I‘m sure you’ve heard of Charles Spurgeon, right? He was a Baptist preacher in London in the nineteenth century. Bell rung? In the early days of internet usage I found “The Spurgeon Archive” and spent many hours reading sermons. In the days leading up to being called into ministry and in the early years of ministry, I read more Spurgeon than any other single author. I mostly read his sermons in those days, though I did read some of his other writings. When I go back to my earlier sermons, I see more of Spurgeon’s influence on my preaching than I realized at the time. It was Spurgeon’s sermons that gave the structure to my own sermons, which I still use to this day.
I’m not an expert on Charles Spurgeon. I have read a lot of Spurgeon and have much appreciation for him. There are many places to seek out the superlatives of Charles Spurgeon, so I’m going to bypass that for now. I want to look at a Spurgeon sermon and point out some lessons we can learn to help our own sermons. I went through an index and picked a sermon on Hebrews 2:10, titled: Christ—Perfect Through Sufferings. It was preached at the Metropolitan Tabernacle on November 2nd, 1862. I picked this particular sermon for two main reasons. First, I glanced at it and saw that it had the essential Spurgeon sermon structure. Second, it was a sermon about Christ, so I knew it would be a good representative of most of his preaching. The printed sermon has 7,442 words so I am not going to post it in this article. You can find it online here.
We are all aware of Spurgeon’s vocabulary, use of metaphor, vivid word pictures, and eloquence. I’m not so much dealing with those in this list. I’m presenting a list of 10 lessons in no particular order. The only order that needs be observed is that I am putting the most important lesson first. If you get nothing else from this article, get the first one and never let it go.
1. You are not Charles Spurgeon, nor will you ever be.
If you have any notion of such a thought as being like Spurgeon in your head, expunge it immediately. Occasionally I encounter someone endeavoring to compare some preacher or other to Spurgeon and I quickly conclude they do not know very much about Spurgeon. He started preaching at 17 years old and before he turned 20, he had preached over 600 times. He did that in 2-3 years.
I was 25 years old when I preached my first sermon and, on the day of my thirtieth birthday, I preached my six hundred and first sermon. It took me almost five years to get to that number and I was almost a full decade older when I started. Beside that, my first 600 sermons cannot compare to his.
2. Spurgeon was consistent in the length of his sermons.
He was reported to preach 40-50 minutes on average. The sermon I looked at had 7,442 words. He was reported to preach about 140 words per minute so this sermon would have been about 53 minutes long. Consistency is a good lesson here. In a regular ministry, it is a good idea to be fairly consistent with sermon length. Whatever the actual length is is not quite as important as consistency. When you preach consistently in length, you’re training the attention spans of your people to focus for that length of time. Perhaps this is even more important in our day.
3. Spurgeon was consistent in the structure of his sermons.
He typically had an outline that moved in a logical order. He generally had an introduction, body of three to four main divisions, and a brief conclusion. The picture with this post is a scan of his actual handwritten notes for a different sermon he took into the pulpit. You can find some samples of his notes online. He used this structure consistently. Our sample sermon has an introduction, three main divisions, and a brief conclusion. It is actually a profitable exercise for young preachers to take Spurgeon sermons, read them, and then write up the outline of that sermon. Now let’s get some lessons from the different parts of his sermon.
4. Spurgeon consistently had a brief introduction.
Our sample sermon introduction has 541 words, which is about 7% of the overall sermon. The introduction would’ve taken about 4 minutes. The lesson here is not that your introduction should be 7% of your sermon or be 4 minutes long. The lesson is that it should be brief. As a general rule, 5 to 10 minutes is probably a good aim, and the farther south of 10 minutes, the better.
Spurgeon used the introduction to set the stage for his sermon, which is the function of a good introduction. He was not an expository preacher. He was more of a textual/topical preacher. He generally took a text and focused on a main point in the text and developed it in a theological/topical fashion. If he did do contextual exposition, it would generally be in the introduction. He would also use the introduction to bring up particular theological themes relevant to the point of the text and the sermon.
In our sample sermon, he brought up the doctrinal points of God’s foreknowledge and predestination in regards to the fall and the salvation of man. This leads into the truth that Christ being perfected through sufferings was according to the foreknowledge and the foreordained plan of God. His main point to be developed in the sermon is the perfecting of Christ through suffering and he begins by showing the theological necessity and justification for it. He also does something that raises interest and attention in the hearers. He states what is at stake in what he’s preaching in the introduction.
Oh! how careful should we be who have to preach it never to alter it in the slightest degree. How should we lift our prayers to heaven that God would give us a clear understanding, first, of what we have to teach, and then a clear method of teaching what we have learned, so that no mistake may be made here, for a mistake here would mar that express image of God which shines in the gospel, and prevent our hearers from seeing the beautiful fitness and proportion which are so adapted to reveal the perfect character of God. We say the plan must be what it is; it could not be otherwise so as to be in keeping with the divine character; and, therefore, it is imperative upon us that we make no alteration in it, no, not of a word, lest we should hear the Apostle’s anathema hissing through the air like a thunderbolt from God — “If we or an angel from heaven preach any other gospel than that ye have received let him be accursed!”
We don’t want to create an artificial crisis or overstate the case in our sermons, but it can be good to raise questions in the introduction, if the sermon is going to answer them. It can be good state a crisis, if the sermon is going to speak to it. It can also be good to bring up a controversy in the introduction, if the sermon is going to address it. These things can help bring the hearers in and alert them to why the sermon matters.
