What is Wesleyan Preaching?

What is Wesleyan PreachingWe 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:

  1. A deep reverence for the Scriptures. Ordination boards differ on their sticking points with scripture. And even in the same ordination board I have noticed vastly different ranges of “acceptable” for perspectives on doctrine of scripture between one member and another. From the simple perspective, to the complex; from the educated to the simply devoted: all hold a sense of reverence and respect in common. However it is named, in any tone of voice it is expressed, whatever metaphors we use, all point to a high respect, a cherishing, an elevation of Scripture. This is not true of all preaching that is not Wesleyan. But when it is not true of a preacher, we tend to part ways.
  1. A preference for the commoner. Every community has a particular set of values it holds dear, so dear they are not even named. They are assumed. When violated, the reaction is disdain even disgust. When they are sustained and embodied in a person, that person is celebrated and loved…often for reasons we cannot even fully define. They are just the “epitome” of, or the “quitissential” example of, or the “essence” of us. In Wesleyan churches all over the world, we seem to love the everyday person. Even among the wealthier churches it is the “down-to-earth” among the upper crust preachers seem to speak to. Metaphors are common place. Illustrations are from the average life. The most celebrated preachers often use phrases like “ordinary people” and use vocabulary aimed at the average speech. A preacher who does not come across as common, normal, un-assuming, does not find much air time.
  1. Aimed at responsible grace. Randy Maddox named the theological discrimen of the wesleyan movement as responsible grace in his great book on wesleyan-methodist theology. The concept is that grace allows us to respond in holy ways. It enables us to respond in bold ways. Since grace has enabled us to respond, we are now response-able. This then, makes us responsible. We can, therefore we ought. When preachers are giving suggestions to one another in Wesleyan circles I often hear them intuitively pulling each other back to the fullness of the phrase. For those who only preach “ought” and “should” we remind them that grace is what makes us “able” and is our great “can.” It must be preached first and foremost. For those who only preach grace without response, we remind them there is always something to do, some way to respond, some way to worship God actively because of grace. “What is this sermon changing in my life this week?” Or “What exactly is it you’re hoping I will do?” These questions are pulling us back to our doctrinal and homiletical home: responsible grace or holy love.
  1. Spirit(ual). Luke Powery, the Dean of Duke chapel and a former Pilgrim Holiness church goer, coined this way of writing spirit(ual) in his book Dem Dry Bones. It is a way of highlighting the active person of the Spirit in the midst of anything we call spiritual. Often spiritual has become code word for psychological, or emotional, or moral. It has lost it’s Godward dimension. Not so for Wesleyans. We are really spirit(ual) preachers around the globe. The “charismatic but not crazy” crowd feel pretty cozy to many of us. We would rather this spirit(ual) group influence us than spirit(less) groups. There is a belief in the active agency of God working in the world today. Lives are changed by the Spirit of God, not just by natural or human forces. The Spirit’s actions are described in sermons, invited in prayers, and expected in the service.
  1. Missional. Wesleyan preaching is a sending preaching. We do not simply “tell the story and tell it well.” Post-liberals do that. For us, the Christian faith is not a story. It is reality, and it is a movement. “Believing” in Christ requires following his walk and way in discipleship. Our preaching aims to help entire communities move outward in the mission of God’s work in the world. Some preachers emphasize certain portions of that mission more than others. There are the racial reconciliation exemplars whose voices we still need to follow; the great winners of souls who enable and equip us to love our neighbors enough to share faith; the prophets for justice and equity who show us social hypocrisy; the leaders whose capacity to rally us forward in a common aim helps us enact the mission week to week. All of them seem to hold this in common: they are working for mission, preaching on mission, and calling us back to mission. Wesleyan preaching does not seem to be characterized by knowledge for knowledge’s sake, poetry for poetry’s sake, or even church building for church building’s sake. It is characterized by an impulse towards the missio Dei, we receive God’s mission as our own.

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

My Homiletic Journey – Mark O. Wilson

Mark Wilson Wesleyan PreacherMark 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).

First Sermon

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.

Exposi-Story

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

  1. What is your ‘Homiletic Story?’ What influences have shaped the way you preach?
  2. What early lessons in preaching might you need to revisit again?
  3. What are you doing to stretch and grow as a preacher?

References

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

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.
Amen.

(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.’
Amen.

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

 

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 biblehub.com or blueletterbible.org). 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.

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.

