Interact Magazine 1999
Volume 10 Number 3
‘So what was the sermon like this morning?’ It is a question repeated on thousands of church paths every Sunday, as the crèche helpers or Sunday School teachers meet up with their friends who stayed in the main service. And how many times is the answer, ‘Well, I don’t know really. He didn’t seem to get very far…..it wasn’t really on my wavelength…..I got a bit lost.’ Preaching with clarity and relevance is a demanding goal for every individual expositor and one from which we all too often fall short. So many sermons suffer from what J I Packer has called ‘muddle in the middle’ and sadly far too many still fall into John Stott’s categories of ‘the dull, the duller and the inconceivably dull’. What is to be done about preaching?
It is tempting to many, if not actually to ditch it, to place preaching well down on the list of ministry priorities. Methodologically, it is under fire as being overly didactic, non-participatory and lacking the visual stimulus needed for effective contemporary communication. In terms of the return on time investment, many a busy minister has decided, even if sub-consciously, to cut preparation time to a minimum and devote his energies and interest to activities that seem to yield better and more immediate returns. Administration, pastoral visits, counselling sessions, devotional soundbites—all seem to produce a more active and positive church than hours spent in sermon preparation.
And yet…! Is it not an amazing paradox that at this moment in history where we have more aids to teaching and understanding Christian truth than ever before, we are at the same time one of the most biblically ignorant generations for centuries? Everywhere there is a dearth of Biblical understanding because there is an absence of clear, applied teaching. ‘The hungry sheep look up and are not fed.’ The appetites of many starving Christians are not being satisfied. As Eugene Peterson points out in his stimulating book Working the Angles, we are all customers and consumers now and many of our churches are run as though they were spiritual supermarkets. People want to come in and be pleased with the service they receive and to purchase the commodities and brands they think they need. Loyalty must be encouraged and rewarded. Preachers know they need to provide something useful for people’s lives, both to benefit their hearers and to meet their expectations of them as Christian professionals who can deliver the goods. The result is that, as in so many areas of contemporary culture, we become the prisoners of our own marketing.
We start to plunder the Bible to get what we want out of it. The text has to be startling, arresting, dramatic. The passage has to produce the right psychological ‘feel good’ effect. The proof texts must undergird the framework of our denominational stance or our theological camp. According to Peterson’s penetrating critique, we are looking at the Bible, but not listening. Subtly, and almost unnoticed, we have shifted from being governed by Scripture in the content and methods of ministry to regarding the Bible as a possession over which we have control, a source book to act as a springboard for our own more ‘relevant’ approach. In the end we have domesticated God’s Word, tamed it to suit our pulpit purposes. So we talk about having a ‘Bible-based ministry’, knowing that from that base we can travel over the hills and far away, while we should be concerned about having a thoroughly Biblical ministry and seeking to have, as it was said memorably of John Bunyan, ‘Bibline blood’.
In order to remedy this situation we need to regain certain inescapable Biblical priorities, not merely as an intellectual position, but as the blood-stream of our ministry. We need to remember that central to the whole ethos of Biblical Christianity is the need to receive and pass on to others the unchanging and revealed truth of almighty God. If, as many scholars have pointed out, the Bible is God preaching to us about Himself, then we need to take seriously the divine purpose in giving that infallible revelation in the 66 books of the canonical Scriptures. It is typical of the arrogance of our secular culture to imagine that we have outgrown the need for such written revelation. Indeed Scripture affirms that ‘the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear’ (2 Tim. 4:3) and we see that fulfilled today within the churches as well as outside them. But even the most cursory study of the pastoral epistles reveals that the teaching ministry is the one essential means by which the church is to be kept true to the gospel and to be kept active in the work of the gospel. There is ‘the pattern of sound teaching…..the good deposit’ (2 Tim.1:13,14) which has to be kept and guarded by its constant proclamation, since in every generation it must be entrusted to ‘reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others’ (2 Tim.2:2).
