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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Preaching Pitfalls to Avoid (a sample chapter from Preaching Essentials)

Getting off to a good start in the ministry of preaching is important. There are a few pitfalls that most new preachers encounter and from which some never fully recover. Knowing the mistakes to avoid is really half the battle. The other half is working hard to evade them. This chapter is simply a “head’s up” for new preachers and perhaps a reminder for the seasoned preacher. No matter where you are in the preaching journey, the following five pitfalls are dangerous but avoidable.

Too many preachers have been taught to divorce the devotional reading of Scripture from the homiletic or exegetical study of Scripture. The wrong-headed assumption is that the preacher who explores the biblical text for the sermon in a devotional manner will ignore the exegetical dynamics (i.e., historical background, word meaning) in the text. Isn’t it possible, and even advisable, for the preacher to both prayerfully and critically engage the biblical text? While it is important to explore the biblical text based on the historical and literary contexts surrounding the text, can’t the preacher simultaneously wrestle in a devotional manner with what God might be saying through the text to the preacher and the congregation?    

In Chapter 16 Exegesis 101 I focus on how to critically engage the biblical text on its terms. In Chapter 17 Preaching as a Spiritual Discipline, I suggest some practical ways for preachers to explore a biblical text devotionally throughout the homiletic process. The preacher must simply avoid a divorce between the devotional and exegetical reading of Scripture. The more that the biblical text for the sermon penetrates the life of the preacher the more chance it has of penetrating the lives of the people to whom one preaches.

Many preachers spend between 10-15 hours each week studying a biblical text and developing the sermon. If the preacher shared every exegetical insight discovered during study and all of the illustrations that fit with those insights, the sermon could last for 2 hours! I remember one of my earliest sermons called “6 Godly Traits Found in Joseph,” which covered chapters 37 to 50 in Genesis. It took me nearly an hour to preach this sermon, which was really six sermons rolled into one. Sometimes we preachers are tempted to include in the sermon every thought or idea that we conceive, even if they don’t reinforce the focus of the sermon. Overloading the sermon with exegetical rabbit trails, unnecessary technical details, and a plethora of illustrations prevents the sermon from reaching the homiletic pot of gold called clarity. See Chapter 18 The Preacher’s Two Best Friends for guidance on how to bring more focus to the sermon.

Pastors get upset when congregants engage in what we call “church hopping.” These hoppers go to your church one week, then another church the next week, and still a third church the following week. Pastors try to muster up the nerve to tell them, in love of course, “find one church and commit to it; stop church-hopping.”One of the pitfalls we preachers fall into if we’re not careful is text-hopping. We fall into this pitfall when we hop around in the Bible from text to text to text while preaching our sermons. Some lay people may wish to tell their preacher, “stop hopping…please find one text of Scripture and commit to it.” Of course, the topical sermon by its nature invites multiple voices from Scripture to weigh in on the topic. Even still, the topical sermon must attend to those texts without a quick proof-texting followed by a hop to the next text. People come away from the text-hopping sermon with lots of good Bible verses, but ones that may not really reinforce the main focus of the sermon.

I used to think that what made a sermon biblical was the amount of Scripture I used in the sermon. Today I am convinced that what makes a sermon biblical is its ability to say and do what God, through the biblical text, seems to be saying and doing. “Biblical,” then, has nothing to do with the amount of Scripture but instead the approach to Scripture. Being a mile wide and in inch deep is okay for a topical bible study but a sermon, in most cases, should find one main theme and drill down deep or the people to whom we preach might come away dazed and confused. If the preacher is going to strike deep into the hearts of listeners, the sermon must drill down deep into a biblical passage to identify a primary focus that is faithful to the text and to the congregational context.

I used to think that if I just had tasty and fresh ingredients in my sermon such as powerful illustrations, challenging applications, and insightful exegetical nuggets, it didn’t make a difference how those ingredients were brought together. I just threw all of the ingredients in without much thought to the order in which the ingredients were added. The sermon was like a brownie mix. The brownie recipe doesn’t require any sequencing of ingredients; you just throw the powdered mix, eggs, milk, and oil together into the bowl in no particular order and everything turns out okay. But there are some recipes that require you to add ingredients in the proper order or you will ruin the food. My wife and I bake bread in one of those bread making machines. Our favorite bread recipe requires that water, sugar, and yeast are added first. Then, after about ten minutes in the machine, the oil, flour, and salt were supposed to be added. We discovered the hard way that ignoring the sequencing of ingredients can be disastrous.

The sermon is less like the brownie recipe and more like the bread recipe. Once the preacher has all of the elements that will be included in the sermon, careful and prayerful thought should guide how those elements are ordered within the sermon structure. Avoid slopping the parts together thoughtlessly, as I had a habit of doing for the first few years of my ministry. Consider the best time to add each ingredient to the sermonic recipe.

Let’s be honest, most of us preachers like to talk more than most people are willing to listen. If this is true, perhaps we should assist our listeners by talking less. Every context has its own standards regarding sermon length (See Chapter 13Preaching Dress and Sermon Length), but regardless of context most listeners are opposed to their preacher ranting. There are several forms of homiletic ranting, but most are attributable to the preacher’s pet peeves or habitual redundancy.

