Don’t Tell Us What You Are Going to Do—Do It!

I have been noting a tendency among preachers that is common enough to warrant a label; I have called it prefacing. Prefacing is the bad habit of announcing what one is about to do before doing it, when there is no reason for doing so (note the important italicized qualification).

Let me suggest two ways in which prefacing frequently takes place in preaching:

  1. When one announces beforehand the points in his sermon;
  2. When he announces beforehand that he is about to illustrate.

An example of the first is exactly what I did in the last paragraph. Reread it and you will discover what I am talking about. And to go on to illustrate the second point I could now say, “Let me give you an example of what I am talking about” (of course, as you see, I just did).

But what is wrong with prefacing? When there is no good reason to do so, it breaks the continuity of what one has been saying by calling attention away from the content to the structure by which that content is being presented.

Foolishly, some homileticians have declared that a preacher should announce all of the points in every sermon. Why? Because they said so, that’s why. There is no other good reason. No biblical precedent for doing so can be found. Search the Scriptures and you will not find a single instance of anyone announcing, ‘This morning I should like to tell you three facts about hell” (or whatever). It just doesn’t happen. It doesn’t happen because it shouldn’t happen. Such prefacing adds nothing and certainly detracts.

Now, I did mention a qualification. One should announce points if, and only if, by doing so he furthers content. That is to say, if, for instance, there are “two steps and only two steps” in dealing with a habit pattern (putting off/putting on), and it is important to stress that there are no more and no less, then the steps and their number become a part of the content itself.

That is the only time when it is right to announce points: when knowing the points themselves in some way contributes to the discussion. Otherwise, prefacing and announcing distracts.

Again, the same principle holds true for announcing the use of examples and illustrations. It is always wrong to do so unless it serves a better purpose than buying time for the speaker to think (that should have been done before entering the pulpit). There are times, of course, when calling attention to the fact that one is about to use an example can be useful. Consider this: “The example I am about to use does not always apply, nor does it apply to everyone. As you listen, then, ask yourself, is this for me?” In a case like this, where it is important for the listener to evaluate what he is about to hear in a certain way, prefacing the example can be useful—indeed, vital.

But most prefacing—of examples, of points in a sermon, of biblical passages about to be read—is filler. One of the things that makes sermons dull and uninviting is filler.

So, from now on let me give you this word of advice. Stop telling us what you are going to do—just do it. Don’t announce points, just make them; don’t preface examples, just give them—and your sermons will be smoother and more powerful as a result.—J.E.A.

Psalms

There is one entire book of the Bible that is devoted to music: the Psalms. We’ve said little about this hymnbook in these blogs.

“Spose it’s ‘bout time to do so!”

Counselors will find the Psalms invaluable in helping their counselees deal with all human emotions. They range from grief and suffering to joy and gladness. They deal with anger, and wrath to as well as grace and forgiveness. And, those items are merely a few of what’s there.

How to use the Psalms in counseling is, of course, the question. Often verses are simply yanked out of context, missing the point of the Psalm as a whole. But to know what a Psalm is all about and, therefore, its purpose, is essential to bringing the full measure of comfort, encouragement, need for repentance, direction, and the like to the counselee. I say full measure, because even smaller units of biblical material if understood correctly, can be of help. But, all too frequently, that doesn’t happen when passages are used irrespective of their context.

“Give me an example”

OK. Psalm 23. Ever hear anyone speak of going “through the valley of death” as the process of dying? Of course, it means the opposite—the Lord protects His sheep from the hidden dangers lurking in the shadows (wolves, lions) as He leads them through those valley paths. Rather, the Psalm ought to be applied to safety and rescue situations, than to the process of dying.

“Gottcha!”

So, my plea is for counselors not to use these hymns carelessly or wrongly. Some of them require extensive study; others are quite clear. But whichever we use, let’s do so with confidence—the confidence that is born of knowing what you are talking about.