This mechanism is central to the whole practice of Biblical religion, dependent on God’s revelation, and we are not at liberty in the contemporary church to change it. The Old Testament Torah is the Father’s gracious instruction to His children, which becomes the text preached, expounded and applied by the prophets to their succeeding generations. Not surprisingly, there are 38 references in the synoptic gospels to the teaching of Jesus, which was of course His own declared priority—‘I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God…..because that is why I was sent. And he kept on preaching….’ (Luke 4:43-44). At the heart of the Great Commission lies the necessity to pass on the content of the gospel and its teaching if disciples are to be made and matured (Matt. 28:20). That is why so much of the Acts of the Apostles is concerned with the apostolic preaching, as the word of the Lord spread throughout the Mediterranean world. One of the clearest reflective summaries of all this is Paul’s two-fold aim for his own ministry, stated at the end of Colossians 1: ‘to present to you the word of God in its fullness (v25)…..so that we may present everyone perfect (mature) in Christ’ (v28). The inferences are inescapable. There is a body of divinely-revealed truth to be conveyed and it is central to God’s purposes that it should be taught faithfully and relevantly from one generation to the next. The preaching and teaching ministries of the church are therefore vital to its health, vitality and even its continuance.
Our particular challenge concerns the peculiarities of our contemporary context and it is this which often unnerves the preacher today. We are not to be blind to it, since we have to build bridges into people’s minds and hearts over which God’s truth and God’s Son can travel. The bridges of past centuries cannot accomplish that task today, glorious though they often were. But the difficulties of the task must never divert us from its necessity. So let me offer ten commandments, or pieces of advice, for helping our preaching to become clearer, more relevant and more effective. After all, the good communicator is constantly self-critical, always asking, ‘Am I making it plain? Do they understand? Am I carrying them along with me?’ The content is supremely important. We have only the truth of God’s revelation to bring to the people, but that truth is always dynamic and relational, always with a view to changing lives, and so their motivation matters as well. We want not only to bring the truth to our hearers, but to bring our hearers to the truth, as they understand its meaning and respond appropriately to its message.
1. Get rid of the idea that we have to make the text relevant.
It must be our fundamental conviction that when the Bible is properly explained and understood then God’s voice is heard. He is the teacher, instructing His people about His character and purposes, illuminating our understanding about ourselves and our needs. Every part of the Bible is God preaching God to us, albeit in a variety of genres and presentations, so that we can have confidence that what He has inspired and preserved as the canonical revelation is His living Word, His ‘now’ word to us, as much as it always was to every preceding generation. But the teacher is also the invader, or as C S Lewis put it, ‘the transcendental interferer’! He communicates His truth to us because He loves us, and for that same reason He invades our sin-blinded minds and our hardened hearts and consciences in order to change us. He loves us, but the invasion is unsettling, challenging and demanding. His purpose is to disturb the comfortable before He can truly comfort the disturbed. All this means, however, that we can have total confidence in the content and continuing relevance of the whole Biblical revelation. What He said, He is saying (Heb.3:7). And because every Biblical text is addressed to the people of God, every part of Scripture has its relevance and application already built-in and guaranteed, for every contemporary congregation.
2. Go back and work hard on the text, to find out what it meant to its first hearers or readers.
All effective Biblical proclamation depends on good quality exegesis of the text. By this I mean not just the exploration of vocabulary (word studies) or the structure of arguments, narratives, poems, etc., but the understanding of the meaning of the text in its original context. We have to travel back in time to the situation in 8th century Jerusalem as indicated within the Biblical book itself before we shall ever be able to bring Isaiah’s message with effectiveness to the end of the 20th century. If we do not see why Paul wrote what he wrote to Corinth, and not to any other local church, we shall never be able to preach its message to London or Sydney, or anywhere else. If we don’t get its meaning then right, we shan’t get its meaning right for today. We all know the enormous help it is when through preaching a light is switched on, as it were, and we are brought to see the meaning of a text with clarity: ‘Oh, now I see! Of course, that’s what it must mean. Why didn’t I see that before?’ That sort of preaching feeds people on God’s Word in such a way that they will never want, or be satisfied by, anything else. It gives God’s people Bibline blood. But it is only produced with hard work on the text—time spent in prayer, study, reflection, meditation and more prayer. Hard work is one secret of effective preaching and that, at least, we are all capable of doing.
