Many sermons are a lot like popular sitcoms. And I’m not referring to the fact that pastors seem to think that a good sermon has to start with something funny, although that’s an interesting connection in its own right. I have something else in mind, something deeper.
As many have pointed out, sitcoms are great for suggesting that even the most complex problems can be resolved in just 30 minutes. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s betrayal, innocent suffering, finding a soul-mate, or social injustice, give a sitcom thirty minutes of your time and they’ll present you with a gift-wrapped solution for whatever ails you.
Of course, we’re smart enough to recognize that sitcoms are more about entertainment than edification. So we don’t worry too much if they over-simplify the complexities of life.
But what about when we hear the same thing in a sermon?
We’ve all experienced that “back against the wall” scenario: a week that didn’t go as planned—crises appearing from nowhere as crises are most likely to do—and study time set aside in the face of more urgent tasks. Now exhausted and distracted, you sit at your desk staring at a stubbornly incomplete sermon. You may even begin to wonder if people will notice whether you just rehash a sermon you preached a few years back. Change the title and some key illustrations and surely they won’t notice. Right?
Sunday looming, another solution presents itself. With just a few clicks and some creative searching, you could access the entire wealth of the internet: blog posts, commentaries, even entire sermons. You could be done in less than an hour, leaving space for some badly needed time with your family.
Maybe just this once.
This is the beginning of a guest post I wrote for Pastors Today, a new blog for pastors from Lifeway. Head over there to read the rest and interact with some thoughts from Augustine on outsourcing sermon preparation.
Some topics intimidate preachers. And that’s actually a good thing. When preachers realize they’re handling a difficult issue, they know to be careful, aware of the hazards on every side. The problem comes when someone launches confidently into a sermon without realizing the complexities of their topic. That’s like boldly flying your spaceship into an asteroid field, blissfully unaware that your odds of survival are only 3,720 to 1.
In the last few weeks, I’ve heard several people do this with sermons on poverty. It’s as though we think poverty is a relatively simple topic, something that you can handle in a single, 30-minute sermon. Just offer some thoughts on the importance of hard work, make sure you point out that we’re supposed to be nice to poor people, and you’re good to go. After a clever introduction, several amusing anecdotes, and some interesting asides, you should be able to handle the issue of poverty in the twenty minutes you have left.
At that point, you’re not just flying through an asteroid field, but you’re doing it at the fastest possible speed. Don’t be surprised when you get crushed into oblivion.
Here are four reasons that preachers should include poverty on their list of topics to handle with extreme caution. I’m not suggesting that we avoid the topic, quite the opposite. I think we should preach on poverty regularly. After all, God has a lot to say about the subject. But it’s far from a simple topic.
Analogies are tricky. Used properly when preaching, they illuminate. But they can also mislead. That’s because every analogy has the ability to say more than we want. If my daughter says that I’m a bear, she may only mean that I’m big and cuddly. But someone could hear that analogy and conclude that I sleep a lot during the winter, mark my territory by leaving big claw marks on nearby trees, or eat hikers when I get bored. If she’s not careful about how she’s using the analogy, people could walk away with all kinds of weird ideas.
Every analogy is an opportunity for both insight and confusion.
Simplicity is often the handmaid of clarity. I spend much of my time encouraging students toward greater clarity in writing. And that usually means shortening sentences, eliminating paragraphs, and sometimes slashing entire sections. In communication, less is usually more.
But sometimes I think we forget that in this relationship simplicity is the servant, not the master. When we make simplicity a goal in itself, it becomes the enemy of clarity.
We’ve all experienced it: the belabored “explanation” that confuses more than it clarifies. I remember my high school chemistry teacher explaining a concept. It was something I’d actually learned about in a math class the year before, and thought I had a pretty good handle on it. But by the time he was done, I was thoroughly confused. That’s right, his explanation was so bad it actually caused me to un-learn something.
Some kids have a favorite toy that they carry with them everywhere. Whether it’s a stuffed animal, a doll, or a spaceship, it offers a sense of security, a feeling that things are okay. Other kids have a special blanket. Wrapped in its gentle folds, they feel safe, at home.
Seriously. A bucket. And it wasn’t even a nice one. It was a plain white, 5-gallon, plastic bucket, the kind you find at Home Depot, somewhat scraped and stained from years of hard use. And she took it everywhere.
