Most Effective Preachers

Baylor Seminary’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary surveyed almost 180 sermon experts belonging to the Evangelical Homiletics Society and the Academy of Homiletics. And the results are in! According to the Spring 2018 national survey the most effective preachers in the English speaking world are;

1 – Dr. Alistair Begg, senior pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio.

2 – Dr. Tony Evans, founding pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas, Texas.

3 – Dr. Joel C. Gregory, George W. Truett Endowed Chair in Preaching and Evangelism at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

4 – Dr. Timothy Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, New York.

5 – Dr. Thomas G. Long, Bandy Professor Emeritus of Preaching and Director of the Early Career Pastoral Leadership Program at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia.

6 – Dr. Otis Moss III, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Illinois.

7 – Dr. John Piper, chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

8 – Dr. Haddon Robinson, previously Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

9 – Pastor Andy Stanley, senior pastor of North Point Community Church.

10 – Dr. Charles Swindoll, senior pastor at Stonebriar Community Church in Frisco, Texas.

11 – Dr. Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest, professor, author, and theologian.

12 – Dr. Ralph Douglas West, founder and senior pastor of The Church Without Walls in Houston, Texas.

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Blinded by the Light

Blinded by the Light: a Sermon on Acts 9.1-18

I was 14 years old, living in upstate NY, trying to navigate a world of many questions and few answers. The fact is, teen boys don’t always have the right answers. But to their credit, they are at least looking. And I was trying to connect the world of eighth grade with the world I was reading about in the Bible. It wasn’t easy and I was not always right. But I do remember when I first heard on the radio the song “Blinded By the Light.” It was catchy and I was certain it was about Saul on the road to Damascus.

Bruce Springsteen wrote this song and I recognize now that he probably didn’t have Acts 9 in mind when he wrote that lyric but I still think about Saul whenever I hear it. The song begins “Madmen, Drummers, Bummers…” and Acts 9 comes with a madman (Saul) and bummers (persecution and murderous threats). Perhaps Ananias was a drummer (playing with the Straight Street Band).

Acts 9 starts out with Saul “breathing murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” He is on his way to Damascus to find those who belong to “the Way” in order to bring them back as prisoners.

This is the same Saul who was there at the stoning of Stephen. We do not know if he was an instigator or a collaborator but we do know he was in agreement with what happened that day. Because afterward he becomes violent and begins breathing “murderous threats.” That happens in v.1. It is important to highlight that just 18 verses later he “was baptized.” What happened? Acts 9 says he met someone on the road. And we are told that it was Jesus.

Acts is full of surprises. Nearly every chapter seems to present a surprise of some sort. But who saw this coming? Just when we were ready to hear more about Philip running around in the desert welcoming unlikely and unexpected people into the kingdom, here comes Saul with his murderous threats. We are not prepared for the one who is hunting disciples to be turned so quickly or so convincingly.

In the bigger picture we can see this episode as the latest in a series of attempts to stop the gospel of Jesus. Can a cross or even death stop the gospel? Can the fact that listeners do not share a language with the speaker stop the gospel? Can prison or beatings stop the gospel? Can corruption in the church? Can unworthy people? Can continental boundaries? Can the gospel be stopped by one willing to use violence and murderous threats? There is something about this gospel that propels it through most any barrier – there is something about meeting Jesus.

Acts is full of episodes where people meet Jesus. It is worth pointing out that only once, right here in chapter 9, is someone converted by being blinded by the light. It is helpful to know that Jesus does not meet everyone on the same street. Jesus does not work on every one of us in the same way. You are not less spiritual because you were not blinded while traveling the road to Damascus. We want to be clear that God may perform the same work in each of us but God is under no obligation to do it in the same way twice.

Do not measure your kingdom value by your conversion experience. Do not be manipulated into thinking that those who can share with pinpoint accuracy when and where conversion occurred are more spiritual than you. Do not believe that a television preacher who saw a 60 foot Jesus is better at following Jesus than you are. Rejoice that God is calling you. Rejoice that you have met Jesus. Rejoice that God is so interested in you that He has made plans for you.

