Preacher: Alex Sicilia
Title: Take My Life
Location: College Wesleyan Church
Date: May 19, 2019
Pastor Alex demonstrates incredible facility with cross-cultural preaching in this sermon. English is not his first language, but he uses it to richly describe culturally-specific barriers that affect Christians in Mexico, then pivots to discuss distractions that Christians in Marion, Indiana often face.
The language he uses—paired with his obvious listening to those from Mexico and from Marion—emphasizes his capacity to listen to the longings and losses of the people entrusted to his care. Great preachers do more than spin well-crafted phrases: they faithfully listen to the things that keep their people up at night.
Effective use of shared memory
Every sermon emerges from a context (the preacher’s experiences, physical context, and developmental influences) and is delivered to a context (the listeners’ own lives, the shared memory/needs of the community, other preachers who have formed a congregation before your arrival). Pastor Alex acknowledges this by bringing greetings from his church—Senda De Vida—in Mexico City, and describing their partnership between College Wesleyan. During the first several minutes of the sermon, Sicilia describes the methods of discipleship both churches have collaborated on—recalling and formalizing shared memory between these two congregations. This kind of connection overcomes some of the disengagement that can accompany a guest preacher’s presence in the pulpit, and helps the congregation know their impact on the preacher’s life and formation.
Dynamic use of physical space
The best sermons are incarnated; their delivery works its way through the person of the preacher, including their use of their body in delivery. Throughout this sermon, Pastor Alex uses the platform as a physical representation of the Good News they proclaim. Starting on the left side of the stage (depicting curiosity about Jesus) and moving toward the right side of the stage (as he describes increasingly rich stages of relationship with Christ: involvement, commitment, and devotion). After preaching about devotion as the final developmental stage, Pastor Alex reviews each previous stage (commitment, involvement, curiosity) by gradually walking back toward the left part of the platform as he reviews each stage. The listener, then, learns to associate their location in the discipleship pathway with Alex’s location on the platform. Rather than ambling aimlessly during his delivery, Alex shows us how preachers can use dynamic movement that harmonizes with vibrant content.
Sending toward missional living
Every time the Scriptures are proclaimed, there is another opportunity to hear God’s invitation to wholeness. The sermons that most effectively extend that invitation have implications that are richly described during the service, but fulfilled after the congregation has left the pews. Parishioners should leave the sermon still pondering: “What is God calling me to do right now?” and aligning their life to harmonize with that call.
Alex sends the congregation out with reflection, and with a well-crafted phrase of application which lingers with those in attendance: “Peter’s nets were saved somewhere, and they became safety nets.”
If approached indelicately, Pastor Alex’s message could have oversimplified people’s hesitancy in committing to Christ; instead, he demonstrates empathy toward disciples who encounter tension between good (even holy) things and God’s call. “These are good things,” Alex says, “But they were not meant to be first.”
Instead of leaving listeners in a shame-based spiral, constantly feeling “behind” in the stages of discipleship, Pastor Alex resolves this tension by examining how the call of God (though costly) is actually Good News. Hearers leave pondering the idea that no matter their level of dedication, the invitation of Jesus is the same: “Come, follow me. Do you love me more than these?”
To Practice this Week:
2019, Ethan Linder
Ethan Linder is the Pastor of Hospitality, Collegians, and Young Adults at College Wesleyan Church in Marion, Indiana, and the Editor of The Wesleyan Church’s Education and Clergy Development writing staff.
Preaching Resource: Every Moment Holy
Find on Amazon Here
Preaching is just one sub-category of pastoral speech. What we say outside the pulpit–when comforting a family after the loss of a loved one, praying for a patient about to undergo surgery, or meeting with a small group leader about the people they disciple–requires just as much careful attention as our words on Sunday morning.
Many of these situations require “on the spot” prayer, forcing us to blaze our own trails with words that fit the longings and losses of the people God’s called us to be with in the moment. Other situations–including baptism, Communion, and corporately praying The Lord’s Prayer–allow us to tread well-worn trails of pastoral speech, lifting to God words that speak for our hearts even as they were written by someone else.