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More on “Illustrations”

I have never appreciated the fact that the word “illustration” is used to cover all storytelling in preaching. Because the word focuses on the visual alone (to illustrate is to “brighten” or “throw light on” something), it has tended to limit appeal to the other senses (hearing, smelling, tasting, touching), and that, in turn, has tended to impoverish our preaching. Perhaps it would be well if the word storytelling were to replace it altogether.

Stories, well told, are sense-oriented; they appeal to the senses. Dialog, for instance, an integral part of most good stories (see Christ’s parables), appeals especially to the sense of hearing. The prodigal son talks to himself, rehearsing what he will say to his father (here, in a modern translation, you will even find quotes within quotes!—dialog with himself!).

This is an important point, about which I have said more in a chapter of a book on preaching soon to be published by Westminster Theological Seminary. But, here, I shall zero in on two issues involved in illustration (or, better, storytelling): (1) recent vs. timeless stories and (2) contrived vs. actual.

Let it be said that there are distinct advantages to each. The Bible uses all four, so I am not suggesting the elimination of one or the other but, rather, an understanding of the values of each, so that they may be selected and used more powerfully.

Recent vs. Timeless

Of course, the recent may become timeless, but in many instances this will not be true, and also in most cases you will not be able to make this determination beforehand. So, in choosing a given story, it is useful to remember the distinction.

Recent events, known to all (like the assassination of Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt-a contemporary and still strongly felt happening—have impact so long as this emotional climate remains. But the chances are, by the time that this Journal can be published and distributed, and certainly in a year or so, it will have lost most (if not all) of that added impact. Such stories, then, are best used right away, but lose their impact with the passage of time (unless a great deal of background is used in order to recreate something of that feeling, so that the listener/viewer may relive the event). Today, November 3, 1981, the papers are filled with the story of a Soviet submarine that ran aground in Swedish waters. Have you forgotten this story by now? Surely, even if this recalls it for you, it will be stale. So, widely known recent events are best used right away, while they are still recent.

Timeless events are good any time. Certain events (Lincoln’s assassination, Pearl Harbor, etc.) have that character naturally, that is, they have become timeless by becoming memorable over long periods of time. The preacher can refer to them and stir memories or emotions with a minimum of backfill. (Of course, any event can be used if enough background is given to recreate the event for the listener—but that takes sermon time—often a good bit of it.) Timeless events also are reusable at any time. A sermon can be preached—stories and all—largely as it was the first time, if its examples and stories are of a timeless quality. Clearly, new materials must be sought if the stories are dated. One of the hallmarks of a poor reused sermon (there is nothing wrong with reusing sermons, per se) is stale stories.

My advice is that unless a recent event has great impact on the entire congregation, as a rule, it would be better not to use it. Moreover, if you follow the general rule, one illustration for each point. then it would be better to limit dated stories, allusions, and examples’to a maximum of one per sermon. Christ seemed to use dated material sparingly, for example, “those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell”; “Zecharias, son of Barachias, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.” Apart from those two instances, it is difficult to find any such material.

Contrived vs. Actual

I have been discussing actual events thus far; not all stories, examples, etc., must be so. Christ’s parables were contrived. Manufactured events (“Suppose a farmer wanted to kill the weeds in his field …”) have one great advantage: you can produce them and shape them precisely to the point you wish to make at any time. You do not need to search for them or to settle for a story that only partially fits. Of course. there is a disadvantage too: you must do creative work: some don’t like to; others think they can’t (on this point see my book, Insight and Creativity in Christian Counseling). But creative thinking, in the long run, is an advantage, because the more of it that is done, the more it tends to make one a more effective thinker and preacher. Contrived stories ought always to be presented as such—the question of their reality never should be left ambiguous.

There is also the possibility of taking an actual event and reversing it: “Suppose the Soviet submarine had been found in the San Diego harbor.…” Often, doing this will

  1. bring an event closer to one’s own sphere of activity and
  2. allow for the sort of alterations that are needed to make a point from the passage being discussed.

Real stories do, however, have the value of recency, when freshly used, and (again) do not require so much time to tell. But, when one takes the time to fill in details, like many of Christ’s parables, these stories become memorable.

