October 17, 2017

Reflections on “Biblical” Preaching

Stott_Preaching - Sepia_0

I have preached and listened to preaching for many years (decades) now. Over time my understanding of “good” preaching has evolved. And my hunger for good preaching has increased.

In the beginning, and for a long time as a pastor, I focused almost exclusively on biblical accuracy. This was what I was taught in Bible college and seminary. Precise exegesis of the text and transmission of “sound doctrine” were primary.

Of course, one person’s sound doctrine is not another’s, so much preaching in my circles was apologetic in nature, defending a particular interpretation of Scripture in contrast to other perspectives. This may have included defending the historicity of the text contra the “liberals” at the mainline down the street, defending “the gospel of grace” contra the Catholics who “trusted in works,” or defending our particular “end times” scheme vs. the dreaded amillennialists, who didn’t take Bible prophecy “literally.”

You might imagine an almost endless number of possibilities in this regard. “Contending for the truth” was an oft-repeated motto in that world.

Now I was not the overly contentious type, so I was content to emphasize accuracy and thoroughness. I saw the job of the preacher as teaching the congregation. A few complained about the “lecture hall” atmosphere I sometimes created — and I’m afraid they were right. I was enthralled with learning, and thought everyone else would be just as enthusiastic about the incredible “insights” I was sharing with them. I wasn’t honest enough to admit it was more about my learning than about teaching them, but I’m pretty sure that was most often the case.

Nevertheless, I retain a high appreciation for content-rich preaching. The flock must be fed. The most gifted expositor I ever heard was probably John Stott. He had a way of accurately explaining the meaning of a passage, but it was never dry or academic. He was warm, pastoral, gracious, reasonable and clear. It’s my theory that Stott’s Anglican identity helped him keep a better balance in his preaching/teaching style than most free-church evangelicals like me, for whom preaching was the “main event” in the “worship” service.

At times I was convicted that preaching should be more about promoting “transformation” than imparting information (one of many homiletic mantras I’ve heard over the years). So in certain seasons I would focus more on “preaching for response” (in the revivalistic manner), shaping my messages to lead people toward “making a decision.” To be honest, I was awful at that. My heart was never really in it. It felt manipulative, dishonest. I suck at being a salesman.

And whenever I listened to that kind of preaching, I did not like being led down a rhetorical pathway which too often reflected the preacher’s agenda rather than the meaning of the text.

8628005191_7f307c43cd_zHowever, I do believe that good preaching should challenge and change us. The Law/Gospel approach of Lutheran homiletics recognizes that God’s Word searches our hearts, laying bare our pride and the strategies we pursue to justify ourselves before God and others. Preaching is God in the Garden, crying out to us through the minister, “Where are you?” Awakened, we are lured out of hiding to receive the garments God provides to replace our insufficient self-made fig leaves.

This path of gospel transformation is also why I think complete Christian worship always includes both Word and Table (and in that order). The hunger and thirst good preaching prompts in us is satisfied by the Body and Blood of Christ. The invitation to come and receive, to die and rise again in Christ is enacted every Sunday.

In more recent years I have been more exposed to lectionary preaching in such liturgical churches. Results have been mixed.

Occasionally, I have heard a truly illuminating homily which brought out the essence of the text with such sweetness and grace that I felt enveloped in the gospel. The sermon was seamlessly integrated with the rest of the liturgy, culminating at the Table, sending us out nourished and empowered to pursue lives of faith and love.

On other occasions, it has been the same old dead end journey — the preacher going off on his or her own path, losing most of us at various places along the way. On those occasions, how I’ve thanked God for the rest of the liturgy!

In contrast to revivalistic preaching, which is all about the moment, lectionary preaching assumes that listeners are engaged in a lifelong growing process within the family of God. Every three years, the same texts and stories are heard and expounded. This happens within an annual Church Year cycle of commemorations that keeps the main story of the gospel in view at all times. Good preaching counts on the patient growth and formation that comes from being exposed to practices, themes, and words that are repeated over and over again.

