You’re speaking not writing
There’s an article in this month’s Briefing that I liked so much that we asked permission to print off a copy for every Cornhill student. It’s called ‘Deadly, dull, and boring’ (now there’s a catchy title). It’s an edited extract from a forthcoming book from Matthias Media on how not to preach deadly, dull and boring sermons. The book’s by Phil Campbell and is called Saving Eutychus (geddit?).
In the article Phil offers ten tips. None of them are about showmanship that attracts attention away from Scripture and towards the preacher. They’re all obvious things about effective oral communication. And, like many obvious things, they’re often only obvious when someone points them out to you. A crucial one that I think would improve many worthy sermons at a stroke is this: use shorter sentences.
Here’s an example from me of a seemingly decent opening line in a sermon: “If you watch the news on TV or read the newspapers, aren’t you often struck by the way in which humanity does not seem able to get any better and keeps repeating the same mistakes?” Now apply Phil’s principle to that and you get something like this instead: “Watch the TV news. Does it look like the world’s getting better and better? Read your newspaper. Is humanity learning from its mistakes?”
The same content, but much punchier and therefore more effective. Not dumbed down, just expressed more engagingly. And as an extra bonus the preacher also get the thrill of breaking all those rules about writing style that your English teacher taught you – if you went to that kind of school.
One other thing. Before I joined the Cornhill staff I used to read The Proclaimer blog (honest), and was always impressed that Adrian’s blogs had time-stamps like 7.07am and 7.16am. I have now discovered to my relief that the blogs are written in advance [Ed: not too much in advance, please note!] and the time-stamp gives the time that the server automatically releases them, or something like that. We try to work hard around here, but not stupidly hard. For the record, I’m finishing this at 8.50am in the real world.
Christ our representative and the shape of evangelical preaching
In my most recent post I was recommending an approach to sermon applications from biblical narratives which avoids both simply drawing out moral examples and just preaching biblical-theological points which can feel pretty same-y across lots of different narratives. In this post I want to suggest one possible underlying theological reason why well trained expository preachers in our context are often nervous of moving from preaching the biblical-theological point, e.g. David is a type of Christ winning the victory for us – to also preaching David as a positive example for the believer to follow, e.g. David as a model of faithful action when the honour of God is maligned.
My suggestion goes like this: these two strands of application follow from different aspects of God’s act of salvation in Christ. The ‘biblical-theological’ application is an outworking of Christ’s substitutionary work: he died on the cross in our place, doing what we could never do for ourselves. Hence in seeking to apply 1 Samuel ch.17 we look for what is unique about David in his action on behalf of Israel.
On the other hand, the ‘moral example’ strand of application is an outworking of Christ’s representative work, in particular in the union of the believer with him: we were united with him in his death and raised to new life with him. A key consequence of this is that the believer ought to be growing in Christlikeness, obedient as he was, self-sacrificial as he was. Hence in seeking to apply 1 Samuel ch.17 we will look for what David, even in his function as a type of Christ, shares in common with faithful Christian believers.
My hunch is that some conservative evangelical preachers who have (rightly) drawn deeply on such books as Goldsworthy’s Gospel and Kingdom are nervous about this second kind of ‘moral example’ application because we have tended to be much less familiar in our piety and preaching with Christ’s representative work than with his substitutionary work.
Maybe this puts it more simply: theologically, we should preach (e.g.) David as a unique type of Christ because of what Christ has done for us that we could never do for ourselves. And we should also preach David as an example for the believer because in his role as a type of Christ he demonstrates some of the Christlikeness that we, in our union with Christ, ought to be growing in.
Or even more simply: we’re not David, and also (from another perspective) we are David. The former is what prevents the latter being the dreaded ‘pure moralism’; the latter is what prevents the former from making all the richness of scriptural narrative seem essentially pointless. Such is the mystery of God’s saving action for us in Christ, and therefore such can be the richness of biblical application to those who are in Christ.
