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Archive for Preaching


Preaching from Ecclesiastes

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Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998, featuring Tom Hanks as Captain Miller. In the movie, Captain Miller is charged with the responsibility of finding paratrooper Private James Ryan and returning him to his family who had already lost three sons during World War 2. The movie, which won seven Academy Awards, invests several minutes depicting the landing on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, as a part of the Normandy Invasion. The cinematography is graphic and uncomfortable. It is my understanding that its portrayal is authentic. But what if the movie stopped there, with no certain outcome?

That is the challenge that comes with preaching from the Book of Ecclesiastes. By nature, both preacher and congregations look for sermons that conclude with the certain outcome of hope. We can endure the challenges of unfortunate reality so long as we know that within twenty minutes we get to the “happily ever after.” But Ecclesiastes isn’t written in a series of undulations that ebb and flow. With the exception of two verses in chapter 12, the picture that Qoheleth paints is bleak and depressing. Perhaps the ultimate “vanity of vanities” is one’s attempt to preach a verse by verse exposition from Ecclesiastes.

How, then, does one responsibly and faithfully preach from Ecclesiastes? Having preached verse by verse through the book in four of the congregations I’ve served, I offer the following suggestions.

  1. Remember that Ecclesiastes is geared to mature audiences who have lived long enough to be on a first name basis with disappointment and adversity. While college students may enjoy the philosophical discussion of the book in small group studies, those who best relate to the book are those who have been kicked in the teeth a few times. If the dating of Ecclesiastes is post-exilic, the original audience would have be those who have returned from captivity and trying to make sense of it.
  2. Remember that Ecclesiastes is one unit of thought. To extract popular passages such as 3:1-12 or 12:1-7 as stand alone texts misses the deeper intent of the author. The context of each section and its relationship to the rest of the sections matters.
  3. Remember that Ecclesiastes is wisdom literature, so like the Book of Job, the preacher needs to be especially aware of literary devices such as hyperbole and cynicism. Much of Ecclesiastes is descriptive, not prescriptive.
  4. Remember to do your homework. The good news is that there are good resources available to help you in your sermon preparation. The bad news is that there aren’t a ton of them. Trempor Longman III, Pete Enns, Derek Kidner, Duane Garrett, and Iain Provan have each produced balanced works on Ecclesiastes that should grace your library, along with several reliable English translations. Faithful study will help you develop a balanced interpretation and add clarity to your communication as you preach.
  5. Remember to use the “whole counsel of God.” Ecclesiastes is in the Bible, but so are 65 other books. At the end of the day we have access to each of those as we help our listeners navigate life’s absurdities. I do think there is value, however, in letting the listeners have time to really grapple with the thoughts and emotions contained in the book. We are far more comfortable looking at the dangerous reptile behind glass than we are in the wild. But when in the wild, we are more alert and not as nonchalant. When we struggle with our uncertainties we become more open to being humble enough to actually have hope.

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Categories : Ecclesiastes, Preaching
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Three Ideas For Sermon Series

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When I served in the local church I was always preaching a series of sermons, which meant that I was always brainstorming ideas for upcoming series of sermons. Sometimes they were expositions of entire books in the Bible or lengthy passages such as the Sermon of the Mount. Other times I enjoyed preaching a series on a biblical character such as Joseph, Moses or David. At other times I would do a thematic series on a topic such as prayer, fear, or suffering. I am a planner and like to have a general idea of where I was going over the course of the coming year. And I was always open to a series idea even though I may not get to it for a year.

Here are three series I really enjoyed preaching that I want to suggest. I think they were beneficial and well received, especially by our younger families.

The first suggestion is on the subject of contentment. I wasn’t a stewardship series, per se, but I did deal with what it meant to be content. I tried to answer the question, “How much is enough?” There are great texts available for this type of series filled with rich word images from the original languages.

The second is on simplicity. This could be timely, given the fact that we are coming off a world wide pandemic that basically forced us to simplify our lives. Many people, especially young families, discovered that they could have margin in their lives both in terms of time and money, and may be reluctant to give up the ground they gained.

The final suggestion is akin to the series on simplicity. It is on sabbath, and how to discover rest in a world of unrest. This topic is found throughout the Bible, and books such as Living the Sabbath by Norman Wirzba provide a lot of insight as to why Sabbath was important in history and remains important today.

