MASTERINGCONTEMPORARY PREACHING- by Uwe Rosenkranz
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture references are from the Holy Bible: New International Version,
© 1973, 1978, 1984 by the International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.
MASTERING CONTEMPORARY PREACHING
© 1989 by Christianity Today, Inc.
Published by Multnomah Press
Portland, Oregon 97266
Multnomah Press is a ministry of Multnomah School of the Bible, 8435 N.E. Glisan Street, Portland, Oregon 97220.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Mastering contemporary preaching / Bill Hybels, Haddon Robinson, Stuart Briscoe.
1. Preaching. I. Robinson, Haddon W. II. Briscoe, D. Stuart. III. Title.
1. What Authority Does a Preacher Have Anymore?
2. Speaking to the Secularized Mind
Today’s Preaching Task
3. Planning a Preaching Menu
4. Blending Bible Content and Life Application
5. Filling the Sermon with Interest
Today’s Toughest Topics
6. Dealing with Controversial Subjects
7. Sex: Preaching That Oh-So-Delicate Subject
8. Money: When You Move to Meddlin’
9. Power: Preaching for Total Commitment
10. Bringing Yourself into the Pulpit
11. The Subtle Temptations of Preaching
12. Keeping Ourselves on Target
In our work with Leadership, a quarterly journal for pastors, we often survey our subscribers to discover what subjects they want to read about. Preaching consistently earns one of the top spots.
Churches, too, are interested in preaching. One major seminary reported that over the past ten years it has received thousands of inquiries from churches seeking pastors. When asked, “What are you looking for in a pastor?” only once, in all of that time, was preaching not at the top of the church’s list. And that time it was second.
When people come to church, they don’t come to be bored. Even those who’ve never analyzed a sermon or read a book on preaching come to church with a desire for an appropriate and authentic word from God, spoken to their life situation.
And yet today, the preacher’s challenge has never been greater. A pastor wrote Leadership recently, “The people I’m preaching to are increasingly secular. I can’t assume they have a Christian world view.”
Said another, “I mentioned a Bible reference during my sermon, and after the service, a visitor asked me, ‘What did you mean when you said those numbers?’ ”
Today, the unchurched who happen to visit a worship service may find the Christian message utterly foreign. Even people who attend church regularly are probably far less familiar with the wheels of Ezekiel than with “Wheel of Fortune.” How can preachers communicate effectively to the biblically illiterate and secularized people who populate our communities in the late twentieth century?
This book focuses on the unique challenges of contemporary preaching. It’s the first in a series of books on “Mastering Ministry.” Subsequent volumes will deal with other areas of ministry, such as church management, outreach and evangelism, worship, and pastoral care.
By using the term mastering, we aren’t suggesting that these books offer the last word. No one completely masters ministry. We will always need to depend on the Holy Spirit, as well as continually evaluate and refine our skills.
By mastering, we mean the process of improving our God-given abilities. Even experienced pastors enjoy learning from others. As one wag said, “Real education begins when the class assignments end.” Picking the right resources and learning on our own is vital for people who want to sustain their effectiveness over a lifetime.
The Mastering Ministry series is offered as a resource for experienced pastors who want to keep learning. The authors are individuals who are themselves experienced in a particular area of ministry and who offer the lessons they’ve learned after “the class assignments ended.”
In Mastering Contemporary Preaching, the three authors are individuals whose pulpit ministries are widely respected and who themselves continue to study effective communication. Each brings a different perspective to the preaching task, and each received his calling in a significantly different way.
For more than fifteen years, Stuart Briscoe has been senior pastor at Elmbrook Church in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, suburb of Brookfield. In addition, he and his wife, Jill, maintain an active itinerant ministry.
Stuart wasn’t trained as a pastor. Before entering the ministry, he was a banking official in England. But when he was young, the idea of preaching was planted in his mind. Here’s how he describes his call to ministry:
“I never intended to be a preacher. I was going to be a businessman. As a teenager, I had just moved to a new town to start working, when a layman in the church I attended asked me how old I was.
” ‘Seventeen,’ I said.
” ‘It’s time you were preaching,’ he said, which was a total surprise to me. But two weeks later, I found myself preaching my first sermon in that small church. He had given me my topic: ‘Your subject is the church at Ephesus.” So I studied everything I could find on the Ephesians.
“In that first sermon, I went ten minutes over my allotted time—and got through only my first point. So he told me to come back the following week and finish, which I did. Then he said, ‘There are lots of little churches around here that need preachers,’ and so he started sending me to different little congregations, preaching about Ephesians.
“So I started preaching, and I discovered (1) I could do it, (2) I enjoyed doing it, and (3) people seemed to be blessed as I was doing it. Eventually the church affirmed my preaching, and I discovered a gifting. And I learned that where there’s a gifting, often there’s a calling. And over the years that sense of calling has crystallized.
“So after twelve years, I left the business world and went full time into ministry.”
For several years he ministered with the Capernwray Missionary Fellowship of Torchbearers before entering the pastorate at Elmbrook. The church now holds three worship services on Sunday morning and one on Saturday night.
At Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago, Bill Hybels speaks to 12,000 people on an average weekend, with two services on Sunday and one on Saturday night. The focus of the church’s ministry is speaking to the unchurched and those unfamiliar or uncomfortable with traditional church forms.
Bill first attracted notice in the early 1970s for launching the Son City youth ministry in Park Ridge, Illinois. Then, in 1975, he founded the Willow Creek church, meeting at first in a theater, and later moving to a facility in South Barrington. How did he sense the call to preach?
“Growing up, I had no desire to be a preacher. I think that was because in the particular denomination and rural church I grew up in, I never had a model of a strong, effective man of God with a prophetic voice and a credible witness of life and faith. The preaching I heard was heavily slanted toward the Heidelberg Catechism. It was not expositional preaching; it was doctrinal preaching. In twenty years of hearing the creed preached, no one I knew ever had a life-changing experience.
“In addition, my father owned a business, and so I grew up assuming the major league of life was the marketplace. If I wanted a challenging, action-packed life, it would not be in the church context. I didn’t want to be lumped with church people.
“But in my late teenage years, I found myself in the Chicago area. The youth pastor of the church I was attending had left, and I was asked to give some leadership to the young people. I figured part of youth ministry was to look in my Bible and give them some devotional thoughts from time to time.
“What actually happened was that I discovered I had spiritual gifts of preaching and teaching—and at the time, I’d never heard of spiritual gifts! But the kids not only were listening, but also were being impacted by the Word of God as it came off the page through my lips. To give a twenty-minute talk and have kids make changes in their lives based on what they had heard was an overwhelming experience for me. I was amazed that this rather unconventional exercise—standing there with the Bible and talking about it—had such power for good, for Christ, in the lives of people.
“I clearly could tell that the major league of life, from the perspective of eternity, anyway, was seeing positive changes in people’s lives. That was greater than closing a real estate deal or selling produce or running a fleet of trucks. That fueled my desire to make a difference with my life. And it seemed like God had gifted me to make a difference through preaching.
“Preaching can soften people to the truths that will affect them for all eternity. But if I don’t do it well, preaching can harden them and drive them away from God. I have been preaching now for fifteen years, and in many ways it’s still terrifying because I know what’s at stake. I would gladly, upon one whisper from the Holy Spirit, return to the marketplace and try to make a difference for Christ another way. But right now I feel under compulsion. With Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:16, I have to say, ‘Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.’ ”
Since 1979 Haddon Robinson has been president of Denver Seminary in Colorado. Previously he chaired the department of pastoral ministries and taught homiletics at Dallas Theological Seminary in Texas for nineteen years. He earned his Ph.D. in speech communication from the University of Illinois, and he is the author of several books, including the text Biblical Preaching.
He describes his calling:
“I can never remember a time when I did not want to be a preacher. I was named after Charles Haddon Spurgeon, and that may have had something to do with it.
“I wasn’t much of a reader as a kid, but I had read Shadow of the Broad Brim, Spurgeon’s biography. By the time I was 12, I had read his book of collected illustrations. However, I grew up in the ghetto of Harlem in New York City, hardly conducive to the world of preaching. So for most of my youth, I planned on doing something else.
“I used to keep a diary off and on. All the great people I knew kept diaries, and they seemed to have marvelous things to say, full of great insight. My entries were more of the ‘I got up, went to school, came home, and went to bed’ sort. After a few weeks of that, I’d inevitably quit.
“Several years ago, however, when I was moving my dad to Texas, I come across one of those diaries from when I was 12 years old. One entry indicated I had gone to hear Dr. Harry Ironside, the former pastor of Moody Church in Chicago. And in my diary I’d put: ‘Some men preach for an hour and it seems like twenty minutes, and some preach for twenty minutes and it seems like an hour. I wonder what the difference is?’
“I think I’ve spent my life trying to answer that question.”
The Purpose of Mastering Ministry
In the process of producing this book, the Leadership editors met with all three authors and interviewed them extensively. Over the months of transcribing, editing, discussing, refining, and correcting, all of us at Leadership were impressed with the insight of these men. They understand the preaching task, and they’ve committed themselves to an effective pulpit ministry.
Even more, we appreciated their concern for others who share their interest in preaching. They’ve generously given their time and expertise—not that their techniques will be imitated, but that others will reflect on the importance of good preaching and find ways to strengthen the preaching ministry in today’s churches.
God continues to use “the foolishness of preaching” to turn people toward himself. Through sermons, eternal life is offered to individuals who otherwise are surrounded by a throw-away culture. It’s our prayer that this book, and the rest of the volumes in this series, will help ministers do more than master certain skills. We trust this series will help all of us in ministry point people to the Master.
Carol Stream, Illinois
What Authority Does a Preacher Have Anymore?
Time has changed the way people view pastors. Perhaps we’re not lumped with scam artists or manipulative fundraisers, but we face an Olympic challenge to earn respect, credibility, and authority.
I attend a Bible study with business executives, and recently one man commented that in all the years he had been in business his pastor had never visited him at his office.
“It’s just as well,” said another. “A minister would feel out of place in my office.” Since I consider myself a minister, I pressed him to explain.
“Most ministers I know come across best visiting the hospital or working in the church environs. That’s their turf.” He went on to say that he saw the world of the pastor and the world of business people as very different. “The pastor is used to working alone or with a small staff, and his interest is relationships. The world of business is a more impersonal atmosphere dominated by people who put an emphasis on the bottom line.
“Pastors do pretty well with issues of grief and loneliness and interpersonal ethics—not stealing, coveting, fornicating, and so on,” he said. “But I don’t know too many pastors who address the problems of the individual’s conflicting loyalties in groups and organizations.”
Another man, who helps run a large construction corporation, agreed and offered an example: “A fellow owed us $500,000 when he died. He and his wife owned a house that was worth $150,000. The question is, do we sue the estate for the money we’re due, even if it costs the woman her house as part of the payment for her husband’s debt?”
He continued, “If you own the company, you can make a compassionate decision if you want to. But when you’re responsible to stockholders, and your job is to collect bad debts, where is your higher loyalty? Now, you might argue, ‘$150,000 isn’t worth it.’ But suppose the house is worth $500,000? Now do you go after it? Or a million? Is it ethical to go after a $500,000 house, but unethical to go after a $150,000 house?”
The businessmen agreed—rarely in church do they hear anybody even mention these kinds of issues. And yet that’s the common stuff of life. Those tough, morally ambiguous issues are where some business people have to live out their faith.
“While the preacher talks about absolutes, right and wrong,” one man said, “most of us deal with gray situations.”
Another said, “My pastor talks about ‘the good being an enemy of God’s best,’ but people in my world aren’t dealing with first or second moral choices. They’re down to the twelfth or thirteenth choices.
“As much as I appreciate my pastor and enjoy his sermons,” the businessman concluded, “it’s not often that he speaks about my world.”
I was dismayed by the conversation. Not everyone would agree with these businessmen; some people attend church expecting their minister to say something that will help them understand the broad issues of life a little better. But not many expect the preacher to be able to speak with insight to the particular world in which many of them live.
Time has changed the way people view pastors. The average preacher today is not going to make it on the basis of the dignity of his position.
A century ago, the pastor was looked to as the person of wisdom and integrity in the community. Authority lay in the office of pastor. The minister was the parson, often the best educated person in town, and the one to whom people looked for help in interpreting the outside world. He had the unique opportunity to read and study, and often was the principal voice in deciding how the community should react in any moral or religious situation.
But today, the average citizen takes a different view of pastors and preachers. Perhaps we’re not lumped with scam artists or manipulative fundraisers, but we face an Olympic challenge to earn respect, credibility, and authority.
In the face of society’s scorn—or being relegated to a box labeled private and spiritual—many preachers struggle with the issue of authority. Why should anyone pay attention to us? What is the source of our credibility? In such a climate, how can we regain the legitimate authority our preaching needs to communicate the gospel with power and effect?
Let me identify five guidelines that have assisted me.
Articulate Unexpressed Feelings
One way to build credibility with today’s congregations is to let people see that you understand their situation. Many people in the pew suspect that preachers inhabit another world. Folks in the pew may listen politely to a reporter of the distant, biblical past, but they won’t be gripped unless they believe this speaker speaks to their condition.
This is why, in a sermon, I try to speak for the people before I speak to them. Have you ever listened to a speaker and found yourself saying, Yeah, that’s right; that’s my reaction, too? The speaker gave words to your feelings—perhaps better than you could have expressed them yourself. You sensed the preacher knew you. He explained you to you.
We capture the attention of people when we show that our experience overlaps theirs. For instance, a preacher might say, “There’s no good place for a.150 hitter in a championship lineup. No matter where you put him, he’s out of place.” If listeners know sports, they know that’s true. The preacher’s speaking their language.
Or the minister may take a punchline from a comic strip, or use material from Business Week or Advertising Age or The Wall Street Journal. A business executive will resonate with that. Obviously this pastor knows a bit more about the bottom line than playing Monopoly. Through illustrations, the preacher has revealed something about his reading, his thinking, and his awareness of life. When some areas of a speaker’s life overlap with the listeners’, they are more likely to listen. He’s gained some credibility. An ingredient in effective preaching is using specific material that connects with lives in the congregation.
The Invisible Congregation
Another way effective preachers connect with the audience is mentally to sit six or seven specific people around their desks as they prepare. I have assembled such a committee in my mind as real to me as if they were there.
In that group sits a friend who is an outspoken cynic. As I think through my material, I sometimes can hear him sigh, “You’ve got to be kidding, Robinson. That’s pious junk food. What world are you living in?”
Another is an older woman who is a simple believer, who takes preachers and preaching very seriously. While I prepare sermons, I ask, “Am I raising questions that will trouble her? Will my sermon help her?”
A teenager sprawls in the circle, wondering how long I’m going to preach. I can make the sermon seem shorter if I can keep him interested.
A divorced mother takes her place feeling alone and overwhelmed by her situation. What do I say to her?
Those are four of my seven. Another is an unbeliever who doesn’t understand religious jargon and yet has come to church, but doesn’t quite know why. Another makes his living as a dock worker. He has a strong allegiance to his union, thinks management is a rip-off, curses if he gets upset, and enjoys bowling on Thursday night.
The last is a black teacher who would rather attend a black church but comes to a white church because her husband thinks it’s good for their kids. She is a believer, but she’s angry about life. She’s very sensitive about racist remarks and putdowns of women, and will let me know if my sermon centers on white, middle-class values dressed up as biblical absolutes.
I change the group from time to time. But all of them are people I know. They have names, faces, and voices. I could prepare a vita on each of them. While they do not know it, each of them contributes significantly to my sermon preparation.
Let’s face it. Life is complex. But we sometimes preach as though it were not.
One time after I’d preached a sermon on love, a man came up and said, “You said that love means always seeking other people’s highest good.”
“That’s fine, but my business puts me in competition with another man in this congregation. I run an efficient operation that lets me sell my product cheaper than his. What’s the loving thing to do—underprice him and take some of his customers? Or should I keep my prices roughly equal?”
Before I could respond, he went on.
“But that’s not the toughest part. A large corporation has just moved into town selling the same product. I’m going to have to scramble to stay in business, myself. I may have to cut prices so drastically it will drive my fellow church member into bankruptcy.
“I want to love this man. We’re in the same Sunday school class. I coach his kids in Little League. I want to do what’s best for him. But the name of the game out there is survival,” he said. “Why don’t preachers talk about these kinds of things when they talk about love?”
For us to communicate with authority, we’ve got to step into the shoes of those Christians who are in the home and marketplace. No matter how gray the issues, we’ve got to be willing to say, “As a pastor, I must talk about the hard questions.” In our preaching, we must recognize the complexity of the issues. How do we do that?
First, it’s helpful simply to admit the tension and point it out. All truth exists in tension. God’s love exists in tension with his holiness. Skillfully applying love and justice is not easy.
I believe God honors an honest try. People need to know that. Sometimes I’ll point out that we will make a wrong decision with the right motive, which is very different from making a right decision out of a wrong motive. As far as I know, the Bible never calls any action, in itself, right. No action is right apart from its motive. Obviously, there are some acts the Bible calls wrong: murder, lying, adultery. But it’s not as easy to classify right behavior.
Jesus talks about two men who went to the temple to pray—which sounds like a good religious act—except one is justified, and the other is not. Jesus talks about people giving—and that’s a good thing—except some give to be seen by others. That’s not good.
So in God’s economy, motive is a key factor. One of the things we preachers can say to people, with authority, is: “In these situations, it’s important to handle life skillfully, to make the right decisions. But the prior and more important decision is What’s motivating you? Are you willing to be God’s representative in this situation? Are you seeking what’s best in the lives of the people involved? Sometimes those decisions are confusing. We need wisdom. That’s what Christian friends and Christian counsel give you.”
Speak with Authority
Preachers, of course, have to be more than “fellow strugglers.” No one is helped by “You’re a loser; I’m a loser; let’s keep losing together.”
People want to believe you have taken your own advice and, while you’ve not arrived, you’re on the way. You’ll never learn to be a.300 hitter by watching three.100 hitters. You study a.325 hitter. Although he will occasionally strike out, he knows how to hit.
Likewise, people want to listen to somebody who knows what the struggle is, but who has taken the Bible’s message seriously and knows how to hit.
Of course, we identify with the needs and experiences of our people; we’re every bit as human as they are. But our task is to speak a word that is qualitatively different from normal conversation. Effective preaching combines the two and gives people hope that they can be better than they are.
When the combination is right, we preach with authority, which is different from being an authoritarian. Preaching with authority means you’ve done your homework. You know your people’s struggles and hurts. But you also know the Bible and theology. You can explain the Bible clearly. Preachers aren’t being authoritarian when they point people to the Bible. When Billy Graham explains, “The Bible says …” he’s relying not on his own authority but another—God’s Word—and he shows how that authority makes sense. We help our credibility when we practice biblical preaching.
The authoritarian, on the other hand, is someone who speaks about biblical and nonbiblical things in the same tone of voice. Whether the subject is the Super Bowl or the Second Coming, the verdict is delivered with the same certainty and conviction.
I realized the distinction one night when my wife, Bonnie, said to me, “You’ve been around the Bible too much. Any opinion from politics to sports has the same ring as your sermon on Galatians.” It’s easy to fall into that. An authoritative tone without genuine biblical authority is sound and fury signifying nothing.
When we speak with authority, we preach the Bible’s message without embarrassment, but we also communicate that we don’t always know how to tailor faith to life.
Be Precise in Descriptions
Authority also comes from a track record of being truthful and not distorting the facts. It’s especially important to be precise in our definitions and descriptions, whether we’re defining the historical background of the text or delivering an apt illustration. Accuracy builds credibility.
I once used an illustration about snakes and referred to them as “slimy, poisonous creatures.” A woman came up afterward and said, “Snakes aren’t slimy; they are dry. And most snakes aren’t poisonous.” She worked in a zoo, so she spotted that I was careless in my description. As a result, I had given her reason for suspecting the rest of what I had to say.
The need for precision is particularly acute with an antagonistic or less-than-supportive audience. They’ll focus on your minor error as a reason for not listening to the rest of what you have to say.
With the high stakes involved, what do we say when we need to use an illustration from an area outside our expertise? The answer lies in a recent sermon I heard. The preacher was from Britain, and he was trying to identify with his American audience by talking about baseball. He referred to a “four-base hit.” Baseball fans know you don’t get a four-base hit; it’s a homer. That didn’t turn me off to the sermon, but I remember thinking. He doesn’t know baseball. It distanced us. His credibility was diminished.
But, he could have sidestepped the difficulty had he simply admitted, “Look, I’m a stranger to baseball, but I enjoyed watching it. As I saw the game, here’s what happened.” Then people understand the speaker isn’t trying to speak with authority on this issue, and they grant him or her the license to speak in less-than-precise terms.
Years ago when I first began to teach at Dallas Seminary, I asked Charles Ryrie, another professor on the faculty, if he had any advice to help a young professor. He replied, “Whenever you state the case of someone disagreeing with you, imagine that your opponent is sitting in the front row of the class. State his position in such a way that he would say, ‘Yes, that is what I believe.’ And then you can take issue with the position.”
The advice for the classroom is good advice for the pulpit. It is dishonest to characterize someone else’s position in a way that person would disavow. Being precise and fair, even with differing viewpoints, also adds to our credibility.
For church leaders, perhaps no factor contributes more to legitimate authority and credibility than authentic Christian character. It’s what Aristotle called ethos; in New Testament terms, it’s being mature, upright. It’s what you are, which is always more important than what you do. These days, if we want credibility in the pulpit, genuine character has to come through.
The difficulty, however, is that credibility comes from the way people perceive a pastor’s character, and this may or may not align with what the pastor really is. Some pastors, dedicated to Christ and to the ministry, present themselves in a way that disguises their true character. A male pastor may be courageous but be perceived as effeminate. Another may have deep convictions but come across as slovenly or boring. How people perceive our character, spiritual life, intellectual life, and family life has much to do with how they respond to our ministry.
Part of effective preaching is the ability to make the presentation match the internal conviction. The image we project will influence our credibility. Appearance in the pulpit will affect the way people respond. I’m convinced inwardly, for example, of the importance of discipline and order in the Christian life. How can I present myself in a way that matches the conviction? In the first thirty seconds, people are deciding whether they’re going to listen. God looks on the heart, but people in our culture look on the outside. Am I disheveled? Do my shoes need to be shined? If I’m fifty pounds overweight, they may perceive that I’m not disciplined or that I’m careless about myself.
Obviously one advantage of a lengthy ministry is that the pastor has a better chance to bring perception and reality together. The long-term pastor is judged more on his pattern of behavior than on a specific appearance. People are more likely to say, “The pastor not only talks love; he gives love. He was there in our family crisis when we needed him.” A pattern of care can cover a multitude of less-than-stellar sermons.
Of course, the flip side is that we may have things to live down, and that also takes time. A pastor I know lost his temper in a board meeting and spoke some harsh words in anger. Now, months later, when he stands in the pulpit, some people play that record mentally. Another pastor in a similar situation confessed his misuse of anger and publicly asked for forgiveness. He got it. In his case, people learned that the fellow they saw in the pulpit was real and had integrity.
Ethos comes from authentic ministry—praying for individuals, remembering people’s names, caring for them in times of crisis. And it comes from recognizing and articulating the struggles people face and offering an appropriate word from God. All this shapes our character, and this character is vital as we preachers strive for our rightful authority among those we serve.
Speaking To the Secularized Mind
Unchurched people today are the ultimate consumers. We may not like it, but for every sermon we preach, they’re asking, “Am I interested in that subject or not?” If they aren’t, it doesn’t matter how effective our delivery is; their minds will check out.
Driving home from church the other day, I pulled behind a guy on his Harley-Davidson. I noticed a bumper sticker on the rear fender of his motorcycle, so I pulled closer. It read: screw guilt.
After the shock wore off, I was struck by how different his world was from the one I’d just left—and even from the world a generation ago. In my day, we felt guilty, I thought. Now, it’s not only “I don’t feel guilty,” but “Screw guilt.” I find that the unchurched people today, whom we’re called to reach, are increasingly secular.
There was a time when your word was a guarantee, when marriage was permanent, when ethics were assumed. Not so very long ago, heaven and hell were unquestioned, and caring for the poor was an obvious part of what it meant to be a decent person. Conspicuous consumption was frowned upon because it was conspicuous. The label “self-centered” was to be avoided at all costs, because it said something horrendous about your character.
Today, all of that has changed. Not only is it different, but people can hardly remember what the former days were like.
Why We Need a New Approach
Many churches, however, still operate with the understanding that non-Christians are going to come through the doors, feel pretty much at home, understand the sovereignty of God and the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, and in one morning make a complete transition from a secular world view.
Even twenty years ago, that was a reasonable hope. The secular world view wasn’t that disconnected from God’s agenda. A guy would hear the claims of Christ and say, “Well, that makes sense. I know I’m a sinner” or “I know I shouldn’t drink so much” or “I really should be faithful to my wife.”
Today, even though we’re asking for the same thing—a commitment to Christ—in the perception of the secular person, we’re asking for far more. The implications of becoming a Christian today are not just sobering; they’re staggering.
Recently I preached on telling the truth, and afterward, a man came up and said, “You don’t understand what you’re saying.”
“What don’t I understand?” I asked him.
“You’re just up there doing what pastors are supposed to do—talk about truth. But my job requires my violating about five of the things you just talked about. It’s part of the job description; I can’t be ‘on the level’ and keep the position. You’re not asking me to adopt some value system; you’re asking me to give up my salary and abandon my career.”
We preachers, I was reminded that day, have our work cut out for us. The topics we choose, the way we present Scripture, the illustrations we use, the responses we ask for, all need to contribute to our goal of effectively presenting Christ to non-Christians.