Every Moment Holy is a collection of guided prayers formed after The Lord’s Prayer, that encourages readers to approach everyday moments as invitations to prayer. The book is filled with patterns of worship for both milestones (e.g. “A Liturgy for a New Home,”) and everyday moments (e.g. “A Liturgy for Changing a Diaper”) that point to how each act of our day can point toward God’s work in the world.
The prayers themselves are formative; and (almost as importantly) this book helps readers cultivate a vocabulary of prayer that builds a rich well of dialogue with God and others. Anyone who reads this will take several insights away; the following are some of those we found most important for preachers:
If you’ve used the resource, what has stood out as important to you? Whether or not you’ve used it, what resources (websites, books, Scripture, written prayers) have helped you approach God more faithfully in your life and preaching?
Ethan Linder © 2019
Ethan Linder is the Pastor of Hospitality, Collegians, and Young Adults at College Wesleyan Church in Marion, Indiana, and the Editor of The Wesleyan Church’s Education and Clergy Development writing staff.
We all have different stories surrounding our relationship with Wesleyan preaching. If you are like me, you were formed in, rebelled from, returned to, called through, and now are serving the Wesleyan church. You may have a different story though. Some preachers I know never saw a Wesleyan church until they were called to preach in one. A minister on loan, or a pastor with transferred credentials, you may still call some other tribe your true home. Then there is everything in between: first generation Christians, late-in-life baptisms, second career calls, or still reluctant not-sure-I-know-why-I-am-doing-this preachers. With this variety of stories, and diversity of interactions with Wesleyan theological and ecclesiological connections, it’s fair to ask: Do we mean the same thing when we say Wesleyan preaching? Wesleyan sermons?
With a little thought, you will likely agree with me that the only right answer is ‘no.’ We do not mean the same thing when we say Wesleyan preaching, or Wesleyan sermons.
In just my own experience with Wesleyan preaching I have experienced sermons that are revivalistic passion-fests that last over an hour. There have also been calm, cooly considered doctrinal explanations less than fifteen minutes in length. Some Wesleyan pastors sound as much like comedians with a spiritual punch as anything else. There also have been the story telling, tear beckoning, laughter evoking spell binders. Then there are those faithful, steady, verse-by-verse expositors of books. If world war three broke out tomorrow, they would still preach the next passage in the Bible on Sunday. There are those as ‘WASPy as WASPy gets’ pastors among us. There are also inner city hip hop preachers, bi-lingual code-switching preachers in the barrio, skillful intergenerational sages in the Korean ‘dongpo,’ and the bridge builders leading churches at the crossroads of cultures. This is just a brief reflection on North American preaching. The preaching in Cap-Haïtien, Caparra, Bogota, Busia, Vladimir, or Valenzuela all have their own diversities within them.
This is so far just a reflection on style, congregation, and culture in the briefest way. So what is Wesleyan preaching? What holds it all together?
I am not convinced I have the answer. I think the direction in which the answer likely lies is neither style, nor culture. It certainly is not found in geographical boundaries or class-oriented restrictions. It isn’t limited by educational level, financial means, or defined by standards of excellence on which we could not agree. My hunch is that what holds Wesleyan preaching together lies deeper, even before the decision on doctrine. My hunch is it lies at the level of values.
Here’s what I notice all the above preachers seem to hold in common:
There may be things commonly wrong with Wesleyan preaching, but I prefer to see the things that are commonly “right.” If we can grow these things, they will crowd out the others. If we can celebrate these things, we can diminish the others. If we will continue to model these things we will be glad to be Wesleyan.
What elements of Wesleyan preaching would you change? Would you add one? Take one away?
David B. Ward, © 2019
Below are a few prompts for your thoughts. Please do not strip mine them for your sermon in coming weeks. These are meant for pondering, for personal reflection, for prayer, and for transformation of the preacher. Then, if they have lived within the well of your heart for some time, feel free to preach them. Read each one. Read it again. Breath a prayer about it. Journal for a moment. Or go for a walk. But above all else, hear God through one of them…and let God speak to you, for you.
