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EFAC Australia

Preaching

SimonManchesterWhen I was Chaplain to the North Sydney Bears Rugby League team (and you may know that my prayers for their humility were powerfully answered), I once went to the ‘post-mortem’ meeting on Monday and was told ‘it was probably not a good time for me to be there’.

The coach was obviously giving an expletive-laden barrage to the players (after a terrible loss) and either felt that my saintly presence would curb his freedom of speech or that he would have to explain his terms to me as he went… probably the former.

But picture the football coach at half-time as his team has shown no energy or courage or cleverness or skill (or warrant for big pay-packets) and the score is now 38-0 to the other side (if he’s a soccer coach this is serious). He will be angry – quietly or loudly.

What can he do but berate his players and tell them that they are a disgrace to the fans, to the sponsors, to themselves – and especially to him? [The flip-side to this is a fantastic first half where they are belting the opposition and congratulating themselves… but I digress].

It seems to me that too much preaching falls into the ‘coach at half-time’ category. Not that the preacher is angry but he has little to say beyond personal motivation. Think for example of a sermon in the second half of an epistle.

I'll admit it. I have something of a love / hate relationship with preaching.AndrewKatay.

On the one hand, of course, I love it.

To serve the Lord by opening the Word of God to people, a word which drips with the truth and goodness and beauty of Christ, demands our highest gifts, strongest energies and most insightful thought. It drives us to prayer, for the simple reason that we long for God to use our words for His glory. Specifically, as congregations, including both believers as well as seekers, hear the Scriptures read and taught, we hope that the Spirit will convict unbelievers of sin and righteousness and judgment (Jn 16.8), bringing them to repentance and faith; and at the same time, that the Spirit will deepen believers in their repentance and faith, so that they more and more put to death the desires of the flesh and cultivate the fruit of the Spirit.

At the same time, it would be fair to say that there are times when I hate preaching. It is too much, it is too hard, it is too demanding. My limited insight, my limited time and capacity, and my very limited actual putting into practice what it is that I am preaching about assail me. I stare at a blank computer screen, a sparsely scribbled hand written sermon outline, with open Bible and commentaries strewn around, and wonder when the words will flow. Which of course is part of the dynamic of all ministry and which keeps pastors and preachers humble and prayerful.

I have found a greater freedom in preaching in the last few years, in part by getting clearer on some key questions. It was Rudyard Kipling who wrote: "I keep six honest serving-men / (They taught me all I knew); / Their names are What and Why and When / And How and Where and Who". And it is in that spirit of inquiry and curiosity that I want to ask only three questions of preaching - why do we preach? To whom do we preach? And How do we preach?

Watch out mega-churches, video sermons have a new frontier!
Essentials speaks with Joel Kettleton
about pioneering something new in a digital era.  Joel Kettleton and his wife Kristina

WHAT IS YOUR MINISTRY SETTING?

I’m the rector of the Anglican Parish of Sorell, Richmond & Tasman in the south-east of Tasmania. I’ve been here for eight years, initially as a curate then a locum and now the Senior Minister for the last five years. My context is a combined parish that has been joined together in some form for 130 years and we have a mixture of small congregations as well as larger ones. We meet in convict built buildings with small isolated congregations as well as a growing new church plant in a satellite suburb of Hobart. From top to bottom I have to cover 120 kilometres. A typical Sunday is that I’ll be at one service in the morning and one service in the afternoon but we have concurrent services happening in other places at the same time.

WHAT CHALLENGES DOES THAT GENERATE?

There is a big challenge of having good preaching that is consistent at each service every week. We have people who are able to help run services but they are not able or willing to preach.

I have the challenge of juggling many things at the same time. None of the congregations are the same but each has a unique identity and rhythm to their worship life. This makes it hard to manage the whole parish and use our limited time well. The question we have to keep asking is how do we grow a healthy church in each place, whether it’s a congregation of 5 or 50. We really want to identify people’s gifts and mobilise them for ministry so that they are confident disciples. We want them to be sharing their faith and making disciples themselves. This is really difficult when there’s 5 and you don’t live in the area and you’re not even there each week.

WHY DID YOU EXPLORE USING VIDEOS FOR SERMONS?