All in all, the analysis of various options itself is what is most valuable. Think about them; be aware of what you are doing when you select a story and why you are doing so. If you take the time to do so, you will be delighted with the results.—J.E.A.

I Heard It—Did You?

A rare thing happened the other day—I heard a good sermon. Let me briefly analyze it for you, noting some of the factors that made it good.

First, it was preaching; it was not a string of stories or a stodgy lecture. By that I mean, from start to finish, the sermon was directed to us. We were involved from the outset. The truth of the passage was presented as God’s message to us, not only to the members of a church long ago and far away in biblical times. God came alive to us as someone living, ruling, caring now—for us. The preacher made us concerned, and kept us concerned, about our families, our church, our community.

Next, what I heard was biblical preaching. What he preached was not an essay on some truth, not the ideas of politicians, media personalities, philosophers, theologians, or his own opinions, but what God said to us in Paul’s letter. Not only did he tell us what the preaching portion means, but he even showed us just how every point that he made comes from the passage. Because he did so, we were able to evaluate for ourselves whether the preacher’s conclusions about the text were accurate. Significantly, it was apparent that he had done his homework and that what he told us made sense. And, I believe others in the congregation, if asked, would agree with me that what he said about the text was accurate. He satisfied us that he was preaching what Paul had said. We went away understanding the passage and how everything in the sermon flowed from it. Consequently, we listened to his exhortations about our lives, not as the opinions of a man, but as a word from God to us. He preached, and his preaching was received, with an authority appropriate to the sort of message that it was. We left knowing that we had heard a proclamation from God.

Again, the sermon was interesting. The preacher did not cook the juice out of the passage, leaving hard, dry, burned-over abstract teaching. Nor did he serve it to us as a raw, bloody, uncooked chunk of meat. Like a fine chef, he knew just how to handle the passage, cooking it to a turn, garnishing and accenting it so that what he served was the text in full flavor. Its own nutritious juices were preserved, and where delicate nuances otherwise might be missed, he seasoned it with illustrations that brought them out. As he delivered it, the sermon sizzled!

Moreover, the sermon was well organized. There were points, sturdy as steel, under girding the whole, arranged in logical order. But the points did not protrude; he did not bore us with unnecessary firstlies, secondlies and thirdlies, he avoided details that added nothing to the central idea of the message, and—believe it or not—he did not bother us with distracting, forced alliteration. His entire focus in the sermon was on the intent of the Holy Spirit in the text. He kept moving ahead, avoiding all meaningless prefacing and repetition, instead skillfully thrusting each point straight into our hearts!

Now, I know that you will find it difficult to believe me when I tell you that, on top of everything else, that sermon was practical. Yes, it really was! It was carefully adapted to the particular congregation to which it was preached. And the preacher persisted in telling us not only what to do but how to do it. And sometimes, like his Lord in the Sermon on the Mount, he also told us how not to do it. It was plain that he had spent time thinking about what biblical principles mean in everyday living and had worked out biblically derived applications and implementations of each one.

What a sermon it was! You don’t hear many like it today. Indeed, because of this fact, you may wonder where it was preached and who preached it. You may ask, “Are cassette tapes available?” The answer is no. But I can tell you where I heard it—it was in a reverie while sitting in the Montreal airport that I heard that sermon, and the only record of it is the one that I am now sketching for you enroute to Moncton. But, is it doomed to remain merely a bare record, hidden away from the people of God in a pastoral journal sitting on your shelf? Why should it? Why don’t you bring it to life? Why don’t you preach it this Sunday to your congregation? Then, if you and scores of other preachers with you do so, thousands of people throughout the land will truly be able to say, “I heard a good sermon today!”—J.E.A.

Refreshment

I want to translate more accurately a very important passage of Scripture. It is the verse in Matthew 11:28 which reads, in the original.

Come to Me all who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will refresh you.

The idea is not merely to come to Christ to find rest from our futile efforts to keep the law, although rest does result when one stops striving to be saved by works and, instead, is justified by faith alone. But the idea is not that of settling down, and resting on one’s laurels. Rather, it is enjoying the refreshing peace and joy that enable one to serve Christ in the future.

