Never Trust “An Old Preacher”

He said unto him, I am a prophet also as thou art; and an angel spake unto me by the word of the Lord, saying, Bring him back with thee into thine house, that he may eat bread and drink water. But he lied unto him.
~ 1 Kings 13:18

I heard an old preacher say …

Illustrations can be fun, illuminating, interesting, inspiring, and memorable. People will remember a really good illustration long after they’ve forgotten the sermon. I guess good illustrations are like grandma’s homemade meatloaf; it’ll stick to your ribs. It’s no wonder preachers love to get a hold of a really good illustration.

But, what about when illustrations go wrong? Or, how can illustrations go wrong? I can think of a few ways I’ve seen illustrations bite the hand that feeds them. It’s a problem when an illustration takes prominence over the exposition. When an illustration becomes the main point of the sermon, the cat is serving its owner. Illustrations are problematic when preachers spend more time searching for illustrations than searching the Scriptures for understanding of what God has actually said. But, I want to focus on perhaps the most crucial way an illustration can go wrong.

Prepare to be Shocked

When a preacher preaches to a congregation, they generally expect him to be telling the truth and take what he says to be the truth. In other words, a preacher usually gets the benefit of the doubt. One of the worst train wrecks of illustrations is when they are not true. I realize illustrations will sometimes come from fictional stories to illustrate a point. Generally, that is fine as long as the preacher is not trying to pass it off as some true account. I’m thinking, here, more along the lines of semi-biographical stories that happened to you or someone you heard about. I am also thinking about illustrations from history. Let me illustrate.

Several years ago I was listening to a sermon online and the sermon crescendoed with an illustration drawn from the 1836 Battle of the Alamo. It was a remarkable story well-delivered. It’s funny that I don’t remember what the sermon was about, but I do remember this illustration. The preacher stressed certain details, as they were important to the point he was making. I listened with great interest, though I must confess it was more historical interest than biblical interest. I was only vaguely familiar with the history of this battle and the story was fascinating.

Whenever I hear a story like this, I immediately wonder if it’s true. As frequently happens to me, I was plunged into a lot of reading about the Alamo to understand the history. The key details and, in fact, the crux of his illustration are unconfirmed historically. There were very, very few survivors from within the Alamo, so establishing exactly what happened there was difficult. Though some of the details he shared were new to me, I discovered they are a part of the common mythos of the battle. So he didn’t just make stuff up, but was likely retelling what he had heard or read somewhere. Even though it was likely unintentional, he repeated a story that was untrue, or at least suspect and unconfirmed.

This may seem a minor point. Some would say it’s no problem since the point he was making with the illustration was true. We have to have a higher standard for the pulpit than that. I would hope preachers would never want to lie intentionally, but I equally hope they do not want to lie unintentionally either. If we play fast and loose with the facts of a historical account, how can we be trusted with the facts of Scripture? You will lose credibility by stretching the truth with illustrations.

Let’s Have Tall Standards Not Tales

I recently listened to another sermon online featuring a powerful illustration. In fact, it became apparent early on that the entire sermon was built around this particular illustration. The illustration was also a historical event, though not as well known as the Alamo. He started the illustration by saying he heard this story from an old preacher.

Like I often do in such situations, I listened to the account with interest and immediately wondered if it was true. I had never heard of it before, so I searched to see what I could find. Immediately, I saw that this illustration had been used by a wide variety of preachers for a number of years. I found it used in articles and devotions online. This fact tells us a couple of things right away. First, if the illustration has been used a lot in sermons, it’s probably best not to use it. At the least, it makes your sermon stale and it could be worse. Second, if the illustration has been used extensively by unorthodox preachers, you will be associating yourself with them in some ways. That would be undesirable.

Not only did a search find numerous retellings of this particular story, but comparing them yielded widely varying details of the story. This is a red flag for the veracity of an account. Searching also revealed that quite a number of people had obviously been trying to verify this story, another bad sign. I searched around for a while and could not find any substantial verification for this story. I didn’t find it on Snopes, but my initial conclusion would be this story is a cultic urban legend. It probably has some kernels of truth it began with, but has been so exaggerated and embellished that it hardly bares any resemblance to the original.

