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

 

 

 

 

Famous Misunderstandings – Do We Understand that Passage?

Often the most famous biblical passages are the most misunderstood. Listen to a wild eyed sports fan yelling John 3:16 at others and you will see what I mean.

Or consider the poor woman at the well. Misunderstanding Woman at the wellShe was abused and discarded by a series of men. With little remaining hope for survival in a man’s world. She takes the only man who will take care of her–only he refuses to commit. Caught in a catch 22 many think she is filled with too much shame to get water with the other women.  People can be awfully cruel once they have decided someone else is worthy of judgment, or beneath their station. Who knows, perhaps she was told she was not allowed to get water with them. She would not have to be told to see the disdain in others’ eyes. Thousands of years later we see her as a sinner, a promiscuous woman, and are glad Jesus forgave even the most sinful. Was she the most sinful in town? Perhaps not. Perhaps the men she testified to were. Often the most famous biblical passages are the most misunderstood.

This is not a rare occurrence unfortunately. Joseph is often preached as a mistakes to successes story. He was braggadocios but ended up wise. The story reads to show he was tempted to play favorites with his full brother, take revenge on his half brothers, and only eventually forgives. More importantly, he enslaves not only people groups but entire nations to Pharaoh’s hand.Joseph Enslaves Egypt Jonah is interpreted as though he finally came around to doing God’s work. In reality, he preached against Ninevah so that it could be restored, not redeemed. The story ends with Jonah in resentment. Yet sermons often talk about his return to ministry, or his surrender to God’s will. Job is the spotless character of suffering in many sermons. Yet God rebukes him before he restores him. Thomas is seen as the primary doubter, though all the disciples doubted until they saw Jesus. Peter is the rock of the church. Yet Paul has to confront him for his racial prejudice.

The list could go on.

Thankfully the normal result is for the preacher to end with something that is “biblical” even though it is not “textual.” In other words, some other passage in scripture would have produced the sermon, just not this one. The moral of the story is for us to be honest and confess our sins, or to forgive our enemy through compassion, empathy, and the grace of God. All true. All good. They just might not be the point of this passage, for this day. When we miss what the passage actually says for what we think it should mean, or has always meant, we miss out on a new word from God.

It can be an intimidating task to preach a famous passage. A well known passages seems to be well worn ground. The path hard packed has yielded all it can yield. The truth is often very far from that initial fear. The next time you are preaching on a passage you already think you know, try a few things to make sure it says to you what it actually means.

  1. Word elimination

This simple exercise often helps preachers see a familiar passage anew for the first time. It is best to have someone give you the directions one step at a time so you do not ruin the process by jumping ahead. That just cannot be done in an article. Even if you know the end, the process can yield great insights.

First, underline the most significant words in the passage you are going to preach on. Make sure you limit yourself to underlining the most important words for the meaning of the text.

Second, circle the next most significant words in the passage you are going to preach through. Again, you are looking for the significant words, leave the common or less significant words alone.

Third, now looking only at the words that remain unmarked, draw meaning from the passage. Often all you are left with are prepositions, indefinite/definite articles, minor modifier (adverbs or adjectives), or names of places/people you were unfamiliar with and do not understand. If you study those words you may come up with very new understandings.

  1. Look for conflict

Often preachers gloss over dissonance and conflict between two parts of their understanding of a passage. This conflict can be the clue to an impartial understanding. For example, if slavery is wrong, why does the hero of the story (Joseph) enslave people? Something has to be questioned. If Moses had “horns” after seeing God (Jerome’s mistranslation that led to Michelangelo’s horned Moses) why did he need a veil? Misunderstanding Moses Was it because he was ugly or fearsome? Why would God make Moses ugly or fearsome? If faith without works is dead, then how can we be saved by faith alone, not by works? How can Paul and James be reconciled? If the woman at the well was extremely sinful, why is she so spiritually curious and responsive? If Paul is beneath Peter, then why does Peter submit to Paul? If Junias was male, why are the earliest manuscripts the female form (Junia?) If Elijah was “just like us” then why was his life so extraordinarily different? If the prodigal son is the really sinful one, why is the older brother the one on the rebuked at the end? And how is the father just?

