Sermon Disconnect: Six Questions to Assess Your Preaching

Reading glasses on bible textSometimes our preaching doesn’t connect with our hearers. Before we conclude that we are not called to this particular place, we want to remember that whether as a Rookie, who preaches for the first time at our first church or  as a seasoned veteran starting again at our third church, every congregation has its own culture, its own storyline with God and  its own providences and people prior to our arrival. Here are six markers to help you assess the obstacles that might exist between your sermons and the culture of your congregation. (more…)

Applying the Sermon: Watch out for Pits, Walls and Stones

It is hard for us preachers to let pits be pits, walls be walls and stones be stones.

Equivocating and Allegorizing

When Joseph is thrown into a pit we ask our hearers to think about where the “pits” are in their lives. When Joshua marches and the Jericho walls crumble we ask our congregations, “What are the walls in your lives?” When David picks up five smooth stones we ask our listeners to imagine what each stone surely stands for–faith or hope, perseverance or humility or love. “What are the stones we need to slay our Goliaths?” we ask.

Inevitably, when we ask these questions we cause our hearers to assume that the pits, walls and stones in the Bible each symbolize things like relational stress, financial worry or pornography. Just as God delivered Joseph from the pit He will deliver us from our relational stress. Just as God delivered Joshua from the walls God will relieve our financial worries. Just as God knocked the Giant down God will slay your pornography addiction with the stones of accountability, self-control and love. While it is true that in Jesus God will deliver us from such things as our varied stresses, worries and addictions, may I suggest that sometimes a pit stands for nothing more than what it is–dirt made good by God but misused by human beings to harm their neighbors. The walls did not act as a sign to Joshua that his sexual temptations could be kept at bay. The walls were part of an actual fortress with soldiers, blood and death set loose. The rocks David slung in his sling did not represent anything other than what they were.

Why does it matter that we let a pit be a pit?

1. When the biblical text doesn’t provide a symbolism for us this means that we are providing it from our own imaginations. God will still bless our sermons to the degree that we preach what is true; the text can still provide illustrative imagery for us and poets still have metaphor and simile with which to play for our reflection. But we run the twin risks of not dealing with what is actually there and creating something that isn’t there.

2. When we do not announce what we are doing as an exception to the norm or as a poetic descriptor, then we unwittingly apprentice our hearers to assume that allegory or equivocation is the normative way we are meant to read the Bible. Again, while the Lord has graciously blessed His people in history at times and seasons even though they used this method of reading, we also have to admit that teachings found to contradict the Scriptures have flourished when we dictate what is in the text by our own moods or illustrative assumptions rather than from the resources provided by the texts themselves.

3. Our other than Christian hearers in the West who are genuinely inquiring after God will increasingly attribute a disingenuine and/or naive posture to us regarding what is there in the biblical text. It will seem as if we are avoiding things in the Bible we’d rather not deal with (unjust slavery and the use of pits or war in God’s name) rather than helpfully explaining what is there.

4. Both Christians and other than Christians will experience us as promoting the application of the Bible that becomes dualistic–so focused on soul issues that we ignore the physical realities revealed by the Bible for our trust in God.

Why are we prone to equivocate or allegorize in these ways?

Maybe we’ve never studied or thought about this kind of discussion. Or, let’s face it, the pastoral week can require so much of us that the idea of trying to apply what it means that Joseph was in a pit to our lives today seems much harder on  Friday afternoon than simply turning to stress, worry, addiction and soul-idols. At least we know that those “will preach” and we are certain to have something to say that will impact our hearers. Others of us assume that we cannot apply something from the text if our hearers have no experience with it. We fear being irrelevant. But I suggest that limiting what we say to only those things which our listeners have presently experienced will leave them woefully unprepared to handle all that goes on under the sun and all that we need the grace and wisdom of God for in Jesus. It will also make us terribly naive about the plight of other neighbors whose experiences in the world do not match our own.

What then do we do?