For the past thirteen years, we’ve geared our ministry at Willow Creek to reach non-Christians, and during that time I’ve learned a lot, sometimes the hard way, about what kind of preaching attracts them, keeps them coming back, and most important, leads them to take the momentous step of following Jesus Christ. Let me share some of those principles.
If we’re going to speak with integrity to secular men and women, we need to work through two critical areas before we step into the pulpit.
The first is to understand the way they think. For most of us pastors, though, that’s a challenge. The majority of my colleagues went to a Bible school or Christian college and on to seminary, and have worked in the church ever since. As a result, most have never been close friends with a non-Christian. They want to make their preaching connect with unchurched people, but they’ve never been close enough to them to gain an intimate understanding of how their minds work.
If we’re serious about reaching the non-Christian, most of us are going to have to take some giant steps. I have suggested for many years that our pastors at Willow Creek find authentic interest areas in their lives—tennis, golf, jogging, sailing, mechanical work, whatever—and pursue these in a totally secular realm. Instead of joining a church league softball team, why not join a park district team? Instead of working out in the church gym, shoot baskets at the YMCA. On vacation, don’t go to a Bible conference but to some state park where the guy in the next campsite is going to bring over his six-pack and sit at your picnic table.
When I bring this up with fellow ministers, I often sense resistance. It cuts against everything we feel comfortable doing. And yet not knowing how non-Christians think undercuts our attempts to reach them. If we’re going to stand on Sunday and accurately say, “Some of you may be questioning what I’ve just said. I can understand that, because just this week I talked with someone about it,” then on the Tuesday before, we’ve got to drive to the Y and lift weights and run with non-Christians. We can’t win them if we don’t know how they think, and we can’t know how they think if we don’t ever enter their world.
The second prerequisite to effective preaching to non-Christians is that we like them. If we don’t, it’s going to bleed through our preaching. Listen closely to sermons on the radio or on television, and often you’ll hear remarks about “those worldly secular people.” Unintentionally, these speakers distance themselves from the non-Christian listener; it’s us against them. I find myself wondering whether these preachers are convinced that lost people matter to God. It’s not a merciful, “Let’s tell them we love them,” but a ticked off, “They’re going to get what’s coming to them.” These preachers forfeit their opportunity to speak to non-Christians, because the unchurched person immediately senses. They don’t like me.
What helps many pastors genuinely like non-Christians is the gift of evangelism. When you have that spiritual gift, it’s easier for you to have a heart for non-Christians. Not every pastor claims evangelism as a gift. But I’ve seen many develop a heartfelt compassion for non-Christians by focusing on their needs. That takes away any intimidation they might feel around non-Christians; it frees them to minister.
When I was in youth ministry in the early seventies, kids wore their emotions on their sleeve. They’d come up crying, or mad, but I could readily recognize their need. When I started ministering to suburban adults, everybody was smooth. Everyone dressed nicely and had a nice-looking spouse, two nice-looking kids, a nice car, a nice home. I thought, What do these people need church for? Everybody’s getting along fine.
The longer I worked with them, though, the more I realized, These people have gaping holes in their lives. That pretty wife hasn’t slept with her husband in three months. Those kids, if you could ever get close to them, are so mad at their dad they’d fill your ears. That home is mortgaged to the hilt, and that job that looks so sweet isn’t all that secure. That guy who looks so confident is scared stiff inside.
That appearance of sufficiency is a thin veneer, and underneath is a boatload of need that we, as pastors and teachers, are equipped and called to address in the power of the Holy Spirit. As we learn the way non-Christians think and develop a genuine love for them, we can speak the words of Christ in a way they’ll hear.
Topics and Titles They’d Choose
Unchurched people today are the ultimate consumers. We may not like it, but for every sermon we preach, they’re asking. Am I interested in that subject or not? If they aren’t, it doesn’t matter how effective our delivery is; their minds will check out.
A few years ago the book Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche came out, and immediately sales took off. Everyone was talking about it. As I was thinking about the amazing success of that book, I decided to preach a series entitled, “What Makes a Man a Man? What Makes a Woman a Woman?” Unchurched people heard the titles, and they came; attendance climbed 20 percent in just four weeks. The elders were saying, “This is incredible!”
When that series ended, I began one titled “A Portrait of Jesus.” We lost most of those newcomers. Interestingly, the elders said to me after that series, “Bill, those messages on the person and work of Christ related to unchurched people as well as any messages we’ve heard.” In this case, the problem wasn’t the content; the people who needed to hear this series most didn’t come because of the title.
Since then, I’ve put everything I can into creating effective titles. I’m not particularly clever, so sometimes I’ll work for hours on the title alone. I do it because I know nonchurched people won’t come, or come back, unless they can say, “Now that’s something I want to hear about.” The title can’t be just cute or catchy; it has to touch a genuine need or interest.
Here are some series titles I’ve had good response to:
• “God Has Feelings, Too.” People said,, “What? God has emotions?” And they came to find out what and how he feels.
• “Turning Houses into Homes.” When I announced the series (in church the week before it started), I said, “Our area is setting national records for housing starts. As you drive around and see one of the hundreds of houses going up, ask yourself, What’s going to turn this house into a home? That’s what we’re going to talk about in the next four weeks.” I could have used a thousand other titles, but this one seemed to touch a nerve.
• “Telling the Truth to Each Other.”
• “Fanning the Flames of Marriage.”
• “Endangered Character Qualities.”
• “Alternatives to Christianity.” I always begin a new series the Sunday after Christmas and Easter to try to bring back the first-time visitors. Last Christmas Eve we announced, “A lot of people are saying, ‘Christianity is the right way,’ or ‘The New Age Movement is the right way,’ or ‘Something else is the right way.’ We’re going to talk about the alternatives to Christianity, showcase the competition, and let you decide. We’ll make an honest comparison, and if it’s not honest, you tell us.”
That was an A+ title, as long as we dealt fairly with the opposing points of view. I could have called the series “The Danger of the Cults” or “Why Christianity Is the Only Sensible Religion,” but those titles would have attracted only people who were already convinced. From the very first words people hear about our message, we need to communicate, “This is for you. This is something you’ll want to hear.”
Sometimes people who haven’t heard me preach misunderstand this and say, “Yeah, it’s easy to attract people if you tiptoe around tough biblical issues and don’t get prophetic on areas of discipleship.” My experience, though, has been that you can be absolutely prophetic with unchurched people. We all should be like Paul when he said in Acts 20, “I didn’t shrink back from giving you the whole counsel of God. I didn’t shrink back in terms of the content or the intensity.” But to do that with any group, we need to preach in a way they can understand. We need to start where they are and then bring them along.
For example, we have a lot of people attend who can’t conceive of a God who would ever punish anybody. That wouldn’t be loving. They need to understand God’s holiness. So I’ve used the old illustration, “If I backed into the door of your new car out in the parking lot after the service, and we went to court, and the judge said, ‘That’s no problem; Bill didn’t mean it,’ you’d be up in arms. You’d want justice.
“If you went to a Cubs game, and Sutcliffe threw a strike down the middle of the plate, and the ump said, ‘Ball four,’ and walked in a run, you’d be out there killing the ump, because you want justice.”
A person hears that and says, “I guess you’re right. I wouldn’t want a God who wasn’t just.”
Then I can go on to say, “Now before you say, ‘Rah, rah for a just God,’ let me tell you some of the implications. That means he metes out justice to you.”
You can be utterly biblical in every way, but to reach non-Christians, every topic has to start where they are and then bring them to a fuller Christian understanding.
I’ve also found it helpful, as many pastors have, to preach messages in a series. With the non-Christian, you want to break the pattern of absenteeism. Over the course of the series, he or she gets in the habit of coming to church and says, “This isn’t so bad; it only takes an hour.” You’re trying to show him or her that this is not a painful experience; it’s educational and sometimes even a little inspirational. Sometimes it’s convicting, but in a thought-provoking rather than heavy-handed way. Pretty soon, a guy says, “Why don’t I come, bring my wife, and stop for brunch afterward?”
I’ve found I can’t stretch a series longer than four or five weeks, though, before people start saying, “Is there anything else you’re ever thinking about?” And obviously, if I’m going to talk about money or other highly sensitive issues, the series may run only two weeks.
Explaining the Wisdom of the Bible
Unchurched people don’t give the Bible a fraction of the weight we believers do. They look at it as an occasionally useful collection of helpful suggestions, something like the Farmer’s Almanac. They tend to think. The Bible has some neat things to say once in a while, but we all know it’s not the kind of thing I’m going to change my life radically to obey.
If we simply quote the Bible and say, “That settles it. Now obey that,” they’re going to say, “What? I’m supposed to rebuild my life on some book that’s thousands of years old? I don’t do that for any other respected literary work of antiquity.” It just doesn’t make sense to them.
So almost every time I preach, I’m trying to build up the reliability of Scripture and increase their respect for it. I do that by explaining the wisdom of God behind it. When you show them how reasonable God is, that captivates the secular mind.
Most of them have written off Christians as people who believe in floods and angels and strange miracles. My goal is to explain, in a reasonably intelligent fashion, some matters that touch their lives. I hope when they leave they’ll say, “Maybe there is something to the Bible and to the Christian life.”
Consider 2 Corinthians 6:14, the verse that instructs us, “Don’t be unequally yoked.” Some teachers speaking on that passage will say, “The implications are obvious: Don’t marry a nonbeliever. The Bible says it, and we need to obey it.” For the already-convinced person, who puts great value on the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture, that might be enough. I don’t think most church people buy it as much as we hope they will, but let’s say they give us the indication that they do.
The secular guy, on the other hand, sits there and thinks, That is about the most stupid and discriminatory thing I have ever heard. Why should I refuse to marry someone I love simply because her religion is a little different? So one Sunday morning, I started by saying, “I’m going to read to you the most disliked sentence in all of Scripture for single people who are anxious to get married.” Then I read 2 Corinthians 6:14.
“This is that awful verse,” I said, “in which, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul cuts down the field from hundreds of thousands of marriageable candidates to really only a handful. And almost every single person I know, upon first hearing it, hates that verse. What I want to do is spend the next thirty minutes telling you why I think God would write such an outrageous prescription.”
During the rest of that message, I tried to show, using logic and their experience, that this command makes terrific sense. We were in a construction program at the time, so I used this illustration: “What if I went out to the construction site, and I found one contractor, with his fifteen workers, busily constructing our building from one set of plans, and then I went to the other side of the building, and here’s another contractor building his part of the building from a totally different set of blueprints? There’d be total chaos.
“Friends,” I continued, “what happens in a marriage when you’ve got a husband who says, ‘I’m going to build this marriage on this blueprint,’ and a wife who says, ‘I’m going to build it on this blueprint’? They collide, and usually the strongest person wins—for a time. But then there’s destruction.
“God wants his children to build solid, permanent relationships, and he knows it’s going to take a single set of plans. In order to build a solid building or a sound marriage, you need one set of blueprints.”
Over time, I want gradually to increase their respect for Scripture, so that some day they won’t have to ask all the why questions but will be able to say to themselves, Because it’s in the Book; that’s why.
I’ve found that the unchurched person thinks most Christians, and especially pastors, are woefully out of touch with reality. They don’t have a clue as to what’s going on in the world, he thinks. An unchurched person who does venture into a church assumes whatever is spoken will not be relevant to his life.
That’s why I select 60 to 70 percent of my illustrations from current events. I read Time, Newsweek, US News & World Report, Forbes, and usually. Business Week. Every day I read the Chicago Tribune (USA Today when I travel), watch at least two TV news programs, and listen to an all-news radio station when I’m in the car.
Why? Because when I can use a contemporary illustration, I build credibility. The unchurched person says, “He’s in the same world I’m in. He’s aware that Sean Connery and Roger Moore no longer play 007. He’s not talking about something years ago; he’s talking about something I care about today.”
I sometimes joke that one of my goals in ministry is to complete however many years God gives me without ever using a Spurgeon illustration. Non-Christians (even most Christians today) don’t know who Spurgeon was. And once unchurched people find out, they wonder why I’m wasting my time with him. They think, These are the 1990s, and we’ve got a massive drug problem, a teetering savings-and-loan industry, and political turmoil, and he’s spending time reading some dead Englishman? If he’s got the time to do that, he’s not living in the same world I am.
The second thing an up-to-date illustration does is put me and the listener on an even footing. He heard the same news report I did; he saw the same show. When I quote Augustine, he feels like I’m not playing in the same ball park. But when I say, “On ‘Nightline’ two nights ago, Ted Koppel was talking with …” the guy says to himself, I saw that! I wonder if he felt the same way about that as I did, and he stays with me. An illustration from current events includes the non-Christian listener; it puts him on an equal footing with everyone else in the audience.
I learned this principle from studying the parables of Jesus. I noticed him saying things like, “You all heard about those eighteen people killed in Siloam when the tower fell on them …” (Luke 13:4). As I charted Jesus’ parables, I saw quickly that these “illustrations weren’t quotes from rabbinic authorities but stories of things average people saw every day.
When people feel that somebody’s in their world, and has been real with them, that’s powerful. That’s why I’ll continue to use illustrations that are current.
Responses That Give Freedom and Time
When people walk into church these days, often they’re thinking they’ll get the party line again: Pray more, love more, serve more, give more. They just want something more out of me, they think. I wonder what it’ll be today that I’m not doing enough of.
It’s easy for us pastors to unintentionally foster that understanding. One pastor asked me for help with his preaching, and we talked about what responses he was asking for. I suggested, “List the messages you’ve preached in the last year, and write either pray more, love more, serve more, or give more next to any message where that was the main thrust of the sermon.”
He came back and said, “Bill, one of those was the thrust of every single sermon last year.” He recognized the implications. If every time my son comes into the living room, I say, “Do this more; do that more,” pretty soon he won’t want to come into the living room. But if he comes in knowing there is going to be some warmth, acceptance, a little humor, and encouragement, then on the occasions I need to say, “We’ve got to straighten out something here,” he can accept that.
Often the goal of a message can be Understand this reality about God or Enjoy this thing God has done. Recently my Wednesday night message was taken from Romans 12:3–8, a passage about using spiritual gifts. I could have pushed people to serve more, I suppose, but that evening I said, “This is the most serving church I have ever seen. You people are using spiritual gifts beautifully. What Paul is telling the church at Rome to get on the stick and do, you people have gotten on the stick and done.” Then I gave fifteen or twenty illustrations of ways people in the church are serving, selflessly, for God’s glory.
I closed, “I want to say I respect you as a church. You’re an unbelievable group of servants whom God is pleased with. Let’s stand for closing prayer.” Parishioners are people, too, and sometimes people need to be commended for what they are doing already. In the case of the non-Christian, we may commend them for honestly considering the claims of Christ, for being willing to listen to what we have to say and not immediately writing it off.
With the unchurched, though, our primary goal has been determined for us: We want them to accept the lordship of Jesus Christ. Let me suggest two key principles in asking non-Christians for a commitment.
1. Give them freedom of choice. I’ve been surprised to learn you really can challenge unchurched people as much as you would anybody else—as long as at the moment of truth you give them absolute freedom of choice. At the end of an evangelistic message, I often say something like: “You’ve got a choice to make. I’m not going to make it for you. I’m not going to tell you that you have to make it in the next thirty seconds. But eventually you’ve got to make some decisions about the things we’ve talked about. As for me and my house, it’s been decided, and we’re glad we’ve made the decision. But you need to make that decision as God leads you.” I’m taking the ball and tossing it in their court. Then it’s theirs to do some thing with.
During one message recently, I made a strong, biblical case for team leadership. At the end I said, “I know many of you own businesses, and you’re accountable to nobody. I think from what we’ve read in the Scriptures today, you would be the primary beneficiaries of following God’s plan of team leadership so your blind spots don’t cause your downfall.
“But,” I said, “it’s your life; it’s your business; it’s your family; it’s your future. I trust that over time you’ll give this thought and make the right decision. As for me, I’ve got elders, I’ve got board members, I’ve got an accountability group. I feel glad I have a team to accomplish what God has called me to do. Let’s stand for prayer.”
When you give a person complete freedom of choice, he goes away saying, “Doggone it, I wish he would have laid a trip on me, because then I could have gotten mad at him and written off the whole thing. But now I have to deal with it.” Rather than letting people get away, giving them freedom of choice urges them to make that choice.
2. Give them time to make a decision. Suppose a guy came into my office and said, “I have a Mercedes-Benz in the parking lot. I’ll sell it to you for $500 if you write me a check in the next fifteen seconds.” I wouldn’t do it. By most counts, I’d be a fool not to buy a Mercedes-Benz for $500. But if you make me decide in fifteen seconds, I’d refuse because I haven’t had enough time to check it out. I have some natural questions: Is there really one in the lot? Do you have a title to it? Does it have a motor?
But on Sunday we’re tempted to tell people who’ve been living for twenty, thirty, or forty years under a totally secular world view, “You’ve got just a couple of minutes at the end of this service to make a decision that’s going to determine your eternity. It’s going to change your life, and you might lose your job, but come on down.” The non-Christian is thinking. Whoa! This is a big decision, and I’ve been thinking about this for only twenty minutes.
When I ask today’s non-Christians for a commitment, I’m trying to persuade them about something that’s going to alter radically everything they are. They say things like, “You mean marriage is permanent? You gotta be kidding—like I have to get serious about child rearing and not just hire somebody to do it?” Everywhere the non-Christian turns, he’s finding I’m asking for far more than he was first interested in. He senses a spiritual need—that’s what brought him to church—but he’s going to need a lot of time to consider the implications.
Most of the conversions that happen at Willow Creek come after people have attended the church for six months or more. The secular person has to attend consistently for half a year and have the person who brought him witness to him the whole time. He needs that much time simply to kick the tires, look at the interior, and check the title before he finally can say, “I’ll buy it.”
It’s interesting: I get criticized for this as much as for anything else in my ministry. People protest, “Bill, you had them in the palm of your hand, and you let them get away!”
I’ve heard this enough times that now I usually respond with some questions. “Do you think people heard the truth while they were here?” I ask.
“Yes, they heard the truth.”
“Do you think the Holy Spirit is alive and well?”
“Of course I believe that.”
“Do you think Bill Hybels ever saved anybody?”
They quickly say, “Oh, no, no.”
I say, “I think we’re okay then. If they heard the truth, and the Holy Spirit is alive and active. God will continue to work in their lives, and Bill Hybels isn’t the only way he can accomplish his will for them.”
Having said that, however, there is a time to close the sale. Not all the time, but sometimes, people need to be challenged. And when I do challenge people, I challenge them hard. Periodically I’ll say, “Some of you are on the outside looking in. You’ve been around here for a long time and have enough information. I’d like to ask you, what is it that’s holding you back from repenting of your sins and trusting Christ right now? Sometimes a delay can be catastrophic. It’s time to deal with this.”
But—and this is critical—when I do that, I always make a qualification for the people who aren’t to that point. I’ll say, “Now for many of you, this is your first time here or you’ve been here only a few weeks. You don’t have enough answers yet, so I’ m not talking to you. You’re in an investigation phase, and that’s legitimate and needs to go on until you have the kind of information the rest of the people I’m talking to have already gathered.”
Trying to reach non-Christians isn’t easy, and it’s not getting easier. But what keeps me preaching are the times when after many months, I do get through.
Not long ago a man said to me, “I came to your church, and nobody knew what really was going on in my life, because I had ’em all fooled. But I knew, and when you started saying that in spite of all my sin I still mattered to God, something clicked in me. I committed myself to Christ, and I tell you, I’m different. My son and I haven’t been getting along at all, but I decided to take two weeks off and take him to a baseball camp out west. He started opening up to me while we were out there. Thanks, Bill, for telling me about Jesus.”
For a preacher, such a joy far surpasses the ongoing challenge.
Todays Preaching Task
Planning a Preaching Menu
Sitting in my congregation on any given Sunday are a multitude of needs and expectations, levels of maturity and orientations. And I’m supposed to offer a preaching menu to nourish every one of them. That means I’ve got to be an intentional biblical nutritionist.
Once I preached a series on the fruit of the Spirit. Following the final sermon, a woman approached me in the narthex and asked, “When are you going to preach on something relevant?” (She wasn’t the world’s greatest diplomat.)
Taken aback, I stammered, “Relevant to whom?”
“To most of us,” she replied. “We’re sitting in the congregation with problems in our families and our marriages and our homes. We need help. When are you going to say something relevant?”
Ah, I think I understand, I said to myself. “Let me ask you some questions. About those problems of families—is there a lack of love there?”
“Yes, there is.”
“And there’s probably little joy in such situations,” I continued.
“Absolutely! People are miserable.”
“I suspect there’s really no peace in those households.”
“You’ve got it!” she assured me. I baited her shamelessly as I continued through the list of the fruit of the Spirit, each one getting her hearty endorsement. When I finished, she looked at me bewildered and pleaded, “So why can’t we hear sermons that help us with these real needs?”
I explained that when the fruit of the Spirit are being evidenced, they’ll show up in marriages, in families, in every aspect of life. I had been addressing these very needs, but I had come at it from the side of God’s provision rather than our need. I had offered a spiritual dynamic. She wanted ten snappy hints to help her raise her kids or cope with her husband. As far as she was concerned, I got an F on that series.
That experience underscored the importance of thinking through my preaching plans. Sitting in my congregation on any given Sunday are a multitude of needs and expectations, levels of maturity and orientations. And I’m supposed to offer a preaching menu to nourish every one of them. That means I’ve got to be an intentional biblical nutritionist.
The Heart of the Plan
Menu planning must recognize the purpose of the meal. Preaching is, first of all, proclamation—an announcement of who God is and what he has done and intends to do. So any menu I prepare will be God-centered, aiming to make all of life God-centered. I would rather my preaching magnify God than offer quick answers to specific life dilemmas. I’d rather nourish solid spirituality than knock the edge off spiritual hunger with homiletical junk food. And so I plan my sermon series accordingly.
Consequently, my starting point is not so much “What do these people want to hear?” as it is “I’m going to give these people the Bread of Life.” Basically, people need to know God in the midst of their particular situations. So I relate every need to these fundamentals: acknowledging Christ as Lord, being his disciples, operating as his people in the unique institution of the church, focusing on his Word in the Scriptures. I can’t go wrong if I start with the Scriptures and expose people’s hearts to what they say.
Nevertheless, I do find great merit in teaching and preaching systematically. So I plan carefully, and do so for several reasons.
First, planning makes preaching easier because I don’t have to spend half the week scratching my head about a subject. The task of finding a new topic each week can tyrannize a preacher, and the “Saturday-night specials” that often result can victimize a congregation. When I plan, I know on Sunday afternoon the topic and text for the following week.
Second, planning helps me avoid repeating myself. When I lay out a sermon series, I see immediately that I’ll be covering a number of texts and ideas. Such planning prevents me from dipping into the same old well week after week. And that, I trust, keeps my preaching fresh and helps me provide my congregation with the whole counsel of God.
Third, many in my congregation schedule in other areas of life, so they expect some kind of strategy to my preaching. Young businessmen, in particular, plan a great deal, and they ask me specifically what’s coming next. I like to be able to point them in a known direction.
Finally, planning allows me to preach sermons in series, whose momentum often builds as the theme develops. People get interested in the series and come back to hear more. I’ve had a number of people say, “Could you map out the series for us? We’d like to be reading ahead.” That’s what I like to hear.
Although I try to make each message a self-contained unit, so that people can miss a week and still comprehend any sermon, the sermons do build throughout a series. People benefit from hearing the series one week to the next. Audiences used to love the old Saturday serials at the cinema. If I can put that “Come back next week for more exciting adventure!” feeling into a series, the interest in my sermons mounts.
In our congregation, although some people come practically every week, many (I suspect about a third) miss services on any given Sunday. Because of this fact, some preachers object that many people will miss the progression of a series.
Frankly, I don’t worry much about those who aren’t there. I target my preaching for those who are, and I’ll hit the moving targets as best I can without being overly concerned about them. I cannot govern my planning by the casual attenders.
Getting a Plan
I never could be labeled a hyper-organizer. At any given point, I usually can tell you three things about my preaching schedule: where I am going with my present series, when I intend to preach three or four topical sermons as breathers between series, and what my next series will be. Beyond that, I cannot say. Some pastors know a year or two in advance what each Sunday will bring, but I find I do best concentrating on one series at a time; it takes most of my mental energy just to get through my present series.
Ideas for my series come from many sources. I’m blessed with fellow staff members who come up with great ideas from their ministry contacts. Sometimes I’ll get an idea from my general reading or study. Other times, ideas come as suggestions from the congregation.
One of my recent series examined the Apostles’ Creed. It was conceived when a member wrote me of her concern about the New Age movement and asked if I had considered preaching a series on its dangers. She sent some material I found provocative and helpful. As I considered her suggestion, I thought. She’s got a point. On the other hand, I felt a series on the New Age might have limited interest.
Then I remembered something from my days in England as a bank examiner. One of my responsibilities was to identify counterfeit currency. As a young examiner, I felt a little inept, so I asked an older inspector for some clues on how to recognize counterfeits.
“Spend hours and hours handling the real thing,” he advised. “The more familiar you are with the genuine article, the more automatically you will recognize the counterfeit.”
That made me think. Probably the best way to encourage church members to distinguish counterfeit religion is to make sure they are aware of the real thing. So rather than preach on the New Age movement, I prepared a series on the Apostles’ Creed. I plotted out sixteen sermons that took the articles of the creed and contrasted them with counter positions. That series, “Christian Belief in the Modern World,” helped anchor people’s belief in orthodox Christianity so they could reject the bogus.
