Preacher: Stacy Shaw
Sermon Title: The Part We Play
Sermon Link: (audio)

Stacy ShawPart of what we have done over the last year at Wesleyan Sermons is to include sermons from preachers you may not think of immediately. Often the senior pastors of the largest congregations get the most footprint. There is reason for this, many times they are consistently very good preachers. There are other good preachers however with different callings from whom we can learn. Stacy Shaw is the Student Ministries Pastor at Victory Highway Wesleyan Church in Painted Post, NY. Her student ministry is vibrant, growing, evangelistic, and one of the reasons is her focus on preaching.  Here are a few things we think preachers can learn from her:

Don’t be the hero.

Step into the pulpit, and many in the room will automatically view you as the authority. The weight that a preacher carries into her pulpit is powerful and must be stewarded with boldness, confidence, and humility. Pastor Stacy does exactly this. She was not the hero of her story. Her message wasn’t, “Look at how I’ve done this right.”  When the story you tell makes you the hero, you do not allow room for people to see how God has moved on your behalf and you appear cocky. You risk losing your audience, or making people believe that you have it all together. Stacy’s first story was about a time when she had taken marker to a wall in her childhood basement. This was a lighthearted story, to be sure, but it did not make her the hero. She continued this trend throughout her sermon; while she speaks with authority, she does not pretend that she has this all figure out. She’s confident, but not arrogant. She’s humble, but not insecure.

Encourage proper reading.

Preaching is not only a presentation of the Word. Good preaching also teaches your congregation how to better read and study Scripture for themselves. Pastor Stacy implicitly encouraged us to read stories in context, peek at the original language of the text, and give due attention to detail by doing so herself. One example of this is her attention to where the story of the bleeding woman lies. This woman’s story is not told as a solitary story, but right in the middle of another.  “And her story is so beautiful, but it should never be read alone. It happens in the middle of a man named Jairus’ story — this wealthy, influential, religious leader.” These stories aren’t accidentally thrown together. The fact that they are told together changes the way we interpret these two stories. It is examples like this that indirectly inform our congregation how to read Scripture not just while they sit in the pews, but when they read Scripture on their own.

Educate yourself on prayer.

Pastor Stacy Shaw is not content to spoon-feed her congregation a list of prayers to pray. Instead she encourages her congregation to educate themselves on prayer. I believe this is one of the best gifts a preacher can give her congregation. She does give some helpful instruction on how to pray; she has not left us in the dark. But towards the end of her sermon she confesses and pleads, “I have thirty minutes with you. It’s a tip of the iceberg type of sermon. There is so much more for you to learn about prayer.” She knows that a thirty-minute sermon is not enough to inform her people about prayer. Instead, they should go and educate themselves on prayer as well; they must continue the work that God has started in these thirty minutes.

Avoid self stories.

Telling stories about ourselves from the pulpit can be good and helpful, especially when we don’t make ourselves out to be the hero. However, when we perpetually tell stories about ourselves from the pulpit, even if we aren’t the hero, our sermons begin to sound a little self-centered and makes the Gospel look small. On the other hand, when we tell the stories of others, we invite people to imagine and experience God in contexts and circumstances that are not our own. We begin to understand that God’s work is wider and more wonderful than we could have imagined than if we insist on merely telling our own stories.

How do you talk about interpretation of Scripture?

You have spent time studying the Word. You believe you understand the message of the passage and what God might have to say about it for your context this week. Your work is far from finished. You must now begin to think about how you will talk about the process. How did you work your way through this passage? Obviously, you cannot adequately explain the entire process. So much of this happens in our minds over the long haul of sermon preparation and is difficult to parse. Yet small demonstrations and explanations of how to read, how to study, and how to interpret over time add up.

Encourage education.

As a part of your charge to your congregation, encourage them to continue seeking some of their own learning. There are a hundred ways to do this. Give them a list of books they can read. Encourage them to seek out helpful exploratory tools, like an emotional IQ (EQ) test. Suggest that they seek out a counselor or spiritual director. Celebrate the ongoing process of learning and personal and spiritual growth.

Making Christmas New, Again

How exactly do you preach on Christmas again after you have preached it 17 times? How do you find anything new to say? These were the questions she asked as we talked about preaching this past month. She is not unique among pastors. If it is not you yet, give it time. At some point, Christmas will seem old hat to you. Preaching around Christmas will at some point feel like Groundhog Day. And you will struggle to find a way to make it new. How do you avoid the Christmas yawn as a preacher?Christmas Yawn

Here are a few strategies pastors have used to make Christmas new again, without giving in to sensationalism, or sentimentalism.

  1. Restrict yourself to a passage.

Part of the challenge of preaching Christmas is we think we already know the story. The story in our minds however, is usually a thin version of the gospels all mashed together. The differences between the tellings, the details in each of the passages, the nuances of the dialogue do not reside in our mind as readily as we imagine.