There are many resources available on these topics. If you are intrigued by any of these ideas, I’d be glad to visit with you further. You can find examples of these sermons by using the search bar or the tag cloud on this site.

Categories : Pastors, Preaching, Sermons
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Relevant Sermons

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Years ago I came across a book by Os Guinness titled Prophetic Untimeliness. In it Guinness asserts, “Never have Christians pursued relevance more strenuously; never have Christians been more irrelevant.” The challenge for the church is to be timely, not trendy. This comes not by being in step with the times, but having the courage to be out of step with the conventional wisdom of our present culture. The popular need for cultural relevance comes because of our fixation with time. But in reality, only that which is eternal is truly relevant. Guinness writes, “It takes the eternal to guarantee the relevant; only the repeated touch of the timeless will keep us truly timely.”

Those words bring to mind the words of the late Dr. Calvin Miller. In his book Preaching, Miller wrote that the greatest challenge preachers face each week is the decision between saying important things or saying interesting things. Or put another way, “Shall I say something important this week? Or shall I settle for merely being interesting?” Well put.

Preaching that truly makes a relevant impact is preaching that works toward helping people become more Christlike. Unfortunately, many sermons are aimed at helping people have better lives, better bodies, better financial security, better relationships, and better marriages (including better sex). If you study the teachings of Jesus, he pointed his listeners to living lives that love God and love others. And he did so without wearing a Rolex or a pair of $500 sneakers. Just sayin’.

Categories : Preaching
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The Hardest Part of Preaching

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Most preachers have a routine of sermon preparation and delivery that has become natural and even reflexive. Some preachers prefer the study and writing, while others prefer the act of delivering the sermon. In order to be effective, preachers have to find a level of proficiency in both, otherwise the sermon will either be all heat and no light, or vice versa.

For me, the hardest part of sermon preparation has been the decisions surrounding what not to say. Allow me to explain.

I believe that the Bible contains the inexhaustible truths of God. So to select a text and then attempt to plumb the depths of every insight is impossible. When a pastor prepares a sermon, he or she brings all of their prior knowledge to the table, then adds the collective wisdom of reference works, commentaries, historical contexts, original languages and multiple English translations. This collection of scholarship, added to the revelation of God’s Spirit and personal experience, can yield an overwhelming amount of information. The temptation preachers have is to try to bring the entirety of their preparation into the pulpit. Thus, the sermon sounds like a book report rather than a message from God.

Years ago I had the honor of interviewing preaching and New Testament author and professor Fred Craddock for a paper I was writing for my doctoral program. When I asked him the question, “What is the hardest part of preaching?”, he quickly replied, “determining what not to say.” That insight has perhaps helped me in my personal preaching more than any other I have learned.

If preachers are disciplined about developing a “main idea” (Haddon Robinson), everything that is prepared for delivery must pass across that bar of judgment. The main idea serves as the litmus test for what is to be included and what is to be saved for another sermon on another date. If the information does not serve the main idea, then edit it, and focus more on illustration and application. One idea presented with clarity will have more impact than ten points that are unclear and overwhelming.

Remember, the goal of preaching is transformation of lives, not transmission of information.

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Why Sermons Are Boring

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An old time evangelist named Vance Havner once quipped that “most churches start at 11:00 sharp and end at 12:00 dull.” This elicits a chuckle from many pew occupants simply because it is often true. One of the arguments against church attendance has been the criticism that sermons are boring. Is it still possible in today’s information age? I have probably delivered more than my share of boring sermons, and I have a theory as to why I and many others are also guilty.

I believe the reason that sermons are boring, or at least perceived to be as such, is that they are written for the eye and not the ear. In other words, they are prepared much like one would write an essay and not a speech. Essays can be very compelling to read, but you may not wish to have one read to you.

So what is the difference between writing for the eye and writing for the ear? Let me offer some observations about the distinctions.

First, writing for the eye includes longer sentences that can be more detailed and complex than typical speech. Speech can be be delivered in smaller bites and utilize repetition for emphasis that writing would not include.

Second, writing for the eye is more formal whereas writing for the ear is more informal and conversational. This is the difference between a saying a length of distance is 300 yards versus saying the same length equals three football fields.