I wanted to be able to multiply the delivery of messages. Having seen large churches like City on a Hill do this across large congregations made me think this made sense to do this in smaller remote congregations as well. In places where I could train people to run church services but I couldn’t train preachers I’d rather have our local content that we were working on together delivered by video than just buying sermons off the shelf. When you buy or use someone else’s videos it’s not personal so when we’re talking about pastoring and preaching to your congregation that’s a big problem. Many videos are made for another cultural context so it can be hard for people to connect, they are like “yes, we’re just watching a video”. But there’s a real pastoral connection when we can make videos and preach to our congregation when we’ve got their feedback, when we’ve incorporated their story into the content. When we use b-roll from their location, it makes them feel like they’re part of the sermon.

WHAT MADE YOU THINK YOU COULD DO IT?

I watched a lot of youtube! Even the simplicity and effectiveness of video calling supports this. If such a simple thing could be done in a way that it is presented well, the technology is there now to be able to do that easily. I made my own youtube channel making music and car related videos and this helped me learn about the equipment and the craft of basic videography and content creation. I then spent a lot of time learning how to produce videos and once I’d done that it was a simple thing to combine video creation with preaching.

WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED ALONG THE WAY?

I have a high threshold for failure. I didn’t know anything about lighting since I didn’t come from a photography background, so just used gear that I had. I learnt that it has to be short, no more than 10 mins unless it’s excellent and has different sections in it since our attention span on screen is very different to being in person. I learnt a lot about looking into the camera to engage with people, simple things that people who make videos know but takes some effort to turn it into a habit when you’re starting out. 

I wanted to include the words of scripture on the screen so I spent a lot of time listening to feedback about how it didn’t quite work out, it was either too short or too long. It was interesting to find out about how people listen and read in different ways. 

I wasn’t coached through any of this by an experienced content creator and if I had other people around me and been able to do a course this would have changed how quickly it was improved. However, it gave us a big opportunity to pastorally connect with the people I was making this for over the idea and work on it together. If they didn’t like the colour of the background they’d tell me, they said that it hurt their eyes. If they didn’t like the quality of the sound then I needed to change the sound setup and use a lapel mic. In a way, each of these failures was a win because we could collaborate on it and work together. In my context and especially with the tiny remote corners of the parish this was really important because they had never experienced anything digital like this before. They had only experienced a person and a prayer book so this was an enormous change. 

Not only did I have to learn how to produce the content at my end, I had to learn how to display the content at their end. I wasn’t streaming it because our areas don’t have internet connections. Their buildings are not set up with wiring and some only have a single power point. I started with DVDs but didn’t like the way the editing program produced the DVDs, it was just too difficult. So I kept it to mp4 files stored on a USB and sent to the location. It was a challenge getting physical USB before their sermon time on a Sunday and making sure it is all set up and ready to work. I would mail it to them or I’d get someone to pick it up on their way back into the country. Several times I had to drive it out myself which is worth the three hour return trip except when they forget to turn the power box on and it doesn’t end up working! Thankfully they are resilient congregations and they have leaders to take the initiative and make the most of the time.

DOES IT NEED A LOT OF TECH GEAR?

No! Initially I just had my laptop with the webcam, that was it. My mobile phone with a microphone input actually works well enough to record something wherever I am and doesn’t require me to carry loads of gear around. However, using a DSLR or two with a Zoom audio recorder increases the quality a lot. For editing I started on Windows Movie Maker and then shifted to Powerdirector when I needed to synch audio and do other more complicated things.

WHAT IMPACT DO YOU THINK THIS HAS HAD?

It has meant that I can help my congregations as a pastor and teacher and they don’t feel like they’ve been abandoned. They really appreciate the energy and time put into it and it has kept our pastoral bond between semi-regular visiting. 

It has also meant I’ve had to learn how to preach differently. I don’t have a teleprompter or something to read from so that has changed how I deliver the sermon and I’ve had to condense big sermons down into smaller versions. 

This also has seeded a whole bunch of ideas for content creation in rural churches. It has led us in our parish to think creatively about how we can use pre-recorded content in places where they don’t have access to preachers. Beyond this we have joined in a bigger project picked up by the Tasmanian diocese who have partnered with Bush Church Aid. There is now a much larger scale project to produce digital content that can be released across the rural parts of the diocese.

ANY OTHER THOUGHTS FOR THOSE CONSIDERING SOMETHING LIKE THIS?