Pick a different passage! Or go forward thankful that God blesses our speaking true things even when done with wrong texts. Or, we can learn from Him in the context of our community to apply the pit, the wall and the sling shot rocks (along with other things like Arks, lion’s dens, hair colors and rivers) We certainly must resist going on a rampage criticizing every fellow preacher who uses such allegories or illustrations. Remember, God still blesses the truth we preach and our fellow preachers look to Him as we ourselves do. So, we needn’t concern ourselves with policing others. We start first with His grace and our own preaching.

To let the pit be a pit, then, we wrestle with what it means that human beings can use good created things like the ground we walk on to harm their neighbors. What did it mean for Joseph to experience God’s presence and love when dirt formed his four walls and no one held accountable those who did this to him?

To let the wall be a wall we have to address war done in the name of God where men, women and children die and the fortresses of some nations crumble while others rise.

To let the stones be rocks we have to address the physicality of justice and the death of our enemies in battle.

In our current generation, what could be more relevant? God has provided all that we need to address the questions of our times if we can learn to let it say what it says without symbolizing it away. We need each others help in Jesus to wrestle with such texts for a Christ-centered and grace empowered wisdom for our times.

Learning from the African American Preacher

Dr. Roberts Smith of Beeson Divinity School offers a helpful guide to reading and preaching the Bible in his acclaimed, Doctrine that Dances. Dr. Smith helpfuly describes sermon preparation and delivery in the following way.

Start Low: Identification. Meditate and simmer in the Scripture then start where the people are.

Proceed Slow: Clarification. Let the hearers come along and understand the meaning with us before we speed up.

Rise Higher: Intensification. Now, go where the text leads you. Let the Spirit begin to impress the meaning of the text upon us.

Take Fire: Application. Apply the intended meaning of the text to our lives with power.

Retire: Recapitulation. Now get out of the way. Make sure we are left with God and His power.

Sit Down in a Storm: Motivation. When the preacher is sitting down the people should be getting up to worship! (Robert Smith Jr., Doctrine that Dances, 41-43) 

Exalt Jesus and His Grace: Exaltation. Elsewhere Dr. Smith points us to preaching as an act of worship centered upon the person, work and grace of Jesus.

I was remarking with a friend recently that one of the most memorable sermons I have heard in my life was preached by Dr. Smith. By the end of the sermon we were pictured as standing before God to be judged. The righteousness of Jesus was graciously being accounted to us. We in our sin and misery and wound were asking,”Lord how can this be?” And then Dr. Smith began to preach in a singing voice. “Surely Goodness and Mercy have followed you all the days of your life.” The sermon rose in song as Dr. Smith exalted the matchless and longsuffering character of God as His steadfast love hasn’t quit on His people. For a moment I felt as if I stood in the very presence of God beholding the sweetness of His grace in Jesus toward me and those with me. I thank God for that moment and for His grace to Dr. Smith. I thank God.

Applying the Sermon: The Audience and Tone of the Text

He hollered and red-faced rebuked us! His text was, “do not be anxious about anything . . .” (Phil. 4:6)  He scolded us for our anxieties and corrected us for our lack of trust in God. Then he read the next bit of the text. “but in everything by prayer . . .” (Phil. 4:7) Thunder rose in his eyes as he began to decry the absence of prayer in our lives and in our generation. Our sinful prayerlessness became his rant and the sermon raged on.

Notice the Tone of the Text

Strengthening this sermon begins with attention to the audience and tone of the text. To begin, the book of Philippians doesn’t rage at us. Its theme is joy! And, remember Paul’s tone. He says things like, “I thank my God for all my remembrance of you.” (1:3) “how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus,” (1:8)  “my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown . . .” (4:1)  Right before he speaks of our anxieties and our prayers he says, “Rejoice in the lord . . . let your reasonableness be known to everyone.” (4:4-5)  Our point is this: When Paul told us about our anxieties and our prayers, he did so, not with red-faced rebuke, but with kind and pastoral affection and instruction to earnest, beloved and relationally struggling followers of Jesus.