Occasionally I systematically poll the congregation to find what people most want to hear. I keep it simple—a card asking for their ideas. This provides a wealth of topics. Some I may turn into a series, but even the discards give me a better understanding of people’s interests.
Most often ideas for series come from a combination of resources. One week as I went about my pastoral duties, I ran into an unusual number of grim people. We’re taking ourselves so seriously! I thought to myself. And then the thought struck me, I wonder how seriously we take God?
The phrase “taking God seriously” stuck in my mind. It seemed we in America were becoming a church full of self-centered people. We needed to become more God-centered. So I went off with a title in search of a series—not my typical tactic.
At the time I was reading through the Minor Prophets and realized the twelve would make a great twelve-part series under my orphaned title. Actually, in that series I was chewing more than I could swallow, trying to devote only one sermon per book. But “Taking God Seriously” turned into a constructive series that received an enthusiastic response from the congregation.
My longest series was on 1 Corinthians and ran about sixty messages. Genesis took about fifty—one sermon per chapter. But I no longer preach series that long. I found the ideal length is about twelve weeks—long enough to develop a theme and produce momentum, but not so long that people tire.
I also plan breaks in my series. First, I break between series, allowing the congregation a breather before we plunge into another string. It also gives me the opportunity to preach sermons about timely and specific topics.
However, I also break within a series if it is necessary. Special events from the sublime (Christmas, for instance) to the ridiculous (preaching on “World Serious” when the Milwaukee Brewers were in the World Series) dictate a hiatus in a series. Sometimes I can work a series to coincide with special days, like dovetailing the Apostles’ Creed messages to have “crucified, dead, and buried” and “on the third day he rose again from the dead” to fit on Palm Sunday and Easter, respectively. Other times I just stop and preach a special sermon. It would offend some people if I were to plow through my planned series, taking no note of Christmas.
Types of Series
Of the two kinds of series I typically preach, the book series is the most straightforward. I choose a book of the Bible and preach through it, breaking it into preachable segments. As I preach the parts, week by week, I try to keep people aware of the whole.
For instance, I recently did a series on Deuteronomy, called “Enjoying the Good Life.” Most weeks I would start off by saying something like “When Moses led the children of Israel into the Promised Land, he said it was a good land full of good things, and God wanted them to enjoy it. That puts the children of Israel right where most of us are today. We’ve been looking at what this good life is all about in recent weeks, and today we’d like to look at this aspect.”
I try to integrate the overall message of the book into a contemporary theme. I want to make each message topical in the sense that I apply the biblical material to a specific contemporary topic.
In a way, this blurs the distinction between the book study and a topical series, which is the second kind of series I preach. My messages on the Apostles’ Creed, Christ’s “I am” statements, the churches of Revelation, or the Lord’s Prayer would fall into this category. If you pin me down, I’d call myself a “topical expositor”—one who exposits a text whenever I preach, whether the series derives from a book of the Bible or a group of related topics.
Balancing Preaching Fare
When planning my preaching, I constantly try to keep a number of twin emphases in balance.
• Old Testament and New Testament. I find people generally don’t know the Old Testament all that well. To correct that, I subscribe to this rule of thumb: follow an Old Testament series with one from the New Testament. When I preached on the life of David, using mostly material from Kings and Chronicles, my next series, “Discipleship,” derived from John and had a New Testament flavor.
• Doctrinal and relational. I see a great need for solid doctrinal preaching. Without sound doctrine, people are out to sea in the midst of their problems. At the same time, they want and need sermons on the family, marriage, and communication. Sometimes, in fact, they become so wrapped up in their problems that “dry doctrine” falls on deaf ears. Nevertheless, we need to balance the relational and the doctrinal. More to the point: we need to apply the doctrine in ways people understand and relate to.
• Masculine and feminine. Talking with a Green Bay Packer and his wife about team Bible studies awhile back, I realized again how different are the agendas of men and women. The woman said, “We wives are studying ‘How to Be a Woman of Excellence,’ and the guys are studying ‘War among the Angels’!” We laughed, but it underscored the differences.
Women tend to gravitate toward subjects that strike the heart strings or deal with their homes, families, or roles. Men, on the other hand, would rather wrestle with concepts. I try to bear both needs in mind as I plan series, prepare topics, and illustrate sermons.
While speaking once at an engagement with Karen Mains, Becky Pippert, and my wife, Jill, I started listening to the different illustrations the women used. I’m big on sports. I talk a lot about the Marines, the business world—macho things. The women, however, illustrated from the family and marriage. They tended to be much more open about themselves and their own failings. Those are emphases I need to include if I intend to preach to more than 50 percent of my congregation.
• Inward growth and outward ministry. I’ve known some preachers so outreach oriented that they wear everybody out. Others can be so inner oriented that they fail to notice anybody outside their sphere. We have to take root with the Lord so we can bear fruit, so I try to balance exhorting my people into personal growth with getting them out into the world to make a difference.
Both individual sermons and sermon series can be heavy on one aspect or the other. If that’s the case, the next one I preach ought to tip the balance in the other direction.
Naturally, I sometimes change my plans. Following the first service one Easter, Jill remarked, “That was a graphic description of death you gave, but I think it needed personalizing a bit.”
She was right, so in the next service, I revised the sermon to devote no more than two minutes describing my father’s death. The congregation was totally still, absolutely not a person moving. It was an electric moment, what I call a “loud silence.”
I don’t often open up like that, part of the British reserve, I suppose. And such personal material can become worn out so easily. But I did it that time, even though it wasn’t part of my original plan. That’s okay. People heard and felt and responded to God’s Word that morning. And that was my plan.
Blending Bible Content and Life Application
Life-changing preaching does not talk to the people about the Bible. Instead, it talks to the people about themselves—their questions, hurts, fears, and struggles—from the Bible.
It was a disastrous sermon.
A church in Dallas invited me to preach on John 14. That’s not an easy passage. It is filled with exegetical questions about death and the Second Coming. How do you explain, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself?” How is Jesus preparing that place? Does Jesus mean we won’t go to be with him until he comes back? What about soul sleep? I spent most of my week studying the text and reading the commentaries to answer questions like these.
When I got up to preach, I knew I had done my homework. Though the issues were tough, I had worked through them and was confident I was ready to deliver solid biblical teaching on the assigned passage.
Five minutes into the sermon, though, I knew I was in trouble. The people weren’t with me. At the ten-minute mark, people were falling asleep. One man sitting near the front began to snore. Worse, he didn’t disturb anyone! No one was listening.
Even today, whenever I talk about that morning, I still get an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach.
What went wrong? The problem was that I spent the whole sermon wrestling with the tough theological issues, issues that intrigued me. Everything I said was valid. It might have been strong stuff in a seminary classroom. But in that church, in that pulpit, it was a disaster.
What happened? I didn’t speak to the life questions of my audience. I answered my questions, not theirs. Some of the men and women I spoke to that day were close to going home to be with the Lord. What they wanted to know was, “Will he toss me into some ditch of a grave, or will he take me safely home to the other side? When I get to heaven, what’s there?”
They wanted to hear me say: “You know, Jesus said he was going to prepare a place for us. The Creator of the universe has been spending 2,000 years preparing a home for you. God only spent six days creating the world, and look at its beauty! Imagine, then, what the home he has been preparing for you must be like. When you come to the end of this life, that’s what he’ll have waiting for you.”
That’s what I should have preached. At least I should have started with their questions. But I didn’t.
It’s also possible to make the opposite error—to spend a whole sermon making practical applications without rooting them in Scripture. I don’t want to minimize Scripture. It’s possible to preach a skyscraper sermon—one story after another with nothing in between. Such sermons hold people’s interest but give them no sense of the eternal. Talking about “mansions over the hilltop” comes from country-western music, not the Bible. A sermon full of nonbiblical speculations is ultimately unsatisfying.
Some of the work I did in my study, then, could have helped the people answer their questions. The job is to combine both biblical content and life application in an effective way.
How Much Content Is Enough?
How then can we strike the right balance in our preaching between biblical content and life application?
The basic principle is to give as much biblical information as the people need to understand the passage, and no more. Then move on to your application.
The distinction between exegesis and exposition is helpful here. Exegesis is the process of getting meaning from the text, often through noting the verb tense or where the word emphasis falls in the original languages. That’s what you do in your study as you prepare. But it’s seldom appropriate in a sermon on Sunday morning. In fact, an overuse of Greek or Hebrew can make us snobs. Using the jargon of my profession can come across as a putdown, a way of saying, “I know something you don’t know.” There’s an arrogance about that that can create distance between me and the audience.
I served for ten years as a general director of Christian Medical and Dental Society. Sometimes physicians would use technical medical terms when they talked with me, and I wouldn’t know what they were talking about. Once I said to one of my friends, “I hope you don’t talk to your patients as you do me, because I don’t know the jargon. I’m an educated person. I just don’t happen to be as educated in medicine as you are.”
Do you know what he said to me? He replied, “Preachers do that in the pulpit all the time.”
I did a lot of that when I first got out of seminary. I used my knowledge of Greek and Hebrew in the study and in the pulpit. One day a woman wounded me with a compliment: “I just love to hear you preach. In fact, when I see the insights you get from the original languages, I realize that my English Bible is hardly worth reading.”
I went home asking myself. What have I done? I’m trying to get people into their Bibles, but I’ve taken this lady out of hers.
Spurgeon was right: the people in the marketplace cannot learn the language of the academy, so the people in the academy must learn the language of the marketplace. It’s the pastor’s job to translate.
While raw exegesis doesn’t belong in a Sunday morning sermon, what does belong there is exposition. Exposition is drawing from your exegesis to give the people what they need to understand the passage. They don’t need all you’ve done in exegesis, but they do need to see the framework, the flow of the passage. They should be able to come back to the passage a few weeks after you’ve preached on it, read it, and say, “Oh, I understand what it says.”
Does this mean there is no place in the church for exegesis? Of course not. As you study, you may dig out all kinds of material that would help certain people who enjoy detailed Bible study. While including these tidbits in a sermon resembles distracting footnotes, this kind of technical teaching is appropriate for a classroom.
Some pastors I know preach on a passage on Sunday and then follow up with a detailed exegetical study with a smaller group of interested people on Wednesday night.
Donald Gray Barnhouse had an interesting way of handling this. He commented as he did the Scripture reading. He would pause as he read to talk briefly about the tense of a verb or what some expression meant. He’d take ten minutes just reading the Scripture. His Bible reading was based on his exegesis.
Even then Barnhouse did not show off. He didn’t give his congregation lessons in ancient languages. He simply took time to amplify the passage based on his study so that his people could appreciate the flow and nuances of the thought of the biblical writer. Some folks attending Tenth Presbyterian Church for the first time heard the Bible reading and thought they had heard the sermon!
When Barnhouse got to his sermon he was able to concentrate on the message of that passage, its implications, its application, which is what makes a sermon a sermon.
The “So What?” of Preaching
All preaching involves a “so what?” A lecture on the archaeology of Egypt, as interesting as it might be, isn’t a sermon. A sermon touches life. It demands practical application.
That practical application, though, need not always be spelled out. Imagine, for example, that you borrow my car and it has a flat. You call me up and say, “I’ve never changed a tire on a car like this. What do I do?”
I tell you how to find the spare, how to use the jack, where to find the key that unlocks the wire rim. Once I give you all the instructions, then do I say, “Now, I exhort you: change the tire”? No, you already want to get the car going. Because you already sense the need, you don’t need exhortation. You simply need a clear explanation.
Some sermons are like that. Your people are wrestling with a certain passage of Scripture. They want to know what it means. Unless they understand the text, it’s useless to apply it. They don’t need exhortation; they need explanation. Their questions about the text must be answered.
You may not need to spell out practical application when you are dealing with basic theological issues—how we see God and ourselves and each other. For example, you might preach on Genesis 1, showing that it’s not addressing issues of science so much as questions of theology: What is God like? You might spend time looking at the three groups of days—the first day is light, the fourth day is lights; the second day is sea and sky, the fifth day is fish and birds. Each day is followed by God’s evaluation: “It was good.” But after the creation of man. God observes, “It was very good.”
Then you ask, “What do we learn about God?” We learn that God is good, that God has a purpose in creation. We learn that while every other living thing is made “after its own kind,” man and woman are created in God’s image. What does that say about people—the people we pray with and play with, the people we work with or who sleep on the streets?
The whole sermon may be an explanation with little direct application built into it. Of course, that doesn’t mean there’s no application. If at the close of this sermon someone realizes. That’s a significant statement about who we are. There are no ordinary people. Every man and woman has special worth—when that really sinks in—it can make tremendous practical differences as it shapes how a person sees himself and other people.
Or take Romans 3. You might begin by raising in some practical way the question, “How does a person stand right before God?” Then you could lead your listeners through Paul’s rather complex discussion of what it means to be justified by faith. If you do it well, when you are finished, people should say, “So that’s how God remains righteous when he declares us righteous.”
Obviously, this passage has great application. But it’s so complex you probably couldn’t go through Paul’s argument and spell out in any detail many practical applications, too, in the same sermon. And that’s okay. If they really understood the problem of lostness, the solution of salvation serves as a strong application.
We need to trust people to make some of their own practical applications. Some of the best growing I’ve done has taken place when a concept gripped me and I found myself constantly thinking: How could this apply in my life?
Of course, you do have knowledge your people don’t possess, knowledge they expect you to have and share with them. But you can share that knowledge in a manner that doesn’t talk down to a congregation, in a way that says, “If you were in my situation, you’d have access to the same information.” If you feel you must make all the practical applications for your hearers, do their thinking for them, you underestimate their intelligence. You can dishonor your congregation if you tell them in effect, “You folks couldn’t have figured out for yourselves how this applies.”
For me, though, the greater danger lies in the opposite direction—in spending too much time on explanation and not going far enough into application. After preaching I’ve often come away feeling, I should have shown them in a more specific way how to do this. It is difficult for our listeners to live by what they believe unless we answer the question “How?”
Real-Life Examples: Necessary but Dangerous
To make a principle come to life—to show how it can be applied—we need to give specific real-life examples, illustrations that say, “Here is how someone faced this problem, and this is what happened with her.” But as necessary as real-life examples are, they carry a danger.
Suppose, for example, that someone preaches on the principle of modesty. Should a Christian dress with modesty? The answer is yes. But how do you apply that? One preacher may say, “Well, any skirt that’s above the knee is immodest.” So, he ends up with a church full of knee-length people. In that church, one application of a principle has assumed all the force of the principle itself. That is the essence of legalism: giving to a specific application the force of the principle.
I have a friend who keeps a journal, and it works for him. But when he preaches about it, he makes it sound as though Christians who are not journaling can’t be growing. Whenever you say, “If you’re not doing this particular act, then you’re not following this principle,” that’s legalism.
How, then, can you preach for practical application if every time you say, “This is how to apply this truth,” you run the risk of promoting legalism? Let me answer with a couple of examples.
When my father was in his eighties, he came to live with us. After a while he grew senile, and his behavior became such that we could no longer keep him in our home. Because his erratic behavior endangered himself and our children, we had to put him in a nursing home. It cost me half my salary each month to keep him there. For eight years, until he died, I visited my dad almost every day. In eight years I never left that rest home without feeling somewhat guilty about his being there. I would have preferred to have had him in our home, but we could not care for him properly.
A few years later, my mother-in-law, who was dying of cancer, came to live with us in our home in Denver. It was a tough period in our marriage. I was trying to get settled as president of Denver Seminary. My wife, Bonnie, was up with her mother day and night. She somehow changed her mother’s soiled bed six or seven times a day. For eighteen months, Bonnie took care of her in our home. When Mrs. Vick died, we had no regrets. We knew Bonnie had done everything she could to make her last months comfortable.
How should Christians care for their aging parents? Do you keep them in your home or do you place them in a nursing facility? There is no single Christian answer. It depends on your situation, your children, your resources, and your parents.
There is, though, a single guiding principle: we must honor our parents and act in love toward them. To make a Christian decision, you can’t start with a selfish premise; you start by asking what is best for everyone involved. How you apply that principle in a given situation depends on a complex set of variables.
The way to avoid the trap of legalism, then, is to distinguish clearly between the biblical principle and its specific applications. One way to do this in preaching is to illustrate a principle with two or three varying examples, not just one, so you don’t equate the principle with one particular way of applying it.
When our children were young, I lived under the idea that if we didn’t have daily devotions with our children—a family altar—somehow we were failing God. The problem was, family devotions worked for other people, but although we tried all kinds of approaches, they never worked for us. Our children sat still for them on the outside but ran away from them on the inside. Yet we kept at them because I felt that a family altar was at the heart of a Christian family.
Then I realized that family devotions wasn’t the principle but the application of a principle. The principle was that I needed to bring up my children to know and love God. I had mistakenly been giving to our family devotions the same imperative that belonged to the principle behind it.
We then came up with a different approach, one that worked for us. Our two children left for school at different times. Each morning before Vicki left, I would pray with her about the day, about what was coming up. A little later, Torrey and one of his friends came into my study, and we’d sit and pray for five minutes about what their day held.
That may not sound as satisfying in a sermon as saying we had devotions as a family at the breakfast table every morning, but for us it was an effective way to honor the principle. A preacher must make a clear distinction between the principle and its applications.
This is not to say, however, that a biblical principle must sound abstract and vague. Sometimes a preacher merely translates the principle into terms that a congregation understands.
In our American frontier days, there was a settlement in the west whose citizens were engaged in the lumber business. The town felt they wanted a church. They built a building and called a minister. The preacher moved into the settlement and initially was well received. Then one afternoon he happened to see some of his parishioners dragging some logs, which had been floated down the river from another village upstream, onto the bank. Each log was marked with the owner’s stamp on one end. To his great distress, the minister saw his members pulling in the logs and sawing off the end where the telltale stamp appeared. The following Sunday he preached a strong sermon on the commandment “Thou shalt not steal.” At the close of the service, his people lined up and offered enthusiastic congratulations. “Wonderful message, Pastor.” “Mighty fine preaching.” The response bothered him a great deal. So he went home to prepare his sermon for the following Sunday. He preached the same sermon but gave it a different ending: “And thou shalt not cut off the end of thy neighbor’s logs.” When he got through, the congregation ran him out of town.
It’s possible to state the principle in terms the audience clearly understands.
“We” Preaching and “You” Preaching
Another way to view the relationship between explanation and application is to look at the pronouns each calls for. Good preachers identify with their hearers when they preach. All of us stand before God to hear what God’s Word says to us. The Letter to the Hebrews says that the high priest was taken from among men to minister in the things pertaining to man. The high priest knew what it was to sin and to need forgiveness. With the people, he stood before God in need of cleansing. In identifying with the people, he represented the people to God.
But that same priest, by offering a sacrifice, could minister God’s cleansing to the people. Not only did he represent the people to God, he also represented God to the people. Somehow, that’s also what preaching does.
When I’m listening to a good sermon, there comes a point when I lose track of all the people around me. As the preacher speaks, I experience God talking to me about me. The time for explanation has passed; the time for application has come.
At that point, it’s appropriate for the preacher to leave behind “we” in favor of “you.” No longer is the preacher representing the people to God; he is representing God to the people. “We’ve seen the biblical principle; we’ve seen two or three ways others have applied it. Now, what does this say to you?”
“You’ve got to decide how you’re going to spend your money.”
“You’ve got to decide whether you’re going to take your marriage vows seriously.”
It’s you—not you plural, but you singular—you personally who must decide what you will do with the truth you’ve heard.
For the preacher to say “you” at that point isn’t arrogant; he’s not standing apart from the congregation. He’s simply challenging each listener to make personal application.
In the final analysis, effective application does not rely on techniques. It is more a stance than a method. Life-changing preaching does not talk to the people about the Bible. Instead, it talks to the people about themselves—their questions, hurts, fears and struggles—from the Bible. When we approach the sermon with that philosophy, flint strikes steel. The flint of someone’s problem strikes the steel of the Word of God, and a spark emerges that can set that person on fire for God.
Filling The Sermon With Interest
There’s no problem with the Scriptures. They’re relevant. But I have to do my part to make the sermon as relevant as the Scriptures, because I want people to leave saying, “I see!” and not “So what?”
Gerald Griffith, a pastor and Bible teacher in Toronto and my good friend, one day said to me, “Every week God gives me bread for his people.”
I looked him straight in the eye and replied, “That’s true, but you spend a lot of time in the kitchen!”
He had to agree. Those hours “in the kitchen” are among the most important of my week. Why? Because in the kitchen I prepare what God gives me to feed his people. And they can be picky eaters.
People are distracted by all kinds of things—legitimate things, for the most part, but sometimes not.
Pain fills a lot of hearts. People are unhappy at work. Or their homes are less than ideal. Or they feel great economic stress. Or they strain under the demands of a job. When troubled people come to church, their thoughts suppress the appetite for God’s menu. My job as a preacher is to overwhelm the careworn with the aroma of the gospel.
So when I preach, I’m continually thinking. How am I going to hold and use the attention so tenuously lent me? I don’t have it long. When I listen in on conversations in the church foyer any Sunday, I’m amazed at how quickly thoughts skirt from divine worship to talk about the Bucks and the Brewers, or making a buck and what’s brewing in politics. So one of my major responsibilities of the week is to grab their attention with the sermon.
Consequently, I pass my sermon material through what I call the “So what?” test for relevance. There’s no problem with the Scriptures. They’re relevant. But I have to do my part to make the sermon as relevant as the Scriptures, because I want people to leave saying, “I see!” and not “So what?”
The way to do that, I’ve found, is to preach to the mind, the will, and the emotions. Donald English once said: “When I leave a church service, I ask myself the question: Which part of me need I not have brought here today?” That’s why I try to touch every part of the person through the material I use in the sermon. If I’m preaching to mind, will, and emotions, people won’t go away saying, “So what?”
Preaching to the Mind
Theology challenges the mind. I admit not many people think in theological terms. Perhaps that’s the problem: they haven’t looked at the world view—the philosophy of life—behind their lifestyles. So I intend to keep them thinking about it when I preach.
For instance, I often point out the flip side of a proposition or belief. Most issues have at least two sides, so when I make a strong point about something, I’m anxious to point out that others believe differently. Often I’ll spell out the opposing beliefs. I’m not being wishy-washy, but getting people to think. Those with tunnel vision need someone to open up for them a broader view.
Once I was preaching a series on the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in God the Father Almighty …” To get at the opening phrase fully, I stepped back and tried to help my congregation understand why the concept of God as Father disturbs many in our society. How does the radical feminist feel? I’d done my reading on the matter, so I quoted some feminists. I also mentioned those people who have been abused by their fathers. For them, unlike many of us, father does not have good connotations.
If we have a high view of Scripture and God, I continued, we have to beware of inflating images of our fathers to explain God, otherwise we will be left with a heavenly Father with ballooned faults. When we say “God the Father,” I concluded, we surely mean something more figurative and less literal than a polished up version of our dads. I wanted people to accept the transcendent concept of God that Scripture communicates by the term Father.
I try to stretch people through my preaching. I did that in the Apostles’ Creed series when I preached on “Maker of heaven and earth.” Most people in our society view the universe as a closed system operating on set laws that are empirically discernible. So where does a “Maker of heaven and earth” fit in? Because materialists and naturalists populate our society, I found it necessary to explore an alternative to a closed system. By preaching good, hard science and theoretical physics along with sound theology, I was able to capture their attention.
Our access to people’s minds is a terrible thing to waste, so I try to engage the mind. When I snag their thinking and broaden their understanding, I’ve wrested their attention for the gospel.
Preaching to the Will
When I preach to the will, I’m looking for response. I want people to act on what is said. As a pastor, I’m apt to be gentler and less demanding than I might be as an itinerant preacher, because I’m going to be with the people for many years. I don’t need to get all or nothing in one shot.
I’m usually looking for minor movement in the right direction, rather than a gargantuan step. It seems that people’s wills move incrementally. So I try to choose words and illustrations that encourage movement, even if slight, in the right direction.
I use the word encourage purposefully. Usually people respond better to encouragement than to “challenge.” Most people need inspiration and courage more than a kick in the pants. So I try to give people bite-sized and good-tasting pieces to chew on.
For instance, when I preached on “By this shall all men know that you’re my disciples, that you love one another,” I didn’t instruct people to go out and swamp their world with love. Instead, I said, “Think of one person close to you. How well do you love that person in light of what we’ve talked about today? If agape love is concerned primarily with the well-being of others, irrespective of their reaction, then practice that love this week. See if your love makes any difference.”
When I preach an evangelistic sermon to the will, I want people to understand that repentance might be a simple step rather than a big leap, but it nonetheless needs to be ventured.
A woman wanted her pastor to pray with her because she no longer felt Christ’s presence. When he asked about her problem, she said, “I don’t want to talk about it. Just pray for me. That’s all I want of you.”
He probed gently anyway, and eventually she began to cry: “I’m living with my boyfriend, and I really have no intention of moving out.” She wanted to sense Christ’s presence while she lived in disobedience. She needed to repent, of course, and end the disobedience if she were to feel close to God again. Without that step of the will, her spiritual life would remain stale.
The will is a wily creature. Sometimes it needs to be encouraged, sometimes challenged. The trick to preaching to the will is to find which kind of stimulation best works for the people to whom you’re preaching.
Preaching to the Emotions
A while back, I was preaching about Christ being rejected. Such a familiar theme is prime material for a yawner of a sermon. So how did I add interest? Emotions.
I told the story of Winston Churchill’s post-war experiences. I’m a Churchill fan, and I recalled his tremendous impact during the Second World War. I said as a little boy I listened on a crackling radio to his famous speech—”We will fight them on the beaches.… We will never surrender!” All the time bombs were dropping, and the sound of anti-aircraft guns and the glare of search lights split the night. His bulldog-like determination got us through that dreadful period.
