Saturday, January 20, 2018

Some Thoughts on Preaching

Three disclaimers: First, I don’t consider myself to be any better than average as a preacher. Second, aside from the preaching I hear at the church I attend, and the occasional conference, I don’t listen to much preaching. Third, no one has ever hired me to teach homiletics. Nonetheless, I’ve heard a lot of preaching over the last forty-some years, and I try, in my exegesis classes, to give the students some instruction in how to preach the passages we deal with.

Some preachers seem to be confused about some basics. A sermon is not the same thing as a theological lecture. Some preachers don’t seem to understand that, because their sermons focus exclusively on pouring out information about the text, more like a commentary than a sermon. A sermon is the explanation and application of a particular passage/topic/doctrine of Scripture. As such, the two key elements are the clear explanation of the text and the direct application of its message. It is not an exclusively intellectual exercise, but is intended to get to the heart through the head.

On the other hand, a sermon is not merely a means of moving the emotions of the congregation. Some preachers don’t understand that, as their sermons seem to focus on moving the emotions almost in a way that seems manipulative. Instead, both the head and the heart of the hearer must be involved.

Sermons are less about rhetoric than they are about connecting the text to the listener. I know that sounds vague, so an illustration might help. A number of years ago, I heard a sermon at a conference. It was clear that the preacher understood his text. He didn’t miss the main point. It was well-organized and clear. The preacher had obviously worked hard on the sermon. It was a rhetorical tour de force. But it was emotionally cold. It had not connected with the audience, and I heard very few commendations of the sermon afterwards. Another year, another conference, a different preacher. This time, the preacher had been assigned a topic common in Reformed theology. If you were to go to, and search for this topic, you would find many sermons on it. Most of them would use the same primary texts, and the outlines would be interchangeable. This man took a different approach. He didn’t take one text, he took many (sort of like the Book of Hebrews) and he came at the topic from an entirely unexpected angle. He, too, had clearly worked hard on the sermon. As with the other, it was well-organized and clear. The difference was that it was emotionally warm. By taking a different approach, coming at the topic from an unusual direction, he had made the topic clear, fresh, and applicable. He also, I think, had a clearer sense of his audience than the first speaker. I heard some complaints (from professors) about the approach he had taken. But I heard many more commendations of the message.

My own sense is that pastors, on the whole, spend less time in prayer and meditation over their sermons than they should. The sermon only begins with the exegesis of the passage or topic. It is brought to flower by being the subject of much reflection, much prayer, and an intimate knowledge of the congregation.

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