As a rule, I think pastors shouldn't use quotes in their sermons. There are a number of reasons for this:
- quotes tend to come from written material rather than spoken material and, generally speaking, there is a difference. What might make sense to you written down in your notes will be much harder to digest when you're just listening to it read through. Sentences tend to be longer and more complex when they're written down
- some people quote as a kind of underhand way of impressing the congregation. "As Augustine said…." If, honestly, that's your motivation, then don't do it!
- to put it bluntly, people have not come to hear what Don Carson thinks of the knotty problem. They want you, Mr Preacher, to explain it to them and apply it to their lives. If they wanted the Don, they could have stayed at home and listened to Radio 4 (see here!)
- quotes can work as illustrations – for example, hearing the account of an early martyr when he is faced with death. Better still, I think, to tell the story yourself
No, quotes are best left at home. But every now and then, I do break my own rules. I did this last Sunday preaching Romans 3 and answering the objection that many people have – "I'm just not a bad person." This is a simple quote, easy to follow with a nice turn of phrase. As such, it answers some of the objections above. It comes from Bishop Moule, the 19th Century Anglican Bishop of Durham and co-founder of Keswick:
[yes] the prostitute, the liar and the murderer are short of [God's glory]; but so are you. Perhaps they stand at the bottom of the mine; and you stand on the crest of the Alps, but you are as little able to touch the stars as they.
What to do when you have not prepared your best sermon
It happens to us all. Last week I was on holiday, then ill, then stepping in for someone at the last minute. A pretty chaotic set of circumstances that meant by preparation was poor, prayerfulness was lacking and every time I tried to sit down and concentrate I found it hard to keep going for more than about 40 minutes before coughing and spluttering through another cup of tea.
What do you do?
I think (and I hope this is not too contentious), you relax.
Let me tell you what I don't mean. I don't mean that sermon preparation is not hard work. I don't mean you can get away with the bare minimum most of the time. I don't mean that you can borrow other people's sermons. I don't mean that prayerfulness doesn't matter. I don't mean that your congregation can get by on a diet of half baked teaching.
This is what I do mean. God is good and gracious. He knows and understands our weaknesses and failings because he has taken on human flesh. Ultimately the effectiveness of our preaching is a spiritual issue not a human one.
So, whilst I will still try to work and pray through a sermon, I will not let Satan tell me that its effectiveness is down to my effort or skill. I believe that even though Paul and Barnabas "spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed" (Acts 14.1), that passage must be seen in the context of "and all who were appointed for eternal life believed" (Acts 13.48).
And my testimony is often the same as other preachers I have met – that the sermons I am most pleased with have had least effect…. and vice versa.
Thank God that it is so.
Don’t be distracted by the famous texts
We're not agin preaching texts. In fact, this last Sunday (Reformation Sunday, in our church at least) I preached Romans 3.22. "Good, good" said the wise sage Dick when I told him. Preaching texts is hard work though in terms of making sure you don't rip them out of context and understand them as they're meant to be understood – a harder task than many preachers think.
But the flip side of this is that when you're preaching a book you will come across famous texts. This Sunday last in the evening I was preaching from 2 Corinthians 5.11-6.2 in our series on "the gospel centred church." It contains at least three famous texts:
“one has died for all, therefore all died.” (v15)
“if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”(v17)
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (v22)
The truth is that anyone of those would (or, better, could) make an excellent sermon in itself. But when preaching the passage, it's easy to be distracted by these great texts. Some of the folk probably had them as memory verses when they were younger or on posters on the wall (if they were particularly keen). The answer is, I think, to keep working at how they function within the passage. Acknowledge they are well known and, without denigrating those who hold onto such texts for comfort and help, warmly show how they fit in the passage.
It's not easy, actually. Someone will always feel you have not done it justice. Someone else will feel you have overdone it. But all Scripture is God-breathed and so securing them in a passage is well worth the effort. For what it's worth (which is probably not very much) my outline was:
Gospel message (2 Cor 5.11-6.2)
- The gospel enables us think rightly about ourselves (11-15)
- The gospel enables us to think rightly about others (16-17)
- The gospel enables us to think rightly about the task (5.18-6.2)
X Marks the Spot: Preaching Chiasms
I have had an exchange of e-mails with a pastor-preacher I greatly respect, about how best to preach a passage where the structure is chiastic. We were not sure, but between us had three suggestions.