Churchill was the man of the hour during the war. But at the end of the war, an election was held, and, surprisingly, Churchill lost. After all he had done, he was turned out of office by the British people.
The congregation looked shocked when I reminded them of that bit of history. Then, very quietly, I said, “He was a broken man.” I just left it there for a moment. While that thought stirred within them, they felt deeply what rejection means.
I’d engaged their emotions. Churchill’s rejection really bothered them. From there it was a short step to move those feelings to the rejection of Jesus Christ.
Some rightly object that we can address the emotions at the expense of the mind, but that’s not my problem. I’m not as prone to manipulate people’s emotions as I am to forget them. Purely intellectual matter can get extraordinarily dry, but emotions add life. Emotions move people to response. People identify with them.
Humor, because it elicits emotion, plays an important part in my preaching. Humor can be a wonderful servant or a dreadful master. But if Philip Brooks’s definition of preaching is right—that preaching is truth communicated through personality—then I need to communicate through humor, because I enjoy humor.
A fellow once said to me, “I’ve been listening to you for quite a long time now, and sometimes when I go home from church, I find a knife stuck in my ribs. I always wonder. How did he do that? So today I decided to watch you closely, and I found out how you did it. You got me laughing, and while I was laughing, you slipped the point home.”
He wasn’t suggesting that I was manipulative. Instead, it was a warm-hearted compliment. He was saying that humor puts us off guard, and at those times we are highly receptive to penetration by the Word.
Once in a sermon I spoke about a purported memo written to Jesus by a management consultant. It evaluated the aptitude of the various disciples. Predictably, it panned the qualifications of most of the disciples—too unrefined, no credentials—but it lauded the great potential of one: Judas. People laughed. They could feel the irony. In a humorous way, I made my point: the unrefined and ill-qualified disciples were transformed into sterling men of character by the Resurrection.
Humor also allows the mental equivalent of a seventh-inning stretch in a sermon. People’s minds need a break now and then, and humor can supply it in a way that enhances the sermon. After momentary laughter, people are ready for more content. Or when something disturbs the sermon—such as a loud sneeze—a good-humored retort can bring attention back to the preacher.
Fear also can be used for good or bad. I hesitate to motivate people with fear. I would rather love be their motivation. Fear, however, can be used to bring interest to well-worn passages, for fear grabs people.
When preaching about the security that the presence of the Friend brings, I recalled an invitation to speak at pastors’ conferences in Poland. When I arrived at the Warsaw airport, nobody came forward to greet me. I had no names to contact, no addresses, no phone numbers, no Polish money. So I just stood in the middle of the airport while people collected their bags and the lobby emptied. Soon workers began to close down the area, and I was left standing there very alone.
My loneliness turned to fear when I heard a voice behind me say “Briscoe.” I turned to see a fellow in a long, leather coat, the type I’d seen in too many pot boilers about the Second World War. I thought. Hey, don’t look at me! I didn’t want to come here in the first place! But before my panic was unleashed, he came over, grabbed me, kissed me, and said warmly, “Brother Briscoe!” Then he leaned over and said, “Quickly, we must get on the tram car,” and we rushed to catch it.
On the tram he told me, “Speak loudly of Jesus. You can use English and any German you know. They’ll understand.” And so as we hung on the straps in that tram, I began to broadcast my love of Jesus, and everybody started to listen. Suddenly I was enjoying myself. The difference between being lonely and afraid a few minutes before and being comfortable on the tram was this: a friend was with me. I used fear that was transformed into fun to illustrate Jesus’ words: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” As people felt my fear, they hooked into the relief Jesus brings.
If I don’t preach to the emotions, I’m missing a good part of the person sitting in the pew. Since people bring that part of themselves to church, the least I can do is address it with my sermon.
Being an Interesting Preacher
There is far more Bible to preach than I ever can cover in one lifetime, so I’ve never felt preached out. But I do hit dry spots in my preaching. Sometimes when I’ve been in a series for a while, I think, Boy, this is pretty dry. Let’s get out of here quickly and keep the damage to the minimum!
At such times I ask myself. Is there something wrong with me personally? Maybe I’m tired. Maybe I need refreshment. Maybe other things are on my mind. Often I find a half-hour nap can solve my short-term problem.
I also ask myself. Am I not grappling with the biblical material? Have I, perhaps, written it off subconsciously as uninteresting? Maybe I haven’t taken my subject seriously. That is bound to make it dull, to both preacher and listener. If so, I need to work harder to find a refreshing, unique angle. When I discover a provocative aspect of a text, then I find it easier to interest people in what I have to say. In terms of the bigger picture, if I expect to fill my sermons with interest year after year, I need to keep my mind interesting. And that’s a continuing task for any preacher.
Ideas stimulate me. I love to talk to people when I start to become stale. I may discuss deep theology with fellow staff members or sit down with a Green Bay Packer linebacker and talk about how long it takes him to recover physically after a game or a season. I find it all interesting and stimulating.
Conversations keep me excited about people and life and faith. They also provide ways to add interest to sermons, because they keep me current. About once a month on a Sunday evening, Jill and I invite a dozen or so people to our home for a quiet evening of coffee, dessert, and conversation. I simply draw people out and let them talk about what interests them. I love to hear where they are coming from, what excites them, what they are talking about.
Often the conversations cross-fertilize. One time when a judge and a professor of medical ethics sat beside each other, the conversation turned to abortion. The professor had done some research on those who ran the abortion clinics in Milwaukee. He was concerned about medical ethics. The judge came at it from his long experience dealing with welfare families. The ensuing conversation enriched us all.
What I find interesting doesn’t always get the same vote from my congregation. For instance, my taste in music doesn’t mirror the congregation’s, and although I’m greatly interested in European history, most people couldn’t care less about it. In addition, I’m a man with not untypical masculine tastes, and, naturally, many of my parishioners are female. So I simply can’t assume my tastes, my interests, are the norm.
Therefore, I must think about what interests others. That prospect doesn’t intimidate me as it might when I consider that over the years I’ve been able to understand the tastes of my wife and children. I just have to keep my ears open to learn what’s interesting to people who aren’t exactly like me.
Or keep my eyes open. When I’m on an airplane, I confess, I often thumb through a copy of Glamour or Ms. Sometimes I find powerful and well-written articles that give me a window into the secular mind. I often take notes. Part of staying in touch with interesting material is exposing myself to secular thinking and trying to see what the world considers interesting. Just being interested in life produces most of the illustrations I use.
In short, I’m prepared to be interested in what other people find interesting. I don’t have to agree. I don’t have to buy it wholesale. But it’s to my advantage to understand people’s interests and speak their language. I need to know what’s going on in others if I am to say anything interesting to them.
When you get right down to it, preaching is like farming. I often say, “Lord, here I am. As far as I can tell, I’ve tried to fill my sack with good seed. I’ve done my homework, I think my attitude is right, and it’s the best, most interesting seed I’ve got. I’m going to scatter it now, Lord, so here goes. We’ll see what comes up in the field.” Then, once I’ve sown the seed, I do what farmers do: I go home and rest.
Over time, I get to watch that seed sprout and grow. A lot depends on the soil. God has to give the seed life. But eventually, I see the results of the good seed I’ve sown.
Today’s Toughest Topics
Dealing with Controversal Subjects
Controversy makes preaching a more difficult proposition. But a congregation needs the spicier issues if for no other reason than that God fills his Word with just such fare.
To keep my finger on the pulse of the congregation, I have twice passed out cards with the following words: “I would like to hear a sermon no longer than minutes on the subject: What the Bible has to say about . “Self-appointed comics take advantage of this. One fellow said he’d like to hear a sermon no longer than five minutes on what the Bible says about God.
But many times people request the tough issues. People want to know if the Bible’s message can stand up to modern pressures, and I want to assure them it can. The path toward relevance, however, is strewn with controversial topics.
It would be easier if we could preach a lifetime without ever touching on sin, morality, sexuality, lifestyle, or any number of other adrenalin inducers. Controversy makes preaching a more difficult proposition. But, as any pastor knows, a bland homiletical diet starves a congregation and erodes their spiritual substance. A congregation needs the spicier issues if for no other reason than that God fills his Word with just such fare.
So if we are compelled at times to preach on controversial subjects, surely there are ways to present controversy without serving discontent.
Turn the Heat Off and the Light On
Any time we address an emotional topic, there’s the possibility of upsetting someone. To the many pressures of pastoral ministry, we don’t need to add a self-imposed crisis. However, a crisis is not inevitable. We can preach controversial topics noncontroversially.
We need to credit our people with enough maturity to handle the balanced presentation of an issue. I’ve found this true in our church. Over the years I’ve addressed the role of women, eternal security, Spirit baptism, various issues of sexuality, and even the situation in South Africa. And I’ve received little negative feedback. I’ve concluded that what’s crucial is not so much the topic as the method.
When diving into an area of controversy, I don’t expect total agreement. That’s why there’s a dispute in the first place. People’s belief systems are complex. Much more is at stake than the particular issue at hand. So I recognize from the start that I’m probably not going to change anyone’s mind.
So, that’s not my goal. In preaching hot topics, I’m trying to broaden thinking rather than change it. Although people probably won’t budge from their position, they may at least acknowledge the other side. That’s progress. Maybe, over the years, they will change. Maybe not. In any event, I agree with Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said, “Once a mind has been stretched by a new idea, it never returns to its original shape.”
When I try to change people, I only add heat and dim the light. For instance, I have strong feelings about the way the talents of women have been wasted in the church. So I must be careful when I talk on the subject. People often say I feel this way because of the wife I have. I usually answer, “Has it ever occurred to you that I may have the wife I do because I feel this way?” That doesn’t always go over too well!
Preaching out of anger may feel good at the time, especially when we’ve built up a good head of steam. But in the long run it doesn’t accomplish what we’re after.
Do Your Homework
A preacher who handles controversial subjects must do adequate research. Never was this more important than when I decided to enter the fray surrounding the movie The Last Temptation of Christ. Not only did I find it necessary to read the book and see the movie, but I also took the opportunity to talk to some friends who are knowledgeable in church history. They helped me to see this disturbance as a reappearance of the early Nestorian controversy about the deity and humanity of Christ. That put the subject in historical perspective, which made it much less threatening. It’s something the church has faced through the centuries.
Few controversies in the church are new. Whenever I touch on eternal security, I remind folks that if Whitfield and Wesley struggled with this for a lifetime, I’m not likely to end the debate in a thirty-five-minute sermon. However, if I prepare well, I at least can give them an overview of the issues involved.
Touch the Funny Bone
I’ll never forget the time I stepped into the pulpit to preach on The Last Temptation. A tremendous crowd had gathered, and the air was a little tense. I thought it wise to start by saying that my resumes were printed just in case things went poorly.
Humor defuses tense situations, and we can take advantage of that. But it also has to be used skillfully.
I make sure to use humor that is natural and appropriate. When Carter and Ford were running for president, I remember quipping that America is the only country where anyone can run for president, and there were two candidates on the streets proving it. I thought it was funny. But some people resented it.
I have to remember that as a Britisher, I shouldn’t criticize the country that hosts me. I try to make sure that if I do make light of others from the pulpit, I also poke fun at myself and my background. During my sermon on The Last Temptation, I pointed out that Pilate and the Devil were the only two in the whole movie with British accents. Not only do people enjoy such give and take, but it bonds preacher and congregation, as well.
Give a Balanced Treatment
Whenever I preach on a disputed topic, I think it’s only fair to present all sides. I don’t mean setting up a straw man only to knock him down, but trying to present both sides with honesty and empathy.
When I preached on The Last Temptation of Christ, I felt bound to inform our people, from the director’s own statements, why he made the movie and what he was hoping to say about Jesus. A lot of the people who attacked the project had never researched it. Martin Scorsese, in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, disclosed that what fascinated him was “the way the human part of Jesus would presumably have difficulty accepting the divine.” I felt a balanced sermon on this movie would have to applaud Scorsese’s intent even while it attacked many of his conclusions. Besides, when people realized that both the author of the book and the director of the movie seemed to recognize the deity and humanity of Christ, it tended to temper their critique.
Often, after outlining both sides of the issue, I can present what I feel is a biblical point of view. Other times I can’t. In that case I simply challenge the people to think through it for themselves and come to their own conclusion. I have to remind myself that these people believe the Bible. If I present what it says, then Scripture remains the authority over us all, and we all have to wrestle with the implications. On the other hand, if I set up myself as the authority, then they wrestle with me.
A Well-timed Word
I don’t want to give the impression I announce controversial topics every month. If I did, I’d be guilty of sensationalism. I don’t want my sermons to be the ecclesiastical equivalent of supermarket tabloids. Most of the time I deal with controversial issues while preaching on some other subject.
When I did a series on the Israelites’ settling of Canaan, we came to the passage in Deuteronomy that speaks of the sins of the fathers being passed down to the children. I saw this as a beautiful opportunity to address the trend in some church circles where parents are blamed for their children’s faults, and where people fail to take responsibility for our own sin. When I preached on that topic, no one came expecting a controversial sermon, but they got one nonetheless.
I also have to point out that I’ve been at the same church for eighteen years. That gives me a level of credibility that a fresh seminary graduate doesn’t have. I would think carefully before I preached controversial themes in my first few years at a church. It’s a matter of sensing the needs and maturity of the congregation. I never provoke controversy just for the sake of controversy.
Whenever I preach a controversial topic, I try to keep in mind that more than theory is at stake. Real people in my congregation are struggling with the implications. Some have had abortions. Some are confused about homosexual desires. Some are living in immorality. Some are alcoholics. I can’t just leave the issue “out there.” I have to think through the situation well enough that I can suggest a sensible course of action.
When I spoke on God’s plan for marriage, I took into consideration the couples in the congregation who were living together out of wedlock. I could have told them it’s simply not God’s will. But I realized some of these couples have overextended themselves financially. They can save several hundred dollars each month by doubling up. In that case, they need to hear that the church will help them locate inexpensive housing. Sure they should separate anyway. But if I can communicate to them that I understand their situation, they’re much more likely to change.
I also try to remember that in dealing with topics such as abortion, divorce, or child abuse, there’s an enormous amount of pain involved. I have to be sensitive to people’s experiences without blasting them with the truth. It took a while to learn this.
I remember a time when I first started addressing touchy subjects. The issue of abortion was causing a great deal of turmoil. It seemed everyone in the church was discussing it. I also knew that although our members were in basic agreement, some were confused about the details and the proper biblical response. I decided it was time to confront the issue, however controversial it might be.
So I studied the appropriate passages, read the current literature, and delivered what I thought was an inspiring message on the sanctity of life. I felt fine about it until I heard the honest reservations of a good friend. “You know,” he said, “by the law of averages, you probably spoke to three or four unmarried women who were contemplating abortion.” Then he said, “I feel that what you said this morning would only add to their dilemma.”
He went on to demonstrate that although I had powerfully challenged them to make the right choice, I had failed to show any sensitivity to their painful situation and the shame they probably felt. I’d offered no help in dealing with the heavy responsibilities of carrying a baby full term. It was a vivid reminder of how easy it is to wound people with the truth. The truth can be cutting, but we don’t have to be.
Controversy as Opportunity
Every so often something comes along that thrusts Christianity or Christ into the spotlight. This occurred in the sixties when Jesus Christ held the interest of so many young people. Unfortunately, many Christians were so turned off by their long hair that largely we missed the opportunity for contact.
In the seventies Jimmy Carter announced that he was born again. Everyone was talking about the experience. Ironically, many Christians were more intent on voicing their objections to Carter’s presidency than on taking advantage of the cultural opportunity.
Another such opportunity came along last year. When the The Last Temptation of Christ was released, it instantly made national news. You couldn’t pick up a paper without reading somebody’s reaction. It was a hot topic for the man on the street, yet the movie was only part of a bigger story.
The real news came on August 15, 1988, when Jesus Christ made the front cover of Time for the sixteenth time. That’s got to be a record—especially for individuals who died nineteen hundred years ago! Unfortunately, to a large measure, we were so busy criticizing the movie that we missed a chance to challenge the secular mind.
Since I didn’t want that chance to slip away, I announced to the congregation that I would preach on the movie. We had an incredible response. Not only did people come in droves, but they invited all kinds of unchurched friends.
One of our members is a young attorney who spends a great deal of time defending her faith to her skeptical peers. Since she knew they had seen the movie, she persuaded them to come to hear my sermon on it. Why? I took the risk of facing a very current issue. I was scratching exactly where people itched.
And a risk it was. One friend, in particular, really let me have it. She felt I was too generous in my critique. “You compromised our faith!” she told me. At one point, I thought she might actually leave the church over the issue.
But then, one day as she was getting her hair fixed, her hairdresser mentioned, “I saw the most wonderful movie this week.”
“Oh, really? What did you see?” my friend replied.
“The Last Temptation of Christ.”
This caught my friend up short. “What was so wonderful about that?” she asked incredulously.
“Well,” the hairdresser replied, “it just seemed to make me think about Jesus. I mean, he really went through a lot!”
“I’ll tell you what,” my friend offered, “I know of a tape that helps explain that movie. Would you be interested?” The upshot of it was that she gave the hairdresser a copy of my sermon. It turned into an opportunity to witness to the woman.
My friend came to me later and said, “I have to eat crow on this one. I see what you were doing now.”
Certainly preaching on controversial topics carries a risk. However, I’ve learned that if I ignore controversial issues, I’m also ignoring a timely opportunity to argue for the relevance of Christianity. And that’s an opportunity I don’t want to miss.
Sex: Preaching That Oh-So-Delicate Subject
Preaching on the subject of sex is one of the hardest things I do. It would be much easier to dodge it. But there’d be no rescuing people from the devastation of misused sexuality and no leading them to the joy of God’s intentions for this gift.
I once had a professor who asked, “How often do you entertain thoughts about prophecy?”
One student answered what most of us thought: “About twice a year—once around Christmas, and again some time around Good Friday when I hear Isaiah 53”.
“Okay,” the prof replied. “Now, how many times in a given day do you have sexual thoughts?” Silence. The professor had accomplished his purpose. How many times do you hear biblically relevant preaching on human sexuality—something people are thinking about all the time?
That question stuck with me, and when I began ministering with youth, I put his advice to work. After all, what’s on the mind of teenagers?
But as I got older, it occurred to me that I was still interested in sexuality, even though I was married and pastoring a church and years removed from the hormone battles of puberty. And I know I’m not alone, because every time I preach on a sexual matter, the church grows quiet in a hurry.
Sex is on our minds.
Anything that occupies that much of our thought life and powers that much of our personality ought to be addressed from the pulpit, because some of those thoughts are misguided and in need of God’s correction. To not preach about sex would be to desert my post at one of the most active battle fronts in our culture.
Why Rush In Where Angels Tiptoe?
I realize preaching about sexual matters is fraught with possible problems. I could offend people. I might embarrass somebody, including myself. I might even distract the thinking of those listening.
Yet I can’t ignore the topic.
Marriages are struggling because of misleading information about this subject. Young people are making mistakes because they’re getting their behavioral cues from all the wrong sources. Singles are wrestling with sexual dilemmas. Sex is a subject begging for a clear Christian word.
For example, if we were to ask the married couples sitting in church on Sunday morning, “How many of you at this point in life are having a great physical relationship with your spouse?” my educated guess would be that 30 percent or fewer would say they have a vital relationship. If that’s true, and my study and experience would say it is, 70 percent of deacons and Sunday school teachers and trustees and churchgoers and pastors are experiencing a measurable amount of sexual frustration.
People can tell themselves, I’m not going to let my sexual frustration affect me. But some way, somehow, some time, it will seek an outlet. What I’m trying to do through my preaching and our other ministries at Willow Creek is to spark dialogue, because talking can be an acceptable outlet. I say, “Let’s talk about it. Let’s not let frustration build until someone runs off with a willing partner, because that’s a terrible way to solve the problem.” We’re committed to talking about sex responsibly, as opposed to ignoring it until eventually it causes unnecessary damage.
Recently I preached a sermon series titled “Telling the Truth to Each Other,” and one sermon illustration told of a husband talking openly with his wife about the sexual frustration he was feeling in the relationship. That illustration telegraphed the message that it’s legitimate in marriage to talk about sex in that way. Frustrations don’t need to be pushed underground until they emerge in the wrong place. Yes, telling the truth can get messy and complicated, but we at least need to try. The response I read in the congregation was agreement. Talking about it from the pulpit, daring to bring sex into the open, gave them the sense that such communication could happen in their marriages as well.
My hope is that such frank talk on Sunday morning can lead to more open expressions throughout the week, so people can get the help they need. At a retreat, one man from our church stood among his friends and said, “I need your help. My wife was sexually abused as a child, and she repressed those memories so thoroughly that she wasn’t aware of them until about two years ago when everything snapped. Although she’s now receiving counseling, this has thrown our marriage up for grabs. I’m trying to juggle my church work and my kids while struggling to keep our marriage together. I’m in real pain.”
The group got up from their seats, sat him on a chair in the’ middle, and huddled around to pray for him. There were tears and embraces for this man who now didn’t have to bear his burden alone. He felt able to disclose his difficulty because we’ve made it known in our church that you can talk about sexual things. The group he chose was appropriate, a small fellowship where his revelation would be heard with love and would not be misused or spread.
Besides making sex a permissible subject of conversation, my overarching concern is that people understand human sexuality as one of God’s good gifts, part of his grand design for us. I preach each week to non-Christians who are seeking Christ in our fellowship. Many have stereotyped Christians as rather Victorian—joyless, repressed people who think of sexuality as dirty and vulgar. I want them to know that sexual impulses—even strong ones—are not necessarily evil.
When I talk openly and without embarrassment about God’s wonderful design for human sexuality, speaking positively and in a God-glorifying way, that’s big news for many. It breaks open their stereotypes of dreary Christianity and accusatory preachers.
Of course, I continue on to explain how sexuality is a highly charged, God-designed drive that we need to understand and submit to the lordship of Jesus Christ because it can be used for great good or enormous destruction.
Direct and Indirect Preaching
I preach about sex in two ways: directly and indirectly. If I’m going to do justice to the many aspects of human sexuality, I need to take a direct approach. I dive into the subject, develop it, explain it. That’s why occasionally I’ll devote a whole series of sermons to the subject.
For example, I have tackled such topics as sexual fulfillment in marriage, romance, unfaithfulness, homosexuality, sexual abuse, pornography, unwanted pregnancies, and sex and the single person.
However, although sex is not a taboo subject at Willow Creek, I do limit the subjects I cover.
Because I have many young ears present in worship services, I have never approached topics such as masturbation or sexual experimentation by married partners or sexual aberrations. These are doubly volatile since perhaps 90 percent of parents have never talked with their children about such topics. I don’t want to be the first to bring them up with children present. That would violate the parents’ rights. Instead, I encourage people to read suggested books on the topics or to stay after the services and talk with me or one of our counselors. And in private settings like that, I’ve found people will be very candid.
The second method I use in preaching about sexual topics is more indirect, what I call maintenance statements. These I sprinkle throughout the rest of my preaching to remind people of the full-blown lessons they’ve received in prior sermons. Even though I recently may have preached a whole sermon on marital fidelity, in the midst of a sermon on, say, the woman at the well, I’ll throw in a maintenance statement: “The woman was floundering; she had lost the meaning of faithfulness to her spouse, just as she had never known faithfulness to her Lord.”
This double-pronged approach keeps me from thinking, I handled human sexuality in that sermon on David and Bathsheba. I’m able to cover topics substantially through direct sermons and then reinforce my points continually through asides in the context of other messages.
Even with ample reason to preach about sex and a clear method for doing it, however, I still approach the pulpit with fear and trembling, because I know how difficult it is. But I’ve found help from five principles I’ve learned over the years.
Putting Sex in Perspective
Whenever I speak about sex, there is one impression I definitely do not want to leave: that misappropriated sex is the one sin the church and God cannot tolerate. I don’t want to give it that kind of press, because I’m not sure Scripture does.
When I preach about illicit sex, I do call it a sin, as I would any other sin. I say it’s wrong to break God’s sexual code. But my main emphasis is on the down side of disobedience: Not “God will never forgive you for that!” but rather “If you don’t obey the Lord in this area of life, eventually you’ll find yourself in deep weeds.” I deemphasize obeying rules for rules’ sake alone and emphasize instead the dire consequences of breaking God’s rules.
Alcoholism provides an analogy. I prefer to foster healthy attitudes toward alcohol by approaching it this way: “Do you people have any understanding of what physiological addiction is? Do you know how many thousands of times in the laboratory a monkey will push a lever to get another fix for its addiction?” That catches people’s attention. Then I say, “Do you have any idea what chemicals do to brain cells? Do you know that a great many fatal traffic accidents are caused by driving under the influence of alcohol?” Then I can say, “Now you can understand why God says ‘Don’t mess with alcohol in a way that could lead to addiction.’ This stuff will enslave you, but God wants to set you free. Isn’t God wonderful for saying, ‘Stay free of this stuff’?”
People leave that kind of sermon thinking, Thank you, Lord, for sparing me from something that could get its claws on me.
How different that is from the sermon that declares, “God says you can’t drink anymore!” People leave that kind of sermon with the thought. Well, drinking can’t be the worst sin in the world, so I’m going to do it no matter what God or anybody else says!
I approach the topic of sex similarly: “God gave us the rules for our protection. You break them at your own risk. In fact in these days, you can die from promiscuity.” I paint as vivid a picture as I can of sexuality run amuck, and I never have a problem with attentiveness at this point. People have stumbled enough to know I’m not exaggerating. It’s not uncommon for people to cry during such sermons. They know.
