Over the Hill

Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.
~ 1 Timothy 4:16

I sat in the small, mostly white room. You could say it had a mauve accent. It was cold, though I wasn’t chilled. But, it was cold enough that everything felt almost damp. The cleanliness of the room was not in question, but I still wanted to touch as little as possible in there. Directly across from the straight, vinyl covered chair was a wall poster of a blackened lung that belonged to a longtime smoker. It reminded me of warnings against smoking from junior high.

I would again be reminded of junior high when the doctor came in and asked me questions I didn’t want to answer and scolded me about stuff I didn’t want to do. At least there was no paddle. The doctor came in and spent more time looking at the infamous chart and typing on the computer than making eye contact or giving me visible assurance I was being heard. As the doctor shuffled the file and the computer, I glanced at the chart. I don’t know why I felt so guilty about it, as if I were cheating on a test or something. I noticed my chart with my name on it was marked, “Prime of Life.” I almost laughed. I wanted to ask, “Does that mean this is the best it’s going to get for me?”

Have you ever noticed a lot of doctors don’t have much of what us civilians call a sense of humor. I suppose it’s the rigors of the work and all that. Once again, I’m back to junior high when the principal has serious concerns about my actions and I try to point out the funny in the business. Inevitably, they, and I quote, “Failed to see the humor.”

Middle Age is Also Middle Danger

Prime of life sounds nicer than middle-aged, but it doesn’t soften the realities that come with it. We could also say I’m at the top of the hill looking down the other side. I appreciate the attempts at positive spin, but I’m not bothered by it. Middle age frightens me, but not because of reduced energy levels, increased blood pressure, gray overtaking what’s left of hair, or more time spent in that little room with the doctor. Middle age is dangerous, particularly for a preacher, because being over the hill means it’s effortless to coast down the other side. The allure of easy chairs, TV sports, warm beds, and food and drink becomes stronger, or maybe the man is weaker.

As a young preacher you cannot easily see this fork in the road coming up. You’re full of fire and energy and can never imagine having to make a choice between leisure and work. You have so many things to learn and do you can’t imagine a strong desire to relax and do nothing. What’s unimaginable at 25 can become a daily battle at 45. Several years ago an older preacher asked me what hobbies I enjoyed. I don’t remember my reply, but the one in my head ran on this wise, “Hobbies? I ain’t got time for no hobbies. I got work to do.”

Young preachers all know older preachers they do not want to be like. They’ve seen the preacher who might as well advertise, “Have sermons, will travel.” He has his kit of sermons he’s preached hundreds of times and has warmed over so many times he could deliver them comatose. Young preachers see the cranky, bitter, ill-spirited old preacher who can instantly rain on any parade. They’ve seen the greasy salesman preacher always buttering everybody up and, as C. S. Lewis once said, if the biblical text had smallpox, his sermons would be in no danger of catching it. They’ve seen the politicking old preacher who is always calculating and being in the right place at the right time with the right people. They’ve seen the weeping preacher who’s not like Jeremiah, but rather is weepily pouting in the corner and continually licking his thirty year old wounds. They’ve seen the Elijah-under-the-juniper-tree preacher. He’s convinced he’s the only one faithful left and all these whippersnappers ain’t much.

Young preachers see these older specimens and don’t want to be like that guy. I doubt most of those older preachers started out that way. They probably weren’t so different from the young preachers today. I venture to guess that decisive turn came in middle age for them. That’s the time when it’s easy to think you’ve laid up enough goods that you can relax and live off the store. That’s the time when it’s deceptively easy to stop making progress in the ministry.

A Call to Preach is a Call to Work

In the interest of Fair Use, I disclose I’m about to paraphrase and fool about with something John Stott said somebody else said in his book on preaching, Between Two Worlds. When men stop making progress in the ministry, stop reading and thinking, it begins to show around the age of 45, or middle age. Their coasting typically deposits them on one side or the other. They become a bigot or a sentimentalist. The bigot resorts to the points of his dogma and hammers those nails until the heads are shiny at first, but soon they’re worn clean off. The sentimentalist is a widower who can’t let his deceased wife named Tradition rest in peace. He’s always digging her back up and bemoaning how they don’t make ’em like they used to.

Whatever you or I think about Stott’s thoughts about somebody else’s thoughts, there’s something there. A call to ministry is a call to serious, strenuous work marked by progress (1 Timothy 4:15). Paul told Timothy to give himself “wholly” to this work and continue to do so (1 Timothy 4:16). Paul explains what it takes to be “a good minister of Jesus Christ.” Spoiler alert: it takes a whole lot of continued, really hard work (1 Timothy 4:6-16). Just like the guy riding the pine wants to the be the star of the game but doesn’t want to practice, everyone wants to preach well when in the pulpit, but not everyone wants to work hard every day in the study.

Middle age comes and brings a lot of dangers, but it should not be the top of the hill for the preacher. He should continue to climb and make progress until death comes, or he is no longer physically able to climb. Young preachers will face this Hill of Difficulty at some point. It will be tempting to coast. Remember the warnings and persevere, brothers, persevere.

A Joke, Three Points, and a Poem

And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.
~ 2 Timothy 2:2

When all you need is just one more “P.”

John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is one of the most famous English novels. It is a literary classic. The book has a quest plot structure. Christian is trying to get from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. It has many tropes of the quest, such as obstacles, dangers, temptations, setbacks, false helpers, and true helpers.