Preaching God and example
Many preachers in conservative evangelical circles say that they find narrative the hardest parts of Scripture to preach. I think that is particularly true of the way in which we draw appropriate applications from biblical narratives. Here’s the issue for a preacher who already knows that what he ought to be is expounding the text: once I’ve got to the heart of what this passage is really about (what we call at Cornhill the Big Idea, but other names are available), in what particular direction and from which particular angle should I apply that truth? (in Cornhill parlance, what’s the Aim?).
Graham Goldsworthy’s book Gospel and Kingdom many years ago had, so it seems, a significant influence in rightly warning preachers away from simply mining biblical narratives for moral lessons (stuff like “which ‘Goliaths’ in your life should you be slaying?”). That is an extremely helpful corrective, but it can sometimes leave a question hanging. I’ve often heard that question expressed like this: if I’ve taken that kind of warning on board, how can I avoid having essentially the same application in every single sermon of a series I preach on, say, the book of Judges? Won’t that approach lead me to preach just the great theological themes of a passage (nothing wrong with that in itself), but to do so quite repetetively and without paying a great deal of attention to the details of character and plot in each particular text? (To be fair to Goldsworthy, he may deal with that. I ought to re-read Gospel and Kingdom.)
I recently came across this two-fold piece of advice in drawing application from narratives: ‘identify the central act of God in a narrative and observe the way the characters in the drama respond to him’ (Daniel Doriani, Putting the Truth to Work: the theory and practice of biblical application, p.181). The first instruction here is essentially in the Goldsworthy line: avoid moralism and preach what God is doing in this event. The second instruction, though, leads us to the details of the characters and plot in each particular narrative. Doriani is wanting the preacher to hold the characters up to his hearers as models and examples, whether good or bad, of different responses to the actions of God. Thus in 1 Samuel 17 (Doriani’s major example) we must certainly preach that believers now are first of all to identify ourselves with the Israelites cheering on the hillside while they watch God’s appointed champion defeat God’s enemy on their behalf. But in addition to that we can and should also preach David as an example to follow in caring deeply enough for the honour of God to act bravely, and also his brother Eliab and Saul as negative examples, in their own separate ways, of a response to the action of God narrated in the text.
This avoids moralism. It also helps avoid same-y expressions of good biblical theology that might pay too little attention to the details of each particular narrative.
Bruce Ware love in
If I may be allowed to gate-crash Adrian’s recent Bruce Ware love-in, I would strongly recommend his (that’s Bruce’s) Big Truths for Young Hearts (Crossway). I’m currently reading through it with the family, having been recommended it ages ago by someone I met at a ministers’ conference; I can’t remember who, but many thanks if it was you. It’s essentially a systematic theology, set out in 2-3 page sections, each with a couple of discussion questions and a memory verse. It take about ten minutes to read the section out. Here’s what I like about it, apart from the obvious stuff about it being great truth:
- it’s superbly well-explained in crystal clear and very simple terms, with great illustrations. it grew out of night-time devotions with his own daughters when they were young (read their preface to get a sense of what it was like growing up with an enthusiastic theologian for a Dad and be envious – or not.)
- it reads like it was written to be read out a family and so it’s fun to listen to (so the troops are telling me)
- we must teach our kids systematic theology. There are few reasons for this: it’s a fresh and exciting challenge for a child (mine is now ten) who knows all the Bible stories inside out and might be getting bored with them; their generation will likely be under even more pressure from wider society to have a robust, coherent and well thought out biblical world-view; if all we do is read the Bible with them (great and indispensable though that is!), we’re starving them of the great traditions of godly thinking that have been passed on to us
- it could be one of the very best theology books to give to a new or under-taught believer, whatever their reading ability, but especially if they’re not in the majority who are not university educated.
Here’s what my ten-year-old likes about it:
- it answers some of the tough questions he’d been asking at the end of our family Bible-time together; (I’d answered some of them for him, but every Dad needs some back-up)
- it’s giving him Bible-truth in a way he hasn’t encountered much before
- it’s just at his level (the back cover says from ages 9 up, which I reckon is about right).
Full text or notes?
What should I have in front of me when I preach? This issue came up a few times at the NWA seminars. There’s no right or wrong of course. But I think it’s important to be aware of some of the practical consequences of always opting for either notes or full-text.