But then I always hit the positive side: “If you keep those benevolent rules and experience sex within God’s well-defined boundaries, it can be a wonderful gift of intimacy and ecstasy.”
Unfortunately, preaching this way isn’t easy. It’s relatively simple to preach against some sin, but I have to work overtime to develop positive and edifying messages on sexuality. For instance, preaching on “Thou shalt not commit adultery” is a lot easier than giving a message on the positive side: “How to Affair-proof Your Marriage.”
If I’m short of sermon-preparation time and really scrambling some week, my temptation is to develop a “thou shalt not” message. But if I’m a better disciplinarian of my schedule, and if I’m truly thinking and praying about my people and how they will receive the sermon, I’ll put in the extra work to show the rewards of the righteous, inspiring people to obedience rather than castigating them for wrongdoing.
Being Sensitive to Pain
People are sensitive about their sexuality. For instance, try questioning my masculinity and watch what I do! I’ll throw up emotional walls, if not my fists. We’re like that when our sexuality is impugned. So I try to be tender when I talk about these matters of the heart. Since people’s understanding of their sexuality—and their practice of it over the years—touches so close to their personal core, they are particularly aware of their shortcomings and sin.
In the area of sexuality, the guilt is unbelievable. I simply cannot talk about “sins against your bodies” or spout “thou shalt nots” without being sensitive to the depth of pain most people already feel concerning sex. If I cannot include a word of grace, I may do irreparable damage.
In addition, if the women in my church are typical, and I have no reason to believe they aren’t, as many as half of them have had a destructive or unwanted sexual experience forced on them. Several studies bear this out. That means whenever I speak about sex, as many as half the women must deal with the pain, guilt, and unresolved feelings brought by these episodes. Therefore, I dare not treat the subject lightly.
Early in my ministry, I was naive about this reality and rather oblivious to the heightened sensitivities. I would speak on how wonderful human sexuality is. I’d go on about what a pleasurable experience it is and why God designed us as sexual creatures.
Finally a few women were thoughtful enough to pull me aside and say, “Bill, that’s great for most people to hear, but the truth of the matter is, some of us have been scarred by this ‘wonderful gift of God.’ Frankly, we think sex was a rotten idea.”
That was hard to hear. Such attitudes were foreign to me. In the sheltered Dutch enclave where I was raised, the men would have hanged anyone who laid a finger on a girl! But today we run across the ugly scars of misappropriated sex all the time.
I had to learn that whenever I talk about the beauty of human sexuality, I have to qualify my words: “But some of you have seen the other side of this good gift; you’ve been victimized by those displaying their depravity by the abuse of sex.” And I must speak many words of comfort and understanding.
Providing a Means of Grace
Reassurances that God’s grace covers sexual sin are fine, as are other expressions of comfort. But I have another responsibility when I preach about sex: I need to offer tangible ways for people broken by adverse sexual experiences to find healing.
A while back I studied the problem of pornography prior to preaching on it. As I neared the end of a protracted preparation period, I realized how many people are addicted to porn. I had to look in the mirror and say. Am I going to handle this subject with integrity, or am I going to pontificate about it and leave a bunch of trapped and wounded people feeling even worse about what they’re doing?
Giving them the word of grace—telling of God’s forgiveness—was one thing, but actually dropping them a rope to pull them out of the pit was something else.
I decided to ask a Christian counselor to put together an Alcoholics Anonymous-like support group for those who were ready to deal with their pornographic addiction. Such a group would need to function under close supervision because of the nature of the problem. The week after I preached on pornography and announced the forming of the group “to hold one another accountable in breaking free of that harmful addiction,” more than fifty gathered. The group has continued and has had an effective ministry.
Unless I give people something to grasp as they let go of sexual problems, they have only their disoriented equilibrium to keep them from returning to their problems. Marriage-enrichment groups, group-counseling programs, mutual-accountability groups, discipleship programs with mature leaders—these offer people a way to begin to remedy their denatured sexuality.
I work hard at humor; it’s one of the toughest parts of sermon preparation. As long as it’s used appropriately, its importance when preaching can hardly be overemphasized. Some people come to church not expecting to find themselves enjoying the experience. If I can get them laughing, they relax and become more open to what I’m about to say.
Particularly in preaching about sex, humor is the perfect counterbalance to the weightiness of the topic. With all that pain and guilt and sin-talk floating in the air, with people feeling nervous or perhaps expecting to be offended, anything I can say that disarms them for a moment is precious.
In one sermon I wanted to communicate the idea that sometimes even the best-laid plans in marriage go awry. I told the story of one anniversary night when I took my wife, Lynn, to the honeymoon suite of a luxury hotel. I told how I bought her flowers, took her out to dinner, had a special treat brought up to the room—the works. Of course, I was looking forward to the romantic agenda I had in mind. When we finally turned off the light, Lynn noticed a crack in the curtains letting in light from the parking lot. She got up in the dark, crossed the room, closed the curtain, and returned across the even-darker room. But just as she got to the bed, she stumbled into the bedpost and gashed her forehead. The cut was so bad I had to take her to the emergency room for stitches, which sort of took the twinkle out of my eye that night.
Our people laughed, and I was able to reach into their lives at that time because I had touched a universal point of connection: humor.
Yet humor must be appropriate. Once in an attempt to communicate with nonchurched males in the congregation, I let slip a flippant remark. I was referring to an ostensibly successful man, who doesn’t think he needs Christ because “he’s got a big home, a high-paying job, a condominium in Florida, a nice wife and two kids, and a little thing going on the side.” I said it matter-of-factly and went on from there to make my point.
What I had neglected, and what I was reminded of by a number of women in our church, is that being the victim of an extramarital affair is a devastating experience. Many never get over it. My offhand remark about “a little thing going on the side” showed how drastically I had underestimated the impact of the words. We can’t wink and make light of something that painful. I would rather not use humor than use it at someone’s expense.
One sure-fire way to ruin my effectiveness when preaching about sex is to speak as if I’m not subject to sexual sin: “I’ve got this sexuality thing all figured out. It’s not much of a problem for me, and I’m going to straighten out you people in the next twenty minutes so you can get your passions under control as I have.” That’s pontificating, not communicating.
In the years before I started Willow Creek, I don’t recall once hearing a pastor make reference to his own sexuality. Does that mean pastors aren’t sexual beings? Is that an area of our lives we don’t want others to emulate? The longer we’re silent, the larger those question marks become.
When I preach about sex, generally I want to be able to say, “Friends, here’s who I am. I love you people more than I value your impressions of me, and we’ve got to talk about some important things here.” I include myself in the conversation, because as a pastor, I’m called not just to feed the flock, but also to model as best I can the kind of life Christ would have me lead. Since part of that life is my sexuality, I’ll occasionally make reference to personal subjects, like the fact that Lynn and I have had a physical relationship that sometimes is satisfying and sometimes is not so satisfying. Then I point out the universal factors behind a satisfying relationship.
People tell me such candor is appreciated. It says we don’t always have to have wonderful sexual experiences even if we’d like to brag that we do. I like to give people the sense that we can be men and women together who have cut the pretense and stopped pretending.
There remain, however, seasons in my marriage when, because of pressures and difficulties in our relationship, it would be destructive to me personally to try to address the subject of sex. When I am in turmoil about it, I don’t need the added pressure of speaking about it as if all were well.
That’s not to say I dare speak only out of my strength, because there are times when I speak out of my weaknesses, too. But I need to be fairly healthy before I preach, or I find I begin to launch into thunderous “thou shalt nots” only out of my own frustrations. I’ll be more pastoral and effective if I wait until I have cooled down a little and can be more balanced.
Perhaps one other caution is appropriate: Personal transparency is for a purpose—identification with the congregation—not for mere verbal exhibitionism. Before I use personal references, I obtain Lynn’s permission, because I would never share an illustration that would violate the intimacy and integrity of our marriage. I also pass questionable illustrations by our elders and ask them how they feel about them. They veto any personal anecdotes that are inappropriate.
But they encourage me to be open. They, along with me, want my messages to say authentically: “I need to hear this message as much as I need to give it, because I live where you live. I’m listening to myself as I preach.”
Preaching on the subject of sex is one of the hardest things I do, so it would be much easier to dodge it. Then I’d have no personal soul searching, no controversy, no possibility of offending people.
On the other hand, there’d also be no rescuing people from the devastation of misused sexuality and no leading them to the joy of God’s intentions for this gift.
I’ve discovered when I preach on sex, invariably I go home encouraged. The last time I spoke about marriage, I talked afterward with numerous couples who echoed what one said: “We’re not going to settle anymore for less than a satisfactory sexual relationship. We’re going to work on this, with a counselor if necessary, until we flourish in our physical relationship. We don’t want to frustrate each other to the point that we break out of this marriage and have an affair we may never get over.”
When I preach about sexual purity, I often hear from people who have been convicted by the Holy Spirit and have determined to put impurity away. Just recently I spoke with a new Christian from our fellowship who had been living with a woman for three years. I told him that as painful as it would be, he really had no other choice but to separate. I listened to him and prayed with him and promised to help him walk through the experience.
As he left, he said, “I can’t thank you enough for forcing the issue, because there’s one side of me that’s screaming, I don’t want to cut this off! and the other side of me says, But I have to. I just needed someone to put the pressure on me. Thanks for doing that.”
That’s what happens when we preach—humbly, prayerfully, and lovingly—the truth about sex.
Money: When You Move to Meddlin’
Many conflicts in the Christian life come because people approach money with a mindset different from God’s. My goal as a preacher is to bring their thinking in line with his.
A Madison Avenue advertising firm surveyed nonchurched people a few years ago and asked them their impressions of church. “The problem with church,” respondents said, “is that the people are always sad, or they talk about death, or they ask for money.”
In response, many churches today are upbeat, don’t say much about death, and rarely broach the offensive subject of money.
Of course, a desire for evangelistic effectiveness is not the only reason we preachers are reluctant to talk about money. Many people, both inside the church and out, feel money is filthy lucre. One layman boasted to me that in the ten years his pastor had been there, the pastor had never preached on money, but the church had done well financially. The thinking seems to be. If we can get by without talking about money, all the better.
Finally, there’s the ever-present nervousness that listeners will perceive we are benefiting personally, that we have a vested interest in speaking on the topic.
The result, in my perception, is that today’s growing-up generation has not been challenged about giving. Statistics reveal that people under 40 contribute only about 2 percent of their income to charitable causes. If you were to ask people over 50 who have grown up in the church, “What should a Christian give?” they’d say, “A tithe.” I don’t think you’d get that response from the younger generation. Whether or not they agree with tithing, they have not been taught to give. Giving in church, for many of them, is seen as paying admission: You pay $15 to go to a hockey game, and $6 for a movie, so this service is worth about $10 to me. Because it’s unpopular, the idea that giving is a theological matter and a major expression of your Christian faith has been, for the most part, lost.
How do we begin to recover the ministry of giving for our congregations? How can we talk about money in a wholly faithful yet winsome way? Over the years I’ve wrestled with those questions. Here are some of the things I’ve learned about how to—and how not to—bring up the subject of money.
First, I realize that I face subtle temptations whenever I prepare a message on giving. Here are four snares I try to avoid.
• To unwittingly use guilt to motivate. The New Testament’s motivation for giving is grace; giving is an act of worship in response to the generosity of God to us. You are to give, Paul says, “as God has prospered you.” If we really understand what God has given us, there will be a red streak of blood in our giving.
But often in preaching, we pound home a strong sense of ought: “Because of what God has given, you ought to give more. You ought to give 10 percent.” Or we foster guilt through comparisons: “Look at the house you live in; look at the car you drive; look at the clothes you wear. And then look at all of the need in the world, the hungry people and destitute.” Those contrasts are enormous, but if we’re not careful, such comparisons create only a feeling of guilt rather than gratitude. And gratitude is the healthy, biblical impetus for giving.
• To not clearly define the scriptural promise that givers will receive. Second Corinthians 8 and 9 teaches clearly, in the context of discussing money, that “he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” God blesses those who give with generosity. Personally, if my wife, Bonnie, and I were listing empirical evidences for the Christian faith, one would be the resurrection of Christ, but another would be in this area of giving. We have been astonished that again and again when we have given—with pain—God has supplied money for us from an unexpected source later.
But we must beware of using that as motivation. We dare not turn giving into a business deal with God. To give 10 percent in order to get back 20 percent runs contrary to the whole ethic of the gospel. Anybody who’s got a lick of sense would be glad to double her money, but the spiritual principle doesn’t work that way. It’s not tit-for-tat, one for one. In society, you give to an art museum so you can have your name on the new wing, but in God’s family, you give to please your Father in heaven. The question is not “What do I get out of it?” but “What does God get out of it?”
• To overemphasize the truth that everything belongs to God. It’s true that everything I have belongs to God. The Bible teaches that. But if I’m not careful, I can produce from that theological statement the implication that a person, if he’s wholly committed, will put his entire paycheck in the offering plate. I don’t know anyone who on a consistent basis can give everything he or she has to God without starving to death. It becomes an impossible ethic: the bar is always at eighteen feet, and I can jump only five. When we preach the impossible dream, people don’t take it seriously.
• To teach on money primarily when it’s needed. I know of a church that, in order to erect some buildings, went out on a four-million-dollar limb. The leaders have committed the church to the entire amount and borrowed the money from the banks. They are still three million dollars short. That shortage stares the pastor in the face every month, so he’s constantly on his people about money. His preaching insinuates, “If you folks were giving as God wants you to give, we would have no problem.” This kind of scolding, for the person in the pew, is like meeting a bill collector at church every Sunday. Ultimately such preaching on money becomes counterproductive.
While that may be an extreme case, the principle holds true. When you’re trying to raise money and you continually preach on money because you need it, people sense your desperation. As a seminary president, I understand well the importance of asking for money, but teaching on money only when it’s needed too easily begins to pressure rather than instruct. I accomplish more when someone can hear the sermon and say, “He talked about my money, but he wasn’t begging for my money for his emergency.”
Connect with People’s Needs
Fortunately, we can sidestep these temptations and step forward with confidence—provided we follow a few key principles.
The first borrows a fundamental idea from communication: identify a need in the audience and speak to it. Most preachers do this every Sunday, connecting the timeless truths of the Bible with contemporary needs. But when it’s time to preach on money, too often we think. What do people really want to hear about money? They don’t want me telling them they’ve got to give more. The need to give is not a need anyone feels.
But giving does connect with two deep human needs. I try to emphasize these needs when speaking about money.
1. People need to have something of value to sacrifice for. Somewhere I must find a cause greater than myself that is worthy of my life, if I am going to count for something. And one way to express commitment to that cause is to give. When you give your money, you really have given yourself.
I think that when Jesus comes to church on Sunday morning, he still sits “over against the treasury” to see what we put into the offering. As a measure of our commitment, our pocketbook beats our hymnbook. If I can read a person’s checkbook for a couple of years, I know what he or she thinks is important.
We desperately need to be committed. Otherwise, we have this awful sense of anomie; we sense our lives don’t count. Bob Richards, the pole vaulter, used to ask Olympic athletes, “How do you handle the pain?” They never said, “What pain?” They explained that part of the thrill of victory is that it was gut wrenching to achieve.
Part of the thrill of our lives comes when we find a cause worth sacrificing for, and then give to the hilt for it.
2. People need a way to express thanks. When someone helps us, we want to say thanks, to tell the person how much we appreciated the help. Giving is a tangible, effective way to thank a God of grace and generosity. “As God has prospered you, give,” Paul says. The question is not, “How much do I give to stay in the club?” or “What are the dues?” but “How can I say thanks?” Giving is a perfectly appropriate means of thanking God.
When I preach on money with these two needs in mind, it frees me. No longer am I laying on people an unwanted burden. Instead, I am offering people a thirst-quenching opportunity to involve themselves in something that outlasts them, and to express their gratitude to God.
See the Long-term Goal
Second, if I can give someone a new mindset about money, I have built a new person. As a preacher, that’s my goal: to implant a new mindset about how our money relates us to God. There are times when I say, “This is the cause, and this is what we need,” but that’s the short-term goal. My true goal, the long-range goal, is to change people’s mindset about money, and that’s what good preaching will do.
The first major argument for most couples, for example, is about money. That was true for Bonnie and me. For my parents, in the New York ghetto, money was security, so they saved it. Bonnie’s middle-class parents thought the purpose of money was to use it. After we got married, Bonnie wanted to buy a set of dishes for thirty dollars, a great deal of money in those days. The thought of putting out that kind of money for a set of dishes drove me wacky. And so we had our first major conflict over buying dishes. The conflict came from differing mindsets—not principles our parents had sat down and taught us, but feelings and values we had picked up intuitively.
Many conflicts in the Christian life come because people approach money with a mindset different from God’s. My goal as a preacher is to bring their thinking in line with his.
Knowing this takes the pressure off both me and my listeners. I realize such a change is going to take a long time, and I need to work on it purposefully, not frantically. Without immediate pressure, though, remarkable change does occur. With defenses down, a person alters his or her view over time. Conversion seems sudden, but it’s usually the result of a process.
When I taught a businessmen’s Bible study in Dallas, a ceo of a computer company attended. Others in the group knew he wasn’t a Christian. One day I invited the man to lunch, and I asked him, “Wally, are you a Christian?”
“Yes I am.”
I thought he may have confused Christian with gentleman. So I asked him, “When did it happen?”
He replied, “I don’t know.”
So I said, “Tell me why you call yourself a Christian then.”
“When I came to your class, I wasn’t a Christian,” Wally told me. “One day as I was shaving, I looked in the mirror and thought to myself, You know, if I stood before God today and he said, ‘Why should I let you into heaven?’ I would say, ‘I’m betting my life on Jesus Christ.’ I wouldn’t have said that several weeks ago,” he said, “but I know that’s what I would say to God now. Sometime in the last month or two, I crossed the line.”
Similarly, when teaching on money, I need to teach for the distance rather than the dash, knowing that over time people can change their attitudes and their giving dramatically.
Emphasize Attitude, Not Amount
A third principle I follow is to deemphasize the amount—even the percentage—that someone gives. Instead, I try to emphasize the element that from a biblical perspective is more critical: the giver’s attitude and level of sacrifice.
The gold-medal giver in the New Testament turns out to be a woman who contributed less than a nickel. And on the day she was singled out, wealthy contributors cast generous, lavish gifts into the temple treasury. But this woman slipped in just a couple of coins, and Jesus awarded her the trophy for giving. According to rabbinic law, a giver could not give just one mite; the smallest gift permitted was two mites. On that day, for her, giving to God was more important than a crust of bread, a bit of honey, or a sip of milk. Giving to God was more important than her necessary food. That was worship. Jesus jumped to his feet when he saw her contribution. He shouted to his disciples, “Mark her. She’s someone special.”
I believe God honors many poor people who don’t give a tenth, because what they do give is a sacrificial amount in relationship to what they earn. Similarly, for many wealthy people, giving a tenth is a way of robbing God. Their tithe becomes a tip.
I’m impressed by the formula of John Wesley, who, when he made thirty pounds, lived on twenty-eight pounds and gave away two. Then he made sixty pounds, but he knew he could live on twenty-eight pounds, so he gave away thirty-two. The next year his income rose to ninety pounds, but still he lived on twenty-eight pounds and gave away the rest.
As we preach, therefore, the key is not to focus on amounts or percentages, but the attitude and commitment the giver displays.
Teach “Investment” Principles
Fourth, I believe we have a responsibility to teach people how to invest their money in God’s kingdom. People need sound investment advice, which the Bible provides. Here are some of the strategies I teach.
• First cover your obligations. If you ask, “According to the New Testament, what am I obligated to give to?” the answer would include four areas, concentric circles:
1. To provide food and shelter for your family. To not support them is to be worse than a heretic.
2. To support those who teach you the word of God.
3. To help those who are poor in the church.
4. To do good to all men and women, as much as you have opportunity.
• Give thoughtfully and with preparation. We are taught to “lay aside on the first day of the week” what we will give, so it’s irresponsible to get to church and think. Oh! The offering! grab your wallet, and throw in a five-dollar bill.
People should thoughtfully consider their own church’s ministries and consider other Christian ministries. Do the leaders demonstrate integrity? Do they issue a financial statement showing the way the organization has used their money? Is their money producing spiritual dividends? As Christians, when we give to causes beyond our church, we ought not to give simply because an orphan choir has touched our emotions. We should weigh thoughtfully the ministries we support.
• Invest in sound ministries that will produce dividends. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is actually a thank-you letter. He wrote the letter to thank the folks at Philippi for their most recent gift. And in this letter, Paul sees money as investment in God’s work—”I’m grateful for this gift, because I know it will bring dividends to your account” (4:17). If you tie that passage into the Parable of the Unjust Steward, the focus of which is to be shrewd and make friends for heaven, you find this: One way in which to make friends who will welcome you into heaven is by investing in the ministry of other people.
I believe that when Bonnie and I get to heaven, we will be welcomed by people from Kenya—a country we have never visited and a culture we don’t know anything about. Why? Because for years we have helped to support a productive missionary couple there. We bought into that ministry, and one day we will withdraw our equity.
That’s one of the problems of investing in certain ministries that have been scandal ridden: they didn’t make it, spiritually speaking. They failed to produce spiritual dividends. If we had invested money in those ministries, we would have suffered like an investor after a stock market crash.
• Diversify your kingdom portfolio. The serious investor is going to put some money in bonds, some in money markets, and some in high-risk venture capital. But he or she is going to diversify for maximum effectiveness.
Similarly, I think it’s wise for Christians to have a kingdom portfolio. First, we give to our local church; that’s a basic obligation because we are ministered to there and want to support those who teach us God’s Word. But then, I want to give some money to an individual or group skilled in evangelism. One such group for Bonnie and me is the Black Evangelistic Enterprise, which has an active and effective ministry in black communities throughout the United States.
Then I want to support groups that are impacting our society. As a Christian, I want to be involved in helping where I can’t be physically. I personally can’t be involved in most worthwhile causes. But I can support a few of them financially as a way of saying, “I’m for you.” For example, Bonnie and I have given to groups serving battered women and to ministries working with college students.
I don’t want to sound self-serving, but I think it’s wise to invest in a seminary as a long-term investment. It takes years for a crop of students to mature, but eventually the students you support today are going to become missionaries, pastors, and teachers, and they’re going to touch many people.
Now, I recognize that many pastors teach the “storehouse” concept, that the tithe belongs to the local church. In a way, a good church with a wide and varied missionary program can be like a mutual fund. Because there are many people investing in the fund, the congregation has power to do things one person couldn’t do on his own, and it invests money in valid ministries he or she might not know about otherwise. Many people trust the leaders of the church to manage their kingdom investment. But the principle is the same: they should see to it that their leaders oversee an effective and diversified program of giving.
Let me close by discussing two areas that are particularly thorny for the person who preaches about money: (1) illustrations, and (2) applications.
Recently someone said to me, “Haddon, when I contemplate standing up and talking about money, the thought of illustrations scares me to death. If I talk about the rich giver, I lose my people. If I talk about the super-poor in Bangladesh, I lose them. If I talk about me, I can lose them because they say, ‘Well, you’re a preacher. You should do that.’ Where can I get credible, real-life illustrations about giving?”
That’s a touchy problem. But the first area I mine for illustrations, the mother lode, is the Bible itself. Of the thirty-eight parables of Jesus, at least a dozen are devoted to money and to our use of material goods. The Gospels speak a tremendous amount on money; approximately one of every eight verses deals with the subject. As I mentioned, the Philippian letter is a thank-you letter for financial support, and it teaches much. From these sources, we can draw not only insights, but effective illustrations.
Second, I share my own experiences with giving. I want people to know I’m not asking them to do anything I’m not willing to do. But I speak of my giving in a broad way, as I did explaining my “kingdom investments.” Usually, specific amounts only become Stumbling blocks.
Third, I draw from stories of friends or situations from society. But which of these do I select? With every illustration, I ask, “What is the hidden message? What does this really convey?” Here are some of the messages I want an illustration to get across:
• Generous people are attractive. God loves a generous giver, someone who enjoys giving. That’s not hard to understand, because so do we. Being generous does something for a person’s spirit. I want the illustration to ask, in effect, “Which word would you like to have applied to you: tight-fisted or generous?”
• Giving enables wonderful things to happen in the lives of others. I want illustrations to show how giving pays off in people’s lives. That’s what we do at missions conferences: missionaries report the impact our giving has had on people. Paul, for example, could tell the Philippians, “Your giving has enabled me to minister. While I’ve been here, the gospel has reached the Praetorian Guard.”
• Giving brings us benefits, but not necessarily material ones. The danger in the illustration of a person who gave $10 and got $50 back is that it encourages a motivation of “give in order to get.” But we can show the rich, nonmaterial blessings that accrue from giving. For example, because we love our children, we tried to give them a good education. We were willing to sacrifice our home—anything—to give them that, and we didn’t expect anything in return. But now there’s great delight for Bonnie and me seeing what that education has produced in the lives of our children and in the people they reach.
• God can enable us to give more than we thought possible. When I was board chairman at Twin City Bible Church in Urbana, Illinois, the congregation decided to purchase land and build next to the campus of the University of Illinois, because that’s where we believed we could have the greatest impact. But that was an expensive decision, and the congregation really had to stretch. As I moved among the congregation, talking to people about this commitment, I was amazed at how many would say something like, “I’m working for Kimberly-Clark, and I just got a promotion that almost doubled my salary.” I’d say, “Is that an accident? Or is God allowing you to help fulfill his mission for this church?” The testimony of God’s people is often that having determined to give a gift. God enabled them to give it. I think it’s legitimate to use illustrations that demonstrate God’s provision in enabling people to give.