Preaching Better One Day at a Time

Preacher with bible and bagI was recently with about 100 full time preaching pastors for a one week seminar designed to strengthen their preaching. My usual mode of operation is to gather the struggles, questions, and concerns of the group before I throw content at them. I was glad I did. In our brief brainstorming and problem defining session it became clear a minimal amount of exegetical resources were being used, the preaching process started very late, and sermons were thrown together with almost last minute urgency.

Does this sound familiar?

The denominational leaders who asked me to come in affirmed the direction for our time during a brief break. So I pushed for these pastors to start their sermonic interpretation processes earlier, to use more substantive resources, and to resist the cheap content fillers too readily available for pastors. At first the teaching was met with fear. Anxiety. Discouragement. Polite smiles and responses of course, but private questions and easily read body language.

The challenge to start sermons earlier seemed impossible. Most preachers feel as though they start as early as they can.

The challenge to use more substantive resources for preaching felt burdensome. Most preachers already feel the dogs of burnout nipping at their heels.

The challenge to avoid cheap content fillers seemed like an unfair restriction. Most preachers thirst for any help, from any direction, for the demands of the content machine.

This is not the first time I have seen this reaction. I remember feeling it in my own preaching when I was writing two sermons a week for full time pastoral work. It took me quite some time to realize the truth that starting earlier, using better resources, and resisting the urge to grab cheap content actually made preaching easier not harder.

For the rest of this brief article I want to share a few adjustments of preaching rhythm with you that will seem impossible at first, burdensome after some consideration, and may even feel restricting if you think about it for a short time. But if you apply it, discipline yourself to it, I promise it will not only improve your preaching. It will also make your preaching easier, more fulfilling, and bring better feedback from the seekers and believers in your churches.

  1. The day after preaching

Preaching Calendar PlanMany full time preachers take a day off on Monday. I have been convinced Friday is better both for myself and by preachers who continually confirm it as a better pastoral day of sabbath rest. Delaying your sermon process by taking Monday off undoes the momentum from the previous day, and reduces the time between discovery and delivery. If the day off is Friday, and Sunday’s sermon is ninety-five percent finished the mind can rest as well as the body. On Monday, if the sermon is unfinished a nagging anxiety about the coming week is hard to shake. Consider scheduling a couple hours at least to read and study on Monday.

 

First, read the text for nearly three weeks from now. Read it in a relaxed way simply soaking in what comes to mind. The goal is to be a little more familiar with the passage and does not take more than ten minutes. This one single step on Monday (just reading) does more to jump start preachers’ preaching processes than anything else I suggest. This is why it is not burdensome or unrealistic. Anyone can accomplish ten minutes of discipline.

Second, open the passage for two weeks out, 13 days away. For this passage take the time to mark notes, underline, and ask questions to guide your interpretive work. This does not need to take more than thirty minutes. Once this becomes a rhythm in your life it will mean you encounter the text  a second time and in a contemplative way two weeks before you have to preach it. After questioning and observing the passage, your subconscious begins to write the sermon for you.

Third, the rest of the time you have allotted for sermon work can be spent on this week’s sermon. Open the passage for this coming Sunday you studied last week (see below). Review your exegetical notes, spend time in contemplative prayer, and seek to move the sermon forward. For external processors this usually means improvisational preaching then outlining and writing. For internal processors, this often means reflection, outlining, then improvisational preaching (out loud) or free writing. The aim is to craft the sermon in a way that flows for the ear not the eye. The sooner the sermon becomes “heard” the sooner it will flow and relieve the preacher’s anxiety. For many preachers a car, an empty house, or a lonely place in nature  provides space to test the sermon out loud. External processers will often start in these spaces, and then later outline and write.

Most pastors experience significant reduction of preaching anxiety, increase in scriptural insights, and more time for creative additions to their sermons simply by 1) making preaching preparation on Mondays non-negotiable and 2) adjusting the rhythm to include more than one week’s text.

  1. Two days after preaching

preaching preparationFocus on two elements of your preaching preparation for this day. One is for this week, the other is for the following week.

First, outline this week’s sermon in a detailed way. If you follow this pattern you will have studied the passage exegetically he week prior. It settled into your mind and consciousness and you have ideas coming to the fore. Try to discipline yourself to get at least a detailed outline done on this day (Tuesday for Sunday preachers). You can adjust it later. Having the outline done gives a sense of “I am okay, this will come together” and it also highlights the week areas of the sermon in your mind. That way your subconscious can work on them while you move on to other things. It also gives time for the Spirit to highlight things to add to your sermon you might not have noticed otherwise.