Once again, the preacher has lied to people, though it was probably unintentional. With the technology we have today, there is really no excuse for not verifying your illustrations from history. If you are going to use an illustration from history, at least make sure it is a reliable account. More could be said about this instance, but it teaches us another valuable lesson. Just because you heard an older preacher tell a story, don’t assume it’s true and use it in your own sermon. If it’s a story that’s supposed to be true, you need to verify it before using it or don’t use it. Again, we have to have a higher standard for the pulpit than a motivational speaker who doesn’t much care about the truthfulness of their illustrations. They’re only interested in the effect.

The Preaching Secret

And the king of Israel said unto Jehoshaphat, There is yet one man, by whom we may enquire of the LORD: but I hate him; for he never prophesied good unto me, but always evil: the same is Micaiah the son of Imla.
~ 2 Chronicles 18:7

How to not lose friends and anger people.

If you set about the preaching task with determined assiduity, it’s going to happen. You are going to say something that upsets someone, and maybe many someones. After this happens, if you still have the ginger to declare, “Thus saith the Lord,” it will happen again. Just to be clear, I’m not referring to times when the preacher goes off script and pours out offenses on the congregation. I’m talking about when you are preaching a hard passage. If you are determined to preach what the Bible says, as the Bible says it, you will run into hard passages.

Preaching Hard Passages

By hard passages, I don’t mean passages hard to understand like Ezekiel’s wheels. I’m referring to passages that are hard to explain publicly for different reasons. Some passages are hard because they deal with delicate or sensitive subject matter, like some of the laws in Leviticus, events in Judges, the strange woman in Proverbs, the entire Song of Solomon, Isaiah’s ministry of nakedness, etc. Some passages are hard because they deal with a widely debated subject that the congregation could be divided over, like marriage and divorce, women in church, etc. Some passages are hard because they tip sacred cows and rebuke cherished traditions. Some passages are hard because they address some recent or historic problem within the congregation. Varying circumstances could make a passage hard to preach in that place and time. Of course, you have to allow for the outliers, like when you’ve preached some genealogy from the Chronicles and Sister Sally stomps out in a huff afterward. Sometimes you won’t know a passage is hard until after you’ve preached it, because it will step right on someone’s pet sin and they might accuse you of spying on them.

We need to know how to preach such passages without upsetting people. That’s the secret, but we will get to that in a moment. First, let’s think about some wrong ways of preaching hard passages that you’ve probably seen before.

  1. Evasive maneuvers
    This strategy simply tries to avoid hard passages. If you’re a random, shotgun preacher, you can pick your way around the Bible and avoid any passages that will cause trouble. The downside to this strategy is that any length of time using it will stunt the growth of the congregation by leaving them malnourished in the Word, and it will also not fulfill the ministry you’ve been called to for preaching all the counsel of God.
  2. Selective hearing
    This strategy relies on parallel passages in the Bible. Sometimes a passage has a parallel passage in another book and sometimes the parallel doesn’t have the troubling word or phrase. The preacher can select the innocuous version and still deal with the general subject while acting like that other passage doesn’t exist. One of the downsides here is that the congregation probably knows that other passage is there and their interest was piqued when they discovered the subject, because they wanted to know how the troubling parts were to be dealt with. The preacher who doesn’t even acknowledge the difficulty loses credibility with the congregation and his argument is weakened.
  3. Bait and switch
    This strategy involves warming up the crowd with strong expressions of how controversial your subject matter is and how hated you will be for daring to utter it publicly. You have to sell it, “Y’all will probably run me out of here after you hear what I have to say.” That’s the bait and the switch comes in when the preacher proceeds to preach something that congregation well knows and believes. Not only will they not be upset, but they will be cheering him on. The biggest downside here is that you’re not being honest. You’ve made it out like you’re playing the man before Bloody Mary, but really you’ve only preached to the choir and might get the fellowship hall named after you.
  4. The revelation
    This strategy involves properly setting up a message likely to offend by lengthy explanation that the preacher has been given a message from God and has no choice but to deliver it. Various phrases are employed: God gave me this message, God told me to preach this, the Lord laid this on my heart, etc. Effort is made to let the preacher off the hook for delivering a hard message because he was only the messenger. There are a few downsides here. The blow is never really softened in these situations and the preacher only sought to cover himself for a message designed to upset. Aside from this, the preacher has purchased cover for himself at the expense of preaching serious error. When he prefaces his message by saying God has given it to him in some way, he has denied the sufficiency of Scripture and the closed canon. He has dared to speak revelation to the people and the looming threats of Revelation 22:18-19 hover near.

