- Do not clean up the text. Spill it all. Spill the messy contents and the parts that are hard to explain. It is God’s word. You do not get to pick and choose the parts to be reported.
- Be honest with the struggles you have with the text. Listeners will have similar challenges. It will be helpful for them to know that you do as well.
- Tell people about how great God is. Not how great they are or how great their cause is. Preaching is more than self help or social action. It is about a great God.
- Preach your own sermons. If you regularly preach sermons you find online, stop. This does not benefit you or your listeners. Work with the text and share the message God gives.
- Preach to people that you know like you know them.
- Take a biblical stand. This is not the same as a partisan political stand. And especially do not be mean about politicians you disagree with.
- Preach grace. Acknowledge problems. Acknowledge shortcomings. Acknowledge sin. But preach grace. God is into grace, we should be also.
- Spur listeners to behave differently. Encourage action. People want to do something for God. You do not have to tell them what to do, but inspire them to do something.
Raewynne J. Whiteley is tired of sermon prep becoming a burden and intrusion for preachers. She desires to reclaim sermon prep as a time for preachers to engage with God in ways that strengthen their preaching. That is why she wrote Steeped in the Holy: Preaching as Spiritual Practice. Before I talk about it any further I cannot help but mention what Ellen F. Davis says about the book on the back cover. “Preaching like this is serious, holy fun for both preacher and congregation.”
Whiteley proposes that when we open our bibles in preparation for preaching, we need a new way of reading, “one that enables us to find our home in this world of God’s.” That is the primary emphasis we find in her chapter titled “Finding Our Way Home: Scripture.”
She talks about entering the bible as entering a new world. In the bible, we find a world where angels appear, healings take place, visions are common. This is a world where the primary focus is on the relationship between God and humanity. In this world, the intervention of God is expected.
This world exists as a world parallel to another world. A world of computers and friendships and quarrels and cars. A world that is populated with the desires and the fears of our hearts. When Lucy stepped beyond the wardrobe into Narnia, she discovered, not an imaginary world, but a world as real as her own. A world that became more real the more time she spent there. So it is when we enter the world of scripture. It “is not a retreat from reality, but an entering into deeper reality.” A reality that helps us gain perspective on our ordinary realities we live in day by day.
Whiteley suggests there are at least three ways we can approach this world of scripture. The first is as a tourist. When we arrive to a new country for the first time, we might want to visit the famous sites. We want to see and hear the greatest hits. We might memorize details about key places. We are reliant on guides and interpreters. We might gain some new perspectives temporarily, but once we return home our new perspectives are overcome by everyday living.
Approaching scripture as a tourist is no different. We visit the well-known sites, we read about the main characters and well known places. We learn enough of the language to talk about the basics. But we leave the rest to experts. We might talk excitedly about where we have been, but the excitement soon wears off and we return to life the way it has always been before.
The second approach she talks about is the scientist. When we approach a new country as a scientist, we approach it objectively. We may intentionally avoid the tourist attractions. We are more interested in the details. We are observers. We catalog. We define. We analyze. We dissect. We rely on input from our professional peers. We look for patterns. We form a plan to write papers and share knowledge and become experts.
Approaching scripture as a scientist is no different. We are interested in knowledge. We are interested in history and social structure and textual reliability and translation issues. We rely on concordances and dictionaries and commentaries. While there may be some gain from this approach, we can also recognize the danger of becoming an uninterested observer.
A third approach Whiteley gives is that of an immigrant. When we approach a new country as an immigrant, we expect things to be different. We might have to learn new vocabulary, if not a new language. We learn new social norms and expectations. We adopt new lifestyle in order to belong. We do not lose the influence of where we have come from, but we do become more aware of the differences. We develop new relationships and begin to call this new place home.
Approaching scripture as an immigrant is like this. We explore it like new residents. We learn the culture and the language through participation. We become invested in it out of necessity. Such an approach demands a commitment to be people of scripture and faith. We are challenged by this world of scripture. It makes new demands on us. We cannot approach scripture in this way without being changed. And then, as we become more at home in this place, we discover it is our ancestral home. This is our place of origin. This is where we belong.
There are no doubts what approach Whiteley is pointing us toward. In fact, she does come out and say “The third approach to Scripture – and the one that I believe is most useful for preachers – is that of the immigrant.” Whiteley wants to help us to do more than travel to the text and back. More than investigate it for the sake of knowledge. She wants us to live there, to become residents in the land of scripture, to call it home.
