Archive for the ‘Preaching’ Category

We hear it all the time, “Pastor you really preached this morning. That was a GREAT sermon!” But, was it really a great sermon? How can we tell? Many times people make statements like this because the message addressed an issue they were currently dealing with. That’s one of the great blessings of the Word of God – it is living and it touches us right where we live. However, that leaves a great deal of subjectivity when it comes to analyzing the merits of the transmission of the message. Quite honestly, it is entirely possible to have a great message and a terrible sermon. The sermon is the vehicle the preacher uses to transport the message God has given to him or her, and the preacher must be careful not to allow the vehicle to get in the way of the message.

One of the opportunities the Lord has blessed me with is to serve as an adjunct professor at Carolina Christian College, where I teach courses in the field of homiletics. Homiletics is the art and science of preaching. Preaching is an art form. God uses all of who He created us to be in the preaching process. That’s why you will never find two sermons that are exactly the same – because there are no two people who are exactly the same. However, while preaching is an art, it is also a science. In other words, there is (or at least should be) some methodology to the preaching process.

It is extremely important for the preacher to engage in the process of regularly evaluating his or her sermon…because the congregation already is! For every person who says, “Great sermon, pastor” there are five who walk by thinking that it was the worst thing they ever heard. That should not discourage the preacher, but should inspire him or her to continually strive to improve and develop his or her craft. Preaching is a life-long call, and it involves a life-long process. Any preacher who is not seeking to improve his or her ministry is doing the congregation (and ultimately, the call) a disservice.

When it comes to evaluating the sermon, there are six key elements that form a rubric from the acrostic: PREACH.

Punctuality

One of the most important elements of a sermon is time. Great sermon content can be easily overshadowed by poor time-management. When it comes to time-management, err on the side of caution. Oftentimes, less is more. Of all the thousands of sermons I’ve heard or have preached I can count on one hand (with fingers to spare) the times I’ve heard someone complain that the sermon was too short. As the old adage goes, “The mind can only absorb what the behind can endure.” People in the audience no longer want to suffer through hour-long sermons of preachers proving how smart they are and how much they’ve studied. You don’t have to preach the whole Bible in one sermon. The good thing about Sundays is that they come every week. Save a little for the next one.

Relevance

As stated earlier, people are moved by the message when it speaks to where they are. The goal of preaching is  contemporizing timeless truths and make them relevant to the audience of today. This does not in any way involve changing the timeless truths, but it does involve packaging them in such a way that the audience can understand. It is, in essence, what Jesus did. Jesus used parables as a way of packaging the principles of the Kingdom so His audience could grasp them and apply them to their context. A perfectly constructed sermon that lacks relevance is merely a lecture. Preaching must connect with the audience.

Exegesis

Exegesis simply means exploring and interpreting the text. Far too many sermons have no biblical foundation. The Bible remains the road map for every good sermon. If the preacher does not follow the map, the audience is bound to get lost. Preachers must stay true to the biblical text if their message is to maintain any substance. The role of the preacher is not to preach his or her opinion but to preach God’s opinion, and God’s opinion is found in His Word. I’m very leery of preachers who consistently ignore the Word or just read it as a formality at the beginning of the sermon and spend the entire sermon talking about everything but that scripture. Good preaching is biblical preaching.

Appearance

You may be wondering what appearance has to do with a good sermon. The reality is that people see you before the hear you, and your appearance can either help or hinder the sermon. You never want your suit to get more attention than your sermon. Don’t be too flashy, and certainly don’t be too shabby. Your appearance must be appropriate for your audience. Also, for God’s sake, please use an iron. It’s hard for your audience to hear you talk about “a church without spot or wrinkle” when your clothes are full of them! Watch your appearance…because the congregation is.

Clarity

The greatest sermon has no effect if people don’t understand it. Sermons must be CLEAR in order for people to HEAR. Some preachers treat sermons like doctoral theses, but sermons are designed to reach the “least of these.” Like my pastor, Bishop Alfred Owens, always taught me, “We must always remember that we are feeding sheep…not giraffes.” The goal is not to be high and lofty in our preaching, but to preach with clarity and simplicity so the sheep can graze on the Word.

HEAT!

Preaching must be done with passion! This is not a matter of style, but it is a matter of conviction. The preacher must preach like he or she believes the message…or no one else will. When we preach with conviction…the message is convicting. The purpose of preaching is to produce a change. When we bring the heat, we are stirring the congregation toward positive change. Listless preaching leads to lifeless congregations. Preach with passion, and God’s power will manifest!

The greatest sermon ever preached is undoubtedly Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” as recorded in Matthew 5 – 7. It is the largest collection of red letters in the entire Bible. (In many Bibles, the direct words of Jesus are written in red.) In this sermon, Jesus begins by telling us a collection of statements about blessings and what it takes to be blessed. These statements are collectively referred to as “The Beatitudes.”

