Posts tagged Preaching
The Fallacy Behind our Preaching

I don’t know about the rest of the Christian world, but if you are a Seventh-day Adventist chances are you are no stranger to some pretty exciting preaching. I’m not talking about the Henry Wright type of exciting (such passionate preaching is clearly found in every denomination). Instead, I am referring to the kind of preaching that makes you say, wow, I never thought of that before. I call it the wow-sermon. Grant it, this kind of preaching is good. There is nothing better, in my opinion, than hearing a preacher open up a text in a whole new way. It’s as if you walked into the church blind and left with sight. Who wouldn't want that?

Having gone to an SDA church all my life, I was no stranger to wow-preaching. However, it wasn't until I was in my twenties that I was introduced to certain preachers who took this to a whole new level. The wow-sermons I was used to certainly shared fresh ideas but somehow those ideas remained simple. It was as if, upon hearing them I would think Oh yeah! How’d I miss that? But these new sermons were way beyond “wow”. These were super deep and breathtaking expositions on the word of God. At times the sermons were on present truth, at other times they dealt with broader topics, but regardless of the theme one thing was guaranteed: I would hear something I had never heard before and see something I would never had thought of in a million years. Far from the simple newness of the wow-sermon, these sermons tended to be more complex in their newness, or dare I say, more sensational. I call this kind of sermon the toy-sermon (you will soon see why).

I was mesmerized. Amazed. Dumbfounded at times and downright intoxicated. Toy-sermons were the stuff of Bible gurus and because most of them were based on present truth I began to believe that Adventist preachers where the greatest preachers on earth. As a preacher, I too began to mimic their fresh and astonishing approach to Bible truth. When preparing sermons I would pray for new insight and pour through the text searching for something different and exciting that had never been seen before. I was no longer satisfied with the simple story of scripture. I wanted something new.

In case you are still confused allow me to give you an example of wow-sermon versus toy-sermon. A wow-sermon would look at the parable of the lost coin and, following Jesus own interpretation, would identify the lost coin as our lost world, or as individual people. One preacher I admire interpreted the lost coin as “those who are lost but don’t know they are lost”. He then proceeded to interpret the lost sheep as “those who know they are lost but don’t know the way home”, the lost (prodigal) son as “those who know they are lost and know the way home” and the elder brother as “those who are lost but think they are saved.” This is a perfect example of simple new. Now a toy-sermon is more like the sermon I heard which interpreted the lost coin as the Sabbath. There were 10 coins and the woman lost one, so she swept the whole house until she found it. There are 10 commandments and one has been lost but the woman (church) has found it. The first time I heard this sermon I was floored. "This guy is amazing!" I said to my wife. "How does he get this stuff?"

I continued to be amazed, that is, until my first day studying biblical exegesis. For those who don't know, Biblical exegesis is the process of studying to determine what the text meant to the original reader and writer before attempting to interpret it for today. The process requires a study of the literary, historical, and cultural context surrounding the text, among other things. Once the Bible student has determined what the text meant to the original audience he is then safe to apply the text to his own context provided none of the original meaning is lost or contradicted in the process. While I had already begun to question the veracity of the toy-sermon prior to this, it was then that the spell was broken. The toy-sermon was exciting, yes. It was fresh and invigorating. But it had one major flaw – it used the Bible as a toy to be played with instead of a holy text to be revered. Literary, historical, and cultural context were often ignored. It wasn’t what the Bible clearly said that was interesting; it was the obscure and mysterious. The goal was to find something new and exciting, something sensational and riveting. As a result textual integrity was sacrificed at the altar of innovation and the end result, while not necessarily heretical, was a sermon that played games with the Biblical text, misused the Hebrew and Greek, “word-smithed” the English translations,* made interpretations that bordered on allegorical drivel, linked verses together that were never meant to be linked, proof-texted flippantly, and drew new and exciting interpretations that impressed the audience but did little else.

I have studied a lot in life. I have learned a lot in life. And I have forgotten a lot in life. But if there is one thing I will never forget, it’s the words of my exegesis professor Dr. Martin Klingbeil. “Don’t preach sensational sermons that get people excited” he said, “preach the simple truth that changes lives.” Whether he knew it or not Dr. Klingbeil hit me hard that day. In fact, he echoed the words of Peter when he said,

Dear friends, this is now my second letter to you. I have written both of them as reminders to stimulate you to wholesome thinking. I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Saviour through your apostles (2 Pet. 3:1-2).
Peter uses two powerful words in this text: “remember” and “recall”. It wasn’t something new that his readers needed. It wasn’t something fresh or exciting. It was the same old truth. The same old sermon. The same old message. Peter’s goal was to influence their thinking. He wanted to lift their minds up and lead them to think balanced, healthy, and wholesome thoughts. And the tool he used to perform this transformational shift was not a sensational and exciting sermon – it was a simple admonition to remember. Somehow, the act of remembering the old truths that God has shared through the prophets and apostles is all his readers needed to be renewed in their minds.

