According to John MacArthur:
“Expository preaching is the most crucial thing in the life of the church.”
The most effective thing you will ever do is preach the word of God from the pulpit.”
According to John MacArthur:
“Expository preaching is the most crucial thing in the life of the church.”
The most effective thing you will ever do is preach the word of God from the pulpit.”
How do you deal with difficult passages in the Bible? Thankfully the Bible is straight-forward and understandable. The most important things are the most clear. However, there are passages that are more difficult, requiring more work by the interpreter.
I remember about 12 years ago as I worked as a pastoral intern at a church. I was teaching through a passage and my pastor gave me some feedback. “You are calling out audibles like a quarterback.” I was working through a difficult passage and in order to prove my interpretation I marshaled some other (many) verses. Like Peyton Manning yelling “Omaha! Nascar! Bradshaw! Montana! Hut Hut!” I was calling out Bible verses from everywhere.
How can you tell that your pastor loves you? This could get tricky. We might be tempted to exegete his facial expressions, evaluate his manners, or consider whether or not he sends you a birthday card. However, the Bible actually gives several ways that demonstrate this love.
One of the ways the pastor shows his love is by feeding the flock (the church) the Word of God.
Where do we get this from? There are many places in the Bible, but a good place to see this is in John chapter 21.
“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.”” (John 21:15)
Jesus tells Peter to feed his lambs. He says the same thing in verse 17. The word has to do with caring for or looking after the flock. In the Middle Eastern agrarian culture the shepherd would lead his flock to food and the still waters of refreshment. He ensured that they were properly fed.
This sermon and this section in particular was a great blessing to me today. Is Spurgeon’s great longing and prayer beginning to be realized in our day? To some degree you would have to say “yes.”
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Delayed adolescence is a reality in American families. There is no disputing the massive increase in number of young people that choose to live with their parents late into their 20’s and in some cases into their 30’s. Insurance companies have taken notice of this and have extended coverage of “children” well into the mid to late 20’s. There is no surprise then that while adolescence is prolonged the expreriences that correspond with being an adult are decreasing. Marriages are decreasing while video games sales are increasing. The delayed adolescence of the American youth is a fascinating and increasingly troubling trend.
But I am not a sociologist. I am a pastor. My concern is with the attitude and culture of delayed adolescence in the church. More specifically, I am not here thinking primarily about the evangelical culture that tends to awkwardly squirm away from and therefore curiously mute the conversation of male leadership in the church. I am thinking far more broadly than even this, to the philosophy and theological vision of churches that cultivate and promote a delayed doctrinal adolescence in the church.
This past weekend I preached a sermon on giving. As I was preparing the sermon I realized that in over 8 years of full-time ministry I have never preached a sermon on giving. My first response was a self-congratulation. I am not like those unbalanced, prosperity guys nor like the manipulating, arm-bending preachers who guilt trip those who don’t tithe.
Amid the back-patting I was convicted. The Bible talks a lot about giving and Jesus rings the stewardship bell quite often himself. How is it that I have gone through this many sermons without addressing it?
So why don’t we preach on giving?
One interesting aspect of living in the Midwest is the sudden change in weather. We can go from sun to ominous clouds to run for cover faster than an opponent can score on Nebraska’s Defense. A particularly captivating expression of this extreme weather is the hail storm. It is not unusual to see quarter, even golf-bowl sized hail bouncing off the sidewalks, cars, and roads. Once the storm has passed the damage is assessed and often times cars, roofs, garage doors and other personal property has suffered at the hands of the storm.
It is this hail-storm that has been a perennial reminder for me of my job in the pulpit.
Let me explain. The preacher’s job is to preach the Word of God (2 Tim. 4:2). That is, we are to herald, proclaim, or declare what the Bible says. As we do this we will be highlighting the unique beauty, excellency and glory of Jesus Christ. This is the preacher’s job year after year, month after month, weak after week, and sermon after sermon. We proclaim him! (Col. 1.28).
