Preaching: Part 1: Preparing to preach
- Written by: Tracy Lauersen
Call me odd, but I’ve loved the adrenalin rush of public speaking since I was 3rd speaker on our high school debating team. There were a few speaking competitions I entered then and I also had some opportunities as one of the student leaders. But when I became a Christian in my twenties and trained for ministry, I found preaching training quite difficult. It was the enormous spiritual weight of what I was being trained for. The privileged role of sharing God’s words rather than my own, of opening up the Scriptures for people and helping them to both understand and to apply them to their lives is a high and privileged calling. Preaching flips the priorities.
Interpreting and applying Scripture correctly is far more important than speaking skills. Preaching also means applying God’s words to our own lives as preachers first. It is a weighty thing. I call preaching ‘that hard thing I love’.
It was my time spent training for ministry at SMBC (Sydney Missionary and Bible College) that was most instrumental in developing my preaching style. We had a chapel service just about every day at college and there were a number of opportunities to preach as a student there, and also on the annual college missions. I studied preaching under our Principal, the Reverend David Cook and John Chapman was a consultant in our preaching classes as well. Our text book was Haddon Robinson’s Biblical Preaching (Baker Academic). Serving for a few years as associate leader on Hat Head SUFM also gave me opportunities to open up God’s word for the team. David introduced us to a preaching template which I have adapted for myself over the years. The great value of the way in which we learnt to develop a sermon was that it did not require the consulting of any commentaries.
Commentaries are valuable but reading one can certainly squash your own voice. Commentaries are so good that one can feel a sense of obligation to follow them. They are best left late in the process, as a check and balance rather than a directional guide as we develop our sermons. What I will check routinely though is the Greek text for the New Testament, and a theological dictionary. (I use Accordance software for this).
Below I lay out my approach to each weeks preaching task in my parish, where I try to get this weighty calling right.
Time to work on the sermon. Mondays would be the best time to start, but realistically Wednesdays are usually the earliest I start the exegetical process. I won’t do a great deal at this point. I will simply read the text and the surrounding text a few times and start to think about what it means. Spreading the preparation out over a few days means the subconscious mind has space to process the text and I find this results in better ideas than when I compress all preparation into one block of time. For example, in preparing a recent sermon for Palm Sunday, the reading was about how Jesus was publicly celebrated one day and publicly condemned a few days later. My mind immediately went to modern day cancel culture and this influenced my sermon. On Thursday or Friday I will do most of my work on the text, testing out any ideas, using a template I’ve developed and I have linked at the end of this article. I rise early on Sunday and go over the sermon. I will whisper it in outline form to myself in my study (trying not to wake others!)
Work on the text. On Wednesday or Thursday, following the template, I take a fresh blank A2 sheet which I spread on my desk and on which I glue a small font printout of the text to the centre of the page (biblegateway.com is handy for this). This allows me to put all thoughts onto one sheet of paper over the next few days. It keeps the text as the focus and allows me to highlight and brainstorm. I know I can do all this electronically, but I find handwriting is the best for brain engagement and later recall. It also limits me so that I don’t end up with reams of paper by Sunday.
I jot a few points about pre and post context for the passage and then paraphrase the text, trying NOT to use the words of the translation. This is hard because the longer we are Christians the more religious words seem normal to us. In another recent sermon I tried to paraphrase a text about baptism without using the word baptism. Not easy, but it really helps the exegesis.
The next step is to identify the flow of the argument of the text. In the Palm Sunday text of Mark 11: 1-11 the flow is,
1. The crowd recognise Jesus as a kind of King (Laying palm branches, singing hosanna)
2. The ‘coronation’ is a bit off (a donkey features!)
3. He really is a king (Old Testament references)
4. No one welcomes him at the temple courts..a hint of what is to come
Next I look for key words and metaphors which might already be in the text. The secret is not to create things if you don’t have to, but rather use what God has given you in the text. In Mark 11, that’s a donkey along with the words ‘Hosanna’ and ’King’.
Next, I work on what Haddon Robinson calls the ‘Big Idea’ of the text. What is this text about and what is it saying about what its about? This can take me a long time to discern. Sometimes days. I will work and rework on this until I am satisfied I’ve got it right, and I won’t allow myself to draft anything further until its done. This is because the big idea, the subject of the text and its complements will dictate the structure of the sermon.