“When God gets ready to shake America, He may not take the Ph.D. and the D.D. God may choose a country boy … God may choose the man that no one knows, a little nobody, to shake America for Jesus Christ in this day, and I pray that He would!”
“To know the Word of God, to live the Word of God, to preach the Word, to teach the Word, is the sum of all wisdom, the heart of all Christian service.”
—Charles E. Fuller
“The great commandment is that we preach the gospel to every creature, but neither God nor the Bible says anything about forcing it down people’s throats.”
― Louis Zamperini, Devil at My Heels
All places where women are excluded tend downward to barbarism; but the moment she is introduced, there come in with her courtesy, cleanliness, sobriety, and order.
—Harriet Beecher Stowe
“There is no justification without sanctification, no forgiveness without renewal of life, no real faith from which the fruits of new obedience do not grow.”
“The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented …. in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”
—C. S. Lewis
“If God has given graces to some good women, revealing to them something holy and good through His Holy Scriptures, should they, for the sake of the defamers of the truth, refrain from writing down, speaking, or declaring it to each other? Ah! It would be too impudent to hide the talent which God has given us, we who ought to have the grace to persevere to the end. Amen!”
—Marie Dentière, former abbess and wife of a Protestant minister (1495-1561)
“If your ministry can’t work without you, then it is no longer Christ-centered. Minister toward Jesus, not yourself.”
― Rev. Kellen Roggenbuck
“To believe one does not need counsel is great pride.”
—Basil the Great
“There’s no greater lifestyle and no greater happiness than that of having a continual conversation with God.”
“Evangelism without social work is deficient; social work without evangelism is impotent.”
—John R. Mott
“The fellow that has no money is poor. The fellow that has nothing but money is poorer still.”
Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.
—Barbara Brown Taylor
“Give me … a compassionate heart, quickly moved to grieve for the woes of others and to active pity for them, even as our Lord Jesus Christ beheld our poverty and hasted to help us. Give me grace ever to alleviate the crosses and difficulties of those around me, and never to add to them; teach me to be a consoler in sorrow, to take thought for the stranger, the widow, and the orphan; let my charity show itself not in words only but in deed and truth.”
“The secret of preaching is not mastering certain techniques but being mastered by certain convictions.”
—John Stott, The Challenge of Preaching
“Observe: It is not your business to preach so many times, and to take care of this or that society; but to save as many souls as you can; to bring as many sinners as you possibly can to repentance, and with all your power to build them up in that holiness without which they cannot see the Lord.”
Preacher: Leanne Ketcham
Sermon Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7pp0r5pJvmA
Leanne Ketcham is a gifted preacher who wields theological expertise with impressive grace and practicality. She is currently finishing her PhD in Homiletics at Emmanuel College in the University of Toronto, one of the best Homiletics programs in North America. She is on loan from the Wesleyan Church to a local congregation where she preaches regularly. The following are three preaching practices in which she excels and from which we can learn and grow.
Scripture does not belong to her.
When we preach Sunday after Sunday, it’s easy for the congregation to begin to put the preacher on a pedestal; perhaps in their eyes, we begin to hold authority over Scripture in a way that does not belong to us. We can combat this by the way that we present the message; the way that Scripture is presented matters almost as much as the information itself. Leanne’s illustrations aren’t all about her own life experiences (though she does speak some of her own experience). She’s not the one who read the Scripture passage–someone else read before she spoke. Scripture speaks to us as individuals by the grace power of the Holy Spirit, but it does not belong to us as individual preachers. It belongs to the the Living Word and is a gift to the Church. Simply by allowing someone else to read the Scripture and by using illustrations that weren’t her own life experience (the Venn diagram, for example), Leanne reminds us that Scripture (and our authority to speak) is from God.
