Sermons Like Gummy Worms on Mashed Potatoes

Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou and example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.
– 1 Timothy 4:12

Where do sermons come from? That may seem an odd question, but those kind are the most fun.

I once attended a week long software training class in the sprawling environs north of Atlanta. A place expanding so rapidly that three buildings appeared by lunch time. On the opening morning of the festivities, the instructor dispatched the customary preliminaries and said, “Turn on your computers and open Windows.” Each of us bright-eyed learners had a desktop computer with monitor, keyboard, and mouse on the table directly front of us. At this point in the proceedings, you would think everyone adept and if the class went no further, we should all be pronounced scholars of the first rate. However, a gentleman near 60 in a breezy Hawaiian style shirt, who spoke in an effortless South African accent, asked, “What’s Windows?” He was a nice guy and despite the dulcet tones of his indigenous lilt, I thought to myself, “Oh great!” in an equally effortless Appalachian accent.

This is how it is sometimes for young preachers, who are either young in age or experience. The well-informed lot are going on about vectors and rendered views and such things while you’re thinking, “What’s Windows?” Books and messages on sermonizing often assume a certain level of knowledge and don’t have “for Dummies” in the title. Let’s step back to the basic starting point. Where do sermons come from? Where does one start?

These are the problems

Young preachers have a few different difficulties to deal with in regards to coming up with sermons. Young preachers are not usually preaching with great frequency or regularity. It can be a while between opportunities. If you only study for a sermon when you’ve been asked to preach one, you are going to struggle and flounder. I’m going to give you some help here, but you must persevere to the end.

Young preachers also have a lot of things on their minds to say. These thoughts are as varied as a kid’s plate at the buffet. They grab a little of this and a little of that with no organizing principle or sense of food pairings. Gummy worms make perfect sense with mashed potatoes to such an enthused youth. Because your thoughts are diverse and bouncing around, it can seem like you have more matter for a sermon than what you actually do. You will also be tempted to try to get it all in there because you’re not sure when your next opportunity will be. Instead of preparing a gourmet meal like a chef, you become more of a throw-it-all-in-the-pot cook.

Young preachers also face a problem because of older preachers. You hear a powerful sermon and you want to preach like that. You do your best to preach like that. However, you don’t have any idea how he did that. No matter who that preacher is for you, you are not him and will never be him. As Paul wrote, “But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10). Each one of us has a unique set of abilities and we can only do with what we have to do with.

How to always be ready

I hope I’m not overselling here, though I do know I’m splitting the infinitive. The aforementioned difficulties also provide opportunities, as is usually the case with difficulties. While preaching infrequently can be problematic, it can also be a blessing as a gift of time. Any pastor who preaches a couple or more times a week can tell you that they are strapped for time when it comes to sermon prep. You want to make good use of that time by studying and developing good habits. You need to distinguish study and sermon preparation in your mind. They are not one and the same thing.

You should be committing yourself to studying the Bible. You should be reading the Bible daily. I believe reading the whole Bible in a year by some plan is invaluable. You should also be studying the Bible where you are reading and thinking in a particular book or passage. Pen and paper are your most valuable tools. If you had no other books beside your Bible, you could still study and preach with pen and paper. John Bunyan has certainly shown us that. He had no education beyond rudimentary education to read and write. He didn’t know any Hebrew or Greek. However, he wrote nearly sixty books of different kinds that show a profound understanding of Scripture and a powerful ability to communicate. Large crowds came to hear him preach. His contemporary, the scholarly John Owen, famously stated that he would trade all his learning if he could only preach like the tinker. An English Bible and pen and paper were indispensable tools to Bunyan and tools with which he built a spiritual legacy the world is still benefiting from over three hundred years later.

You need to study, think, and write. You need to train yourself to look long at a passage until you begin to see it clearly enough that you start asking questions. Why was this word used here? What is the shape of this argument? Why does this narrative include this detail? Why is this repeated throughout the passage? How does this work with a different statement in another passage? How does this fit with the context?

