What Preaching Is Not

peter-preachingWhat is preaching? I’ve thought and studied a lot about that. It’s an important question for a Christian. Why is it so important? Because preaching is the most important 25-45 minutes a church body spends together and is one of the few things that can change the world.

Martin Lloyd Jones said:

“The most urgent need in the Christian Church today is true preaching; and as it is the greatest and the most urgent need in the Church, it is obviously the greatest need of the world also” (Preaching and Preachers, Jones, 17).

A lot of people claim to preach. Many others say they hear preaching every Sunday. But many of the people who claim they are preaching are doing something very different than others who also claim to be preaching.

Some Examples
For example: one man stands in front of a group of people on Sunday morning and shares compelling stories about loving one another, giving examples from society, his life, using poetry, video clips, and song lyrics. He also quotes a verse of Scripture about love. People leave feeling warm and encouraged, but without having been engaged with God’s Word. They know what to do, but they don’t know what God has said.

Another man reads a text of Scripture in front of a group of people, then proceeds to essentially say what the text makes him think of: other Scriptures, stories, examples from society, etc. The man hardly references his original text again and hasn’t thought once about what the original author intended to say to his original audience. Many of the things he says are good and true, but they’re just not found in the text he started with. People who agree with the statements leave happy and affirmed, but rarely challenged by being engaged with an appropriately applied passage. And the people who disagree with his talk, well, they just leave mad.

Still another man reads a text of Scripture and very meticulously points out original meanings of words and phrases, noting syntax, grammar, context, cross references and allusions throughout Scripture. There’s a lot of “What Paul is saying is . . . ” People leave more informed, certainly having confidence that their pastor “knows his Bible,” but haven’t seen what in the world the passage has to do with them.

None of these examples are preaching.

“Preaching is when the content and the intent of a passage of Scripture becomes the content and intent of a sermon.” Mike Bullmore

Why The Examples Aren’t Preaching
In the first example I made up, the content and intent of the sermon is only mildly influenced by Scripture. The preacher thought of what he wanted to say to the people, and then found a verse that went along with it. This is hardly letting the text drive the content or intent of the message. Maybe the talk was inspiring, and maybe God used it (who knows?). Maybe the talk was even necessary, but it was not preaching.

The second example seems more like preaching to some because this man is more likely to say “churchy” phrases many of us have heard growing up–true things even! And he says them with such power and conviction! “Homosexual behavior is sin!” We rightly reply, “Yes, that’s true. But what does that have to do with the text you just read?” This preacher doesn’t let the content or intent of the text guide him any more than the guy who plays videos from his iPad does. And it is still not preaching.

On to the third example. Those of us who have been to Bible College or seminary are even more likely to think this man is preaching, but sadly, he is not. This preacher does a good job at understanding the content and intent of the original author to the original audience, but he fails to make it his content and intent to his audience. This preacher says “Paul told them to repent” too much and doesn’t say “You must repent” enough. A “sermon” not directed and applied to contemporary hearers is not a sermon, it’s a NT grammar lesson. And a grammar lesson is not preaching.

What I’m Not Saying
I’m not saying I know everything about preaching. I’m very young and inexperienced and have a ton to learn!

I’m also not saying that the other kind of talks are bad or always inappropriate for every context. God can use the three examples I’ve listed, and I pray He does. These other kinds of talks aren’t bad, it just means they aren’t examples of preaching.

Another thing I’m not saying that in order for it to be preaching that it has to be verse-by-verse exposition. You can preach an entire book of the Bible in one sermon by applying the major themes of its content and intent to your congregation. Mark Dever does this. I have attempted to do this with the book of Jonah (emphasis on the word attempted). Or take Martin Lloyd Jones for example. Most of the sermons I’ve heard from him aren’t verse-by-verse exposition (which probably should be the main way preaching should happen IMO). Instead, many of his sermons are thematic–he’ll preach about what it means to have faith, for example. But even in that, he’s applying the content and intent of several passages that deal with the biblical concept of faith to his hearers–he makes the content and intent his content and intent. That’s different than saying whatever a verse makes you think about (like example #2 above)–which is what David Helms calls “impressionistic preaching” (like impressionist painters).

Fellow pastors, lets hone our skills and proclaim the text as well as we possible can, considering what it is we’re trying to accomplish from the pulpit every Sunday.

A Few Thoughts on Sermon Illustrations

preach-from-bibleI am thoroughly enjoying the new blog put out by some friends over at ministrydudes.com. It’s good, practical content for ministry, and I find it helpful for me as a rookie pastor. So, if you’re in the same boat, go check out their stuff.

Recently Marc Neppl wrote a post titled “3 Sermon Illustrations You Should Throw Away.” I asked if i could respond to his post here as it gave me a few thoughts I’ve been considering about illustrations that originated by Bryan Chappell’s book Using Illustrations to Preach with Power. I must confess I don’t know Marc well at all. We’ve met at the NAFWB convention once. I have deep respect for him, however, as he is a church planter (something that scares me–a lot!) and he can surf (I’m one of the sissiest people ever when it comes to swimming–I still hold my nose when I go underwater). Marc, thanks for letting me give some thoughts in response to your post.

First, he made some good points about integrity when using illustrations. Some illustrations used claim to be factual when they aren’t. Bad deal. As Marc implied, telling a story while claiming it’s true could “damage our credibility” (keep in mind that half your congregation can google the story as you’re telling it!).

Also, he is right that illustrations do have an emotional impact on people. I agree that a sermon based entirely on getting people to make an emotional “decision” is likely misleading and unhelpful to people. Illustrations can be abused, and based on the post, it appears Marc has observed quite a bit of that.