Monotony is not a preacher’s friend. We wouldn’t advise any fellow preacher to speak at one tone or pitch for their entire sermon; our facial expressions should be no different. By allowing for a natural variance in our facial expressions, we engage listeners in a way that is natural and subtle. We’d do the same if we were telling a story to a friend; preaching doesn’t need a separate set of rules here. Leanne’s facial expressions lend themselves perfectly to her quick moments of humor. In the midst of talking about sin, Leanne offers a few quick lighthearted comments. The audience subconsciously thinks, ‘Perhaps I can laugh here?’ and her smile confirms it. We can share a laugh together and move forward.
This is a short sermon, but you certainly don’t leave feeling hungry. Each shared thought is packed with intellectual, emotional, and theological depth. As Leanne speaks, priorities are unveiled– a life immersed in theological study and engagement with the Holy Spirit. She’s done her homework. Not only has she intently studied the passage of Scripture, but she also brings serious theological weight to this party. And while some theologically powerful minds have trouble bringing things back down to the real world, Leanne does so with seemingly effortless poise. If theology is only studied and not lived, this is difficult to do. The depth here is not only found in sharp theological precision, but in her ability to bring it down to the ground and encourage us to live in this Kingdom now. “I don’t wake up each day wanting the things of God….though sanctification is a work of God, it is still a work that we cooperate with, that we open ourselves to… the question really becomes, then, do we even want this work? Do we want God to change our lives?” We are rarely asked if we want God to change us; most preachers assume this. Asking this question is both highly practical and theologically informed.
How can we emulate the best of Leanne’s preaching practices?
Do you preach every week? Does the Scripture reading responsibility fall to you every week? Do you typically prepare your messages in solitude? Do you often tell stories about yourself as the means to illustrate a point? This can lead others to the assumption that Scripture belongs to you, that you hold the authority. Simply beginning to change your answer to one of these three questions would be a great start. Hand the Scripture readings off (or even the whole sermon) to other people. Mentor a willing and gifted layperson in how to develop a sermon and ask them to preach next month. Begin to tell more stories about others, rather than about yourself, your family, or your friends. Develop the next series with a team rather than alone.
Some preachers have naturally expressive faces, while others appear stoic and unmoving.This is less about ‘doing it right’– everyone is different. However, it’s helpful to know how your face helps others interpret your sermons. You may think you’re conveying passion, but a friend might tell you that actually, you look angry. You may think you’re expressing yourself well, while a friend might tell you that your face doesn’t move much at all. Ask a friend to watch you preach; have them pay attention to how certain facial expressions lend themselves (or not) to moving the sermon forward. Then, take their notes and practice your next sermon in front of a mirror. This may seem like too small a detail to pursue, but it will only sharpen your delivery.
J.K. Rowling, the writer and creator of the Harry Potter universe, introduces us in the first book of the series to an object called the “Mirror of Erised.” Perhaps you’ll notice that Erised is ‘desire’ spelled backwards; this is the mirror’s purpose. The mirror reflects back not the image of the onlooker, but that which he/she desires most in the world. Harry stares longingly into the mirror, gazing upon the image of himself with his parents, who were taken from him at too young an age. Harry’s best friend Ron, one of seven children, looks into the mirror and sees himself distinguished and set apart in glory.
Over time, our preaching will reflect that which we desire most for our congregation. Leanne clearly desires that her people be theologically well-formed, not just so they can ‘know more stuff’ but so that they can know God better. Ask a handful of people in your congregation to answer one question each time you preach for a month. Here’s the question, “Based on this sermon, if I could ask God for one thing for my congregation, what do you think I would ask God for? What would I want them to possess/know above all else?”
You’ll likely get mixed responses, but perhaps some themes and categories will emerge. What is your preaching telling others that you want most for your congregation? And does that align with what you believe God has called you to do/say?
Mark Wilson recently moved to South Carolina to teach at Southern Wesleyan University after years of faithful and evangelistic pastoral ministry. You may be familiar with his writing in Purple Fish from Wesleyan publishing house. Here is a more personal introduction to his generously kind and humble personality. We hope sharing his journey into preaching inspires you to reflect more deeply on your own.
