Does This Apply to You?

In seminary, in one form or another, you were taught “Be sure to apply the truth that you are teaching.” That is good advice; it follows biblical precedent and precept and points to an important fact that continually needs to be reemphasized. But how does one apply truth to life? On that question advice differs and/or often thins out. It is easy to gain assent to various truisms and noble goals, but it is when you turn to the discussion of ways and means that differences begin to appear. Everyone wants peace. So far, agreement is easy, but people will battle fiercely over how to obtain it. So too, all homileticians insist on the necessity for application but argue for widely differing methods of applying truth. Therefore, I shall focus my comments not so much on the commonplace areas of agreement but on the points of difference in an attempt to provide some sort of guidelines for proceeding through this homiletic maze.

I

To begin with, briefly let us consider the meaning of the word application so that we may understand from the outset what it is that we are discussing. The verb “apply” etymologically means “to fold or lay upon.” The idea of “attachment” is also connected with it, but, as one word book puts it, “to apply” means “to attach firmly so it will not come off.” That idea is clearly seen in the use of the word in the following sentence: “He applied a coat of paint to the door.” The paint is firmly bonded to the door. So in sermonic application, something is laid upon or attached to the truth that is being taught. That means that application

  1. is a step beyond mere teaching (thought of as the communication of factual knowledge), and
  2. requires something more of the preacher than an understanding or proper interpretation of a preaching portion.

What application does, then, is to “attach” to the simple interpretation of the passage the meaning for the congregation today in the context of their modem life situations. Folded into or hid upon the passage as originally understood by those who first read it is another layer of interpreted information about the congregation growing out the present circumstances in which they find themselves.

But what this means is that the preacher must study the passage not only for its historical/grammatical meanings, but he also must

  1. study the present situation (or situations) that the congregation faces,
  2. study the various members of the congregation who are facing it,
  3. abstract the truth or principle that the Holy Spirit intended to teach from the passage,
  4. discover how the writer applied this principle to his readers, and
  5. do the same today for his own congregation in their modem setting.

So, application requires something other than using (or, perhaps more appropriately we should say misusing) a preaching portion for one’s own purposes. Rather, it involves

  1. discovering the Holy Spirit’s telos (or purpose; see earlier JPP articles on this subject) and
  2. how the Spirit directed the biblical writers to apply truth in their day.

Sometimes, the situations in O.T. Israel as in Corinth (or in both) will be exactly the same as they are today-death, for instance, is death, no matter where or when one faces it. It is not conditioned by time or culture. The application of 1 Corinthians 15: 54–58, then, will be found, and may be used substantially as it is found, in the passage itself.

But veils, as a sign of the husband’s authority over his wife, are another matter altogether; they simply do not have that meaning in modem Western culture. Consequently, while the principle of order and decorum in worship that pertains to a woman’s submission to her husband must still be applied, it will only be possible to do so if we attach or fold in a layer of new material that fits the present situation.

II

But now we come to the how to. What is involved in attaching or unfolding the biblically attached applicatory layer of a sermon? As I said, this is where differences appear and the arguments begin.

Calvin and the early Reformers show by their sermons and commentaries that they held to a view of the matter that is at great variance with the approach followed by so many preachers and homileticians today. Perhaps that is why (in part, at least) modern preaching has so much less impact than theirs did. What happened to change the course of Protestant preaching?

The scholastic views of the Middle Ages that Luther and Calvin abandoned were later reintroduced into preaching in Protestant circles by a number of the Puritans who had never shaken loose of them. As a result, their commentaries and the examples that their sermons set turned back the clock on effective preaching for several generations. Because their approach to application (which they believed in with a vengeance) still constitutes the prevailing model (in a greatly revised form), we are yet strongly under their influence. These two approaches to application-what I may roughly call the Reformation approach and the Puritan approach-readily set forth for us the choice that one must make in preaching. And, as you have already gathered from the tenor of the discussion so far, I take my stand with the Reformers against the corrupting influence of the Puritans. How did the two differ?

For the Reformers, the whole sermon was application; what was added, attached or folded in was done naturally, organically, as an integral part of the whole. From start to finish, as they interpreted the Scriptures for the congregation, at the same time, they preached what the text had to say about the people sitting before them. Application was made all along.

In contrast, the Puritans exposited the text (often that is not the right way to put it either-many of them had a penchant for doing anything but exposition. Instead, they taught a systematic theology lesson on words that triggered their interest, at times quite heedless of the Holy Spirit’s intentions in the particular passage at hand); then they tacked on at the end of the sermon various and sundry “uses” or “improvements on the text” by way of application. Again, most of their applications had little to do with the point made by the Spirit in the passage which, by this time, had become a springboard for whatever they wished to say. While in modern times the number of applicatory “uses” has been greatly reduced, so that we rarely hear of “thirteenthlies” or “fourteenthlies” any more, unfortunately the idea of tacking on the application at the end has persisted.

Instead, we must learn to proclaim the entire preaching portion throughout-even in the exposition-as the Reformers did, namely, as God’s Word to the congregation. Instead of saying throughout the sermon, “This is what God said to the Israelites” and then, at the very end asking, “Now what does all this mean to us today?” the preacher from the outset ought to tell his people, “This is what God says to you. How do we know this? Well, listen to what he told the Israelites who were facing circumstances not altogether unlike your own.…” There is just as much exposition in the one as in the other approach; the great difference lies in the fact that the Reformation approach is relevant, up-to-date, and treats the Word of God as a message to people today, while the other does not.

The Puritan approach lets the congregation dangle throughout the greater part of the sermon. They wonder what he is up to, what is the point of all of this exposition. And if at length they become interested in facts for facts’ sake alone, it is understandable. Only at the end does one discover what the preacher has in mind when the application is finally made (if it is; some have eliminated it altogether). And it is so easy to make applications that have little to do with the passage since by then it has been left behind for application. It is harder to depart from the Holy Spirit’s applicatory purpose when you are making application as a part of the exposition itself. How much better, then, if the preacher orients the congregation to look for personal applications as he investigates the meaning of the passage with them. This orientation may take several forms. I shall note two:

1. The solution to a problem (or answer to a question)

“Have you wondered what God has to say about the discipline of children in your home (N.B., not what He had to say to the Israelites)? Well, let’s turn to Proverbs 29:15 and to Ephesians 6:4 and see.” Notice how the listener is personally involved from the start. When the text is considered it is considered as God’s Word to him; not merely to someone else long ago and far away. All that is discovered in the passage is easily related immediately-when the listener still remembers it-to him: “So, it is clear that God wants you to use not only the rod but also reproof; not only discipline but also counsel. If you fail to emphasize both in balance, God says that you will run the risk of provoking your children to anger.” That is the way to apply biblical truth; that is the way to preach!

