Truth

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)
It’s all about table manners!

It’s all about table manners!

What differentiates us from the beasts of the field? I would say one distinguishing feature is table manners. There is a certain etiquette at the table that we as baptized humans are expected to have that animals are not. Even our little ones are expected to develop their table manners. Our little ones move from a high chair to a table chair when they are able to eat without smearing tomato sauce in their hair. Learning table manners is part of learning the language of the body.

This table– though open to all baptized adults and infants– is not a buffet where you can grab and eat whatever you want whenever you want; this table is a civilized table. It is a table with manners. Here we eat and drink with other image-bearers. This means we are patient, gentle, kind, and loving toward our neighbor. The wine that spills from the shaky hands of our little ones is a sign that God is growing our congregation and teaching us table manners. This is our Lord’s table and Jesus loves to see little ones learning to eat and drink. We must be reminded this morning that in so many ways we are like them. Though our outward manners reveal stable hands when we grab our forks, inside we can at times be clumsy; overly confident; self-assured; pursuing selfish ambitions.

If you come to the table too certain of your table manners, then you might be the type of people that Paul constantly criticizes. But if you come to this table too certain of the Christ who died for you, then you come as those found worthy to eat with the Master of the house. And what is the basis of good table manners: Christ. Is Christ gain for you in life or in death, as it was for Paul? If he is, then prepare your lips to taste bread and wine, and prepare to share a meal with fellow brothers and sisters who are learning day by day what good table manners look like.

Pronouncement and Process in the Pastoral Call

The pastoral task requires a prophetic and priestly vision. The prophetic dimension comes through proclamation in word. This proclamation fills the ministry of word with grace. Grace is riches in the Bible. So the pastoral proclamation is a form of gifting the body with riches. These riches serve as tools for dominion. They equip God’s people to perform their task in the world with wisdom and discernment.

But the prophetic word needs to be followed by the priestly work. Every priest knows that he cannot skip steps in his duties. Rituals and rites demand preparation and a process. A priest is aware that a pronouncement is not enough. He needs a process. This requires patience and care as he leads, cares, and shepherds his own.

The prophetic task is not an alone role. In order for any pastoral work to be successful, whether in the pulpit or in counseling, a minister needs to exercise patience as his congregants take each step. At times they may take a step back, and at times it seems that they are willing to walk towards their goal. The minister needs to re-direct their attention to the original goal.

The prophetic and priestly role bring people into their kingly status. We are all kings and queens in God’s new world, but this kingship does not come by virtue of adoption alone, but by virtue of maturation. Maturation is an exercise in faith and perseverance in truth.

Parishioners who do not grow in their faith become weak kings unable to defend themselves against the assaults that will surely bombard their kingdom. But when the prophetic pronouncement is heard and the priest steps are carefully exercised, God’s people can grow into grace and knowledge knowing that they have heeded the word of the Lord.

This world is not my home…or is it?

Those who follow me on twitter may see several tweets with the hash-tag #Ruthproject. The Ruth project is a new work I am working with a fellow pastor from Birmingham. We are working on a commentary on Ruth. But this will not be just a normal, exegetical work, it is actually a pastoral and theological labor focusing on the nature and goal of redemptive history. We will focus on the content of Ruth’s majestic love story, but also detailing why Ruth serves as a miniature picture for all of God’s history.

We will offer a theological framework for how we are to look at redemptive history and how God is working in it. The commentary hopes to be practical, pastoral, and layman-friendly.

Here is a quote from the introduction:

What you believe about the future shapes how you live in the present.  If your final expectation is just to go and dwell forever in ethereal heaven, compare what your world view and your practice would be to someone whose final hope is of dwelling in a renovated and perfected physical creation in a resurrection body.

Lord-willing we will be able to provide a manuscript draft to our publisher by the end of the summer. Our goal is to have it published by the Family Advance Conference in November.

Not a Primitive Philosophy

Will Willimon writing for the Christian Century asserts that truthfulness is most clearly seen in its practical force. “How shall they know you are my disciples? When you love one another.” This was Jesus’ simple response. At the same time we must not forget that truth is contextualized in history by the writer of history. Life cannot be divorced from truth. Life is formed and lived out by truth if it is to be lived out accordingly. Pagans may conform externally to the law, but manifest “enlightened self-interest” in their actions. The Christian faith, on the other hand, sees truth affecting both external and internal motivations. These motivations are self-less and are shaped by the God/Man who was the embodiment of truth Pilate wondered about. As Willimon concluded:

Christianity is not another philosophy  or some primitive system of belief; it is a community  of people who worship the Jew whom Pilate sent to the cross.

This devotion to the Jewish Messiah is what enlivens the Christian truth and what changes the world.

Affirming True Truth

Francis Schaeffer’s line true truth was coined as a result of the pluralistic culture he was a part of and which has in many ways engulfed our present society. Schaeffer was referring to a truth that is objective and not relativized by one’s preferences. The Gospel is true truth. The Church’s peculiarity stems from her unique message. It is indeed a message that is hardly embraced in the public square, but one which she must proudly proclaim: Jesus, the Messiah, is Lord.