You don’t want to stop with asking questions. You want to train yourself to search the scriptures until you find answers, like the noble Bereans (Acts 17:11). When Jonathan Edwards was not yet twenty years old, he wrote his famous resolutions. This was before he had written any books, before he had preached any famous sermons, and before he had a part in The Great Awakening. Resolution no. 11 is as follows:

Resolved: When I think of any theorem in divinity to be solved, immediately to do what I can towards solving it, if circumstances do not hinder.

Edwards resolved that whenever he encountered a problem in Scripture, or a question he didn’t know the answer to, he would immediately take up the trail and stay on it until he found it. This is sound advice. Obviously, we don’t always have the time to fully answer all questions. Beside that, we will never be able to answer all the questions we come up with. However, you should make a habit of thinking these things through with Bible, pen, and paper. I have found that when we discover a problem or a question we can’t answer at the time, we often find the answer later. That’s one reason why it is good to write it down.

Always have a means of taking notes with you. You never know when a thought or question will come to mind. You might be driving and have no way to look into it immediately. Write it down as soon as you can. Make a digital memo with your phone if you must. At least, you want to be able to come back to it later and don’t assume you will remember all your thoughts at a later time. Even at a young age, I would pursue a train of thought and feel a powerful impression at the time only to fail to recall it later because I didn’t write it down.

If you make this a committed habit, you will not be floundering around about what to preach. You will have material, though you will still have a good bit of work ahead of you to put it into a sermon. The preacher who does this will be growing and deepening in the Word and it will be apparent to those who hear him (1 Timothy 4:15).

Frog Wings

Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us. ~ Ecclesiastes 1:10

Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us. ~ Ecclesiastes 1:10

Computer programming and pastoral ministry
… and never the twain shall meet.
– Rudyard Kipling

Donald Knuth is a computer scientist most well known for his multi-volume work, The Art of Computer Programming. His magnum opus was first conceived of in 1962 with the first volume published in 1968. Since then, he has continued writing and revising and publishing. This work is so long and difficult that Bill Gates once urged anyone who could read the whole thing to send him a resume.

Knuth is also well known for not having an email address. A computer scientist who doesn’t have an email address? Of course, he had an email address from 1975 to January 1, 1990, back when most of us had never even heard of email. He opted out of email to concentrate on finishing his books and he does have a postal address and fax number where you can send communications, which will be filtered by his secretary and looked at by him every 3-6 months. He has a statement on his website, if you’re interested in seeing it.

The nexus of programming and pastoring

In Knuth’s statement about email, he wrote:

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.

If you think about it, that statement is not too far off from the primary work of pastoring. The pulpit ministry is an area where the preacher has to get to the bottom of things and needs many hours of study, thinking, writing, and unbroken concentration. He has to learn the text exhaustively and set about the work of translating that into an understandable and accessible form for his people. I honestly doubt that too much time could be given to this work to do it adequately. Pastoral ministry is truly a calling to lifelong, dedicated study for preaching and teaching.

On the other hand, the pastor cannot devote all his time to getting to the bottom of things because he also has to be on top of things to an extent. The calling is not to preach and teach to a video camera, but rather to shepherd a particular group of people. You are called to serve a people in a time and a place. Being on top of things as a pastor means being in communication with and accessible to your people. It means remaining in touch with real life, current events, and the issues facing them daily. It means being aware of the dominant worldviews around you and being ready to defend the truth and help bolster the faith of your people from the attacks they are receiving.

Pastoral ministry is a delicate balancing act between getting to the bottom of things and staying of top of things. A pastor should block out some time and concentrate on getting to the bottom, but he cannot rule out being on top of things. It is a difficult calling and no one man gets this balance right all the time.

On second thought

Knuth’s web page raises another question. Why does he have a dedicated public statement about email? Of course, he must be swamped with correspondence and that’s a way to weed some out. But, why a statement about emails and not telegrams, for instance? Don’t be ridiculous. Who sends telegrams? Ah, my point precisely.