When I have just notes, the danger is:
- I will waffle
- I will not express it as well out loud in the sermon as I did in my head when preparing
- my ad libs will be same-y and repetitive (what comes first into my mind when this topic comes up).
When I have a full text, the danger is:
- I won’t step aside from the lectern at key moments of application in order to address people even more directly
- People will know I’m reading, if I haven’t been shown how to preach from a full text properly
- I will deliver a piece of written communication, rather than oral communication.
On that last point, I have a particular dislike of the phrase ‘writing my sermon’ (as Cornhill students will soon be discovering). My problem is with the word ‘writing’. If what I’m doing this morning is ‘writing’ my sermon, then it could well be a piece of writing that I produce: elegant sentences each with a few sub-clauses, rather than short punchy single-clause ones; no earthy language: long Latinate words instead of short Anglo-Saxon ones; reaching for my thesaurus to express the same thing with stylistically different words, instead of hammering a memorable point home by repetition. Many faithful sermons could be made all the more effective just by being translated from writing-ese to natural speech.
For what it’s worth, I think I go stale if I preach from either a full text or notes consistently for too long, so I try to mix it up. It might be different for you. But whichever, it’s good to think of a full-text not as something I’ve written, but as my word-for-word cues for the powerful piece of spoken communication I want to deliver. And you don’t write that, you just note it down.
We are more often motivated by fear than by attraction. I probably wear the kinds of clothes I do more because I don’t want to regarded as the kind of person who wears either smarter or scruffier or trendier clothes than I do, than because I particularly love the clothes you can buy at ******* (name of store removed for editorial reasons).
So too with what preachers do physically in preaching. I suspect that if you walk up and down with you radio-mike the whole time, that’s because deep down you think you’ll be too dull if you don’t. And conversely if you remain in your pulpit or behind your lectern that’s because you don’t want to be one of those preachers who gains his impact through showmanship more than through the Word.
Both these fears are fine, of course, but the chances are that most readers of this blog (the Brits, or more specifically the English, anyway) are more likely to fear being a rabble-rousing showman than an unexciting lecturer.
At this point it’s not uncommon for someone to refer Paul’s refusal to use the accepted persuasive techniques of his day, but instead to preach simply the cross of Christ. That is indeed a relief for us, that we ought not dress up our gospel proclamation in whatever faddish trappings our world happens to find engaging right now. However I don’t think we should use that fact to overlook the obvious truth that the preachers through whom God speaks have bodies. If I stand stock-still behind a lectern that I grasp in an authoritative manner am still making a powerful culture-laden statement – it’s just a different statement from the one made by the preacher who wanders waving his arms like a windmill.
At New Word Alive I heard one speaker make an excellent point from 2 Corinthians ch.1 about the need for believers not to hide their sufferings from one another, but to share them. As he did so, two or three times he made an illustrative physical movement: first of half-turning his back and clutching something to his chest and stroking it, but then of turning round to be open to us, walking a few yards and offering his hands openly in front of him. Not histrionic, not emotive for its own sake. And it made his point infinitely more effective and memorable. I think in a few months it’s that physical act I will remember, and that act will call his teaching point to my mind.
Applying the truth
Two issues here: when in the sermon to apply, and how to do it.
- First, the when. Here is a gut-reaction I have when I’m listening to sermons: I am much more often grabbed hold of and feel that God’s word has got under my skin when the preacher has dropped in application regularly as he goes, rather than saving it all up for the end. And that’s true even though I am someone who happens to have had a fair amount of training and experience in listening to long lectures (everyone gets their kicks somehow). It is very tempting to save the application till the end: “I need to explain it all before I apply it”; “I want a big, practical finish”. But not many people can hold in their heads all the biblical content that we’re giving them for all those minutes, and then have it all freshly at the front of their minds when we finally come to set out the application. When I first started preaching I was especially impressed by one preacher whose introduction was usually a piece of his application brought forward. At the outset he convinced us that we needed help in a certain area, and then he brought us to Scripture to show us that here was the medicine we needed. Of course it’s good not to be predictably formulaic, but there is some wisdom in that. I might start doing it again more often.