All preachers have a few pet peeves that, if unchecked, keep surfacing in our sermons and utterly exasperate listeners. I know of one preacher who included in every sermon, no matter the text or topic, his diatribe about the evils of psychology. Some preachers avoid the diatribe but are guilty of careless repetition. Strategic repetition can be a powerful tool for sermonic clarity, as we consider in Chapter 19. But when the sermon goes an extra 15 minutes because the preacher simply, and not so creatively, repeats the same thing that he/she already said three times, it drives listeners toward the border of frustration.

The pitfall of ranting can be remedied. First, develop a preaching plan that incorporates a well-balanced diet of Scripture and topics (See Chapter 32). Second, try writing out a sermon manuscript word for word. This exercise can alleviate the tendency in preachers to rant and rave. Finally, don’t feel guilty for preaching a sermon that is 45 instead of 60 minutes or 30 instead of 45 minutes. Less is more when it comes to preaching today. Reduce your sermon length by cutting out the soap box rants and unnecessary repetition. God will, I promise, still love you even if you reduce the length of your sermons. And, your congregation will love you even more for developing tighter, more precise sermons that do not waste their time with rants and redundancy.

1. As you reflect upon these five pitfalls, which two do you intuitively avoid and which two do you need to intentionally avoid?

2. Explain and discuss these five pitfalls with your church staff, board, and/or a few trusted lay people. Ask them to honestly respond to your following questions: Which of the five pitfalls do you think I tend to avoid? Which of the five pitfalls must I learn to avoid? The level of honesty and transparency needed for this exercise is obviously high. Pick people who love you and the church enough to tell you the whole truth and nothing but the truth concerning the strengths and areas for improvement in your preaching.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Ministry Equipping Event for Pastors and Lay Leaders

Pastors and lay leaders near Indianapolis will not want to miss this ministry enrichment event:


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Help! I'm a Pastor in Seminary!

One of the most challenging dynamics of a Wesley Seminary education is also one of its most significant strengths. Unlike most traditional seminaries that invite students to take a respite from ministry in order to study, Wesley Seminary has intentionally positioned itself to equip students while they minister instead of before they minister.

Although I attended a traditional seminary, and a very good one at that, I had the privilege of serving as a pastor while studying. I remember the rigorous balancing act. Juggling ministry, marriage, and the Master’s degree brought out the best and, I confess, the worst in me. I experienced seasons of fatigue, frustration and fear. There were days when I wanted to quit ministry to focus more time on the MDiv and marriage, or quit the MDiv to focus more on ministry and marriage. Quitting the marriage was not an attractive option, since I certainly got the better end of that arrangement

I decided to stick it out and learned to navigate the Masters, marriage, and ministry or, as I like to call them, the “3M challenge.” I’m glad I did. The 3M challenge is an ideal way to “do” seminary, which is one of the many reasons why I love serving at Wesley Seminary. Here are some of the benefits of the 3M challenge I see among Wesley Seminary students:

-Learning and doing reinforce each other. The learning we experience sticks most when it is immediately applied. In my preaching course, for example, students will read Augustine and Wesley’s guidance on sermon delivery. We will discuss what we learned from these saints of the past, as we also explore current best practices for sermon delivery. Then, students will devise criteria to guide their delivery of sermons. Finally, they will deliver a sermon in their ministry context governed by their thoughtful criteria. Wesley Seminary students immediately and consistently integrate learning and doing in a manner that maximizes both. Our students are thoughtful practitioners.

-A community of real life ministers grapples with real life questions. Our students don’t learn in the vacuum of some ivory tower. They are immersed in the trenches of ministry. So they come to class with real questions that reflect the complexities of contemporary ministry. In the classroom, actual or virtual, students wrestle with these practical questions and are guiding by the Bible, theology, church history, each other, and experts in the field. Essentially, our students experience their entire seminary journey as a robust supervised ministry education. This particular seminary model diminishes one of the most severe ministry hazards- loneliness. Our students are not swimming alone but have a cadre of classmates and professors to help them navigate the real challenges of real ministry today.

-Scrupulous time-management is a necessary pastoral skill. Our students don’t have the luxury of studying 15 hours per day. Most of them have families to love and all of them have churches to serve. And this is a good thing. The unfounded assumption among many traditional seminary students is that life will become less complex once they achieve their degree and enter full-time pastoral ministry. This is a myth. In order to endure and thrive in ministry, the pastor must develop the skill of time-management, and quickly! Wesley Seminary students are immediately thrust out of the nest and into the rigors of strategic time-management, or “priority discernment.” Our students must decide at any given crunch-time, which priority most warrants their attention. Sometimes a student will need to give their undivided attention to family and postpone study and ministry. But, there are also times when study requires a devotion of time that necessitates the deferring of ministry. And, of course, there are times when the student must choose ministry over time with family or in study. These are the current realities of life and ministry. Wesley Seminary students traverse these tensions and, we hope, learn the scrupulous time-management skills that will serve their families and churches for the long-haul.

I could cite more benefits of serving and studying simultaneously. Room remains for you to jump into the conversation and list some strengths of Wesley Seminary’s unique approach to ministerial formation.

Looking forward to your thoughts,