Jesus goes on to say that “you will receive refreshment for your souls” (v. 29). This refreshment enables one to carry on, unburdened by an impossible weight, so as to serve Him Whose burden is light, and Whose yoke—the symbol of work and service—is easy to wear. It does not rub and injure those who wear it (v. 30).

To take another’s yoke upon one’s self meant to come under his teaching (that’s why Jesus says, “learn from Me.”). The passage is, therefore, a call, not to leisure, but to discipleship. The call is strong. The interesting word “Come” in v. 28 was normally accompanied by a gesture. One moved his finger when speaking it so as to indicate that he wanted another to come over to him.

Christ’s service is a pleasure to those who truly “learn from Him. That is the secret of joyous discipleship. Too often, fatigued disciples have been learning from every other source than their Lord. The answer to exhausted efforts in the Lord’s field is to return to, and imbibe the refreshing words of the Lord Jesus Christ. Then, service will be “easy” and “light.”

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A Message to our Friends

I recently had lunch with a great friend from out of town who is both a pastor and an experienced counselor. After lunch we drove out to visit Dr. Adams and on our drive home he said, “I wish I could visit South Carolina more often. It is the only time I get to hear what God is doing through Jay and the Institute. How often do you communicate with your students and friends of the ministry?”

I rehearsed for him my typical thoughts on the subject—I am very busy, our friends and students are busy, I don’t want to annoy people with unwanted email, folks will think I am trying to get money from them, Jay does not like to promote himself, if people are interested they can read the website . . .

At that point my friend cut me off. “Donn, shame on you! For over 50 years Dr. Adams has had an important ministry in the lives of thousands of people and for the past 12 years you and the Institute have had a life changing ministry to hundreds of students and, through them, thousands of counselees. These people love Jay, and they love this ministry. You simply must do a better job of communicating with them. Hundreds would love to help you if only they knew how!”

Well, of course I was chastened. It has been several weeks since that conversation and this letter is the fruit of my thinking since then. It is longer letter than anything I plan to publish in the future but I have some catching up to do. Please indulge me while I share with you, in some detail, what has been happening at the Institute and some plans for the future.

God is Prospering the Institute

Compiling exact statistics would require expending more time than the principle of good stewardship allows but the Institute now has thousands of students who have enrolled in at least one of our courses and hundreds of graduates who have completed our entire curriculum. These students and graduates are having important ministries in their local churches and are offering the hope only the Scriptures can give to hurting counselees on every continent around the world.

Our website is visited by hundreds of people every day. It not only provides information about the Institute and the training we offer but visitors can also find:

  1. a treasure trove of information about Nouthetic counseling, much of which is out of print and can be found nowhere else
  2. a daily podcast by Dr. Adams that features 8-9 minute discussions of every counseling issue imaginable (and some you never imagined)
  3. our blog featuring recent articles by Dr. Adams as well as, from time to time, classic articles which Dr. Adams has written in years past that can be found nowhere else
  4. our online bookstore
  5. our Facebook page which has over 1700 “friends” (Are you one of them?)

Our opportunities continue to grow. One of the most exciting partnerships we have developed recently is with Mid-America Baptist Seminary in Memphis where we are helping establish PhD, DMin, and MA programs in Nouthetic counseling. I taught for two weeks in January and will be returning to teach again in June. Next month (April 7-9) Jay and I will be speaking at their first conference on biblical counseling along with Martha Peace and Lou Priolo. More information can be found at their website.

Dr. Adams’ health continues to concern us. While God has given him a degree of improved strength he still deals with a number of challenges every day. Jay continues to write blog articles, Jay and I recently contributed an article to the new Theological Journal to be published by Mid-America Baptist Seminary, and recently R. C. Sproul’s Tabletalk magazine published an interview with Dr. Adams. When I am asked about Jay’s health I like to report that he is “full of sap and very green” (Ps. 92:14). I stopped by his home unannounced several weeks ago and found him reading Basil of Caesarea in the original Greek!