2. Exhortation to obey a command

“God commands you to love your wife. In Ephesians 5 He says.…” Here, once again, the listener becomes involved directly in the teaching of the Scriptures from the beginning. The passage is treated for what it is in truth-the Word of God for them.

What I have said previously in articles about outlines is appropriate here. In order to impress on the preacher as well as on the congregation the present relevance of the passage, it is well to “translate” long-ago-and-far-away outlines into here-and-now ones. Consider the following with its “translations”:

Basic modern Puritan-type outline

  1. Paul told the Ephesian husbands to love their wives
  2. They were to love their wives as Christ loved the Church
  3. They were to be willing to give up their lives for them
  4. Husbands today must also love their wives.

The above “translated”

into a

Basic modern Reformer-type outline

  1. God commands you to love your wife
  2. You must love her as Christ loved the church
  3. You must be willing to give your life for her.

Note, there is no point 4 in the Reformer-type outline because the structure of the sermon framed around the meaning and application of the text to the congregation precludes it; the sermon throughout is application.

If what you have read here applies to you, then apply it. Learn to preach the entire sermon to the congregation, dealing from start to finish with their relationship to God and to their neighbors. You will soon begin to see the good effects of this change.

The Young Preacher

There are many things that veteran preachers can do that are very difficult, if not impossible, for the neophyte. In this article, I’d like to make a couple of observations about practices both to avoid and to follow. It is my hope that not only young preachers, but also their longsuffering congregations, will be helped by these suggestions.

One of the unfortunate tendencies evident in many young preachers is the inclination to preach abstractly. Passages full of excitement and flavor are wrung dry as they are twisted and wound into distorted shapes conforming to some plan that is imposed upon them by overzealous, youthful homeliticians who think that abstract and impersonal “points” are superior to normal human speech. This tendency comes from poor teaching in the seminaries, from the sort of dull materials to which seminarians have been exposed for three or more years, and from the perversity of youth who think that this is the way to become sophisticated. As the result, congregations are fed a regular diet of

  1. The Nature of Truth (or whatever)
  2. The Necessity of Truth
  3. The Negative of Truth

As you readily can see, abstraction is not the only problem apparent in this outline. But, for a moment, let us stick with the abstraction problem. Instead of those boring and drab labels, “Nature” and “Necessity,” why not simply say

  1. Jesus is the Truth
  2. Jesus wants you to speak the truth, etc.?

You will say more; and as you do, you will say it directly, preaching (even in your “points”) to the congregation rather than merely analyzing a “subject.”

Doubtless, you have also noted that the penchant for alliteration that so many young preachers exhibit has led the youthful minister who composed the outline into bad practices. He squeezed into the outline point three, “The Negative of Truth,” even though it really didn’t fit, just to get another “N.” Neither the structure of the phrase nor the word “Negative” is apropos. What he meant to say was something like this: Look at the opposite, or (to continue our substitute outline)

3.  Jesus wants you to stop Lying.

How often young men (and some older ones—watch out for preachers who always alliterate), enamored with alliteration, force the meaning of a passage for the sake of alliteration. Let me warn you that alliteration is useful only when it is natural, when it helps one to remember and when it clearly says what you want to say. Then it really can be useful. But any alliteration that distorts meaning always must be avoided.

Another related problem that young preachers have is the desire to preach abstract rather than concrete passages of Scripture. While the whole Bible must be preached, it cannot all be preached at once. Because that is true, the preacher must pick and choose the portions of Scripture from which he is going to preach. When he does so, the inexperienced preacher will be wise to choose those passages that by virtue of their form and content already have a lot of interest value in them, that are fairly extensive in length (rather than single verses or parts of verses) and that have in them people in action and in conversation. He would be well advised to preach from a number of the parables, miracles, and healings of Christ. Because of the way in which Luke handles these events (giving suggestive details and focusing on people), I recommend that the young preacher get as many commentaries as he can afford on the Gospel of Luke (and perhaps borrow a few more from others’ libraries) and preach largely (though not exclusively) from this Gospel for the first couple of years.

Preaching and Writing

Many of the great preachers—Spurgeon, Luther, Calvin, etc. (not to mention Paul, Peter, and John) also have been great writers. Certainly, there are exceptions, but, on the whole, the observation holds. Why is that?

Perhaps there are numerous other factors involved in this phenomenon, but one that we should not miss is that writing helps preaching (as, doubtless, preaching helps writing). It is that observation to which I now wish to direct your attention.

Years ago Andrew Blackwood pointed out this relationship between writing and preaching, to us in his classes. At the time, while I respected many of his views, I was not sure that this one was correct. Now, after many years of preaching, teaching preaching and writing, I want to take my place at his side and declare to all who will listen, “Blackwood was right! If you want to preach well, write.”

Let me share with you some of the ways in which writing has helped me become a more effective preacher.

First, writing demands accuracy and precision. When these things are missing in a sermon, it is easier for both the preacher and his congregation to overlook the fact. You can slip so much by because much depends on voice and body. In writing, however, one reads and rereads what he has written in a critical manner, correcting errors and demanding of his work more and more intelligibility because he knows words must do it all. He does in written material what it is much more difficult to do in preaching: because preaching is live, the preacher cannot go back and edit what he has said the way that a writer can. Nor can he let the sermon sit until another day and look at it from the perspective of all the new horizons of thought and emotion that that day brings (it is utterly amazing what a fresh look at a manuscript several days later can do for it). So, in general, the mere ability to reread and rewrite after a time as one subjects his own thought to heavy scrutiny itself is a powerful incentive to improve.

Because the preacher who does not write is denied this discipline of self-criticism (criticizing a sermon, even with the use of a tape recorder, is still difficult and is a very different thing), he is not as likely to change his style and grammar as the one who regularly writes.

It is not important what one writes, so long as he develops the habit of self-criticism. He could be writing for his denominational paper, for his church newsletter, or for a publisher. In each case, if he is highly critical of his own work, using the eraser frequently, trying on new ways of saying things for size, always improving on what he has done, he will find in time the experiments and discoveries made in writing will bleed over into his preaching. Usually, he will not even have to make the transition in any conscious way.

Let’s take an example. For some time, I had been aware of an archaic sound in the King James Version that frequently had not been removed from a number of modern versions. But I just couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Then as I began to translate the New Testament for myself (a writing task), I discovered what it was: an archaic use of the word “for.” This use of “for” may be a good current British English, but it is certain that it has long since passed out of American English. Its continued use in translating the Greek word gar made these moderm translations sound stilted and somewhat less than modern in many places. Take, for instance, Luke 1:13 (one instance of thousands): “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard. In modern English, we in America would use a semicolon instead of the word “for”: “Do not be afraid Zacharias; your prayer has been heard.” The ancient “for” and the modern semicolon serve exactly the same purpose. In other places, as in Luke 1:15, 18, where the word opens a new sentence, it is better in translating, to omit the “for” altogether.