- Beware seeing chiasms everywhere. As my friend said, beware chiasm-mania. Reading texts can become a bit like "Where's Wally?" – there just must be a chiasm somewhere, if only I could find it! Well, maybe there isn't. I have to say that this has let me off the chiasm-hook many times; I am just blind to them!
- Even if there is a chiasm, don't call it that when preaching; it will only mystify most of your hearers and send them away thinking how clever the preacher is, rather than how wonderful the word of God is. If it's really clear, why not just call it something like "a sandwich-like structure"? Everybody knows a sandwich.
- If it's really clear, experiment with different ways of preaching it. Although I almost always preach a text in the order it is written (after all, that is the order in which we read it and hear it), I did try preaching Deuteronomy 30:1-10 by taking each layer in from the outside, ending with the turning point, the climax and key point in verse 6 (as David Jackman often says, "the turning point is the teaching point"). Well, actually, I preached verses 1-6 in order, and then went more quickly through verses 7-10 noting that they made more or less the same points as verses 1-5 but in the opposite order for emphasis.
Choosing names matters too….
A more lighthearted observation – at the same ceremony mentioned yesterday, I was wakened from my reverie by one of the names read out.
And the prize goes to…Amber Lin.
Dear Amber looked very pleased, but I couldn't help wondering if any of the other wives of Henry VIII would be there too. Choose your children's names carefully.
Why careful language matters
Christians can sometimes be rather sloppy with theological language. There are many reasons for this: laziness, misunderstanding – and perhaps some of us who stand at the front of churches get too pedantic. But on the other hand, some doctrines (and I'm thinking particularly of the Trinity) are hard to understand anyway without people confusing things even more. So, whilst we ought not to be criticising those who speak from ignorance, we ought at the very least to be helping them get to grips with such matters.
I was struck by this whilst reading a very short and simple book on the Trinity by Stuart Olyott, What the Bible teaches about the Trinity, just reissued by EP. It's a great little book for giving to church members (and, dare I say it, refreshing the understanding of church ministers?). There's a chapter on errors to avoid, where Stuart writes this about Sabellianism (essentially modalism):
Sometimes, Sabellianism is found in a Christian's prayers. Often he begins by praying to God the Father, but shortly afterwards thanks him for dying on the cross. He thus falls into the mistake of saying of the Father what can only be said of the Son. He may then proceed to thank him for his indwelling presence – something which can properly be said only of the Holy Spirit. Fortunately God does not listen to our words, but looks upon our hearts, and the mediation of Christ guarantees that our prayers are presented in heaven without fault. Yet it is always dangerous to have wrong views of God, and if such prayers are public they may sometimes be positively harmful to those who hear them.
This was reinforced for me when visiting a church building yesterday for a school prize-giving. I was sitting at the back next to a stack of leaflets that said "What Christians believe." I took one to read in the duller moments of the assembly. This is what the leaflet said about the Holy Spirit.
We believe the Father is always with us and we call his presence the Holy Spirit
What do you think? Sounds to be like modalism. There is truth within it, but the Spirit is God himself, one of the three persons of the Trinity and not simply the Father's presence. Careful language does matter.
Book review: A minister’s wife
“It takes all sorts to be a minister’s wife”. That’s what Rachel Lawrence writes in ”The Minister’s Wife”. If that’s true, is it possible for one book to help every sort of minister’s wife?
Well, this book does a pretty good job. This is due partly to the fact that eight different sorts of minister’s wives contribute from their own different experiences. This brings all sorts of styles and ways of approaching the topic.
I think it is also due to the way that it addresses the real cause of our issues as minister’s wives. No, I don’t mean our husbands or even our churches but our hearts. The book contains a very helpful chapter on maintaining our relationship with the Lord and one on humility and contentment. These remind us that dealing with the practicalities of being a minister’s wife requires more than a list of handy hints and recipes.
Having said that, there are also some very down to earth practical answers to the “How to…?” questions with a chapter particularly for those starting out in ministry. We are also reminded of the many privileges of being a minister’s wife.
This is a great book to dip into again and again whatever sort of minister’s wife you are. It will challenge you to think about your responsibilities and priorities as well as encourage you to keep on serving God as you serve your husband.
[Ed: boys, buy this for your wife, but here's a tip – don't make it your only Christmas present to her. She may not appreciate that.]