Sometimes we read a text like this and want to use it as a bully stick. Read it to someone who is speaking against Jesus and say “maybe this will teach you for messing with Jesus… punk.” But Ananias does not show up and say to Saul “don’t mess with Jesus, next time could be worse.”

Other times we might read a text like this and wish our experience was similar. Such an experience might give us validation. A stronger incentive to do something for God. We would know without a doubt that God does have a plan for us. If all conversions were like this, it would be easier to tell who has been converted.

While it is fact that Acts loves to talk about conversion, it does not share many conversion stories that look alike… and there is certainly nothing else like this.

Here is what we know. The way of God will never include opposing Jesus. The ways of God will never include murderous threats. The ways of God may include strange and miraculous ways, like blinding the sighted or opening eye of the blind. The ways of God may include locating the least likely candidate, even the greatest opponent, and turn them toward Jesus.

Let us picture conversion for what it is. It is heading in one direction and then running into Jesus. It is like a crash in the intersection. It is a change of direction. Conversion suggests we are no longer heading the same way we once were. There are new plans. Things that once seemed so urgent are no longer urgent, and new things suddenly become priority.

It is possible you are hiding your true direction and desires from others. But you are not hiding from God. And God has a specific direction for you. The plan is no different than it was for a man who once breathed murderous threats and then one day was blinded by a light – God’s plan for you is to follow Jesus.

Craig Barnes and the Three Great Anxieties

Craig Barnes claims Jesus identified with the human anxious condition. That was the point of his lecture “Preaching in the Age of Anxiety.” He admits to being in the subtext, but states that is where preachers belong. Barnes wants us to look at Matthew 4 and what he calls the three great anxieties but he realizes that in order to get there we must travel through chapter three.

Lurking in chapter three is John the Baptist. Barnes wants to like John but feels like John is another judgmental preacher. A preacher who preaches what Barnes calls the “bad dog” sermon. And he preaches it over and over. We are there also. We are on the shores of the Jordan when John looks at the crowds and says “bad dog” then points to Jesus and says “this is who I’ve warned you about.” Yet, Jesus does not come with a winnowing fork and he does not call for fire from heaven. Instead, he applies for baptism. Jesus identifies with the human condition and God is pleased. We know God is pleased because of the announcement “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”

Onto chapter four where Barnes reframes the three temptations as the “three great anxieties.” Here Jesus identifies with the human condition, which is the human anxious condition. First, we are all hungry for all sorts of things. We are wired for hunger and created to desire. We will move all sorts of furniture trying to find our own fulfillment. We will blame others for our lack of fulfillment. Our hunger makes us anxious because we doubt what Jesus knows to be true, “we are the beloved of God.”

In fact, Barnes says, all our anxieties are because we doubt we are loved. That is why it is important for Jesus to take the incarnational route, he identifies with our anxieties. We would all like some level of certainty. Yet, faith does not promise certainty. But even when we cannot claim certainty, we can proclaim we are the beloved of God. Fear does not leave by being certain, but by being loved.

Anxiety is created by the desire to be necessary. But being necessary is a sure way to rob oneself of being loved. Someone who is necessary becomes a utility, a tool, a necessary item. You are too important to be necessary. Being necessary will only cause anxiety. Barnes goes on, do not settle for necessary. The current climate is already full of this – instead, recognize this, you are cherished by God.

Craig Barnes on Getting the Demon Out

Craig Barnes is a highlight of the Festival of Homiletics. This year, he preached a sermon and presented a lecture. His sermon text was Mark 9.14-29 and his title “Getting the Demon Out.” Here are some things that came up during his sermon.

-texts about demons tend to make us nervous The only thing that may make us more nervous are people who enjoy reading about demons.

-whatever your thoughts about demons, let us agree there is something evil out there and it cripples people.

-nine of the disciples become engaged in an argument about getting a demon out of a young boy. They are likely feeling powerless and embarrassed. That often leads people to arguments.

-we want to do something in situations like this. When we cannot, there is good news, we can bring people to Jesus.

-Jesus appears to be tolerant of doubt. Barnes contrast this with fear, he tends to make a strong statement about fear.

-Barnes asks the question, why stay with the church? He answers “because that’s where I go to find Jesus.” He knows Jesus can be found in other places as well but he also knows the church is Jesus’ plan for the world.