If I hadn’t been involved in a writing endeavor, I might never have discovered what it was that made otherwise modern translations sound somewhat less than modern. Many of the smaller subtleties like this will come to light only as one takes upon himself the task of creating meaning in sentences that are put on paper, examined, and altered in order to make them more intelligible and acceptable to the modern ear. It is probably because they don’t write that so many preachers perpetrate the same old errors and archaisms that their fathers and forefathers did. It is amazing what vitality such inhibitors to communication show when they are allowed to thrive in an environment free from any blue penciling.

But there are other ways in which writing helps one to improve his preaching. The combination of hand and eye and subvocal speech (good preachers always sound out what they write to discover how it comes across to the reader) impresses new and better ways of communicating on the writer-preacher by means of three—not one—avenues; and he remembers them because a threefold cord isn’t easily broken.

But most of all, the writing process is, by the nature of its demand, the one discipline in which the preacher can regularly engage that will bring about improvements his grammar, syntax, and style. Without some regular incentive to look up the exact meanings of words, as one is much more likely to do in writing than when he must do so after the sermon is over (you can’t carry a dictionary into the pulpit to use whenever you aren’t absolutely sure of the precise usage of a term), few of us will do it. Without some necessity to think about grammar and style, who will do it on his own? We are busy people in the ministry, and we know well that we will allow such matters to slide unless forced to do otherwise. So, if for no other reason, writing is helpful because it requires the preacher to think about the tools that he uses in his trade, and makes it much more likely that he will take better care of them.

Let me ask you—how well do you use these tools? If you don’t write something, somewhere, your language will rust. Be honest—did someone leave your church recently because he was tired of hearing your vocabulary squeak and grind?

Illustrating God’s Truth

Illustrations are the life blood of a sermon. They create and hold interest, make a point clearer than the mere statement of it ever could, concretize abstract fact, show how to implement biblical requirements, and help make truth practical and memorable. What remarkable service illustrations can render; no wonder Christ used so many of them!

And you will do well to learn how to freely use them too.

“But I have always been weak in illustration; I really don’t know how to go about learning how to illustrate well. Can anyone with the basic gifts for the ministry learn to illustrate sermons effectively?” Yes. “Can you tell me how to do so?” Again yes. But, first, let me clarify one thing.

I want to say that, in speaking so positively about illustrations, I am not advocating the string-of-pearls sermon. According to those who use the s-o-p method of preparation, all one needs to do to produce a sermon is to get the basic theme of a passage and a dozen or more extended illustrations that fit it; those are his basic materials for sermon construction. The message thus becomes little more than a number of illustrations draped along the theme like pearls strung on a necklace. There is little or no exposition, very little reasoning or grappling with truth in it. Rather, what one does is to focus on illustrations rather than on the biblical passage. That is bad news; the authority of the preacher’s message comes from a human rather than a divinely inspired source.

No. Every sincere listener should be able to go away from every sermon knowing, at least,

  1. What the passage (or passages) dealt with means; i.e., he should now understand it even if he didn’t before;
  2. What the passage means to him; i.e., he should know what the Holy Spirit intended that passage to do to him;
  3. What he must prayerfully do to obey any commands, appropriate any promises, etc., i.e., he should know how to convert the passage into daily life today;
  4. That the authority for what the preacher is teaching clearly is scriptural; i.e., he should be able to see that the preacher got what he is saying from the passage (or passages) under consideration.

Plainly, if those four things constitute biblical preaching (and they do) then a sermon to be biblical must be much more than a string of pearls!

Yet, within the framework of the four principles, illustrations hold a vital place. Without their valuable assistance, it is difficult to achieve all four purposes.

There are various kinds of illustrations: analogies, similes, metaphors and extended metaphors, stories, parables. All of these should be used. The “I ams” of Jesus (I am the Bread of life, Water of life, Light of the world, Way, etc.) all have a wealth of meaning in the context in which they were spoken. They grow out of a rich O.T. heritage to which they allude. Illustrative phrases like “the lamb of God,” not only illustrate truth—they do, of course—but to a Jew familiar with sacrifice, they evoked memories, past teachings, and experiences, etc. When Jesus called Himself the Door of the sheepfold, the entire shepherdly imagery of the O.T. accompanied it. The connotations of the twenty-third psalm, for instance, all came alive as Jesus spoke about Himself as the good Shepherd.

So, one principle in selecting illustrations that count is to be sure that you use illustrations that evoke as much desirable response as possible from the listener. Agricultural illustrations, in a rural church (when used accurately) usually will evoke much more than in a urban church. Highly urban references will tend to have the opposite effect. Of course, the use of such references backfires when a preacher fails to gather and handle his facts with precision (just let him start talking about a “mother and father and baby bull” and see what happens in a rural congregation; but in a highly urban congregation, he might even slip it by without a member batting an eyelash!).

Yet, on the other hand, there is also an appeal that fresh, new material has when it is truly unique or unusual and when it is presented in an understandable manner. The illustrator can take nothing for granted; he must carefully describe, explain, compare, and contrast what he is talking about with what is known (“the tray, of which I am speaking, looks very much like grandma’s old tin cookie sheet”).

A second principle to keep in mind is that new use of old, familiar, routine, or everyday material is well received. Here the threadbare, unnoticed, and droll take on a new dimension, and (in doing so) new life. Because it is commonplace, such material continues to remind the listener of the truth it illustrated during subsequent weeks, when he encounters the phenomenon. I have an illustration about a garbage can that I am sure does that. Christ’s words “I am the …” are like that; they have such an effect.

A third principle that I want to emphasize is to avoid, at all cost, canned, trite, worn-out illustrations, and all illustrations that come prepackaged in illustration books. Find, develop, manufacture your own. When Jesus said, “Consider the lilies of the field …” doubtless He gestured toward flowers growing at His listeners’ feet. With Him, you have all of God’s creation as your book of illustrations; you must learn how to read it. To do so, a preacher must develop the capacity to use his senses fully. We have learned in life not to do so. We have developed the capacity to screen out much that goes on around us; we focus very selectively on our environment. This is necessary in growth, but it is detrimental to illustrative thinking. As a child you could be fascinated over a blade of grass on which an ant was crawling. Now, such things hardly ever capture your attention. Preachers—i.e., good preachers—have learned to become childlike once again. They open their eyes and ears to the full range of sounds and sights all about them. They taste, and savor whatever they eat. Their senses of touch and smell come alive again. And, from what they allow themselves to take in, they express truth as others who have lost this ability no longer can. They are alive to the fact that the same God who redeemed us in Christ is the One who created the world. Therefore, there is continuity between created things and the new creation in Christ; the whole material world becomes fair game for illustrating spiritual truth.

How does one learn to become aware of his world so that he may use it to illustrate? He must relearn that which was natural to him as a child. I shall give you two concrete suggestions for doing so. If you follow them faithfully for six months, you will begin to experience a great change.