It was her safety bucket.
She had a rough winter last year and was sick a lot. Several times she got caught unprepared, which can be rather messy. That’s particularly annoying when it happens at night. In your bed. On your favorite jammies. Her solution was to start carrying her special bucket everywhere. I’ll never forget the sight of my tiny daughter hauling this huge plastic bucket behind her as she climbed the ladder to her bunk bed. But I can understand. It made her feel safe. Prepared.
Our last Forced Choice looked at OT genres. And, although Law lost badly with only 12%, the others were fairly close: History 24%, Prophecy 30%, and Poetry/Wisdom 34%.
This week, we’re going to try something a little different. Someone asked me on Facebook the other day which three preachers (outside of Scripture) I held in highest regard. I thought that was an interesting question, so I’d like to throw it out to you. So, instead of doing a Forced Choices poll this week, I’d just like to ask: Who are your favorite preachers? And, I’m specifically looking for both historic preachers and contemporary preachers.
Now, almost immediately, someone is going to ask me to give some criteria for determining the best preachers. And, I’m not going to do that. I just want to know your favorites. You can explain your reasons if you’d like, or you can just drop some names. And, keep in mind that you’re not necessarily saying that they’re the “best” preachers (whatever that means), just that these are the ones you personally hold in high regard for some reason.
So, what do you think? Who are your favorite preachers?
Three seasoned preachers share some stories on mistakes they’ve made while preaching. I have to admit that I was a little disappointed, since I was hoping for something really horrifying. But, it was still a good reminder that ultimately the sermons isn’t about the preacher, even the best communicator slips up, and God uses them anyway.
And, amen to the comment toward the end about using sports analogies in sermons.
In an interesting exchange, D. A. Carson and John Piper discuss whether pastors really need to understand the social and historical context of the Bible in order to preach well. Piper pushes pretty hard for the idea that good preaching really just requires one to be “steeped” in the biblical texts. Unsurprisingly, though Carson agrees that this is primary, he maintains the importance of background material. They come together in the end, but there still seems to be some difference on this point.
I have to admit that I can see both sides of this one. On the one hand, those arguing that we only need the text often seem to offer a false alternative here: steep yourself in the text rather than get distracted by background studies. But, it’s never that simple. How do you steep yourself in a text unless you understand enough about it to grasp what the author is trying to say? The preacher needs some background information even to understand the language (vocabulary, grammar, syntax, etc.), let alone the cultural ideas and practices they convey. Piper seems to believe that you can get most of this information from the text itself, but that hardly seems possible since you need some understanding of these things to interpret the text adequately in the first place.
But, on the other hand, it’s easy for us academics to become elitist with our claims that you really can’t understand the Bible without our advanced degrees, thick books, complex theories, and countless hours of uninterrupted study. At that point, we lose sight of the fact that the Bible is not just another ancient text requiring for its proper interpretation the acquisition of academic arcanity. It’s also a divine text through which the Spirit has always worked powerfully, even among poorly educated people or those who just lacked an adequate understanding of its original socio-historical context.
Background material has value, and disciplined preachers will seek it out to deepen their sermons. I’ve heard enough ill-informed expositional “nuggets” over the years to know the importance of doing your homework. So, if you have the time, education, and resources to study such issues carefully, please do. What you have is a gift to be used for the benefit of the body. Don’t squander it.
But, faithful ministers can and do preach powerful sermons even without this information. God is both gracious and powerful. He has always worked through vessels that were less-than-perfect. That can’t become an excuse for sloppy sermon-prep, but it should encourage all of us to know that, in the end, the power of the sermon is in the Spirit and not the preacher.
Here’s an interesting video on how to train future pastors and leaders. Bryan Chapell, Mike Bulmore, and David Helm all share their thoughts on how to train future pastors in the church. It doesn’t sound like any of them reject the idea that schools/seminaries have a role to play as well, but there focus is on what this looks like in the context of the local congregation. They end up getting into an interesting discussion of modeling vs. instructing in the training process.
One thing I found interesting was that although they mentioned the importance of experience/practice in the training process, they didn’t discuss how difficult it can be for beginning preachers to find preaching opportunities. With the demise of Sunday evening services and mid-week services at most churches, seminary students often find it very difficult to get real preaching practice – especially since many churches don’t want to hand the pulpit to beginning preachers on Sunday morning (or whenever the main service is). So, they either need to preach in a classroom, which is a really artificial environment in which to learn how to preach, or they have to manufacture a preaching outlet: : small groups, friends, family, whatever. This just isn’t a great way to train future preachers.