Lesslie Newbigin’s classic work The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society addresses some of these  profound manifestations in the Christian world. He exposes the pluralistic and cowardly trends of the modern church a few decades ago and certainly still very much true in our own day. A Church can speak truth, but speak it so subtly and unwillingly that she permeates by her words a certain level of skepticism in her people. But there is also the type of belief that leaves the door open to other ideologies. Newbigin observed that,

As long as the church is content to offer its beliefs modestly as simply one of the many brands available in the ideological supermarket, no offense is taken. But the affirmation that the truth revealed in the gospel ought to govern public life is offensive (7).

Both are fatal. One slowly ceases to proclaim true truth, while the other leaves the door open for philosophical wolves. The Gospel is no longer that potent and offensive claim, but a powerless declaration that Jesus can be a lord, but is not necessarily interested in the job description.

True truth is declarational. Simple truth has its genesis in the One who claims to be the way, truth, and life. This three-fold declaration is not up for debate. Pluralism, religious pluralism, is doxologically impossible for you can only serve one master.

Truth is Truth

Flannery O’Connor once wrote: “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” This is something we need to keep in mind in our day. What God has defined let no man put asunder. God provides the world with a divinely inspired dictionary, and in this dictionary there are no second editions.

In the modern day frenzy to discredit God’s creation and His purposes for Creation, we need to always come back to this simple reality: Truth is truth whether we can stomach it or not. This world may not be prepared for biblical authority, but it is our role to let them know that whether they are ready or not truth is truth.

And since this is the case, worship becomes even more central. Worship is God’s word spoken to us in a definitive and authoritative way. Our response to this word is to allow it to shape us to be the people who can communicate that word with and grace and truth. Let us prepare our hearts to receive this divine word.

Saturday Night Live (SNL), DJesus Uncrossed, the Romans, the Jews and the God of the Bible

DJesus UnCrossed is SNL’s latest attempt to de-christ Christ. Of course, in our day, Jesus is easy to disrespect. One wonders if SNL would attempt a comedy journey through the life of Muhammad. No further comments needed.

David Flowers believes that the skit has something to teach us, and that we should begin to listen to our critics. He argues that the skit has hermeneutical problems, but that it shows our hypocrisy and inconsistency in our faith. Flowers argues that this is the result of an American-shaped Jesus. He is correct to assert that humor has a way of offending Christians and revealing weaknesses and hypocrisy. We should be aware of them.

The Jesus raised from the dead murdering Romans out of revenge seems bizarre in light of the biblical narrative. Flowers is correct to assert that it reveals the Jesus kick-ass motif portrayed by many in our evangelical culture. It is easy to object to the video’s false portrayals, but in what sense is this skit true, even with its exaggerative and faulty hermeneutics? There is something to be learned here. Flowers is correct that we are to listen to our critics. The point, however, is that our critics don’t go far enough.

Surely the 2nd Amendment Rights’ Jesus is very American and Neo-Conservative like. But that doesn’t even begin to describe the type of justice-driven Messiah we as Orthodox Christians believe.

For starters, we believe in a Messiah that is ascended to the right hand of the Father, and from that place of kingship rules and reigns over us and creation. He is not an unmoved Mover. Further, Jesus did not have the Romans in mind when He judged, He had the corrupt and idolatrous first century Jewish generation in mind. Upon them, He brought a profound tribulation (Mt. 24). The Gospel Lesson this Sunday is Luke 13:31-35 where Jesus laments over Jerusalem. He sought her with love, but she continued to kill and murder the prophets sent with a message of salvation and deliverance. The vengeful Jesus portrayed by SNL has no interest in context, but it should well observe that the Messiah who destroys is first the Messiah who shows mercy.

How Can we Learn from SNL?

First, Saturday Night Live is not a theology show. Its humor is devoid of accuracy, and frankly, that is not their interest. They have been on the air for 37 years because of their exaggerated (especially in the last ten years) view of current events. This is important to keep in mind.

Secondly, use these opportunities to correct false information. Bill Maher, the well-known HBO atheist host, does this better than anyone I know. He takes a portion of Scriptures and twists its meaning in a fashion that would make even the devil jealous. This is a good time for Christians to be hermeneutically savvy. In fact, go ahead and make a t-shirt with that slogan “I am hermeneutically savvy.”

Thirdly, do not allow an exclusively New Covenant narrative to shape your theology. As James Jordan observes: “The division of the Bible into “Old Testament” and “New Testament” is merely for convenience, for the Scriptures are one narrative from beginning to end.” It is important to note also that this one narrative portrays God as a God of justice who says all vengeance belongs to Him. The modern Marcionites have failed us just as much as SNL has.

Finally, remember that the life of Jesus–especially as we meditate upon it in this Lenten Season–is a life of cross before glory; suffering before resurrection. The Jesus that came out of the grave was first a Jesus that came riding on a donkey as the Prince of Peace. But that same Jesus has promised to come again riding a horse of judgment upon Jerusalem and upon all those who despise His Name.