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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Preaching Holiness

Recently I had opportunity to attend a mini conference on “Preaching Holiness.” This is worthwhile conversation that reminds us we are not God and that God should always be the wow factor in the church.

This was an enjoyable conference for me not only because of the theme, but this gathering is full of friends and mentors and others I have served with for a long time. This is my family. I was raised among this crowd and this message. These are my people. Still, I cannot help but notice that we have some tendencies that are puzzling at times and perhaps disturbing at others.

Here is one small voice from the crowd who wants us to be able to articulate biblical holiness more articulately, effectively, and faithfully.

1 – I understand our desire to illustrate holiness with personal stories that serve as evidence for the work of God in our lives. I fear they sometimes make us sound as if we have mastered holiness or at least make us sound holier than most. Perhaps this draws some to our message but I admit to having doubts.

2 – It is easy to fall into a trap of thinking the best way to preach holiness is to emphasize what it is not. For example, it is not Calvinism. This tends to send messages of some sort of class system in the kingdom as if we are superior to others. I propose we would serve ourselves better to talk about what holiness is.

3 – We have a tendency to act as if preaching love and grace results in listeners thinking it is ok to stay the way they are. If we take the gospel seriously we know these are the very things that spur one to change. Perhaps we think prevenient grace is preferable or superior to other stages of grace.

4 – We love to reference John Wesley in our conversation about preaching holiness and rightly so, no one has been more influential in our branch of the family tree. But I cannot help but wonder what he would think if he felt we were branding our heritage as greater than others in the Body of Christ. Or if we began reading the bible to find evidence for his way of thinking. It was Dennis Kinlaw who said “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.”

5 – It is easy to make holiness sound as if it is an individual pursuit. Sometimes we make it sound as if it is lived best in our secret places. While no one would deny the importance of holiness in secret, should not our emphasis be on the influence holiness has in relationship with others? It was Wesley who said “Holy solitaries is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than Holy adulterers.”

Yet, I cannot help but notice how we emphasize sin as an individual matter. We even might refer to a sinful individual as a loser. What we tend to not talk about is the way sin hinders the body. The health of the body and the witness of the body are both hindered due to sin. Sin has corporate effects. I propose we would do well to discuss how church and world are cheated by sin. This is, as Wesley might emphasize, a relational religion.

We tend to do the same thing with ethics. Ethics is fitting to emphasize while in conversation about holiness. Still we tend to emphasize individual ethics. This is odd when we are reading texts that are written to congregations. Perhaps we would do well to emphasize how ethics support or hinder the body. Emphasize how Christian ethics influence the world. This becomes important when we speak of a gospel that knows of “no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.”

While talking about ethics it is worth mentioning that to say slanderous things about politicians or pop stars while discussing holiness may be somewhat contradictory. Even these people belong to a world that “God so loved.” We know the holy work of a holy God is evident by the way we talk about others.

I spent most of our time together waiting for someone to talk about how holiness occurs in relationship. While God can perform His work in whatever way God desires, it is evident He has chosen the church to nurture and disciple one another. Perhaps some will resist this thought, but the New Testament appears to support the idea that holiness is a group project. We need one another. Perhaps that is the primary reason I am so grateful for the people I gathered with at this conference.

6 – Preaching about holiness can easily fall into the trap of simply repeating terms from a systematic theology text. This occurs despite our repeated emphasis that Wesley did not write a systematic theology. Yet we continue to preach a systematic theology. Perhaps this is most puzzling for me. We know a systematic theology, no matter how honest or helpful it may be, is always less. Always. This is not only wise counsel for sisters and brothers who adhere to a systematic theology different than our own, this is wise counsel for us also.

Much of what occurs in a setting like this is preaching to the choir. From one grateful to be part of the choir, I am glad for some diversity of thought. Though I may have questions about some things, I am glad to be part of this body. I was raised by this bunch and raised on this message. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Preach Like This

  • 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.

Like Living in a New Country

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.

Preaching Philemon

When preaching Philemon we must get the story. I suspect one of the reasons that preaching lacks appeal is that we often miss the story. The fact is, we miss the message when we miss the story.

The letter is addressed to Philemon, a Christian in Colossae. The church meets at his house. Philemon has honor (honor was very important in the first century). And it is important to know – he is a slave owner.