Looking for the conflict you subconsciously recognize is crucial to giving a passage its own voice. Scriptures do not seem interested in telling us the same thing each and every time we encounter them. “Behold I am doing a new thing” is the tag line for every scripture when we approach it to interpret it. Somehow, the trained student of the word will always bring out both old and new things from the Law.

  1. Trust what is inferred

Many preachers fear stretching scripture so much, they actually limit it to a very small box. The scriptural stories and teachings are written in such  tight way that often what is said is communicated by what is not said. In Genesis 3 we read that the man and the woman were “naked.” Earlier in the story they were naked and “knew no shame.” The omission of “knew no shame” is critical to understanding the story. Now they are ashamed. They hide and cover themselves from each other and from God. What is inferred is important, and it is not a stretch. Hebrew stories communicated by indirect means.

In the story of Joseph the mention of the Lord is common throughout all of Joseph’s most difficult days. He was in prison, “but the Lord was with Joseph.” Not only is God’s presence mentioned, but Joseph also credits God with his insights and accomplishments. After Joseph becomes the second most powerful man in all of Egypt, the Lord is rarely mentioned again. Joseph is now mentioned in connection with Pharaoh and his actions are done for Pharaoh again and again. This inference is not a stretch. It is a key detail in the Hebrew story.

In Acts the repeated prejudice of the Jerusalem disciples can be discerned. At first they will not eat with Gentiles. Peter goes reluctantly to Cornelius’ house. Even at Cornelius’ house his affirmation feels like a left-handed compliment. “Even the gentiles…” Imagine someone saying, “Even white people” or “even Asian Americans…” followed by any statement without offending the receiving group. The widows are cared for with discrimination. The Jerusalem widows are well cared for. The Greek-speaking but still Jewish widows are not. After the disciples choose to focus only on preaching, not on serving, the people to whom they delegate service to the Hellenistic jews. become spiritually powerful. The first martyr? Stephen. A deacon charged with serving the Hellenistic Jews. You could infer God was breaking the church out of its Jewish-only, Jewish-centered roots one slow step at a time. And you would be right. You would also be right in inferring the ministry of the disciples was primarily limited by their prejudice toward outsiders. Paul, not any of the remaining 11 becomes the primary apostle to build the world wide Church. These inferences matter.

It is important to test inferences against the details of the passage and against the broad teachings of scripture. But once you have, do not be afraid to preach from what is implied. Most of all, do not fear preaching the well worn paths of biblical passages. They are well worn for a reason. More importantly, just because someone else traveled the path before does not mean it should not be traveled again. The definition of pilgrimage is to travel a well worn path for spiritual reasons. We are pilgrims when we preach from scripture for every page has been preached countless times before, and will be preached many times again. And still the Word will bring forth something new.

~ © David B Ward, 2018

Introducing Sermonary

Sermonary Home Page

sermonary.co website

Every now and then a new tool becomes available for pastors we think you should know about. This month we are eager to introduce you to sermonary.co. Sermonary is a new resource designed by preaching pastors for preaching pastors. It is a space built to help you capture ideas, craft your sermons, polish the sermons, and store them for future use. Here are a few of our favorite features:

Sermon Writing in Blocks:

All sermons work in a series of “moves” to use David Buttrick’s label. A “move” could also be called a “chunk” of sermon material. In a point based sermon a move might be the explanation of the point. Or it could be the story told to illuminate the point. Or it could be a description of implications for that point in our lives. Each of these moves or chunks can have it’s own block in sermonary.

Blocks Pic

Personally, I love the ability to write the blocks then move them around. If you ever wrote sermons on old school notecards you will know what this can do for you. Simply shuffle the notecards any way you like and you have a fresh feel for the sermon. In Sermonary you write the sermon in movable blocks like movable notecards on the screen. You can use their standard blocks (point, illustration, story, application) or you can create your own custom block (metaphor, image, video, testimony set-up etc).