What is the Secret?

Now we’ve come to it. How do we preach hard passages without upsetting people? First of all, we must preach hard passages if we are to preach all Scripture, which is the duty of the faithful preacher. We must understand there is no getting out of it. Second, preaching the whole counsel of God will upset people. Have you read the Bible? God’s Word tends to upset people and when people are upset, they tend to lash out. Since there is a great gulf and they’re unable to grab and pillory God himself, they will do the next best thing. They will seize his preacher and do what they will with him. Read the lives of the prophets and apostles. People got upset when those men spoke the Word of God.

We do want to avoid unnecessary offense and we do want to help the people we preach to. What is the secret for preaching hard passages in the most helpful way? The answer is: expository preaching. Expository preaching is preaching the meaning of a passage in its context. Topical exposition is preaching a subject from selected passages that explains those passages in their context. Sequential exposition is going verse-by-verse through a single passage in a sermon, or through a book in a series of messages. Expository preaching seeks to make the meaning of God’s words plain. Expository preaching endeavors to show people what God has said and meant in the words he inspired to be written.

People will still disagree and get upset with the preaching of hard passages. However, when you demonstrate care for God’s Word and care for their souls in carefully expounding the Spirit’s words, you will have credibility and do the congregation good in the long run.

By Any Other Name

A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favor rather than silver and gold.
~ Proverbs 22:1
(Though Solomon probably wasn’t referring to sermon tiles.)

What should we call it?

Sermon titles is not a riveting subject. Let’s just admit that up front and get that out of the way. In terms of what is important about a sermon, the title is not high on the list. But, with that said, often the title of your sermon is the first thing people are going to encounter. If you publicize your sermon titles in advance, or if you publish your sermons in written, audio, or video form, the title is the first thing people see. Bad titles probably discourage people from clicking the link when other interesting things appear in their feeds.

Titles are not that important to the congregation you stand before week to week. They are live in-person in front you already. Your introduction is typically more important at that time to gain their attention. Titles are more important on the outside. If you release your sermons into the wild, I’m assuming you do so with the hopes they will be heard. Here is where good titles can interest and encourage people to listen and bad titles can put up a barrier to listening. If you truly view online sermons as outreach, then your target demographic is made up mostly of people who do not know they need your message or even why they need it.

Think about this in marketing terms for a moment. If you are trying to sell a product or service, you have to reach your target audience. If people don’t know what you’re selling, they can’t very well buy it. In order to sell anything, your product has to fit into one of two categories. First, it must meet a need or want that is known to potential customers. In this case, they know what problem they have and are looking for a solution. So you need to get their attention in a way they immediately recognize you have what they are looking for. Second, your product must meet a need your potential customers don’t realize they have. In other words, you’re trying to sell a solution to a problem people have but they don’t realize they have. This is generally some technology or service that makes some task easier for them. They don’t realize there is a better way to do it, so you have to educate them to the problem. Ideally, once they’ve recognized the problem and the validity of your solution, they’re ready to buy.

Selling to the first group is easier than selling to the second. If people are already looking for what you have, you just need to ensure visibility so they find you. However, if people are bouncing about on their merry way, watching cat videos and reading the latest gossips available online, you have to get their attention and quickly get them to understand they have a problem and need your solution. If you’re putting out sermons, your potential audience is some in the first group and many in the second. I realize people will not be comfortable with the marketing comparison I’ve used, but if something as simple as a published sermon title could result in more people hearing God’s word, isn’t it worth some attention?

Titling Do’s and Don’ts

I don’t know any hard and fast rules, but I can give some personal observations. I’ve talked with some who agonize over titles for lengthy times and tinker with subtle things endlessly. I can’t recommend this. Titles deserve some attention, but I still think a good sermon with a mediocre title is better than a mediocre sermon with a good title. You want people to listen and you want them to come back and listen again. Titles can help or hurt. I think about this more than I used to, so here’s my list in no particular order.