I gather that Marc’s post is intended to warn against the dangers of illustrations being abused in preaching. I concur with those dangers. At the same time, I want to affirm some things I’ve been learning about illustrations, especially from Bryan Chapell’s book Using Illustrations to Preach with Power.

First, it’s not necessarily bad that illustrations have an emotional appeal to them. Chapell points out that people are not just thinking beings, we’re also feeling beings. Chapell said, “Not to control emotions is wrong, but not to experience emotions is warped.” I think he’s right. The goal in preaching is not simply to help people learn new information, it’s to help people experience God so their lives are changed. This includes informing and urging, convincing, prodding, and even motivating. Preaching void of emotion (using illustrations falls into this) is not preaching that engages the whole person.

Chapell continued to note that people need to “walk in” an idea before they made a decision. They need to picture themselves there. This is why colleges want potential students to visit the campus and why realtors work to show the house to potential buyers–those people are more likely to enroll or buy because they picture themselves in the new situation. As Chapell says, illustrations in sermons serve the same purpose. They help listeners picture themselves in the way God’s Word is urging them to live before they actually change. In turn, this helps them make the change they need to make.

This is not a lack of dependence on God’s Spirit to use God’s Word. Of course, it is only by these two things that anyone is changed. However, pitting dependence on God’s Word and effective communication against one another is a false dichotomy. Communicate as well as you can in the parameters that preaching allows, and completely depend on God’s Word and Spirit in the mean time, realizing it is God who creates by His Word. The gospel is what holds the power, but if people don’t understand our explanation of the gospel because of poor communication, then the power is held hostage.

I take Marc’s warning and affirm it. There are dangers in using illustrations as he has mentioned. I want to also mention that I don’t think that means we shouldn’t use illustrations, just that we should use them intentionally.

I welcome Marc’s feedback on this, as well as other preacher friends of mine as we think through this together.

On Hell as Motivation

Golden-Eagle-Silk-Road-The-Door-to-Hell-in-Darvaza-TurkmenistanI’ve heard people tell me they got saved “because I didn’t want to go to hell,” only to affirm that decision as a false conversion.

You’ve likely heard of similar stories. I remember one time a man preaching about hell at 9am at a chapel service at camp . . . to a bunch of 10-year-olds. “Hell is hot, and you don’t want to go there.” Certainly true. Maybe not the best time of day to scare the crap out of a bunch of elementary age school kids though.

Often the stories I hear about people “getting saved” out of a fear of hell happened when someone was young. It does seem a little disingenuous, doesn’t it? You know, using hell as a motivator on the people whose imaginations are most vivid.

It’s easy to see red flags with this approach. Real conversion happens by God’s grace through faith. That’s not necessarily the same thing as praying a prayer because you don’t want to burn forever in hell. No one wants to do that. This approach can lead someone to have a false assurance. I’m sure there are other issues with this approach as well–not to mention there is no gospel in simply telling someone, “You don’t want to go to hell, do you!?! Muahahahah!”

However, lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are numerous examples in Scripture of God’s coming judgment being used as a warning to motivate repentance. See the Ninevites with Jonah, Jesus in a few parables and other places, the entire book of Hebrews, and many other places.

Hell is a motivator, but it can be used as a displaced motivator. It can motivate someone’s selfish desires–“I don’t want to go to hell!”– without that person actually having a love for God Himself.

How then should we use coming judgment as the right kind of motivator? Use coming judgment to point to the one who already suffered God’s judgment in our place.

Hell is a poor motivator unless it is used to tell of the one who went through hell to keep us from it. Using it in this kind of way actually exalts Christ in a powerful way because it helps show how much He has truly done. This kind of preaching and teaching about hell should lead people to see how glorious the King over hell is. By God’s grace, they would then avoid hell not in an effort to save their hide, but to worship and love an incredible Savior.

It is possible to use the reality of hell in a poor way, but there is also a way to use it to exalt Christ and tell of His glorious gospel.

Preachers, Mood Matters

green blueIn preaching, your mood matters. Not whether or not you’re grumpy that morning, but whether or not your mood reflects the text.

You can say “Jesus is the most precious and valuable thing you could ever hope for,” while communicating, “Jesus is pretty cool, but . . . meh.”

The way you say something can actually be a barrier from a person truly hearing the message you should be conveying.

The Mood of a Text

I’ve heard preachers who sounded angry and frustrated when preaching a text that wasn’t portraying the same mood. As one of my profs said, “You shouldn’t preach Psalm 23 as a rebuke.” Why? Because the purpose is to comfort, soothe, put at rest.

If preaching is when the content and intent of a passage becomes your content and intent, then that includes tone and mood. That’s why one of the questions I ask myself in sermon prep is, “What is the mood or tone of the text?” Is the author anxious? Confused? Encouraged? Passionate? Worshipful?

Then I try to ask God to help me have the same heart toward my people that the author had toward his, or that God has. Hopefully, God has dealt with me through the text, and He helps me not just say what He is saying, but portray what He is saying by how I say it.

What I’m Not Saying

I’m not saying you have to be an outgoing, life of the party person in order to be a preacher. You can have dry wit or be an introvert and be a preacher (I’m an introvert). But, introverted or extroverted, you’re missing something if you don’t portray (at least in your own way) the mood of the text.

A Challenge

Has God’s Word truly impacted you in your study? Is it truly powerful? Then don’t you think you should convey that in how you say it? Shouldn’t there be a burden in your preaching like Martin Lloyd Jones talked about? Is it truly the Word of the Almighty God of all existence that you’re proclaiming? Preachers, we’ve got to beg God to get His Word deep down inside of us! In our bones. And then we’ve got to deliver–not because people are changed because of our performance, but because if someone doesn’t communicate God’s Word, then people can’t be changed. So preach. And get the word deep down inside of you–even to the point of having the mood of the text.