Monday, October 14, 2013

At least one of us will give our life to Christ

"I go out to preach with two propositions in mind. First, every person ought to give his life to Christ. Second, whether or not anyone else gives him his life, I will give him mine."
- Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Two kinds of sermons that are difficult to hear

“One must not forget that there are two kinds of preaching difficult to hear: poor preaching and good preaching.” 

- Fred Craddock, Preaching, 65.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

"I Have a Dream" turns 50 today.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It would be more accurate to call it a sermon.

Time Magazine's latest issue is dedicated to remembering this historic American moment and does an excellent job of allowing participants of the march to tell their stories. The issue is worth picking up. Reading it, I was struck by how many of the participants understood the march in the context of their faith.

Jerome Smith, one of the Freedom riders, recalled "It was a procession of church. It was never, ever a march. It was a congregation that was answering the call."

I learned that at a particular moment in the speech, King began to struggle with his material, material that had been assembled by a committee of people. It wasn't until King heard from behind him the voice of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson saying, "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin. Tell 'em about the dream" that King set aside his prepared text and transformed this speech into a sermon.

As Martin set aside his notes, one of his speech writers, Clarence Jones, turned to the person next to him and said, "These people don't know it, but they're about ready to go to church."

Indeed. Among the many things Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us that day is the often forgotten truth: a good sermon can turn the world upside down.


There are many great biographies of MLK. The only one I know of that focuses on his preaching is Richard Lischer's The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word that Moved America. I found the book fair in its treatment of Martin Luther King as an actual human being and not simply a non-human icon of some sort. It is also an excellent look into the rich history of African American preaching in our country.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Preach like it matters

As we draw near to the first day of school, I find myself thinking back over my own school year. I had some great teachers through the years. Most of them cared about the material they were teaching and most of them cared about me. In fact, there seemed to be a direct correlation between those who cared for the material and those who cared for me. The handful of teachers who seemed to not give a rip about what they were teaching also seemed not to care about whether or not I improved as a person one bit.

There's a lesson there. One of the primary ways we convey that our people matter is by making sure that we are conveying that our sermon material matters. If it appears that we don't think our sermon matters (either through lack of preparation or enthusiasm), not only will we communicate that the gospel story doesn't matter, we'll inadvertently convey that our listener's don't matter either!

John Claypool tells a story about a friend who was assigned to an airborne division during WWII. This terrified his friend because he'd never even been in an airplane much less jumped out of one! He said it was funny, no one had to tell him to pay attention to his instructor. He hung on every word the man said. Plus, the instructor was a seasoned paratrooper himself, so he spoke of these literal issues of life and death with an urgency that only comes from one who trusts his material matters greatly.

Claypool summarizes, "Here was a human being sharing with other human beings what he knew about a subject of vital concern. I would suggest that this provides a getter description of what the preaching event ought to be than for some casual academic dilettante to pass out information that, even if correct, is of little existential moment. We are called to be and do far more than merely to pass out information" (John Claypool, The Preaching Event, 61).

Every week we stand up and share with other human beings what we know concerning a subject of vital concern. Let's do far more than just pass out information!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Hopefulness: An essential ingredient to Christian preaching

Last week I attended the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship's General Assembly. As always, it was a fun time to catch up with friends from seminary. It's amazing how far we've spread across the globe in just a decade of ministry. I was also immensely blessed by the evening worship services. This is not always the case at denominational meetings!

On the first night, Wendell Griffen, pastor of the New Millenium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas gave a sermon entitled, "We're on a Mission From God." The sermon starts at the 40:05 mark and runs just under twenty minutes. Totally worth the listen. Pastor Griffen reminded a room full of ministers about the importance of our calling. I left encouraged and emboldened. As student of preaching, I left reminded of the power of a well chosen phrase, even if that phrase is borrowed from a John Belushi movie.

Session 2 - Thur PM from Cooperative Baptist Fellowship on Vimeo.

The second night, Suzii Paynter, the brand new Executive Coordinator of the CBF gave the message ("We can be alone, or we can be a Fellowship"). Part sermon, part State of the Fellowship, Suzii's message was aimed at those who participate in the Fellowship's work. I felt she hit a homerun. If you aren't a part of CBF, I'm not sure how the message will resonate.