  1. Informative
    Titles should give listeners some idea about what they are going to hear. I have used titles like “Colossians #3” in the past. Such a title is not very informative. It could be worse, but not much. A person seeing that knows it is the third message in a series of messages on the book of Colossians, but they don’t have any idea what the message is about. I could have improved the information by rather using the title, “Paul’s Prayer for the Colossians.” That’s still not great, but it would be better than the first one.

    You want to avoid titles that are overly technical, confusing, or too long. You want a brief title that informs the potential listener what the sermon is about. In terms of the information conveyed, you want to keep it simple.

  2. Accurate
    Titles should match the sermon content. Not only do you want to inform, but you want to accurately inform. The title should accurately describe the content of the sermon and the sermon should deliver on the title. If you over-hype or get too flashy with the tile, the sermon will be disappointing. You can also lose credibility so people will not come back to hear more. You want to avoid being too clever so that your title plays on something so subtle that people listen and cannot make the connection.

    In a way of thinking, your title is a promise you are making to the listener. Keep your promise and deliver on it. You want to maintain accuracy, but understating is probably better than overstating. You don’t want to be clickbaity with your title.

  3. Interesting
    Titles should pique curiosity and/or invite people in. You want interesting along with informative and accurate. The title can convey some sense of how the sermon will help the listener. Avoid narcissistic titles. You should not be the hero of your sermons and neither should you be the hero of your titles.

    Sometimes it’s good to use applicational titles. Such titles speak directly to the listener. For example, I recently used the title, “Will You Hear?” I’m not saying it’s the greatest title ever used but it does speak immediately to the listener. The message was an expository message on part of Isaiah 28, but one of the applications of the passage was a challenge to hear God’s word. Again, it’s not the greatest title ever given to a sermon, but it fits the criteria of being informative, accurate, and interesting. It’s definitely a better title than, “Isaiah #42.” Any time you can speak directly to the needs of the listener, you can invite them in to listen.

It’s worth giving time and attention to titles, but not too much. You’re not trying to do everything with a title. I think you’re simply wanting to improve this aspect of the sermon and remove hindrances so more people will possibly listen.

Faded Jean Blues

“Take heed unto thyself”
~ 1 Timothy 4:16

On being your own man

Spurgeon urged his pastor’s college students to “throw away the servility of imitation and rise to the manliness of originality.” 1 He never wearied of telling them to be themselves and warned them against any imitation or pretense. Preachers should neither be copycats nor men-pleasers. Be your own man. Be an independent thinker. Be yourself. Don’t be a slave.

Was Spurgeon consistent, though? You have probably heard or read another of Spurgeon’s well-known quotes: “The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted.” 2 The first quote is from a lecture to his students and the second is from a sermon he preached from his pulpit in London. In the one, he said to be original and not an imitator. In the other, he said to read and quote other men. The two statements are least in tension, if not in conflict. How do you be original and quote others? How can you be an independent thinker and read the thoughts of others?

The statements can be resolved, and resolving them answers the pertinent questions for us: How do you be yourself, an independent thinker, truly your own man? Part of the problem lies in misconceptions of what being your own man is. Misguided attempts at being one’s own man range from comical to sad. Let’s explore the wrong road for a moment.

On not being your own man

Examples of getting this wrong are crowding in my mind like shoppers at the doors at Walmart waiting for Black Friday to begin. However, I am going to restrict admittance so as to keep this manageable. One way to get this wrong is like the angsty middle school girl. She wants to be her “self” so she goes goth, dyes her hair pink, or otherwise adorns herself in outrageous fashion. She seeks society among outcasts, isolating herself and always bewailing the fact her lot in life is all because she doesn’t “fit the mold.” She never considers that her ostracism is mostly self-imposed, or due to the fact she’s not nice or not a very good friend. Maybe she never considered that her attitude stinks worse than the fourth-hand military jacket she got from Goodwill.

If we look across the landscape of American Christianity, we see that preachers trying to be themselves doesn’t look a lot different. Some wear jeans and t-shirts, have their hair a little longer, and eschew churchy talk for grittier street words. Whatever difficulty they face, they quickly blame it on other people oppressing them for being “different.” They don’t “fit the mold” either, and they repeatedly tell everyone about it. They don’t seem to consider their conflicts with people might have more to do with their own attitude and pretensions than it does other people’s backward ways. In fact, other people don’t seem to be as hung up on their clothes as such preachers are.

