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.


News Runners are Driven by News

In today's world of journalism it is not always easy to discern what is news and what is entertainment. It is not always easy to determine when news stations are trying to attract viewers or trying to report facts. Perhaps this is most hilariously displayed when a news company has a reporter live on the scene of a breaking story but has little to report. The reporter begins to just ramble, filling the air with noise. "You can see these cars parked over here with people walking around them. We have helicopters flying overhead. Police have a presence here and have taped off the area. It looks like people are talking on their cell phones, calling other people."

During these times the news company is trying to deliver compelling news with no news to report. The result is silly. As preachers, we may never preach a sermon that sounds quite like that, but it is easy to do the exact same thing. Putting the cart before the horse, sometimes a preacher desperately tries to create a sermon that will be compelling but he avoids the news staring him in the face, the news that is right there in the Bible.

Most preachers will confess that to preach a sermon is to preach the Bible. "[P]reach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching" (2 Tim. 4:2). It is possible, however, for a preacher to believe and sound like he is preaching the Bible while largely avoiding the Bible altogether, consciously or not. On the our last blog we talked about the need for sermons to be driven and shaped by the Bible. This week we will look closer at what it means to be driven by the Bible.

To be driven by the Bible means sermon creation begins with the Bible. That sounds painfully obvious, but you probably know how easy it is to create a sermon (or sermon series!) while hardly dealing with the Bible at all. To be driven by the Bible means that before you frantically think about attracting listeners, you must discover what the Bible says. Then you can say what the Bible says in clear and compelling ways. Dr. Edmund Clowney says, "Don't let the pulpit drive you to the Word. Let the Word drive you to the pulpit". 

Beginning with the Bible must be done whether you are preaching through a book of the Bible or a topical series. Either way, as you discover biblical truth you discover what to preach. "The meaning of the passage is the message of the sermon" (Bryan Chapell). This does not mean the Bible will tell you exactly how to deliver the truth, but it will give you the truth to deliver (we will talk about how the Bible shapes delivery in the next blog).   

The opposite of being driven by the Bible is being driven One sure fire way to know if you are driving your sermons rather than the Bible is to see if the majority of your sermon is written before you handle the biblical texts in any significant way. If your sermon is practically written and the main thing to do is find biblical references with which to salt and pepper it, then the creation of the sermon was probably not driven by the Bible.

Using Scripture like salt and pepper is dangerous for listeners for at least 2 main reasons:

Firstly, that is not how Christians approach life. We do not make conclusions about God and then go to the Bible to support them. Rather, we start with the Bible for revelation of who God is and what He has done for us in Jesus. Your listeners should not look to you, their preacher, as the origin of truth about God. They should see you as a news runner, someone there to deliver God's news on His behalf. You're just rediscovering the news (the Bible) and reporting it with a clear and compelling delivery. News runners are driven by whatever the news is. 

This does not mean as a pastor you can never chose a topic to preach on beforehand. There are times you know your church needs you to address a certain issue or topic. In those times, you can still be driven by the Bible. If a tragedy rocks your congregation and it would be helpful to devote a sermon to bringing grace and peace to the situation, to be driven by the Bible is to simply ask, "What does the Bible have to say about this reality we are in? What it says, I will say."   

Secondly, using biblical texts like salt and pepper can give the preacher and listeners the impression that the sermon is rooted in the Bible, when it may not be at all. A quick biblical reference every 10 minutes can make all the time in between sound like it was rooted, somehow, in a biblical text. A quick reference to a biblical text, without explaining or using context, is an easy way to make the Bible say almost anything you want, whether you are trying to do that or not. 

Let's say you are making a point about "sex". It is easy to find a verse or passage dealing with sex and plug it in your sermon. When the verse is briefly quoted, listeners hear something about sex and might naturally think, "Well, I guess this verse applies and supports my pastor's thoughts. He wouldn't use it if it didn't, right?" This is dangerous because no context or explanation of the verse is given. When preparing sermons, we ought to spend time explaining how we made the conclusions we did about the biblical texts. In this way the Bible becomes the filet mignon of the sermon.