For example, I just turned to Luke chapter 2 and decided to restrict myself to Simeon’s poetic utterance. Anna and SimeonHe’s a familiar figure to me, I thought. I have preached him before (see character focus below). The temptation was to think I should turn to another passage for an example which made it perfect for this case. Within just three minutes of slow reading I noticed that in his poetic pronouncement Simeon highlights christ as “a light of revelation to the Gentiles” and he says this before saying “for glory to your people Israel.” The Gentiles were mentioned first. This is precisely one of the practices of Jesus that nearly gets him killed in chapter 4. They love his teaching on favor. They hate his teaching on favor for others. Yet here is a man who in his statements places others first and foremost. The foreigner is first. This is a new insight to me on Simeon. It came from restricting myself to one passage.

  1. Restrict yourself to an unexpected passage.

Luke 2 is expected. Yet there are certainly other passages from which to preach about Christmas. John 1 for example, is about the incarnation. It is about the coming of the Word in the flesh. Yet it is rarely preached on during Christmas. Isaiah 7 or Isaiah 9 are of course key passages for the Christmas story, yet are rarely preached from within their own context. They are only preached one step removed, as they are found quoted in the gospels. If you have not yet peached on Galatians 4 as a Christmas text it is a clear reference to the sovereignty of God in the timing of the coming of Christ. Look for a passage you would not expect to preach at Christmas, and force yourself to study and preach it. New material will come.

  1. Focus on a character.

Is there a character in the narratives surrounding the Christmas story you have not yet dealt with in detail? Character studies often provide rich preaching material, convicting/inspiring character identification for the listener, and a reason for imaginative preaching that fleshes out the story. What leads a studier of the stars to give up a year or more of his life, a significant amount of wealth, and risk his life in travel? What must the conversation have been like leading up to the decision? For how long was the concept of this particular star studied? Or how about Elizabeth. She is not the one who is silenced, Zechariah is. For some reason Mary feels she is a safe relative. What must she have been like? What details does the text offer to fill out her character? What can we learn from her? Or Mary, what was her life really like? The over sentimentalized characterizations do not always show her for who the text presents her to be. She was afraid at the beginning. Why else say do not be afraid? Does fear drive her to Elizabeth? Why does she hurry there? What do the seclusion for five months of Elizabeth, and the visit for three months from Mary mean?

  1. Force a new metaphor, simile, or other sermonic image

Often familiar well worn truths take on new meaning when they receive a fresh lens. If you have ever put on polarized glasses to look at the sky near the end of the day you might know what I mean. The tenor of the sky changes, the way you see the sunset shifts. The overpowering brightness of one sector is dimmed so you can more clearly see another. Metaphors always work by unexpected objects or concepts colliding with familiar or treasured ones. Here are some examples I grabbed quickly for the sake of the article. Familiar items that are around me now:

Windshield scraper. Yesterday was one of those nasty wet days that ended in barely freezing temperatures. That means ice all over the car. I scraped, started to drive, and had to stop to scrape again. Without a warmed up defroster the windshield was nearly immediately frozen over again. I imagine this to be the case for most of Israel. Unless they received one of these powerful moments of direct revelation, they saw clearly for a moment. Then it frosted over and they could see no more. They heard of a baby born in Bethlehem. Then they hear of the slaughter of the innocents. Or perhaps they heard of the coming of a child born to a priest in an untimely way. A child given to a barren womb, but then they  thought it had happened many times before. They heard of the pronouncements of Simeon or Anna, but later wondered if it was the wishful thinking of the aged. They heard of a light, but then imagined the light was mostly for Israel, not for the nations. How do we keep the windshield of our lives clear? How do we keep seeing Christ clearly when the entire climate seems to harden us, to conceal the true Christ from view?

Throw blanket. It’s cold in Indiana. We have a drafty house. So we have throws on the couches for comfort. There are times in life when a throw is exactly what we need. We might be tempted by some sort of martyr syndrome to think we should just have a stiff upper lip, suffer through silently, and go it alone. Yet that is not the way of any character in the Christmas story. All have their relational and emotional “throws.” They have a blanket against the drafts of doubt and fear. Elizabeth has the sign of a silenced husband. Mary has Elizabeth. Joseph has signs and dreams. The shepherds are given each other, and a sign. Simeon has Anna. Anna has Simeon. Two like hearted souls waiting upon God’s coming. God does not remove the drafts, or the storms. He does however, provide a throw. Why leave those throws cold in the corner when we alone suffer the result?

Family portrait. When an outsider looks at your family portrait they see a happy family. They might be jealous of what looks like a perfectly arranged, perfectly at peace, perfectly in love crew. When you look at the photo you know the story behind even that one moment is more cluttered and imperfect than the picture reveals. What family ever takes a family photo without stress, complaint, resistance, even arguments? And the relational connections the photo represents are not free of conflict or tension. It is that way with the Christmas story. Most often we look at it like a manger scene family photo. Everything looks perfect and at peace. But the truth is: Joseph was a lot older than Mary. Sand NativityJoseph thought he should divorce her. Mary was given to a man she barely knew by the arrangement of her parents. Both of them feared the absolute rejection of the community for the coming of a child outside of the righteous timeline. The shepherds left their flocks. Was someone left behind to watch? Who took that duty? The smell of animals is not exactly pleasant. Straw is not an itch free bed. We need to move behind the family photo view of Christmas to see it for what it really is.