Billy Graham died last week. He was 99 years old. During his lifetime of nearly a century he demonstrated influence in arenas where preachers do not usually travel. Graham preached a simple evangelical message—give your heart to Jesus, and you will be “born again.” It is likely Graham preached to more people than anyone else in history, a claim that we may not have data to prove. But who could argue?
In 1945, at age 26, he addressed 65,000 in Chicago’s Soldier Field. The 1949 crusade in Los Angeles had a cumulative attendance of 350,000. (A interesting footnote to that tent crusade, one night he preached Jonathan Edwards’s sermon “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” nearly word for word). In 1957, a May-to-September rally in New York had attendance of 2.4 million, including 100,000 on one night at Yankee Stadium. A five-day meeting in Seoul, South Korea, in 1973 drew 3 million.
In fact, we may think of Billy Graham when we hear the word crusade. He was likely the most well known preacher on the planet during our lifetime. I remember my parents watching him on primetime television. I remember attending a crusade in Cleveland, OH. Billy Graham made preaching part of culture unlike anyone else.
Not many preachers attain the title of knight. But Billy Graham did. He was knighted by the British ambassador in 2001. He was known to be good friends with Queen Elizabeth. Not many preachers are given a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Not many preachers serve as spiritual advisor to presidents. Graham offered counsel to all of them from Harry Truman to Barack Obama.
Upon learning of his death, the presidents began to speak. George H. W. Bush said “I think Billy touched the hearts of not only Christians, but people of all faiths, because he was such a good man. I was privileged to have him as a personal friend.” And Bill Clinton “Billy Graham lived his faith fully, and his powerful words and the conviction they carried touched countless hearts and minds.” Barack Obama stated “Billy Graham was a humble servant who prayed for so many – and who, with wisdom and grace, gave hope and guidance to generations of Americans.” Even Donald Trump chimed in “The GREAT Billy Graham is dead. There was nobody like him! He will be missed by Christians and all religions. A very special man.”
Billy Graham was known for a strong stance on segregation. He insisted on racial integration at his crusades. He told a Mississippi audience in 1952 “there was no room for segregation at the foot of the cross.” In 1953, he personally removed the segregating ropes at a Chattanooga crusade. In 1957 he invited Martin Luther King Jr. to preach with him at a revival meeting in New York City. Later, he would post bail for King when he was arrested.
Graham simply preached the Gospel; he did not worry about intellectual challenges to the faith. His own claim was “I’m an ordinary preacher, just communicating the Gospel in the best way I know how.”
Billy Graham’s success had little to do with skill or showmanship. He preached a simple message and had influence because he believed what he said. That he believed this message is evident from a line he borrowed and adapted from another great American evangelist, D. L. Moody, “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead, Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”
Scot McKnight posted a reading list of sermons earlier today. He claims to read them for spiritual formation and for suggestions to improve his own preaching. Here are the works he claims to read from most;
Rudolf Bultmann, This World and Beyond
Karl Barth, God in Action and Deliverance to the Captives
Fred Craddock, Collected Sermons
Martin Luther King Jr., A Gift of Love
Fleming Rutledge, Not Ashamed of the Gospel
Walter Brueggemann, Collected Sermons
William Willimon, Collected Sermons
Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way
Eugene Peterson, As Kingfishers Catch Fire
C. K. Barrett, Classic Sermons
Charles Spurgeon, Sermons
So, I am curious, do you read sermons? What do you gain from reading sermons? Who do you enjoy reading?
Dr. Dennis Kinlaw was a college president, an Old Testament professor, a chancellor, an author, the founder of a society. But many of us will remember him as a preacher. In the religious arena I was raised in, holiness preachers were giants. Dr. Kinlaw was considered a giant among giants. When he preached you were sure of two things; he was serious about the biblical text AND he loved the listener. I remember sitting in a college classroom when our professor looked out at young preachers and said “we want to shape you into preachers like Dennis Kinlaw.”
Kinlaw would not have said anything quite like that. In his Preaching in the Spirit he says “it is part of the miraculous work of God that he uses the likes of you and me, not to mention the likes of our sermons…” Kinlaw goes so far as to say “the greatest problem in preaching is not the preparation of the sermon but the preparation of the preacher.”
I once heard Kinlaw preach a sermon that included an active conversation between members of the Trinity. I am not sure how often he used that as a homiletic tool but he includes another of these conversations in Preaching. “There are some days when I know I have not acted as I ought… I can almost hear the heavenly Father ask Jesus, ‘Son, how did that Kinlaw guy do today?’ I hear the Son respond, ‘Well, Father, he did not do so well today.’ I quake as I hear the Father say, ‘Shall we give up on him?’” Kinlaw goes on, “I see Jesus lift two scarred hands to the Father and say, ‘No, Father. We have a substantial investment in him.’” Kinlaw claims to have a love affair with those scars.