First, buy a small notebook that you can carry with you. Keep it for any illustrations that come your way, as it were, intruding themselves upon you. But don’t just wait for them; seek and you shall find!

As the first order of business every morning when you enter your study (after prayer) look around at, listen to, smell, touch what is there. Look at things you never noticed before—cracks in plaster, holes in rugs, scratches in the desk; they all contain messages if you will only read them carefully. Listen to that hum, the bird singing outside, the sound of water gurgling through a pipe in the wall. What are these sounds telling you? Nothing? Then listen, imagine, think, think, think! Run your hand over the smooth surface of the desk, the rough texture of a concrete block in the outside wall—is there a truth hidden there? Of course—at least 50 of them, if you will only attune yourself to them! That pen, lying on your desk, like the human beings who may use it, has potential to bless or curse others, those pages of crumpled, discarded thought in the wastebasket have a word to speak about God’s attitude toward humanistic ideas; that telephone which is your link with the outside, all these items, and thousands of others like them, are available to you for use. Focus on one—say the telephone—see how many different aspects of it provide illustrations. Why, the telephone alone could keep you busy manufacturing illustrations for a month!

Now, each day, write down in your notebook at least one illustration from your study. Don’t do anything else until you do that. Don’t be too concerned about how good or how bad the illustration may seem. In time, you will soon discover, your illustrations will become better and better. You’ll not only get the hang of discovering them more quickly, but you’ll learn how to put them into words more easily. Manufacturing illustrations, before long, will actually become fun.

The second suggestion is to take your notebook into the church auditorium every week and write down at least five more illustrations from what you see or think about there. That practice will enable you during the coming weeks to actually point to something around you in a sermon (as Christ did in referring to the lilies) as you give an illustration (“Do you know that that chandelier over there is.…”; “This organ that you have heard played so beautifully wouldn’t work at all if.…”

Now, all of the illustrations above have to do with things. I put the emphasis on these, because they are easier to work with at first, and a preacher should begin with them. They are good, especially for making brief, telling points and giving sermons a touch of color and relevance, here and there. But the most effective illustrations are stories and accounts of people in action (“A sower went out to sow”) and/or in conversation (cf. the parable of the prodigal son). In the parables, for instance, dialog is often used with real power; it brings the listener closer to the story so that he becomes more fully involved in it. Read the parables, noting all the direct discourse that occurs (set apart by quotation marks in most modern translations).

But, how can you develop stories, incidents, etc., that you may use as more extended illustrations? Basically, by

  1. making up your own stories (“Suppose a farmer had just plowed his field …”)
  2. studying good examples of story-telling wherever you can find them
  3. by keeping your eyes and ears open to what is happening around you in life wherever you are.

When others are idling, with their minds in neutral, you must be looking, listening, and absorbing all you can. Jot down notes immediately; otherwise, you’ll forget. Then, later, work over the notes, putting the story in better form. If you follow this advice, you will find it possible to collect reams of stuff in no time. Out of it, there will be more than enough good material to use, or to revise for use.

After a minister has worked hard at this regularly, daily, he will notice something interesting beginning to happen: as he is preaching, illustrations will pop into his head—out of the blue. Some of these will be good; early on, most won’t be so good. At first, he should wisely avoid using them on the spot as they occur. But, as soon as the sermon is over, he should jot them down and work them into better form later on (the major problem with them will be one of form).

This matter of form is of importance to illustration. One must think about the best ways of wording and using an illustration. This takes time and careful thought—usually writing out key words and phrases you want to remember when using the illustration. That is especially true of those that depend—like many jokes do—on a “punch line” (or denouement). Sequence, also can be of significance.

But for the illustration craftsman, the time will come when, after having done all these things in a disciplined way, these processes will become automatic and unconscious, so that at last you will be able to trust yourself to use many of those illustrations that (you will find) increasingly occur for the first time when preaching right on the spot. They will come in proper form and sequence more and more. That is when preaching really becomes free! Then, you will discover yourself writing such material into your outline after the sermon to use the next time you preach the sermon. But the prelude to this is much disciplined labor over illustrating.

Because illustrations put windows in sermons that enable people to see, you must use them; there are too many blind wall sermons at which people stare blankly for half an hour or more, because they lack good illustrations. You may think that you see a truth, but do you really until you can illustrate it? That is a pretty good test of your own understanding; and it helps preclude self-deception (which is so prevalent). Illustration reduces fuzziness in both preacher and listener. So come alive yourself to all of God’s creation as the illustration book of spiritual truth and, then, your preaching and (at length) your congregation will come alive too!

Good Preaching Is Hard Work

I have had the opportunity to hear much preaching over the last few years, some very good, some mediocre, most very bad. What is the problem with preaching? There is no one problem, of course; there are a number of problems to which I have been addressing myself in our Friday preaching blogs. But if there is one thing that stands out most, perhaps it is the problem I mention today.

What I am about to say may not strike you as being as specific as other things I have written, yet I believe it is at the bottom of a number of other difficulties. My point is that good preaching demands hard work. From listening to sermons and from talking to hundreds of preachers about preaching, I am convinced that the basic reason for poor preaching is the failure to spend adequate time and energy in preparation. Many preachers—perhaps most—simply don’t work long enough on their sermons.

You may question my charge, and (of course) you may be one of the notable exceptions to what, regrettably, has become the rule. Good! But if so, remember, you are an exception. For the rest of you, note well, I did not say that preachers don’t work hard; for the most part I believe that Bible-believing preachers work very hard—probably too hard! And, indeed, therein may lie the clue to the problem: many work so hard at everything else that, as a result, they neglect their preparation for the ministry of the Word.

Not enough time is spent either in doing the historical-grammatical-telic exegesis of the preaching portion or in thinking through the format, form, and style in which the message ought to be presented to the particular congregation to which it will be delivered. Inadequate study of the biblical text means that the purpose of the preaching portion will not be clear to the preacher himself. When that is true, there is no way in which he can make it clear to his hearer.

But even when adequate time has been given for the preacher to discover the telos (i.e., the Holy Spirit’s purpose) in the preaching portion, there is still the matter of allotting the time necessary to produce the best outline, to work out the most appropriate language, to develop the right sort of illustrations, and to think through concrete recommendations for implementation. And, care must be taken to adapt all of this work to the peculiar knowledge, circumstances, background, etc., of the particular body of people to whom the message will be delivered. That too takes time and study to arrive at a good congregational analysis.

From what I see and hear, very little time is devoted to such work. Yet, without work on form, the best exegesis falls flat on the floor.

“But,” you protest, “I have so little time. I’d like to do more of what you say, but I simply don’t see any place in my schedule for it.”