I could get up in the morning and put on cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, but that doesn’t make me a cowboy any more than faded jeans makes you your own man, or any more than putting a tie on a duck makes the bird a preacher. Being your own man is not that way. You cannot be an independent thinker by simply changing your shirt. It’s not about crafting an image or affecting a persona through something we can put off or on.

One other way we get sideways on being our own man is thinking we are islands, off to ourselves. We don’t read or listen to other men. I’ve heard numerous boasts to that effect through the years. As it turns out, that sort of thinking for ourselves is actually only thinking of ourselves. It’s sitting in our own personal echo chamber where we only admit those who already agree with and support us. This was certainly not Spurgeon’s ideal of originality, whether in his counsel or in his practice. He was known for reading several books a week throughout his life. He urged preachers and all Christians to be reading. You remember the earlier quote from him about reading and quoting? Directly after that statement he said, “He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own.” 3

Aside from that, Proverbs identifies the man as a fool who will not receive counsel and instruction from others (Proverbs 1:7; 10:8; 12:15; 15:5). Thinking that being your own man means having no regard for the thoughts of others is thinking you are the wisest person in the world. It is thinking there is no other human being that can teach you anything. To be an independent thinker, you have to first be a thinker. Spurgeon said that kind of thinking proves you have no brains of your own.

Not such a problem after all

If you think about the two different pieces of advice, the answer is there. On one hand, Spurgeon said to read others and use the thoughts of others. On the other hand, he said to be original, not a slave, and not an imitator. How do you do both of those things? You do it by reading or listening thoughtfully for understanding. Someone who reads or listens to someone and then simply reproduces them verbatim, hasn’t learned nor understood anything. Your own thoughts haven’t been sharpened or informed. You could be a lazy plagiarist or a thoughtless plagiarist, but you would still be only a plagiarist. With practice, you could recite Shakespeare, but that doesn’t mean you understand it.

Reading thoughtfully for understanding means a sort of reverse engineering of what you read or hear. You must follow the argument, or the train of thought, to see how the conclusion was arrived at. If you hear a good sermon, don’t just get up and preach it. Examine it. Reverse engineer it so you understand why it was good. If a preacher makes a great argument in the pulpit or in print, work to understand why it is a good argument. If you hear an apologist give a good refutation of error, work through it to understand why it was good and why it was effective. Just because something sounded great or affected you, don’t turn around and use it on others. You have to study it. You have to make sure it is true and the logic of it sound.

This is reading or listening on another level. You are not only hearing what someone thinks; you are also understanding how they think. You will detect blindspots and prejudices. Doing so sharpens your own skills and thinking. Working at this will improve your own thinking and make you a more independent thinker. It will grow your discernment to where you’re not as easily wowed by a charismatic or persuasive speaker.

Being able to get to the bottom of things is critical for independent thinking. This post is not about properly attributing your sources. That is a good discussion but not the topic at hand. You could come across a well-put statement and recite it with proper credit, but still not understand it. What does the quote mean? Why did the author say that? How did he come to that conclusion?

Pastors must refute error (2 Timothy 2:24-26; Titus 1:11, 13). Refuting error requires having a reasonable understanding of the error. You must get to the bottom of things with error in order to understand how and why it is error, and to fully refute it. Are your people to avoid error simply because you told them so? Will you convince and instruct anyone by simply saying, “Trust me, that’s wrong.” Though some may trust you in the situation, without showing them how and why the error is wrong, you have not helped them mature. It takes more than “I say so” to keep yourself and your people from being tossed about by every wind of teaching (Ephesians 4:14). Pastors must be independent thinkers so they can model independent thought and equip their people to think independently. It’s not jeans and t-shirts that guide and guard people away from error. And, if you leave this post thinking I’m talking about what preachers wear, you haven’t got to the bottom of it.

Notes:

  1. Spurgeon, Charles H.. Lectures to My Students Volume 1 (Kindle Location 2342). Kindle Edition.
  2. Quoted from Spurgeon’ sermon, “Paul—His Cloak and His Books,” from 2 Timothy 4:13, delivered on Sunday Morning, November 29, 1863.
  3. ibid.