Email is ubiquitous and I’m sure it’s just assumed among the circle he must move in. Email is a near-instantaneous way to contact someone. Email is quick and the process provides little friction for slowing down to think. The process of writing and mailing a letter or fax is slower, requires more effort, and encourages more thought. If your purpose is to hastily excoriate, you’re more likely to use the quickest method and refrain from putting too much work into it. The near-instantaneous nature of digital communication also causes interruption and the sender expects quick reply.

I conclude Knuth is only adapting to the world around him and ordering things in a way most beneficial to his purposes. That brings us to think about how preachers should adapt to the world around them. Young preachers today are coming up in a different environment than a mere twenty years ago. We have always on, instant access, digital connections through cell phones and social media online. The sermons that you preach will most likely be online somewhere. Everything you write will be online as well. When you preach somewhere, it will likely be mentioned online. People will tag you in pictures they have taken, mention your name in posts, and likely share something from you with their friends. They are probably going to publicly disagree with you and criticize you at times.

This is just reality today. The generation ahead of me thinks it a breech of social etiquette to post a picture of someone online without that person’s consent. The generation behind me doesn’t even think about it, but posts pictures without hesitation. I’ve had conversations about whether a person should post a pic of someone else without their permission. It doesn’t really matter what you or I think about that practice, it’s how things are done and the generation behind me doesn’t even consider it. Go find someone older than you and ask them what would happen if a frog had wings . . . You can wish things to be different than they are but reality is what it is and that’s what we have to work with.

My point is that the world is different for young preachers today and you need to be aware of that. I don’t have strong feelings one way or the other about whether you should be on social media. For young preachers especially, you’re going to be on there one way or another. In light of that, I want to mention a few things to think about in regard to adapting to this digital world of ours. These are things I have wrestled with myself and I hope they can be a help to young preachers to think about it.

  • Your profile. Social sites give you the ability to craft and filter the image of yourself the world sees. Many profiles are a fiction, a character that has been created, and not a reflection of reality. It can happen accidentally or deliberately. As a preacher, you need to keep in mind that you are a preacher of the Gospel and representative of Jesus Christ and his church. Let everything you do online reflect that properly. I’m not suggesting that you be inauthentic, but you should be thoughtful about your opinions and preferences and how the expression of those may alienate many of the very people you ought to be reaching. Do your likes and dislikes really matter, and especially if their constant expression hinders the Gospel?
  • Your posts. The things you post, comment on, like, and share are opportunities to do good or harm. You can do harm by displaying a bitter spirit, obscuring Gospel truth, or causing unnecessary offenses. You can do good by always posting with grace (Colossians 4:6), love (Ephesians 4:15), gentleness (2 Timothy 2:24), patience and meekness (2 Timothy 2:25). Be thoughtful to avoid strife and foolish questions, which abound on social sites (2 Timothy 2:23).

Some dangers online

This point quickly became more than a bullet point so it will be the last section. I can’t address all dangers of being online, but pursuant to my purpose, I want to think about some dangers in our public interactions on social media.

We can now publicly post about something that has happened within seconds of it happening. We can immediately respond to something going on in the world or being posted online. History has never known this capability. This possibility has also given an opportunity for folly to be broadcast in grand proportions. Fools love to pour out their foolishness like water from a five-gallon bucket (Proverbs 15:2). They post quickly and often (Proverbs 29:20). They post quickly without thought and without knowing the matter (Proverbs 18:13, 17). They respond to everything, or the latest thing, quickly because they are not as concerned for truth and facts as they are for venting their feelings and opinions (Proverbs 18:2; 13:16). The quickness of their emoting or bloviating shows that they never stop to consider whether they are someone who should say something about whatever is going on (Proverbs 26:17, 21, 27).

Wisdom knows that our words can do lasting damage or give life (Proverbs 12:18). Wisdom teaches us our words should be fewer (Proverbs 10:19) and more thoughtful (Proverbs 15:28). Our words can be used to stir up strife or to calm things down (Proverbs 15:1). Wisdom also teaches that we don’t have to respond to everything, or address everything. There is wisdom in knowing when to simply walk away (Proverbs 29:9; 26:4). Let you words be wise ones, even the digital ones and then frogs don’t need wings.