It can be daunting starting out but like any new skill, if you repeat a thousand times it becomes second nature. We’ve found that our whole staff team have become a lot more confident making videos. We’re more natural and capable, we do better editing, and we’re much more comfortable in front of a camera and watching ourselves on screen. 

There is a danger with all this if we think every person should be doing video content all the time. It really is the context that needs to drive what you’re doing with video. If you want to take this on yourself, you need to have the creative knack or someone talented in your parish because the editing takes the longest. For me it was a way of presenting the gospel as well as I could in multiple places at the same time. If I was the pastor of a single congregation I wouldn’t have had that need, so don’t make video sermons unless you have a very good reason. Video is never as good as being in person, being physically present is always the ideal.

Every now and then I like to devise and preach a topical sermon series. Some of these have been some of the most memorable series to me, and have sometimes gotten more engagement and discussion among the congregation than is usual. I’m no master of the genre, but here are three series I have preached.

  creed                                              

THE APOSTLES’ CREED

I thought preaching through the creed would be good catechesis—a chance to present a mini-systematic theology, an overview of the gospel story. If people knew the bones of the creed, and through this sermon series could put some flesh on those bones, they might be clearer on the gospel themselves, and better equipped to explain it to others. The series went: Founding Father (Psalm 104, James 1:16-18), Incarnate Son (Luke 1:26-38, Col 1:15-20), Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53:1-6, Rom 3:21-26), Exalted King (Acts 17:22-31, Phil 2:5-11) and finally, Life-giving Spirit (Acts 2:1-21, 1 Corinthians 15:20-28). I did not expound any one of the readings, but preached sermons expounding the fatherhood of God, the incarnation of Christ, the atoning exchange of the suffering servant, his now and future reign, and the ways God is transforming the world to perfect Christ’s work. Years later a woman told me that when she had just come to church she arrived in time to hear these sermons and they were perfect for her as someone who needed a walk through the basics and the big picture. That was nice to hear.

 seven

THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS

Every so often someone writes a novel or makes a TV series based on the seven deadly sins: anger, pride, lust, greed, sloth, gluttony and envy. If they can give appeal to a TV series, why not to a sermon series? I developed these talks using a consistent set of questions to give structure, namely: 1) What is sin X, and why is it your enemy? 2) How is Jesus the remedy for sin X? 3) How is living by the Spirit the therapy for sin X? And 4) What do you need to do? This repetition (hopefully) hammers home the message that sin is your enemy, Jesus is the remedy and living by his Spirit is our therapy in this life, and that there are particular steps to take in escaping these sins. The individual sins bring out different sides of Jesus’ holiness of life and atoning work as they are opposed to all sin. His life and death are all humility, against all pride. His life and death for us are his faithful industry in God’s service, against all sloth. His life and death are his satisfaction in doing God’s will, against all gluttony and insatiability. After the gluttony sermon a group formed spontaneously to pursue the discussion. They read a book together and met several times. Food is a big deal, connected to a lot of personal issues, but it is not much talked about from the front of church (unless, for example, you preach through the seven deadly sins).

 paradox

PARADOXES OF THE CHRISTIAN LIFE

Reading Allan Chapple’s book True Devotion, I came across his section regarding the paradoxical nature of our relationship with God, which seemed to me a rare discussion of a true characteristic of our walk of faith. I hankered to explore this through a series of sermons on paradoxes of the Christian life, which came to birth last year. The six paradoxes were: Christ crucified (1 Cor 1:18-31, Is 53:1-5); Love your life and lose it, hate your life and keep it (Mark 8:22-38, Is 53:5-12); Christ is both absent and present (2 Cor 5:1-10, Psalm 13); We are at once sinners and saints (1 John 1:8- 2:2, Psalm 65:1-4); We are perfectly free and wholly enslaved (1 Cor 7:17-24, Exodus 19:1-8) and When we are weak, then we are strong (2 Cor 4:5-12, Psalm 22:1-11). I sought to use the same talk structure each time: first, Exploring the Paradox, where I showed each side of the paradox as it appeared in the Bible, and perhaps somewhere the two sides were both expressed together. Second came Resolving the Paradox, where I tried to show how both sides of the paradox were true and made sense, so that the paradox was not a contradiction, but an insight into the Christian life. Lastly came the section Living with the Paradox, where I tried to show how the truth of that paradox might shape our expectations and actions as we follow Christ. I may have bitten off more than I could chew at some points here, and I don’t have a story of these sermons making an impact on people. But I was very glad to have given it a go, and I might come back to this one day to see if I can distil the best of this series into a simpler and better set of talks.