Applications That Stick
Although it’s wisest to preach on money when it’s not needed, often money is needed, and usually preachers are the ones assigned to ask for it. How do you present the need? What do you ask for?
Perhaps you’ll resonate with a few of the lessons I have learned:
• Ask, and do it boldly. It should be obvious that if the church has a need, and I talk to you about it, at some point, I have to make a request. And I need to do it boldly. Otherwise, I’m like an evangelist presenting the gospel but not asking people to commit themselves to Christ.
I paid a high tuition to learn this lesson. When I came to Denver Seminary, the school had a phone system that was like two cans on a string. We desperately needed a new one, so I visited a businessman, and I told him we needed to raise twenty thousand dollars for the new phone system. We talked for a while about it, and then he asked, “How much would you like me to give?”
I said, “Well, could you give a thousand dollars?”
He pulled out his checkbook, wrote me check for a thousand dollars, pushed it across the desk, and said, “You insulted me.”
I thought, I’ve offended him. I shouldn’t have asked him for money.
But he said, “You asked me for a thousand dollars, but you needed twenty thousand. Either you felt that I wasn’t able to give much money, in which case you underestimated where I am financially, or worse, you thought I had the money but wouldn’t give you more, in which case you insulted my generosity. What you need to know is that if a person believes in the cause, you never insult him by asking him to do the big thing. If he can’t do the big thing, he can come back and tell you what he can give. But you always suffer and you insult the person when you ask for less rather than more.”
What I appreciated about him is that he didn’t say, “Now, give me back the check and let me write you another.” It cost me money to learn the lesson.
• Focus on the cause you believe in. Sometimes I speak on behalf of Denver Seminary. I am not at all embarrassed to ask people to give. I see it as a tremendous opportunity for people, because I believe in the cause.
Frankly, I’d have a difficult time raising money for myself. But is there a more important cause than the church of Jesus Christ? As preachers, we have committed our lives to it, and it only makes sense to ask others to join us in supporting it.
• Lead the way. Whenever I preach about giving, I had better be giving with liberality. How else can I ask others to give? At Denver Seminary, we have our trustees ask other people for contributions. We know that the first thing these trustees must do is give a significant gift. Otherwise, they can’t sit across the desk from other people and ask them to sacrifice.
• Emphasize that this is a joint effort. Sometimes a congregation looks at the missionary program as something the missionary committee put together, or the building program as something the elders put together. That’s why it is so important that when a church decides its giving, a wide group of people in the church have a voice in it. Then you can honestly say, “We have committed ourselves to this, and now we need to give to support our commitment.”
• Give non-Christians and visitors the freedom not to give. While a church budget or project is for the whole church family, it is for the family only. I believe it is critical for church leaders to say, “If you’re still on the way to faith, please feel free to pass the offering plate by. The offering, like Communion, is for those who have committed themselves to God. For you. God has a gift: eternal life. We do not want you to think that God is soliciting funds from you. You honor us by being here.” I have found, oddly enough, that when you say that, and people know you mean it, Christians give with greater generosity, and non-Christians are impressed with the free gift God offers them.
Money = Commitment
Why must preachers continue to bring up the difficult subject of money? Why do we teach our people to give, when we know it can be misunderstood?
Because when we discuss money, we’re talking about commitment, and commitment is our domain. A commitment is only cheap talk unless a person puts her money behind it. We want people to be serious about Jesus Christ. And we know that if they are serious about Jesus Christ, they will show it in their giving.
Power: Preaching for Total Commitment
When I speak about total commitment, people think I’m from Mars.
Recently a man commented on the “tough topics” I’d taught on over the years—hell, money, sex, relational confrontation, self-discipline. He asked, “Of all the topics you’ve preached on, which has been the hardest to get across?”
I didn’t even have to think about it. “Becoming totally devoted to Christ.” My greatest teaching challenge is to convey what Paul was driving at in Acts 20:24 and elsewhere: “I no longer count my life as dear unto myself; I have abandoned my personal aspirations and ambitions; I have offered myself as a living sacrifice to Christ.” When I teach that to secularly minded people, they think I’m from Mars. The thought of living according to someone else’s agenda is ludicrous.
To many people, living for Christ is a kind of fanaticism the world could do without. Who, they wonder, would be foolish enough voluntarily to suffer loss, refrain from pleasure, or impinge on the comfort level of his life? They think total devotion to Christ means squandering the only life they have.
A man from my church provides a perfect example. His biggest problem, as I perceive it, is his successful company. Clients whose business he’s not even seeking are lining up for his services. Just responding to them is tyrannizing his life. Several months ago I asked him why his heart didn’t seem to be as warm toward things of God as it had been.
“Business has been dominating my life,” he admitted, but added in defense, “but I’m not seeking it. I’m just trying to handle what’s coming in. I mean, what do you expect me to do?”
I suggested he could say, “Enough is enough.” He looked at me as if I were insane. What businessman in his right mind would say no to a client whose order would produce a bigger profit? You don’t do that in this world. More is always better; it’s the American way. The desire for more had a greater pull on this man than his desire to follow Christ, use his spiritual gifts, serve his wife, or be a father to his kids.
If it’s so hard to persuade people to commit themselves unreservedly to Christ, why bother? Why not settle for church attendance, or membership, or at least periodic service?
As ministers, we all have to come to terms with the quality of fruit we’re producing. We have to decide what level of commitment we expect from the people we’re leading.
Church history has taught us that a leader can do more through a handful of totally devoted believers than through a churchful of halfhearted ones. So we’re left with a tension: How can we teach in such a way that we produce fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ, when we know that most people don’t want to hear about radical discipleship?
Let me suggest five principles that guide me when I preach for 100 percent commitment.
Describe Total Commitment
The first step is to develop a clear understanding of total commitment. A teacher constantly has to define and redefine: What does it really mean to be completely devoted to Christ? If it doesn’t mean simply showing up for services, putting in a check, and going home, then what does it mean?
Several Bible passages define total commitment for me and shape my preaching on the subject:
• Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:31: “I die daily.” I’ve never met a fully devoted follower of Christ who didn’t have to die daily to a host of things that would like to have a grip on him—personal ambition, worldly pleasures, people’s applause, greed.
This culture ferociously maintains that “you can have it all,” but that slogan is foreign to the mind and teaching of Christ. It’s difficult for me to stand in an affluent, suburban congregation and tell people what they need to die to, walk away from, or give up, but I have to do it.
• Jesus’ command in Luke 10:27 to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.” This means we need to obey God’s Word and order our lives in such a way that we can live in the constant awareness of his presence.
• John’s question, “How can you say you love God yet hate your brother?” (1 John 4:20). We live in an age in which hate is routine, and too often that attitude spills over into the church. Yet Scripture makes it clear that total devotion to Jesus Christ includes being at peace with our brothers. True Christians, particularly leaders, need to take Matthew 5:23–24 more seriously. We need to make relational integrity a priority and actively seek reconciliation whenever a problem arises. That should be a prerequisite to ministry.
• Jesus’ constant teaching on the use of time, talents, and treasures. After a person spends thirty years devoting all of his or her time and talents to the marketplace, it’s hard to start devoting it suddenly to the Lord. It’s hard to hear verses like “Seek first the kingdom of God,” or “Always abound in the work of the Lord,” or “Set your mind on things above,” or “What does it profit you to gain the whole world and lose your soul?”
It takes time to develop personal spiritual disciplines—Bible study, journaling, praying, fasting, reflecting. It takes time to be in a small group of brothers or sisters who will provide challenge and accountability. It takes time to advance the kingdom in practical service. But those commitments of time are a good measure of our devotion to Christ.
A medical professional from our church has decided to work a four-day week so he can devote the other three days to his lay-leadership role and his relationship with his family. The work time he has given up costs him substantial income every week. But he has decided to die to that so he can live to what Christ has called him to do apart from his vocation. Already he had been using his skills to serve needy people; but now, in addition, he’s able to use his gifts of administration and leadership within the church in significant ways. He’s putting his time, talents, and treasures at God’s disposal.
The second step in preaching on total commitment is tougher: to live it ourselves. It’s clear, I think, that we can’t lead a congregation into total commitment unless we’re attempting to model it.
Every pastor has been on the wrong side of the total-commitment fence at one time or another. It’s like asking an athlete, “Have you always been in superb condition?”
Inevitably, the answer is, “Not always.”
When you ask, “How’d you feel when you weren’t?” they say, “Sluggish. Under par. Less than professional.”
Recently I read about a top leader who was asked, “What is your main objective in leading your organization?”
He said, “To intercept entropy.” That fascinated me, because that’s what I try to do in my own life. I look at myself and say. Where is there slippage? Where am I getting out of condition? Where am I becoming sluggish? Before I pay attention to the spiritual condition of others, I examine myself.
One of my great frustrations is not being able to manage my life so that I’m always fully committed. But if I’m willing to hear the truth about myself, the Spirit will point out areas of carelessness and inconsistency. Then I can repent and intercept the entropy at a fairly early stage.
In addition to trying to model total commitment, we need other congregational leaders who are fully devoted followers, who can uphold the standard. Last night I looked around the table at our elders’ meeting and thought, Every elder in this church is committed to Jesus Christ and would take a bullet for him right now. That means when I preach about total commitment, they’re the first ones to cheer me on: “Don’t ever settle for less. We’re with you 100 percent.” It would be pretty hard for me to bring a strong call for deeper discipleship if the elders and other key leaders weren’t in agreement.
What’s exciting is that the more fully devoted the pastor and lay leaders become, the more fully devoted the congregation becomes. The growth in the congregation then inspires the leaders to deeper commitment, and that prompts a continual cycle of growth. Total discipleship becomes contagious and exhilarating.
There’s one man in our church whose only day off is Wednesday; he comes in that morning and cleans our water fountains. Another man comes in on his day off and services our vacuum cleaners. Other volunteers weed and cultivate various flower beds on the church property. I recently saw a young mom tending one of the beds. Her baby sat in a stroller, while she listened to a cassette tape and dug around the flowers. When I see discipleship manifested in service like that, I become motivated to be a more devoted servant myself.
Preach from Every Angle
The third step is to preach on total commitment from as many creative angles as possible. Here’s what I mean:
• Select series that lead naturally to a call for commitment. In a sense, every sermon I preach defines some aspect of commitment, whether it’s about marriage, character development, caring for our bodies, or whatever. Still, I believe the call to devotion is best presented overtly, and some series don’t lend themselves to that as naturally as others.
For example, I preached a series that dealt with honesty in relationships. It was a helpful series, but it didn’t provide a good opportunity for calling people to a deeper commitment to Jesus Christ. To do that would have been somewhat manipulative, a bait-and-switch for people who came expecting something else. With some topics, if I want to have integrity, I need to stick with the subject matter and wait for another time to talk about discipleship.
But other topics naturally lead to a call for 100 percent commitment. Not long ago year I preached a series called “Alternatives to Christianity,” in which I discussed the New Age Movement, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism, and contrasted them with Christianity. Following an honest comparison of these belief systems, I ended the series by saying, “After you’ve heard all this, wouldn’t you agree that the Christian message is absolutely compelling? When you line it up against the other belief systems, doesn’t it prove to be a more excellent way? If this series has convinced you that Christianity is compelling in its truths, in the person of Jesus Christ, and in what it produces in individual lives, if, in fact, it’s the clear winner, then embrace it with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Don’t hold back.”
That series naturally lent itself to a call for commitment, and I didn’t shrink from presenting it. As I plan my preaching, I monitor the series I’m selecting as to whether they lead without manipulation to a message on all-out Christian commitment.
• Present committed service as a joyous response to what God has done for us, not as a means to earn salvation. We ministers have to make sure our people realize that discipleship is a way to say thank you to God, not a way to gain merit.
At times I’ve stopped myself during a call to commitment and said, “If you’re outside the family of God, please understand that discipleship is a response to God’s amazing grace. It’s not an attempt to improve your status before God. Paul says you can ‘give your body to be burned,’ but you can’t save yourself through discipleship. Commitment is a means to express gratitude, not to win entrance into heaven.”
• Illustrate the alternatives to wholehearted commitment. When I’m trying to challenge the secularly minded person to be a devoted follower of Jesus Christ, I find it effective to play out the opposite scenario.
For example, in a series called “Rare and Remarkable Virtues,” the closing message was on contentment. I began by saying, “All he ever really wanted in life was more. He wanted more money, so he parlayed inherited wealth into a billion-dollar pile of assets. He wanted more fame, so he broke into the Hollywood scene and soon became a filmmaker and star. He wanted more sensual pleasures, so he paid handsome sums to indulge his every sexual urge. He wanted more thrills, so he designed, built, and piloted the fastest aircraft in the world. He wanted more power, so he secretly dealt political favors so skillfully that two U.S. presidents became his pawns. All he ever wanted was more. He was absolutely convinced that more would bring him true satisfaction. Unfortunately, history shows otherwise.”
Then I went on to describe how this man concluded his life—emaciated; colorless; sunken chest; fingernails in grotesque, inches-long corkscrews; rotting, black teeth; tumors; innumerable needle marks from his drug addiction. “Howard Hughes died,” I said, “believing the myth of more. He died a billionaire junkie, insane by all reasonable standards.”
Ivan Boesky provides another illustration. So rich he couldn’t spend all the money he made on Wall Street, he hid in New York alleys, passing manila envelopes to make more.
By depicting the path of the self-centered life, we can show its emptiness and ultimate futility. We can say, “Friends, it’s madness. Can you see that? Maybe these men traveled further down the road to deception than you have, but play it out. Think about where you’re headed. Sooner or later you’ll get so tired of drinking cups of sand, you’ll say, ‘I’m ready for some living water.’ You can do that fifteen years from now, after you’ve gone through two or three more marriages and left a trail of broken children. Or, you can learn from the madness of others, and bow right now and trust Christ.”
I go on to ask, “Has your most recent acquisition quenched the thirst in your soul? Has your most recent thrill, your promotion, your marriage, your new child, your published book, left you totally satisfied inside?” People need to admit that what they thought would satisfy them, when once attained, usually doesn’t do the job.
• For the currently satisfied, offer your help for a later date. Sometimes people say, “Hey, I’m happy with who I am. I’m not hungry or thirsty for anything. I have no major problems, and I’m doing okay.”
To people who are that self-deceived, there’s nothing I can say. It does no good to try to convince them of their need. But publicly or privately I can offer my assistance for the day they finally realize they need Christ.
For several years I was chaplain for the Chicago Bears and taught a weekly Bible study at Halas Hall, where they practiced. One player used to walk by the door, shake his head and wink at me, and then move on. One day I said to him, “You’re on top of the world right now. You’ve got all the money and fame you could ask for. So you go by and wink, and think I and the rest of the guys in there are fools.” He just smiled.
I said, “I’m not trying to be a prophet of doom, but sometime the roof is going to cave in on your life. All of a sudden you’re going to realize you don’t have it all. When that happens, call me.”
Three weeks later, he called. “My only brother just had his first child. It was born deformed. My brother’s devastated, and so am I. I don’t know what to do or say. Can I talk to you?”
With the currently satisfied, our best strategy is to advertise our availability for the day they realize their need.
Patiently Let the Spirit Work
Bill Hybels speaking on patience is like Imelda Marcos speaking on frugality. But I’ve had to learn to be patient, to preach on discipleship and allow the Spirit to bring it to pass.
Becoming wholly devoted is a process. Colossians 1 says people need to become complete in Christ, but 1 Corinthians 3 reminds me that they start out as spiritual babes. My responsibility is not to push the growth but to monitor the diet. Does the menu I’m offering provide the nutrition that will lead them to maturity? Is the diet too meaty, so that it chokes them? Or is the diet junk food that tickles the taste buds but fails to sustain health?
All believers ultimately should abandon themselves to full commitment to Christ. However, all believers cannot do that at the same pace. Some people in our body are, by temperament, timid and methodical. If they take tennis lessons, they go forty-five minutes a week, and in eight years they’ll play a good game. When it comes to full commitment to Christ, they follow the same pace. They’re not fighting God or being rebellious; their slow progression toward commitment is in keeping with the overall speed of their lives. With them, I have to slow down and move accordingly.
Other people are just the opposite. Not long ago, a man wrote to me: “I own two businesses. I became a Christian at one of your services two weeks ago. I have already found two men to run my businesses. I am ready to devote the rest of my life to serving at Willow Creek Community Church. Call me.”
We called him immediately—to make sure he wasn’t moving too fast. His speed made us nervous, but some people are like that by nature. He probably knew his wife a week before he proposed!
Because of these differences in personality, I never say, “Decide by next Sunday.” Ultimatums and specific time frames may not be consistent with individual temperaments. Instead, I say, “You’ve heard truth from Scripture today. Please don’t be hearers only, but doers. As for me and my house, we’ve decided to do this (whatever I’m preaching). You, too, have decisions to make. May the Holy Spirit have freedom in you as you make the right ones.”
Be Ready to Live with Opposition
I must point out a painful fact of pastoral life. Preaching sold-out Christianity draws the disapproval of snipers who will try anything to persuade us to lower the standard.
Halfhearted believers respond to messages on total commitment the way rebellious sinners respond to messages on repentance. Suppose you stood before one hundred thousand kids at a rock concert and said, “You’re on the wrong road. Please reconsider the direction of your life. Fall to your knees, repent of your rebellion against God, and receive Christ as your Savior.” You can bet you’d see hostility.
I’ve found similar resistance when I’ve challenged halfhearted, cosmetic Christians to be dedicated completely to Christ. Whenever you expose someone’s addiction to gratification, you can expect a defensive reaction.
Pastors feel it. We preach a tough message on discipleship, and the reaction tells us it’s “thirty-two degrees and falling.” The next week we preach on rebuilding self-esteem, and suddenly it’s “eighty-five degrees and sunshiny.” What are we inclined to preach about the third week?
How do people couch their resistance? “You’re being too harsh. You’re being unrealistic. We’re not ready for that yet. What about ‘God loves you as you are’?” If I didn’t have support from my elders, I couldn’t keep it up, because sometimes the resistance gets too strong.
Not long ago we surveyed our committed core people. One question we asked was, “Are you using your spiritual gift in this body for God’s glory on a weekly basis?” About 53 percent said they were. Scripturally, that’s not good enough. So, in a message I cited that statistic and said, “I thank God for those of you who are using your spiritual gifts. And I pray for those of you who have been so deeply wounded in the past that you need a time of healing before you can begin to serve. But to the rest of you, I have to ask a tough question: What’s going on? If you’ve been redeemed and welcomed into the family of God, you should be lying awake nights thinking of ways to show God your gratitude. One way you can do that is by identifying and using your spiritual gift. If you’re not doing that, something is wrong!”
I have to confess I even used the word parasites for people “who eat and run, who enjoy the benefits of the body of Christ, but don’t contribute to its well-being.”
One of the elders stopped me afterward and said, “Great word. It had to be said.” I needed that kind of support, because the next day the missiles started arriving in the mail: “Just because I choose not to serve in this body does not make me a parasite.” “You had no right to pressure us that way.” “You’re an egomaniac who thinks you can tell everybody else how to live.”
I answered every letter and offered to talk further. I did, however, affirm my understanding of 1 Corinthians 12: If you claim to be a part of the body, then you need to function as a part of the body.
The point is, when we feel we have to confront the congregation, that’s when we need to be surrounded by elders who can say, “That’s the right message, given in the right spirit. Don’t let the missiles get to you.”
Because of that, I alert the elders when I’m thinking of preaching a particularly challenging message. Sometimes they say, “Bill, that sounds more like your personal pet peeve than our collective concern. Be careful.” Then I usually drop the issue or wait until I have a better perspective on it.
Other times, they confirm my desire to preach the message, and I can step into the pulpit with confidence.
Why I Keep Preaching This Message
What helped me overcome my hesitation to preach the genuine, all-or-nothing gospel of Christ? The realization that living a genuine, all-or-nothing life for God is the only path to satisfaction.
Every day I journal, write out my prayers, and resubmit myself to God. I say with the hymn writer, “Take my life and let it be consecrated. Lord, to thee.” Or, “You are the Potter; I am the clay. Hold over my being absolute sway.” Then, with the help of the Holy Spirit, I try to follow those commitments during the day.
I have never regretted my attempts to be yielded to God. In fact, my times of greatest yieldedness have been my times of greatest joy. They’ve prompted me to ask with the psalmist, “What can I render to the Lord for all of his benefits to me?”
On the other hand, I have paid dearly for the times I have not been yielded, when I’ve been self-willed, carnal, rebellious, or timid. Remembering that helps me when I reach the point in the message when I call people to full commitment to Christ. It’s easy to feel tentative when I realize I may be asking a man to give up a six-figure income, or a woman to forsake a relationship she depends on, or a teenager to be rejected by his peer group. The Evil One clouds my mind and makes me think I shouldn’t lay such heavy challenges on people.
Then I remember: It’s in total commitment that we find the blessedness, peace, thrill, and adventure we were meant to enjoy. It’s in the pursuit of radical discipleship that we experience the constant companionship and smile of God. Remembering that makes me want to shout from the mountaintops, “The best thing you can do is drop to your knees right now and say, ‘Lord, here I am, wholly available. I pour myself out for you.’ ”
I’ve never met anyone who regretted his or her decision to become a devoted Christian. I could fill a stadium, though, with people who shipwrecked their lives because they refused to respond to God’s call. People write me saying, “If only I could roll back the clock; if only I hadn’t been obstinate in my relationship with God; if only I’d listened.”
Radical commitment to Jesus Christ is a tough challenge, but it leads to life in all its fullness. Since we know that’s true, we need ask ourselves only one question: Will we shrink back from calling people to do what will serve them best and give God the most glory, or will we be faithful servants who speak the powerful, life-changing truth?
Bringing Yourself Into the Pulpit
My stories must illustrate. I must avoid trying to make myself look too good or too wise. The rule to follow: An illustration should illustrate the truth, not elevate the speaker.
Gone are the days when preaching meant an aloof, authoritarian lecture. An impersonal preacher, these days, is almost a contradiction in terms. People today have come to expect personal preaching—vulnerability and self-revelation.
When people comment on my sermons, they rarely mention the sermon’s logic, structure, or persuasiveness—even though I try to include each of those elements. More typical is the comment: “I appreciated the message, but what I appreciated most was your vulnerability. You really got through to me. You let us see you.”
Today’s audiences expect the preacher to be personal and winsome. This means not only speaking to the personal needs of people, but also using illustrations out of the preacher’s life experience. This is what many people listen for and a gauge by which they judge a sermon.
Bringing yourself into the pulpit requires some special skills, because it has potential dangers. Here are some of the pitfalls and how to avoid them.
The Peril of Personal Illustrations
I sat in one church not long ago, listening to a preacher make a point about Satan’s tactics: “Normally, you get up in the morning and get to work at 8 o’clock. But on Sunday, you have to get to church by 9:30. Even though you have an extra hour and a half, somehow everything goes wrong.” Then he personalized the point. “This morning my wife and I had a terrible argument, and frankly we haven’t gotten things settled. I hope we can deal with it this afternoon.”
His point about disruptions of schedule and Satan’s influence was suddenly lost. Everyone was jarred by the fact that the preacher and his wife were in the third round of a ten-round fight. Even an audience that wants personal preaching did not respond well to preaching that was that personal.
Had he said, “Last Sunday we had a fight, and it took us until Sunday afternoon to get it settled,” the congregation might have appreciated and benefited from the illustration. After the struggle came victory. But people don’t particularly want to be spectators to a fight you are losing.
While people don’t expect us to be perfect, some personal illustrations overpower the delicate relationship between preacher and listeners. As a general rule, if you haven’t worked a situation through to a biblical solution, it’s not ready to use as an illustration. Merely saying, “I’m going to work on this soon” doesn’t throw light on your point; it puts the spotlight on you and your problem.
Unsettling and distracting the audience with an unresolved situation stands as one peril of personal illustrations. But there are others.
There are various levels of self-disclosure. One of the basic factors in any relationship is knowing how much to reveal. When friends have established trust, their self-revelation can be deeper. But only a fool dives headfirst into a pool without checking the depth of the water. Perhaps your mate knows you so well that you can tell her virtually everything. But a congregation, by nature diverse and at varied levels of spiritual maturity, can’t handle that level of revelation.
Imagine a ten-point scale of self-disclosure. Most congregations could accept probably only levels one, two, or possibly three. That’s enough to indicate in a healthy way that you are honest and authentic, but you’ve got enough good taste, sense, and discretion not to give out all the details.
One pastor, preaching on the problem of lust, admitted, “I know the power of sexual temptation. There are times when I still lust after women. In fact, standing here this morning, looking out at this congregation, I’ve lusted after some of you.”
Although that was honest, it destroyed the effectiveness of his sermon. His first statement would have been enough—”I know the power of sexual desire.” By going further, by personalizing it to that very audience at that exact moment, he lost the congregation completely. Instead of contemplating God’s answer to the power of lust, everyone was glancing around trying to decide who he had been looking at. Is it her? Is it me? The effect of his point was destroyed by the listeners’ reactions.
As a rule, people can handle self-disclosure more easily if it’s an incident out of the past. He could have said, “I’m ashamed to say that there have been times in the past, even when I bowed before God in prayer, that immoral thoughts dominated my mind. There was nothing I could do but admit to God my struggle with lust.”
Presenting a personal unresolved conflict, of any kind, tends to focus people’s attention on you, the preacher, rather than on their own condition. It resembles telling a counselor your struggles, only to have her say, “You think you have problems? Wait till I tell you what happened to me this morning.… “You leave with questions about the counselor and no relief for your own struggle.
If ministers do that in the pulpit, a congregation loses the sense that God’s Word has been offered to them. The arrow gets turned around. The preacher has used the audience for his own therapy.