Granted, you may not have room in your schedule for it, but that just proves my point—you are working hard too hard, at the wrong things. You must make room. Preaching is a high priority item; others must go. Let me ask you some pointed questions. An honest answer to these will help you to re-evaluate your priorities. But before you answer, remember how much the apostles had to do and how they handled this very problem:

So the Twelve called a general meeting of the disciples and said, “It isn’t right for us to stop preaching God’s Word to serve tables. Now then, brothers, look for seven of your men who have a good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, that we may appoint them to this work, while we continue to devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word.” (Acts 6:2–4, The Christian Counselor’s N.T.)

1.   Do you pray earnestly for the members of your congregation?

2.   Do you waste time on the telephone, talking about matters that others could handle?

3.   How much TV do you watch each week?

4.   How much time do you spend in committee meetings?

5.   What are you doing that someone else in the congregation could do instead of you?

I could ask any number of other questions like these, but I don’t think it is necessary to do so. We can all find the time to do whatever God wants us to do—if we only search for it.

One reason why pastors lose so much time is because they have not disciplined themselves to say “no.” The way to say “no” with freedom is to have a carefully planned schedule that does not permit you to say “yes” to events that you ought to avoid. Nothing frees one up so much as a well-planned schedule. Such a schedule is planned in terms of priorities.

In Acts 6:2, the apostles allotted time in terms of priorities when they set the ministry of the Word (preaching and counseling) above waiting on tables. That was not snobbery; it was dedication to divine duty. Today, as in their time, whether he knows it or not, whenever a pastor says, “I don’t have the time,” he is really saying, “I am misusing my time waiting on tables.” Discover which tables you currently are serving, delegate them to your deacons, and start giving that time to prayer and the ministry of the Word—especially to preaching!

This article of a continuation of our weekly series on Preaching published every Friday.

Skilled

Ezra was a skilled scribe.  His task, at least in part, was much like that of a preacher. How did he get that way? What was the source of such skill?

Here is the answer:

Ezra had determined in his heart to

  • Study the law of the Lord,
  • Obey it,
  • And teach its statutes and ordinances.      (Ezra 7: 10)

Therefore, “the gracious hand of God was on him.”

The combination of the three factors listed above was the source of his skill—and still, today, remains the same. Omit any one of them and a preacher will fail.

Maintaining Balance

Obviously extremes are bad; God is not the God of extremes, but the God of the scriptural center. In all things there is a biblical balance—predestination may not be preached to the exclusion of human responsibility (or the reverse); faith without works is dead; works without faith in Hebrews are called “dead works,” etc., etc. It is about maintaining one such balance in preaching that I wish to append just this brief note. Yet, the brevity of what I have to say must not make you think it unimportant. Actually, it is (perhaps) the most important point of all.

There is a tendency for conservative preachers to err in either of two directions:

  1. They may preach the gospel, and hardly anything else but the gospel.
  2. They may preach the rest of the counsel of God as if it were unrelated to the gospel.

Both extremes do a decided disservice to God and His Word.

I am not going to elaborate on the kind of preaching that sees the way of salvation—and nothing but the way of salvation—in every passage. Usually, connected with it is a runaway typology, excessive storytelling and … well, you know the rest. The “whole counsel of God” consists of far more than the way of salvation. The writer of Hebrews wanted to get on with other things as well (Heb. 6:1–3). He didn’t want to linger over the milk bottle any longer; he wanted to “go on to maturity” by feeding his readers “solid food” (5:11–14; 6:1). It would be wrong to keep working on a foundation that had already been laid (6:1). So, too, must every preacher of the Word do the hard work of learning and teaching far more than the gospel message.

Those who err in not feeding, building, and perfecting the saints, once they have shed their diapers and are ready for long pants, often justify their exclusive gospel preaching by speaking about the “evangelistic outreach” of their church. But evangelism, principally, ought to be carried on by all the members of the church (Acts 8:4) largely outside of the regular meetings of the body. Not a single person is evangelized in a Christian worship service in the book of Acts (the NT manual for evangelism). The major emphasis of preaching within the body is on “all things” that Christ commanded. The NT Epistles themselves provide good evidence of that sort of preaching.

One wonders whether, at bottom, it is always zeal for evangelism that motivates a ministry of gospel-only preaching. Could it not be—in many instances—the easy way? Isn’t it easier to find the gospel everywhere, attach a few interesting stories to the message, and then conclude with a long invitation? Too often, I am afraid, lack of preparation, poor knowledge of the true purposes of passages, and the like, are what are really behind this type of preaching.

On the other hand, there are ministries—often styled “teaching,” or “expository” ministries—in which the gospel rarely (if ever) is preached, outside of those passages to which one comes as he moves along in a book in which it stands out so plainly that it can hardly be missed. (Even here, the discussion may be about the gospel rather than a proclamation of the good news itself, that “Christ died for our sins … and rose again on the third day. Such teaching is justified by a misuse of Ephesians 4:11, 12.

Some of the sermons that are preached from this opposite extreme are so devoid of the gospel that they could have been preached in a Jewish synagogue or in a liberal church without ruffling a feather. No sermon by a Bible-believing pastor ought ever to be acceptable in either place (I am not thinking of talks especially prepared for either audience; what I mean is that his regular messages in his own church ought to be so distinctively Christian that none of them could ever be mistaken for anything less than truly Christian).

What, then, must one do? Here are two suggestions.

  1. Always include a clear statement of the gospel in every message, even though most regularly preached messages will not be (strictly speaking) evangelistic. That is to say, all messages ought to proclaim—in one way or another—that belief in Jesus Christ as Savior is essential to understanding or doing (or doing for the right reasons or in the right attitude) whatever it is that the passage in view requires.
  2. That is to say, the preacher must always discover the relevance of the death and resurrection of Christ to whatever it is that he is teaching (cf. Phil. 2, for instance, to see how Paul does this). The light of the cross falls across the whole Bible and illumines it all; no passage in Old or New Testament can be preached properly without understanding and explaining how its message relates to the gospel. That is why some are able to find the gospel everywhere—it is everywhere! But it does not usually stand alone. Rather, it permeates, fills out, and gives life to every other truth and duty taught in the Scriptures.

Make sure, then, that what you preach is evangel-related (though not always having evangelism as its major thrust). The gospel should be so clear that unbelievers present could be saved (cf. 1 Cor. 14:23–25). But let the major part of the ministry of the Word be devoted to the proclamation of the whole counsel of God. Christian preaching, within the body, should consist of the whole counsel of God taught redemptively! As you study the Scripture, you will discover that is the biblical balance in preaching.—J.E.A.

Each Friday we are posting an article by Dr. Adams dealing with Preaching. Check our archive for previous posts.

Preaching with Personalized How-To

I have become increasingly concerned about the poor quality of preaching that I hear today. I am convinced that the streams flowing into this muddy river are numerous (and varied), and in the articles of this blog I have been trying to row our way up a number of them.