As a pastor I am thankful for the technological developments of the last couple of decades. We can no do things in a matter of minutes which took previous generations hours to do. The resource and platform that seems to have set the pace is Logos. I use it daily for Bible reading, study, sermon preparation, and commentary reading. I especially appreciate how seamlessly it works across devices (iPad, iPhone, Desktop).
Logos has now released a new product that aims to help make the experience better. 1,500 Quotes for Preachers is a resource that has organized quotations by church era, title, theme, and associated Scripture reference. The breakdown of volumes are chronological (300 from the early, Medieval, Reformation, Puritans, and Modern Church). As I scanned through I found quotes from Augustine, Calvin, Baxter, Bunyan, Spurgeon, and more. With links to the original works and an easy reference slide, this made sense for me in what I do. I pass it along because I know many of this blog’s readers are pastors like me who can use all the help we can get in saving time while improving clarity.
Here is the link. Check out 1,500 Quotations for Preachers, with Slides (5 Vol.)
If you are a parent of younger children then you make decisions every day about what they are exposed to. The concern is, of course, over influence. We know that certain things (movies, music, video games, friends, etc) are impactful. These outlets can shape they way they see and experience the world. Therefore we are intentionally selective about what they see.
Pastors do a similar thing in their preaching. They look at the context and culture of their church and decide what is best in terms of exposure. They set the preaching schedule, cadence, and style off of it. As a result one of the first things that gets shifted is the depth of the sermon. The pastor (with good motives, I’d assume) keeps the content at a relatively surface level for his people to keep up and tune in.
I believe that while this is helpful in parenting and counterproductive in preaching.
I remember sitting on my couch when it hit me. It was one of those rare moments of clarity amid the dense fog of dejection. I was fretting a bit about my sermon a few hours earlier. I felt like the wife or mom who kept on cooking up the same meals, the same way each week. The balance of spiritual proteins, carbs, and vegetables were not out of whack, but the flavor was. My homiletical seasoning had become flavorless and predictable. In short: my illustrations and word pictures were becoming bland and boring.
It hit me as I sat rubbing my head like I was attempting to coerse a migraine to leave. Jesus commented that “…out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Lk. 6.45). What was coming out of my mouth in my sermons was precisely what was filling my mind and heart throughout the week.
Think about it for a second. In sermon prep the preacher works hard to get the text into his soul. He pounds it in via reading, meditation, prayer, study, and thinking. What comes out is how the text has been received, processed, integrated, and applied personally. To put it another way, it is like the preacher drops a fishing line into his mind. Attached to it is the meat of the text. As he drags the line through the water of the mind he attracts some objects. You only pull out what is in there. If you go fishing and your hook gets caught on old boots, tires, coke bottles and weeds, it is because that is what is in the water. If your sermons consistently pull out illustrations about sports, your family, running or blowing things up it is because that is what is in there. In my case I was constantly referring to sports, my family, and (strangely) things that detonate. This works for awhile but eventually it becomes a tired old boot on the line.
So how do you spice up bland sermons? If we may apply Jesus’ logic here, then we need to fill our hearts and minds with more stuff. In particular we need to fill it with more homiletically helpful stuff.
Here are my suggestions that I have found personally helpful:
Recently my family of 8 packed into our mini-van for an early Spring vacation. When I say “packed in” you may be thinking in terms of seats (i.e. a Honda Odessy only has 8 seats, therefore, we were packed in). This is not what I mean. We were packed in. The trunk was filled to the top, the floor had shoes, books, bags, and blankets. The front seat was full of distractions for the little kids as well as entertainment for adults and big kids. We were packed in. But then when we got closer to our destination (10 hours away from home), we went to Costco to buy food for the week. In this we were now officially fully packed in. Kids balanced cartons of eggs, coffee, vegetables, and milk while we finished our course.
The vacation ended and my normal duties resumed last week. I prepared a sermon and then delivered it on Sunday. After I was finished I was reflecting upon it and critiquing various elements of it and I was drawn back to our road-trip.