I’d love to see more churches developing a training mentality for future preachers. Seminaries can help students develop some of the skills necessary for good preaching, but they can’t complete the process. Some things you just can’t learn in the classroom.
Some analogies stick with you. They embed themselves deep within your psyche. You could probably get rid of them with enough counseling or some seriously strong medication. But, short of that, they’re probably yours for the rest of your life.
I remember one in particular. My youth pastor was preaching that Sunday, and he usually started by warming us up with an entertaining story. That’s what a good
comedian preacher does, right? This Sunday was no different.
“Have you seen Top Gun?” he began. The congregation tensed immediately. My youth pastor was known for taking sermons in interesting directions. And, this certainly sounded like it might qualify. “Do you know the part where Goose bets Maverick that he has to get ‘carnal knowledge’ of a girl in the bar before the night is over?” He continued. “And, to pull it off, they end up singing ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’….”
To be honest I don’t remember anything after that. Did he really just manage to combine alcohol, gambling, and sex in one sermon analogy? That’s impressive. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he somehow managed to relate this to a Bible verse somewhere. But, I really have no idea.
How much is too much in a sermon?
A similar question came up a while back as I was reflecting on theological themes in Dexter, a TV show about a serial killer. The show does an outstanding job illustrating brokenness, loneliness, alienation, hope, longing, and sin, among other things (see these video clips). So, it’s ripe with sermon illustrations. The problem is that most of them would be pretty “edgy.” He is, after all, a serial killer. So, we’re not talking about family friendly fare.
Would you use stuff like this in a sermon? It’s real, but is it appropriate?
Should a sermon be rated R?
I found myself reflecting on the same questions a few days ago, but from a very different direction. Carl Trueman posted some thoughts on how hard it was to preach through Judges 19, in which a woman is raped, murdered and dismembered. How do you preach that story to a congregation filled with people of all ages, backgrounds, and sensitivities? Sure it’s in the Bible, but does that make it okay for Sunday morning? And, if so, does that make some of these other examples fair game? Dexter is no more graphic than Judges.
How much is too much for Sunday morning?
As always, I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts on this. But, I’d be particularly interested in hearing from those of you who preach regularly. How do you think about your analogies? Do you ever find yourself struggling over whether a particular analogy is “appropriate”? How do you decide? How do you balance the need to connect the hard and dirty realities that are part of everyday life, with contemporary sensibilities? Should we be “earthier” in our sermons? Or, would that just be capitulating to the more debased aspects of modern culture?
You’ve all heard them, those interpretations of scripture that just sound so good. But, are they legit? Not according to Trevin Wax. Here are his 7 urban legends for preachers, or seven things you hear so often in sermons that everyone assumes they’re true.
1. The “eye of the needle” refers to a gate outside Jerusalem.
2. The high priest tied a rope around his ankle so that others could drag him out of the Holy of Holies in case God struck him dead.
3. Scribes took baths, discarded their pens, washed their hands, etc. every time they wrote the name of God.
4. There was this saying among the sages: “May you be covered in your rabbi’s dust.”
5. Voltaire’s house is now owned by a Bible-printing publisher.
6. Gehenna was a burning trash dump outside Jerusalem.
7. NASA scientists have discovered a “missing day” which corresponds to the Joshua account of the sun standing still.
Check out Trevin’s original post for explanations of each and why he thinks they’re really urban legends. And, make sure you check out the comments as some of the readers have offered their own nominations.
- I leave town for a few days and people start questioning whether the Trinity is an essential Christian belief. Brian LePort has a good roundup of the discussion.
- Daniel Kirk discusses what to do when your seminary training makes it hard to enjoy sermons.
My advice to seminarians (and self-educated theologians) is this: cultivate the spiritual discipline of applying and growing from lessons that you would never teach yourself, from “exegesis” that you would never get yourself, from true ideas that are nowhere to be found in the texts from which they allegedly come.
- Here’s a fascinating interview with Mark Noll on the Gospel Coalition and other evangelical alliances.