Sermon Forms in Templates:

Sermonary gives you the ability to write sermons in predetermined but customizable sermon forms. In the middle of writing a sermon, have you ever asked how does this all come together?  A glance through the sermons forms they have created for you, or custom forms you have designed over time might help you answer that question more quickly. Set up sermon forms in standard templates you can use again and again.  Then when you get “stuck” you can go to your forms.

Point Based Sermon Blocks Pic

Custom Templates

One of the best parts of sermonary is that once you have created the custom blocks you like for one sermon, you can turn it into your own custom template for sermons in the future. Every preacher has some go to “plays” in their sermon playbook. Now you do not have to reinvent the wheel each time.

To begin creating your Template, press the ‘Write New’ blue button on the ‘Your Sermons’ page, then select the Sermonary Editor option. You just have to fill in the blanks, then begin formatting your sermon layout. Once you have set up how you would like your Template to be in set custom blocks, scroll to the top and press the gear icon. Select the “save template” option on the right hand part of the screen, fill in the blanks and hit the blue Save Template button once more. Voila! The template will now be saved to your Templates page. You just created your own sermon form you can use again and again.

Custom Template

Change Your Sermon to Podium Mode

Podium Mode is one of the best  features about Sermonary. While preaching, you may not want to see every block you included in your sermon writing process. You might want a simpler outline or manuscript. You may also want to eliminate 5 minutes at the last second. Hiding blocks only takes a few clicks. We would describe how to do that here, but they have an easy article in the help section of the website that will help you do that.

The site is for the most part intuitive and easy to navigate. If you get stuck there is a help section with an automated pop-up for the designers to answer any of your questions. The few times I have used it, they were marked as “away” but returned an email more quickly than I would have thought.

Usually, I simply read the help articles and found my answer. For example, I could not figure out how to make custom templates for sermons. It turns out there was a pre-written article explaining how I just did not see. They got back to me quickly via email.

Dialogue Box

Free Trial

Best of all, since this site is new and trying to build it’s customer base you can try it out for two months for free. WesleyanSermons is not affiliated in any way with Sermonary. We get no financial consideration for reviewing this feature, nor do we guarantee its content in the future. We do think this is a resource every pastor should try out. Play with it for a while, write a sermon there. Create a sermon form you love to use. Let us know how you like it.


Dave Ward

Preaching and the Right Use of Stories | LeAnne Ketcham

It’s always a tricky thing in preaching to talk about life experience and stories in preaching. For some in the pews a story from someone’s life is what will first catch their attention. For others, they want you to teach them a new Greek word and explain the first century context. Most pastor’s are fully on board with telling stories. We know that stories connect with hearers in a similar way to how Jesus told parables as a way to appeal to the hearts of listeners.

As preachers who faithfully proclaim the story of scripture and the stories of the world we find ourselves in, we must ask: what is the purpose of life experience within the context of preaching? In other words, why do we have life experience?

Frederick Buechner writes, “If God speaks to us at all other than through such official channels as the Bible and the church, then I think that he speaks to us largely through what happen to us…”[1] He writes this in the introduction to his memoir, Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation in many ways to support the entire text. He writes how, in writing the memoir, he sought to let his life experiences wash over him and thus, his readers, so that all might listen for the most important voice of all: God.

It is because God speaks to us through what happens to us that we come to find ourselves swept up into the work that God has always been doing throughout the story of scripture and history: the inbreaking of good news. Paul Scott Wilson says that this inbreaking results in a transformation of our language within the sermon. “We do not hedge our words with hesitancy and tentativeness, by saying, “I believe” or “I think,” for the focus is not the preacher, and the force of the Word is proclamation. We are also unable to speak about a personal God in impersonal ways, about the love of God in unfeeling ways, about the actions of God as though they themselves are passive.”[2] God comes to us in the midst of our very lives, breaks in, and sets up shop. There really is no purely objective way to speak about this kind of personal God.