The Purloining Preacher

Not purloining, but showing all good fidelity; that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things. ~ Titus 2:10

Not purloining, but showing all good fidelity; that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things. ~ Titus 2:10

Pulpit tricks and how to avoid them.

Harry Houdini is likely the most famous magician from history, or illusionist as they now prefer, and the father of the modern performance art of magic. He was a Hungarian Jew born in Budapest, who moved as a teen with his family to the United States. He began his professional career in 1894 and performed until his death in 1926. He is most well-known for his daring escapes but he did perform other illusions as well.

He had other pursuits and interests in life, and one was tied to his experience and knowledge of magic. Later in life he became adept at exposing and debunking psychics, mediums, spiritualists, and others who claimed to perform feats through paranormal power. He could reproduce their effects or identify the sleights and tricks they used. At one point, he worked with Scientific American and offered a cash prize to anyone who could fool him with their paranormal powers. Many tried but no one ever claimed the prize.

Houdini identified many tricks that people used to deceive others into thinking they had supernatural powers. Houdini I am not, but I have seen some preachers using tricks to make people think more highly of them and their preaching than they ought to. Sometimes they have the dubious skill of covering weak preaching with pulpit flourish. I am not talking here about “faith healers” or “prophets” or anyone like that. I’m talking about preachers who stand before a crowd of people and seem to preach the Bible to them. They’re not speaking prophecies or describing visions but just preaching.

Usually you have two kinds of fault. There are those who deliberately use tricks because they seek the attention or fame they can bring. Then you have those who unintentionally use some of these while they are endeavoring to preach well. I think the latter group is often the younger, inexperienced preachers. I’m not bashing young preachers. One of the difficulties young preachers face is that they don’t yet know what they don’t know. Unless they have been unusually blessed to come up under faithful expository preaching, they’ve probably heard a lot of pulpit flourish preaching. This type of preaching is popular and well-received in many places. Young preachers are trying to learn how to preach and end up following this style to try to preach well. It takes time to develop discernment but hopefully this post can be helpful. The following is a list of tricks I’ve seen preachers use to misdirect the congregation. I do want to qualify that just because a preacher may sometimes do some of these, that doesn’t mean they’re using a trick. It’s typically when you see a regular pattern that you can discern a greater desire to perform than to preach.

The Old Testament out of context

Beginning a topical sermon in the Old Testament is a way to give the sermon and the preacher the appearance of depth. When a preacher reads an Old Testament text, spends a scant few minutes talking about that text, and then launches into a topical sermon that has little or no connection to the context of Old Testament passage, he is misdirecting to give his preaching more weight.

No dictionary required

Using terms such as covenant, law, priesthood, sovereignty, etc. is a way to make the preacher look intellectual. When a preacher peppers his sermon with high-sounding terms but doesn’t explain nor even demonstrate that he understands them, he is misdirecting to assume intellectual superiority and authority for his sermon.

It happened on this wise

Using real-life experience stories is a way to make the preacher appear experienced and streetwise in the world. When a preacher tells stories of outlandish situations and especially if he tells a lot of stories of events that didn’t happen to him but someone he knows, he is misdirecting to appear more traveled and experienced than what he is.

Prop preachers

Using props for “object lessons” or “illustrative sermons” is a way to compensate for lack of content and substance in a sermon. This is done today with objects brought in or even video clips and presentations during the sermon. Object lessons can be helpful when done sparingly and simply, but when preaching turns into a multimedia production it is no longer preaching in the biblical sense of the term. When a preacher relies on props or skits to convey his message, he is misdirecting from a weak sermon and entertaining more than exhorting.

Have you seen the wiggle worm?