The third difference is that writing for the eye is timeless and can be reviews over and over. Writing for the ear is timely, making its impact in an exact moment of time.

Next, writing for the eye is a one way conversation while writing for the ear is a two way conversation. Writers who publish papers and books do not have the benefit of immediate feedback that speakers do, allowing them to make on the fly edits based on the audience’s responses.

Finally, writers for the eye depend on punctuation to deliver emphasis compared to the speakers use of gestures and volume to deliver emphasis. An unspoken gesture, facial expression, or a pregnant pause are all tools that a speaker possesses that cannot easily be replicated on the printed page.

Sermon and speech writing is unlike any other form of writing, in that it is intended to be heard. Wise pastors and speakers will identify the difference between writing for the eye and for the ear, and will use that to enhance their preaching.

Categories : Preaching, Sermons
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Preaching Without Notes

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Several years ago I made the commitment to preach my sermons without the aid of notes. Seminary is very permission giving about what any preacher chooses to take into the pulpit. In other words, there is no right way to do it. Some will take a full manuscript, some will use a skeleton outline with bullet points, and then there are those like me who commit the sermon to memory.

Speaking from memory has elicited some interesting comments over the years. Some have suggested that I extemporize (wing it) my sermons. Others have inquired as to whether or not I have a photographic memory or possess some kind of special gift. I am not an extemporaneous speaker nor would I consider myself particularly or uniquely gifted. But there is a simple trick that I learned from one of my ministry mentors who always preached without notes.

Are you ready?

They secret sauce, for me at least, is to write the sermon using pen and paper. Once the manuscript is complete, I copy it by hand at least twice. Writing the sermon in longhand helps me connect with it in a way that I have not be able to accomplish with a keyboard. Once this part of the process is complete, I rehearse it aloud and spot check the clarity of my communication as well as my memorization. At this point, I am reinforcing my memorization by speaking it aloud and hearing it aloud. That’s it.

You don’t have to be particularly gifted to preach without notes. It just takes time and commitment. The benefits of doing this work are, in my opinion, worth the effort. Here are some of the benefits I have found preaching without notes.

First, I feel a great sense of ownership in the sermon. The entire process of prayer, preparation and delivery requires me to internalize the material in a deeper way than if I just clicked print and walked away from my desktop. The sermon becomes so internalized that I have found that I am free from distractions such as crying babies or people excusing themselves to use the rest room. My sermons may not always be preached verbatim, but I have never “forgotten” my sermon.

Second, preaching without notes gives me the opportunity to meditate on my content wherever I want, whether it be while driving or waiting in line at the grocery store.

Third, it provides a sense of freedom in my delivery. When I am tied to my notes I am, by default, tied to something physical, like a pulpit for example. Anything that limits me physically on the platform is a limitation to my communication. Limitations include confidence monitors and video technology, for that matter, which is not fail safe.

Next, memorization infers that I care deeply about my topic and that I care about my audience enough to make the effort. Someone may disagree from time to time with what I say, but no one has ever accused me of inadequate preparation! Preaching without notes adds credibility to me as a communicator and builds trust with the listeners.

Finally, preaching without notes helps create a two way conversation with the listeners. Because I am free from notes, I am free to focus on eye contact and making purposeful gestures that are natural. If I can focus on the congregant’s non verbal responses, I can determine whether or not I’ve connected with them in a meaningful way. If I read a manuscript or am heavily tied to notes then at best my eye contact is 50%. The more tied to notes I am, the more the sermon becomes a one way conversation where I talk “at” the audience instead of “with” them.

I do not intend for this post to sound like I have the only way or that anything shy of preaching without notes is wrong. But I do think it’s the best way. And I think you can do it, too!

Categories : Preaching
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Talk Like TED

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I did my doctoral studies in the field of preaching, and consequently have read approximately 100 books on the topic. Each one of these has contributed to my thinking and practice of preaching and public speaking. Some time ago my friend Cliff Jenkins recommended a book by Carmine Gallo that may be one of the most practical helps for those who speak to audiences whether religious or secular. The name of the book is Talk Like TED.