I am not here to question the sincerity of those who preach or enjoy a good old toy-sermon. When I preached them I was sincere and was simply eager to share something new. But now I know that it’s not new that I need. All I need is to be reminded. Reminded of God’s love. Reminded of God’s grace. Reminded of God’s power. Reminded of his will for my life and of the soon return of Jesus. These simple reminders are all I need to be renewed.

Today I want to appeal to all the young-up-and-coming SDA preachers out there. Though the trend is increasingly fading, there still remain way too many Adventist preachers who use the Bible as a toy. This is the fallacy behind our preaching. People love them. People rave about them. People follow them. But at the end of the day they don't preach what the Bible says; they only preach what they want it to say. Don't fall into that trap. The Bible was not designed to give us paint for oratorical art nor was it written to provide a platform to show off our cleverness. It was designed to tell us a story – one that is meant to be repeated over and over again for with each repetition our hearts are changed. Don’t feel the need to be new and innovative. Don’t go wild trying to be exciting. Don't sacrifice sound Bible exposition just to make people say "wow". Instead, I challenge you to tell the ancient story over and over again. It is then, and only then, that broken lives will find healing and new birth.

photo credit: Bront Nolsen via photopin cc
5 Preaching Lessons I Have Learned Over the Years

I started preaching 11 years ago at the age of 17. Since then preaching has been one of my greatest passions. Few things are as exciting as sharing the good news with people and watching them respond, some for the first time, and others for the hundredth. However, as is true of everything in life, I have had to learn some rough lessons over the years. Below are 5 of the most important lessons I have learned about preaching.

1) A hose is limp without water. Yes I know, it sounds weird but hear me out. When you pick up a hose the end immediately falls to the ground. This is because there is no water flowing through it. But once you turn the spigot all the way, the water begins to flow so powerfully that the hose lifts itself off the ground. This is also true of preaching. Without the power of the Holy Spirit flowing though your words, regardless of eloquence and brilliancy, they will fall flat on the ground. But when the Holy Spirit flows through, the words are infused with a power that bears them up and hearts are changed as a result. However, the Holy Spirit doesn't just show up because you prayed a little prayer. He shows up when you have laid every detail of your sermon at God's feet and relied fully on him for its preparation and delivery. This means that praying over your sermon is actually more important than researching, formulating, or rehearsing it.

2) A beautiful picture can't be seen in the dark. Preachers are called to preach all of God's word, not some of it. As a result we have limitless topics to preach on. Each of those topics paints a beautiful picture about God, but there is only one problem. No one will see the picture unless you shine the light on it. That light is Jesus. He is the light that makes sense of every Biblical topic. He is the center of scripture and all things make sense only when they are studied in the light of what he did on the cross. Every sermon should point people to Christ and lift him up higher. Regardless of your topic, be it prophecy, health, marriage, parenting, faith, or overcoming temptation if you present it without the light of Jesus no one will see the beautiful picture. As preachers we are called to shine the light of Christ and this can only be done when he is the center of our preaching (not just the conclusion).

3) Don't call people chickens. A few years ago I heard a popular preacher criticize a young couple he saw making out on campus. His sermon was all about how God's people should be like eagles not chickens. His words were something like "I saw two chickens kissing each other on campus today." A year or so later it was revealed that this preacher had been cheating on his wife for quite some time. My initial thoughts were "who's the chicken now?" But as I think back I realize there is an important lesson here. As preachers we have the uncomfortable responsibility of often having to expose and denounce sin, especially those we see being embraced by our fellow Jesus-followers. However, we must always do so humbly recognizing that we ourselves are just as capable of falling into those same sins. So don't arrogantly call people chickens because you may just end up being a chicken someday.

4) Lose the "holy" voice & vocab. Nothing is more annoying than a preacher who talks one way in private and another way on the stage. I used to do this. When I spoke in private I was down to earth and personable. When I got on stage to speak I dropped by voice, changed my mannerisms, and altered my vocabulary to sound more "holy". I have since realized that there is nothing unholy about simply being me and that the "holy" voice comes across as phony and inauthentic. Along with the "holy" voice is the temptation to speak like you still live in the 1800's. For some reason conservative Christians fall into the false idea that talking like the folk from way back then is holier. Lodged deep in our subconscious is the false idea that this old language is "holier". It's not. And not only that, its annoying. So be yourself.