Elsewhere I have already spoken about the problems of form and content, but I have said all too little about a kindred matter: the important place of application (or, better, personalized how-to) in the sermon. Let me try to correct that deficiency here and now by setting forth something helpful in this area.

The average conscientious conservative preacher (I say this from years of close observation and study) spends 95 to 100 percent of his time on content—mastering the historical and grammatical aspects of his passage. His concern is exegesis, though he more often than not lacks concern for the telic note in this study. While I have no desire to see him do less exegetical work (indeed, any number need to do much more), I believe he must not stop there (I have discussed ways and means of finding the time in an earlier blog). In fact, in my opinion, exegetical work forms but half of his task in preparing a message. The other half ought to be divided equally between the development of form (that fits the content, the occasion, and the congregation) and applicatory, personal, how-to materials that give direction to doctrine and put feet on facts.

It is about that last quarter of the task that I wish to speak.

When one thinks of application alone, he may think of colorful illustrations of biblical truth, examples of the point being made—all calculated to show that the issue has relevance to the congregation addressed. So far, so good. That is necessary since, as Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 10:6, 11 and 9:9, 10 indicate, there are many who must have this fact spelled large for them. But, for most, so far as application goes, that’s just about as far as application goes. That is why I have spoken not so much of application as of personalized how-to.

The word personalized means what I have just referred to in the previous paragraph—the truncated view of application that has as its concern making clear that what the passage says has to do with (1) people today and (2) the very people who are being addressed. To do this adequately, one must learn something of audience analysis, but I shall say more about that in a later blog. (The principles used are similar in a number of respects to the principles of data gathering used in counseling; for more on that, see my book, The Christian Counselor’s Manual.)

The other side of the phrase that I have used to describe a fuller notion of application is how-to.

In any number of places I have mentioned the need for how-to help in counseling, but I have said very little about how-to in preaching. But how-to in preaching is needed no less than in counseling.

In my book, Update on Christian Counseling, Vol. One (pp. 24–31), I have examined the Sermon on the Mount rather extensively, demonstrating that Jesus used how-to in His preaching. I shall not duplicate that work here, but I may say (by way of summary) that the inescapable conclusion I reached was that Jesus makes no point to which He does not append how-to help.

What do I mean by how-to help? Let me just quote briefly an example or two from my study in Update:

“But what happens when, in this world of sin, they do allow such things to come between them?” someone might ask. Jesus anticipates the situation, and (in very practical how-to—here even step-by-step—terms) He tells us how to handle the situation (Matt. 5:23, 24). The practical how-to comes in the form of a procedure growing out of the priority of reconciliation (p. 27).

And,

In verses 43–48, Jesus continues this basic theme: a Christian must love his enemies. But, unlike many modern preachers, Christ didn’t leave the concept of love hanging in thin air—undefined and amorphous. Rather, He was quite specific: love focuses on the other person; not on one’s self. Therefore (note the specific how-to) a Christian must pray for his enemies. That concrete proposal Paul developed (as we must develop all such suggestions) in Romans 12:14ff (p. 28).

When He condemns praying as the gentiles and the hypocrites do, He not only describes plainly the forbidden practices that He has in mind, but in each instance (as well) tells us what the proper practice in prayer is; in other words, He tells us not only how not to pray, but also how to pray. As a matter of fact, the well-known Lord’s prayer was given as an instance of such how-to help.

Many people in the pews are discouraged because they know a lot of what-to from the Bible, but they have never been given any how-to help; and so they fail. When they fail again and again and again, they become deeply discouraged; some begin to doubt their salvation or God’s power, while others settle back into mediocrity, saying, “Well, Paul may be able to do it, but I’m not Paul.” I have seen many such Christians come alive again when given some how-to.

Well, then, how to do how-to, that is the next question to consider.

How-to is avoided because it takes work and much thought on the part of the preacher. It demands the exercise of a degree of creativity also. Preachers, pressured by demands and pressed for time (even when aware of the need), characteristically omit such work. But to do so is to threaten the value of all the exegesis that one has done. It is cruel to demand of congregations what they are never taught how to perform.

According to Titus 1:1, truth is designed to lead to godliness; it is not simply to be filed away in the memories of the members of the congregation for quick retrieval at the next Sunday school Bible quiz! Truth must be transformed into life and ministry. But that takes how-to.

There are a few persons in a congregation who know how-to turn abstract material into personalized how-to. But most don’t; so the first point is that the preacher must suggest ways and means of implementing every truth that he teaches.

Where does he get such material? From looking at how he himself implements the truth in his own life (perhaps one reason for the failure is our own failure to practice what we preach). He also learns from observing how other growing Christians have done so and from just plain sitting and prayerfully sweating out new ideas about ways and means. I, myself, work best with pen and paper. Even when I have only the merest glimmerings of an idea, I begin to write. After a lot of scribbling over one page, throwing away another, and weighing what I have written on 8 or 10 pages over against one another, invariably I begin to come up with a couple of viable suggestions. But usually, apart from such effort—zilch!

The second point is that how-to material always must grow out of biblical principles and be appropriate to them in every detail. The end never justifies the means (not even in small details); the Bible alone can do so.

Thirdly, it is wise to give at least a couple of suggestions when offering possible how-to help because (1) we must make it clear that such suggestions (unlike the biblical commands which they seek to implement) are not inspired (God has commanded us to read the Bible; though beginning with the Gospel of John may be a wise plan in some cases, it has no such biblical authority); (2) one suggested plan for implementing a biblical principal may appeal to or fit one person and his situation, whereas another may not fit quite so well.

More could be said, but I’d be wrong to end without a how-to suggestion, so here it is. In order to get into the (good) habit of thinking in terms of how-to, why not copy a batch of 8 1/2”x 11” work sheets for use in sermon preparation? On these sheets (mostly consisting of blank yellow space) add, among other things that you want to remember to do (e.g., “What is the telos of this passage?”), this question, “What how-to help may be given for implementing each command?”

You say, “But you suggested giving at least a second idea—have you got one?” Of course, I could give many. But here’s one more. When you’ve arrived at the telos (the Holy Spirit’s purpose in giving the preaching portion—and therefore yours; i.e., what He intends to do to the listener through that passage), tell it to your wife. If you aren’t clear about this, she’ll tell you so (and you will need to get it clear before you can work on implementation). But if you are clear enough, tell her always to ask you: “But how would you suggest that I begin to do this?”

Best wishes to you, your wife, and your congregation!

Making Preaching a Pleasure

Most pastors enjoy preaching. Moreover, many thoroughly enjoy the hours of preparation spent in the study among their commentaries, etc., in the work of biblical exposition and sermon preparation. Why, then, do we hear so much dissatisfaction about preaching from preachers themselves these days?

The basic dissatisfaction, about which I am speaking, is the outgrowth of another problem stemming (in turn) from still another.

