Category Archives: Preaching

Serial Expository Preaching

When I was growing up, if our minister announced that he was going to have a series of sermons on a book of the Bible, we knew what to expect.  No matter the length of the book, this meant a series of 6-8 sermons.  It meant that, in each of those sermons, the minister would take one or two verses as his “text” and then work from that.  Those verses (the “text”) would generally be the thematic launching pad for dealing with other material in the context.  Each sermon would not only deal with the text, but also circle around the text in some way.

In my seminary training, this same approach was encouraged.  Our preaching professor suggested we preach with series of sermons on books.  We were taught to keep the series short (6-8 sermons) because people’s attention spans are limited.  We were also taught to isolate one or two verses as our “text” and then develop the sermon out of that.  If I’m not mistaken, this method was called the “analytic-synthetic” approach to sermon prep and delivery.  To be honest, I just called it plain confusing.  Sermons delivered with this method can suffer in terms of structure, making them difficult for listeners to follow.  I also found it difficult to prepare sermons in this way.  To me, it seemed unnatural, awkward, forced.

When I first started preaching (as a missionary), I largely followed my training.  However, since I was preaching to people who had not been accustomed to our CanRC preaching idiosyncrasies, I soon found that these methods were not effectively communicating God’s Word.  I wanted to be clear, not confusing.  Having done some reading and having heard others preach, I decided to try a more systematic and common-sense method of preaching.  I would take a passage of Scripture and in my sermon work through that passage from beginning to end.  No, it’s not a lecture.  You explain the text, but also throughout apply the text, and above all, demonstrate how that text points us to Christ.

As I finished up my missionary service and began serving a regular congregation, I began thinking more about what it means to preach in a series.  Is it necessarily true that a series on a book must be limited to 6-8 sermons?  I put the question out there on Facebook to gauge the sentiments of congregants and others.  I was encouraged to hear that people didn’t feel that this limitation was necessary.  So I said, “What if I were to preach straight through the Gospel of Mark, verse by verse?”  The consensus was: “Go for it.”  So I did.  I began preaching right through Mark, starting in 2007.  Mid-way through that series, I received a call to Hamilton and, after catching them up, I continued with the series there.  After over 70 sermons, I finished Mark in 2012.  Did anyone ever complain about that series being too long?  Never, at least not to my face or to my consistories.  In fact, quite to the contrary, people seemed to appreciate it.  I’m sold on “serial expository preaching” — preaching that goes through the whole book, verse by verse, beginning to end.

Over nearly 16 years of ordained ministry, I’ve now preached completely through several books:  Ruth, Jonah, Haggai, Mark, and Colossians.  Some of these are obviously shorter and took less time.  Colossians was 18 sermons, preached over about a year and a half.  Earlier this year I started on the Gospel According to John.  This will be another epic series.  This past Sunday, I preached my 13th sermon and that was on John 3:9-15.

To clarify, when I preach straight through a book that doesn’t mean that I’m going to do it every single Sunday, Sunday after Sunday.  I do take breaks and do some other things along the way.  Sometimes I will insert a smaller series on a shorter book — I’ve also done a couple of thematic series looking what different Scripture passages say about certain issues or challenges.  During the summer months, I often ask congregation members for suggestions on texts that they’d like to hear sermons on.  Besides those occasions, we also have Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Christmas, public professions of faith, ordinations, etc.  So it’s not like a congregation is going to only get a steady diet of one book every Sunday morning.

What are some of the advantages to serial expository preaching?  For a busy preacher, it means that you become proficient (and efficient) in working with one particular book.  For example, there’s the area of canonics when doing exegesis.  Canonics involves familiarizing yourself with the human author of the book, the circumstances in which the book was written, the original audience, the structure of the book, the book’s theme(s), etc.  After preaching through the first five or six passages, a preacher is going to have the canonics down cold.  While you might briefly review it when looking at a new text, it will not take up much of your time.