-while the demon possessed boy is convulsing, rolling around on the ground, foaming at the mouth, Jesus appears to be conducting a medical examination “how long has this been happening to him?” Barnes notes that Jesus is never in a hurry and asks, can we move so slowly? Jesus knows healing may take time.

-we too must settle in for the long haul. Join with a faith that has been honed over time by belief and doubt. We want a faith that has been hammered out by centuries of saints, something that lasts.

-Barnes is reminded that in another gospel Jesus will ask “are you going to leave me too?” And the disciples will answer “where would we go?” This is not a statement of strong belief. And then, following the resurrection some continued to doubt. Again, not a statement of strong belief. Still, they worship. That is all we can do, we can go to Jesus.

-when perplexed by our inability to get the demon out, when we become defensive and argumentative, when we feel powerless and embarrassed about what we are not able to do – there is good news, we can bring people to Jesus.

Brueggemann, Solomon, and Jesus

Walter Brueggemann enjoys pairing an Old Testament text with a New Testament text during a sermon. And I enjoy when he does it. That is what he did this week at the Festival of Homiletics. Brueggemann paired I Kings 4.20-28; 9.15-19 and Luke 12.13-31 and talked about “Meat, Anxiety and Injustice.”

After reading the I Kings 4 text he emphasizes the large amount of goods Solomon has access to. It is a fact that Solomon has plenty. When we read the text we see that is an understatement. Solomon has an overabundance. Brueggemann calls Solomon the great carnivore.

“Solomon’s daily provisions were thirty cors of the finest flour and sixty cors of meal,  ten head of stall-fed cattle, twenty of pasture-fed cattle and a hundred sheep and goats, as well as deer, gazelles, roebucks and choice fowl… Solomon had four thousand stalls for chariot horses, and twelve thousand horses… The district governors, each in his month, supplied provisions for King Solomon and all who came to the king’s table. They saw to it that nothing was lacking. They also brought to the proper place their quotas of barley and straw for the chariot horses and the other horses.”

Yet, he did not have enough to satisfy. When we arrive at I Kings 9 King Solomon continues to accumulate more. After reading the gospel text, he highlights Jesus’s words about greed. Jesus gives an imperative (Luke 12.15), this is followed by a story (Luke 12.16ff.). Brueggemann adds this is a story that might be reminiscent of Solomon. It is foolish to think more is better. It is foolish to think more will keep one safe. It is foolish to tear down barns and build bigger barns in order to accumulate more.

Brueggemann goes on to say that more is an illusion. The “more system” intends to keep us busy wanting more. Not even the great King Solomon could accumulate enough. Desiring more only enslaves us to a regime of anxiety.

In a statement of contrast, the gospel tells us the creatures know better. They know hibernation and migration. They do not sow or reap, “they have no storeroom or barn, and yet God feeds them.” People are the only ones who do not seem to know. People are the only ones who think more is better. All this creates is anxiety and all this anxiety does not add even a nanosecond to our lives.

Brueggemann, who loves to discuss justice, then adds “when anxious and greedy, we are unable to do justice.”

Let the Spirit be the Spirit

This week is Pentecost Sunday. A week that many of us will try to cram as much as we can about the Spirit in one sermon. Lillian Daniel wants to remind us the Spirit cannot be contained in one Sunday or in one sermon. In fact, the Spirit cannot be contained at all. She goes so far to say that packing all our pneumatological insights into one sermon may in fact “tax the patience of the Spirit.”

She asks some valuable questions; Do you trust the Spirit to show up during sermon preparation? Do you trust the Spirit to be present during worship? Do you trust the Spirit to show up during preaching?

Here is something for preachers to consider; “Do you realize that when someone says ‘Good sermon, pastor,’ it likely has very little to do with you and everything to do with the Spirit doing what the Spirit does?” Daniel emphasizes this “Let the Spirit be the Spirit.”

Do we have hopes the Spirit can blow change into our ecclesial systems? Are we confident the Spirit can breathe life into congregations gasping for air? Or, has our hope of having the Spirit join us resulted in baiting the Spirit in ways that result in feelings of some pseudo spirit? Daniel wonders if we have settled into thinking the presence of the Spirit is something we can create. She goes on to wonder if we could truly recognize an appearance of the Spirit.