This is not to say that everything in a preacher’s life comes to a neat, sensible, and biblical conclusion. Life on earth does not always present successful, happy endings. The preacher’s task in relating a personal illustration is simply to illustrate a point. At the same time, he communicates, “I’ve been there. I really don’t live in an ivory tower. My children aren’t virgin born. Not everything I’ve attempted has led to spiritual success.”
Under the Influence of Emotion
Another peril of personal preaching is that your present emotional condition can affect your preaching.
Visiting one church and hearing the preacher, I sensed he was upset with the people. His tone of voice gave way to anger. All his illustrations were negative: Christians who don’t love, who don’t care, who constantly misrepresent others, who gossip.
Afterward I asked a friend, a leader in the church, “Is the pastor having trouble with the board?”
“Yes,” he said. “I think the board may ask him to leave.” The pastor had lugged his emotional baggage into the pulpit. In his illustrations, he generalized to all Christians what he had experienced with a few. He was wounded. He didn’t like the people in front of him. And it showed.
Anger isn’t the only feeling that affects preachers. What I feel most often is fatigue. And I know when I’m tired, I must be aware of three things:
1. My perception of audience feedback will be distorted. My antenna may pick up wrong signals. When I’m tired, I’m more likely to feel people are disinterested, hostile, or distracted. I’m reading my own emotions onto them. I’ve learned not to listen to that.
2. I will feel like apologizing. When I’m tired, I have the strongest urge to say, for example, “I was up late last night. My wife was ill, and I didn’t have a chance to prepare as I would like.” But as a preacher, if you’re tired, let people discover it. Don’t tell them. If your throat is scratchy, let them decide that. Don’t cue them.
Everything within you wants to apologize, to ask your congregation to be sympathetic with you. But a congregation that’s feeling sorry for you cannot be persuaded. They’ll be thinking more about the messenger than the message.
3. I will lack enthusiasm. Instead of entering the pulpit with vigor, I’ll tend to be more passive. As a result, my delivery flattens. Before I get into the pulpit, I must remind myself that these people came here to be helped. When I get into the pulpit, my job is to help them. The sermon must go on. That means when the service starts, the congregation expects the choir to sing, the organist to play, and the preacher to preach. People come to keep an appointment with God. They expect us to be our best. Sometimes our best is not all that we could be. But we give that to God, like loaves and fishes, and trust him to do the rest.
When you are emotionally upset, you may find, while preaching, the tendency to weep. A pastor under a heavy burden can let tears flow, and the congregation will respond well if they understand his emotion. But a preacher who weeps too often will sacrifice his effectiveness. While people need to know you have deep feelings, they also want to see self-control. If you let your emotions go too often, either in anger or in weeping, your ministry suffers.
A basic principle of public speaking is that an able speaker is an able person, in a good emotional state, with a good attitude toward himself and toward his audience. That’s also true for ministers.
The Power of Humor
A preacher who can laugh in the pulpit has a tremendous advantage, but humor can be dangerous.
One of the engaging things about Pastor Charles Swindoll is that in the midst of preaching, he can throw back his head and laugh. He brings himself—and his natural good humor—into the pulpit. Perhaps the comment I’ve heard most about Chuck’s style is his laughter. People see he’s enjoying the experience, and as a result, they enjoy it, too.
An added benefit of humor: while it’s hard to engage the emotions of a congregation, once you engage any emotion (humor, suspense, grief), it’s relatively easy to enlist the others. After laughing, it is easy for people to feel sorrow. If they’ve felt grief, it’s easier for them to laugh. In Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, he would increase the suspense by introducing laughter. After the release of laughter, Hitchcock could tighten the screw of suspense even tighter.
Humor, however, also gets us into trouble. Some humor puts people down. And even though the putdown is funny and the audience laughs, the preacher comes across, on a subconscious level, as somewhat unkind. And that works against a speaker.
Humor at your own expense, if not used too often, can be a way of getting people to respond. We like people who laugh at themselves, because they are saying, “What I’m talking about is very serious, but I don’t take myself too seriously.”
The Danger of Turning-point Stories
Another temptation resident in personal illustrations is returning too often to your spiritual turning points. How often we hear, “When I was (pick one) in the army / at my mother’s knee / having bypass surgery …”
The danger here is not boorishly retelling stories your listeners have already heard. The greater danger is that such preaching tends to focus on crisis, while in reality, life is much more of a process. When we relate dramatic turning-point stories, we give the impression that whenever God acts, he does so with the impact of lightning. Most people’s actual experience with God, then, seems to be mundane, anticlimactic, unglamorous, unreal.
As a result, people come to expect the Christian life to consist of a series of spiritual turning points. But the true skill in life lies in faithfully handling the ordinary.
The Danger of Subtle Self-promotion
Not many pastors would brag consciously in the pulpit. Not many set out to make themselves appear heroic in their stories. But even so, some ways of recounting personal incidents become a subtle form of self-promotion. And the effect is not lost on the congregation.
At times it’s done by telling about “a conversation I had with a nonbeliever,” and when the nonbeliever asks a question, the preacher tops him with a clever response, which may have been refined several times between the actual conversation and the sermon.
At other times it’s name dropping—titles of books read or important people met.
Yet other times, it’s unintentional exaggeration. After leading a chapel service for a minor league baseball team, I’m really not “a spiritual counselor for the athletes of the nation.”
Years ago, I described in a sermon how we handled family devotions. My son, Torry, was with me, and in the car on the way home, he said, “Dad, can I ask you a question about the sermon?”
“Sure.” I was honored that as a child, he was listening. Then he said, “Is it all right to say things that aren’t really true when you’re preaching?” I gently probed for more information. “Well, Dad, we’ve done what you talked about, but we only did it once or twice. You made it sound like we did it every week.” He wasn’t being rude. I had tried to look too good and sound too wise.
We fall on our faces morally when we say something happened to us when it didn’t. I was not lying consciously. I merely was attempting to make a point. But it’s an easy move from “this is what I did” (one time) to “this is how I do it” (as a regular practice). Anyone who speaks regularly recognizes how quickly you can cross that line.
And yet, not by intention but by implication, I lied to the congregation. And when somebody sits in the congregation who knows the truth (in this case. Tony), the sermon becomes a holy masquerade. In or out of the pulpit, we shall not bear false witness.
My stories must illustrate. I must avoid the other agenda that makes myself look too good or too wise. Love overlooks a multitude of homiletical sins, but once people lose confidence in your integrity, your ministry is severely damaged.
When people listen to a minister they don’t know well, they tend to ask, Is what he says true? But the more people know you, the more they tend to ask, Does he do what he’s talking about? Is the person in that illustration the person I know?
Any time we make ourselves look holy or shrewd, it’s good to test our motives with the hard question: Why am I using this? To illustrate a point? To elevate my standing? To identify with the people? Any of these may be legitimate and necessary, but self-promotion usually backfires.
Our effort to earn the admiration of the congregation can turn them against us. People may question whether we’re trying to impress them, dominate them, or set ourselves above them. The rule to follow: An illustration should illustrate the truth, not elevate the speaker.
The Power of Personal Experience
At times, the purpose of the illustration is not to offer an immediate solution. Rather, it is to reflect on the fact that this is a common human struggle with which both you and the congregation can identify. You are saying, “It’s a human condition. I understand it. I’ve been there.” You may not have resolved the dilemma, but you’re allowing people to know that you’re not preaching out of an antiseptic life. In such cases, the illustration should be carefully worded.
In one message, I said, “If you think of sin only in general, it’s like trying to envision the national debt. It’s beyond comprehension. The only way I know to understand how sinful we are is to focus on one sin and really take a look at what it is.
“Years ago when my father was living, he needed constant care, and we kept him for a time in our home in Dallas. He was confused, and he constantly opened the patio door to go out, and then turned around and came back in. Then he would go out, and come back in, and go out, and come back in. He did this twenty or thirty times in ten or fifteen minutes.
“Finally I said, ‘Dad, we’re losing the air conditioning. Could you stay in or stay out?’ He kept doing it. I went over and grabbed him by the shoulders and looked him in the eye. ‘Dad, now listen to me. Either you stay in, or you go out.’ But he just continued to go in and out.
“And I hauled off and spanked him as I would spank a small child. He looked at me. Then he opened the door to go out. And I spanked him again. At that moment, I could have killed him. I was furious.
“Here was the man who gave me life. He had raised me and loved me. And yet at that moment, I struck him in anger. What is that power of sin that resides within each of us?” I went on to discuss the reality of sin and God’s offer of forgiveness to sinful people.
I was careful with that one. The congregation needs to know whether the illustration was meant to introduce the problem, present a solution, or both.
After sharing that story with one group, a man asked me, “How can you make yourself that vulnerable?” I didn’t consider myself vulnerable—at least not in the sense of putting myself at risk. It was self-revealing, but I hoped it also helped illumine God’s astounding offer of grace to people capable of such behavior.
But then another man said, “When I heard that story, I thought about my infant daughter, how sometimes she would cry and cry and cry and cry. I’d walk her, rock her, sing to her, but she’d continue to scream. Finally I’d find myself wanting to throw her against the wall. I’d never really admitted my fury to myself until I heard your story.” He gained a new understanding and appreciation for God’s offer of salvation.
Somehow the personal illustration enabled him to identify what he had experienced and apply God’s Word to his life.
In other cases an illustration helps a listener understand and experience the truth of Scripture. There, personal illustrations can give added power. Pastor Joel Eidsness reminisced about an outing with his daughter and plunged his people into a sermon from the Book of Revelation:
“When my oldest daughter was 7, we spent an afternoon at the city dump. Our purpose was not to dump garbage but to observe waste. I backed my Oldsmobile up against the mounds of refuse and placed my daughter on its roof. With pencil and paper in hand, I asked her to list every item she could identify. The results were astounding. There was a plastic swimming pool, a barbecue, and several old lawn chairs. There were Barbie dolls, bicycle frames, skateboards, play refrigerators and stoves, radios, televisions—everything a young girl dreams of and more.
“As we drove back into the city, we happened to pull alongside a double trailer truck. Piled high atop each trailer were five hunks of scrap metal bundled together. Had you turned any of them upside down, you probably would have found made in detroit stamped on their underbellies. They were hardly in mint condition. And yet, there they were—ten crumpled cars—magnificent object lessons for a father and daughter who at that very moment were discussing the value of ‘things.’ I can still remember leaning over and reminding my daughter that the beautiful Delta Royale in which we were riding was ultimately headed for the same scrap heap.
“That was a day Kristen and I will never forget. It was a powerful reminder that someday everything we own will be junk. In some city dump the things that have captivated our attention and dominated our lives will smolder beneath a simmering flame, amidst stinking mounds of rotting garbage. But the picture portrays not only the end of our lives and that of our children. It also portrays the ultimate collapse of human history as we now know it. History is not destined to grind on forever. It awaits—wittingly or unwittingly—the awesome and terrible judgment of God. Few chapters in the Bible describe this frightful end more pointedly than Revelation 17 and 18, and few people need to hear its message more than we Americans.”
Certainly preachers who take their lead from the Scriptures know that God loves stories. The Bible deserves a blue ribbon as one of the world’s best story books. Its narratives and parables show us what sin and faith, cowardice and courage, alienation and obedience look like dressed in skin.
While preachers are not commissioned to compete with Garrison Keillor as story tellers, we must understand the power of the phrase “for example.” Those two words promise to connect an abstract truth to the human condition. Five-star generalizers in the pulpit resemble hovercrafts that skim across the bay but never touch down anywhere. The fact that we happen to be right does not give us the right to remain up in the air, detached from the experiences of our listeners.
Real-life illustrations help us apply the truth personally—to ourselves, and to our congregations. And that, of course, is the purpose of preaching.
The Subtle Temptations Of Preaching
How we’re tempted to bend the Word to fit our words! It is a most devious temptation: to preach selectively, to avoid a lot of subjects, to slide by passages we don’t want to talk about, to manipulate Scripture to say what I would have inspired it to say had I been the Holy Spirit.
Whereas, preaching is a valuable gift of God, and
Whereas, the proclamation of God’s revealed truth is a major aspect
of pastoral ministry, and
Whereas, through the preaching of the Word, people come to faith,
Whereas, the Enemy of souls, the Enemy of the divine plan, will
oppose our preaching, and
Whereas, the Enemy will attack preaching first through the
Therefore, let all be warned that the Enemy will use his most ancient
Like everyone else, preachers are susceptible to the notorious temptations. We need say little about that. There are enough contemporary illustrations of preachers falling into conspicuous sin.
However, Satan utilizes his delicate tools along with the blunt. In fact, subtle temptations can be the more dangerous, especially for one charged with the authority of proclaiming God’s Word. We do well, then, to examine the discreet temptations that catch even alert preachers off guard.
A woman came up to the pastor at the end of the service and said, “That was a wonderful sermon. Pastor, absolutely wonderful.” She gushed on about the brilliance of the sermon.
The pastor, a little embarrassed, demurred softly, “Well, it wasn’t me. It was the Lord.”
“Oh, it wasn’t that good!” the woman replied.
This old story pinpoints one area of pastoral vulnerability: pride. “Buttering up the pastor,” as the British would say, is practically a custom in America—a way, perhaps, for people to show the pastor they are model parishioners who listen to and are blessed by the sermon.
That makes life awkward for pastors. They should be courteous to those trying to express something genuine, but, on the other hand, they mustn’t believe everything people say.
So, how does a preacher respond to compliments? If I sense people are just saying the accepted thing, I shake their hand, smile, and reply, “Well, thank you. That’s very kind of you”—a noncommittal but gracious response.
But if someone shows obvious enthusiasm about the sermon—”That was really helpful!”—and says more than the stock compliment, I’ll ask, “Would you mind telling me what was helpful? It would improve my preaching if I knew.”
I’ve found I have to use that question carefully. If the person was only repeating a platitude, my question may embarrass him when he can’t think of anything to say in response. So I don’t use that comeback unless I’m pretty sure the person means what he says.
Pride is fostered by other sources, too—church architecture, for example. Most pulpits stand in prominent places. The congregation sits in rows seemingly designed to produce dutiful, heedful people. The amplification system magnifies the preacher’s voice. Such a setting may lure a preacher into quiet conceit—These people are here to hear me I must be doing something pretty wonderful.
And perhaps the preacher is doing something wonderful simply by filling a role. Maybe some people would be blessed even if the pastor preached on “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
But most us who preach recognize that if we want to make a lasting contribution, we must communicate not ourselves but the divine Word, depending not on vain human effort but the power of the Spirit of God. Pride can find no lodging in me when that’s my understanding.
To keep this truth before me when I preach, often, just before I leave my office, I’ll pray that hymn: “My gracious Master and my God, assist me to proclaim …” I tell God, “Lord, you’re my gracious Master and my Lord, and I’m here with your message. I’m an unworthy communicator of it, dependent upon your divine assistance.”
That prayer recognizes I am the one preaching. Truth is being communicated through my personality, my mind, my voice, and my body. I’m not an inanimate instrument but an agent of God’s working. I am involved in this enterprise. At the same time, of course, this prayer recognizes my utter dependence upon God.
Pride is an insidious enemy. Usually it doesn’t harm us brazenly. It doesn’t necessarily incapacitate ministry. Instances abound of God blessing ministries led by haughty people. That’s because it’s not the minister God blesses but the truth being communicated.
But pride can destroy preachers and eventually make them what Paul called castaways. Although God uses the truth a sorry example may proclaim, the preacher, nonetheless, should accept responsibility for living as well as preaching the gospel.
A young man once came to talk to me in Britain. The subject of churches came up, and he said he wouldn’t go to church.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Well, for one thing, you have to sit and listen to a guy talking who’s six feet above contradiction.”
That phrase has stuck with me. We pastors are tempted to adopt the “six feet above contradiction” mindset, isolating ourselves from situations that could contradict or challenge us. We can physically isolate ourselves by appearing from the sacred chamber, preaching from the sacred desk, and disappearing into the sacred chamber immediately afterward, never having had contact with the people. (In fact, the more known a preacher gets, the less accessible he or she may become.)
Or the isolation may be supercilious, where we listen with ill-disguised impatience to the concerns of the people and inwardly resist: Well, I’ll listen to you because I’m paid to. But quite frankly, you don’t know what you’re talking about. After all, I’m the one with the credentials around here.
Because my personal credentials are meager—I’ve never attended Bible college or seminary—I’m less inclined to pride myself in my qualifications. But I can become impatient with people when they object to something I’ve said. After all, they haven’t studied the question as thoroughly as I have. While I see their point, from my perspective, they’ve got it all wrong.
When that happens, I’m in danger of cutting them off—albeit politely. But however polite, people pick up when I’m not taking them seriously.
Those tempted with imperiousness also tend to say things with tremendous authority, like the preacher who scribbled in the margin of his sermon notes: argument weak—shout louder. Bombast and dynamic rhetoric will be shot full of holes by thinking listeners.
I aim to listen not only to what people say to me, but also to what I’m saying to them. Not infrequently when I’m speaking, I’ll say something that, upon hearing it, doesn’t make sense or is grammatically incorrect. At that point I stop and say, “Did you hear what I just said? Can you believe an Englishman ever would say anything like that?” Or sometimes I’ll remark, “I don’t know if you were listening, but I was, and I heard myself say something ridiculous.” That light humor communicates that I’m monitoring my words and I expect the people to, as well. It also gives them permission to call me up short if I become imperious.
When I entered the pastorate, I talked to Hal Brooks, a dear pastor friend in Fort Worth, now deceased, who cautioned me that pastors can work extremes and get away with it. You can labor from dawn to midnight, or you can become bone idle.
When I pressed him, he said, “It’s easy for a pastor to do nothing much, as long as he shows up and keeps the wheels turning. People’s expectations aren’t all that high, so normally it isn’t too difficult to meet them. And if anybody in authority questions him about what he’s doing, or more specifically what he’s not doing, he can offer a spiritual answer to a practical question. That usually makes the lay person feel stupid and humiliated.”
Our preaching can also become lazy. We can keep carting out golden oldies. If people get restless, we can always rejoin, “But this is the simple gospel!”
The simple gospel, however, wasn’t meant to be a simplistic rehash of a few verses. The mystery of God’s nature, the depth of human need, the what and wherefores of salvation, and the glorious hope of eternity—these gospel truths bear fresh exploration each time we speak.
Slothful sermonizing begins with haphazard exegesis of the Scripture—reading a verse or two and stating the obvious. When we only circle our subject, our lack of preparation shows. Somebody said some preachers are like the children of Israel going around the walls of Jericho: they go round and round the subject with a tremendous amount of fanfare, and the thing falls flat.
Laziness also manifests itself in careless content. Little illustration and vague application convey that there’s been little preparation.
(Of course, in churches where there’s but one pastor who is expected to do everything, laziness may not be the fault. He or she just may not have time to prepare. Naturally, that’s a different story.)
To guard against such laziness, I take into the pulpit more material than I possibly can use in one sermon, which I then draw from as I preach.
An insightful woman in our congregation once commented, “I love attending the first service.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I enjoy seeing a sermon in the making. I’ve been to the other services, but in the first, I see the selectivity process going on. Sometimes as I watch the development of a point, I think to myself, I doubt if he’ll spend as much time on that the second time around.”
She’s right. I am working on a sermon while I’m giving it, not because I haven’t done my work before, but because I have an abundance of material to choose from as the sermon unfolds. I try to find and use that abundance to keep me from lazy preaching.
Plagiarism is related to sloth. Some preachers simply preach somebody else’s sermon. Although I’ve never met one who does, some preachers, I understand, literally read a canned sermon from a book.
On the other hand, I do encourage pastors to draw from others’ material. Nothing is completely original. Besides, exigencies of the pastorate sometimes demand we take advantage of others’ good ideas. For instance, my oldest son is in his first year as a pastor. He is run ragged with all the responsibilities. Since he’s a meticulous sort, sermon preparation takes hours. So when he tells me the series he’s working on, I give him outlines of the sermons I’ve preached in a similar series. I won’t give him the sermon, but the skeletons prove to be tremendous time savers.
There’s no point reinventing the wheel. All of us need to use the wheel, giving it our imprint as we go along. Most of us know the difference between utilizing other material judiciously and being so lazy that we plagiarize.
When I use someone else’s work directly, I give credit. One of Steve Brown’s recent books has a story about a flight he took in which a little girl across the aisle became ill and died. They made an emergency stop and took the body off the plane. Steve, concerned about how people were taking it, said to one of the flight attendants, “I’m a minister, and I’ll be glad to talk to anybody who might need some spiritual help.”
The attendant said something to the effect of, “Oh, I think they’ll be all right. We’ve given them free drinks.”
The week I read that account, it was absolutely right for my sermon. So I prefaced the story with, “I was reading recently a book by Steve Brown, minister of Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church, and he tells of being on an airplane when a little girl died.…” To say instead, “A while back, a little girl died in the seat across from me on an airplane …” would have been dishonest. There’s lots of good material well worth using if done so judiciously.
How we’re tempted to bend the Word to fit our words! It is a most devious temptation: to preach selectively, to avoid a lot of subjects, to slide by passages we don’t want to talk about.
I’ve learned that rather than ducking a difficult passage, it’s better to say, “This is an extremely difficult passage, and I recognize a number of possible interpretations. Personally, I have difficulty with each one, and so I’m undecided.” That’s honest and fair, and people are usually satisfied with that. I can’t preach beyond what I understand, yet I’m not treating the Scripture with benign neglect.
Word twisting also takes the form of manipulating Scripture to say what I would have inspired it to say had I been the Holy Spirit. That temptation especially seduces the preacher who is enamored by a particular theme. Churchill said a fanatic is a person who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. In preaching, there’s a temptation to find our favorite subject in whatever text we take.
The temptation also appears when we preach character studies. It’s easy to read into a biblical character traits that simply aren’t supported by the facts. I’m blessed with a vivid imagination, and at times that blessing can be a curse.
People still remind me about a message I gave on John Mark and Barnabas. I preached that John Mark was frightened. In fact I called him “Chicken John Mark.” Then I started thinking about that allegation. Although Scripture says he left Paul and Barnabas in the middle of their journey, it doesn’t say why. Maybe I’m giving John Mark a bum rap. I’ll be spending eternity with him, and I don’t want him coming up to me saying, “Hey, Buddy, who are you calling chicken?”
Naturally, we can make some suppositions to fill out a story, but it’s best to soften our speech by saying, “I rather suspect …” or “I think …”
Such extrapolations from the text aren’t meant to be authoritative preaching; they’re more illustrative, allowing people to feel a degree of empathy with the character.
When I spoke of Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, I said, “And Peter pulls out his rusty sword, thinking, I’m gonna defend the Lord! When the high priest’s servant steps forward, Peter whacks off his ear.” Then I paused and asked, “Does Peter sound like the kind of guy who would just chop off somebody’s ear?” I then ventured into speculation, but let them know it: “I don’t think that’s what he was planning to do at all. I think he was out to split Malchus right down the middle—Mal on one side and Chus on the other—and Malchus simply ducked at the last minute.”
There’s absolutely no scriptural warrant for that, but it’s colorful. It paints a picture of this big, fiery, impetuous Peter swinging wildly with the sword and making an awful mess of things. As long as the main point of the character study is backed by Scripture, I feel I can take such excursions of imagination, if they are clearly labeled as such.
A young preacher went to preach his first sermon. He’d done so much work on this masterpiece that he was full of his own importance. He entered the pulpit with tremendous confidence, but once up there, he blanked out and couldn’t think of a thing. Finally he came down from the pulpit utterly humiliated.
As he slumped down the steps, an old preacher said to him, “If you’d gone up the way you came down, you’d have come down the way you went up.”
The person who exudes a tremendous sense of cockiness, who’s full of himself, often is riding for a fall.
On the other hand, we’ve got an authoritative message. We needn’t be diffident or apologetic about God’s Word, or it will come across with an uncertain sound. Such authority mixed with humility is the delicate but necessary blend.
Self-promotion oozes out of our sermons when we begin to look great in all our stories, and everybody else comes across as a real dummy. I’ve caught myself doing that. Generally it’s better to tell self-deprecating stories.
Self-promotion also occurs when we use half-stories that make us look good because we tell only the good half, or when we name-drop. It also rears its ugly head when we appear always to have the right answer: “Somebody came to me with a problem, and I told him …”. Too many of these illustrations come across as self-promotion. And that’s not our business. Our task is God-promotion.
Preachers have to wage a courageous battle against the temptation to become a people pleaser, especially when it comes at the expense of prophetic preaching. Sometimes the people need to hear a word they don’t want to hear, even if it puts our livelihood at stake.
There’s the old joke about the church looking for a pastor, and their job description contains such items as “a young man with the wisdom of one ripe in years” and “who visits all the parishioners and is always available in his office.” The final qualification is: “Who will expound the Word of God without fear and who will tell us with great authority exactly what we want to hear.”
That’s not far from the situation many pastors face. But I think of what Paul said to the Corinthians: “I care very little if I’m judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I don’t even judge myself. There is One who judges me, and that is the Lord.”
The only way to resist the powerful temptation to please people is to remember the simple truth that, first and foremost, we’re called to be faithful.
On the other hand, the older I get, the less dogmatic I’ve become. I like to think I’ve become more sensitive to people’s hurts and struggles. That means I’m tempted to soften the hard edges of Scripture at times.
Certainly if I’m corrupting the prophetic Word, even in tenderness, I need to resist the temptation. But if my tenderness arises from a pastor’s heart that’s aware of the pain in the congregation, and if I tailor (not adulterate) the biblical message for my people’s lives, then the mellowing is appropriate.