On another level, following this approach means that you don’t have to spend any time searching for your next passage.  Text choice is already decided upon, saving time.  Moreover, you can purchase commentaries and other resources accordingly.  If you know that you’re going to be spending the next couple of years in John, you can purchase a few good commentaries on John and you’ll have what you need on hand.

In terms of advantages for the congregation, they are exposed to the full-range of God’s revelation in a particular book.  They are not subjected to the minister’s whims in choosing a text, but they will get to hear everything from that book.  That will include difficult or challenging passages that a minister might otherwise want to bypass — for example, in preaching through Mark, I was forced to deal with the thorny question of divorce and remarriage.  This approach also models how to study and read the Bible.  When we read the Bible, we read it in the obvious way, straight through.  Why shouldn’t preaching do the same?  That brings me to another advantage:  clarity for the listener.  When a listener has their Bible open and they’re following an expository sermon, they will know where the minister is at in the text.  They can say, “Oh, we’re at verse 12.  He’s explaining and applying verse 12.”  It then also becomes clearer that the minister is not sharing his own thoughts or opinions, but preaching the Word of God.  Serial expository preaching is more transparent preaching.

There are some limitations to this approach.  One is the acknowledgement that not every book of the Bible is the same.  For example, the Psalms cannot be treated the same way as Mark or John.  While I think there is some structure to the Psalter in its canonical form, it’s not as developed or obvious as in a narrative book.  Moreover, the Psalter is not even really a book — it’s more of a collection.  Proverbs is another example of a collection.  I can’t see myself ever preaching serially, verse-by-verse, through Proverbs.  I have preached on a number of individual Proverbs, but I don’t believe this book lends itself to the method I’ve been describing.

When it comes to the epistles, there are passages where the logical progression follows the numerical order of the verses and you can proceed verse-by-verse.  But sometimes the thought process in the passage requires the preacher to take a different approach.  For instance, in some passages there is a clear structure known as a chiasm.  You can’t work straight verse-by-verse through that.  It’s not meant to be treated that way.  There obviously has to be some flexibility.

Am I saying that serial expository preaching is the only and best way to preach?  No, not at all.  I’m comfortable with it and I’ve benefited from it.  From the feedback, I’ve received over the years, it sounds like congregations do work with it and have been blessed by it.  Really, all I can do is commend it for your consideration.


Sometimes I Still Don’t Get It

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I blew it the other day.  I had an amazing opportunity to share the gospel with people who might not otherwise hear and I messed it up.  Almost a week later and I’m still kicking myself for a bush league mistake.  Before I confess the nature of my goof-up, let me give some back story here.

When I was a university student many moons ago, we had an evangelistic effort at the University of Alberta called the Areopagus Project (named after the place Paul addressed the Athenians in Acts 17).  Part of the Areopagus Project involved a literature table in a high-traffic location on campus.  One day a week, we had students taking turns at manning this table.  We handed out Bibles, but also tracts and other Christian literature.  Being an aspiring writer, I decided to have a run at writing a couple of tracts myself.

Around the same time, the Internet was this brand new thing, and on the Internet there was this Reformed e-mail discussion list called “Ref-net.”  I was one of the early contributors.  It started off as a thing amongst CanRC university students, but eventually morphed to include all sorts of other people.  The Ref-net was a good place to throw ideas out there and get some feedback.  I took the tracts I had written and posted them to the Ref-net and asked for input.  I’ll always be grateful for something Angelina wrote.  She said that we have to be careful with our Christian jargon.  There are a lot of terms that we use as Christians and we take for granted the meaning of these terms.   We expect that an unbeliever is going to right away understand all our biblical and theological vocabulary.  Angelina gave me some concrete suggestions for improving these tracts in that regard — terms that I needed to explain if I was going to use them or, better yet, use words that an average unbeliever will immediately grasp.  I took the lesson to heart.