Using movement is a way to keep people engaged, artificially inject energy, and make it appear that a lot is happening. This goes beyond hand gestures into theatrics like running, jumping, dancing, and a host of other things. Many consider this sort of thing to be anointed or Spirit-filled, but the work of the Holy Spirit within a man yields the fruit of self-control (2 Timothy 1:7). I’m not suggesting that a man has to stand flat-footed behind the pulpit with hands folded in front of him in order to preach. However, when a man starts behind the pulpit, reads a passage of Scripture, and then moves around all over the place for the next 30-40 minutes without ever returning to the Bible, he is not preaching the Bible. He is misdirecting to make an impression with his “passion.”

It was the best of preaching, it was the worst of preaching

Using clichés, platitudes, alliterated phrases, and clever turns is a way to immediately connect with people and make them think you’re actually saying something. If you can take a cliché and tweak it just a bit, you can appear very clever. The Christian world is not immune from bumper sticker sloganeering. Political speeches are full of applause lines that are meaningless—Hope and change, or, Make America great again. These are meaningless statements but they draw the cheers. When a preacher rattles off Christian clichés without any explanation or meaningful statements, he is misdirecting to get an emotional response and steering clear of offending anyone.

The padded sermon

Using jokes and stories is a way to interest the audience, make them laugh, or build emotional tension and they add filler to sermons, turning a devotional into a full-length sermon. Jokes and stories may be able to convey truth in a memorable way but there is a danger in making truth statements without authority. Jokes and stories are not authoritative. When a preacher relies on jokes and stories to make his points, he is misdirecting from a lack of study and preparation to preach the truth authoritatively from Scripture.

Did you hear?

Using news headlines is a way to connect with people because they have probably heard something about it and give off the appearance of being thoroughly informed and up to date on all things happening in the world and Bible prophecy. I have heard statements such as, “Did you hear about what’s happening in _____ (insert Russia, Syria, Iran, or some other place in the Middle East)? Jesus is getting ready to come back.” Such statements are seldom ever explained. What exactly is happening in that place? What specific prophecy is fulfilled by it? What is the connection to Jesus’ return that that specific event means it is closer? When a preacher makes random prophecy-related, current events statements without any explanation, he is misdirecting to appear at the pinnacle of Bible knowledge for understanding all prophecy.

The legend

Using personal stories where you always say and do the right things is a way to appear super-Christianly and a master of wit, knowledge, and personal conversation. When a preacher tells a lot of personal experience stories where he is always the hero, he is misdirecting to appear flawless and enable himself to “humbly” receive all the inevitable praise.

Deja vu

Using the sermons, stories, and work of others as your own is a way to appear more advanced than you are and to shield yourself from risk by using something that has already worked. Much could be said about plagiarism but that will have to be for another time. I’m talking here about straight copying something from someone else and passing it off as your own. Of course, in so doing you receive all the credit and praise that belongs to someone else. When a preacher steals from someone else to present it to others, he is misdirecting from a lack of study and preparation. If he can add in some of the other tricks we’ve considered, his purloined sermon can also appear fresh.

Conclusion

Many of the tricks I’ve listed can be used in a non-trick and legitimate way. However, when you see a pervasive and persistent presence of these things in a man’s ministry, you know he is pulling tricks. You probably also noticed that many of these tricks provide cover for a lack of study and preparation to preach. When a man studies as he ought to study (1 Timothy 4:6-16; 2 Timothy 2:15; 4:1-5), he has no need of tricks and won’t have time for them, because he will have too much Bible to preach to his people. I hope this will be a help to young preachers to take heed how they hear (Luke 8:18). Don’t assume that because something is well received by a group of people that it is of God or good Bible preaching (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

Preach the Word

Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering an doctrine. ~ 2 Timothy 4:2

Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering an doctrine. ~ 2 Timothy 4:2

It’s not complicated. Preaching the word means taking the Bible from Genesis to Revelation and preaching it.

Expository, or expositional preaching is a common phrase today. It’s trendy now to refer to oneself as an expository preacher, but what does it mean? I’ve seen numerous definitions and heard sermons that were called expository that didn’t seem to be expository at all. If a sermon is not expository it doesn’t mean it’s a bad sermon, but only that it is not expository. There are many different sermon types and all should involve at least some exposition.