Cleaning out my office last spring, after 26 years of ministry in the same place, I stumbled across my father’s sermon notes. Since his death in 1991, I’ve kept several boxes of his hand-scrawled outlines enshrined in a filing cabinet, to honor his memory, maintaining a sacred bond with my heritage. But leafing through these mementos, I finally admitted the truth to myself. There was no life in them.
For Dad, the life of a message was in the delivery. The notes I held were not the sermon. They were just spent casings: scraps of words without significance. The day I carried my father’s sermons to the dumpster, it felt sacramental—somewhat like a second burial with hope of resurrection.
Call to Preach
My call to preach came as a teenager, upon hearing the sad news that my dear friend, David Beckley, had died in an automobile accident caused by a drunk driver. David, an upperclassman, planned to go into the ministry before his tragic death at the tender age of 17. The night of David’s passing, I sensed God calling me to take his place. My preaching journey began there, as I felt the weight of the Apostle Paul’s words, “woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16 ESV).
Dad gave me a chance to preach at a midweek prayer service shortly thereafter. I studied hard and worked up a sermon that covered both ends of the Bible with several stops in between. In the mirror, practicing, I imagined myself to be the next Billy Graham, but trembling before this daunting crowd of 35 holiness diehards, my confidence evaporated and I morphed into Pee Wee Herman. As I stammered through point one, Sister Bailey shouted from the back, “Help him, Jesus!” I knew I was in deep weeds if Sister Bailey was pleading for divine intervention. Fortunately, for all of us, my sermon lasted only seven minutes. After takeoff, it looped a few times and then, mercifully, crash landed in the weeds. However, the people were encouraging, and delighted by their early dismissal, took me out for ice cream. The ice cream mollified the mortification.
Fear of Public Speaking
An issue that plagued me early in life was a speech impediment. I stuttered severely. One night when I was 13, during a prayer meeting, my parents brought me forward and asked the church to pray for God to heal my stuttering. The saints gathered around me and anointed me with oil. That night, God infused my mind with fresh confidence, and, for the most part, my stuttering problem disappeared.
Nevertheless, even though I went into ministry and became a youth pastor, the act of preaching proved to be a formidable challenge. Occasionally, when the senior pastor went on vacation, he asked me to substitute in the pulpit. I enjoyed researching and crafting the message, but the delivery was always brutal. Whenever I preached, I became a nervous wreck: not only behind the pulpit, but also in the days leading up to the event.
When God called me to take a pastorate in Hayward, Wisconsin, my biggest fear was the weekly preaching. I knew if I was going to deliver sermons, I’d have to get over this phobia. One day, I stumbled upon Ephesians 6:19, “Pray for me that whenever I open my mouth, words will be given to me to that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the Gospel.” Immediately it dawned on me. My issue was not fear of public speaking; it was fear of what people think! I immediately went to a wise, veteran pastor and asked him to pray this passage over me. I experienced a powerful liberation as he laid his hand upon my head and prayed that God would deliver me from the fear of public opinion.
After that, with only one exception, I have not been bothered by fear while preaching. The exception was years ago while preaching the Brooksville (Florida) Camp Meeting. That morning, both John Maxwell and Norman Wilson (my homiletics professor and voice of The Wesleyan Hour) attended the service. Talk about intimidating. Instead of keeping my eyes on Jesus, I let myself be sidetracked by Maxwell and Wilson, and ended up flailing in the weeds. I could almost hear Sister Bailey shout once again, “Help him, Jesus!”
God used this humbling experience to remind me that the preacher’s job is not to deliver sermons, but to deliver messages. My focus needs to be on the message, and it does not matter what celebrities happen to be in the audience. Trying to impress people is a form of “pulpit narcissism” ((Reid & Hogan, 2012, p. 34).