It’s not just the preaching…
We tend to focus here on preaching, and are right to do so, but preaching has a context which is normally (narrowly) a worship service in church and (more broadly) a pastoral ministry exercised in the church. So, to answer the first context, here is an order of service I put together for last Sunday evening when I was preaching on "Gospel Encouragement" from 2 Corinthians 4 (more specifically, "therefore, we do not lose heart"). I'll try and explain what I was thinking:
Welcome – I always introduce myself, sometimes there will be new people there or people who don't know the church leadership team. I explain what we're going to do, and sometimes (though not this time) read a Scripture to call people to worship.
Sing: Great is the gospel of our glorious God. This great Vernon Higham hymn linked into the morning sermon which was about the glory and wonder of the new covenant foreshadowed in the promises made to David (2 Samuel 7). It provided a link for those who were there in the morning and information for those who were not.
- Prayer: I led the congregation in prayer. I often write notes for my public prayers to keep them focused, correct (theologically) and Trinitiarian.
- Reading: 2 Corinthians 4. We were a bit radical at this stage and I asked the congregation to read to one another in twos and threes. All did. I did offer for some people to duck out as I know there are some who are not fond of reading aloud and others who cannot. Worked well, though wouldn't want to do it every time. We all said "Amen" together at the end (unscripted!)
- Sermon: yes, at the beginning. The sermon was about not losing heart when things don't seem so glorious. It was based on 2 Corinthians 4.
- Sing: We sung two songs in response to remind ourselves about the glory to come (which is the climax of the passage). This felt like we were singing the sermon in – very useful. We sung I will glory in my Redeemer followed by There is a higher throne.
- This service included the Lord's Supper so we then had a time of open prayer (we can do this because we are about 70 in the evening) when I asked people to pick up on themes from the sermon and then focus on the Lord's Supper.
- Sing: in memory of the Saviour's Love. Beautiful 17th Century hymn about the Lord's Supper which we sung to a very slow version of Amazing Grace. New to us, but worked well.
- Lord's Supper: at this point led by our pastor (it's difficult for me to handle bread because I'm a coeliac and I easily get ill).
- Sing to close: In Christ alone – a bit anthemic, but described the points in the sermon and the Lord's Supper very well.
All takes about 75 mins which is what we plan for. What would I have done differently? There was not enough time for petition which was a weakness.
BTW, the picture is really us! Well, some of us anyway.
Why evangelicals may have got quiet times completely wrong
It's the standard evangelical application; worthy if a little predictable – read your Bible more; pray more. But what if we've got those two essential ingredients of our quiet times wrong? Tipped off by my pastor I've been thinking about the puritan view of personal devotions and, interestingly, they had three elements, not two. This is best explained by Richard Baxter in the Saints Everlasting Rest. He said that we have to have three ingredients:
- consideration – what we would call reading/understanding the text
- soliloquy – more of this in a moment
The soliloquy is the "talking to yourself" part and the Puritans saw this as a key component of quiet times. The Bible exhorts us to meditate on God's word again and again and the Hebrew word means to chew over – to digest, if you like. How much of this do we actually do? How much of a discipline is it? No wonder our quiet times are sometimes turgid and difficult. We're quite possibly missing a piece of the puzzle.
Interestingly, last week I was reading Eric Mataxas' bio of Bonhoeffer and noticed that when he set up his Confessing Church college he got his students to find a quiet place each day for one whole hour and chew over a small part of Scripture; to talk to themselves about it; to work it through in their minds over and over again; to let it sink into every fibre of their being. These students, coming from largely mechanical-Christianity backgrounds, hated it! But we, we believers should love it.
And we need it. There is something profoundly wrong with a quiet time that reads/understands and prays without the soliloguy. We need to take the word of God into us and let it transform us. As Baxter puts it, we all need to find our Isaac place (somewhere away from the bustle of the day) and, basically, chew on God's word, preaching to ourselves.
A not-so-quiet time…
Calvin on John’s gospel
Had the privilege of sitting in on some Cornhill teaching last week as they embarked on a mammoth series in John's gospel. Christopher kicked off with this helpful Calvin quote.
A gospel is 'the glad and delightful message of the grace exhibited to us in Christ, in order to instruct us, by despising the world and it's fading riches and pleasures, to desire with our whole heart, and to embrace when offered to us, this invaluable blessing.' In the gospels, the evangelists do not just record the facts, 'but also explain for what purpose he was born, and died, and rose again, and what benefit we derive from those events.' John 'dwells more largely (than the Synoptics) on the doctrine by which the office of Christ, together with the power of his death and resurrection, is unfolded' or 'the power and benefit of the coming of Christ'. The Synoptics 'exhibit his body' but John 'exhibits his soul.' So, this gospel 'is a key to open the door for understanding the rest.'