How to avoid being a sermon hack
OK, I hope you spotted that this was a spoof – a little bit of irony. But it hurts, because it's rather close to the mark for many of us. Here's my antidote – five tips for avoiding being a sermon hack. This time, irony-free.
- Don't take on too much. I don't just mean the admin of pastoring, I mean too much preaching. Some exceptional preachers can cope with preparing three messages a week. I would suggest they are few. If your preaching schedule has made you into a hack, don't accept it, rework the schedule. Be honest with your church leaders (they would much rather you were!). If a sermon takes 10 hours of thorough preparation, it's unlikely you'll be able to do three a week. It's pretty unlikely you can do two a week for a sustainable period of time.
- Read and study a passage before. Our esteemed Jacko (David Jackman to me) suggests reading through a book in personal devotions six months before preaching it. I think that's good advice. Let it be deep in your heart and mind before you come to study it for preaching. I also think you should start thinking about your next passage before you have preached the current one – because just as you want to relate backwards in a Bible series, you should be thinking about how it relates forwards. I used to set aside a few hours on a Friday when Sunday's message is coming together to think about the following week.
- Use commentaries selectively. Frankly, I find devotional type commentaries derived from sermons pretty unhelpful, not because they aren't brilliant and contain useful insights, but because I can't read a Stott book and then not preach his sermon! I leave them until the end. So, for me, Tyndale over BST and NICOT/NICNT over NIV Application. Work it out yourself.
- Work on the big idea carefully. This is a key step which sermon "experts" often overlook. You may not realise it, but if your sermon (supposedly expounding the passage) and the passage don't match up, then the message is seriously undermined. I was reminded in a Cornhill sermon group last week of what a significant difference it makes if the preacher has grasped the main thing. Don't be formulaic about this. The last thing we want is formulaic preaching. But recognise that the hard work of asking "what is this passage about?" is a key step in preaching well. "This is sweaty, difficult work, but it has to be done" (Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching p70).
- Pray. Duh! We don't believe in works, but as Stuart Olyott pointed out in last year's Resource Guide, the ministry of the word (Acts 6.4) "is an and". Of course, God has been gracious to you and me when we have been prayer-less – but let's not presume on his grace.
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When seven point sermons can work
I'm not normally in the habit of preaching seven point sermons. But sometimes they can work. I'm not talking about seven distinct separate teaching points, like a Puritan sermon. This sermon has just one point, I think – the supremacy of Christ. It's based on Hebrews 1.1-4 – and here is the diagram that's in my head:
The seven points serve the aim of the sermon which is to portray the richness and supremacy of the "Son of God." This is the one burning idea I want hearers to go away with and which should cause preacher and hearer to fall to their knees in worship, adoration and wonder. It's a technique Paul sometimes uses in purple passages – pile description upon description not necessarily to make a point of all the points, but to make a point of the whole.
So, this seven point sermon is really a one point sermon.
Or, it could also be a seven part mini series….. but that's another thing all together.
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2011 EMA launch
Today we're officially launching the 2011 Evangelical Ministry Assembly – our 28th. Held from 22-24 June at St Helen's Bishopsgate, our theme for 2011 will be "preaching that connects: conservative, radical ministry." So much of our preaching is exegetically faithfuly but dull or lifeless in its application. It simply doesn't "land." Our contention is that we need to be conservative about the things we ought to conserve (primarily the message and the method), but radical about how we apply this to life.
Our main speakers will be Tim Keller (Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Manhattan), who models this so superbly, David F Wells (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and IVP author), Liam Goligher (Duke Street Church, Richmond) and Vaughan Roberts (Director of PT and Rector of St Ebbe's Oxford). Four seminar streams will tackle "connecting with…." particular groups of people: women (men think they have this all sewn up!); children (is dumbing down the only option?); atheists (how do we reach those staunchly opposed to God?); muslim people (increasingly an issue for many of our churches).
It promises to be stirring and helpful. Last year the EMA sold out and we had to close bookings some weeks before the event, so if you were one of those disgruntled people who phoned – sorry, but please do book early this year (we also have less spaces available than last year).
See you there! Book here.