Kinlaw provides excellent counsel when he says things like “I am a Wesleyan in theology, but I need to be very careful that when I read the Bible my concern is not to find what Wesley taught, but to discover the Word of God. If Wesley opens windows on the Word of God… three cheers for Wesley; but the important thing is that the Word of God comes alive for me, so that I can share it with others.”
It is holy week as I write this. I am reminded of Kinlaw’s conversation about the followers of Jesus following the crucifixion. Jesus had died and had been buried. Disciples were feeling some strong feelings. Ad then, on Sunday, some strange stories were being told. And “As the shadows lengthened into night, those who knew him best sought out one another; when they had found each other, they locked the doors…” Then “the miracle occurred… He was there, the Living Lord in their midst… Death had not really contained Him. He was alive!
Of this we can be certain; Kinlaw would want us to continue telling these strange stories.
Mike Walters is currently serving as an adjunct professor for Northeastern Seminary in Rochester, NY. Previously, he served various roles at Houghton College in Houghton, NY. Before that, Mike served at Ohio Christian University which is where I first met him. Mike has authored two books. James: a Bible Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition and Can’t Wait for Sunday: Leading Your Congregation in Authentic Worship. Both are published by Wesleyan Publishing House.
I recently had the opportunity to hear Mike preach. In one of those sermons he claimed that he could be cantankerous at times. (He did not give opportunity for agreement or disagreement). Still, he is a preacher who intends to preach the things the text sees as important. He has an interest in what the text was written to do. I am pretty certain he would claim he is not smart enough to do anything else. He can only preach what is given by the text. Walters will work to keep the text in front of the listener. And sometimes he will allow the text to sneak up behind the listener. But he always wants the sermon to always be about the text.
Walters has preached enough sermons and taught enough preaching classes that he knows how to keep the text in the forefront. He will highlight small details that may be easily overlooked. He will visit his own personal history. He will use images from pop culture. He will quote theologians and monastics. He will make up his own phrases. But he only does any of these things in order to push forward the conversation about the text.
When listeners hear Walters talk about the bible they will realize that though culture appears to have changed a lot over the centuries, people patterns have not. Because of this, Walters is able to make characters of the bible recognizable. This is an important part of his preaching because he wants listeners to understand that God is quite familiar with characters like us. God has been working with the likes of you and me for a long time. The church is fortunate for the preaching ministry of Mike Walters.
I am serving in a generous congregation that wants to make sure they compensate the preacher fairly. A question then, that came up more than once was “How long does it take to prepare a sermon?” Others may disagree, but I think it’s a difficult question to answer. In order to preach a sermon the preacher must pull from every place visited, every person met, every conversation held, every family get together, every book read… for every sermon the preacher pulls from a lifetime of experiences.
I suppose one could start the clock on a Monday, select a text, consult outside resources, and arrive at a finished product by Sunday. But that sounds like a recipe for a boring sermon.
Because of this dilemma, well-meaning consultants like Bill Tenny-Brittian and Bill Easum have offered consultation. Their solution, spend less than two hours a week on the sermon. Preach a sermon from a great preacher who writes great “sermons that rock people’s lives” (their words not mine). A short list of such preachers include Andy Stanley, Tim Keller, Adam Hamilton (their list not mine).
I want to point out I think they are well meaning Christians who want to see the church grow. They demonstrate common sense. They are helpful in terms of efficiency. They demonstrate acceptable ethical suggestions. But the fact remains, this is not the way to prepare a sermon. It is the un-carnational version of sermon prep.
The preacher should be who they are in the pulpit and never pretend to be someone else. A sermon is local and specific and incarnational. The sermon brings together God and text and congregation in a specific place and time.
Still, we cannot deny the necessity of reading, listening to, and learning from others. I like what Scot McKnight says about this. “To be sure, nearly every sermon emerges from books and sermons and ideas and all sorts of things that are used. But it is bricolage, it is quilting,it is convergence – it is precisely those things and not simple usage of others.” I rather like that description of piecing a sermon together. He goes on “Taking someone’s sermon destroys the bricolage and turns it into a canned, deceitful act of creating a false image in front of God’s people.”
This is exactly why preachers should spend time with the people. If they do not, I am not sure they will have anything to say. This is why preachers read and watch movies and follow plot. This is why preachers listen carefully to text and carefully to the stories of people. This is why nearly any activity becomes a new source for sermon prep. Only by spending the necessary time to engage in these things will they be able to participate meaningfully in the conversation between text and people on a Sunday morning.