Monday, December 7, 2009

Thoughts on Preaching for Preachers and Listeners

One of my favorite topics is preaching, and how it's to be done and heard. It's valuable for listeners to hear preachers think out loud about preaching and respond.

Preachers can be stubborn and overly sensitive about preaching. Understandably so, since hopefully the preacher is pouring his whole self into the exercise. If he isn't, he ought to go work as a mid-level functionary somewhere.

So, just some points to consider.

1.) We ought not to give up on preaching in our multi-sensory age, but neither ought preachers to underestimate how listening and processing information has been changed by media exposure. The spoken word is not dead and can still hold the attention. We are exposed to infinitely more verbiage now than ever before, and probably can process more information more rapidly than previous generations.

What we find difficult to do is to hold on to sustained logical and rational argument. We can lament this fact, and long for the good old days, or we can adapt to it so that we are heard. I prefer the latter.

The best compliment I think I ever got on preaching was from a mid-teenage boy who visited a few times at one of our churches. The mother of the girl he was seeing said, "He said he has never understood any other preacher, but he understands you." This is not because I dumb things down, but more because my own scattered brain leaps from topic to topic, addressing one issue from multiple sides, and trying to utilize some recapitulation of major ideas. I find this more difficult to describe than it is to do.

A fuller description of it can be found in Fred Lybrand's Preaching on Your Feet.

A closely related second point is:

2.) The Greco-Roman rhetorical form is dead, and good riddance to it. In popular parlance this is "three points and a poem." Formally it is: proposition and supporting sub-statements. Thanks to Fred Craddock and his fine little book As One without Authority for pointing this out. In case you haven't noticed, the Bible isn't written this way.

Unfortunately, expository preaching, in desiring to be a servant of the text, too often views the text through the lens of rhetoric. Craddock says: don't just preach the content of the text, but let the text provide the form, and the impact of the sermon. It is hard to unlearn old habits, but being true to Biblical form and impact is being true to the text, and tends to build interested listeners, too.

2.) Preaching needs to be a bit raw-edged. My mentor passed on what his mentor passed on to him, "It's no sin to be interesting." I would hasten to add it is a great sin to be boring! Preaching should be a bit raw. This doesn't mean it must be loud (though it can be). But, it is a whole person endeavor, and sometimes that is less than polished and refined. What it is, is real. This is why, I think, younger people are flocking to listen to Mark Driscoll and Francis Chan. There is no mollycoddling in what the say. For all their faults, the younger generation are tired of plastic imitations of reality that so satisfied their parents. They will take the truth straight up, thank you very much.

But, if you preach raw, baby boomers will be the ones to complain. Those who sought out the PCA because they loved Reformed arcana do not like their lives, priorities and comfort challenged. Many of them have not met Christ, but believe him to be merely a set of propositions, not a Divine Person (about whom propositions are true) whose white-hot living presence will inevitably drive out impurities. You can see the disconnect between their faith and life in the faces of their children, sad to say.

3.) Throw away your notes. Do it now. Nobody cares about your precise wordings, least of all the Holy Spirit, who longs to use you and all your hard work, but to free you from your love affair with your own words. Nobody ever commented, "I don't think he used his notes enough." It took me 12 years to do this. Do it now.

4.) There is no one style. A great preacher can be voluble, or soft-spoken, he can be brainy or relatively simple. I find myself profiting more and more from a variety of styles.

It used to be (confession time) I would mock the preaching of men like Ben Haden --not expository enough. Now, it almost brings me to tears.

Jim Boice preached like he was reading out of a commentary, but the Holy Spirit used it to great effect.

John R. de Witt scales the rhetorical heights, and set truth on fire with pathos and fervor.

Sinclair Ferguson is quiet and gentle, and yet tears the heart to bits.

A certain Manhattanite I shall not name preaches erudite, doctrinal, and Christ-centered sermons in a way that gains a hearing among post-moderns. One of the most memorable sermons I ever heard was him preaching on Abraham interceding for Sodom as a model of imputation. All of these men are preachers in the grandest sense, and all very different.

Another post to follow on what sorts of applications I think ought to predominate in preaching today, at least in my cultural context.


  1. Good stuff Ken! I am dying for someone to listen to my sermons and give me some helpful critique. If you ever get a chance, would you do that for me?