First, dissatisfaction comes from not “having enough time” to prepare properly. It is precisely that opportunity which pastors enjoy so much that is lacking. They want to spend more time in the study of the Word and in the preparation of messages, but other demands constantly call them away from this work. Doing half-baked study and inadequate preparation is what takes away the joy of preaching. That’s the first problem.

But before going on to the second (from which it derives), let’s consider this problem of the lack of time a bit more thoroughly. Perhaps you are expecting me to say, “Well, if you’re too busy to find time, then you’re just too busy,” There is something to that, of course. Any number of preachers take on tasks that do not belong to them; disregarding the clear statement of their function in Ephesians 4:11, 12, they try to do the work of their people for them, in addition to all their own. That, of course, is impossible. Some pastors run a taxi service, mow lawns, operate mimeograph machines, etc., when there are any number of persons in the congregation who could (should) do these things instead. When they arrogate to themselves the tasks that others ought to do, but are not doing, they make it easy for others to shirk their responsibilities, they rob them of their blessings, and they crowd out the study of Scripture and sermon preparation. It ought to be a rule for every pastor not to do anything himself that a member of his congregation can do (or can be taught to do) as well as (or better than) himself. Of course, there will be times (in emergencies, in brand new mission churches, etc.) when a pastor must do such things, but he will not make it a practice. His work is ministering the Word, privately and publicly, in order to build up and encourage all the members of the flock to do their own ministries. When extraneous activities are eliminated from his schedule, he will have more time for study and sermon perparation.

“But that isn’t all,” you say. Right! I know there are weeks that we’d all like to forget; and I know that they come more frequently than we’d like to think. On Monday it looks tight (especially with that special men’s meeting address on Saturday night), but everything seems to be in hand. You have selected your preaching portions for Sunday morning and evening and the prayer meeting topic, and you.are about to go to work on them (Saturday night will have to wait till Thursday). You are well into your exegesis by Tuesday morning, when things begin to break loose. The phone—that two-faced blessing and curse—rings. Mrs. Green has been rushed to the hospital … it is serious … can you come immediately? You do, of course (torn at leaving the study at such a time). When you get back (three hours later), there is the afternoon’s list of activities staring you in the face. No way for you to fudge on them. So, you don’t. That means one half of a morning’s study shot. “I’ll catch up tonight,” you think, as you drive out of the yard. But that night finds you at the hospital again—Mrs. Green has taken a turn for worse; they think she may die. Somehow, she rallies, and you go home late, weary, but no further ahead in your study. Wednesday morning. Sunday sermons are set aside. Tonight’s prayer meeting must be considered. “I’ll take off this afternoon and do the study I had hoped to do yesterday. Who is that driving up to the study? Bill and Jane Wilkes. Wonder what they want?” It turns out that last night Jane threatened to leave Bill, and only at the last minute was she persuaded to stay on condition that they see the pastor right away. “Of course,” you hear yourself saying, “sit down; let’s talk about it.” Glad to help, but reluctant to give up the time, you counsel them. When you are through, an hour and a half later, your secretary informs you that this really looks like it for Mrs. Green—and that the family would like to see you (they have all gathered together at the hospital). You go (of course!). Mrs. Green dies (this means another unanticipated message for Saturday morning at the funeral). Bill and Jane take up another day or two—and so it goes (I’ll not finish out the week-it’s too discouraging to do so). I know about those kinds of weeks-and what they can do to sermon preparation and study.

“Well?” you ask. “What can I do about that sort of problem? There isn’t any way that you can regulate funerals, marriages breaking up, etc., so that they fit your study schedule, is there?” Don’t be too sure! While you can’t predict emergencies, you may be able to regulate your schedule to fit emergencies in a way that doesn’t destroy your study and preparation.

I am about to make a suggestion that at first you will reject—but hear me out. In one fell swoop you can solve not only the problem of weekly pressure, but a number of other problems as well. Indeed, following this suggestion can—as it did for me in my last pastorate—make preaching a pleasure.

The suggestion is simple, but profound: prepare every sermon six months in advance. Now wait, don’t turn me off. Hear me out, I beg you. I want to make it clear that this is the most practical thing to do. Here are my reasons:

In preparing six months in advance,

1. You gain plenty of lead-time that will allow you to make all the schedule adjustments that you need to meet emergencies. What you lose in time one week can be gained the next week (or the week after).

2. You gain perspective on your text. Too many sermons are cut down green; they do not have time to ripen.

3. Illustrations come naturally. When you know well in advance what you will be preaching about, all the general reading you do, as well as the experiences you have, feeds into the sermon. You don’t have to search for examples; they come to you.

4. When preaching a series of sermons on a book, you can preach the first sermon in the light of the exegesis of the entire book. Instead of discovering that what you preached in the first chapter was wrong (now that you understand it in terms of what is said later in chapter 3), you begin to preach the book only after having studied the whole.

5. You solve the problems of an exegetical conscience. When you begin preparing a message on the Monday or Tuesday before it is to be preached, you may move along swimmingly until—in the mail Friday—you receive that new commentary that you ordered that knocks your previous understanding of the passage into the proverbial hat. Now, what do you do? There isn’t any time to adequately prepare a new sermon. Do you preach the old one, knowing it is wrong? I’m afraid many do.

6. Preachers tend to ride hobbies (Ezekiel at night, Revelation in the morning and Daniel for prayer meeting). Planning large blocks of sermons, well in advance, requires thought about balanced feeding of the flock.

All in all, then, I think you can see the values of preparing six months in advance.

What you do is this:

1. You do the exegesis for your passage and outline it in rough form six months ahead.

2. You allow time for your thinking about it to mature, gathering illustrations, etc.

3. A couple of weeks before preaching you pull out your folder and put the sermon into final form.

Of course, you can always make adjustments in unforeseen circumstances by inserting a special sermon now and then to meet these.

Let me diagram the process:

The Preaching Year

You divide the year (roughly) into four segments, according to some functional form (as suggested above). Then you plan two segments of the year all at one time (e.g., at the end of summer you might plan the spring and summer segments of the following year. Then you begin studying each of the messages to be preached during those segments, keeping six months ahead. That looks like this:

The two segments ahead also can be prepared in balanced terms by using the diagram, thus:

 

“OK, OK. I can see the value of this. But is it practical? Can it really be done? If so, how?”

What you are now doing isn’t practical, is it? Well, consider this then.

1.   The best time to make the change is when changing pastorates. Simply preach out of the barrel for six months while preparing the next six. A sermon is best preached the third or fourth time!

2.   If you are in seminary, determine not to leave with less than six months’ sermons in hand. Start out right from the beginning.

3.   If you are in a pastorate, and intend to stay, but want to switch over to the new program, I suggest this:

a.   Dig into the barrel for your oldest, very first sermons.

b.   Develop six months worth of sermons from these.

c.   Use each major point of these as a separate sermon in itself. (Typically, new preachers include too much in their sermons. When you preach these points separately, you will have the sermon you should have had to begin with.)