We know no other God besides the one who uses the mundane ordinary moments of our life to speak. These “slices of life”, when used authentically within the sermon, should have verisimilitude, that is “the lifelike imitation of reality such that what is told resonates with the listeners’ experience as being true.”[3] Wilson goes on to remind preachers that we are presenting two kinds of reality within the sermon: present life as people might know it, and life as it is true when seen from the perspective of faith.[4]

the-storyThe following are some ways that we can practice telling stories of life that connect with both realities and resonate with our listeners.

  1. When we tell stories in conversation, they are nuanced with gestures, volume, and vocal expression. When we preach, these small nuances that would be picked up in a conversation need to be amplified in order for them to carry out to the hearer. The basics of delivery will include breath support, pace, gesture, emphasis, among other elements. A good delivery will be said in the authentic voice of the preacher, with passion so as to inhabit the retelling of the story.[5] Often preachers miss this in a couple of ways. First, some tell the story as if in the same voice as they gave they are more preachy content a moment before. To preach the same elevation of tone and passion while telling a story as you do when you make a point is to undo one of the greatest effects of the story: a change of tone and pace that feels personal. Second, Some preachers tell a story flatly as though they didn’t experience it, or are just now reading it out of a book. To tell a story with flat tone, demeanor and facial expression robs the story of its interest and contradicts what a story is supposed to make us feel, that you authentically understand life.
  2. Character and Plot. Inherent to every story is conflict which is the essence of character and plot development. In order for a story to resonate as true for a listener, characters should be presented as human. They should be made up with the same stuff as you and the listener: light, darkness, sin, redemption, etc. When we tell the story, start in the middle of the action to draw the listener in. Then, develop conflict between the character and their actions leading into a crisis moment. The story should end with a climax or answer.[6] Start in the middle to create interest right away. Instead of saying let me tell you a story about A farmer I know. Instead say “John was out late in the evening driving by the lights of his tractor trying to bring the harvest in before the coming storm. It wasn’t just his harvest that was on the line, his farm was too.”
  3. Pay Attention. If you find yourself digging into previous sermons to use your tried and true story or illustration, it may be time to stretch yourself to find some new options. Your life experience, arts, and the news can all serve as sources for stories. Instead of googling to find a story, we can act as a reporter who is alert to their surroundings. If you have your exegesis done soon enough, then you can walk through life paying attention to stories as they emerge. You can also spend time sitting, thinking, contemplating, and trying to remember a time when you experienced this principle. Even better, it gives you time to recall stories from others lives’ that you have witnessed or heard. The testimonies of the people we know spoken through our mouths can be powerful vehicles for the Gospel.

Wilson suggests that the challenge for preachers is not in finding the stories, but in knowing how to use them for theological purposes. He offers the following theological categories to help preachers recognize a particular story’s purpose: God’s judgement, the human condition, Christ’s suffering and crucifixion, God’s forgiveness, God’s overturning the world, God using people.[7]

Let’s use the following brief story as an example for analysis. As you read it, ask yourself: What is the conflict? What is the plot? What metaphor is being employed? What is a possible central idea for the sermon? How could I deliver this story with passion?

“I stepped up to the Wal-Mart customer service line and sighed. There were at least a dozen people in front of me and only one associate making returns.

A girl stood in front me with a young man, presumably her boyfriend. She was visibly agitated and talking on her cell phone while her boyfriend placed a hand on her arm intermittently to comfort her. Not wanting to eavesdrop, I awkwardly tried to avert my attention, but the customer service area did not provide much alternative. Her voice rose and I learned she was speaking to her father. It was clear that their relationship was strained. At one poignant moment of the conversation she sharply said into the phone, “I don’t want anything from you…No, I don’t need stuff. What do I want? I just want you to be my dad. I want to spend time with you and I want you to want to spend time with me. I just want you to be my dad.”

Story-telling, whether from your life experience, the news, or history provides a rich opportunity to remind our listeners that God is found in the midst of our lives. Through our story-telling, faithful preaching will affirm the lived present experience, but also transform it by properly situating it within the life of a God who is breaking into our world.

[1] Frederick Buechner, Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation, (San Fransisco, CA: HarperSanFransisco, 1991), 3.

