Category Archives: Preaching

Do I have to write my own sermons?

In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine raises the question of what to do with people who are gifted communicators, but not gifted teachers. In other words, they can present a sermon powerfully, but they can’t write a powerful sermon. And he argues that it’s perfectly legitimate for them to memorize sermons written by other people and present them to the congregation (presumably without suggesting that they’d actually written the sermon themselves).

There are, indeed, some men who have a good delivery, but cannot compose anything to deliver. Now, if such men take what has been written with wisdom and eloquence by others, and commit it to memory, and deliver it to the people, they cannot be blamed, supposing them to do it without deception For in this way many become preachers of the truth (which is certainly desirable), and yet not many teachers; for all deliver the discourse which one real teacher has composed.  On Christian Doctrine 4.29

Augustine doesn’t elaborate, but he seems to envision a situation in which one gifted teacher prepares a sermon that is then presented by several different preachers, each in their own community. And, since these are preachers who aren’t cut out for writing their own sermons, this appears to be an ongoing situation. In other words, these aren’t preachers who just borrow an occasional sermon, but people whose entire preaching ministry would be based off material written by someone else.

When I first read this years ago, I rejected it out of hand. Of course preachers should prepare their own material. I could see presenting some famous, historical sermon on occasion. But for at least three reasons, I could ever see the value of doing this regularly:

  • A good preacher needs to be shaped by the text.  Before preaching the sermon, preachers need to soak in the text and allow it to shape their lives.  And the only way to do that is to do your own homework. You have to wrestle with the text yourself before you can challenge others with it.
  • A good preacher needs to contextualize the text. A good sermons is written for a particular audience. Granted, the greatest sermons hit on universal themes, making them applicable to a wider audience. But in general, good preachers write the sermons they do because they know that these are the sermons that this people needs to hear at this time.
  • A good preacher needs to adapt the sermon. Even people who manuscript their sermons know that a good preacher should be able to adjust the sermon on the fly. Reading the audience, you can tell when you need to dwell on a point just a bit longer or explain something just a bit more clearly. But that means you have to own the material well enough to make such adjustments without losing the thread of the sermon.

After reflecting on it a bit more, though, I’m wondering if there’s more wisdom in Augustine’s idea than I first appreciated. Over the years, I’ve met quite a few people who fit Augustine’s description. They were gifted communicators, but they were somewhat less gifted (I’m being charitable) in the other skills required for good sermon preparation. And it wasn’t laziness. People are just wired differently. So, rather than saying that such people can’t be preachers–or worse, that their churches should be condemned to bad preaching–why not conclude that sermon preparation can be a team effort and pair them with people who are gifted in ways that they are not? (This would also address the converse problem: people who are gifted exegetes but horrible communicators. And I’m sure we can all think of at least a few people who might fit in this category.)

Assuming that my three earlier concerns are still valid, though, here are some principles that would need to be in place for this to work:

  • The “teacher” must be local. I still don’t think this would work if the person writing the sermon is not connected to the local community of believers. But, if we’re talking about someone who lives and ministers with that local community and works in partnership with the one who presents the sermon, then this gets more interesting.
  • The “preacher” must study. This isn’t a “get out of jail free” card for the preacher. You shouldn’t teach a text that hasn’t first taught you. So the preacher still needs to wrestle with the text. But the preacher no longer needs to do so alone.
  • The “preacher” must own the sermon. And the preacher can’t simply take the completed sermon and present it to the congregation (i.e. no emailing the completed sermon the night before). The preacher will need time to digest and own the sermon so that it can be presented effectively and adapted when necessary.

I know many churches have “preaching teams” where they’ll plan sermon series and discuss ideas for upcoming sermons. But I don’t know many churches where the actual work of exegeting and constructing a sermon is done in collaboration like this.

What do you think?

  • What would you think if you knew that someone was providing significant help in exegeting and writing your pastor’s sermons? Would it affect the way that you listened to the sermon? 
  • Do you think this would be a legitimate way of affirming and using different gifts? Or do you see this as a copout for lazy preachers?
  • Do you know of any churches that are actually doing this?

Forced Choices: Who are your favorite preachers?

Our last Forced Choice looked at OT genres. And, although Law lost badly with only 12%, the others were fairly close: History 24%, Prophecy 30%, and Poetry/Wisdom 34%.

This week, we’re going to try something a little different. Someone asked me on Facebook the other day which three preachers (outside of Scripture) I held in highest regard. I thought that was an interesting question, so I’d like to throw it out to you. So, instead of doing a Forced Choices poll this week, I’d just like to ask: Who are your favorite preachers? And, I’m specifically looking for both historic preachers and contemporary preachers.

Now, almost immediately, someone is going to ask me to give some criteria for determining the best preachers. And, I’m not going to do that. I just want to know your favorites. You can explain your reasons if you’d like, or you can just drop some names. And, keep in mind that you’re not necessarily saying that they’re the “best” preachers (whatever that means), just that these are the ones you personally hold in high regard for some reason.