I’m just finishing up preaching through First John. It has been a rich blessing for me, and I pray, our church as well. I often get questions about what resources were useful, so here is a list for pastors or anyone looking to dig in a bit and study the Epistles of John.
Here are my top 5 in order of my preference:
D. Edmond Hiebert: This is a very strong, textual commentary. Hiebert works through all of the issues by swimming through and out of the text. By the end of this series I looked forward to reading this each and every week. It’s great. (Amazon)
John Stott: If you are looking for an entry level commentary that will help you in your devotions and simplify some of the issues for you, then this is the one. Stott is incredibly simple and faithful. A must have if you are going to study the book. (Amazon | Westminster)
Robert Yarbough (Baker): As with the other commentaries in this set you can relay on it to provide solid contextual comments while also wading into various interpretive issues. Really good stuff. (Amazon | Westminster)
Collin Kruse (Pillar): Again, as is the case with the rest of the series you can’t go wrong with Pillar. Very readable and concise. Kruse is a worker; he helps you to think and reason. Even though I didn’t agree with every conclusion I knew and respected how he got there. Solid. (Amazon | Westminster)
Martyn Lloyd-Jones: This is more of an expositional commentary (sermons). In this you have 5 volumes of sermons from “The Dr”, one of the 19th Century’s best preachers. This is so good for your soul when you are preaching or studying. And if you are preaching, Lloyd-Jones will greatly help you with illustrations and interrogatives. (Amazon | Westminster)
We like shortcuts assuming that they get us to where we are trying to go. If they do not then they are dangerous, unproductive detours. In his book The Priority of Preaching, Christopher Ash argues that there are no shortcuts for preaching with authority. He writes, “The authority is a wonderful authority, but it is an authority borrowed only at great cost. This is why there are no shortcuts that work.”
Ash then helpfully warns preachers of three common shortcuts that preachers are tempted to take. I’ll state his points and briefly summarize them.
1. Beware of the shortcut of individual interpretation. This is the notion that we can just beaver away at the passage like we were the first person to ever read it. Many, many Christians have gone before us and wrestled with these same passages. No matter how trendy it is today to have our own interpretation of things Christians preachers must know that they we are accountable to God and one another to hear what the passage really means. “We must not be lazily idiosyncratic.”
2. Beware of the shortcut of second-hand interpretation. When listening to others we must not just copy others. Ash tells the story of how early in his ministry he heard a famous preacher nail a sermon and figured that he and his hearers would be better served if he just copied the sermon and delivered it as his own. The result was a true failure. Why? First the context was completely different, so the style didn’t translate well. Secondly, the sermon was terribly superficial. He had not been gripped and shaped by the passage. In short it wasn’t in them. You can’t expect to put the sermon in someone else if it is not in you first.
3. Beware of the shortcut of mystical authority.“We need desperately the fresh filling of God’s Holy Spirit when we preach, and can accomplish nothing without his sovereign power; but that power does not in general come upon preachers who have not bothered to prepare, and the filling of the Spirt is not a God-given compensation for willful idleness.” In short: Get to work bro, God will show up in your study too. Don’t presume upon God’s mercy and grace while serving your laziness.
Good reminders. More from Ash’s book here.
Preachers love to preach. We love to dive down deep, mining God’s Word for glorious, eternal treasures and then to swim back up to the service, sharing them with our church each week. But sometimes we get a little preacher’s cramp in so far as what to preach next. After preaching through Ezra and Nehemiah, I am thoroughly convinced that pastors, in particular church planting pastors, should prayerfully consider preaching through these books.
Here are some reasons…
New Beginnings: Ezra starts out with the people of God in Babylon. Within a verse or two God is strirring the heart of a pagan King (Cyrus) to send his people back to Israel to rebuild the temple and reestablish the covenant community. It is time for a new day. In particulur for a church plant this helps to show how God works in people and communities to build something new.