For years “TED Talks” have served as an influential platform for sharing insights and ideas. Some of the most popular presentations have garnered millions of views on YouTube and other media outlets. They have propelled the careers and book sales of presenters. Regardless of the topic or the presenter, these TED talks share one common denominator: they are all outstanding. Carmine Gallo has evaluated hundreds of TED talks and gleaned nine distinguishing features of each to help each of us become better communicators.

#1 UNLEASH THE MASTER WITHIN. You can’t inspire others if you’re not inspired by the topic. Each presenter is clearly passionate about their subject matter.

#2 MASTER THE ART OF STORYTELLING. Passion is best expressed through storytelling, not imperatives. The best stories illustrate and illuminate the subject and inspire listeners to take action.

#3 HAVE A CONVERSATION. Become so familiar with your subject matter that your pace, timing, and gestures become natural and unforced.

#4 TEACH SOMETHING NEW. Reveal information that is either completely new, is packaged differently, or offers a novel way to solve an old problem.

#5 DELIVER JAW DROPPING MOMENTS. Make your presentation memorable and stamp it in their minds.

#6 LIGHTEN UP. Use humor to poke fun at yourself as well as your topic.

#7 CONFINE YOUR PRESENTATION TO 18 MINUTES. Constrained presentations require greater creativity. What is left unsaid makes what is said even stronger.

#8 PAINT A MENTAL PICTURE WITH MULTISENSORY EXPERIENCES. Since the brain doesn’t think without a picture, create images through images, videos and props. Give your topic multiple voices to engage the minds of the listeners.

#9 STAY IN YOUR LANE. Don’t be something other than who you are. Be authentic, open and transparent. People can generally spot inauthenticity. Authenticity is the key ingredient to gaining the trust of the listener.

Gallo’s book should be considered a must read for anyone who speaks publicly. His insights from the presenters of TED talks are both timely and timeless. If you think about it, you’ll find at 2,000 years ago Jesus Christ implemented these principles, and we’re still talking about his presentations today.

Categories : Books, Preaching
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Jars of Clay

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On Sunday I will begin a new sermon series titled, “Jars of Clay.” The goal of this series is to demonstrate how God uses our weakness as a platform to display his surpassing power. For example,

Moses said, “I am afraid.”
Deborah said, “I am unqualified.”
Gideon said, “I am uncertain.”
Samson said, “I am self reliant.”
Nehemiah said, “This is hard.”
David said, “I am inexperienced.”
Jonah said, “I don’t understand.”
Paul said, “I am weak.”

In the lives of familiar characters and stories, we’ll discover how God enables us to serve in the midst of the cracks and imperfections of our lives. I hope you’ll check in from week to week and find encouragement to let the treasure of Jesus shine through your jar of clay.

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The Impact of Sermons

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“The main benefit that is obtained by preaching is by impression made upon the mind in the time of it, and not by an effect that arises afterwards by a remembrance of what was delivered.”–Jonathan Edwards

One of the challenges to preaching is placing an inordinate amount of pressure upon the content that is delivered. Preachers aspire to make truth memorable, if not quotable. After spending hours pouring over manuscripts in preparation and ultimately delivery of the sermon, preachers wonder why their words are forgotten by the time their congregations unfold their napkins for Sunday lunch.

I think this is because we have misguided impressions as to the impact of one sermon. In reality, it is the cumulative volume of a body of work that has the lasting impact on the lives of church members.

Categories : Preaching
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Since my doctoral studies were in the field of preaching, I have read scores of books on the subject. Books on preaching sermons and how to preach sermons fall into two general categories. There are technical works written by professors that get into the nuts and bolts of the how to craft and deliver sermons. Then there are the practical volumes, written by pastors, that discuss how to approach preaching week in and week out.

Timothy Keller has published an encouraging perspective on pastoral preaching that focuses on how to go about preaching in a day that is skeptical about the gospel. He doesn’t delve into how to preach sermons, per se, but rather focuses on how pastors can approach preaching with confidence in an age of question.

Softening the message of the text is clearly not an option for Keller. He encourages preachers to have bold confidence in the text yet creatively communicate the written word with clarity and simplicity. The timeless message need not change. However, times have changed, and the wise preacher will learn how to convey spiritual truth in ways that are both understandable and compelling. Understanding the message of the text is important. Equally important is the need to understand our current culture.

I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who routinely preaches and teaches in a constant setting.

Categories : Books, Preaching
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