This is Your First Rodeo

Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.
~ Acts 20:28

How to take your first church

After preaching a while, you will be called to your first church. You will not be ready. Depending on the quality of mentoring, some of you are more not ready than others. Before being called, the church, or someone from the church, will ask you questions and those questions can be anything. It’s hard for me to help prepare you for that other than to say be ready for anything. If the church went through a bad experience with their previous pastor, you will probably be asked a number of odd questions that are mostly designed to make sure you are not like him. If the church’s previous pastor was unhealthily venerated, the church will ask you many questions mostly designed to ensure you are just like him.

Be ready for anything is the best I can do from this side of the process. You cannot control what a church says or does in communicating with a prospective pastor. But, you can control what you do in the process and you should remember you are interviewing the church just as much as they are interviewing you.

The Questions You Should Consider Asking

I am not promising the definitive list. I’m sure others with more wisdom and experience can add to this list. My goal is only to list several things you should consider about a church before you accept the call. And we’re off.

  1. Church Documents
    You will want to ask for a copy of their church documents, i.e., articles of faith, constitution and bylaws, covenant, etc. You need to learn about their doctrine and practice. If the church doesn’t have these documents, or if they’re vague or very brief, you will need to ask questions to find out the sort of things that would be in such documents, if they had them.
  2. Church Officers and Staff
    You need to know every position the church has and who holds those positions. You need to know if those are paid positions and what the responsibilities of those persons are. In this area, you need to know things like the handling of finances, cleaning and property maintenance, etc.
  3. Church Membership
    You need to know how many members the church has. You need to know how faithful those members are to the services and such. You need to know if the church maintains members who are not in the area. You need to know the church’s position on attendance and how problems in this area are addressed. You need to know if the church has any special needs members, such as elderly, shut-in, nursing home, etc.
  4. Church Calendar
    You need to know what a typical year in the life of the church looks like. What events does the church have? What special services?
  5. Church Missions
    You need to know what missionaries/ministries the church supports financially. You need to know what outreach the church does locally.
  6. Church Expectation
    You need to know what the church expects of a pastor. Their expectations may be biblical or not, but you need to know what those are. This would include anything and everything they expect a pastor will do.
  7. Church Pay
    You need to know the salary they’re offering, how it will be paid, etc. If they have a parsonage, you will also need to know their expectations regarding it.
  8. Church Problems
    You need to know if there are any current problems within the church membership or between them and other churches. You need to know what you’re stepping into as much as possible.
  9. Previous Pastor
    You need to know about the previous pastor and what happened with him. I am not suggesting nosiness, but you need to find out relevant things to pastoring this church.

No Perfect Churches

Again, that list is not the definitive list, but it is a list that touches on many areas and discussing these things will probably bring out what you most need to know. It’s better to eliminate surprises as much as possible. Some things that come up will need an immediate conversation, while others you just need to be aware of. Answers to these questions will affect the way you do things. I am not suggesting that any bump in the road here means you have to run away. Remember that things are not always what they seem and there are no perfect churches, or perfect pastors.

Adrift

And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?
~ Genesis 3:9

It was in that moment the preacher realized the people’s heads were bobbing like flotsam that hadn’t yet reached the shore.

Twenty-two and a half minutes in, I didn’t know where we were. I didn’t know how we got there and I didn’t know where we were going. No, I’m not describing a senior moment. I’m not talking about an ill-fated hiking excursion, nor a road trip. I’m talking about being in the middle of a sermon like you are in the middle of a windless and waveless ocean, adrift.

You’ve been there. Whether you were behind the pulpit or you were a pew weight, you’ve been there. The sermon started with promise, but lost its way. Some preachers recover better than others, but it’s still a tough spot. As a preacher, what do you do? How do you recover?

The Best Way to Right the Ship

Writing experts teach you should hook your readers and pull them in by building suspense or curiosity. Most ad copy promises you a vital solution, but you have to keep reading and reading. It takes a long time to finally get to that solution. Since you’re not paying for this advice and I have nothing to sell you or sign you up for, I’m going to go straight to the single best solution. The best way to fix being adrift in the middle of your sermon is to never begin to be adrift in the first place. See, if you never start to go adrift, you will never be adrift.