3. Make sure the original context determines your contemporary application.
Once we understand why the Bible writer addressed this issue with these people, why he expressed it in this way, in these words, with these allusions and references, we shall find all sorts of ideas begin to surface in our thinking which parallel the text to our own context. This is largely a matter of drawing the correct lines of continuity from the Bible to ourselves and our congregation. For example, we know that whatever is true of God in the Biblical text remains true of Him today. There is a straight line of application. Every passage can apply more of the knowledge of God to us, though we must always ask the contextual question (Why did they need to know this?) so that our application will also be parallel and thus get under our skin rather than bounce off us in bland platitudes. Every passage that shows God dealing with Israel as His covenant people will have direct relevance to the church as His new covenant people, though the light shines to us, of course, through the prism of Christ. Passages which speak to the nations of the Old Testament world will have direct application to the sinful and rebellious world all around us. But we shall also need to recognise that the specific terms of the issues at stake may have changed over the centuries, so that we need to think in terms of Biblical principles rather than a wooden literalism. For example, the issue of circumcision is hardly one that bothers contemporary Christian congregations, but that does not mean that Paul’s treatment of the issue in Galatians is irrelevant. When we establish the context and see how the Judaizers were using circumcision as the entrance requirement to a super-spiritual club, how in fact they were adding to the gospel and thereby destroying it, the contemporary parallels begin to crowd in upon us. Relevance is then no problem at all! The church is awash with gospel-plus groups who want to claim a superior spirituality on the grounds of their special emphasis, experience or whatever.
4. Set the passage also in its wider Biblical theological context.
Whatever our text may be, it is found in a localised setting (paragraph, stanza, story) which in its turn finds a place in the particular book of which it is part, and then in the whole Biblical revelation. On this basis it is vital that we compare Scripture with Scripture and that we allow it to be self-interpreting, in dependence on the illumination of the Holy Spirit. How does this particular unit fit into the big picture of salvation-history? What does it uniquely teach us about the great and gracious purposes of God between the creation and the new creation, and how does it sing in tune with that grand theme of the Bible? This is not an arbitrary exercise. It is a hermeneutic derived from the gospel itself, since that is the controlling factor, the key which opens up the Bible’s treasury. Christ is the centre and theme of all the Scriptures. At this point we must also turn to the discipline of our systematic theology to enable us to relate what this particular passage is teaching doctrinally to the wider flow and richer perspective of the whole Bible. It is possible to preach in an unbalanced way without these checks, which will only lead ultimately to confusion in the congregation and to the pulpit seeming to be self-contradictory. That will erode confidence very quickly among the hearers. That is not to say that the sermon should serve up slabs of systematics. We need to do that sort of work in the study so that it is a tool which shapes our expression and our emphases in a fully Biblical way.
5. Focus your understanding and purpose in key sentences.
For some time now I have found trainee preachers really benefit from the discipline of encapsulating the teaching content of their text and the overall purpose of their sermon in a theme sentence and an aim sentence, each expressed as pithily as possible. When this exercise is first attempted the sentences usually contain anything up to six subordinate clauses! This reveals how imprecise and generalised our thinking often is about the text. The result is that many a sermon is like a bag of three, four or more mini-sermons, each with a life of their own and each doing their level best to escape from the others! But if we discipline ourselves to express the content of our sermon in one sentence and use that to control all the rest of the preparation process, there is a much greater likelihood that any after-church dialogue, such as that with which this article began, will be able to repeat cogently that controlling theme. The theme sentence is about content, the aim about purpose. It is what the preacher is praying the Holy Spirit will be pleased to effect in the lives of His hearers as a result of the sermon being preached. After all, if there is no clear aim, why bother? The congregation may have been saying that for some time! Once the sentences are formulated allow them to discipline the whole preparation process. Be ruthless with all the tempting excursions away from the main road and stick to the goal. There may be a number of illustrative sub-points and Biblical explanation, but the best sermons teach a clear line through the passage and accomplish one purpose really well.
