Show Me What You're Working With

How do you preach Bible-shaped, compelling sermons? For some, preaching a Bible-shaped or Bible-saturated sermon means you cannot really be compelling. The goal is exegesis and therefore hardly any thought can or should be given to being compelling. If you bore your listeners, so be it. For others, being compelling means you cannot do biblical exegesis at the expense of being compelling. Now, those may be caricatures to some degree, many preachers falling somewhere in between. 

We believe sermons can be filled with explanation of biblical texts while at the same time compelling listeners to hang on every word of the sermon.  On our last blog we talked about being driven by the Bible. Here we are talking about preaching sermons that are shaped by the Bible.

Imagine being driven by the Bible in sermon preparation and preaching sound biblical truths in a sermon but never referencing, reading, or quoting biblical texts. Everything you say may be true, but your delivery is not shaped by handling the texts directly. Listeners do not get a chance to handling the texts themselves nor see where the preacher's content comes from. These are things listeners should be able to do and see during a sermon. 

When the Bible shapes a sermon it accomplishes two important things: First, it lends credibility to the preacher. If your church is consciously wondering whether what they are hearing from their pastor is biblical, then a sermon shaped by the Bible will convince them of that. Secondly, a sermon should feed listeners the Bible, letting them feast on the Word like the preacher feasted in preparation.   

When it comes to lending the preacher credibility, Bible-shaped sermons convince listeners the sermon is biblical. If a preacher is driven by the Bible, that should be shown to listeners. They need to see that their preacher is driven by the Bible, not his own heart. John Piper is helpful here: "Most people do not easily see the connections a preacher sees between his words and the words of the text he is preaching from." Listeners need to be shown the preacher is getting his words from His Word.  

When it comes to listeners handling the biblical texts for themselves, this means they need to see the texts, read them, and hear them. They need to consume them. Just as the preacher read and studied and handled the text in preparation, listeners should be given a similar opportunity. This does not mean the preacher reveals every bit of his interpretive process, but he reveals enough of it. Parts of a sermon can feel like the preacher and listener are sitting down at a coffee shop, reading the text, asking questions and discovering the text for the first time, together. 

So how does a preacher shape sermons with the Bible? It is oversimplified to say, "Just saturate your sermon in Scripture!" A preacher can quote out-of-context verses all day long and be dead wrong about all of them, but the sermon was saturated in Scripture. Here are three practical ways to shape sermons with the Bible:

1. Read the main text at a designated time before or during the sermon. Many churches read the main biblical text before the sermon starts or at a designated time during the sermon (such as after the introduction). Oftentimes, someone other than the preacher will do the reading. It is a chance for everyone to hear and read the text, putting their eyes on it, before the preacher begins preaching. A creative way to put a spotlight on the text is by reading it after a compelling introduction. A preacher grabs attention with an introduction and then diverts attention to the biblical text. This begins to convince listeners the sermon is driven by a text and it begins to let them consume the Word.

2. Spend significant time explaining the main biblical text(s). Whatever biblical texts drive the vast majority of the sermon, those texts should be thoroughly explained. There are times when a verse only needs to be quoted briefly. But whatever texts drive the meat of a sermon, those texts should be explained clearly. "Thoroughly" does not mean the original languages always need to be explained. "Thoroughly" simply means listeners should understand the context of the passage, what certain words mean, the big idea, etc. Listeners should be able to see precisely why the preacher has made his interpretive conclusions.

3. Tell listeners when to look at the text. It is normal for a sermon to work through a verse or passage bit by bit. This means listeners' heads go down to their Bibles or over to screens to look at a part of a verse/passage, then they go back to the preacher, then they go back to the text, and so forth. If you make a proposition about something that you, the preacher, know is straight from the text, it is helpful to tell your listeners, "Look at the last part of verse 2. See what it says? [Then read/quote the text]." Again, John Piper advises preachers, "Say the actual words of the text again and again." 

Your job as a preacher is to preach the Word of God. God has prepared all of your sermon content for you. Study it. Discover its meaning. Be driven by it. Then showcase it for your listeners compellingly. Let sermons be shaped by it. Read it, quote it, and explain it. Tell gripping stories that illustrate it. Disappear as God steps forward in your preaching to deliver the message of the Bible: Christ crucified for our sins.