Our training continues to be the single most comprehensive, foundational, and convenient place to study Nouthetic counseling. That may sound like self-serving bluster but please hear me out. We have many friends, and we know of scores of others, who do a fine job of teaching biblical counseling in a number of venues—formal academic institutions, well-structured conferences and seminars, and local church training centers. Each of these, however, owes their existence to the foundational work done by Dr. Adams. Our advice to those seeking training in biblical counseling is to study under Dr. Adams first and establish a firm foundation studying under a teacher they can trust before navigating the wealth of good training (and the plague of poor training and exegesis) available in other places.

But We Have Challenges

Our growth and opportunities have required that we try to do more and more with the same amount of resources. The day to day operation of the Institute is handled almost exclusively by our Executive Director. His daily responsibilities include bookkeeping, taping and editing video lectures, writing and editing curriculum notes, maintaining our websites, interacting with students by phone, recruiting students, teaching, counseling, and answering email. In addition to these daily responsibilities he is working on several writing projects, speaking at counseling conferences, and teaching in an adjunct role in Seminary.

All of that to say, “We need help!” Our most pressing need is to hire an administrative assistant to handle some of the day to day operations. Coupled with that is the need to find better office space from which to function. Almost two years ago the wonderful office space we were renting in Greenville was sold requiring us to move out. Since then we have been working out of two spare bedrooms and an over the garage bonus room in the Arms home. I still have over 4,000 volumes of books packed away in boxes in the garage. Hiring an administrative assistant will require that we have more functional office space somewhere.

Meeting these needs will require more income for the Institute. Since our founding more than twelve years ago we have been largely funded by tuition paid by our students. We have discovered, however, what every other educational institution has learned—tuition income alone cannot cover the cost of training.

Our tuition is exactly the same as it was twelve years ago. We have never raised it—nor do we plan to. We want to keep training in biblical counseling under Dr. Adams accessible to as many students as possible. We believe raising tuition would keep many from students studying with us and as a result, reduce our income, not increase it. No, we believe the first solution is more students, not higher tuition.

Second, we have been lousy fundraisers. We used to wear this as a badge of honor partly because we do not want to be perceived to be focused on money. While Dr. Adams has had an important ministry to thousands over the years he has never cultivated donors. When he was once asked to become the president of a Seminary he turned them down, in part because he believed his lack of fund raising skills would doom the school financially.

As I said at the beginning of this letter, we have been challenged in recent days by several friends to do a better job of asking friends to help us. They have made the case that there are thousands of people helped by Dr. Adams over the years who would love to see others helped in the same way, and would want to help us if only they were asked.

How Can You Help?

Those are some of our current needs, now we want to boldly ask you to do FOUR things for us.

  1. Please make the ministry of the Institute for Nouthetic Studies a priority matter of prayer for the next month. I commit to you that I will do a better job of keeping you informed about the ministry of the Institute than I have in the past. Would you commit to putting this ministry, our students, and Dr. Adams personally, at the top of your prayer list for the next month?
  2. Would you help us advertise the ministry of the Institute for Nouthetic Studies?

    1. “Like” our Facebook page. Currently, we are right at 1700 likes. Help us increase this to 2,000 by the end of the month.
    2. “Share” our Facebook page with all YOUR Facebook friends and invite them to “like” us as well.
    3. Promote our blog, our podcast, and our website on YOUR blog or ministry website.
    4. Tell your family, your friends, your neighbors, your church family, your pastor, your in-laws, and everyone else you know about us.
  3. Would you navigate to our donation page and give as large a gift as you are able to this ministry? We pledge to use your gift carefully. There are no six figure salaries paid here. In fact, I will overcome my reticence to discuss such things and tell you that Dr. Adams has never taken a dime in income from the Institute. He has given of his time, his lectures, and his writings and as asked for nothing in return. As Executive Director devoting full time to this ministry, I have never taken an annual salary of more than 25K. We do not plan to change that until after these other needs are met.
    1. Give a gift today. The summer months as well as December are usually lean because fewer people devote themselves to studying during those times. Your gift now would help us prepare for the lean summer months that are just ahead. Would you make, what is for you, a significant gift today?
    2. Register to make a monthly donation. Please consider becoming a partner with us in this ministry by registering on our donation page to make a regular monthly gift. You can also send us an email to let us know you will be sending a check every month. We cannot hire an administrative assistant or secure office space until we have regular monthly commitments to cover those expenses. Your gift to the Institute will multiply several times over as it will not only be a blessing to us, but to those who will be learning how to minister the Word of God effectively in the counseling room, and then to those counselees whose lives will be changed by that ministry.