Are you disappointed? It really is the best way to not get lost in your sermon. I see what you mean though. That’s not extremely helpful. Maybe I can do better, but we will have to take this in two parts. First, if you are adrift in the midst of a sermon, there’s not a lot that can be done to save it. I think it’s best to cut off whatever you’ve been babbling and get straight back to the sermon, like when you’ve shanked one into the woods off the tee. The best thing to do is get back to the fairway with the least strokes possible. It makes for an awkward transition, but it’s better than trying to do some weird turnaround and tie-in of your irrelevancy to the sermon you’re supposed to be preaching. That only confuses people more and you might accidentally preach some heresy. If you’re quick witted, you might be able to make a joke and smooth it out a little, but it’s best to get back to the sermon with the least words and time spent possible.

The second part is where I can be more helpful to young preachers. That’s the part about not beginning to be adrift in the first place. As much as possible, you want to avoid getting lost in your sermon. What I mean by getting lost is not just the occasional turning to the wrong reference or momentarily losing your place in the outline. I’m talking about when you have drifted off into irrelevancy from the the point of the sermon. It’s not just a minor rabbit trail.

How Not to Get Lost

I can give three steps here that are most beneficial to keep you from getting lost in the middle of a sermon. Sure, exceptions always exist, but don’t worry about exceptions. There is no one right way of preparing and preaching a sermon, but all biblically faithful sermons will have some things in common. My point is that qualifiers do exist for this list, but I’m not going to give a hundred qualifiers.

  1. Outline
    Avoiding getting lost in a sermon is mostly going to depend on your preparation for the sermon. Some form of outline is needed, even if you want to preach without any notes at all. In making an outline, you are working through the message and arranging points in a logical order. Putting an outline together makes you think through the sermon and it should become obvious to you where you’ve not given proper support for a point, where you’ve transitioned from one point to another that does not follow, where you have a point or subpoint that is not relevant to the point of the sermon, and if you’ve worked yourself into a corner. These kind of problems in a message can set you adrift, but if you identify them ahead of time, you can fix them before you ever get up to preach.
  2. Stick to the point
    If you’ve worked through the sermon ahead of time with an outline, then you should know the material well that you are going to preach. For the most part, you need to stick to what you have prepared. Don’t be slavish. I’m not suggesting you have to write down every word you’re going to say and then only say what you’ve written down. The farther away you get from your notes, the farther you are getting from the point of the message, and the closer you are getting to drifting off. Many thoughts will come to mind while you’re preaching. Some of those should be said and some of them shouldn’t. It takes experience and discernment to navigate that.

    Young preachers have a struggle here because they’re tempted to try to say everything every time they preach. Let me relieve some pressure here. You are not preaching the definitive sermon on your subject. Even if you think you are, you’re not. Furthermore, don’t try to do that. Take a manageable point and preach it well. Stick to it. Don’t try to say everything.

  3. Exposition
    One of the best things a preacher can do to avoid getting lost in a sermon is to preach expositorily. You can and should do this by preaching through books, especially if you are preaching regularly. Even if you are preaching on a subject, it’s best to take a passage that addresses that subject and do an exposition of the passage in its context. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you will preach word-by-word through the text, but you will get your points from the passage and preach them from the context. This makes for a richer and more powerful topical sermon. You’re not taking a word or two from somewhere, or worse, using a verse out of its context because it seems to say what you want to say.

    Even in preaching a topical message, if you’ve studied the passage expositorily, you know the passage well. You know how and why the verses say what they are saying. You are not relying on being clever or your wit to make your points. You’re bringing them from the text. This keeps you tethered to the text and provides much less opportunity for going adrift in the middle of the message.

There are different types of sermons and they each have their strengths and uses. I’m not saying these three steps will keep you from ever going adrift, but they will reduce the likelihood. One of most common ways preachers lose their way in sermons is by telling stories. The story may have started out as an illustration, and maybe it was even a good one, but one story reminds you of another, and that one reminds you of something else, and so on. Those stories and jokes may be interesting, but somewhere in there you’ve gotten lost and are no longer preaching the Bible. Maybe you’ve entertained people for a while, but you’ve wasted however long you had to actually feed them.

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