However, while Jesus begins his sermon talking about blessings, He ends it basically talking about cursings. It’s clear Jesus didn’t attend any seminars on preaching. He would have realized that His homiletic structure leaves much to be desired. Any preacher worth his salt knows you’re supposed to END with the blessings! Didn’t Jesus know that He was supposed to leave the people on a high note so they could shout, dance and praise so they would be ready to give more in the offering? *tongue planted firmly in cheek*

In any event, Jesus ends His sermon with a warning. He says in Matthew 7:15, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.” It’s from this warning that we derive the colloquialism “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” The message is clear: “Watch out for people who pretend to be harmless sheep when they’re really ravenous wolves.” The worst part of this warning is that Jesus is not telling us to watch out for wolves in sheep’s clothing at our jobs, at school, or even in our families. He says we are to watch out for them in the Church! He says “Beware of false prophets.”

Sadly, today we don’t only have to worry about wolves simply infiltrating the ranks of the prophets. There are many who have also invaded our pulpits and call themselves pastors. I call them “Wolves in SHEPHERD’S Clothing.” It’s one thing when you can’t trust the sheep beside you, but how dangerous is it when you can’t trust the shepherd in front of you? Wolves in shepherd’s clothing don’t PRAY for the sheep…they PREY on the sheep. Wolves in shepherd’s clothing believe that the sheep exist to serve them, when the exact opposite is true. Wolves in shepherd’s clothing can preach with INTENSITY, but they have no INTEGRITY. They have CHARISMA, but no CHARACTER. We must beware the wolves in shepherd’s clothing!

The word beware simply means to “BE AWARE.” In other words, we must learn how to identify the wolves in shepherd’s clothing. How do we do that, when the express reason the wolves put on the shepherd’s clothing is to disguise themselves from detection? Jesus gives us the answer in Matthew 7. He says, “You will know them by their fruits” (v. 16) and “by their fruits you will know them” (v. 20). Focus on the fruit. There are four particular fruits that help us identify wolves in shepherd’s clothing.

Appearance

Now, I know you’re thinking, “How can I identify a wolf in shepherd’s clothing by his or her appearance when they are in disguise?” The reality is that no matter how great a wolf is at disguising himself, if you watch him or her long enough and closely enough, they will eventually show their true colors. There isn’t enough wool in the world to cover up all their fur. So look for the fur. Wool is soft and comfortable. Fur is rough and prickly. If a pastor is ALWAYS in a bad mood and treats people like they’re his or her servants instead of the other way around, it’s a good chance he or she is a wolf in shepherd’s clothing.

Aroma

Wolves have a distinctive scent. A wolf smells very differently than a sheep or a shepherd. While they may be able to “pull the wool over your eyes” wolves cannot hide their scent. Even if they pass the eye test, they can’t pass the smell test. Wolves in shepherd’s clothing usually carry an aroma of arrogance. They usually try to huff and puff and blow stuff down. Shepherds serve the sheep. Wolves try to subjugate the sheep. Shepherds should carry the fragrance of humility…not the aroma of arrogance.

Appetite

Wolves have a ravenous appetite. They are never satisfied; never content. They always want more. One of the ways to identify a wolf in shepherd’s clothing is by his or her appetite. If they’re “hungry like a wolf” chances are it’s because they ARE a wolf. This is the taste test.  You can tell a lot about a person by their tastes. What are they attracted to? If they desire things of the world more than the things of God, perhaps that pastor is merely a wolf in shepherd’s clothing. This is not to suggest that a pastor must be perfect – for none of us are. We all make mistakes. The difference is that a wolf in shepherd’s clothing has developed a lifestyle around his or her illicit appetites. We must beware.

Articulation

The final test for wolves in shepherd’s clothing is the ear test. No matter how cunning and smooth of tongue a wolf is, eventually he or she will let out a howl. If we listen to many of the sermons preached in pulpits around the world, there’s a whole lot of howling going on. We must learn to listen for it. Jesus said that the sheep follow the shepherd because they know his voice and will not follow the voice of a stranger. Listen out for strange voices from the pulpit, and if it doesn’t sound like Christ or His Word…DO NOT FOLLOW!

These are just a few of the ways we can identify wolves in shepherd’s clothing: appearance, aroma, appetite and articulation. The key is that once we are aware of wolves in shepherd’s clothing, we must not allow them to continue to devour the sheep. True shepherds must not allow wolves into their pulpits – even if they can preach well and raise big offerings. If we don’t protect the sheep in our fold, the Master will hold us accountable. We also must protect the wolves from themselves. We must remember that even a wolf in shepherd’s clothing is not out of reach of God’s grace. Jesus ends His sermon with a warning for the wolves. He says, “Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name?’…And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me.'”

I guess we need to tell the wolves that they need to BEWARE.

It’s Friday, and it’s time to  live up to the “humor” part that’s  promised in this blog. The 2011 NFL season has just begun. While there are millions of fans excited about how their city’s team will do this weekend, countless others are just as, or more excited, about the status of their fantasy team. For many NFL fans, reality is no match for “fantasy.”

Each year, before the start of the season, fantasy leagues hold their draft to determine which players will end up on which fantasy teams. The goal is to draft the most productive players to help you win your fantasy league. Each league has a scoring system for individual and team statistics. For instance, in some leagues, quarterbacks get 1 point for every 10 yards passing and 6 points for every touchdown. Those scores are added up each week and the fantasy owner with the most points wins.