So, what do you think? Who are your favorite preachers?

God even uses preachers who make mistakes

Three seasoned preachers share some stories on mistakes they’ve made while preaching. I have to admit that I was a little disappointed, since I was hoping for something really horrifying. But, it was still a good reminder that ultimately the sermons isn’t about the preacher, even the best communicator slips up, and God uses them anyway.

And, amen to the comment toward the end about using sports analogies in sermons.

Do pastors really need to know the “background” of the Bible?

In an interesting exchange, D. A. Carson and John Piper discuss whether pastors really need to understand the social and historical context of the Bible in order to preach well. Piper pushes pretty hard for the idea that good preaching really just requires one to be “steeped” in the biblical texts. Unsurprisingly, though Carson agrees that this is primary, he maintains the importance of background material. They come together in the end, but there still seems to be some difference on this point.

I have to admit that I can see both sides of this one. On the one hand, those arguing that we only need the text often seem to offer a false alternative here: steep yourself in the text rather than get distracted by background studies. But, it’s never that simple. How do you steep yourself in a text unless you understand enough about it to grasp what the author is trying to say? The preacher needs some background information even to understand the language (vocabulary, grammar, syntax, etc.), let alone the cultural ideas and practices they convey. Piper seems to believe that you can get most of this information from the text itself, but that hardly seems possible since you need some understanding of these things to interpret the text adequately in the first place.

But, on the other hand, it’s easy for us academics to become elitist with our claims that you really can’t understand the Bible without our advanced degrees, thick books, complex theories, and countless hours of uninterrupted study. At that point, we lose sight of the fact that the Bible is not just another ancient text requiring for its proper interpretation the acquisition of academic arcanity. It’s also a divine text through which the Spirit has always worked powerfully, even among poorly educated people or those who just lacked an adequate understanding of its original socio-historical context.

Background material has value, and disciplined preachers will seek it out to deepen their sermons. I’ve heard enough ill-informed expositional “nuggets” over the years to know the importance of doing your homework. So, if you have the time, education, and resources to study such issues carefully, please do. What you have is a gift to be used for the benefit of the body. Don’t squander it.

But, faithful ministers can and do preach powerful sermons even without this information. God is both gracious and powerful. He has always worked through vessels that were less-than-perfect. That can’t become an excuse for sloppy sermon-prep, but it should encourage all of us to know that, in the end, the power of the sermon is in the Spirit and not the preacher.

How to train preachers

Here’s an interesting video on how to train future pastors and leaders. Bryan Chapell, Mike Bulmore, and David Helm all share their thoughts on how to train future pastors in the church. It doesn’t sound like any of them reject the idea that schools/seminaries have a role to play as well, but there focus is on what this looks like in the context of the local congregation. They end up getting into an interesting discussion of modeling vs. instructing in the training process.

One thing I found interesting was that although they mentioned the importance of experience/practice in the training process, they didn’t discuss how difficult it can be for beginning preachers to find preaching opportunities. With the demise of Sunday evening services and mid-week services at most churches, seminary students often find it very difficult to get real preaching practice – especially since many churches don’t want to hand the pulpit to beginning preachers on Sunday morning (or whenever the main service is). So, they either need to preach in a classroom, which is a really artificial environment in which to learn how to preach, or they have to manufacture a preaching outlet: : small groups, friends, family, whatever. This just isn’t a great way to train future preachers.

I’d love to see more churches developing a training mentality for future preachers. Seminaries can help students develop some of the skills necessary for good preaching, but they can’t complete the process. Some things you just can’t learn in the classroom.

Sex, murder, and preaching: How much is too much for Sunday morning?

Some analogies stick with you. They embed themselves deep within your psyche. You could probably get rid of them with enough counseling or some seriously strong medication. But, short of that, they’re probably yours for the rest of your life.

I remember one in particular. My youth pastor was preaching that Sunday, and he usually started by warming us up with an entertaining story. That’s what a good comedian preacher does, right? This Sunday was no different.

“Have you seen Top Gun?” he began. The congregation tensed immediately. My youth pastor was known for taking sermons in interesting directions. And, this certainly sounded like it might qualify. “Do you know the part where Goose bets Maverick that he has to get ‘carnal knowledge’ of a girl in the bar before the night is over?” He continued. “And, to pull it off, they end up singing ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’….”

To be honest I don’t remember anything after that. Did he really just manage to combine alcohol, gambling, and sex in one sermon analogy? That’s impressive. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he somehow managed to relate this to a Bible verse somewhere. But, I really have no idea.

How much is too much in a sermon?

A similar question came up a while back as I was reflecting on theological themes in Dexter, a TV show about a serial killer. The show does an outstanding job illustrating brokenness, loneliness, alienation, hope, longing, and sin, among other things (see these video clips). So, it’s ripe with sermon illustrations. The problem is that most of them would be pretty “edgy.” He is, after all, a serial killer. So, we’re not talking about family friendly fare.

