladness not only on His present work for us, but also His past work on our behalf. This is why Lent is a season where we practice the art of remembering our Lord’s death. Jesus, fulfilling Isaiah, became a drink to His chosen people; Jesus gave His life that we might live and declare His praises. And this is what we do as we enter into worship. God is re-creating us and causing us to see that His works for us in the past are the guarantee that He will do it again for us in the present and in the future.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, you feed us with by Your Spirit; You make a way for us when we believe there is no way possible. All these things You do so that we might declare your praise. Enlarge our hearts with gratitude, strengthen our faith with hope, and build us up in praise that we might ever remember your works for us, Father, Son, and Spirit. Amen.

Communion Meditation: Food Factions

The topic of food is one that comes up quite often in this season of Lent. Providence Church believes fasting is biblical, but we have not issued a fast for the Church. So we have not approved any any practice over another. Individual practices or the lack thereof are left to the discretion of the individual family during the week. Rather, as a Church, we focus on the worship observance of Lent in preaching, singing, and colors. We don’t want any Lenten food factions; no eating of a particular brand or a particular type of food will give you any greater special grace in God’s sight. Similarly, no giving up of a particular food or habit will get you closer to God unless it is grounded in the act of repentance and good works towards God and man.

In this Lenten Season I want you to remember that “Christians have only one food law: Take, eat; this is my body. Only one food unites us, the bread and wine of the Lord’s table.”[1]

We can have all the diversity on our nutritional choices, but at this table there should be no division or doubt that this is God’s food for us.


[1] Leithart, http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/leithart/2013/02/24/exhortation-128/

Exhortation: Church Covenant Series, Part IV

We come to the fourth part of our Church Covenant, which states:

We will reject all heretical beliefs and practices, using Scripture as our final authority.

This is a strong statement with profound repercussions. We are asking as a Church that you submit to something greater than yourself. In particular, to submit to the authority of the Bible. We live in a culture that despises authority. But God has formed this world with authority structures in it. It’s not that the Bible is our only authority, God has given us other authorities– pastors, parents, and leaders– but what we are saying is that the Bible is our final authority. And that means that pastors, parents, and leaders need to submit to this one authority.

We also reject heretical beliefs. If it does not align itself to the God of Scriptures who is reveled in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit, then it must be abandoned. First things, as long as God graces us with His mercy, will always remain first things in this congregation. And it is your duty as members to ensure that it remains this way.

But bad ideas leads also to bad practices. And this is perhaps what makes us unique in this culture. We do treasure practices at Providence that in some ways are long forgotten in our culture. Our view of the Church, worship, families, and marriage, all shape who we are as a people. These practices challenge our passivity and causes us to hunger for righteousness.

This is why as a Church we want to encourage, exhort, and be a source of strength to our members here who are striving to live the life of faith amidst a faithless world. If God’s revelation guides us as a people, then we can safely walk in the paths of truth and godliness.

Prayer: O God of truth, change us to reflect truth daily and live unto You. May our hearts not be far from you, but ever seek your face. On this holy day, we pray that you would cause our lives to embody the truths of your Holy Word, and may be now and forever a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our paths, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.