I was talking to a psychologist friend a few days ago. The discussion turned to the problems of pastors falling into immoral behavior. I asked him, “How should pastors guard against such eventualities?”
His answer surprised me: “Just be honest—strictly honest—with yourself at all times.”
Within the preaching context, his advice remains just as appropriate. Temptations, even the subtle variety, cannot stand against our strict, withering honesty.
Keeping Ourselves On Target
Every preacher is evaluated, one way or another, by every listener. Constructive evaluation won’t happen, though, no matter how willing I am to receive it, unless I’m asking the right people the right questions at the right time.
When I first began teaching publicly, as a youth minister in the early seventies, I taught in a conversational, dialogue style. After all, there were just twenty-five kids. When my material wasn’t all that useful, one of the students would raise a hand and say, “Can we move on?” Then I’d realize I was missing the mark, or I had overstayed my welcome in the Book of Leviticus, and we would move on.
I stayed with that style for more than a year, but then we started outreach programs, and all of a sudden the group jumped from 25 to 150. My teaching style soon became inappropriate for the larger group; I actually had to start putting together formal messages. In a panic, I went to a senior pastor friend and said, “I have to start giving full-blown messages to 150 high school students. What do you suggest?”
He said, “Well, if I were you, I would get a copy of Berkhof’s Manual of Christian Doctrine and just start at chapter 1 and teach these kids.” Sounded fine to me. So I read the first chapter of Berkhof, did some underlining and preparation, and that night began delivering it to a roomful of students.
Five minutes into that talk, I started to see glazed expressions. Students were looking around the room to see who was there. Others were looking at their watches, passing notes to each other, drawing on the backs of the chairs in front of them.
Right then, I knew this teaching was not useful. I was so disheartened by what was happening that I stopped about a third of the way into the message.
“I have to apologize,” I said, “for the fact that I am missing the mark tonight. What I prepared to say is obviously not on target. And I want to make a commitment to you students. If you’ll come back next week, I’m going to talk about something straight out of the Bible that is going to make a difference in your understanding of God, in your appreciation of the Christian faith, and in how you live your daily life. And if you’ll give me another opportunity, I’d like to prove that to you.”
The next week most of them returned, graciously, maybe just to humor me. But from that day on, I have lived with a sanctified terror of boring people or making the relevant Scriptures irrelevant. That experience helped me die to pride on the issue of having my teaching evaluated.
Every preacher is evaluated, one way or another, by every listener. I want to get evaluation that will help me be most effective in reaching people with God’s truth. I consider getting accurate evaluation part of my job.
The Right Questions
Constructive evaluation won’t happen, though, no matter how willing I am to receive it, unless I’m asking the right people the right questions at the right time.
By right people, I mean people with great discernment whom I have learned to trust. It will only distract, confuse, or harm me to get input from everyone. Instead, I want to go to wise counselors.
By right questions, I mean that I want to find out how I’m communicating at a variety of levels:
• Each illustration—did it communicate what I intended?
• Each message—did it serve its function in the series?
• A year’s worth of messages—are they covering the topics and passages this congregation wants and needs to hear?
• My preaching as a whole—is it helping to accomplish the goal of my ministry?
Finally, by right time, I mean I want to receive evaluation when it’s most effective. Obviously, that’s when I can do the most about it. Finding out after I deliver a message that it was slightly off track is somewhat useful. But how much more productive it is to find out before I put twenty hours into something that wasn’t well aimed! So increasingly, I ask “evaluation” questions during the planning stages before I preach. Each weekend, for example, I preach the same message three times—once on Saturday night and twice on Sunday morning. I try to get evaluation immediately following the Saturday night service, so I can make adjustments before I preach the same message two more times. As a result, some Sunday mornings have found me in my office at 5:30. But getting evaluation early keeps me from making one mistake multiple times.
Asking someone to evaluate your preaching is a delicate operation, and the people, questions, and timing are going to vary with each pastor and church. But let me share how I have tried to gain the information that would make my preaching better.
Evaluating One Sermon
The elders at Willow Creek would always respond truthfully when I asked them about the accuracy or relevancy of my preaching. But unless I asked, they wouldn’t say anything.
So over the course of time, we have formalized the process. Now the elders evaluate every message that I preach, and they give me a written response to it within minutes after I complete the message. One elder—our most discerning when it comes to preaching evaluation—collects responses from the other elders, summarizes them, and writes them on the front of a bulletin and gives it to me before I leave.
For example, on a recent Wednesday night I gave a strong call to honoring the lordship of Christ. One elder called me (though usually his comments would just be written on the bulletin) and said, “I really do appreciate all of what you said and the style and the tone of what you communicated Wednesday night. Now that you’ve made that emphasis, I feel it’s important for you to remind the people regularly in ensuing messages of the assisting work of the Holy Spirit. We need his power to submit consistently to that kind of lordship.”
I said, “Good word.” That’s the kind of correction I need, because sometimes I will feel so strongly about a subject that the sheer force of my personality causes complications I didn’t intend. People think I was angry about something. And so hearing how my tone and demeanor come across is very important to me.
This past Wednesday night, I again spoke on the lordship of Christ, and several elders remarked that they appreciated the spirit and tone with which I spoke. In this message, they said, I was not strident, but gave a loving call to discipleship. That meant a lot to me.
I realize the thought of having elders evaluate every message—or any message—is a frightening thought for many pastors. I confess that the primary reason this system of accountability and evaluation works in our setting is because of the enormous trust and love that has been built between my elders and me. When I work sometimes twenty-five or thirty hours on a sermon, and pour my life into it, and pray over it, and write out three drafts—if the evaluation is not done with great sensitivity and with no ulterior motives from the evaluators, the system would be imperiled. If I ever, even once, sensed a private agenda or hobby horse one particular elder wanted to ride, this form of evaluation we enjoy might unravel.
Having said that, however, we have taken several steps to ensure effective evaluation.
First, I freely admit to them I’m sensitive about having my preaching evaluated. I have told the elders probably a hundred times, “I am extremely vulnerable about these evaluations in the first four minutes after I get down from the pulpit. I would appreciate very much if whoever’s doing the evaluating would put a lot of time into thinking about how to present constructive criticisms to me.” The elders have understood that and worked hard on it.
Second, we filter all the evaluations through one person. It used to be that if I had said something a little off the mark in an illustration, by the time I got to my office, I’d heard about it seven or eight times. After the third elder would say something, I would say, “Enough already; I got the point.” But each one felt responsible to say something. So finally I went to the elders and said, “Time out. The seven pats on the back when I preach well are nice, but the seven slaps when I blow it are excruciating. Let’s filter all the comments through one elder so I’ll hear things only once.”
We chose as the person to collect responses a man who has a rare ability to affirm that which should be affirmed. The agreement is this: If an elder senses a message was right on the mark, then there’s no need to find this elder appointee and say anything. If the message was incredibly insightful—I think it’s happened once or twice—then make a point of telling the appointed elder. And if there’s a problem in the message, naturally, the elder appointee should hear about that. But there isn’t a formal caucus after each message, because over the years this particular elder’s evaluation has been recognized as almost always illustrative of the feelings of the group. And usually he will talk to two or three elders before he talks to me.
A third principle that makes the system work for us is that there’s give and take on the evaluations. A lot of times, the elder appointee will say something like this: “You might reconsider the use of such-and-such a word, given the fact we have so many former Catholics.” I’ll ponder that and say, “I didn’t realize that would offend them. It’s no big deal to replace a word there. I can use another word, and everybody’s happy.”
But other times he’ll say, “Might you consider not making reference to the football player?” And I’ll say, “If this is one of those ‘might you reconsider,’ I think no; it’s very important for the non-churched men I’m trying to reach.” As many times as not, the elder will say, “I can understand that.”
Of course, periodically, there are the comments such as, “Please change this; please delete the use of that word; please delete that illustration. We can talk about it later, or call me at home, but we have strong reservations about that concept.” And in those cases, I change it. The elders (and board members and staff people, whom I occasionally ask for evaluation) are discerning people who know when I hit the mark and when I forgot to load the gun.
I used an illustration one time about sitting next to a black attorney on a plane returning from Washington, D.C., and went on to talk about our conversation. One of the board members stopped me on the way out after the service, smiled, and said, “Was it necessary to say that attorney on the plane was black? Were you proving that you’re impartial? What were you saying there?”
“It never crossed my mind,” I said. “I was just reporting the facts. He was black.”
He said, “I would guess that as many people wondered why you noted that he was black as benefited from the point of your illustration.”
I said, “Now that’s a good insight.” To me, I was just reporting the facts, but reporting that fact clouded my illustration in many people’s minds; that one word made them miss the whole point of the illustration.
I know I’ve heard other speakers mention offhandedly in an illustration, “I saw this obese woman,” and I’m painfully aware that if I said that, many people in my church would have their self-esteem destroyed. They would be out of commission the rest of the sermon and not hear anything else I said. And the offhanded comment had nothing to do with the point of the illustration!
In fact, I got so tired of having ancillary issues become the dominant issues in my preaching, simply because of carelessness, that I now write my sermons in three drafts and include every word of every illustration. Now I’m not suggesting for a moment that other preachers inflict themselves with a discipline that I have chosen willfully and joyfully to submit to. I just got sick of reading, “Did you realize who might have been hurt by your reference to that? Your off-the-cuff remark about this may have meant this …”
Writing out sermons does offer many fringe benefits. I’ve found it helps me structure a sermon, because I can see the main points emerge. And writing helps expand my vocabulary. When someone talks, he tends to use repetitive word forms. When he writes, he realizes that two pages ago he used that particular word so it would be inappropriate to use it again. But the primary reason I write out a message is so that when I reread it before I deliver it, I can ponder. Who is that going to trip? What ancillary issue will that make dominant? It helps me say exactly what I want to say and not raise other issues that block the main point.
If, after reading the sermon I’m preparing, I still have a question about the appropriateness of a certain point, I may talk it over with an elder. This is especially true of messages for Wednesday night, when there’s no second chance to fix them. The elders and I meet to pray before services, and if there’s a troubling issue I’m going to get into, I’ll say then, “I feel I have to mention this certain topic, and I was planning to handle it this way. Are you all going to feel comfortable with that?”
Having elders or other trusted people evaluate each sermon sounds like work. It is. But this evaluation has saved me so many times from saying something I would regret later, that I have reached the point where I wouldn’t want to preach without it.
Evaluating a Year’s Worth of Sermons
Sometimes, though, I need to step back and look at more than one message or series. The zoom lens is fine, but sometimes you need to use a wide-angle lens to get everything in. I’ve found it natural to look at a year’s worth of messages at one time.
The only way I can do this, though, is to get away from the church for an extended period in which I can pray, read, and look back over my previous year’s sermons. I have started taking a summer study break each year, and I’m convinced it has improved my teaching. Only when I’m away from the crush of the daily routines can I see patterns of strengths or neglected areas. Suddenly I notice topics or themes that have gotten lots of attention and others that have been overlooked.
But when a year’s worth of preaching is at stake, I don’t want to wait until it’s over to listen to people in the congregation. After 100 messages, evaluation comes almost too late. What I need more is to hear people’s interests and concerns before I start the year.
As a result, I have developed a three-step approach to planning a coming year’s sermons, and I get input from people at every step.
In April, I select eight or nine people from the congregation. I choose people who are members of our main target audience (suburban business people who wouldn’t feel comfortable in many traditional church settings). Sometimes I’ll add someone who is highly creative, or who represents a large segment of the congregation in terms of his or her age, career, family situation, or whatever. I give these people an assignment: “Circulate in your social circles and find out on what issues people would like clear teaching from the Word of God. Then, based on that, put together what you feel would be an ideal sermon series addressing those needs. Come up with a series title, how you would break down the topic, and what your emphasis would be. You can work with anybody you want, and you have thirty days to do it.”
People think. Hey, this might change what I have to listen to! and they get motivated. They talk to their friends and people they work with. Some of them invite groups of people to their homes for input.
Then this group and I go away together for two and a half days. We meet from 8 A.M. till midnight, with a few hours off to eat and let the jets cool. The main thing I do is listen and take notes. I ask the first person, “Read me one of your series titles and the sermon titles that would be a part of that,” and we discuss it. Usually one idea will trip another idea, and we’ll end up with thirty or forty viable sermon series.
For example, I just preached a series entitled “Seasons of a Spiritual Life” that included four messages: “The Season of Spiritual Seeking,” “The Season of Spiritual Infancy,” “The Season of Spiritual Adolescence,” and “The Season of Spiritual Adulthood.” That title and breakdown of messages came straight from this group.
After that I launched a series about Jesus entitled “Someone You Should Know.” What a great title! Later I worked on still another idea from this group: “Families in the Fast Lane.”
During the month following this meeting, I go over all the ideas the group came up with. I rule out any topics I just covered in the past few months, as well as any that are extraneous to the scope of Willow Creek’s ministry. From the remaining proposed sermon series, I choose twenty I feel I could really work with or that stimulate some interest in me.
Then I convene a second group made up of elders and senior staff members. We go away for three days and make the final selections for the coming year—which of the twenty contenders we will preach, and in what order.
It’s amazing to me the wealth of wisdom that comes out of a plurality of godly people who look at life differently than I do. Last year, in the first planning session, someone had proposed a series of sermons on fear: a message on the fear of failure, another on the fear of living alone, another on the fear of dying, and so on. When the person proposed it, I thought. That series will never make it. Those fears were simply not things that kept me awake at night. But I did leave it in as one of the twenty contenders for the second planning group to consider. When the elders and senior staff began to discuss it, I told them frankly I just couldn’t see it working. But these highly discerning people looked at me and said, “Bill, just because you don’t wrestle with these fears doesn’t mean other people don’t. People have these fears—normal people. Take our word for it that this subject is pleading to be spoken to.”
So I agreed to preach the series, even though it wasn’t one I would have chosen. But as they suspected, it was tremendously beneficial for our church. In fact, “The Fear of Dying” was one of the most highly requested tapes in recent years!
How Well We Meet Our Overall Goal
So far I haven’t mentioned the usual barometers we use to measure our preaching: informal comments from people after services, letters they send, the number of tapes ordered, or comments from our spouse at home. Not that I don’t think these measures are important. The problem is that I (and other preachers, I suspect) tend to put too much importance on them. And if we’re not careful, that can lead to a subtle imbalance in our preaching.
It happened to me. Here’s how.
Over the last thirteen years, the period in which Willow Creek has developed, society has fragmented at a frightening pace. When we started the church, maybe 5 percent of our congregation was made up of people who were so badly wounded they were dysfunctional. They grew up in homes with alcoholics, or were sexually abused or verbally abused, or were abandoned, divorced, or victimized in one form or another. Now, as a result of trends in society, that percentage has grown to probably 15 percent.
During this time, I have been careful to use the normal ways of listening to people and getting feedback about my preaching. I have a commitment to stay after a service as long as anybody wants to talk. After a typical service, I’ll have serious conversations with probably thirty people. In addition, people write to me; I’m contacted by between 100 and 150 people a week.
But what I have not been sharp enough to pick up on, until recently, is that this sample of conversations and letters doesn’t reflect the total congregation. It’s skewed. Why? Because the people who will take the time to stay after a service in order to talk, or who will take the time to write a letter, are from the segment of the congregation that tends to be dysfunctional. They are so wounded that they write impassioned letters, and they are so hurting they are willing to stand for forty-five minutes in order to talk to me.
What I didn’t notice, because it happened so subtly over time, was that I was not being contacted by the 85 percent of the congregation who are fairly functional, normal people who want to get on with their lives and grow. The preponderance of my interaction was with the 15 percent: wounded, needy people who were screaming out for me to be helpful. They did not want me to talk about picking up a cross and carrying it to serve Jesus Christ. They did not want me to talk about denying themselves. They did not want me to talk about making a difference with their lives. They wanted to be helped and loved and encouraged and nurtured.
So when I would give a message on “God will be with you even in your pain,” or something like that, all the normal indicators of preaching effectiveness would go sky-high. Letters and phone calls would start coming that said, “Thank you for that tremendously helpful message.” People would stand in long lines to tell me that message was just what they needed. I looked at all that and thought. If I really love the flock, if I’m here to serve the flock, that’s the kind of preaching I’m going to do.
Then I went on my summer study break. As I evaluated the past five years of sermons, I began noticing subtle shifts. Five years ago, I realized, 70 percent of my messages were what I would call firm discipleship or gospel-oriented messages. Only 30 percent were more general, helpful messages. But over the years, those numbers have almost flipped. I was floored.
I reread Loving God, and when I finished, it dawned on me, Chuck Colson thinks we ought to be producing fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ in our churches. All I’m trying to do is patch up people’s lives. All I’m trying to do is lift burdens off sagging shoulders.
I began to ask myself. What about the 85 percent? Who is challenging these people to full discipleship? And who is asking these people to become kingdom men and women? Who’s asking these people to lay down their lives for the cause of Christ? I’m not. And I’m the only preacher they have.
I could say very honestly I had not done anything consciously to preach a cheap gospel. I was trying to proclaim a compassionate gospel. Let any sensitive pastor talk with 125 people a week, the preponderance of whom are wounded, victimized, and crying out for help, and it takes a toll. You begin to think. How can I add the burden of kingdom responsibility onto the shoulders of people who are bent over already? I don’t have the heart for it. My authentic motivation for that subtle shift was to be more responsive to a broken people. But as I spent days earnestly seeking the mind of God, it became clear to me that even though the motivation for the subtle shift was admirable, continuing down that path would be disaster.
When all this crashed in on me, it was both exhilarating and devastating. For weeks, I wrestled with what had happened. I came back and talked to the elders about it, and the minute I alerted them to this, everybody could see it. They said, “We knew something was happening, too.” But no one had the luxury that I had of spending several weeks trying to hear what God was saying. The elders are godly people; I only had to mention the change in a cursory fashion and they said, “That’s it. It’s got to change.”
Our solution has been to offer regular seminar and workshop teaching and therapy on all of these areas of victimization and pain. We are able to say to the 15 percent, “There is a place for you; there’s hope for you; there’s a context for you to receive the nurturing and expertise that are going to really solve your problem.” But it’s primarily in our counseling center, not in our Sunday service. And that makes sense. Allan McKechnie, the head of our counseling center, has pointed out to me that lasting change rarely comes out of large-group therapy, which is what I was attempting. It comes in the context of small groups or one-on-one discussions.
That frees me to be able to do the kind of teaching that exhilarates me and fulfills me and that is a true representation of who God made me to be. It’s with the 85 percent.
Take, for example, a recent Wednesday night message. A theme of this whole ministry, coming out of Luke 15, is “You Matter to God.” During that recent message, the first or second after my study break, I said, “We talk a lot around here about the fact that you matter to God. That’s right, and that’s true. But let me ask you this: Does God matter to you?”
It’s interesting what has happened as a result of our sharpened focus. I used to drive home on a Sunday feeling as though I had been run over by a truck. I would talk after the service with dozens of people who were struggling to make it through another day, and I would feel totally defeated. I would come in the house, and Lynne would say, “That was a great message this morning.” And I’d say, “What message? I don’t even remember preaching.”
But since this new understanding has come, I talk to just as many people, but because of the subject matter I’m preaching these days, the conversations invigorate me. People are wrestling with what it means to be a man or woman of God. Even the wounded people see their need in a spiritual way. I’m not doing therapy; I’m doing discipleship. And that kind of talking doesn’t exhaust me; it infuses me with energy.
From this experience, I have learned some important lessons. First, for my preaching to be effective, it’s imperative I know—and stay riveted to—the overall goal of my ministry. At Willow Creek, we ask ourselves, “What do we want the end product to be? There’s this enormous machinery—buildings and staff. But after the people finally come through our ministry, what are they supposed to look like?”
We have answered that, “We want to develop fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. They should think Christianly, act Christianly, relate Christianly.”
I know I haven’t drawn that target on the wall often enough. Too often I’ve been caught preaching as if the goal of my ministry were to help people lead happy, well-adjusted lives and be more helpful to each other. Baloney! We have to shoot much higher than that. I want to preach in such a way that I help produce people who can rise above petty scrapes and get on with following Jesus Christ.
Second, I rigorously and regularly have to measure my preaching against this bull’s-eye. Are the messages I’m preaching contributing to that? Are they really leading people to become more devoted to Christ? It’s so easy to drift, incrementally and unconsciously, from that goal. But when that happens, my preaching, no matter how clever or prayed over or prepared, is undermined.
Why Fool with Evaluation?
Sometimes I’m tempted to think. It really would be so much nicer if I didn’t have the elders reproving me every time I slip up, and if I could just preach the way I want to preach and forget about anybody’s evaluation.
But then I realize why I have to take evaluation seriously. It’s because I preach, as every pastor does, before a righteous and holy God, and I know he evaluates my work. Every time I take out a new pad and write a new sermon title with a passage under it, I pray, “Lord, I would like this to be an unblemished lamb, a worship sacrifice that you would really be proud of. I’m not going to be happy, and you’re not going to be happy, with a sick, dying, blind, diseased, ravaged lamb. I will not offer it; you will not receive it.” So to me it’s a holy thing to start a new message. If God has given you speaking gifts and called you into the ministry, he expects unblemished lambs.
But that’s also a good, freeing realization for me. I give a lot of messages that I don’t think meet the standard I would have liked. But then I can go back and say. Did 1 really do my preparation effectively? Did I pray on my knees as I should have? Was it biblical? Did the elders say that it was approved? If I can say yes to those questions, then I’m done with the message, and I can walk away from it, no matter what anyone thinks. If those who came through the line said they didn’t appreciate it, and if I got ripped apart by an extremist on either side of the message, it doesn’t affect me. I did the best I knew how in trying to offer an unblemished lamb. That’s the extent of my responsibility.
The rest is God’s. I never have the final word on any passage or on any topic. When I get to the end of myself, that’s where the real message starts. My prayer, when I’m driving home from church, is “Now, Holy Spirit, that I’m done and out of the way, do your real work. I tried to give you enough truth and opportunity to work with. But the result in these people’s lives is up to you.”
These men recognize the difficulties of preaching well week after week and touching people for Christ. And yet it remains their calling and their life’s ambition.
As we were nearing the completion of this book, Leadership gathered all three authors together. After months of working separately, it was time to work together. Besides getting material for some of the chapters you’ve already read, we also wanted to talk about the personal side of preaching.
We wanted to know, for instance, “What discourages you as a preacher?”
“Sundays!” said Stuart Briscoe. We all enjoyed the laughter before turning more serious.
“One thing that discourages me,” said Bill Hybels, “is that I consistently feel I never do justice to a text. I give it my best shot, do everything in my power to plumb its depths and show its grandeur … and then I go home feeling like I just scraped the surface and left most of the good stuff back in the Book.” The others concurred.
“I find it discouraging,” said Stuart Briscoe, “when, after a service in which I have poured out my heart and dealt with profound, eternal issues, people immediately confront me with irrelevancies. Once I had a series of meetings in South Carolina, and we planned a question/answer time at the end of the week. The only question I got, after a week’s preaching, was from an older woman who sat in the front row every night, who asked, ‘Is them your own teeth?’ I was tempted to go back to banking.”
Haddon Robinson reflected: “When I look at the secularism of our society and the mindset that is so shaped by mass media, when people watch television twenty-four hours a week and may spend one hour listening to God’s Word—at such times I feel like we’re in a wilderness straining to hear a voice. The voice is almost drowned out. I know preaching makes a difference, but many times it seems culture rushes headlong in the opposite direction.”
Yes, these men recognize the difficulties of preaching well week after week and striving to impact people for Christ. And yet they remain committed to the task. It remains their calling and life’s ambition. For instance, note their answer to our question: “When the epitaph is written on your preaching ministry, what do you want it to read?”
“I hope my epitaph is similar to the one that described Ezra: He devoted himself to studying the word and to doing it,” said Stuart Briscoe. But then, characteristically, the easy-going Britisher continued with a twinkle in his eye, “My wife, however, has already picked out my epitaph. She says that she’s going to put on my gravestone, ‘Here lies Stuart Briscoe. He never anticipated any major difficulty.’ ”
Like Stuart, Bill Hybels also pointed to a biblical reference: “Paul said in Acts 20, ‘I did not shrink back from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.’ There is still within me the periodic unwillingness to boldly proclaim what I know I ought to proclaim. That verse haunts me. The Spirit seems to whisper, Don’t shrink back. You know what people need to hear. They may not want to hear it; it may not create warm fuzzies for them. It may even produce some conflict in their jobs and relationships, but don’t shrink back. If someday people will recognize I didn’t shrink back, that would be my goal.”
Finally, we asked, “What keeps you going when you’re discouraged?”
Haddon Robinson said, “People who say to you, often years later, ‘I heard you preach, and I came to know Christ as a result.’ Many years ago I preached a series of messages at a small town in Minnesota. Several churches together had planned the event, but that week, as far as I could tell, nothing happened. But just a year ago, I was on the West Coast when a fellow introduced himself and asked if I remembered those meetings in Minnesota. He said, ‘Do you remember that on a Wednesday night two guys came forward?’ I recalled they were the only two who had responded all week. ‘I was one of them,’ he said. ‘My friend and I came that night, and we did two things: we trusted Christ, and we decided that if he was worth trusting, he was worth giving our lives to. So now I’m in the ministry, and my friend is a missionary in Africa.’ I was moved. I had been sure it was a wasted week, but God somehow touched two lives.”
Studying the Word, not shrinking back from proclaiming it, and touching lives for Christ—that certainly is the assignment and the desire of anyone who is mas
Published: January 27, 2015, 08:55 | Comments Off on MASTERINGCONTEMPORARY PREACHING- by Uwe Rosenkranz
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