Those were three random objects quickly chosen and pressed up against the Christmas narrative in my mind. Ten minutes of imaginative free writing and there three useful metaphors that help me see the story through new lenses. Parts of the story dim so other parts of the story can be more clearly seen. You try it.

Of course all of these same practices could be applied to Easter, the Ascension, Pentecost, or any other familiar place in scripture you are struggling to “make new” again.

The primary message is, do not worry. It only seems to be old. It only seems to be exhausted, well worn. Look closer and you will find untrammeled ground. The riches of scripture are too numerous to be depleted. If we return to them, and pay attention to them, we will find it was we ourselves who were depleted. Now it is Christmas that is made new. We ourselves are made new.

David Ward, © 2018


Wesley’s Covenant Renewal Service

John Wesley Covenant Renewal ServiceEach New Year methodist gatherings in Britain and eventually around the world celebrated a Covenant Renewal Service. It began in the 1750s with a desire by Charles and John Wesley to renew the commitment of the people under their care, and to give an alternative to the drunken parties of the New Year. It continued to be celebrated near the New Year mark in London, but Wesley established it in new societies whenever he went to visit them. This points to the central place the concepts of the service played in early wesleyan discipleship. Eventually it became common practice for this service to fall on the Sunday closest to January 1st. You may consider inaugurating this practice in the coming Christmas season.

John Wesley often spoke of this service as deeply meaningful and moving for the people when writing about it in his journal:

“Many mourned before God, and many were comforted” (April 1756)

“It was, as usual, a time of remarkable blessing” (October 1765)

“It was an occasion for a variety of spiritual experiences … I do not know that ever we had a greater blessing. Afterwards many desired to return thanks, either for a sense of pardon, for full salvation, or for a fresh manifestation of His graces, healing all their backslidings” (January 1, 1775).

The covenantal prayer forms the heart of the service and is its climactic experience for most. In it’s traditional form it is prayed from this model:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.

(as used in the Book of Offices of the British Methodist Church, 1936).

It has been modernized in order to make the prayer closer to the heart language of today’s English speaker in this way:

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.’

The Covenant Prayer, as it has come to be known, is typically in the latter third of the service and arrives after sung worship, read scriptures, liturgical participation, confession of sins, and a verbal invitation to join in with the prayer. In African American communities “Watch Night” Services have had particularly poignant traditions connected to them. Watch Night United Methodist GatheringNot only was a watch night a night of spiritual renewal and seeking, it was often the night masters reckoned their accounts and decided which slaves would be kept, which sold. In some years it was the last night families had together before they were separated. Watch Nights in churches concerned with racial reconciliation today can also watch for a day when the family of God can be more united, more whole, than it is now.

Jonathan Powers from Asbury Theological Seminary has written several possible worship orders for the service in today’s churches. Here is one of them to work from in adapting it for your own context:

Call to Worship
Opening Prayer
Silent Prayer
The Lord’s Prayer
Scripture Lesson (Ecclesiastes 3:1-13)
Scripture Lesson (Psalm 8)
Scripture Lesson (Revelation 21:1-6a)
Scripture Lesson (Matthew 25:31-46)
The Proclamation
The Confession
Words of Assurance and Pardon
The Invitation
The Covenant Prayer
Dismissal with Blessing

The scripture readings and the scripture to be proclaimed will change. The theme of covenant renewal, repentance, renewing of Christian vows, repentance from sin, and a forward looking surrender to God’s will are what holds all such services in common.

Here are a few ways you might start your preaching work on differing texts for this service.

1 Peter 1:13-25

Potential driving question: What have you set your hopes on this last year? What will you set your hopes on in the coming year?

Potential opening: You can tell what you hoped for most yesterday, by what you are most disappointed in today. Describe various disappointments and what prior hope they reveal. Describe the difference between what we say we hope for and what we actually hope for.

Themes in the passage worth exploring: the fleeting nature of life, the fulfilling nature of deeply felt love, our status as children who obey, a sense of “homelessness”, the temptations to pursue old sins to fill a desire, and so forth.

Potential closing concept: When grace is what we hope for, and giving love to others is what we enjoy, we are not disappointed. Set your hearts on these things not on the resolutions of this world. Not on the aims of this culture. Set your hearts on receiving grace, and giving love.

Psalm 50

Potential opening: Story of a gift whose enjoyment faded quickly. A remote control car driven into water and shorted. A flat screen TV broken on the ride home. A homemade item no one really wanted. A gift that was really for the giver, not the receiver. Sometimes gifts that deliver things in hand, leave both giver and receiver empty in the soul.

Themes in the passage worth exploring: the empty “gifts” God’s people are giving, the gifts God desires, the lack of need in God (doctrine of aseity), the need for the human to give something, the kind of giving that leaves both giver and receiver satisfied, the sins those who claim to have a covenant commit (theft of many kinds, deceit of many kinds, lust and adultery both physical and emotional, gossip and slander), those who are hungry though God is not.