The letter introduces us to Onesimus. His name means useless. He is a slave, a slave from Phiilemon’s house. And a runaway slave at that. While away he finds Paul, the one writing this letter with his own hand. And now he has become Christian.

Onesimus is sent back home with this letter. And the this letter is read out loud at church. “To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker – also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier – and to the church that meets in your home.”

Needless to say, this is an interesting situation. And quite a dilemma for Philemon. Our preaching should allow the story to be interesting and should present the obvious dilemma.

First century Christians did not dress up and sit in rows at church and we get the story better if we can picture that. Onesimus may be standing in front next to the reader. Philemon would be present. And in the room would have been some very strong feelings about a runaway slave who is now standing there in front of him.

Other slaves in the room might have been glad to see Onesimus, or afraid for him, or angry that his actions may make their lives more difficult. The free people in the room might think it important for Philemon to do whatever is necessary to maintain his honor. I suspect there are moments of awkward silence as well as times of anxious rustling. Everyone in the room knows this is a very real dilemma.

But there is something else in the room. Gospel enters with this letter. They gathered to hear it. They wanted to take it seriously. But that is easier said than done. Gospel complicates things when there is already tension in the house.

We want to be sure and notice Paul’s moves. He addresses Philemon as “dear friend and fellow worker.” He then says “I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do.” And then, “but I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.” He then tosses this into the mix “I am an old man and now also a prisoner.” And then he pushes again. The intensity in the room was high. Everyone knows this is a very real dilemma.

Paul is no activist, this is no protest of slavery. It is much more than that. This is Gospel being delivered in a very real situation. Philemon is being asked to act according to the Gospel. Not because of guilt. Not because he was told to. This letter is written because the Gospel must be taken seriously. It is important for the church that Philemon gets this right. We do not usually refer to this letter as Gospel, but this is totally Gospel.

This is the message that in church, no one is more important than anyone else. In church, power does not define relationship. In the church, even the relationship between slave owner and runaway is shaped by the Gospel. Onesimus was a slave, but now he is Philemon’s brother. This Gospel makes a difference in real situations and real relationships. The church is the place where the kingdom of God is taking shape. The ways of the empire give way to the ways of the Kingdom. This becomes obvious to those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

The question is in the room for Philemon and the rest of us. “How serious are you about the Gospel? How Christian are you? Are you Christian until it affects your honor? Until it affects your property?” Everyone in the congregation is asking themselves how serious they are about this Gospel they gather to hear about on Sundays.

Onesimus may mean useless, but he is called “useful” in v.11. A runaway slave is a major character in this letter because he is a major character in the church. Power and status fly out the window in the letter to Philemon.

This letter asks us all how serious we are about Gospel. It reminds us where the Kingdom takes root, in real places and real gatherings and real relationships like we find at Philemon’s house. When preaching Philemon we are calling listeners to welcome and forgive. Preaching Philemon will call us to respond to a very real dilemma.

Preaching: a Corporate Act

Eugene Peterson shares an interesting journey about his preaching ministry and I suspect he is not the only one who has traveled this path. In As Kingfishers Catch Fire, he tells how he began his preaching ministry by viewing the people who gathered on Sundays as part of his plan to succeed. He confesses he was thinking competitively about other churches. Calculating how he could beat them at the numbers game. It sounds like he viewed people more like commodities than congregants.

One day he began to realize that “What I was doing from the pulpit each Sunday was not preaching… I was whipping up enthusiasm. I was explaining the nature of what we had to do… I was using the place of worship as a bully pulpit… I had a job to do – get a congregation up and running – and I was ready to use any means at hand to do it; appeal to the consumer instincts of people, use abstract principles to unify enthusiasm, shape goals by using catchy slogans, create publicity images that provided ego enhancement.”

If you have read Peterson before you are probably noticing this does not sound like him at all. Yet, from this point he begins to sound a little more familiar. He begins talking about a biblical imagination and an emerging narrative that viewed lives together as something more than we are individually. He talks about weeding out stereotypes that identified souls as problems to be fixed or resources to be exploited.

Peterson claims that something like a novel began to emerge where the people who worshipped together were involved with one another. The people were part of this whether they knew it or not, whether they wanted to be or not. The congregation was no longer a collection of individuals but a body with distinctive parts. Peterson tells how he began to embrace the congregation as they were rather than how he wanted them to be. The gathered people became integral to the sermon. Preaching became a corporate act. 

A Reading List of Sermons

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?