Without it, I don’t have a structure. With it, I have the bones of the sermon and more than half my work is done.
What remains is to consider the application and to fill in the flesh on the bones of the sermon. Working out the application can be easy or difficult, depending on the text, but I know that a weakness for me is to underdo the application. So I try to make the application take up half my notes on my A2 sheet and have as many points as I do for the outline of the argument.
At this part of the process I might consult a commentary or perhaps google the passage. I like the Bible Speaks Today Commentary series because it’s written with preaching in mind and sometimes suggests an illustration. I’ll be checking these to make sure I’m not way off track with my interpretation of the text.
Once all of that is done, I map out the sermon on a fresh A3 sheet which I will take into the pulpit. Again, it has the text pasted to the centre of the page to keep me focused.
Occasionally I will take a photo of my A3 sheet and preach from an iPad if I’m preaching offsite somewhere.
In mapping out the sermon, I will have three parts:
Introduction: An illustration or a question that I spend a bit of time on. I’ll also try to put something personal into this to break the ice with my listeners. Andy Stanley makes the point that in the first few minutes, people are deciding whether you are worth listening to, so you need some kind of hook and you need to show a bit of yourself for them to make that judgement. I’ll end this part of the sermon with the phrase – ‘what about you?’ I wonder if you find this to be the case…or I wonder if you struggle with this? Or something along these lines…. I’m trying to make the subject of the sermon relevant to them. The I’ll say something like ‘ its great that our text today addresses that….let’s jump in and look at the text..’
Body: I usually work through three teaching points, and I’ll usually illustrate or give examples for each one. I may apply the text as I work through it or I may have an equally long application after working through the points. Either way, application will have at least an equal number of points as what I think the text is saying.
Conclusion: This is often called ‘landing the plane’. I may do a few different things here. I may try to inspire people to imagine what our church or community or country would be like if we really applied this text. I may use a prayer to conclude. I may quote a hymn or I may summarise the main points and leave them with a challenge.
Preaching in Australia Today: We Need More Bridges!
- Written by: Peter Adam
The task of every preacher is the same as the task of everyone who reads the Bible. Build a bridge between the Bible and Life Today!
We can get wrapped up in the Bible, enjoy its story, its ideas, its images, its instructions, but not build a bridge to cross over to Life Today.
Or we can be so absorbed by Life Today, its issues, pleasures, problems, dilemmas, tragedies, that we cannot move to the Bible without feeling irrelevant. Then we do not build a bridge to cross over to the Bible to learn and preach its message, and how it applies today.
We need to do the whole journey: immerse ourselves in the Bible deeply and thoroughly, and immerse ourselves in Life Today deeply and thoroughly. Without the Bible, people will not hear God’s words, and will not know Christ as God has revealed him. Without Life Today they will not know how to live in faith and obedience to God, how to follow Christ.
My impression of preaching in Australia in 2020?
Some preachers are good at the Bible, but not so good at bringing its message to Life Today. Others are good at Life Today, but not so good at gaining God’s riches in the Bible.
We need strong bridges between the Bible and Life Today in our sermons! Why?
1. THIS BRIDGE HAS LOTS OF TRAFFIC CROSSING IT EVERY DAY.
Every believer needs this bridge, and they need to learn to cross it from both sides, starting at the Bible, or starting at Life Today. They need it every time they read the Bible; in Bible Studies; when they face an issue in their own lives; every time someone asks them a question about how to live or what to believe; every time they share their faith; and every time they make a decision about their lives, their family, their life-style, their work, their church, their society.
Preachers need to show how to cross the bridge in our sermons, and in every part of our ministry. We need to teach and show how to cross it from both sides: either starting from the Bible and showing its meaning and significance today, or starting with a Life Today issue, and showing how to go to the Bible and bring back God’s words and wisdom for today.
It should be a well-used bridge!