Potential closing concept: The pop up store in London and New York (Choose Love) where you spend money but leave empty handed. Sometimes gifts that leave us empty handed are precisely what fills ours souls and pleases the heart of God.

Clearly both of these sermons are merely starting points. You will have to do your own exegetical work, wrestle with God spiritually, discern your own illustrative material, and make it fully your own. Consider some kind of spiritually focused renewal this new year. New Year resolutions are only as powerful as the will behind them. Renewed covenants reconnect us to the covenantal mercies and faithfulness of God.

David Ward, © 2018


Sermon Review: Amanda Drury, An Other Greatness

Preacher: Dr. Amanda Drury

Sermon Title: An Other Greatness

Sermon Link:

Amanda Drury is a professor at Indiana Wesleyan University and widely received as a highly gifted preacher. Her teaching and preaching ministry crosses cultural, geographical, and denominational boundaries. From time to time, though, she preaches at her home church, College Wesleyan. Her preaching is fresh and calls us to new levels of obedience as we consider the dignity and value that Christ places on our children. We can learn from her in any number of ways, but here are a few.

The Gospel she preaches is counter-cultural.

Sometimes God’s Word is exactly what we want and need to hear. We are loved. God is faithful. God is our shield. God hears us when we pray. All of this is true and of course important to redeeming the image of God in us. Yet sometimes Jesus says things like “blessed are the meek,” or “you should forgive not seven, but seventy-seven times.” Sometimes Jesus steps on our toes. He embraces the sinner we despise. He validates the worshiper we would like to keep out. He ignores the rule we hold most dear. The Gospel is not always easy to hear. Yet it is always good news for those who have ears to hear.

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

“Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

Dr. Drury knocks on the door of our private board meeting and asks the room if we will allow a child to enter and speak at the table. While this Gospel is counter-cultural, it’s still good news. God loves and values children as whole persons, whereas we often patronize their thoughts and desires. This God is gracious and kind to those whom the world would push aside. We do sometimes need to preach things the practically minded adults will say seem ridiculous.

The Gospel calls for engagement (and sometimes it is even fun).

Dr. Drury engaged the congregation with a fun exercise. The Mosquito Tone is a series of sounds, Amanda tells us, that only the young can hear. The second tone could only be heard by those 49 and under. The next can only be heard by those 30 and under. The last can only be heard by those 18 and under. And, of course, we all wanted to know if this was really going to work; this is fascinating stuff. “Can you hear that?” Amanda asked. . Dr. Drury engaged the congregation with an exercise that asked for (but did not demand) participation. That exercise was critical in helping us understand this portion of the Gospel. You have to watch the sermon video to experience it. There are things that children can hear from God that perhaps, as we grow old, we cannot hear. The engagement of the congregation was clear, and it was fun!

The Gospel is fresh.

Often the texts and concepts we preach are familiar. They should be, we have studied long and hard to become biblically literate and theologically well rounded. At other times the topic or the text or the doctrine is relatively new to the preacher. Either way, the challenge is to keep the gospel fresh for the listener so that the gospel is news not just good. This passage before might be one we avoid because it is difficult to hear, and difficult to understand. But preaching a fresh message does not only mean talking from a less common passage. Giving a fresh Word means the preacher has leaned in to listen to what the Holy Spirit says. God has given the preacher a Word for this season, this day, this congregation.

How can we follow Amanda in faithfully communicating the Word in a way that makes sense to our hearers today?

  1. Embrace the counter-cultural nature of the Gospel.

You don’t need to look long or far to find aspects of Scripture that are counter-cultural. What aspect of your passage for next week makes little sense in the eyes of the world? What part of the passage honestly does not make sense to you at first? Are you asking your people to have faith in that which is unseen? To give generously when the world’s tendency is to hoard and protect wealth? We embrace the counter-cultural nature of the Gospel because we first belong to God; the nature of our fallen world means that God’s way often is different than what seems natural in our world. We belong to a higher kingdom. When you land on which aspect of your message is counter-cultural, then ask: why is this good news? The Gospel is always good news. It may be counter-cultural; it may be difficult to hear and live. But the Gospel is always good news. If it remains shaming, condescending, judging or pressure-filled the gospel has not yet been re-released. How does your sermon run cross grain to the cultural tendencies you have? How can God’s alternative way be good for you and those you serve?

  1. Ask them to participate.

The more we study the Word of God (and preach it), the more we find that it is even more captivating than we first thought. God continually surprises us, why shouldn’t the scriptures do the same? How can you engage your congregation in an active, participatory way this Sunday? This should not be complicated or gimmicky. Beware the forced participation that causes many to groan. Dr. Drury’s example is audio. Silence can be engaging as well however. A break in the sermon for reflective thought, journaling in the bulletin, or simple prayer can engage the listener making them more than mere listener.