[2] Paul Scott Wilson, The Practice of Preaching, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 263-264.

[3] Ibid, 265.

[4] Ibid, 267.

[5] Ibid, 268-269

[6] Ibid, 271

[7] Ibid.


Leanne KetchamLeanne Ketcham is an ordained pastor in The Wesleyan Church since 2014. She is a graduate of Indiana Wesleyan University in 2012 and Princeton Theological Seminary in 2017. She is a doctoral candidate at Emmanuel College in the University of Toronto for homiletics. Leanne was deeply shaped by her time as an associate pastor at a church plant in the Mountain Plains District, as well as an assistant pastor at a Methodist church revitalization during seminary. She is passionate about local churches and Christians being the incarnate hope of Jesus
in their neighborhoods through proclamation of all kinds. Her doctoral research is focused on new worshipping communities and how church plants and other forms of new worshipping communities relate to the world around them particularly through the practice of preaching. Leanne has been married to Andrew since 2012. Together they share one fluffy, silly goldendoodle, many moves and adventures, and a whole lot of grace.

Grace Focused Wesleyan Preaching | Mark Schnell

Wesleyans are doers. We always have been, starting with John Wesley himself. The whole of his life’s work staggers the mind. Wesleyans have followed his example through history. In the years since Wesley there have been revivals to preach, churches to plant, missions to open and always more work to be done. Yes, Wesleyans are doers, and that has been a good thing for the Kingdom as untold lives have been impacted for Christ’s sake. Wesleyan preaching has played a large role in this Kingdom work.

As great as it is to have the worker/doer gene built into our Wesleyan DNA, it has sometimes caused us Wesleyan preachers to place too much emphasis on human effort and too little on God’s grace. Instead of always making God the subject of our preaching, we sometimes have made it human responsibility. Instead of preaching about God’s amazing grace and the work of the Holy Spirit empowering heart transformation, we sometimes preached about effort and the will to overcome. In the past these ideas sometimes manifested as a focus in preaching that might be seen as legalistic. “If you want to be holy then don’t (insert your sin here)! If you want to be holy then make sure you start (insert religious action here)!” I’ve heard many sermons like this that equate being Godly with things I do or don’t do. With enough willpower I can be the holy person God wants me to be.

Sometimes placing too much emphasis on human effort and too little on God’s grace produces sermons that reduce the biblical narrative to moralistic tales with humanity as the subject. “If you want to be a good Christian, then be more like David.” “If you want to be a soul-winner then just love people like the Apostle Paul did.” In the story of David and Goliath, David is the hero because he stood up to a giant, instead of God being the hero who empowered him to act and who brought about the victory for Israel. In a sermon about soul winning like the Apostle Paul, we might reduce his ministry to action steps, that if simply duplicated will bring duplicate results.

Works Righteousness FistSermons that emphasize human responsibility over God’s grace might have titles like, “Five Ways to be a Soul Winner” or “How to Live a Successful Christian Life” or “Six Ways to be a Leader like Moses.” Don’t get me wrong, these might make excellent sermons and they might be greatly needed in a congregation. Yet if we are not careful, this kind of preaching can be unbalanced in its scope when it reduces holiness and discipleship to action steps and “how-to” guides. We must share the “how” as preachers, but even “how” cannot leave out “why” and “whom” if we want to avoid works-righteousness.

Preaching with imbalance between grace and responsibility instead of empowering people to live in the light of God’s love and leading them towards a Holy Spirit empowered holiness can foster a sense of failure. This failure can lead to a sense of hopelessness, a fear that holiness is not even possible. Consider this: If I preach that people can please God by conducting themselves a certain way, or shunning certain activities, and the people I preach to still struggle and fail after trying to keep those rules, they might be led to the conclusion that true holiness of heart and life is impossible on this side of heaven. I have reduced holiness to human willpower and I might as well tell people who are struggling in their faith to just try harder. Master preaching professor, Paul Scott Wilson, says that “many preachers persist in preaching messages that proclaim our condemnation as humans, for they sentence us to the limitations of our own accomplishments.”[i] If we preach messages that reduce holiness and Christian living to simply doing or not doing things, then we risk becoming what Wilson describes as preachers who “preach as though the resurrection of Christ makes no difference in the world.”[ii]

Mercy LaneBut the resurrection of Christ makes all the difference. Christ is the author and perfecter of our faith, not human will. I am encouraging us as Wesleyan preachers to focus our preaching more on grace and less on human responsibility — to always make the work of God the subject of our sermons.