2. THIS BRIDGE NEEDS GOOD DEEP FOUNDATIONS ON BOTH SIDES: IN THE BIBLE, AND IN LIFE TODAY.
We cannot afford to be superficial in our reading and use of the Bible, just picking up a word, or phrase, or story, or idea, and then using is as a spring board to say what we want to say, and always say, on this topic! As I read on a mug in a preacher’s home recently ‘I have learned the secret of making any text say what I want it to say’! This results in sermons that are light on content, entirely predictable, and therefore boring. We must not fail to engage deeply with the Bible, its meaning and significance, its theology and practicality, its passions and priorities.
We cannot afford to be superficial in our reading of Life Today, or to fail to engage with Life Today in our preaching. We can’t see the true significance of a Life Today issue without knowing how it expresses the deepest assumptions, ideas, passions, fears, hopes, and priorities of contemporary world views. We also need to know the practicalities of this issue. How is it lived? What does it feel like? Why is it attractive? What are its consequences for individuals? What does it promise?
What does it deliver? What are its consequences for other people, for society?
We need historical background, cultural awareness, intellectual understanding, and emotional awareness of both Life Today, and the Bible. Superficial impressions do not do justice to the Bible, nor to Life Today. We need to love God’s word, and we need to love God’s world and God’s people. We need deep sympathy for the depths of the Bible, and deep sympathy for Life Today. Superficial and trivial impressions are not enough.
We cannot see the true significance of one word, or verse or idea, or part of the Bible without knowing the context of the Bible book in which it is found, and its place in the Biblical Theology and the Salvation history of the whole Bible. ‘A word [or idea, or phrase, or story] without a context is a pretext’ for regurgitating our own ideas, or quoting the latest guru in life management, leadership, personal development, building successful churches.
The worst sermons are those which don’t do justice to the Bible, and don’t do justice to Life Today!
When reading and preaching the Bible, we should not ask the question, ‘What is the minimum we can get away with? But rather, ‘What is the maximum God has revealed?’ We need to dig down to the theology or worldview of the Bible in order to relate to the deep worldviews of today.
When relating to Life Today, we should not be content with superficial statements, but dig down to the sources, the deep assumptions that shape our society, and shape the many different cultures and sub-cultures in our society.
If all we do is ‘teach the Bible’, we have begun a good work, but not completed it. Information without interpretation, implementation, passion, application, and exhortation, does not achieve God’s purposes. Life is more than a Bible quiz!
God’s people need God’s words, and God’s words are written to serve and benefit and transform God’s people.
We need to cross the bridge to bring God’s loving gift of the Bible to the people he loves, and to train them to cross the bridge when they read the Bible, and when they face the many issues of Life Today.
May God’s word live richly among us!
Rev Dr Peter Adam is Vicar Emeritus of St Judes Carlton, formerly Principal of Ridley College. Peter is a highly respected preacher both in Australia and overseas.
Homiletical Health Check
- Written by: Mike Raiter
Homiletical Health Check: The State Of Preaching In Australian Churches
I’m in a reading group and we’re discussing Chris Watkins, Biblical Critical Theory. We were asked to summarise the book in a couple of sentences. If you know this 600+ page brilliant analysis of the Bible and Western culture (a book none of us have yet finished), then I could no more summarise it in a few words than swim the Pacific Ocean. I feel the same sense of being set a daunting task in analysing the current state of preaching in both the evangelical Anglican scene and the wider church scene. But I love a challenge.
My approach has been to choose at random 10 evangelical churches from 10 Anglican Dioceses (Northern Territory, Brisbane, Armidale, Sydney, Bathurst, Melbourne, Tasmania, Adelaide, Perth, and N.W. Australia). While I’m personally acquainted with a couple of the preachers, I’d never heard any of them preach before. And I’ve kept the church and preacher anonymous.
Then I’ve randomly selected 10 non-Anglican evangelical churches from Brisbane (I’d just returned from there and so was still in the zone). The churches are Baptist, Independent Baptist, Pentecostal, Church of Christ, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Brethren, Christian & Missionary Alliance, and Salvation Army. I didn’t know any of the preachers, nor had I heard them before. Again, I’m not identifying any of the churches.