  2. Hi Ken,

    Excellent thoughts, there are however forms of preaching that may be engaging, but to my mind are still wrong forms. Let me be overly frank as I describe them. The first is when the preacher is clearly preaching to entertain or titillate his hearers (or worse, himself.) This may grab the attention, but whom does it glorify and does it really edify? I too heard an erudite preacher from Manhattan preaching a while ago and he gave a long introduction clearly honed for the tastes of the intelligentsia with lots of mentions of literati, sex and hooking up on the campus. The congregation clearly liked it, but a couple of times my wife and I exchanged "should we take the kids out?" looks. The illustrations also had only a tenuous connection to the text and detracted from the exposition.

    Then there is preaching where the preacher is clearly in love with the sound of his own voice, and expects other to fall in love with it as well. Some of our hot young emerging soul patchers fall into that category. They are smart, sophisticated, witty, sarcastic, funny, engaging, and hopelessly in love with themselves. They captivate people from their generation, but their preaching is for time and not eternity. They are the beatnik poets of the theological world, and their material will sound just as dated in a few years while the preaching of Boice and Ferguson (which is framed for eternity) will still be fresh.

    Also notes are the only thing that keeps me from rambling on for two hours. ;-)

  3. Andy,

    First, you would be surprised how little you deviated, I think, if you went without notes. Don't you trust the SPirit man? Kidding, there with the overt hyper-pietism.

    Second, you are right about what you say. One can cross the line from frank to salacious fairly easily. De Witt could be frank (his sermon on homosexuality from Sodom and Gomorrah is one of the best sermons I have ever heard, I remember it even 11 years later) but was never salacious.

    Third, I love the sound of my own voice too!

    Fourth, (and I do this to highlight the tiresome nature of the 3 point type sermon), what bothers me a lot about guys our age and younger is the use of supposed epistemological humility, which often coincides with a whole heap of personal pride.

    We are not to be confident in ourselves, but we are certainly to be confident in the uniqueness of Christ, the infallibility and inerrancy of scripture, the resurrection, justification by faith. If we can be certain on those points, we ought to shut up and sit down.

  4. Dear Ken and Andy:

    I saw Andy say the same thing on the Warfield list about my first point in that sermon he heard in August.

    I'm afraid Andy complete missed the purpose of the quote. It was in no way designed to appeal to anyone present--but to challenge them. It was not entertainment, and certainly it was not aimed at 'literati.' It was a stark denunciation of 'hooking up'--which the average young Manhattanite does with impunity. I was told by my members that many listeners present were convicted--and they needed to be. (Some people were offended by the denunciation--they were'nt 'entertained' at all.) Not only do virtually all non-Christians here have sex outside of marriage, many Christians who move here get sucked into it as well. The point of the sermon was about the Biblical concept of love within a covenant. There is no way you can preach that in Manhattan without challenging the licentious sexual behavior of the young population.

    By the way, the quote was from a Christian prof at UVA, Mark Edmundson, who wrote an article titled 'Dwelling In Possibilities' about the average college student today who does not want commitment to anything. In the article he exposes the emptiness of sex without commitment.

    I saw Andy express his concern with that part of the sermon back in the beginning of the fall, and I wanted to respectfully correct the misunderstanding. I hope this helps.

    Tim Keller

    PS - If Ken or Andy would like to see the quote itself, I'll send it along

  5. Tim,

    Thanks for the explanation. I didn't hear the sermon, and was (clumsily) agreeing with Andy's general point about being careful how we handle certain topics.

    I preached a sermon out of Judges once that needed to be fairly explicit. I sent an email to the congregation to explain to them and give fair warning, but also an encouragement to keep their kids in the service. I didn't say anything the kids couldn't understand or to violate their innocence. But, at the same time, church is a fine place (as a buttress to the family) for kids to start thinking through God's design, and what violations of the boundaries are.

    This is all, of course, a judgment call by pastor and session.

  6. Hi Ken --

    I appreciate your response!

    Another factor for preaching is to keep in mind who the listeners are. Our congregation is still 75% single and mainly under the age of 30.

    Tim Keller

  7. Tim,

    True enough. It becomes trickier the more heterogeneous a congregation is. Right now, we are running the gamut from very affluent and educated to a few homeless --praise God for that. Given the makeup of Jackson, I am trusting God that we will become even more heterogeneous and even more bridge the traditional divides of deep South culture: not just race, but class, etc.

  8. Ken,
    again, you provoke my mind and heart. I know you study hard during the week and "take notes." So, HOW do you preach "without" them?? Are you using bullets, note cards, anything?? When I do go light on the notes, I at least have a 3x5 card with the Intro, list of points and Conclusion - especially if I have a good illustration.


    ps - who said you were interesting? ;-P