My 5 steps to easy preaching
Or, how to be a sermon hack without really trying. I know you'll find these tips helpful:
- Come fresh to a passage. After all, freshness is best. Make sure that you don't look at a passage before you come to do your Friday or Saturday preparation. Previous study will only hold you back. Let the word sink into you at the same time as you are preparing; it doesn't need to have done so before.
- Avoid the Old Testament. As someone said to me this week, "The Old Testament is both hard and boring." Stick to the New Testament, and, to be honest, stick to the easier parts. There's plenty there, why waste effort on hard stuff? Your congregation will not cope anyway.
- Don't get wound up about praying. You know full well that you've preached OK (at least, if not better) when prayer has been slight. Prayer is not an essential ingredient like some magic spell to be cast over your message.
- Choose a good story. Everyone loves a good story. It will keep people with you. Select a really good story on which to hang your sermon. Funny too, if possible. Start with it, come back to it at the end.
- Read selectively. To be frank, throw out all those commentaries that are of the analytical verse-by-verse kind. The only commentaries worth their salt are those which are based on sermons. Use these copiously. You will find inspiration for both headings and illustrations here, saving you the bother of doing these yourself. After all, if it ain't broke….
And, hey presto, you're a sermon hack. Congratulations.
1. irony. n. an expression of meaning by the use of a language of a different or opposite tendency.
2. Read 2 Tim 2.15 again: "Do your best"
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Do I really need this…? A commentary junkie confesses.
I've got lots of commentaries on Hebrews. Some of them are OK, some are not so good (e.g. a Catholic one which is poor overall, but has some good insights here and there). Some are classics (John Owen), some are devotional (MacArthur). I've built them up because, I guess, I've taught Hebrews a couple of times through and have wanted to be pretty thorough in my preparation and I've loved reading and studying Hebrews for myself – possibly one of my favourite (if that is allowed) NT books. Now, at church, we're again tackling Hebrews and I'm struck by Julian Hardyman's review of Peter O' Brien's new Pillar volume. On the whole I both like and appreciate Pillar commentaries. Peter O Brien's previous outing (Ephesians) was especially helpful. IVP (in the UK) have done a fantastic job with this series.
There are a few things that hold me back. One is the price. List price is £32.99. Amazon will sell it to you for £28.04. The guys over at TenofThose.com will sell it to you for £25. I do understand that these are low-volume high-maintenance titles. But £30+ for a commentary, even one of 600 pages, feels like a lot when you're operating on a meagre budget (even though many other similar volumes are similar prices e.g. Eerdmans NICOT and NICNT). That's one thing that holds me back.
Another is that there are commentaries and there are commentaries. Some modern commentaries seem to just aggregate the views of other commentators (though, in fairness, they also adjudicate between them). I'm not sure that I want another commentary that simply summarises all the other ones on my shelf (even if it does save me the bother of reading them all). I'm less persuaded that this will be an issue with O'Brien's volume due to the quality of his last one. But I don't really know, what I need is to be able to browse………… however, I've never been able to do that – I've never lived near enough to a decent Christian bookshop that would stock such a volume (it's not exactly St Andrews or Wesley Owen standard stock).
I thought I had the solution! I'll buy the e-version! That will deliver a superb commentary at a lower price. I use Logos software a lot and thought an e-version would be both helpful and cost effective. But the e-version is $50, still over £30. (In fairness, it is cheaper on the kindle – £21 – but though I read a lot on a kindle, this is not the kind of book that works well there).
In the end, I'm a commentary junkie. I'll get it because I'll always wonder what Hebraic insight I've missed. I just hope Brother Julian is right:
In summary, this is a simply superb commentary, as good if not better than the author’s other stellar works. You will find here a clear and incisive guide to the text of Hebrews, the parts and the whole, which brings the best of other scholars and adds its own. For the serious student of Hebrews for preaching or teaching, I would put it at the top of a list of fine works.
What helps the preacher helps preaching
Our raison d'être is to champion the cause of preaching and, of course, we primarily do that through helping preachers with…..preaching (radical, I know!). But the reality is that if we can point people to resources that reduce or alleviate pressure in other areas of a preacher's life, then his preaching may well be (and should be) helped. Once such area for anybody in church ministry is the dreaded a word. Administration.