4.  Finally, would you help us by sharing your testimony with prospective students? Sometime today or in the week to come would you write a thoughtfully worded paragraph describing your experience as a student or graduate of the Institute? How has Dr. Adams impacted your life personally, and how have you used what you have learned to minister to others? We would like to share your testimony on our website. We can tell prospective students what we think and what we are seeking to accomplish but your testimony and endorsement would have a far more effective impact. Would you take perhaps a half hour to write up and share your experience with us? You can send it to us at feedback@nouthetic.org.

Thank you for staying with me through this longer than usual email. We treasure your partnership with us in this ministry. May God bless you as you consider how you can help us promote the ministry of the Word of God to hurting people.

A Suggestion for Young Preachers

Recently listening to a young man who has great promise preach, I was reminded afresh of a fact of which I became aware early in my teaching of homiletics at Westminster Theological Seminary:

YOUNG PREACHERS—AND SOME OLDER ONES TOO—TEND TO PREACH TOO MUCH IN A SERMON.

The sermon to which I refer ranged far and wide, over Old Testament and New, into various doctrines and their subpoints, all (mind you) in 25 minutes! Apparently, the young man had never considered the fact that you can say more about less.

Were I to attempt to describe the activities in which I was engaged last summer in 25 minutes, I’d be saying such things as

Then I went to several other places (I wish I had time to tell you where and all about them) and did some very interesting things (perhaps at some later time I could mention these in detail), etc., etc.

But, if I took 25 minutes to tell you about one event on one night at one place last summer, I could tell all—colorfully, interestingly, and in a way that you could understand. Instead of hurriedly racing hither and yon, I could stop, examine in detail, describe in depth, delineate and delete! But all of last summer? Why, all I could do is vaguely sketch what took place!

The same is true of preaching. The young man had a decently chosen preaching portion, but, instead of delving into it, he ran all over the Bible. He should have explored its main telos (purpose) in depth, related it carefully to the contemporary scene, and sent us away with one whale of an impact from the Word of God. Instead, we went out barely touched by it. His effort was dissipated by scattering his shot. Someone has said, “A rifle is more powerful than a shotgun.”

So, let’s stop using buckshot in the pulpit.

Now, for my suggestion. Preachers are always looking for ways to reuse old sermons. That is OK; New Testament preachers did. But here is one of the best ways of all. Review your first three to five years’ sermons. You will notice that (if you are like most novices) you tried to preach the entire corpus of Christian truth in every message.

“OK,” you say, “I’ve looked at them (shudder!), and the charge is true. What do I do now?” My suggestion is this:

Use each of the three to five points in each sermon, itself as the basis for a complete sermon. Perhaps some points could be so fully elaborated (remember, you can say more about less) that they could form the basis for a series of sermons.

There, you have it. Take it to heart. Don’t dump those old, unusable sermons in the wastebasket. There is some valuable ore there to be mined. Go to it, now that you know how!—J.E.A

A Body for Christ

Why do you do what you do? Have you ever asked yourself that question in frustration after you did something that you knew you shouldn’t—or that, down deep, you really didn’t want to do?

Well, of course, the first answer to that question is that you are a sinner. Even if you have come to faith in Christ and have been saved you will continue to sin—even against your better intentions. There still is corruption in you.

Paul faced this problem himself. In the seventh chapter of Romans he deals with it. He says that he does the things he doesn’t want to do, and fails to do those things that he wanted to do. Not all of the time, of course, but frequently enough to speak in exasperation about it.

Paul located the problem in his body (which, of course, includes the brain—everything that dies and goes into the ground is body). Not in any Gnostic sense. Rather than think that evil is an essential trait of all things material, which the Gnostics believed was the source of such problems, he held it was the habituation of the body toward sin prior to becoming a believer that he carried over from his former life.