  1. Face a new passage head-on.

As you read Scripture personally, do you ever come across a passage that intimidates you? One that follows you around, rubs you the wrong way, or one you just cannot figure out? Take time this week to begin to engage a text like that. Ask questions. Make observations. Begin your process of studying that passage. Don’t preach on it right away. Take time to learn from it yourself. In a few months, preach that passage. This is a great way to begin to incorporate lesser-known (but still important) passages of Scripture. Allow the time. Don’t be afraid. And keep a lookout for the Holy Spirit’s subtle ways of communicating. Remember a fresh Word isn’t just about coming up with something to say—a fresh Word comes from the Holy Spirit alone.

So Many Good Preaching Sources, Where to Start?

Homiletical Resources

Exegetical vs Homiletical Resources

I once heard a craftsman who was working on a house job with only a tool or two in hand say, “I don’t use every tool every time. That’s why I have the big truck. It holds the ones I might use.” Preaching tools are just that, tools. Some you use every time, some you do not.

Every pastor builds a tool kit of resources to turn to again and again in developing sermons. There is widespread disagreement about which of those sources are best, most faithful, or even ethical. The universal experience for preachers is to find some highly recommended resources unhelpful, and unmentioned resources critical. If many preachers are honest, they have used sources they wish they had not.

Beginning preachers have a lot of questions about sources. Maybe this is because they feel the confused conflict between the advice of the experienced preachers who mentor them. Or maybe they just are not sure about all the big name books their bible professors seem to love. The questions preachers have surrounding resources often include some of these:

  • Is it okay to get illustrations from stock sources or internet pools for preaching ideas?
  • Is it faithful to use others’ outlines and sermons resources?
  • Is it ethical to use someone else’s story? How much credit must be given?
  • What if I don’t know any greek or hebrew?
  • Which books are the most important to buy if I am going to buy some?
  • What about commentaries? Which ones should I use? Which can I trust?

Those questions are important and we will cover most of them in coming articles. Hopefully it will help experienced preachers reflect more clearly on the resources we have become accustomed to using as well as clear some things up for beginning preachers at the same time.

Today we want to outline a critical difference between preaching resources in general, and exegetical resources for preaching in specific. There are thousands of endless millions of resources for preaching. That is not an exaggeration when you consider that all of life is a sermon when you have a well worn passage tucked away in your mental pocket. Exegetical resources are more countable, more easily categorized. Exegetical sources are more tailor made for the task of interpreting the Bible.

Here is the difference in a nutshell. Exegetical resources are those tools and sources used to understand and interpret the biblical passage in its own voice and time.

Preaching sources are the wide array of content inputs preachers use to add meaning and creative vantage points to their interpretation of the text. A book on friendship during the single years can be a preaching resource, whether it is particularly Christian or not. A lexicon defining the meaning of the Greek word friend, or the word for sibling-like love phileo, is obviously an exegetical resource.  

Why is this distinction so important?

It is tempting to prepare an entire sermon quilted together from patches of other people’s insights and interpretations.

A quote here, a borrowed illustration there, a set of teaching points and voila a sermon is born. When life is busy and pastoral duties squeeze out the luxury of reflective time with scriptures this can happen. Few pastors of very may years can judge another minister for the occasional sermon in this category, at least not without hypocrisy. If it happens consistently however, preaching becomes stale. Sermons seem canned. The energy and verve is drained from the preaching moment when the sermon is not born of the preachers’ flesh, blood, and soul. More importantly, the ongoing spiritual formation and spiritual vitality of the preacher is undercut. Preaching forms us, strengthens us, deepens us, if we take the time to use the right resources, tools, and give them good reflection.

The following are good exegetical resources most sermons should engage before deciding on the “main point” or “big idea” or “central claim” of the sermon:

  1. Multiple English versions (NIV, NRSV, NKJV, NASB, CEB, etc.)
  1. Interlinear version (freely available online of course, if you have not yet noticed or Of course if you can translate, by all means do. But 99% of pastors are no longer able to translate even if they once could.
  1. Concordances. Strong’s and Englishman’s are the traditional combo. Again, though, the same material is now available freely online. Most Bible study websites hyperlink English words to the original language.
  1. Original language dictionary/lexicon (Brown/Driver/Biggs, Holiday’s Concise, etc.)
  1. Exegetical, critical commentaries (Word Biblical, Anchor Bible)
  1. Historical, geographical, and theological reference tools as needed (maps of the time period’s geopolitical spaces, theological dictionary references on key concepts or terms, etc.)
  1. Optional: homiletical commentaries (Wesleyan Biblical, Interpreter’s Bible, anything with “Preacher’s” or “Pastor’s” or “Homiletical” in the title). These are sort of boundary dwellers. They have some exegetical material, and others’ homiletical thoughts all mixed into one. I rarely find them terribly helpful for a particular sermon. I read them from time to time to “soak up” preaching in general. Many pastors find them helpful on specific sermons. Pastors seem to use them most often in one of two ways: plagiarizing or quoting. Phrases and sermonic moves are outright lifted from the commentary which is of course not the ideal. Or the pastor simply quotes them, “as one great preacher put it…” Rarely do these sorts of resources seem to spawn fresh interpretations of scripture in the new wine skin of the preacher’s personality.