5) Stop talking to grandma. I am so tired of hearing all these preachers who sound like they are having a conversation with their grandma at a coffee shop. While preaching should be authentic and down to earth we do need to remember that it is, nevertheless, preaching not guessing, not suggesting, and not chatting. To preach is to proclaim and you can't do so if your sermons sound like a soft spoken counseling session. Many modern preachers, in attempting to lose the "holy" voice have unwittingly gone too far in adopting a hyper-conversational tone that lacks power and conviction. A preacher should be down to earth, but should also sound like he/she actually believes what they are saying. So stop talking to grandma and preach!
Replacing Our Outmoded Terminology
For some readers this post may seem like nothing but nit picking, but hear me out. As a pastor who constantly preaches and listens to sermons I have learned that it is important for us, whether speaking in public or in one on one, to be mindful of the words and phrases we use. Over the years many of us become comfortable with our Christian lingo. We become so comfortable in fact that we think we are still speaking English when in reality we are speaking Christianese. The problem becomes worse when our Christianese is supplemented with the use of Lutheranese, Baptistese, or Adventese, etc. Thus, our language ends up twice removed from the real world and we don't even notice it. Then we get up to preach, teach, or share something with a friend and wonder why the youth are totally uninterested and why we can't seem to connect. I would like to propose that the problem is, in many cases, our hyper-religious vocabulary. In addition, these words often carry connotations that make younger listeners shut their brains off almost immediately. Here are a few words which I personally find irritating, why I find them irritating, and how we can convey the same message by simply using a different word.

Doctrine. What in the world does this word even mean? It's actually quite simple-it means teaching. But when was the last time you heard a teacher say "We will now study the doctrine of math"? Its a word which is highly alien outside of Christian circles and typically frowned at even within since "doctrinal" sermons have historically been characterized by the nouns boring, irrelevant, and dogmatic. Since doctrine is simply the teaching of the Bible - a teaching which tells a story about God - I prefer to use the phrase "God-story" instead.

Brothers and Sisters. Seriously, no one goes around in every day life calling people brother or sister. The closest I have come to this is in certain African American settings where it is cultural for them to call each other brother or sister. If that's your context then by all means have at it. But whenever I hear "brothers and sisters" from the pulpit I automatically think the speaker is out of touch. I often just use the word "guys" instead since that's how I talk in every day life.

Peculiar. So we are supposed to be a peculiar people. I get it. But how about we communicate that message by using a less peculiar word? Seriously, whenever I hear someone use this word my mind automatically conjures up images of people living in the 1800's. It's simply an old word, seldom used except maybe in poetry, and even has a boring sound to it. I prefer to use words like unique, counter-cultural, unusual, or even rebellious.

Beloved. OK everyone, Shakespeare lived and died a long time ago. No one says beloved anymore, its a relic of the past, so maybe calling the people in the audience "beloved" should be a relic of the past as well. Seriously, unless your entire audience is stuck in the 1800's this one should definitely go. As in "brothers and sisters" I have replaced this one with a simple "guys".

Revival & Reformation. Whenever I hear these terms I think of long faced rigid Christians who have no desire other than to make the entire Christian church as rigid as themselves. Of course, this is not what the terms mean but because so many have misused them in the past this is the connotation that they have come to have. In addition, the terms - especially the word "reformation" - are outdated. Reformation was a popular word in the 1800's and was being used all over the culture in the realm of social action but today the term is seldom used. I prefer to use the terms "reclaim, reboot, revolution, or restore".

Other examples include words and phrases such as: end times, last days, reverence, born again, slave to sin, fellowship, altar call, pulpit, benediction, call to worship, vespers, main service/ worship service, amen etc. All of these are words which are highly irrelevant to both younger and secular audiences and if we use them flippantly, without taking into consideration the linguistic gap we are creating and fostering by refusing to update our terms, we alienate people that we are meant to be serving. 

Now of course, we can't always replace the word and neither should we feel that we need to, but at the very least we should explain the words with modern illustrations so that the audience learns what it means. I do, however, recommend replacing the outmoded ones entirely as they present a barrier of understanding to those who speak a different generational language. In my own life I have discovered how easily truth is received when the right words to convey it are used. Instead of trying to be so fancy and religious all the time let's bend over backwards to make truth simple and accessible to those who don't share our church-culture.