I also tried to take the lesson to the mission field.  When I became a missionary in 2000, I kept Angelina’s advice in mind.  Whenever I taught and preached, I always tried to remember that I was speaking to people who were not only limited in their English comprehension (as speakers of English as a second language), but also rather biblically illiterate.  I always had to be conscientious of my audience and try to keep things as simple as possible.  Even today as a pastor in a regular church, I don’t expect that every one is going to always immediately remember the meaning of words like justification, sanctification, or propitiation.  Explain, explain, explain.  Try not to take anything for granted.  You could have someone in the pews who’s listening, really listening, for the first time.  It could be a visitor, but it could also be a young member who’s finally starting to listen, or maybe even an older member who otherwise daydreams.  Lay it out for them.

So there I was last week at a funeral facing a large audience made up mostly of folks who rarely, if ever, walk through the doors of a church.  I was asked to preach on Psalm 23.  This psalm presents incredible evangelistic potential and I tried to work with that.  It’s not hard to preach Christ from Psalm 23.  As I was preaching, I had a well-placed source in the audience who couldn’t help but pay attention to some of the reactions around her.  I spoke repeatedly about how David was saying this and saying that.  Audience members were heard to say to one another, “Why is he talking about David?  It’s Bryan’s funeral.  He keeps saying the wrong name!”  Face palm.  That’s my face.  My palm.  My bad.  I failed to say anything about the author of the Psalm as background — I just assumed that everyone knew that King David from the Old Testament wrote Psalm 23.  It wasn’t in the program with the Bible reading either.  That name “David” just dropped out of the sky and it confused and distracted listeners.  I over-estimated the biblical literacy of my audience and it presented somewhat of an obstacle to my presentation of the gospel message.

Normally I try to keep these things in mind, but this time around I dropped the ball.  Now you might say that it’s not a big deal, that the Holy Spirit can still work through a jar of clay even with a less-than-perfect message.  Yes, I believe that too and it does give me comfort.  And have I ever preached anything else besides a less-than-perfect message?  No, even my best sermons are stained with sin and plagued by weakness.  Yet I still want to be as effective a gospel communicator as I can.  After all, souls are in the balance.  I feel the weight of eternity on me every time I preach.  As I looked at all the faces in front of me last week, I remembered that they are all either going to heaven or hell — forever.  It’s ultimately in God’s hands, but I want to be his instrument so that they can know Christ and eternal life in him.  Because he is worthy, I want to honour him with a full-on effort where no one can walk away and say that they didn’t get it.  They might not believe, but they should still be able to know exactly what they’re rejecting.  Responding to the message is their responsibility.  Giving a clear message to which they have to respond is mine.  Should God give me another chance, I’m going to try and remember Angelina’s advice.

 


Does Every Text Have One Main Point?

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Timothy Keller continues to publish thought-provoking and (mostly) worthwhile books.  While I’ve had my concerns about some of his positions, I can also appreciate some of the good contributions he makes.  This book on preaching covers a lot of familiar ground, but it also makes a few insightful observations that I haven’t encountered elsewhere.  Rather than review the entire book, let me just share one of the points I found to stir up the grey matter.

The first chapter includes a discussion about expository preaching.  Keller notes that oftentimes such preaching is conceived of in such a way that every biblical text must have one main point and that one main point must become the theme of the sermon.  However, “this assumes that every biblical text has only one big idea or main point to it” (42).  This rule, while generally helpful, can be taken too far.  Because, as Keller rightly observes, “In some Bible passages it is not easy to discern one central idea” (43).  He then gives several examples, mostly drawn from biblical narratives.  Here’s one of them:

Then there is the strange account of the the seven sons of Sceva (Acts 19:11-20) who tried to cast a demon out of a man “in the name of Jesus whom Paul preaches.”  In the comical result, the demon talked back through the man to the would-be exorcisers:  “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” before leaping upon and beating all seven of the sons.  What was Luke trying to get across to us by including this incident in his book of Acts?  I’ve heard a number of great expositions of this passage, and all of them were grounded in the text and not contradictory of one another.  Nevertheless, they were not the same.  Multiple valid inferences can be drawn from such narratives, from which a wise preacher can select one or two to fit the capacities and needs of his listeners.  (43)

I think Keller is correct, I’ve seen it several times in my own sermon preparation over the years, although I would also add this:  what is the Holy Spirit trying to get across to us?  Cannot the Holy Spirit have multiple purposes in a text of Scripture?  Why not?