This allows the preacher to relax a little bit. Rather than seeing each week’s sermon as a life or death crisis intervention, it can be approached more like a Sunday dinner. Over the course of time, what matters is that the family has come together regularly to share stories and traditions and enjoy nourishment, fellowship, and communication through the various seasons and circumstances of life. When crises arise, there are strong bonds to help us deal with them.

One thing I like about the liturgical way is that the Church Year allows for flexibility within structure. The season after Pentecost in particular gives the preacher opportunity to move away from the lectionary for a time to preach special messages or series, expound a book or portion of the Bible, or deal with issues in the life of the congregation. And the lectionary is always there with a structure in place to guide sermon planning if needed.

I’d like to end these rambling reflections with a series of words that describe the kind of preaching I long to hear, and that I hope will characterize my own sermons when I preach.

  • Rich in nourishing content, with a usual focus on making one main point
  • Pastoral (good preaching is loving your congregation through words)
  • Concise (I’d say 15-20 minutes max)
  • Literate about life, human nature, and the ways of the world
  • Imaginative and poetic (creates a metaphorical world and draws us in)
  • Faithful to the Story of the faith and the particular text of the day
  • Brings the congregation into the presence of Jesus

Quite a challenging assignment, especially when Sunday comes every week.

Comments

  1. Vega Magnus says:

    15-20 minutes? That seems short to me. The sermons at my former Baptist church typically run around forty minutes, give or take a couple of minutes. Of course, more time does not necessarily mean more meaningful content. (And on another note, the pastor’s constant use of the three point outline form I learned in public speaking class is, for one, really noticeable and kinda unprofessional in my opinion, and also results in boiling every topic in the Bible that he chooses to speak on down to three basic points with one of the points having two subpoints.) In any case, I think it’s just my personal taste. I enjoy lecture-style stuff if the information is engaging. Unfortunately, my ex-pastor’s at times shallow exploration of Bible stories and his awful use of really tired sitcom-esque jokes don’t really mesh with me very well, and that is not taking into consideration theological differences.

    • Richard Hershberger says:

      Mark Twain [is reputed to have] said “No sinner is ever saved after the first twenty minutes of a sermon.” I have no idea whether he actually said that or not, but the point stands. Few preachers can hold the attention of the congregation longer than that, if that long. Sending them into a daze, thinking about the upcoming football game, does no one any good.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > I enjoy lecture-style stuff if the information is engaging

      Ditto.

      But the pool of people who can actually pull that off, in any context, is always small. And every week is a TALL order, it is really unreasonable to ask of one person also saddled with a dozen other tasks.

      There is so much to actually understanding any “Bible Story”. I believe it is just plain healthy for a pastor to make that plain, and introduce his congregation to the complexity of culture, and history, and the hard process of relating something to today from across that chasm.

      But I suspect those of us who feel that way are also small in number.

  2. I too, am a 15-20ish min, guy.

    Just long enough for the law to kill me off…and then for the gospel to raise me again.

    I’ve heard, and I agree, that at the end of a good sermon, no one should be left standing…but Jesus.

    • David Cornwell says:

      “I too, am a 15-20ish min, guy.

      “Just long enough for the law to kill me off…”

      Some of us it takes 15 to 20 years Steve. But you’ve managed to keep it simple.

      • While I am so often puffed up with pride…God’s Word of law can, and does, cut me off at the knees upon the hearing of its perfect demand.

        Sometimes that just takes a few seconds.

  3. I don’t expect much from the sermon, so when it on occasion is on target, it’s a little bit extra. The liturgy and the Church calendar, along with Holy Communion and Baptism, narrate Christ to anyone who has ears to listen (which I often don’t); they consistently preach the story of judgement and grace, and give the words of eternal life. This is enough, though it may not feel like it, and the sermon cannot diminish that, though it can join it in harmony.

    • The gospel.. ” is the power of God…”.

      I expect a lot. I expect to be slain…and raised again. And that gospel Word does just that to me. Each and every Sunday.