You might be thinking, “Wait a minute! We are Wesleyan and that means we believe that somehow in the great mystery of salvation God has given humanity freewill. God has given us a part to play in the process.” You are absolutely right! God does give us a role to play, and doesn’t force his will on our lives. The grace of God doesn’t mean that, whether we want it or not, God pours holiness on us. Even though we know that salvation isn’t earned with works, what Christ has done for us and in us will result in action and life change. What’s more, there will often be things that Christians should do, and certain things they probably shouldn’t do. We should keep preaching that.

Hold on, you might be asking, “If we should focus our preaching on the grace of God, making God the subject of our preaching, and God somehow has also given us a level of responsibility in our faith, didn’t you just contradict yourself? Do you want us to preach grace or responsibility?” In a word, YES. We should preach both, but the difference is that we should never preach the latter without grounding it in the former. Do not preach responsibility without first preaching the grace of God that makes it possible. Even then, make sure responsibility itself is laced with grace. God is the one who starts our faith and God is the one who perfects it. He empowers it and makes it possible. If I preach about specific ways people can act on the sermon I should first preach about how God’s grace makes that response possible. If I preach on God’s call to holiness I must first preach of how holiness begins with God — we’re only holy because he is first holy and we can only hope to ever be like God through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

Let’s consider a few ways that we might become preachers who preach grace, making God the subject of the sermon:

  1. Begin looking for God’s grace and action in the biblical text you are preaching. Look deeper than the human actions of biblical characters in narratives: look for ways God empowered that action, asking what God is doing in and behind the text. In other Scriptural genres look deeper than moral lessons. For example, when the Apostle Paul calls for specific actions or life change he always bases that call in the work of God. He doesn’t tell us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling without telling us that it is Christ who is working in us to will and act to fulfill his good purpose. (Phil. 2:12)
  1. Begin asking deep questions of every sermon before you preach it. The main question is: Is this sermon based on God’s grace and the empowering work that only comes from God? This takes time and effort because, quite frankly, it’s easier to pick out a few moral lessons from a passage, a few dos or don’ts, or a list of how-tos. This may be why “Saturday night special” type sermons tend to focus more on human responsibility than God’s grace. Give your sermons time for a second look, for a God look.
  1. Add to your sermon toolbox specific preaching methods that naturally fosters grace focused preaching. There are several books that can help with this and Paul Scott Wilson’s Four Page of the Sermon is a good choice. Eugene Lowery’s the Homiletical Plot is another example of a method that places an emphasis on grace and the Gospel.[iii] Our own Lenny Luchetti speaks of the importance of making God the subject of the sermon in Preaching Essentials.[iv]

Whether you use one of these or other books like them, or simply take the time to reexamine your preaching and its focus, you’ll find that preaching that concentrates on grace and makes God the subject of the sermon will result in God’s empowerment and encouragement in those you preach to.


 

[i] Paul Scott Wilson, The Four Pages of the Sermon: A Guide to Biblical Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), 21.

[ii] Wilson, 21.

[iii] Eugene L. Lowry, The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2001).

[iv] Lenny Luchetti, Preaching Essentials: A Practical Guide (Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2012).


MarkProfilePicMark Schnell has been an ordained minister in the Wesleyan Church since 1994 and has served in various roles in churches in Michigan, Indiana and the eastern shore of Maryland. He is currently finishing his doctorate in homiletics and regularly serves as an adjunct professor of homiletics and proclamation at Indiana Wesleyan University and Wesley Seminary. He’s been married to Sharie for over twenty-four years and is Dad to Kate (12) and CJ (6).