Service sheets. Projection slide. Members meetings. Emailing prayer lists. Sunday School. Mid week groups. Mission Partners. Room Bookings. Etc Etc.
I'm not saying that a preacher should be doing any of these things, but keeping an eye on them (however good an administrator you may have) takes time and energy. So, it was great last week to visit John & Katie Croft, themselves active members of St Mary's Maidenhead. They have developed some really clever web-based software called Church Builder which takes care of an enormous amount of the admin that goes along with church.
My good friend, Sam Allberry, says, "The Church Builder program has been a fantastic tool for me. I have no doubt that it saves us dozens of man-hours a week as a staff team. Planning services and meetings; organising rotas; looking up songs, creeds, addresses and phone numbers: all done at the touch of a button. Its user-friendly for a non-techie like me and, quite frankly, I'd be in the tall grass without it."
You plan an order of service online dragging and selecting items into a list. The preacher (let's say it's not you) can review it online and finalise it. When it's finalised, emails are automatically sent to the person on the reading or prayer rota. Video slides are sent to the projectionist. A service sheet is created. Musicians on that weeks music rota are sent pdf music packs automatically compiled. That's neat! And time saving.
Marriage & Ministry #3
Ann Benton's session was entitled "The Minister's guide to his wife." Although much of her wisdom was obviously personal, it resonated with many of us, especially, I thought, the temptation to spiritually neglect our wives, not just physically neglect them. We sometimes labour under the misapprehension that our wives are the most spiritually alert and educated women in our congregation – after all they sit through all our sermons at least once! But, Ann reminded us, they are often thinking (at best) "Atta boy!" or (at worst) "Why did he use that illustration about our family?" and we mustn't assume that they are, as a result of being married to the (very fallible) minister, part of the church's spiritual elite.
Here are Ann's headings – again, all pretty self-explanatory. Talk these through with your wife and see if any of them resonate:
1. The MInister's wife is a unique church member
She sees the minister as he really is!
2. The Minister's wife is a woman with a lot to put up with
- working hours
- Saturday night blues (dealing with his!)
- Straightened circumstances
- Set up for failure
3. The Minister's wife is the minister's most valuable resource
- From the Lord
- Different from you
- Prayer partner
- Essential back up
- Partner (a biblical word which we must reclaim!)
- Source of joy
Frances Ridley Havergal on Hebrews
A while back I posted a possible series outline on Hebrews and referred to a page from Frances Ridley Havergal's Bible. Well, here it is.
Marriage and Ministry #2
It's now a little while since our Autumn Minister's Conference and I never got around to posting some of the main points from John & Ann Benton's talks on marriage and ministry. Here are John's headings – all self-explanatory really. They are based on a survey John did of couples no longer in ministry where there had been marriage problems and/or breakdowns. Pretty sobering, really, but necessary….and a reminder that praying for our own marriages, and encouraging our churches to pray for our marriages is a top priority. Where headings need a little expansion, my comments are in italics.
"Some men can be their own worst enemies. With the ongoing failure of ministry marriages, we will look at how a minister might, consciously or unconsciously, undermine his own marriage."
- Your flesh – i.e. your sinful nature and its capabilities
- Your Background – what has gone before in your life
- Your thinking
- Early years in ministry – and the temptation to do too much and set yourself on an unachievable trajectory
- Your planning – or lack of it!
- Your psychology – i.e. your make up and susceptibility to certain things
- The Devil’s Lies
- The Devil’s Targets
- The Devil’s Agents
- Your prayers
- Your marital relationship
- Your fellowship in church leadership
This week on the iPlayer
Two programmes worth catching on the iPlayer this week before they expire (sorry, UK users only):
- Ian Hislop's Age of the Do-Gooders. A rather superficial, but nonetheless interesting, account of some of the moral reformers of the Georgian and Victorian age with a clear indication that the grand-daddy of all moral reformers, William Wilberforce, was motivated by his conversion to "evangelical Christianity" – interestingly this is what Hislop says rather than his interviewee, Rowan Williams (Available until 20 Dec)
- A rather more sobering programme – Paxman meet Christopher Hitchens. Unrepentant in his atheism, this is a sad and numbing interview, but worthwhile watching for an interesting insight into the man nevertheless. (Available until 17 Dec)