Would you use stuff like this in a sermon? It’s real, but is it appropriate?

Should a sermon be rated R?

I found myself reflecting on the same questions a few days ago, but from a very different direction. Carl Trueman posted some thoughts on how hard it was to preach through Judges 19, in which a woman is raped, murdered and dismembered. How do you preach that story to a congregation filled with people of all ages, backgrounds, and sensitivities? Sure it’s in the Bible, but does that make it okay for Sunday morning? And, if so, does that make some of these other examples fair game? Dexter is no more graphic than Judges.

How much is too much for Sunday morning?

As always, I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts on this. But, I’d be particularly interested in hearing from those of you who preach regularly. How do you think about your analogies? Do you ever find yourself struggling over whether a particular analogy is “appropriate”? How do you decide? How do you balance the need to connect the hard and dirty realities that are part of everyday life, with contemporary sensibilities? Should we be “earthier” in our sermons? Or, would that just be capitulating to the more debased aspects of modern culture?

Urban Legends…for preachers

You’ve all heard them, those interpretations of scripture that just sound so good. But, are they legit? Not according to Trevin Wax. Here are his 7 urban legends for preachers, or seven things you hear so often in sermons that everyone assumes they’re true.

1. The “eye of the needle” refers to a gate outside Jerusalem.

2. The high priest tied a rope around his ankle so that others could drag him out of the Holy of Holies in case God struck him dead.

3. Scribes took baths, discarded their pens, washed their hands, etc. every time they wrote the name of God.

4. There was this saying among the sages: “May you be covered in your rabbi’s dust.”

5. Voltaire’s house is now owned by a Bible-printing publisher.

6. Gehenna was a burning trash dump outside Jerusalem.

7. NASA scientists have discovered a “missing day” which corresponds to the Joshua account of the sun standing still.

Check out Trevin’s original post for explanations of each and why he thinks they’re really urban legends. And, make sure you check out the comments as some of the readers have offered their own nominations.

The Dying Art of Reading

Approximately 120,000 books are published in America every year. Sadly, few of us ever read them. At least, that’s what some recent stats suggest.

According to a survey from the Jenkins Group, Americans have some dismal reading habits (HT Mental Floss).

  • 1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
  • 42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college.
  • 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year
  • 70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.
  • 57 percent of new books are not read to completion.

As a self-confessed bibliophile, that’s just depressing. I’m not sure which is worse, that even college graduates have such terrible reading habits, or that so many families didn’t even bother to buy a single book last year. (I have to confess that I rarely buy books from concrete-and-mortar bookstores either, though I still go on occasion to enjoy the ambiance. Yes, I’m a hypocrite that way.)

But, more importantly, I worry about this lack of attention to the written word for the church today. Granted, the church has often demonstrated the ability to flourish in non-literate cultures. So, reading itself isn’t the only medium of formation. But, in all the examples that come to mind, those cultures retained a strong emphasis on oral education. And,we’re not doing that.  At the same time that we are neglecting the written word, we’re also at the tail-end of a decades long shift toward shorter sermons and fewer weekly services dedicated to serious lay development. Put those two together, and you have a recipe for spiritual anemia.

Preaching about Sex

A seasoned pastor that I know preached a sermon this weekend on a biblical vie of “sex.” And he mentioned that whenever he preaches on sex, people come up to him afterward and comment on how hard it must be to preach on sex. Somewhat bemused, he usually comments that it’s a whole lot easier and more fun that preaching on a lot of other issues that he needs to address.

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Although we live in a sex-saturated society, we still find it incredibly uncomfortable to talk about sex in church. One of my greatest frustrations in my years as a youth pastor, was the number of parents who would grow outraged if I spoke too directly about issues of sex and sexuality to their children. I always wanted to say, “Look. You’re kids are already talking about sex. Wouldn’t you prefer for them to talk about it in church?” Sadly, I’m afraid that some of them would have said “no.”

Brandon Smith recently posted the following promo video for a series on sex. And it certainly presents a number of compelling reasons that we need to learn how to speak openly about sex in church. You may not think that it’s appropriate to do so from the pulpit or in mixed audiences. Fine. Where are you talking about sex with the people in your church? Because I guarantee that they’re talking about it and struggling with it in other contexts. So, why not face it head on in the one place where they can learn to understand sex h way God intended?

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If you have preached or taught about sex in your church, I’d be very curious to know how it went. Any insights or lessons learned for others?

Speak with conviction – a visual poem

Here’s a great visual poem from Taylor Mali on the importance of speaking with conviction. He challenges the modern notion that it’s a virtue to hold beliefs tentatively and speak with uncertainty. It’s like we want to say,

I have nothing personally invested in my own opinions, I’m just like inviting you to join me on the bandwagon of my own uncertainty.

Instead, he calls for conviction. As he says toward the end:

So, I implore you, I entreat you, and I challenge you to speak with conviction, to say what you believe in a manner that bespeaks the determination with which you believe it.

Thanks to Brian Fulthorp for pointing this one out.

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