6. Develop a clear program.
Every sermon needs to follow a logical plan of development. The ‘magical mystery tour’ is not a suitable paradigm for preaching. It is worthwhile expressing the major ideas in clear points and working hard to show their interdependence in the overall thrust of the sermon’s argument. This will help to keep a clear line through the sermon. The more sources you have consulted in preparation (concordances, commentaries, tapes of other preachers, etc.) the more danger there is that the end-product is a scissors-and-paste production that lacks a clear, unifying theme. Every talk needs a washing line on which to hang the individual garments. It will also help us to avoid those other extraneous ingredients which can spell disaster to any sermon—theological jargon that is not thought through and explained, or abstract formulae, or doctrinal ‘stodge’.
7. Study your congregation.
It is said that the Puritans spent as much as half of their time in preaching on the application, and their extant sermons certainly indicate a deep pastoral concern and an acute awareness of the conditions of their hearers, in all their wide variety. Because we want our preaching to be a dialogue with our hearers we need to take time to think through their likely attitudes and problems, so that we can pose and answer the questions they are actually grappling with. As you consider your material reflect on what there would be in this sermon for the unbeliever, teachable but ignorant, who has come to church for the first time, as well as for the unbeliever who may be used to the message of the gospel, but is determined to harden the heart. Is there something here for the spiritually proud to humble them again at the Cross? What about Christians who are discouraged, or who are aware of having failed and fallen, or who are weak and need grounding in the truth? What is there for the teenager, and also for those who are nearing the end of their lives? How would this sermon help the perplexed, those who are confused and who confuse others? Now, of course, I am not suggesting that we should woodenly work through such a set of categories, sprinkling a sentence or two for each. But it is very beneficial to put ourselves in our hearers’ shoes (or seats) and to make sure that we are preaching to real people, facing real life problems, challenges and opportunities, and not delivering disconnected homilies or lectures aimed at no one in particular.
8. Apply the truth to the whole person.
Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones used to speak about the truth moving through the mind to the heart (the Biblical control-centre of the personality) to activate the will. Certainly all three areas of perception and response need to be involved. Exhortation will always need to be grounded in teaching if it is to issue in consistent action. False teaching will need to be disproved intellectually, but also morally and volitionally. There will be questions to be answered and methods to be explained—the ‘how to’ as well as the ‘why’. The whole person needs to be addressed consistently in our preaching if there is to be a response that is really life-changing, and if we are to avoid arid intellectualism or short-lived emotionalism, both of which fail to produce consistency of faith or character.
9. Make your language count.
For many people it no longer does, but preachers need to be ‘wordsmiths’, skilled in employing the rich variety and diversity of our language. It has been commented that today ‘any noun can be verbed’! Much spoken English is flat, cliché-ridden and imprecise. In contrast, we need to redevelop the skills of painting vivid pictures in words, using metaphors and similes in a way that arrests attention and identifies exactly what we mean, with pin-prick accuracy. As preachers, we must avoid those abstractions and generalisations with which sermons are commonly loaded, for example, ‘We ought to be better witnesses at home, or in the work place’ and ‘We need to try to develop these attitudes of godliness in our relationships.’ Why? How? What do we mean? We need to plan to say things as cogently and penetratingly as we can, so that we really do show people where they are from God’s point of view, call them to where they should be, show them the route they must travel and encourage them to set out on the journey now.
10. Pray for the Holy Spirit to blow His life-giving breath through it all and to do the gracious and powerful work of which only He is capable.
The inspirer of the Bible is also the illuminator of Bible readers. The empowerer of the preacher is also the motivator and enabler of the hearers. We are all totally dependent on His ability, so that the whole process of preparation needs to be soaked in prayer and carried out in conscious dependence upon God. Preaching is both an immense privilege and an awesome responsibility. The answer to the present crisis is not less preaching but better preaching, and that is a challenge to every preacher every time we speak. To his students a couple of generations ago, W. Griffith Thomas put it this way, with a strong contemporary relevance:’ Think yourself empty; read yourself full; write yourself clear; pray yourself keen; then into the pulpit and let yourself go!’ There will be no doubts about the future of preaching when it happens like that!
David Jackman is Director of the Cornhill Training Course, London. The substance of this article first appeared in Frontiers, Winter 1998.