      • You expect to be slain every Sunday? A bit of a sadistic theology, me-thinks…

        • No…”The Word of God is a two edged sword.”

          It cuts through the bone and marrow, severing the body from life.

          And then it heals, mends, makes alive again.

        • Rick, the Law of God kills. It lays bare our consciences and exposes our souls for the rotting corpses they are. This is a good, right, and salutary thing, so long as it is followed by the Gospel that brings new life to us. Christian spirituality is all about dying and rising with Christ. Again and again.

        • I try to die to myself daily. Why wait until Sunday?

          Oh, and I tend to fail miserably at dying to self daily.

          • Yes, Rick, yes. My miserable failure at dying to self daily is itself a kind of death, in which I “wind up wounded, not even dead..”, to quote The Boss (I’m referring to Bruce Springsteen, not to my wife).

    • I don’t expect much from the sermon

      Neither would I if I were an Episcopalian. 😛
      Seriously, though, some of the best law/gospel preaching I’ve ever heard was in an Episcopal cathedral in NYC. Could anyone here guess which one?

      • Trinity Church, Wall Street. But that’s not a cathedral, it’s merely cathedral-like.

        The only Episcopal Cathedral in New York City is Saint John the Divine, since that’s where the bishop of the diocese has his seat (cathedra), and if you heard good preaching there, I’ll eat my Book of Common Prayer.

        Btw, most of the bad preaching I hear is at the Lutheran church where I spend most of my Sundays.

  4. I have found at the Episcopal church we attend the homily to always be insightful and refreshing–all in 15 minutes or less. It’s exciting to hear what the speaker has to say about the readings.

    • Another Episcopalian speaking up here. Our recently-retired rector, early in his tenure at our parish, preached what might be the worst sermon I’ve ever heard. He had a number of strengths, but preaching wasn’t one, although he improved over the years. However, I was on the search committee that called our incoming rector and was happy to find there are some young priests in our church who are very gifted preachers–including the one we called.

  5. George Christiansen says:

    I prefer what you describe as lectionary preaching with the caveat that the preacher display some epistemelogical humility with expressions like “I believe” and ‘I think” where appropriate.

    I’ve found that after about 15 minutes most of the listeners have shut down. This is what long-winded preachers don’t want to acknowledge. They themselves belong to a small minority that can bear that sort of thing.

    It is also interesting to note how brief the lessons in the scriptures themselves tend to be.

    • That minority is not that small. Many of us, even who struggle with attention deficit, can focus on a well put together lecture for hours. In the early church we have examples of preachers going late into the evening. There’s nothing wrong with that.

      However, I have never heard the sermon that actually needed to be that long. Therefore, unless your the apostle Paul or equally brilliant, don’t waste my time with your obligatory humor, cheesy anecdote, or cliche illustration. I came here for Jesus, not entertainment, so dish up and move on. I don’t care how awesome of a preacher you are, I’m still not a fan of your personality. I want to see as little of it as possible. Just give me Jesus, I don’t really care how long it takes.

      • George Christiansen says:

        Small is relative, but every data point shows that the vast majority of people neither desire nor can pay attention to a long monologue of any sort, even in schools that have already selected for the extra nerd factor. Your average church is going to be much more skewed away from the ability or desire to do so.

        There’s also no reason to assume there were really much in the way of monologues going on in the NT. The culture and the text point the other way. That makes a big difference on attentions span.

  6. Asinus Spinas Masticans says:

    Every year at Pascha I wait for the recitation of St John Chrysostom’s Paschal Homily

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zOkMVBQDs_M

    3 minutes 15 seconds tops. How must it have sounded the first time it was preached?

    • I love that homily, Asine! What an exposition of grace and healing.

    • This may be the first time I’ve ever seen Die Antwoord on Internet Monk. Surreal, lol.

      Yo what u mean summing like dis?
      Ja dat’s spif
      Yo-landi do dat fing!

  7. “…lectionary preaching assumes that listeners are engaged in a lifelong growing process within the family of God.”