Paul speaks of having once become an obedient slave who yielded the members of his body to sin as a master over him. Then, when he was saved, he was freed from slavery to sin. But he found himself going back to the old ways that had become habituated in him. Now, he says that as he once yielded his bodily members to sin, he was learning to yield them to God for righteous purposes. He wanted his body to become an efficient, well-trained instrument in the Lord’s service.

As he prayerfully yielded his members to righteousness, the Lord enabled him to put off the old ways in order to replace them with the new ones. When he cried out, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” he was quick to answer his own question—the Lord Jesus Christ will! He was now yielding to his new Master and asking Him for grace and mercy to develop a well-trained body that would be available for service to his new Master.

When you struggle with this problem, turn again to Romans 7 and 8 and find the solace and assistance necessary to put on God’s new ways. For further help in this matter, see my book, Winning the War Within.

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Imagine That!

If you were to ask what I think is lacking in contemporary preaching, I would be hard-put to answer; there are so many failings. But, certainly, one factor that grows high on the trellis is the widespread tendency to neglect imagery.

Too much of the preaching that we hear sounds like lectures given in the chilly halls of the theological schools or, worse still, like the dusty commentaries lining the shelves of the preacher’s library. Seldom do you hear preaching even remotely akin to the warm sermons of Christ, replete with parables, illustrations, examples and figures of speech that cause them to sparkle, that make them memorable, and help even the simple listener to understand.

But it is not just in the preaching of Christ and the apostles that we find such vivid imagery; throughout history, imagery has been one of the hallmarks of great preachers—Chrysostom, Luther, Spurgeon, all made truth live by picturing it to their readers (see my book, Sense Appeal in the Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon for one example of this).

But what is imagery, and how does one develop the ability to use it in preaching?

Imagery has to do with imaging, or imagining. Until a preacher can picture for himself what he is talking about, it is very doubtful that he adequately understands what he is trying to tell others. At any rate, it is almost certain that, apart from imagery, few, if any, of his congregation will understand—even if he does.

Imagery has two dimensions: first, it is the ability to sketch the picture mentally for one’s self. Then, imagery is the ability to verbally sketch it for others to see. In the fullest sense of the expression, a listener ought to be able to say after a sermon, “Ah, now I see.”

But how does one acquire and develop the skills that are needed to picture truth for himself and for others?

First, let me stress the importance of working harder than ever at learning how to picture truth. In biblical times, the listeners’ imaginations were much more highly trained than the average listener’s is today. They had to be because they had to use their imaginations so much more frequently than we do. They had no photography, no TV, no movies, no picture books, etc., to do the job for them. Instead, they themselves had to picture in their minds what they heard. Biblical writers and preachers were well aware of this and fairly freckled their messages with imagery of every kind. If in that day they recognized the necessity for imagery, how much more so is imagery in preaching needed today when the listener’s imagination is weak and flabby from disuse? In this day of untrained imaginations, we must work all the more to assist the listener; otherwise, he will not be able to fill in the gaps for himself. Indeed, we see him bored, dozing, and wavering in the pew. He complains that the sermon was “dry.” Such complaints are not altogether groundless.

Two factors are essential to good imagery in preaching:

  1. An ability to see;
  2. An ability to make others see.

This picturing of the truth for one’s self and for others involves a number of prerequisites, three of which have been given all too little consideration by preachers and by those who teach them. You too may have failed to notice them as they came floating by.