What exposition meaneth, I wot not

Exposition is not a church-word. The word is not found in the Bible anywhere. It’s not a word we hear everyday outside of church but it enjoys much use in the world. Exposition is, “A comprehensive description and explanation of an idea or theory.” 1 The definition is general but it is commonly applied to a text, where exposition is a comprehensive explanation of the text under consideration, e.g. a work of literature, scientific text, etc. Whenever someone explains a policy, terms and conditions statement, or a contract to you, they have done an exposition of that document.

Exposition is a comprehensive explanation of some source material, which means it is tied to the material it is explaining and the purpose of the exposition is to make the meaning of the material clear and understandable. If you sought an agent to buy a life insurance policy, you would expect that agent to explain the policy to you so that you understood it and could make an intelligent decision whether to buy it or not. If the agent came to your home, took out the policy, and proceeded to talk about the weather, sports, politics, and his cute little yorkie at home, he would not be doing his job and you should find another agent.

Expository preaching is taking a text passage from the Bible and giving a comprehensive explanation of what the passage means. Expository preaching is not thinking up a sermon and then finding a text to preach it from. Expository preaching is not starting with a text and then stringing together a bunch of bumper sticker slogans. Expository preaching is not telling jokes and stories. Expository preaching is preaching that is tied to the Bible. Whatever else may be involved, an expository sermon should make clear the meaning of the text in its original intent.

What meaneth this bleating of the sheep?

When you listen to talks on preaching or read books and articles on preaching, you will notice that the most time is spent on illustrations and applications. This is true even of much material that is supposed to be about expository preaching. It seems in settings where Q&A is had about preaching, a lot of the questions tend to the issues of application and illustrations. It seems impossible to think or talk about preaching without getting back to these two.

If we are to “preach the word,” we can easily overdo application and illustration. My chief complaint with much of modern preaching is that it is way too focused on application and illustration and not concerned enough about explaining the meaning of the passage in front of them comprehensively. I once heard about a preacher who brought a live sheep on the platform to “illustrate” something about sheep from his sermon text. Of course, he laughed later about the giggles elicited from the crowd as the sheep did things that sheep tend to at that time, temperature, and barometric pressure. This sermon was not preached on a farm but in an urban setting. I grant that most of the people had probably never seen a sheep in person, but I question if it truly enriched their understanding of the Bible rather than distracting and entertaining their minds. If a preacher cannot use his words to explain what needs to be known about a sheep from the passage, I question if they have the gift of teaching necessary for a pastor (1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 2:24).

Illustration and application are parts of good preaching. However, they are places where caution must be exercised. They present easy opportunities to become untethered from the text. Once untethered from the text, we are no longer preaching the word. R. Kent Hughes addressed this issue succinctly in the video embedded below. Consider what he has to say.

Notes:

  1. exposition. Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/exposition (accessed July 26, 2016).

Preaching Historical Narrative

For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope. ~ Romans 15:4

For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
~ Romans 15:4

I don’t know about the devil, but there’s meaning in the details.

I come from a family of natural-born storytellers. I am not aware of any of them having formal training; it is a talent. When I think back to family gatherings when I was young, I mostly remember the grownups sitting around the kitchen table or out on the porch telling stories. I’m sure my mother would rather some of us kids didn’t hear some of those stories but that was the chief entertainment.

Most of the stories were tales from childhood and were told to humorous effect. A good storyteller is able to hold your interest, build suspense, pique your curiosity, make you laugh, and deliver a satisfying payoff at the end. They accomplished this by their voice and gestures in the delivery, but also by arrangement of the story. They wouldn’t simply recite the facts in strict chronological order—this happened, then this happened, then that happened. They would arrange them to the effect they wanted and they would emphasize certain parts over others. A good storyteller can make a mundane occurrence interesting and a bad storyteller can make the most exciting incident unbearable.

Story in the Old Testament

A sizable portion of the Old Testament is historical narrative, or story. I don’t mean story in the sense that it is made up, but story refers to the narrative structure of the account. The stories in the Old Testament are there for a reason. They are intended to teach us (Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 10:11).