Fantasy leagues have created an added element of fun each week as fantasy owners battle for bragging rights in their respective leagues. This got me thinking about what it would look like if someone ever developed a “Fantasy League of Preachers” and developed a scoring system where you could “draft” a preacher and keep up with his “stats” throughout the year. You compete with other people in your league who draft their own preachers, and, just like in fantasy football, the team with the most points at the end of the season – wins.

Let’s say you could only “draft” 5 preachers, and the scoring system looked something like this:

  • 10 points for every appearance on a national television broadcast
  • 5 points for speaking at a major conference (e.g. Woman Thou Art Loosed, COGIC Convocation, etc.)
  • 3 points for every other speaking engagement
  • 1 point for every YouTube view

I’m sure some of you could come up with much better metrics, but if we were holding a “Fantasy Preacher Draft” today, who would be your top 5 draft picks? Bear in mind there are some preachers who may never make a national TV broadcast but are YouTube sensations. Just like in fantasy football, the “stars” get you big points, but it’s often the unexpected “little guys” that make the difference between winning and losing. There’s also always a “breakout” star who seemingly comes out of nowhere to light up the league. The person who drafts that player ends up looking like a genius. 🙂

You are now on the clock. Tell us who your top 5 draft picks would be in the “Preacher Fantasy Draft.”

DISCLAIMER: This is all meant to be in fun. Please save the comments about the sanctity of the preaching ministry. God loves to see you smile. 🙂

Preaching Without Notes

No podium? Where do I put my paper?!

Over the years, I’ve been asked about the pros and cons of preaching without notes. Most notably (pun intended), people ask about the process of preaching without notes and how they can learn to do it. At the onset, let me state that preaching without notes is not for everyone. It is largely based upon how a person thinks, processes and communicates information. Having said that, however, I do believe that  every preacher should have at least one sermon in their heart that they could preach with or without notes if called upon at a moment’s notice. That’s a part of our call to be “instant in season and out of season” (II Tim 4:2).

Before I address a few practical ways to begin the journey toward preaching without notes, it’s important to clear up a few misunderstandings about preaching without notes.

Preaching without notes does NOT make you a better preacher.

Some of the greatest preachers use notes…some of the worst do not (and vice versa). Preaching with or without notes does not make you a better preacher. A bad preacher with notes will probably be worse without them, and a good preacher will not improve his or her preaching by simply dumping the manuscript. My pastor is a great preacher who’s been preaching for nearly 50 years and has always used a manuscript. They key is to find what works for you.

Preaching without notes is NOT the same as preparing without notes.

Some believe that preaching without notes is a shortcut, while, in actuality, the opposite is true. Preaching without notes still requires the discipline of writing a manuscript or outline.  It also requires extensive study. The preacher who preaches without notes must not only study the text intently, he or she must study his or her notes about the text carefully. Preaching without notes is not for lazy preachers. In fact, there is no place in ministry for preachers who are lazy and unwilling to “study to show [themselves] approved” (II Tim 2:15).

Preaching without notes is NOT about MEMORIZATION…it’s about MEDITATION.

You have to spend time WITH your notes if you want to speak WITHOUT them. If we rely on memorization we can fall prey to the demon of forgetfulness 🙂 Preaching without notes is not about memorizing your manuscript or outline verbatim and then reciting what you have memorized. It’s about meditating on the Word and marrying the message so that it becomes a part of you. There’s a reason the psalmist hid the Word in his HEART and not his HEAD. When the word is in your heart, the heart pumps it to the rest of your body. If it’s just in your head, you can forget it and lose it altogether.

To be sure, preaching without notes requires practice. It is through the discipline of practice that one can reach a comfort level to preach without notes. Here are a few practical tools to aid in the practice process.

Master your manuscript.

Every beginning preacher should start out using a full manuscript. A manuscript involves putting the entire message on paper and using that manuscript to deliver the message. Manuscript preachers must master their manuscript and not allow the manuscript to master them. Many preachers are slaves to their manuscript and pay more attention to the paper than the people. No one wants to see the top of your head for 45 minutes! Establish and maintain good eye contact with the congregation. Engage and connect with your audience. Don’t just read your manuscript…deliver your message.

Get in line with an outline.

Once you have mastered your manuscript you can move to the next phase – using an outline. Remember that preaching without notes is a weaning process. I do not recommend jumping straight from a full manuscript to preaching without notes. An outline is a good bridge to use to travel across to “No Note Land.” When using an outline, I recommend writing out full sentences instead of fragmented thoughts. These bullet points serve as springboards for the message that you have studied and hidden in your heart.

Let go of the net.

Once you have become familiar and comfortable with the process of preaching using an outline, it’s time to launch out and begin preaching without notes. At this stage, however, I do recommend that you still take the outline to the pulpit – with the intentions of not using it. Keep the outline tucked away in your Bible or someplace it is readily accessible. This way it serves as a safety net in case you find yourself in trouble. After doing this a few times, let go of the safety net. Leave the outline at home and preach what God has placed in your heart!