The Preaching Load
26 years in one parish meant working hard to stay fresh homiletically. It was always a struggle to have something new and meaningful to say to parishioners who had heard me preach weekly for over two decades. I preached over 2500 sermons in Hayward and, to the best of my recollection, did not repeat any of them. Preaching this many times without reruns is due, primarily to connecting sermons to my devotional life As Lenny Luchetti asked, “can’t the preacher simultaneously wrestle in a devotional manner with what God might be saying through the text to the preacher and the congregation?” (Luchetti, 2012, p. 36).
Reading widely has also been essential for well stocked sermon arsenal. I normally read (finish) two books per week. I have an extensive filing system – but recently downsized my four cabinets of sermon material into one. The rise of the internet and a move to South Carolina significantly reduced the need for paper filing.
I avoid canned sermons, and pilfering messages from others. If the congregation is coming for Thanksgiving, preachers shouldn’t serve pre-packaged TV turkey dinners. I suppose, if you can’t cook, TV dinners are better than starvation—but barely. I don’t grind my own flour, but I bake my own bread.
As a rookie, I preached “popcorn sermons”. Each Sunday was a different theme, depending on what I had been recently pondering. That did not work very well, and I frequently found myself scratching around on Saturday nights for something good enough to preach the next morning. Moving to series preaching helped tremendously. By mapping out several months of sermon themes in advance, I found much more focus and creativity in collecting sermon material. I’ve preached through several books of the Bible, including six month series in Acts , and once, inspired by Ellsworth Kalas (1996), preached through the entire Bible in a year. Mostly, however, my series were four to six weeks in length, alternating between textual and topical themes, while observing the church’s liturgical calendar.
I am a storyteller – a narrative preacher. I call myself an “exposi-STORY” preacher. I love to take a text and unpack its meaning with a good story or two. That is the kind of preaching Jesus did, and I believe it is generally more effective with ordinary people than the John MacArthur method. This approach requires me to put on “homiletic colored” glasses every morning in order to capture the great metaphors, illustrations and sermonic connections I encounter along the way.
Growing in Homiletic Grace
On the long side of middle-age, I am now learning that old dogs can learn new sermonic tricks! Last year, I decided to stretch my brain and joined Lenny Luchetti’s Transformational Preaching DMin cohort at Wesley Seminary. While rigorous, this experience has been delightful and life-changing. It has deepened my insight, expanded my horizons, strengthened my sermons and improved my delivery. My goal is to continue to grow in homiletic grace until God calls me home.
Points to Ponder
Kalas, J. (1996). The grand sweep: 365 days from Genesis to Revelation. Nashville: Abington.
Luchetti, L. (2012). Preaching essentials: A practical guide. Nashville: Abington.
Reid, R and Hogan, L. (2012). The six deadly sins of preaching: Becoming responsible for the faith we proclaim. Nashville: Abington.
Wesley Seminary, Doctor of Ministry, http://seminary.indwes.edu/academics/dmin
Preacher: Kenneth Wagner
Sermon Title: Best Summer Ever Vol. 2: Part 1
Sermon Link: https://www.unitedchurchde.com/best-summer-ever-vol-2
We love when a preacher clearly articulates a simple and clear vision from the pulpit. We live to see those far from God be united with Christ. That is the desire of Kenneth Wagner, senior pastor at United Church a Wesleyan congregation in Dover, Delaware. Here are a few preaching practices he implements that point listeners in a direction consistent with that vision.
In The Homiletical Plot, Eugene Lowry addresses the importance in preaching of “upsetting the apple cart.” Tension engages. In order to engage the audience with the tension, it is helpful to provide the details that force the apple cart’s fall. Why should they care about whether the apple cart falls at all? In Pastor Kenneth’s storytelling, he provides details. While providing those details, he builds them in slowly. He first informs us that his friend did not want the nephew to have access to the car, forcing us to ask why. Why? Because this is not just any old car. This car… is a Stingray Corvette. He build the tension slowly and with purposeful detail. We grew invested in the story as he withheld details for just the right amount of time before revealing their importance.
Gospel as Fullness.