A true Pentecost will let the Spirit be the Spirit. A true Pentecost will allow space for the Spirit to disrupt. Or, perhaps more honestly, realize it was the Spirit who insisted on space for such a disruption. She concludes by saying “A true Pentecost sits in the disorder that is often the life of faith… and believes that the Spirit will indeed show herself, not always on our time, not always to our liking, but, nevertheless, always.”

This Sunday, undoubtedly some of us will be trying to generate an enthusiasm that we hope will pass as Spirit. Some of us will be singing lyrics that suggest the Spirit exists primarily to serve our emotional needs. Some are afraid the Spirit might embarrass us because of extreme stories we have heard before. Some fear that the Spirit may expect us to change.

I am in agreement with Daniel, let us “Let the Spirit be the Spirit.”

Walter Brueggemann

The influence of Walter Brueggemann on preaching has continually increased since Finally Comes the Poet was released in 1989. There are many reasons I enjoy his preaching. Among them, I like the way he challenges the powers that be with the word of the Lord. It puts me to mind of John the Baptizer calling out Herod Antipas. When he steps into the pulpit, it just feels like he is there to challenge Pharaoh’s Egypt and its lingering effects. I like that he proposes use of the Old Testament in ways that perhaps are overdue.

Yet, while challenging the powers on some level, he sometimes seems to snuggle up with other political powers. There are times Brueggemann comes across as some imaginative hybrid of Karl Barth and Karl Marx. I enjoy him most when he comes across as a descendant of the prophet Jeremiah.

I think he would agree that he draws from the social sciences, political theories, and the arts to feed his theological imagination. These, at the very least, provide him with some language for his theological proclamation. You do not have to listen to him too many times to realize he wants to prompt thought about economic and political concerns. While none of us would dispute the bible’s interest in such things in its quest for justice, one wonders if Brueggemann tends to overplay their significance as the bible’s primary mission. I can’t help but think he sometimes starts with an ecclesial analysis but winds up with a social-cultural analysis and am left thinking whether he thinks the two are the same.

Brueggemann makes a point to move beyond the historical critical methods of study. Though he may not cast it aside altogether, he does see it as a method born in modernity. Nevertheless, in our wiser moments we will recognize that it should not be the only tool in our hermeneutical toolbox.

Instead, Brueggemann proposes methods that utilize sociological criticism and rhetorical criticism. He claims to prefer these because they make hermeneutics more democratic, “In contrast to older methods that encouraged a kind of expert consciousness.” By encouraging newer approaches “everyone can look at the text and see something.” Indeed, Ben Witherington fears this turns exegesis into something like a Rorschach test where one can simply ask what can be found in the ink blots. We can all admit a danger if we get to tell biblical authors what their text means.

His attempt at hermeneutical correction may go too far. It is dangerous to separate the text from its historical context. Without such a context, the bible becomes a floating document full of phrases suitable for wall hangings and pleasant platitudes but no longer a record grounded in the historical intervention of God.

Due to tendencies to silence the Old Testament, Brueggemann claims to take an ecclesial agenda to the text rather than a Christological agenda. While we might want to applaud his efforts to make sure the Old Testament is heard, he has been accused of avoiding any Christian readings of the Old Testament. If this is true, we may wish to ask him what he thinks of a biblical metanarrative.

Of interest during this conversation, in an examination of postmodern hermeneutics, Brevard Childs uses Brueggemann as exhibit A. He shares a concern that Brueggemann sometimes confuses the human imagination with the Holy Spirit.

I suspect some are unable to see any value Brueggemann brings to the pulpit because of his potentially dangerous hermeneutics. I suspect others will consider me too critical and remind me that Brueggemann has forgotten more than I will ever know. Nevertheless, I consider him one of the most influential preachers of our lifetime. And I look forward to hearing him again later this month at the Festival of Homiletics in Washington, D. C. The theme for the conference is “Preaching and Politics” and quite frankly, I am rather excited about what Brueggemann will bring to the pulpit there.