  1. It takes time to sketch mental and verbal pictures and hound down imagery that adequately portrays a truth. Most preachers are in a hurry. They work on their sermons under pressure. They, therefore, allow too little time—if any—for putting their feet up and letting their minds wander over fields, hills, valleys, beside brooks and streams; they seldom walk mentally through cluttered city streets, stroll up dingy alleys, climb fire escapes, or peer out of the windows of a skyscraper. Their imaginations are dull and sluggish because they are so seldom given free rein to roam and romp. To do so takes time. That is the first and most important prerequisite.
  2. The imagination must be exercised at other times than when looking for apt sermonic images. If it is not frequently given opportunity to range far and wide, it will not know where to go in search of those compelling pictures that are needed. Instead, when you send it out to fetch an image for you, it will cower timidly at the front door, like a new puppy that does not feel at home in the neighborhood. One way to exercise the imagination is to read books that make demands upon it. If a preacher works with commentaries and with the sort of fare that, typically, is written for preachers all the time, and never reads anything else, he is likely to find his imaginative powers drying up quickly.
  3. Prerequisite number three is effort. Even when the mind has had opportunity to explore and discover, the work is not complete. Proper structure, sequence, and descriptive terminology must be developed as the vehicles for conveying to others the imagery that the mind has dragged home. Otherwise, it will be bottled up in the preacher, who can’t ever seem to get others to see things as he does. This is a common fault. There must be work, work roughing in each picture, giving it depth and perspective, choosing colors, refining each feature until—at last—there it hangs, finished and framed, a fair representation of what the preacher wishes to convey, in form that makes its message immediately intelligible.

So, imagery is where it is at in preaching. Let me suggest two daily activities that, if followed regularly for a time, will get you started:

  1. Every weekday, locate at least one image in the Bible. Examine it. Try to understand what it conveys to the reader and how it does so. Make a note of your results.
  2. Next, think of at least one other image that might be used to portray the same truth. Try to think of a modern situation and audience with which it might be used with equal power. Again, state why you think it would do the job. Keep rereading your notes. You will notice improvement as time goes by.

Preacher, don’t continue to fail your congregation because you have never understood the place and the power of imagery. Take the time to study the subject; learn all that you can about it. Do the simple exercise that I have suggested above, and start right away. If you do, I can almost guarantee that in time you will begin to receive compliments on your sermons—imagine that!—J.E.A.

When Counseling, Also Don’t . . .

Yesterday we published Dr. Adams’ list. Here is mine. What would you add?

  1. Minimize your counselee’s problem. It was important enough to him to seek counsel.
  2. Tell your counselee that you understand what he is going through. You probably don’t. Tell him Christ does.
  3. Use psychological labels and jargon.
  4. Debate counseling models and methods with your counselee.
  5. Give homework that does not directly relate to the problem.
  6. Delay addressing his problem thinking you must build a relationship first.
  7. Adjudicate disputes between two people.
  8. Overwhelm your counselee with too much homework.
  9. Let your counselee’s emotions dictate the agenda.
  10. Let other things distract you during a counseling session.
  11. Fail to laugh and enjoy a humorous moment when appropriate.
  12. Try to make a point with a long list of verses. Instead, explain carefully the one or two verses that best meet the need.
  13. Fail to take good notes during the session.
  14. Charge your counselee for the privilege of counseling with you.
  15. Commiserate with a depressed person—-help him!
  16. Excuse failure to do homework.
  17. Allow someone, whose own life is out of control, control yours.
  18. Have your counselee read Scripture during the counseling session. You read it TO HIM clearly.
  19. Yawn
  20. Fake it. If you don’t know what to do next ask the counselee to pray for you as you study the issue during the coming week.
  21. Do another pastor’s work for him. Insist that your counselee’s pastor come along to the counseling session.
  22. Become angry with an angry counselee.
  23. Pity a pitiful counselee.
  24. Think more highly of yourself than you ought.
  25. Speak in abstractions, be concrete.
  26. Assume your counselee understands the biblical principle or passage you are referring to.
  27. Let your counselee settle for relief from the immediate problem.
  28. Give up.
  29. Settle for some substitute for church discipline.
  30. Promise absolute confidentiality.
  31. Ignore or gloss over doctrinal differences.
  32. Fail to secure commitments from your counselee.
  33. Confuse repentance with regret.
  34. Monopolize the conversation. Listen!
  35. Talk about a counseling case with someone who has no reason to hear about it.
  36. Fear litigation because you have obeyed Scripture.
  37. Back down when you should stand firm.
  38. Fail to handle the Word carefully and honestly. Do your exegesis!

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