Idolatry: The books are repleat with examples of what idolatry is. Everywhere from the neglegence of the weak in Nehemiah 8 to the ignorance of the Sabbath in order to make wine in Nehemiah 13, God shows how the elevation of good things to ultimate things is actually a replacement of what is ultimate, namely the worship and adoration of the Lord God. This primes the pump for a crucial discussion on idolatry.
So often it’s the little stuff that makes the biggest impact.
This is true in my home as I am blessed to enjoy delicious meals on a regular basis. I often ask, “What is in this?” when enjoying a new dish or a new twist on an old dish. My wife will usually give one-word answers, “Lime.” “Cardamon.” “Turmeric.” “Honey.” “Pesto.” I am always surprised. I am always delighted. We rarely eat bland, ordinary, lifeless meals—for this I am daily thankful.
Like cooking, preaching can become bland. It can fail to have that freshness worthy of the gospel table. There are many reasons why. One could identify a lack of preparation, lack of understanding, poor delivery, and shallowness. We would not disagree that under-cooking the homiletical meal is a problem. But there is something else that can make preaching bland: the deadly reality of not being personally wowed by the subject.
I have seen this in some otherwise terrific sermons. Guys can be exegetically sound, communicate with clarity, illustrate with profundity, and then at the end of the sermon it tastes like grandma’s meatloaf: somewhat filling but not so memorable.
I love preaching. I love to preach myself and I love to hear others preach. Preaching is a God-ordained means of grace (1 & 2 Timothy). It is a good gift of God given for our blessing and benefit. But like so many blessings from God we can elevate them to become a distraction or even an idol.
In my young pastoral career (7 years) I have seen some unintended consequences of my love for preaching. I have observed a few ways in which my love for preaching has hurt our church. These observations do not diminish my love, appreciation, or priority of preaching. Instead, they helped me to regain pastoral balance and focus.
Here then are a few ways in which the idolatry of preaching can hurt your church:
Every preacher I know wants to get better; we are all clawing forward amid the windstorm of our own inability. In this I don’t pretend to be an expert but I do have the sand in my face. I’m with you trying to get there.
Previously I cited 4 ways to improve your preaching from a more administrative, preparatory way. I have also highlighted ways to help in prayerful preparation. However, in this post I want to talk about a few items that you can do in the delivery of the sermon that I have found to help. Let’s call them 5 friends that you want to invite to every one of your sermons.
We all have blind spots. We have our issues. Whether we are talking about personal, social, or theological blind spots, we have them. And to say you don’t, is to, well, make my point.
The important thing for us to look for said weaknesses, identify them and replace them. This is living life as a fallen sinner it is reality.
But sometimes our blind spots are our hobby horses. And this is a problem.
I can remember arguing about abortion with a friend who is pro-choice. In the midst of the discussion (it was civil) he called me out on my flippancy concerning life in the various wars that the US is involved in. He had a point. My issue was inconsistent. I had a blind spot.
As you might expect I did not get a ton of opportunities to preach as a new pastor. When they came I was almost paralyzed by both the opportunty and the fear. I was so excited but so afraid. I love to preach…but I was scared to mess up. So I did what any sensible, insecure, young pastor would do: I quoted stud theologians to make my point. It was always good to bring in respected giants from church history to make your points, right? Ehhh…maybe not.
At this same time a very good friend and I would work out in the mornings together. We would lift and run and talk about the sermon from the weekend. When I’d preach he’d give me very constructive and helpful feedback. But one day my friend, Tyler, gave me something big. He said, “I think it’s more effective for you to meditate on the passage a bit longer and say something that is yours rather than quoting all these guys. Be gripped by the text; I’d rather hear you then them.”
I appreciated this post from Michael McKinley on prayer and sermon prep. Good stuff.
Most pastors develop a rhythm with their sermon preparation. You find a way that “works” for you and you pretty much stick with it. But until you have the pattern established, it can be messy. And one of the areas with which I struggled at the beginning was how prayer fit into my sermon preparation.