The structure of the account, what’s there, what’s not there, and the emphases made are all guides to the intended meaning. Our first concern with every passage of Scripture is to find out what it means in its original context. That is true regardless of whether it is historical, prophetic, poetic, or didactic.

Finding original intent can be very challenging in historical narratives of the Old Testament. Many preachers err at this point with Old Testament story. They use them for analogy or illustration without giving any attention to what the story means. I was at a conference many years ago and listened to a preacher take an obscure Old Testament passage and proceed from it to preach a message about the New Testament church. I remember after the message someone remarked that they never knew that [Old Testament story] was about the church. I could only respond that the Holy Spirit never knew it either.

What that preacher did was make an analogy between that story and the church. He said true things about the church but the problem was that he didn’t preach it as analogy but presented it as what that story meant. I would say to such preachers that they’re obviously clever and creative. They have been gifted by God, but they should always subject their creativity to the text and never subject the text to their creativity. It can be legitimate to make an analogy or illustration from an Old Testament story, but preach it as an analogy and not as what the passage means. And, by all means, know what the story means in its original context.

So I want to consider an Old Testament story for an example. I’m not going to do an exposition of the story but rather I want to point out some of the story structure aspects and maybe give you some help in asking the right questions and noticing the clues in the account.

Judges 19

Judges 19 is one of the most disturbing accounts in Scripture and it’s not familiar to us. One of the first clues to the significance of the story is the length of it. It takes a while to unfold and lead to the civil war in chapter 20. So it has our attention, how do we determine its meaning?

First, you want a big picture view. What’s the connection to the story before this one and after it? You need to know somethings about the book the story is in. What kind of book is it? What is the main theme of the whole book? What are the main divisions of the book? Where is this story in the book?

In this case, Judges is structured in three main sections.

  • 1:1-3:6 is introductory and provides a quick summary of the failure of Israel to complete the conquest of Canaan after the death of Joshua.
  • 3:7-16:31 is the main section of the book and gives the account of the judges, who were deliverers of the people from the pagan nations who were afflicting them.
  • 17:1-21:25 is the final section of the book and these chapters differ significantly from the rest of the book. There are no judges and no threats from foreign nations. These accounts are all inside Israel.

When you dig into the chronology of Judges, it is not at all certain that the events of chapters 17-21 happen after the death of the last judge. So why are these chapters placed where they are and what does that tell us about their meaning? If we consider just this last section of Judges, we find it also divides into three main parts.

  • Chapters 17-18 begin the section with religious sins in the form of idolatry and corrupt worship.
  • Chapter 19 proceeds to narrate an account of the grossest immorality within Israel.
  • Chapters 20-21 tell of the bloody civil war where the tribe of Benjamin was nearly wiped out and the unjust reconstruction they suffered at the hands of the other tribes.

This section reveals a connection and a progression. Chapter 19 gives a picture of moral failure down to the man-on-the-street in Israel. It’s not about leaders or international politics. It deals with marriage, hospitality, and uncommon lust.

The main nasty business of this story happens in Gibeah, but it takes a while to get there. From verse 3 to verse 10, we are stuck in Bethlehemjudah. This part of the story is so fascinating because it seems so un-fascinating. It seems monotonous and why does it take so long? The Levite has gone to Bethlehemjudah to recover his wife from her father’s house and day after day he tries to leave and his father-in-law convinces him to stay. It takes eight verses to say what could have been said in a couple of sentences. Why?

Well I’m not going to do all the heavy-lifting for you but hopefully this has been helpful to how to approach Old Testament stories. One other thing I would mention is to pay attention to what things are emphasized in the story. For instance, in Judges 19:1-20:6 the Levite’s wife is called a concubine ten times. Why is that emphasized? The fact they were married is emphasized also by reference to the Levite being a husband twice, the Levite’s father-in-law three times, and the Levite being a son-in-law once. It certainly seems there’s something significant being said. Happy studying.

Long Sermons

Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight. ~ Acts 20:7

Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight. ~ Acts 20:7

A peak behind the curtain of long sermonizing.