The book is richly footnoted — nearly 50 pages of footnotes!  Some of the footnotes take things a bit further in terms of discussion.  This is also true with the matter above.  In footnote 16 in chapter 1, Keller points out that this idea of one central proposition in a text (and therefore in a sermon) is drawn from classical rhetoric.  The problem is that the Bible is not, by and large, a work of classical rhetoric.  Thus, “identifying what the theme is can be fairly subjective” writes Keller.  The concept of a big idea can become somewhat forced, although Keller grants again that there are some passages where the concept definitely works.  His summary (summarizing a footnote!):  “We must be careful of a kind of ‘expository legalism’ — in which it is assumed that there can be only one exegetically accurate sermon and sermon theme on any one passage” (250).  In the next footnote, he also adds that this should not be misunderstood as saying that “the biblical text itself has multiple or indeterminate meanings.”  The Bible is not a wax nose which can be turned which ever way you please.

I want to add one other element to this discussion, something which Keller unfortunately doesn’t touch on:  what exactly is a text?  Some of this discussion really depends on how you define a text for preaching.  Consider this comment of Keller:  “…there are places like Proverbs, in which it is notoriously difficult to see unifying themes in the chapters and in which often every verse provides a new ‘big idea.’ ” (250).  But who would argue that a chapter in Proverbs (well, most of the chapters anyway — there are exceptions like chapters 7-9) provide a text for expository preaching?  Having preached on Proverbs a few times, I think most of those verses are self-contained texts for preaching, either individually or in connection with one or more neighbouring verses.  This is all the more true when you consider that chapter divisions were added to the text long after it was originally written.  Many times chapter divisions are helpful in seeing some flow of thought in Scripture, but many other times they are just arbitrary and artificial additions, sometimes more a hindrance than a help.  In other words, the chapters don’t necessarily define a “passage” or “text.”  Because he doesn’t tackle this, there is a lack of clarity in Keller’s discussion on the definition of a “Bible passage” versus “a text.”

 


What If You Could Preach to the Whole World?

Precious Remedies

Chrysostom once said that if he were the fittest in the world to preach a sermon to the whole world, gathered together in one congregation, and had some high mountain for his pulpit, from whence he might have a prospect of all the world in his view, and were furnished with a voice of brass, a voice as loud as the trumpets of the archangel, that all the world might hear him, he would choose to preach upon no other text than that in the Psalms, “O men…how long will you love vain words and seek after lies?” (Psalm 4:2)

Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, page 104.


Is Your Worship Reformed?

Some years ago, I sat through a worship service of a neighbouring church that wasn’t Reformed.  What struck me most was where the emphasis fell in their worship.  The proceeedings began with music.  A band was on stage with singers.  They sang several praise and worship-type songs.  Eventually, the worship leader said, “Now that the worship is over, our pastor is going to come up and give his message.”  The “message” was rather anti-climactic following the emotional “worship experience.”  The focus at this church seemed clear enough.

One of the distinctives of Reformed churches is the doctrine of the means of grace.  This doctrine, when conscientiously maintained, also makes Reformed worship distinctive.  You can tell you’re at a Reformed church when the doctrine of the means of grace is taken seriously and applied to the church’s worship.  The focus in a Reformed worship service is on the ministry of the Word and sacraments.  Let’s look at how these things work as means of grace and why they need to remain our focus.