Every preacher has to find her own way. There is no plug and play formula for a step-by-step guaranteed solid sermon. Just like any craft, each craftsperson finds a personalized way to achieve excellent results. However, preachers will not find consistently solid and gospel-centered sermons without holding themselves accountable to the right tools used the right ways.

The Ordained Preacher is a Craftsperson

stock vs custom cabinetsImagine going to a friend’s house who had custom cabinets installed at a custom cabinet price. Now there is a wide variety of difference in materials and workmanship on custom cabinets. Still, you look inside his cabinets and realize as happy as he is about them, they were purchased pre-fab and pre-assembled. The so called cabinet craftsman had sniffed naiveté. The craftsman could have used hardwood, or softwood, or hardwood veneer plywood. The craftsman could have even used medium density fiberboard and not been out of professional standards of honesty as long as it was communicated. Instead, the craftsman took pre-assembled cheap materials (pressboard and manufactured veneer) and passed it off as custom cabinetry. He picked them up at Home Depot or Lowe’s, added some filler pieces, painted over it all, and called it “custom.”

The cabinets will work. They will hold things, conceal unsightly things, and house possessions. They will cover the wall and the doors will open. It will “work.” But over time it will not satisfy. The veneer will warp and peel. The press board will eventually crumble and disintegrate. More importantly, perhaps, anyone who hears the name of the craftsman and knows cabinetry at all, will lose respect for that craftsman.

Cheap Cabinets PeelingThat friend would rightfully be outraged at the loss of trust. It is not that pre-assembled cabinets are wrong or worthless. Far from it. If you or I (hobbyists) were to install some we might very well use them happily. But for a craftsman to use them? Someone whose job is supposedly to offer custom fit cabinets? That is a disappointment.

Preachers are custom craftspersons. We write our messages for particular people and times. We round out the corners of the sermon to fit the geography and culture of the people. And we intend to give them sermons that will be satisfying for quite some time to come. The depth of the sermonic work provides strength for the content well beneath the veneer of a first hearing. When a layperson fills the pulpit, no one faults them for piecing together bits and pieces of material they have picked up along the way or discovered in preparation for the sermon. They are hobbyists so to speak. A full time preacher, particularly an educated and ordained one, is a different matter.

Preachers have a wide variety of materials and craftsmanship expectations. No one will fault a busy preacher for an MDF board sermon on a rough week. No one will fault the preacher for purchasing a few trim pieces already shaped and pre-primed. However, very few will be satisfied with preachers who purchase or re-use pre-assembled cheap sermons in order to fill the space, hold the attention, and cover the opening.

We want to know the preachers whose job it is to shepherd the flock with personalized care are doing so in sermon preparation. They might use any number of different tools for the job of the week. They might make a wide array of choices for materials. They might use more materials and greater personal cost to themselves. They might use less or thinner materials. Still, we expect a custom job.

Here are some things I have found helpful for me, for my students, and for preachers I occasionally help strengthen their preaching:

  1. Keep a standard list of your most helpful resources. The ones you use. The ones you like. The ones that help you build your own sermons with substance and care.
  1. Put that list in a step-by-step order of what resources to use first. Exegetical resources should always come before homiletical resources. You choose the number and the kind, but put them first.
  1. Put the most crucial resources for crafting custom sermons on a checklist. Make this a list you check before you read any other type of preaching resource.
  1. Use those sources with enough lead time. You need time for your spiritual engagement and preaching creativity to take hold. A rush job, up against a deadline, almost always causes us to use lesser materials without the right tools because we simply do not have time or energy left to do otherwise.

Sermon Review: Amy Biegel, This Is Me

Preacher: Amy Biegel

Sermon Link:

Sermon Title: This Is Me

Amy Biegel is the children’s pastor at The River Church in Marion, IN. In a recent series, The River communicated truths of the Gospel that can be found in the movie The Greatest Showman. Though at times, movie series such as this can feel like a little bit of a stretch to remain faithful to Scripture, Amy communicated the truth she found in The Greatest Showman in a way that was faithful to God’s character and faithful to the message of the text (John 4). She also communicates the truth of the Gospel with a peaceful conviction that we can all aspire to.

A movie series done well.

We didn’t listen to every sermon in this series. Still the message of God showing up in the middle of the Samaritan woman’s less-than-perfect life correlated well with the story being told in The Greatest Showman. A series on movies’ has its greatest danger in the nature of the series. it is a series based on cultural reference points. Those cultural reference points can become so dominant that the counter-cultural nature of the gospel is submerged. Worse, the message of the movie can become the primary message and the scriptures the assisting voice. Certain movies lend themselves to the message of the Gospel in more direct and concrete ways. The classic example might be Les Miserables. Others provide more temptation to the preacher to submerge scriptures and theological concerns to cultural connection. If we’re going to do a movie series, it ought to feel unforced and correlate well with the text being used. We never want to force a text to match a movie. Amy did a great job of bringing these two together— the story of Leti helped us understand the Samaritan woman in a new and fresh way. The Greatest Showman and the story of the woman at the well together lead us to the intersection where we ask what God might be saying to us on this day.