The Wesleyan Church has a rich heritage of holiness and sanctification. The good news of that is that we, ideally, seek continual growth in Jesus Christ. The other side of that, however, is that throughout our history we have had tendencies to become legalistic. Instead of freedom, the Gospel becomes a list of rules to follow. We make God out to be one who promises love and the one-two-punch that follows is an impossible list of rules. Pastor Kenneth holds no such illusion. The Gospel is not a trick. It is not a bait and switch that promises grace and delivers only rules. The Gospel is a full life lived in Christ who leads us forward into a beautiful eternity. Sanctification, for Wagner, is more than rules. Sanctification means fullness.
If you are new to church…
In Andy Stanley’s book, Deep and Wide, he discusses the importance of speaking to those in your audience who are unchurched. There are people in your pews who aren’t familiar with church jargon, even the most familiar words that no longer seem like jargon to you. Even for those who have been in church for twenty years– sometimes we get so used to hearing the same words repeated over and over again that their start to lose their meaning. Pastor Kenneth does not operate under the assumption that he is preaching to the same crowd of attenders week after week. Even the simple statement, “if you’re new to church,” before explaining a particular concept is one way for a new person to feel like they are in on the action. There is no expectation that you come to church with your Christianese dictionary memorized. What other ways does Pastor Kenneth accomplish this? Terms prevenient grace, even just grace, were defined and placed on a screen where we could grow in understanding through auditory and visual learning. Wagner also uses images and similes to explain his concepts in more concrete ways. To further explain prevenient grace, Wagner refers to it as steering grace. He made a joke about using this term for the sake of alliteration, but actually, this is a much clearer picture of what prevenient grace is than ‘prevenient.’ The best preachers continue to develop new ways to help both non-Christians and the saints of the church understand the Gospel better.
We know that no preacher is an island. How can we learn from Pastor Kenneth as we seek to become better preachers together?
Carefully unveil tension.
Do you take the time and effort to build tension in your stories? When you share about a biblical character, do you present the story as two-dimensional? Or do you take the time to consider the tension that exists within the story? Sometimes it is not directly stated. This will require extra research and time, and you may wonder if it is worth it. You may wonder if it is just a gimmick. But consider this: when you experience tension in real life, it engages you in a way that an easy road does not. It grabs your attention, demands it. The people in biblical stories were real flesh-and-blood people, too. They experienced emotion, felt tension, dealt with conflict. Even though these conflicts aren’t always directly stated in Scripture, they are there. Take time to unearth them, or at least try to imagine what life might have been like in their shoes. Perhaps the reason we engage best when there is tension in our stories is because we know that real life is full of tension. And if there is no tension, it is not real. Taking the time to unveil tension is honest preaching.
Study your own language.
When you talk about holiness, how do you talk about it? What language do you use? What metaphors? Perhaps the best way to begin to assess this is to ask those who regularly listen to you preach. Ask members of your congregation to speak back to you on what they have earned about holiness from you in the last year as a result of your preaching. Some things you will be pleased to hear. Others not so much. It is not too late to grow and change in the way that you live holiness yourself and in the ways that you talk about it with other people.
View your church from the eyes of a visitor
Let someone else preach this Sunday. Let someone else give announcements. Let someone else lead worship. Let someone else give the benediction. Instead, sit as a participant. Try to put yourself in the place of a new person. A person who does not go to church regularly. Begin this process before the sermon even starts. From the moment you drive into the parking lot, ask yourself some questions,
We also love that this sermon comes to you at a time we hope you may be planning out your Summer sermon series. A twice-a-year sermon planning retreat in July/August and January/February is an often cited strategy for preaching longevity and sustainability.
Review by Elyse Garverick with David Ward
Preacher: Stacy Shaw
Sermon Title: The Part We Play
Sermon Link: https://subsplash.com/victoryhighway/media/mi/+kvjj49w (audio)
Part 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.
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.
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?
Here are a few strategies pastors have used to make Christmas new again, without giving in to sensationalism, or sentimentalism.
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. He’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.
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.
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?
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. Joseph 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