Notice the Audience Receiving the Tone

In contrast, the Apostle urges these beloved followers of Jesus to “look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers.” (Phil. 3:2) Here, Paul calls people names. Notice however who he does not have in mind. First, Paul does not have in mind the earnest followers of Jesus that he writes to. This should give us a clue that we are misguided then if we use his letter to preach a sermon from it that takes a name-calling tone to the earnest followers who listen. Second, Paul does not refer to those who do not believe in Jesus. Therefore it is a mistake to preach a sermon from this text that takes a harsh or mocking tone toward listeners who are not Christians. Third, therefore, we remember that Paul called “dogs,” those who were inappropriately conservative and religious. These were “the circumcision;” pew-sitters and committee members that legalistically required adherence to aspects of Old Testament ceremonial law for a person to be saved in Jesus.

Play Match Game

When my kids were young we played “match game.” The game is played with cards that are laid face down. The goal is to turn up two cards that have the same number. Similarly, our sermon application is strengthened when we too match the tone of the text to the audience in the text who is receiving the tone. Otherwise, two problems occur. Either we preach with a tone the author of Scripture did not use when writing or preaching the very same text. Or we mismatch a tone to an audience member in a way that the Scripture doesn’t. In other words our voice has little resonance with the manner or intended audience given to us in the text. We don’t sound much like what God meant for us to sound when seeking to hear Him in this particular text. What tools can we use to help us more closely match tone and intended audience when applying our sermon?

Categories of Hearers

First, lets remember some wisdom from preachers who have preceded us. Some of these preachers, such as William Perkins or J.I. Packer identified something they called, “Categories of Hearers” for our sermons. I’ve co-opted their insights into the following language. Whenever we preach notice that in the text and among our listeners there are basically two categories of hearers; those who are hard hearted and closed toward what you are saying and those who are soft-hearted and teachable to what you are saying. Hard-hearted followers and non-followers of Jesus are resistant, unteachable, stubborn and sometimes defiant. Soft-hearted followers and non-followers of Jesus are interested, teachable, active in conscience. To play match game, notice the tone Paul takes in Philippians 3:2 with hard hearted religious folks. In contrast, notice the tone Paul takes in Philippians 4:6-7 with soft-hearted believers (even those who are struggling relationally with each other in 4:2, “I entreat . . .”)

Use the tool: “For Some of You”

Elsewhere Paul has given us a clear text to aid us in our match game of tone and audience for sermon application. “We urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all.” (1 Thess. 5:14) We do not want to admonish the fainthearted or the weak. We do not want to encourage the idle. And whether we are rebuking or encouraging our tone and presence must carry the quality of the Spirit’s fruit of patience. So how do we do this in a congregation with varying soft and hard hearted listeners? One tool is the phrase, “For some of you.” When applying “prayer” for example to the soft-hearted we begin with something like, “Now for some of you, you are cut to the heart already,” or “this is brand new to you and you are saying to yourself, ‘wow I never knew this before.'” Then we turn to those who might be resistant and we begin with something like, “Now for others of you, you are hearing this and you are saying to yourself, “I don’t need this!” “This isn’t important or This is a waste of my time.” Then, we encourage and help with patience those who are faint and weak. “Take heart” we say. “In Jesus there is hope for you.” Then we admonish with patience those who are resisting. “Watch out,” we say. “Be careful” we warn.

Notice the Imaginary Audience in Your Head

In the first year of my first pastorate I was preaching angry. A dear woman, an older saint in the Lord, came to see me. She entreated me with love to consider the anger and the tone. “It took me thirty years to believe that Jesus loved me,” she said. “Pastor, I just can’t let you take that away from me.” I began to realize that I did not have her earnest heart and faithful life in mind when I was preaching. I spoke to her in a way that God wouldn’t.  I was thinking only of those who were making trouble in our little church. She heard me addressing her as if she were them. God has provided the tone of the biblical text and the audience as a resource to help us align the audience in our heads with the actual audience in the text and among our listeners. He is faithful to provide grace upon grace!

Why Pastors Need the Local Flavor of the Bible

I forget how local the Bible is.  But when I read that Jeremiah was the son of Hilkiah who was one of the priests of Anathoth, (Jer. 1:1) or when I hear the poet express his romantic love by saying, “Your hair is like a flock of goats leaping down the slopes of Gilead,” (Song 4:1) or when John tells us that “there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades,”(Jn. 5:2),  my memory recovers.