Second, set this week’s sermon outline or beginning manuscript aside. This is difficult to get preachers to do. Sometimes in creative processes however, walking away from the task gets you “unstuck.” Pick up next week’s biblical passage and do your exegetical work on it. Use multiple versions, word studies, and if you have the language capacity work with the Greek or Hebrew. Work directly with the passage. Many preachers find a three column interpretation model helpful at this stage (questions, observations, interpretative hunches). As one senior pastor in North Carolina recently told me, “The sermon after I have a week off is always better than the rest.” The reason may simply be, that sermon had more time to marinate.

  1. Three days after preaching

For this week’s sermon, finalize any materials you have to submit to a worship team or other supporting volunteers. This sort of deadline helps the rest of the ministry team work along with you and create all the environmental support for the service and discipleship venues. It also helps the preacher push past insecurities about whether or not it is “good enough” and commit to a direction.

For next week’s sermon, first write a few sentences describing what you think this text is trying to say and do. It wants to communicate some sort of content. The passage also wants to effect some kind of change. If you can name those two things (Tom Long’s focus and function) then you have made it to a huge milestone. Now you are free to read commentaries and other resources to see if your meaning is confirmed, complicated, or disconfirmed.

  1. Four days after preaching

For Sunday preachers this is Thursday. If you follow the advice I was given by my mentoring pastor, and the advice I give to pastors still, you will take Friday off. This means loose ends need tied up and the sermon needs to be close to ready. The only task for today in preaching is to find 30 minutes here or there between hospital calls, administrative work, and discipleship efforts to preach through this coming Sunday’s sermon from beginning to end. If you are an internal processor you may have to write it out first, but do not skip the preaching out loud step. The sermon can happen to you this way, not just be spoken by you. It helps you hear where the gaps are, recognize where the awkward moments are, and feel where the sermon drags or lulls. If you can preach through it beginning to end on Thursday one time, Friday will be a much more peaceful day.

  1. Six days after preaching

Saturday may hold prayer breakfasts, fund-raisers, special events, weddings, or other culturally determined ministry activities. These are hard to predict and the preaching requirements for the day must flex to the unpredictability. Some days, Saturdays can be mostly time for family and friendship connections. Other Saturdays require more. For multiple service congregations, Saturday may not be very free.

At some point in the day, find space to preach the coming sermon’s major movements aloud until they flow smoothly. Since three to five minutes at a time is all that is needed, treasure any moments to drive, take a walk in the woods, or be in your home or office alone and undisturbed. The only goal is to make sure each movement is internalized as its own unit. Personally I find this takes me two or three attempts to get it to where I am satisfied. That means I need three separate half hour times to practice-preach the day before. That may sound like a lot. But I have learned there are quite a few “dead” moments in any day. An early rise before the family gives me one gap. An errand across town gives me another gap. Then all I need is to slip away for thirty minutes (during halftime of my favorite game for example) to finalize the sermon in my mind.

If you follow this structure you will never be “behind” on your sermon writing even if unexpected funerals and conflicts emerge. The reason is you are always working two weeks ahead on interpreting a passage. So you have flexibility and room to catch up on the process at some other time. If you have to cut something it will not mean you have not even started the sermon by the Thursday night before Sunday. Some of the preachers in seminars I have led admit to repeatedly pulling a sermon together Saturday night using cobbled together resources from others’ work. This would never happen if three weeks out they read the passage. Two weeks out they began taking interpretive notes and engaging interpretive resources. If something came up the week-of, the only thing that would be delayed would be outlining and preaching it through.

If it seems too complicated to start doing this all at once simple change your preaching rhythm one day per week for the next few weeks. Start by adding two other passages of scripture reading to your Monday. This is not God’s way of sermon writing. It is not the 11th commandment. Every preacher needs to find their own way. I simply suggest to preachers to give it a try for a few months and see if it doesn’t improve their preaching. So far, I have not heard a pastor say it doesn’t. Instead I get emails from the pastors above saying “I wrote the best sermon of my ministry this week.” Or, “I have never felt so little stress about preaching. It is hard work, but it is way less stress. I’ll take the trade.”

Give it a try. If you have questions, email me at dave.ward@indwes.edu. I always love hearing from preachers who are working on their craft, and crafting their work.


 

© David B Ward, 2018 Some material excerpted from Practicing the Preaching Life, Abingdon Press forthcoming 2019