I have outlined a process and procedure that can revolutionize your preaching. Don’t lay it aside lightly. I have suggested this to any number of persons. Those who have adopted it agree that they have been liberated. Preaching can be the pleasure you always wanted it to be.—J.E.A.

 

How to Study Taped Sermons

The best way to study sermons is through video tape, where the full impact of delivery (the use of voice and body) as well as content comes through. But we are only on the edge of such capability on a widespread scale. So for the present we must be contented with what we have: audio tapes. Yet, we can learn much from them if we use them wisely. But before we learn to use them, we must learn to choose them.

Audio tapes now provide a large source, readily available. And, to use these tapes properly is of great help. But the problem is, there are so many tapes. How does a preacher determine which ones are worth studying? The main point of this article is to give you guidelines for selection.

Obviously, bodily action will be absent, and something of the sermon will be lost, but in choosing tapes to study you must make allowance for that fact. (To discover how much is conveyed by the body, turn off the TV sound and watch the picture alone. Note how much bodily action occurs; discover the important use of facial expression to disclose many emotional nuances. Watch, especially, the use of hands and the tilt and movement of the body.)

Initial Selection

When using audio tapes, listen first for total impact—don’t try to analyze the sermon yet (to analyze something is to separate out its various elements); that may come next. If you are not impressed by it, don’t waste further time on it. Put it aside at once. If, on the basis of total impact, you believe the sermon is worthy of more careful study (and those that are seem to be few and far between these days), then in order to determine whether the message is worth keeping as a model to study further, I suggest the following method of analysis:

I. VERBAL ANALYSIS

Play (and re-play) the sermon for verbal (auditory) analysis. What do you hear? (I am not thinking here of content.) Is the pitch high or low (high pitch indicates tension; low pitch, relaxation); does it vary? How does the content influence pitch? The content ought to control all. If you see a clear correspondence between content and pitch, in which the preacher allowed the truth to control him rather than confining and conforming content to his own pre-formed speech patterns, you will probably have a sermon worth keeping for further study and possible emulation in the use of voice.

While listening, particularly listen for the use of non-verbal sounds. The preacher who is free enough to make non-verbal noises while preaching in order to better communicate (e.g., oof!, aaah!, clank!, ding-aling-aling, etc.) is usually freer in the pulpit than most, and may have much to teach those who have not yet learned much freedom.

Listen too for rate: how fast, how slow does the preacher speak? Is there good variety? Again, is rate controlled by content? Once more, variety and content control indicate a speaker probably well worth studying from this aspect.

Listen also for volume. Here, of course, the electronic medium will enter in and distort (somewhat) the true picture. But high and low volume with content-controlled variety again can be discovered by careful listening in awareness.

Listen for pulpit pounding—is it appropriate, overdone, altogether absent? How about audience response—laughter? Amens? Other? Here the feedback will tell you something about how well the message was received.

Does the preacher sound excited? Concerned? Moved? Perfunctory? Dull? Uninterested or unconvinced? What does his voice seem to convey?

These elements are adequate for determining whether or not the tape should be filed away for further, more detailed examination as a model. Remember, one man’s abilities in the verbal area may not match his content or his stylistic work, so when you file the tape for further study, indicate on the label just where you found the strengths that you wish to examine: e.g. “Strong in illustrative material and rate.”

II. CONTENT ANALYSIS

If on your initial listenings you think that you have a sermon with exceptional content, then I suggest that you take the time to transcribe it on paper for further analysis.

First, as you do, you will notice the vast difference between good written and good oral English. Good oral English usually looks bad on paper (of course bad oral English can too—so that is not an infallible test!). But we’ll come back to that under “stylistic analysis” (use of words, grammar and syntax).

Here I want to suggest that you ask such questions as: Does the sermon open up a passage of Scripture for the listener? Does the authority of the message stem from clear exposition of the Bible? Does the preacher seem to understand the intention of the Holy Spirit in the passage and constantly pursue it? Do the major points all relate to it? Are there extraneous elements unrelated to the intent of the passage?

Further, ask: Is the introduction compelling—i.e., does it involve the listener in the subject from the outset? Does the conclusion relate directly to the intention of the sermon, and does the preacher leave the listener with the challenge to make the change involved in that intention?

Does the body of the sermon move according to a logical progression? Are there smooth transitions of thought? How well does the preacher argue or state his case? What problems or questions arise in your mind that others are likely to ask? Does he anticipate these too; and answer them?

What about his illustrations? Do they truly illumine his point? Do they make it more vivid, easier to understand or remember? Are they appropriate to what they illustrate? Of what sort are they—short examples or incidents? Longer stories? Well worked out? Do they help? Is there a variety?

Does he use passages of Scripture other than those upon which he is speaking? If so, does he use them well or is there only Bible-flipping? Does he use them to clarify or amplify the preaching passage? Does he briefly but plainly explain them or only cite them?

Is the content abstract or concrete? Applied throughout or only at the end? Does the preacher truly preach about God and the congregation (in the present tense) from the Bible, or does he only lecture about Bible characters and events (in the long ago and far away)? Does the listener get involved at the outset and stay involved throughout? Does the exposition of the passage seem important to the listener, or is it more suited to the interests of a literary, historical, or grammatical critic?

III. STYLISTIC ANALYSIS

I mentioned the difference between oral English and written English. The first is more concrete, looser, less grammatically exact, more repetitious, more limited in use of vocabulary—especially of technical terms or jargon. Oral English must be comprehended at the speaker’s rate—the first time over. Written English can be more compressed and concise. The reader can take it at his pace; stop, think, look up words in the dictionary, etc. The speaker must do all this for the listener. So, is this sermon in good oral English—or is it bookish?

Do the words express ideas vividly? With precision? Concretely? Or abstractly? Does he speak of a “car” or of a “red ‘79 Celica Toyota”? Does the preacher overwork terms?

Does the sermon contain vivid description? Is there dialogue? Does it tend to move in the present or in the past? Can you “see,” “hear,” “taste,” “smell,” or “feel” what the preacher talks about—is there sense appeal?

Are there climaxes of thought? Does the writer use question clusters at high points? Does he use words that live? Active or passive verbs? Is there action? Do his illustrations involve persons in action? If so, are the persons and their actions described in words that make them three dimensional?

All these and other questions should be asked before determining whether you should file away any sermon tape for future study. Be critical; file only good examples; there are so many poor ones. But build (slowly, if necessary) a solid file of tapes that covers all of the above points and study them frequently. Doing so will afford invaluable help that most preachers would be well advised to avail themselves of. One last thought—some of the best examples will be by well-known preachers. But you will find them not always strong—or strong at all points. And, you will discover some very good preaching in unexpected places among unsung preachers; don’t ignore them.—J.E.A.