The first means of grace is the reading and preaching of the Word of God.  Scripture is opened, read, and expounded.  The law of God is applied to the congregation.  The congregation is made aware of its sin and misery.  That has the dual purpose of making us humble in the presence of a holy God and then also driving us to the cross of Jesus Christ.  This application of the law takes place with the reading of the Ten Commandments, but also through the reading and preaching of other Scriptures.  The gospel is also applied to comfort the congregation.  God’s people are encouraged with the promises of his love and salvation in Jesus.  This takes place in many Reformed churches with the Assurance of Pardon, but then of course also through the reading and proclamation of God’s Word.  Finally, the will of God as expressed in his law is also brought to bear on a thankful congregation.  We are taught God’s good will for our lives and shown how to demonstrate our love for this gracious God who has so deeply loved us.  This too happens through the reading and preaching of Scripture.

Scripture is a means of grace because this is how God plans to bless his people when he meets with them.  His intent is to bless them through his Word.  Through his Word, the voice of the Good Shepherd is heard.  It’s heard as he rebukes, as he comforts, and as he instructs.  When done faithfully, we do not not merely hear a human voice when a minister preaches.  Faithful preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God — “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as it what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” (1 Thess. 2:13).

The other means of grace is the administration of the sacraments.  Reformed churches administer the sacraments of baptism and Lord’s Supper, following the command of Christ and his apostles.  Baptism is administered as the sacrament of initiation.  Through baptism, we are publicly admitted into God’s covenant and church.  Through baptism, we are given the sign and seal of God’s covenant promises.  God is demonstrating a gracious stance towards those who receive baptism.  However, at each baptism, the entire congregation is encouraged with God’s grace.  We are all visually reminded of how our gracious God first approached us and took us for his own.  You see, baptism not only speaks to those directly involved in the baptism (the one being baptized, the parents), but the entire congregation!

The Lord’s Supper is administered as the sacrament of nutrition.  It is common for many to view the Lord’s Supper merely as a memorial, akin to placing flowers on the grave of a departed loved one.  The Reformed view includes a memorial aspect, but it is far richer.  At this sacrament, Jesus Christ is truly present in his divinity, majesty, grace, and Spirit.  He is present to bless believers who partake of the bread and wine in faith.  He will refresh and nourish them, strengthening their faith.  Through the Lord’s Supper, we are truly fed by our Saviour himself.

The sacraments are means of grace because this too is how God wants to bless his people as they meet with him.  He wants to continue giving them the opposite of what they deserve in view of their continuing sinfulness.  He claims these sinful people for his own and he nurtures them with spiritual food and drink.  Moreover, our gracious God knows that the Word is often received with weakness.  Hearing alone is difficult for us as sinful creatures.  So, in his grace, he adds these two multi-sensory sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Now why are these means of grace at the center of a Reformed worship service?  Why are these things the focus and emphasis?  It goes back to the covenant of grace.  The covenant is a relationship between God and his people.  Who stands in the center of this relationship?  Not me or you.  No, Jesus Christ stands in the center as the Mediator of the covenant.  He is the one who “greases the wheels” of this relationship.  If a worship service is reflective of this covenant relationship, shouldn’t Christ and his ministry stand central?  Shouldn’t the focus be on Christ as he ministers to us with the Word and sacraments, as he “greases the wheels”?  There is a distinctly Reformed logic to our focus on the means of grace and it has everything to do with the covenant of grace.

Yes, of course, there is still a place for our response in prayer and song.  The covenant relationship is two-sided and God expects that his people will respond to him.  By virtue of the covenant, there must be a back and forth in our worship services.  That’s not an issue.  No one has ever said that prayer and song should be done away with in Reformed worship.  The question is:  where is our focus?  What is at the center?  What is the main attraction in a Reformed worship service?  The distinctly Reformed answer, drawn from Scripture, has always been:  the means of grace, Word and sacrament ministry.  With an emphasis on Word and sacrament ministry, the means of grace, your worship will be Reformed — which is to say, biblical.