Refreshing Questions

emily-morter-8xAA0f9yQnE-unsplashIn the New Testament, Christ’s presence is compelling partly because of his curiosity. With his disciples, strangers, Pharisees, and dinner companions alike, Jesus’s first tools in conversation seems to be questions. In showing us what it means to be fully alive, Jesus shows us the importance of remaining generous with our curiosity and our questions.

Here are a few questions to consider as you plan your preaching:

What’s keeping my congregation awake at night?

“If you’re going to do ministry in Jesus’ name, you need to know what keeps your people up at night. Otherwise, you are treating them like a stereotype.” – Dr. Scott Cormode

Too often, preachers can be quick to assume they’re already in touch with the needs of their congregation. But over time, the longings, losses, and deep needs of our congregation can escape our attention (partly because they change over time). Before you even begin drafting a sermon outline, consider a few diverse members of your congregation… what in their life is causing pain? What are they nervous about? What about their life have they told you feels unclear, or unmentionable?

In your sermon preparation process, re-engage these deep human needs, and sift through how the gospel is good news to those specific circumstances.

What’s the diagnosis?

“Circular dance among various generalizations is familiar to anyone who has heard very many sermons. What is missing is depth–a probing into the causative ingredients responsible for the situation. Diagnosis or analysis is what is needed–not description.” -Eugene Lowry, The Homiletical Plot, p. 43

Most of the people we preach to are already doing the best they can with the tools they have. Preachers often add “shoulds” and “musts” and “oughts” to their sermons, which unnecessarily burden the hearers with a feeling of falling short, but leave out specific ways hearers can participate in the gospel. If people are already doing their best, shame-based effort is harmful and demoralizing.

Instead of offering a vague generalization, like, “God’s people are disconnected from the Scripture,” offer a specific diagnosis.

The following is an example of a specific diagnosis of the same general problem mentioned above: “Some of us have grown up in congregations where the Bible was seen as a to-do list item, to be engaged in a specific structure of morning devotions that left us feeling rigid; others of us have grown up in homes where the Bible was regarded as an untrustworthy document full of ancient tales. Often, we’re kept from reading Scripture not only by rampant busy-ness, but by the damage done in our previous engagement with the Bible.”

That specific diagnosis allows the preacher (in the next moments of the sermon) to playfully explore how our engagement with Scripture can be dynamic, life-giving, and contextualized to our lives.

How will this nourish the hearers’ connection with God?

“If the Scriptures don’t point us toward God, we’ve simply had a good time wandering around in Bible land…all these ideas are in service to the divine encounter we seek to evoke between the sovereign God and his people. We are not simply passing out information, but we are in search of a moment of illumination that leads to encounter, change, and transformation.” -Cleophus Larue, I Believe I’ll Testify, p. 80

The best sermons are crafted so every word bears the freight of helping hearers connect with God. Think about the aspects of your sermon: how are you deciding what “makes it” into the final sermon? How are you deciding what is eliminated after a first draft? Part of this decision must come down to how each element helps hearers’ connect with God.

What have they heard already?

Most of your hearers (even those with very little biblical foundation) have heard various things about:
● The Scripture you’re preaching on
● The core human need the text addresses
● Issues covered in the passage that other influences have spoken into

As you go into your work with the text, consider the congregation’s prior experiences (or other voices that shape their way of approaching these issues). What objections will their previous experiences raise for them? How might this passage and your sermon gently reframe their previous experiences, or give them a new lens to the familiar?

How does this shape our congregation’s imagination Godward?

“There is even a chance that the Christian vocation is above all a vocation to imagine–to see what God sees when God looks at the world, and to believe that God’s dreams can come true.” -Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, p.39

Though it’s tempting to think that preaching is purely exegetical (only exploring the world of the text), it’s impossible to do that without imagination. Even the elusive concept of “God’s rule,” or “The Kingdom of God,” requires us to imagine a future in which God’s ways are brought to bear on the world around us.

So in addition to preaching imaginatively, we also have the chance to use our sermons to shape the imagination of our congregations. As you prepare your sermons, think: what in this passage is worth daydreaming about? What do I want the hearers to linger with after they’re sent into the rest of their day? If God’s ways are really better/higher/more praiseworthy than our ways, offer them a taste of what life is like when our habits harmonize with God’s invitation.