Intersection— three stories.

One word Amy used to describe where we were going over the course of this sermon was an ‘intersection’ of three stories— our story, the story of the woman at the well, and the story of The Greatest Showman. By the end of the sermon I clearly understood where these three stories intersected. She didn’t leave me a mile up the road from reality, there was no need to hitchhike or translate her words into the present day. She brought us directly into the intersection and  then asked us how God might have us to respond. This image of the intersection is not only one that’s helpful for understanding this sermon, but one that’s helpful for us as preachers to consider for future messages.

She stayed at the intersection for several minutes.

The end to this sermon was much more than a half-baked prayer— she spent several minutes at the end interceding for those who might respond to this Word. “Lord, you are speaking and may these people be faithful to what you have been saying to them.” Amy took the time to convey the importance of the moment— the importance of taking time to respond to the Word of God. Because what is the Word of God if it’s not meant to be lived?

How might we implement some of Amy’s helpful practices?

  1. Consider a series based on story.

Film is one of our world’s favorite ways to tell stories. Many people in your congregation connect deeply with the characters and stories they see told on the screen. If you have never tried a movie series, perhaps now is a good time to start brainstorming! As with any other sermon, this is not something that can be whipped up quickly— this takes considerable time, planning, and thought. Not just any movie should be used, and not just any text will fit any movie. What movies have you seen that are congregation-appropriate and tell a compelling story (or have a particularly compelling character)? Or perhaps if you’re not a movie buff, you could do the same with a book series. Once you have a few movies in mind, consider starting a vision board for a movie series. Ask yourself if this story lends itself to one sermon or several.  Ask yourself what section of Scripture might resonate well with the themes of the movie. Then re-interpret the movies according to scripture rather than the other way around. To ensure a better theological priority – find passages or Christian themes first, then look for the movies that resonate.

  1. Ask where the intersection lies.

When we preach, we spend a considerable amount of time digging around in the text, asking good questions, observing what the text says and how it communicates that. We study, ask more questions, consult commentaries and wise friends. As we study, we also attempt to ask how this very old Scripture reaches out of its own context to talk to our present reality.  Most preachers are better at one than the other. Some speak eloquently about present realities, while others seem to have more finesse in storytelling from biblical reality.  As you consider your next sermon, ask yourself where the intersection lies. Where does the text meet today’s reality? And how can you help your people get there?

  1. Stay at the intersection.

One age-old practice of preaching, a pause for pastoral prayer inspired by the sermon, has diminished in use over the last fifty years. Consider allowing time and space to pray over your people during the sermon? Spend several minutes prayerfully petitioning God to move on behalf of your people. Because as much as this proclaimed word matters, the One who has been speaking to them long before we ever showed up matters more.

Simple Steps for a Good Sermon

Simple Conditions for a Great Sermon

Simple Sermon PathOne of the great joys of life for many parents is helping coach children through their chosen sport. Calling out splits for my track running daughter as she sets her personal best, or watching from the dugout as my son’s baseball team manages a come-from-behind win is a joy. We spend hours together working on their sport outside of practice and games because every human endeavor is filled with complexity. Often in order to help the athlete get to the next level, they have to learn a new degree of complexity. Eliminating wasted movement from each step. Judging the pitcher’s delivery and the probability of a good pitch. The components of velocity in a good throw.

But in the heat of the moment, when the event is on the line, simplicity trumps all.

You have heard what seem like nearly meaningless things to say come out of coaches’ mouths. You may have even thought, is that all a coach does? Say the same things anyone could say? But during the meet, or on game day, it is often too late to make complex changes. So, if you listen to the coaches you hear them call out again and again, “just breath”, “stride out”, “see it and hit it,” “play is at 1,” “this is the final lap, dig deep.”

Track coach on the sideIt is not that the athletes are poorly trained, or clueless to the game. And it is not that these mantras are all the coach understands. There is just too much going on. Simplifying helps the athlete focus on the most important component and trust hard work and practice will make everything else automatic.

When you are in the middle of the heat of a heavy ministry week it is too late to change your entire view of preaching.

There is too much going on during that kind of week for a lecture on preaching. What you need is to simplify things and trust your hard work and training over the years has made the rest automatic. This article will not transform your view of preaching. It will cut through the noise, point you to a few key simple practices, and clear your mind of the rest. The truth is, in those heated moments of ministry, it is the simple things that often go by the wayside. It is the simple things that cause us to be off our game.