Bible Study: Ephesians 2:21-22
- Written by: Tim Johnson
Rev Dr Tim Johnson is the Senior Minister of St John’s Anglican Church, Diamond Creek. The following Bible reflection was given at the start of the church’s Annual Meeting in 2022.
²¹In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. ²² And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
The Bible uses a number of images to describe the church. We are probably most familiar with the image of the body of Christ, where each of us is a part of the body and we work together for the good of the whole. In Ephesians 2:21-22 the church is described as a temple. It’s a good reminder for us as we come to our annual meeting of our core identity as the church. There are three things that it is good for us to remember.
Firstly, remember that everything we have as a church comes from Jesus. Each verse starts with the words ‘in him’, that is, ‘in Jesus’:
In him, Jesus, the whole building is joined together… In him, Jesus, you too are being built together…
Our basis, status and existence as a church is in Jesus. We exist because of Jesus and we exist for Jesus. Jesus unites us together and makes us a holy temple.
If I am in Jesus and you are in Jesus then, guess what friends, we are in Jesus together. This is a powerful reminder of what unites us together as a church and our whole reason for being.
Secondly, remember that God’s Spirit is present and at work in us as a church. The key characteristic of the temple of God is that it is where God dwells by his Spirit. In the Old Testament that was in a physical building in Jerusalem, but no longer. God now lives in his people. We are the fulfilment of the temple.
Notice the Trinitarian nature of what God has done in us as his Holy Temple:
in him – Jesus the Son, you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God – the Father - lives by his Spirit.
Father, Son and Holy Spirit fulfilling his plans to have his very presence living within his people. The church is not a building; the church is the people.
And ironically, the people are a building: a temple together where God dwells. We are the place of God’s presence and that is true not only when we are gathered together in a building like tonight or on any given Sunday. We are God’s temple, the place of his presence, and the carriers of his Holy Spirit in our schools and our workplaces, in our homes and our neighbourhoods, in our sports clubs and community groups. We are a temple on the move taking the presence of God with us as we go.
And thirdly, remember that the church is a work in progress. The image of the temple we have here is both dynamic and organic. The temple, that is God’s
people, is not a finished work. In verse 22 it is being built together. There is constant building work going on as new people are added, as we grow deeper in relationships with each other, as we strengthen our unity, confess our sins and forgive each other, as we understand more of what God is calling us to do and change accordingly. We are a dynamic work in progress. In verse 21 the language of the building being ‘joined together’ speaks of an organic connection and the word translated ‘rises’ is more literally ‘grows’. We are organically connected together and grow together as the temple of God. This is almost mixing metaphors of the temple with the body but the point is that this is not something that is static but growing and changing. We are a work in progress and God is doing work in us, and through us, constantly.
Our church has recently set a new vision as we recover from the effects of covid and the associated lockdowns. In this vision we use the language of ‘reconnect and build’ and this reflects well the organic and dynamic nature of this verse. And as we come to this AGM we want to commit ourselves to the ongoing building work of the church. We are a work in progress and we come seeking God’s help to grow us and to build us. We do that on the firm foundation of Jesus to whom we owe are very existence. And we do it in the confident knowledge that God’s Spirit dwells within us. So let me pray as we begin our meeting together:
Thank you heavenly Father
That we gather tonight in Christ Jesus
We exist because of Jesus and for Jesus
We are united together in Jesus
May Jesus be the centre of all our deliberations tonight
May Jesus unite us together in this meeting
Thank you Heavenly Father
That your Spirit lives within us
That we are your temple
The bearers of your presence in the world and to the world
May your Spirit lead us and guide us
May you Spirit be on display in our listening and speaking
Thank you Heavenly Father
That we are a dynamic and organic work in progress
You haven’t finished with us yet
Build us together and grow us
Use tonight, even tonight, and even this meeting, to
continue your renovation work.
We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Looking to the Bronze Serpent
- Written by: Rev Dr Fergus King
Henry Nouwen’s classic treatise on pastoral care, The Wounded Healer, highlighted an ambiguity of pastoral care: that many who care for others are themselves damaged and wounded. In doing so, he stripped away the pretension that carers must be perfect, superhuman beings, but rather could function effectively as agents of healing and transformation in spite of their own weaknesses and limitations. It is a book which enabled many carers to accept their own weakness and limitation and use their own suffering as a vehicle for healing. It is one of those rare books which stimulate a paradigm shift: a fresh approach to a longstanding phenomenon.