    I’m glad this assumption is stated. Is it fair to say not all churches are blessed with this particular context, and some could/should often preach sermons that include invitations to join into what God is doing in the world?

    • Thanks, Sean. In my experience, the more established free-church evangelical churches also share this sense of family tradition. And I agree that it should be balanced with encouragement to engage in mission in the moment. In a liturgical setting, it seems to me that there are particular seasons in which that call fits very naturally — such as during Epiphany and Pentecost.

    • IMO, lectionary preaching can easily work this into any sermon. My pastor does this in most of his, but not all. But then again, he follows the lectionary most of the time, but not all. The lectionary is a powerful tool, but it doesn’t have to be a limiting rule.

  8. And as a budding preacher, I am utterly overwhelmed at the expectations of good preaching. So much needs to be done right in order that it is done right. I have so, so much more empathy for speakers of all kinds. It’s a bit ridiculous, and so very humbling.

  9. The lectionary approach (coupled with some freedom at certain points during the year) is sounding better and better.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      That’s probably why the lectionary approach was adopted in the first place.

      But as the Reformation got into its secondary “Can You Top This?” phase, it was discarded as Romish.

      Once more, the non-liturgical churches Reinvent the Wheel.

  10. My thoughts on bringing the congregation into the presence of Jesus . . . does this happen when He is relegated to an altar call at the end of the message? (I suspect you can think of some well known preachers who do this!)

    From Developing intimacy with God by Alex Aronis.

    Quoting Dallas Willard, Aronis observes: when people find Jesus so admirable in every respect – wise, beautiful, powerful, and good – they [will seek] to be in His presence and be guided, instructed and helped by Him in every aspect of their lives.

    Aronis: when preachers gravitate toward spiritual principles instead of focusing on insights that attach us to Jesus, congregants will not experience the delight of intimacy with Jesus, nor will the reality of Christ’s love and presence shine through the message.

    I agree with his observation.

    As a self-centered individual, it is all too easy to focus on my own needs or deficiencies rather than the supremacy and sufficiency of Jesus! Especially when the topic is personal transformation . . . when we are taught how to do this or that or what needs to be changed etc, . . . how can one expect to be in the presence of Jesus if the spotlight of attention is not on Him? (I’m wondering, is there a spiritual principle that cannot be found in the life and teaching of Jesus?)

    Aronis suggests that true spiritual transformation takes place in the presence of Jesus. Learning from Him by being with Him. Aronis asserts that we can assess our spiritual progress by answering the following three questions.

    1. Do I love God more? We can best fulfill the commandment to love the LORD your God with all your heart . . . not by trying harder, but by fixing our eyes on Jesus. When we truly do this, I believe it is impossible not to be overwhelmed with love for Him.

    2. Am I easier to live with? (ouch) To be like Christ is to be a person of love for God – for GOD IS LOVE. Love for God and love for others is an insoluble combination. (Thank God for His promise of Phil 1:6 I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.)

    3. Am I faithfully fulfilling God’s call on my life? Are we conscientiously fulfilling our responsibilities to our families, employers, churches, and communities by living not for men but for the LORD? (Again, it is our love for God that motivates and compels us to serve sacrificially as Jesus does! Not my will but Your will be done . . .)

    Regardless of the teaching that your ears hear today, I suspect that choosing to focus on Jesus, asking Him to speak to your heart as you listen, will make up for any deficiency in your preacher!

  11. David Cornwell says:

    I always attempted to follow the “liturgical way” and the lectionary— more or less. But I also see the value of getting away from it on occasion. Also sometimes the beginning or stopping places seems rather strange, so taking liberty with the passage makes more sense.

    If I were the pastor of a church now I’d also consider using the “narrative lectionary” approach advocated by workingpreacher.org and follows a four year cycle. It also leaves room for a summer sermon series on subjects like the ““The Commandments”” or something else. I’d love to have four more years of preaching to explore this approach. I’d urge you to take a look their FAQ found at workingpreacher.org/narrative_faqs.aspx .

    That site is supported by Luther Seminary by the way.