Here are a few phrases a preaching coach on the sideline of your life might say in the heat of an overwhelming ministry week. The pressure is on. Time is limited. The finish line is coming. The coach sees you a touch off your game so simplicity becomes the name of the game. See if you can find the ones you need to hear. Perhaps you can coach yourself through the next difficult week, or ask someone you love to call out the simplest of truths from the sideline…over and over again.Uconn Coach

  1. Find something new to you in the passage

In a busy week of ministry it is all too easy to bring out stale bread, slather it with illustration butter, and call it a sermon. Preaching old thoughts is part and parcel of preaching. We proclaim an ancient faith, a timeless gospel. Still, preaching what we already knew in ways we already knew often leaves our sermons flat, dull, and lifeless. Much of preaching will be reminder. That is good. But every sermon needs a spark of new insight. Even if it is something an eighty-year-old saint in your congregation has noticed before, if it is new to you it will add energy and life to your preaching. Besides preaching is not just for the congregation. It is also for the preacher. It must be something that is actually there. It should not be a leap of your imagination, or a twisting of the passage to fit your needs. A genuinely new and meaningful insight will bear fruit throughout the sermon process. Reminding yourself to keep studying until you see something new in the passage will prevent you from many preaching ills: lack of intellectual interest, flat energy in delivery, know-it-all demeanor, and more. Most importantly, it will force you to “see” the passage again with faith God is always doing something new. Keep studying until you have something new.

  1. Find good news for you

Wrestle with the meaning of the passage (not some other passage) until you find the good news in it for you. It must be news, but it also must be good. #1 above makes sure you have some level of “news.” This condition makes sure it is good news. In every passage there is a way to preach the good news of God’s gracious character toward those who love and serve Jesus Christ. Good news is not limited to a simplistic description of salvation. Instead, salvation reaches out like the nervous system in the body and touches every limb of Christian life. How does this passage directly, indirectly, subtly, or explicitly offer good news to God’s people? The places where it feels like bad news are often the very location of the good news if we study, pray, and wrestle long enough to find it. You do not need a rehearsal of all the exegetical steps at this point. Studying until you find something new and wrestling until you find good news will press you back to the resources of your training. These two simple commitments will prevent you from beating people up from the pulpit. Many sermons from tired pastors start to slip into what can be summarized this way: “You all know this already, why aren’t you living it? Try harder or you are not a faithful Christian.” Instead, we need to preach a gospel that is living, the Word that is alive and ever renewed, and a life that is grace enabled, not guilt driven.

  1. Seek your own change

Personal ChangePerhaps no other single coaching phrase helps preachers tap into all the automatic training and habits they need to preach well. Simply ask, “How can this passage change my life this week?” This forces the preacher to #1 seek something new, and #2 seek something that is good news…something not only worth living, but able to be lived. The freeing power of the gospel, not the guilting power of the law, is what is required. When we live with a sermon well enough, long enough to find it changing us all kinds of potential becomes unlocked. We can study the structure of “how” the passage helped us see ourselves more clearly, see others more graciously, align our priorities more faithfully, or act with more consistency. It also presents us from some of the most frustrating sins of preaching for most listeners: condescension, moralizing, and hypocrisy. When we preach our old repentance it is too easy to subtly look down upon those who have not yet “got it.” When we preach our past victories it is natural to start telling others to be as moral and well-formed as we are. When we cease to preach to ourselves, we cease to see our need for growth and change. The heart is deceitful above all things, and we begin to imagine ourselves not as flawed and sinning creatures in need of grace, but models others should follow. Find something new in the passage. Wrestle with the meaning until you find good news. Diagnose what is really going on in the gap between divine character and your own human condition. Pray, listen, and obey until it changes you this week in even the smallest of mustard seed ways.

  1. Imagine others’ deep needs

Empathetically engaging others’ lives (diverse contexts, different stages of life, etc.) and how the good news of this passage might meet their deep needs is crucial to keep preaching from subtle narcissism. The first three steps can leave a preacher stuck in their own world. We have to engage all of our selves in studying a sermon so it requires our world. Yet preaching is not for the preacher in the end (it is in the beginning), it is for the listener. Often the illustrations coming directly from a preacher’s life do not resonate with all of the congregation. Beware of trusting the positive feedback on how “relevant” your own personal illustrations are. They are only “relevant” to those whom they are relevant to. Illustrations from your married life, or your family life can subtly alienate single individuals or couples unable to have children. Glimpses into your young life or your aging years can alienate both those on the opposite end, and those in the middle of life. It is crucial to imagine the widow, the orphan, the refugee, the outcast, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, male and female, differing ethnicities and walks of life. How does this passage speak to a deeply felt human need that crosses over all of these life situations and contexts? Drawing on the resources of your new insights (#1), fresh good news (#2), and your own experience of what helps you overcome (#3), imagine how to guide your people into similar experience in very different lives. This is empathy work, and it is hard work…but in concept it is simple. See the people God has given you, and love them enough to understand their world, in their way.

I suppose there is another level of simplicity that needs to occur. Once the sermon is developed and the time for all of the above is gone, it is too late to rework all of those steps. And we need something a lot more condensed if we are ever going to remember it.

See the people. Love them. And show them the good news for their every day lives.

It is the equivalent of saying “see it and hit it.” Or “focus on your breathing.” But it might be exactly what you need this week. Wee the people. Love them. And show them good news for their every day lives. That is what we want from our preachers. It is what we need from our pastors. It is what we preachers easily forget in the heat of the moment.

See them. Love them. Gospel them.

And then again between services remind yourself: See them. Love them. Gospel them.