Another reality to acknowledge is that the assumptions of much of American culture are not Calvinistic. So you would do well to fight against three things: the tendency to turn leaders into heroes, minimize the importance of institutions, and divide over secondary issues—all the while recognizing the pervasive influence of the dominant culture on religious life.
- Chris Armstrong discusses the fact that C.S. Lewis believed in purgatory. Quoting Lewis:
. . . The right view returns magnificently in Newman’s DREAM. There, if I remember it rightly, the saved soul, at the very foot of the throne, begs to be taken away and cleansed. It cannot bear for a moment longer “With its darkness to affront that light.” Religion has claimed Purgatory. Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy?” Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.” “It may hurt, you know”—”Even so, sir.”
- Could Augustine become a bishop today? Not according to this post.
….we have created an ecclesial climate in which it is hard to elect bishops who have the gifts of an Augustine and nearly impossible for them to live like Augustine—even if they do possess those gifts and get elected. That needs to change.
- I don’t mean to distract you from important spring responsibilities, but here’s a post from Lifehacker explaining how to get a month of Hulu Plus for free. You do have to use IE 9 briefly, but it might still be worth it.
- A /film post argues that Jim Henson’s Labyrinth is an extended allegory for date rape.
- And, here’s a list of the Top 10 Most Profitable Movies of All Time (not the highest grossing, just most profitable).
- WSJ offers another take on the extended adolescence of men in their 20s.
Today, most men in their 20s hang out in a novel sort of limbo, a hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance. This “pre-adulthood” has much to recommend it, especially for the college-educated. But it’s time to state what has become obvious to legions of frustrated young women: It doesn’t bring out the best in men.
- Patheos is starting a new series on preachers dialoging with other preachers.
Just as each writer must find her or his own voice, I believe each preacher must find her or his own way into the call of preaching. However, we don’t do it alone. The most healthy preachers know they are always in conversation with their congregation, their local community, the world, the books in their library, those closest to them, their own lives. They know that throughout these conversations, scripture winds its wisdom, prophecy, incongruities, humor, and stories.
- Jason Goroncy offers a pastoral reflection on the Christchurch earthquake. (Here are some pictures of the devastation.)
In the face of death, suffering and grief, what the Jesus community is given to know and to hope in and to proclaim is the word of the cross and resurrection. We have no other word!
- Kyle Robert offers a troubling look at evangelical attitudes toward national budget cuts.
The study, as reported in a recent online Christianity Today article, reveals that the category evangelicals are most willing for the government to cut is economic assistance for global poverty. Fifty-six percent of evangelicals preferred to chop from the federal budget aid for the world’s poorest people. The next highest choice, at 40 percent, was economic assistance for the unemployed. As the CT article notes, evangelicals were more supportive of decreasing spending in these areas than were other Americans. Evangelicals were much more reticent, on the other hand, to cut terrorism defense and military defense. In fact, 45 percent of evangelicals favored increasing spending for military defense, a percentage well higher than non-evangelicals (28 percent).
- Here’s a way to win a set of N.T. Wright’s books on Matthew.
- And here is Nerve’s list of Oscar best-picture winners ranked from worst to best.
A seasoned pastor that I know preached a sermon this weekend on a biblical vie of “sex.” And he mentioned that whenever he preaches on sex, people come up to him afterward and comment on how hard it must be to preach on sex. Somewhat bemused, he usually comments that it’s a whole lot easier and more fun that preaching on a lot of other issues that he needs to address.
Although we live in a sex-saturated society, we still find it incredibly uncomfortable to talk about sex in church. One of my greatest frustrations in my years as a youth pastor, was the number of parents who would grow outraged if I spoke too directly about issues of sex and sexuality to their children. I always wanted to say, “Look. You’re kids are already talking about sex. Wouldn’t you prefer for them to talk about it in church?” Sadly, I’m afraid that some of them would have said “no.”
Brandon Smith recently posted the following promo video for a series on sex. And it certainly presents a number of compelling reasons that we need to learn how to speak openly about sex in church. You may not think that it’s appropriate to do so from the pulpit or in mixed audiences. Fine. Where are you talking about sex with the people in your church? Because I guarantee that they’re talking about it and struggling with it in other contexts. So, why not face it head on in the one place where they can learn to understand sex h way God intended?
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If you have preached or taught about sex in your church, I’d be very curious to know how it went. Any insights or lessons learned for others?