    Also everything written by Bishop William H. Willimon concerning preaching has value. During the past winter I read “Conversations with Barth on Preaching” by Willmon, which overturns some previous assumptions.

    And in his little book “Proclamation and Theology” he writes:

    “the biblical preacher’s great hermeneutical principle is this: Scripture always and everywhere tends to speak primarily about God and then only secondarily or derivatively about us. The Bible is about more significant tasks than providing us with principles for daily life, rules for happier homes, meaning for our vacuous lives. The Bible speaks always and everywhere about God.” (p. 43)

    “I can’t impress this on you too strongly. God is looking over your shoulder. Christ himself is the Judge, with the final say on everyone, living and dead. He is about to break into the open with his rule, so proclaim the Message with intensity; keep on your watch. Challenge, warn, and urge your people. Don’t ever quit. Just keep it simple.”— 2 Tim 4:2 (The Message)

  12. “Quite a challenging assignment, especially when Sunday comes every week.”

    How is that done through grace? I mean, it seems to put a lot of burden on the pastor to perform, while communicating to the congregation that grace matters, not performance.

    • I’ve always viewed as the pastor’s craft and Paul encouraged Timothy to “work hard” at it. However, that surely doesn’t mean the pastor has to preach every Sunday or that he/she shouldn’t be training up others to study and proclaim the word.

  13. A couple years back, an interim pastor stepped in after our previous pastor (who tended to be long-winded and “professorial,” preaching as if he was in a lecture hall on a college campus) retired. Our interim was awesome. He’d preach out of the Bible, hit about four main points all within about 20 minutes, then get off stage. It was SO refreshing! I’m definitely in the “less is better” category of preaching. I think several pastors try to bring too much into their sermon, thus run long.

    • It is so very strange for this Catholic to hear the phrase….”then get off stage.””

      It is also on of the issues I have with so many evangelical churches…stages and performances instead of altars and worship. Seems like the focus of the former is so misdirected!

  14. I remember the homiletics classes I had in grad school and seminary. Sermons had to be 12 minutes or less. In one class it was 7 minutes or less. And in the Moody-Dallas tradition, they had to be expository in nature, with introduction and conclusion, and clearly articulated main points. And illustrations when necessary. Let me tell you, that cuts the fat.

    It reminds me of David Gerrold, who wrote the classic Star Trek episode, “The Trouble With Tribbles.” Because the episode had to be a particular length, the script had to be a certain very tightly-controlled number of pages. He tells the tale of having to pare his ideas down to get within that number. Then after he turned it in he got word back from the studio. He had typed it in Elite typeface, when it was supposed to be in Pica. Which meant that the script was still about 50% too long! He sat in the studio hallway with a magic marker and the script and proceeded to gut his creation in a cold-blooded manner. And said it was the best thing he ever did to it.

    You want to preach a good sermon? Prepare a 20 minute sermon, then gut it to 10 minutes, because that’s about all the good stuff you really have there.

    • Amen. It is my experience that pastors prepare the 20 minute sermon, then let “the Spirit” lead them into adding another 25. The other problem is when they add several different ideas, stories and elements to make their four points, when one or two would’ve sufficed. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought, “Hey, this is a pretty good sermon,” then 20 minutes later thinking the sermon had gone off the rails and lost me. Pastors could use editors as much as a author!

  15. I love the last characteristic, “Brings the congregation into the presence of Jesus”. That is the cry of my heart when I preach. I encounter the living Word in my study and now I want my people to experience Him too. it’s a leading of the people into the presence of God and handing them over to the Great Shepherd.

  16. MelissatheRagamuffin says:

    The priest who does the 7:30 Mass in the parish where we used to live often does 8 sentence homilies, and yet, I remember more of his homilies – short, to the point, often with a dash of humor, than any of the 40 minute or more sermons I’ve sat through.

  17. I love and agree with the comments about John Stott.

    It was always fun to bring him up among dispensationalists and others who don’t venture much outside their Chrsitian world and tell ’em he was an Anglican.

  18. Byron Luke Felde says:

    Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.