Why does the preacher preach so long? There are several answers to that question, but what is long? Contemporary wisdom would have sermons to be 18-24 minutes long. Short attention spans, sound bites, and fast moving media today make even that length seem a little long for sermonizing.

How long a person thinks a sermon should be is probably going to coincide with what they think a sermon is. If a sermon is just a pep talk or a few nuggets of wisdom for life, then 20 minutes may even be a little bit long. Of course, that’s not a sermon in any biblical sense. A sermon is the opening up of God’s word, explaining it, and applying it. A sermon involves teaching and exhortation. Sermons are supposed to be a preaching of the Word (2 Timothy 4:2) and the food of God’s people (Acts 20:28; John 21:15-17). Just as our bodies require consistent nutrition to function and flourish, our souls require a steady and healthy diet of God’s Word. Just as it takes longer to eat an eight ounce steak than it does a handful of popcorn, it takes longer for a meaty sermon to be preached.

Reasons for long sermons

How long a sermon should be ideally will have to be a topic for another day. I want to give some reasons for long sermons for consideration. The following list is not in any particular order.

  1. Mistakes – Preaching is an all-consuming task and focusing on time is difficult. It could be that a long sermon is the result of losing track of time or even miscalculating. I have made mistakes calculating time during a sermon and ended up either unnecessarily rushing through or going over long. Of course, the over long mistakes get more complaints.
  2. Incompetence/Inexperience – Over time you learn the relation between the amount of material to be preached and the length of time it will take to preach it. Sometimes long sermons result from insufficient experience to gauge the time it will take to preach them.
  3. Insufficient outlining or notes – A good outline or notes helps the preacher to know where they are in the sermon at any time. They help keep the sermon on track and help you know where you can spend more time or if you need to trim down on the fly. Preachers that preach off-the-cuff have no such guide and time management is much more difficult for them. Sometimes they just go until a certain time on the clock and then stop. Sermons like that are not usually complete sermons but more a collection of thoughts.
  4. Skill – No two men are gifted exactly alike and some have a skill for being concise that cannot be matched by others. Experience can play a part here too, but some men are able to say more in thirty minutes than what others can in forty-five or fifty. With continual study and work, all preachers should be able to sharpen up over time but some will still never be able to match those with succinct gifts.
  5. Overload – Long sermons can be the result of overload where every sermon attempts to cover the whole Bible or whole scope of systematic theology. These sermons tend to lack a central focus and are more often found in younger, inexperienced preachers. Sermons should have a central theme or main point and not try to cover too much at one time. The old saying is that young preachers preach everything they know every time they get up to preach. Amen and ouch.
  6. Mismanagement – Long sermons can also result from mismanagement of time where too much time is spent on rambling, rabbit trails, jokes, and stories. If a preacher spends too much time on these, he has a choice of going long or shutting down a sermon without actually covering what he intended to cover.
  7. Preparation time – This is probably the reason that many people don’t realize is a reason. Preaching shorter sermons well actually requires more study and preparation time. So to preach a good thirty minute sermon will take more preparation time than to preach that same sermon in forty-five minutes. So long sermons could be the result of laziness to not put in the required work to sharpen them up or they could also be the result of a lack of time for the preacher. For instance, if a preacher works a full-time job in addition to pastoring, he’s probably not going to have enough time regularly to preach shorter sermons. There could be all kinds of time-restraints that could cause this. Blaise Pascal once wrote a response to a friend’s question and apologized for the letter being so long. He famously quipped at the end of the apology that he didn’t have time to write a shorter one.

These are a few reasons behind long sermons. Sometimes preachers are just what we call long-winded where they go on until they run out of things to say without any regard for time. I have also noticed that preachers that preach good sermons in shorter times, say 30-40 minutes, tend to be older preachers who have been at it a long time. The recommendation is to have patience and realize experience will play a big part in your preaching and time management and you can’t get experience over night. Believe me, I’m still working at it. I am probably classified as a long-winded preacher by many but I am a work-in-progress.

Next Page »