- Second, the how. There are a million and one things that could be said, but here’s just one. Stories count for a great deal. I was reading recently about a department store that wanted to have the reputation for the best customer service. In their staff training they constantly re-told the true story of an employee who one day ironed a shirt for a customer who was heading off to a big meeting – and the shirt had been bought in a different store. That one story communicates an awful more about how the management want the employees to relate to customers than a whole series of bullet-point principles. So we’re back to the same point as the previous post on illustration. Specific stories of this biblical truth being put into action is better than a string of general exhortations.
Light through the windows
Aged about six, at one of his first class assemblies, my son was standing in a line of kids who each had to tell the watching parents what they wanted to be when the grow up. There was the predictable list: fireman, astronaut, footballer, ballet dancer, nurse. My son said: “I want to be a nillustrator” (he likes comics and drawing, you see – and also, it seems, likes being different from the other kids.)
Well, when it comes to preaching, I want to be a better ‘nillustrator’. The seminar on this at NWA was the better attended of the two, and my sense was that this partly reflects a feeling among many preachers that they are weak in this area. If they expected to hear from an expert they would have been disappointed; it was just me reflecting on my weaknesses in this area. However sometimes we can learn more from someone who’s had to work hard to grow at something so that it becomes learned behaviour, rather than it coming naturally, because they can articulate the issues better than someone who just does it instinctively.
Here are two principles with sermon illustrations. Obvious stuff, I know, but I need to keep reminding myself of it:
- Illustrate more often for impact than for understanding. Most of the Bible is not difficult to comprehend. But what our cold hearts and dull minds need is illustrations which express the impact of our passage in different ways, so that the truth comes at us from all angles. After all, Scripture does that all the time, teaching the same truths in theological form, and also in narrative, poetry, apocalyptic, and parable. By contrast, the SEIA model (state, explain, illustrate, apply) – helpful though it is – tends to set me up more to illustrate for understanding. Increasingly, though, I think I need far more good illustrations for impact.
- One specific story is better than a thousand generalities. “Yesterday a friend of mine spilled a full cup of coffee down his trousers five minutes before an important meeting” is better than “There are many times, aren’t there, when annoying things happen”. It’s a narrative that evokes an emotion, rather than a colourless generality. You may not need to keep reminding yourself of this, but I do.
A tune up for preachers
A couple of weeks back I was at week 2 of New Word Alive along with three or four thousand others. It was thirteen years since I last went to (old) Word Alive, and it was a delight to be back. I was there with my family, and one of the simple joys of it for us was to be together with such a large number of believers. (Other smaller delights: the pretty setting of Conway Castle, and a run along the sea-front.) When you spend most of your time in a smaller church, as we have for the last nine years or so, that is a pretty significant pleasure.
I was at NWA to lead a couple of seminars on preaching, aimed at more experienced preachers, to which I gave the title ‘A tune-up for preachers’. As the focus I took issues of communication: illustration, application, and the physical aspects of preaching. The latter especially might not be regarded far and wide as PT’s bread and butter, but every wise preacher knows how vital it is, and it’s something I have been thinking about for a while. I said at the outset that I was assuming that everyone there had all the key convictions about expository preaching in place and was always working on them – and that if they did not they should ignore everything that followed, as I don’t have much interest in helping someone be a better communicator if what they’re about is something other than expounding Scripture faithfully.
One of the elephants in the room around PT circles is that a faithful exposition that has a decent number of illustrations and makes a stab at application can still be profoundly dull and uninspiring. I increasingly want to say (both of my own sermons and others’) that such a sermon is only partially faithful to Scripture at best. One thing God’s word never is, is dull and uninspiring, and preaching needs to be faithful to Scripture’s character, as well as to its propositional content. Lord preserve me from ever making it seem dull – even accidentally, out of a (right) desire to point my hearers away from myself and to Christ.
Over the next few days’ blogs I’ll give you a few more musings from these seminars, along with some stuff from the cutting-room floor that didn’t make it into the seminars.