Learning a God Intended Locality

I am reminded that the Bible was written by local preachers, regional poets and neighborhood scribes regarding those parts of creation, providence and redemption that paraded down the streets of their own towns within the shadows of their own mountains, and with the speech of languages that are foreign to my own. God intentionally communicated Himself in this way. As a Missourian from Indiana who speaks English I am meant to consider not just the slopes of Rock Hill or of Floyd’s Knobs, but of a Hebrew speaking person and his scenic views of Gilead. By doing so, a phrase from the late novelist, Flannery O’Conner, comes to mind. I borrow it for this context and I think that in the Bible God teaches me the “possibility of reading a small history in a universal light.” (Mystery and Manners, 58) Small, not in the sense of worth, but in the sense of a local geography. Within all its particular limits, weathers, supper times and doings, God does a universal thing. I’m starting to think therefore that when I fail to remember this local flavor of the Bible, my ability to carry out  my pastoral vocation begins to suffer. I need the Spirit of Jesus to illumine and recover me. At least three reasons come to mind.

 1. What if God intended the local flavor of the Bible to graciously apprentice us in double-love? How genius! God has built the sum of the Law into the very way He has communicated Himself to us by this Word. After all, the  Bible forces me to care about cultures, times, customs, hills, lakes, ways of life, and personal histories that are other than my own. I have to esteem others better than myself, I have to humble myself, be initially quiet about my own ways, and patiently learn just to enter the Bible. Likewise, I cannot escape the reality that God is carrying out His purposes among neighbors whose yards, surnames, vocabularies, and skin-tones do not resemble mine. I have to learn to love Him and His care for other peoples and places. When we say in seminary that when we study the Bible “context is king,” we are actually saying that “neighbor love and attention to their locality” is paramount. And we are saying that God has made it so if I am to hear from Him and know Him. As I surrender to the local flavor of the Scriptures, my daily pastoral work is re-centered upon loving people wherever they are found and loving the God who is there with them in their locality.

2. What if God intended the local flavor of the Bible to show us His way and therefore our path? Isaiah did not deny or hide the fact that his Dad was Amoz. Nor did he exaggerate his role. He let us know his limits of place. He served in Judah and Jerusalem under the reign of certain local kings and not others. (Is. 1:1) I am no prophet. But as a pastor I am Zack the son of Vern who serves in Webster Groves, Missouri during the reigns of Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama. If I write in this blog about Lockwood, North Webster, Llewellyns or Steger, I risk losing some of you, and therefore of losing my sense of making a large difference in my generation. And yet, as much as I may desire my influence to announce names like world-wide, big city or best practice farm, my daily vocation and faithfulness will suffer if I do not attend to the street Lockwood, to the people and issues of North Webster where I live, to local gathering places like Llewellyns, or to the sixth grade school called Steger just a couple of blocks from my rented house. Prophets, priest, kings, sages and apostles gave themselves, even as our Lord did fully, to their local names and times.  I too recover my purpose to get on with global things by paying attention to Jesus for the businessman in Old Webster, or with regard to the hail that banged and fought against my window in the dark morning here in Webster Groves or to the food pantry in Webster/Rock Hill for those here who need. Small histories in the hands of God do more than we know. This is God’s way. The local flavor of the Bible reminds me of my path.

3. What if God intended the local flavor of the Bible to distinguish vibrant community from provincialism? Gentiles are grafted in. Every tribe and tongue and nation bows. Dividing walls are broken down. Jonah must go to Nineveh. Paul who loves his own people more than his own life has a purpose for a people who are not his own. The local flavor of the Bible, does not approve of provincialism nor does it stifle mission. The temptation of those who give themselves to a locality is to pay no mind to those “outside” and assume that those “inside” are better, smarter, faster. The gospel frees us toward locality and from idolatry of place. In Jesus, the Bible apprentices us. Well, I need to go meet with a man on West Kirkham (also known at that corner as South Brentwood). My global purpose awaits!