What made her sermon powerful applies to all Christian speakers. In a day and age where so many denominational messages involve a catalog of threats and challenges, Suzii's message overflowed with hope. Her words were hope-filled, but so was her face and her posture. Her whole self exuded hope. Her hopefulness proved contagious. The excitement in the room was tangible - a true feat for a denominational meeting! I was reminded of the essential nature of hope to Christian preaching. Challenges abound today. Of course they do. Challenges have always abounded for the believer. But if a Christian preacher can't preach with hope in the face of the greatest of challenges, he or she should probably call it quits.

The entire service is worth watching - the children's choir and liturgical dancing prior to communion had me in tears. Suzii's sermon starts at 25:10 and runs for thirty-five minutes.

Session 4 - Fri PM from Cooperative Baptist Fellowship on Vimeo.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

What can you learn from a "Homiletical Belly Flop?"

You know that empty feeling you get after a sermon that's tanked? Yep, the one that makes you want to crawl in bed for the rest of the day? John Ortberg, pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California, has felt it to. He says that while it's not fun, it might just prove to be fruitful.

Catch the article "When Bad Sermons Happen to Good Preachers" over at Leadership Journal.

Monday, June 10, 2013

How to orphan a sermon

"A sermon that is not directly drawn from Scripture is orphaned, however bright or clever it may be."

- Fred Craddock

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Dwelling on loss verses Dwelling in Loss? by Walter Brueggemann

Good words from Walter Brueggemann via Work of the People.

Three sermons in response to tragedy

Tragedy has consumed the airwaves over the last few months. It is natural that a response to these tragedies would make their way into our sermons. Here are three sermons that do just that. I include one of my own not because I think it is on equal standing with the other two, but because it gives another example of how a preacher might approach the topic. If you know of other good examples of preachers broaching this topic, link to them in the comments or let me know and I'll try to provide a link.

George Mason preaching at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. Wilshire provides just a clip on their youtube chanel. Click here to watch the sermon in its entirety

Richard Hays preaching at Duke Chapel in Durham, North Carolina. The sermon starts at the 31.00 mark.

Taylor Sandlin at Southland Baptist Church in San Angelo, Texas.

Praise and Protest from Southland Baptist Church on Vimeo.

Responding to tragedy

When a tragedy occurs, either locally or globally, the preacher has a choice to make:

  1. Stick with what I've prepared - Sometimes what you've got will work for the present situation. Sometimes you stick with your prepared sermon and address the tragedy through another aspect of the service, for instance, a special time of prayer.
  2. Alter what you've prepared - Maybe all your sermon needs is some alteration to be appropriate to the moment.
  3. Ditch what you've got and go with something totally new - This has its challenges, especially if the tragedy occurs close to Sunday.

How do you decide what to do? I think the decision process involves listening to the Spirit and gauging how close to home this tragedy has hit. Will the people in the congregation be able to think about another topic on this Sunday or will their attention be limited to their own questions concerning this recent event? The closer the tragedy is to home, or the more prominent the tragedy is in the news, helps me determine whether or not I need to alter my sermon for the upcoming Sunday.

I have altered sermons on three occasions that I can remember: The Fort Hood shootings; The Newtown shootings; and the recent tornadoes in Moore. Three sermons out of a decade of preaching is not a lot. So this is not something I do easily. For one thing, I am not an off the cuff kind of preacher. I like to be prepared. But on occasion, I have felt the need to make a change.

In the case of the Newtown shootings I actually re-preached a sermon from the year before acknowledging that that was what I was doing. That took care of the issue of preparation. On the other two occasions, I ditched prepared sermons and preached an entirely new one. In each case, the sermons have been well-received. People are filled with questions during such times and want their pastors to say something. While we may not have any answers to their questions, we can point people towards the God who cares for them in times of great trial.

I'd love to hear from you. When have you made a last minute sermon change? What led you to make that decision? How was that change received? Is there a time you chose to stick with what you had? How did you come to that decision? What are other ways we can acknowledge a tragedy has occurred without altering our sermon?