The quest is a common plot structure throughout literary history going back to The Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer’s The Odyssey. The quest begins with some lack in the protagonist or some need the protagonist has to meet. If it’s a journey quest, there is a destination the protagonist has to reach. If it’s a personal quest, there is something that has to be learned or some skill that has to be acquired and mastered. The common thread is that the protagonist has to do something he doesn’t know how to do. The story unfolds as the protagonist encounters obstacles he has to overcome to reach the end goal.

Quests are popular and resonate with people because we all have things we need to accomplish, but don’t know how to go about it. The protagonist needs help and finds it in the stories in various forms, often just enough help at the right time to get them over the present obstacle. Helpers come in various forms in quest stories. Sometimes it is a single helper in the form of some wizened, curmudgeonly man who is a little grouchy and talks in riddles. There can also be various helpers along the way, and danger in the form of false helpers who misguide the protagonist.

Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress has helpers in the form of The Evangelist, The Interpreter, the Shining Ones, the palace damsels, etc. Helpers are one of the reasons quests resonate with people so well. We feel the need for helpers, people with the knowledge to propel us forward at just the right time. We often seek helpers in our life, but we also can end up frustrated and disappointed with what we find.

Young preachers are fresh-faced protagonists in their own quest. The young preacher has a job to do. He needs to preach the Bible to feed people and to equip them to do the work they need to do (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2; Ephesians 4:11-16). In a sense, the young preacher is on a quest to become a helper for other people on their quests, like the shepherds of the Delectable Mountains, Knowledge, Experience, Watchful, and Sincere. The young preacher’s quest is not to preach great sermons—open with a joke to get their attention, alliterate three points to make it memorable, and close with a poem to affect their emotions. No, the young preacher’s quest is to become a shepherd to people and to care for their souls by feeding them the Word of God.

Finding Helpers

Though I’ve never looked the part, I was a young preacher once. I can remember the treading water feeling while I tried to figure out what I was doing and should be doing. I was always looking for help. I found help here and there along the way and I’m thankful for all I have had. I still look for help, but I suppose I’m a little better at finding it today and a little quicker in sorting good from bad.

I’ve had different conversations with other pastors about the struggles we faced as young preachers and the help we did have and the help we wanted to have. I’ve seen pastors have a heart to help and encourage young preachers. We’ve talked about how to do it, and finally somebody said, “Let’s do it.” A few different pastors working together and brainstorming came up with the idea for the Sovereign Grace Baptist Pastor-Teacher Seminar. The seminar will be November 30 to December 2, 2017 in Richmond, KY at the Best Western Hotel conference room. A Facebook page has been set up for information and updates about the seminar. Let me tell you a little bit about it and see if it will be helpful and encouraging to you.

The Facts

We do have a purpose statement for the seminar you can view by clicking the image below.

The seminar will focus on the preaching ministry. We know there are a host of topics that would be of interest, but we also realize we can’t cover everything. We decided to focus on the particulars of preaching regularly to a congregation. We also know there are many preachers who have something to contribute to help young preachers, but we can’t have everybody in the limited time and space we are working with. What we do have are preachers with a heart to help and encourage young preachers and an understanding that that’s the primary aim of the seminar. If you are a preacher with fewer than ten years in ministry, a pastor in your first pastorate, a preacher not yet pastoring, a man wrestling with a call to preach, or even a Bible teacher in your church, then this seminar could be some help to you.

We have put a schedule together you can view by clicking the image below.

The schedule might change some, but it will be very similar to this. We have five different speakers who will present seminars on the various topics listed during the morning and afternoon sessions. These seminars will be practical and interactive. It will be more of an informal classroom feel than a formal lecture feel. There will be handouts and free books and such for those who register. You can register by filling in the online form here. There is no cost to register and attend.

The evening sessions will have sermons. So you will have seminars by five different speakers that pertain to the preparation and delivery of sermons and you will also have one sermon from each speaker to hear an example of how they bring it all together. The goal is to present you with different perspectives from preachers who have different gifts and methods of preparing and preaching sermons. We are not trying to promote “one way” of preaching, other than being faithful to the text of Scripture in all preaching. The different methods and styles will give you the opportunity for consideration and hopefully take away what is helpful to you.

We will also have a Q&A session on Saturday to answer questions submitted ahead of time by those attending. The questions can be anything related to preaching or pastoral ministry. We will give preference to questions that are most relevant to the seminar theme and the most likely to be helpful to a greater number of people. Be watching for more information about submitting questions.

The seminar will be held from Thursday, November 30 to Saturday, December 2, 2017 at the Best Western conference room in Richmond, KY. The hotel has given us a group rate for rooms at $75 per night, if you mention you are with the SGB Pastor-Teacher Seminar when you call to book your room. Obviously, doubling up on rooms and splitting the cost is a good idea. The hotel will provide a full breakfast to those staying there. You will need to be prepared to cover your own meals otherwise. You do not have to stay at the hotel to attend the seminar.

You can watch the Facebook page for updates and information. Feel free to ask any questions you may have about the seminar.

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.

Crumbs from Spurgeon’s Table

The preacher sought to find out acceptable words
– Ecclesiastes 12:10

Important lessons from Spurgeon’s sermons, or, Crusts of bread from the prince of preachers to the poorest of preachers.

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.

The Lessons

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!”
(Emphasis added)

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 wearing out rather than rusting out.

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).

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).

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