Many preachers do not intend to misuse the Bible in preaching, but it happens all the time. It is worthwhile to ask whether your preaching is driven by biblical texts or not. If it is, your sermons will have 3 major effects. First, your listeners will learn how to approach life. They will learn that they do not approach the discovery of true reality with their mind or heart, but with the Bible. Second, listeners will learn to read the Bible properly. They will learn to read it in context. Lastly, listeners will learn to trust that you seek to disappear in preaching. You're just a news runner delivering the Good News on God's behalf.

On the blog next we will talk about how the Bible not only provides the truth to deliver, but even helps shape delivery.


Topical vs. Expository vs. The Underlying Issue

Some of the details are fuzzy for me but I will probably never forget one Sunday morning being at church when during the sermon it was said that the church was finishing its series through the book of Matthew. My friend and I turned and looked at each other with the same thought, "I did not know the sermon series was working through Matthew the past few weeks." We were completely confused. 

I'm not one to space out during entire sermon series and neither was my friend, as far as I knew. How were we listening to sermons working through Matthew without knowing Matthew was driving the whole series? The fact that this was possible might shed some light on the long-standing debate between whether a church should preach topical or expository sermon series. 

By "topical" typically what is meant is that a preacher picks a topic for a sermon series, like "The Cross of Jesus Christ," and uses biblical texts to preach on that topic. One could preach stand-alone topical sermons as well. By "expository" typically what is meant is that a preacher picks a book of the Bible, like Matthew, to preach through. He lets the book select the content of each sermon as he moves through it, beginning to end.

Often, expository sermon series are argued to be more rooted in the Bible than topical sermon series. The reasoning is that expository sermon series start with the Bible and the goal is to let the Bible speak. The preacher may want to preach on a given topic but if the book of the Bible does not address it, he will not preach it. He is not in charge, the Bible is. Topical sermon series, on the other hand, start with the preacher and what he wants to preach on. Then the preacher goes to the Bible to find verses to support his topics.

But what happens when a preacher chooses to preach through Matthew yet no one can tell his sermons are from Matthew? Preaching through Matthew, according to the popular argument, should have deeper roots in the Bible; the sermons should be more driven and shaped by the Bible. But speaking from experience, it is possible to preach through Matthew, or any book of the Bible, and deliver sermons that do not seem to be driven by Matthew at all.

What does this mean for the expository vs. topical debate?

It means that choosing a topic or a book of the Bible does not guarantee more or less biblically-driven sermons, which is always the goal. The preacher preaching through Matthew could say, "I am more committed to preaching the Bible because I am preaching through Matthew, rather than a topical series, like the church down the road." Yet, his sermons may not be driven by the texts in Matthew at all. Meanwhile, that church down the road could be preaching a series on "The Gospel" and expound on texts in Matthew in far more detail.

Even if I believe preaching through books of the Bible is generally a better method than preaching topical series, I would rather hear a topical series where Matthew is expounded and emphasized than a preaching-through-Matthew series that barely expounds on Matthew's gospel at all.

For the debate, this means the issue at hand may not first be expository preaching vs. topical preaching. Sometimes the most pressing issue for a preacher is preaching sermons that are driven and shaped by biblical texts, regardless of the kind of series. Whether you're preaching through a book of the Bible or a chosen topic, will biblical texts drive and shape your sermons or will your ideas and thoughts shape your sermons? Will you preach your thoughts while salt-and-peppering them with biblical references? Will your listeners come away having handled the Bible or merely remember that you did reference biblical texts but they probably can't remember which texts?

Preachers are called to preach the Bible and talking about the best way that can be done (topical vs. expository) has enormous value. But before you get to that conversation, let the Bible drive and shape your sermons now. Let the lion that is God's Word drive, define, and dominate your sermon notes. Then when you stand up to preach, unleash the beast. Let the lion of Good News go after your hearers.

Then and only then, when the Bible drives and shapes a preacher's sermons, can we begin to engage the debate of whether one should preach an expository series or a topical series. Until then, let the Bible dominate your series through Matthew, or Romans, or Habakkuk. Until then, let the Bible dominate your topical series on grace, suffering, or relationships. Above all, preach Christ and Him crucified, the message of the Bible.

Next week: preaching Bible-driven sermons.