5. Spurgeon consistently stated where he was in the outline during his sermon.
He generally stated his main divisions at the end of his introduction. I used to to do this in my introductions, e.g. “We have three main reasons for . . . First . . . Second . . .” and so on. I still do this, but not in quite so obvious a way. It is a good idea to give some idea of the sermon outline. It encourages and helps people to take notes. Spurgeon would also state each main division as he got to it. He wasn’t always as obvious about his conclusion.
6. Spurgeon consistently gave the bulk of the sermons to his main divisions.
Our sample sermon has three main divisions that take up 85% of the overall sermon, or about 45 minutes. The divisions got shorter as he went. The first has 3,909 words and is about 53% of the overall sermon, or about 28 minutes. The second has 1,777 words accounting for about 24% of the overall sermon and 13 minutes. The third has 575 words for about 8% of the sermon and about 4 minutes of the time.
Why do the divisions take up such a disproportionate amount of time? I think the reason is obvious. Spurgeon’s notes were really more of a bare-bones outline than sermon notes. His preaching was more extemporaneous than manuscripted. You notice in the sample sermon he warms to his subject quickly and develops his first point quite fully. Why didn’t he do the same on all points and just take however long it took? He was obviously conscious of time and aimed for a consistent length in his sermons. He stated at the end of his first division, “Thus much, then, upon our first head; I would we had more time for our second; but we will pass to it at once.”
7. Spurgeon consistently had brief conclusions.
He did not always state that he was concluding. If you read closely, you can detect the conclusion in our sample sermon. It consists of 607 words so it is about the same length as the third division ended up being and is also similar in length to the introduction. So it is about 4 minutes long. Spurgeon did not rehash his sermon in his conclusion. He actually brought the conclusion from his sermon, so it is generally practical application or exhortation that follows from the body of the sermon.
8. Spurgeon consistently used illustrations in his sermons.
He used two types of illustrations: illustrations from scripture and illustrations from elsewhere, such as nature, science, history, literature, everyday life, etc. There are a few different illustrations in our sample sermon. He uses the fact that a doctor has to have some acquaintance with a disease in order to effectively treat it. He refers to a beggar asking for crumbs. He draws a comparison with the “innumerable and detestable” frogs from the plague in Egypt. He mentions the brazen serpent on the pole. He mentions the dry earth receiving rain. He makes a literary reference to Milton.
One obvious lesson from his illustrations is that they are short. The longest one in this sermon is about the brazen serpent and it is 232 words, or about 2 minutes. Generally, the longer illustrations are the ones from scripture. Often his illustrations are just a sentence or even a phrase. He makes the reference quickly and moves on. That’s what makes an illustration good. It’s a reference everyone gets so you don’t need lengthy explanation. If you have to spend a few minutes explaining the reference so that everyone understands how it illustrates the point, it’s a bad illustration so lose it.
9. Spurgeon consistently made application throughout the sermon.
As he gets to a point of exhortation, he presses it on the hearers then. His applications flow throughout the sermon rather than being like an afterthought tacked on at the end. As the application comes naturally, press it then. Often in exposition, application comes naturally in the text itself so a good exposition of the passage will include such application. Spurgeon likewise raised and answered common objections at natural places in the sermon, which can be a form of application.
Disease, sickness of body, poverty, need, friendlessness, hopelessness, desertion — he knows all these. You cannot cast human suffering into any shape that is new to Christ. “In all their afflictions he was afflicted.” If you feel a thorn in your foot, remember that it once pierced his head. If you have a trouble or a difficulty, you may see there the mark of his hands, for he has climbed that way before. The whole path of sorrow has his blood bedabbled footsteps all along, for the Man of Sorrows has been there, and he can now have sympathy with you. “Yes,” I hear one say, “but my sorrows are the result of sin.” So were his; though not his own, yet the result of sin they were. “Yes,” you say, “but I am slandered, and I cannot bear it.” They called him a drunken man, and a wine-bibber. Why, when you once think of the sufferings of Christ, yours are not worth a thought. Like the small dust of a balance that may be blown away with the breath of an infant, such are our agonies and our trials when compared with his. Drink thy little cup; see what a cup he drained. The little vinegar and gall that fall to thy share thou mayest gladly recede, for these light afflictions, which are but for a moment, are not worthy to be compared to the sufferings through which he passed.
And finally . . .
10. You are not Charles Spurgeon, nor will you ever be.
Spurgeon’s ministry lasted for 38 years and he was 57 years old when he died. In that time, his sermons were published weekly and sold around 20,000 copies per week in 20 different languages. His collected and published sermons are in 63 volumes and is still today the largest single-author set of books ever published. He also wrote and published over 140 other books besides his sermons. He pastored a congregation of 4,000 members, edited a magazine, answered 500 letters per week, read six books per week (usually of puritan theology), founded and oversaw more than 60 organizations, maintained a pastor’s college, had a near invalid wife and twin sons, regularly counseled what he called difficult cases, and lived with physical pain and constant criticism and slander. I have not listed everything the man did.
I am not Spurgeon and you are not Spurgeon, nor will we, or anybody else, ever be. We can learn from him though. If you think about it, he lived and experienced several lifetimes in his 38 years. He constantly urged his brothers forward and embodied the idea of rather wearing out and than rusting out.
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).
… 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
- exposition. Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/exposition (accessed July 26, 2016). ↩
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 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.