The abuse scandals within our church have stimulated another round of deep reflection, for which we must turn to scripture to assess. This potential of scripture has been recognised by, among others, Gerald O. West in his account of texts such as 1 Samuel 13:1-22 being used for social transformation when community workshops address violence against women in South African contexts. Here, the use of Scripture enables a subject usually considered taboo to be named and addressed. In this vein we turn to the episodes of the Bronze Serpent.
The Bronze Serpent: The Lifted Healer
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14-15, NRSV)
The character of the serpent may be immediately off-putting or negative a feature which serves well to illustrate the response that trauma may have had on the onlooker. As such it may provoke a reminder that the stuff of faith can be turned to harm. But, as the bronze serpent is an image of healing, it must be remembered that the ancients knew that medicine and poison are never far apart.
Derrida could identify three related characteristics: “not only pharmakos (victim or scapegoat) and pharmakon (medicine/poison), but also pharmakeus (sorcerer or magician)”. Indeed, antiquity knew multiple symbolic meanings for the serpent: sixteen which might be classed as negative, and twenty-nine as positive. The gospel belongs to a world which could use serpent symbolism positively. Indeed, it might be used to indicate any of divinity, life, immortality, and even resurrection: the bronze serpent may be understood as divine, a healer, or both. This is not as alien to our modern world as it might first appear: the caduceus (the staff of Hermes with intertwined snakes) remains, up to the present, a sign of healing.
This text provides a distinctively Christian focus for reflection on the nature of healing by drawing on an incident from the history of Israel (Numbers 21: 49) to articulate and understanding of the lifting up of Jesus. The event has a chequered reception within Judaic tradition: 2 Kings 18:4 describes the smashing of a bronze serpent by Hezekiah, whilst Wisdom 16:6 describes it as a “symbol of salvation”. John follows this positive assessment.
The verses highlight an analogy between Jesus and the bronze serpent: both are “lifted up”. The identification of Jesus as the Son of Man has already been made (John 1:51), and will be re-iterated (John 8:28; 9:35-37; 12:32-34). John makes belief in this lifting up of the Son of Man the basis for receiving “eternal life”, his preferred term for a superior mode of existence, distinguishable from natural life as now lived.
Whilst “lifting up” has frequently been identified with the Crucifixion, this identification does not exhaust its full range of meaning. The ambiguity of “lifted up” also stresses the idea of benefit, as the Greek hypsoun/hypsousthai may include a positive meaning: of being exalted. It thus may include both the notions of Crucifixion and “return to the Father in glory”. This allows Jesus’ “lifting up” to be a paradox: his debasement marks his exaltation or glorification.
A reading which uses the motif of “raising up” to connect Crucifixion and exaltation is to be retained. It gives the believer, or reader, confidence and hope because it is based on an event which has already taken place by the time of reading. John does not base hope on propositions about God but roots them firmly in the past events which he describes. The gospel, in its received form, goes even further, making these claims witnessed by the Beloved Disciple (John 21:24). These provide the stuff which makes confidence in Jesus’ identity and promises sure - not speculation, or mythic imagery alone.
Those who have experienced trauma because of the church, or themselves are wounded healers, are highly likely to look askance at it as a source of healing. The bronze serpent, too, initially seems an unlikely source of healing, given our innate instinctive reaction to snakes. However, gazing on the serpent who becomes identifiable as the crucified and risen Christ becomes the means to eternal life. Enabling this gazing in faith through the provision of resources and rituals which allow the Risen Christ to heal allows those who have been wounded to overcome their initial repugnance at the church and be transformed as they look beyond the church to Christ. The image also allows the church to remember its potential to repulse, and strive intentionally to replace the behaviours which provoke, enable, ignore, or deny abuse with those that are genuinely life-giving.
How are you looking to the lifted healer to achieve healing?
Fergus King is the Farnham Maynard Lecturer in Ministry Education at Trinity College, and previously missionary in Tanzania.
This study is an abridged academic article, references have been elided and available on request.