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Preaching as the Packaging of Truth

"Surely an inelegant expression of truth is better than a beautifully expressed falsehood, and even a beautifully expressed truth can be diminished, subtly, if the style upstages the substance. Even so, great truth can be enhanced by its packaging. Otherwise, would we be so deeply affected by insightful poetry, penetrating novels, and great drama?"

J. Philip Wogaman, Speaking the Truth in Love: Prophetic Preaching to a Broken World (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 74.  Buy at Faith VillageAmazon.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Good Sermon Gone Bad

This past Sunday, I royally messed up what had been a good service. At least, I ruined the service for my daughter. I was introducing a new family to the congregation. One of their children was having fun going up and down the stairs of the stage. People in the congregation were giggling. I attempted to set everyone at ease with some comments about how much we love children and about how one of my own children had done something funny our first Sunday at the church. I'll leave out the details of that story here because as I soon realized, in sharing the story in full there I had mortified my eight-year-old daughter. She was two at the time of the story, but that did not matter to her. She buried her head beneath my jacket after church, and her tears communicated the hurt I had inflicted on her. 

I felt awful. Not only had I embarrassed her but I had broken my agreement with her. For several years, we've had a deal that I will only mention my children in my sermon with their permission. Most of the time my children consent to a story being used, but when they don't, I find another illustration. Since I prepare early and write a manuscript, this is usually an easy agreement to keep. What got me in trouble this past Sunday was the fact that these were off the cuff remarks meant to put another at ease. That didn't matter to my daughter, of course. I apologized, took her to her favorite restaurant, and eventually was granted a pardon.

Later that day, I decided to amend our agreement. I told them that very often when a writer or a speaker uses someone else's work as a part of his own work, he has to pay that person a royalty or a fee. I told them that not only would I still get their permission before using a story of them in the sermon, now I would agree to pay them a fee for the use of that story. We settled on $5. My six-year-old son immediately said I did not have to ask him. For $5 I could tell any story I wanted! My daughter still wants me to ask permission, but she liked the idea immensely - more I think for the respect it shows her than the money she'll make.

I got the idea from a friend who is the editor of a large Baptist newspaper who would sometimes mention his children in an column. I think he got the idea from another newspaper friend. I like it because it helps me honor my children as actual people and not as simply material for my sermons.  

I wonder, what are your thoughts in including your own children as sermon illustrations?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Preaching the mystery

"The pastor, however, can only reveal as much about God as the Scriptures do. There is a part of the Holy One that will always remain a mysterious, untamable whirlwind. This means we pastors should spend more time with who than why. Revealing a mysterious, holy lover is hard work, and for that reason the pastor is always tempted to revert back to being a friend of Job with lots of explanations and arguments. If we can prove why some things happen in the lives of parishioners, the thinking goes, then we can get a leash around God. But whatever it is that we've leashed, it certainly isn't God."

-Craig Barnes, "Three Temptations of the Pastor," 17-18 in Best Advice: Wisdom on Ministry from 30 Leading Pastors and Preachers

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Stanley Hauerwas delivers a sermon entitled "Trust" at Duke Chapel. He's not the most dynamic of speakers, but his words are worth the listen. The sermon, which draws from the book of Esther, contains thought provoking ideas about what it might mean to live faithfully in a world in which God is no longer mentioned.

The sermon begins at the 40:48 mark and concludes at 62:14.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Watch out for those deacons...oops...I mean demons

Sunday I accidentally confused my deacons with a couple of demons. It got a good laugh and actually helped a difficult sermon be received a little better. I'd love to hear some of your preaching stumbles. I know you have some good ones, as well.

Oops! from Southland Baptist Church on Vimeo.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Question of the Week: What are you reading?

With all the gift giving now behind us, I am sure you have at least one or two new books in your hands. What are you reading these days that you might recommend to other preachers?

I'm almost all the way through Annie Dillard's, The Writing Life. It's a delightful, meandering piece about what it takes to write a book. Much of it resonates with the task of writing a sermon.

Take for instance, this advice on writing as if you were dying.

"Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality" - Annie Dillard.

So, what are you reading?