Despite a (hopefully undeserved) reputation as the lowest of low church, pseudo-baptistical despisers of Anglican forms, plenty of evangelical Anglicans minister and preach in services shaped by a prayer book, even following a lectionary. In this paper first presented at the Preaching Seminars, run by EFAC Canberra and Goulburn, David McLennan shares some ways to preach effectively in this context.

"You might need to put up with it for a while, just to keep the 8 o’clock congregation onside. But obviously your ultimate goal should be to replace a liturgical service with something more contemporary."

If you’ve been in evangelical circles for a while, you’ve almost certainly heard some version of this conventional ministry wisdom. Hostility to liturgical forms has become one of the curious hallmarks of Australian evangelicalism.

And it’s a hallmark I’ve personally come to reject. As an Anglican minister who has benefited enormously from the likes of J.I. Packer, Charles Simeon and Thomas Cranmer (not to mention the church fathers); as a Christian who needs both word and sacrament, and as a person who is more than just a rational mind, I’ve come to see the Anglican prayer book tradition as a great ally to gospel ministry. It is theologically rich, pastorally wise and even, in our particular cultural moment, missionally powerful.

But what happens when an evangelical, nurtured in a sub-culture that has an allergic response to anything resembling a formal liturgy, finds themselves ministering in a more recognizably Anglican context? In particular, how might this new context impact their preaching?

For as any preacher knows, context is key. No homiletical approach is well suited to every context. My own sense is that evangelicals need to be very careful about assuming the preaching model they learned in their liturgically-sparse homeland can be transplanted into any context.

Because even if I’m right that an Anglican prayer book service is a good thing—a gospel-centred, orthodoxy-preserving and pedagogically effective thing—it is still a particular kind of thing. It makes sense that a prayer book preacher should consider not only the context of the passage on which the sermon is based, but also the context of the sermon itself.

For the best part of a decade, I’ve been worshipping and ministering in Anglican churches with a more liturgical bent, and now I find myself as rector of a parish with a strong prayer book identity. I’ve come to appreciate how the gospel shape of a prayer book service supports the gospel content we seek to proclaim. But it does require the cultivation of particular homiletical skills which are not always part of the evangelical’s toolbox. So here are four lessons I’ve been learning (usually the hard way) about what works—and doesn’t— in settings like this.

1. Small is beautiful

Part of the beauty of the Prayer Book is that the typical Sunday service includes a lot: up to four scripture readings, a creed, various prayers, a confession and absolution, Holy Communion, notices, some songs, and maybe a children’s spot.

This is a lot of content, and time can easily blow out. This is really not the place for a 40-minute sermon. Nor a 30-minute sermon. Nor a 25-minute sermon. Personally, I think 20 minutes is the absolute upper limit, 15 minutes is a far better goal, and even 12 minutes is not necessarily something to feel guilty about.

The mantra ‘sermonettes produce Christianettes!’ is likely to be deployed in response to such a claim, and there is much truth in it. But this can overlook two important things: firstly, that the Sunday sermon should not be expected to carry the entire burden of the church’s teaching ministry; and secondly, that many a ‘sermonette’ has lasted 30 minutes or more.

Length alone is a poor way to measure the seriousness of a sermon. If a sermon is superficial and unfocussed, lacks biblical insight and human empathy and is meandering and insensitive, more time won’t save it. It will just enhance its power to make the congregation dislike you more.

By contrast, I believe that reducing sermon length while maintaining impact is very possible. The real obstacle to shorter sermons is that they are very difficult and time-consuming for the preacher. They require more, not less, preparation.

I am suggesting that part of the burden we should carry in our preaching ministry is the burden of giving our sermons a very thorough edit: forcing ourselves to ruthlessly cut all that is not necessary for edification; focusing like a laser on one main point, and avoiding tangents. (Because economy of words is so important, I find a full text helps me to avoid wasting time searching for the right phrase, or repeating myself unnecessarily.)

Much of this is good practice anyway, but it also means that when the sermon ends, people may feel sad it is over, rather than sad it took so long.

2. Use the liturgy

Preachers are always on the lookout for examples that can make their point come alive to the hearer. One of the benefits of a prayer book service is that the sermon is nestled within a gathering that is full of such examples: words and actions that pull in the same direction as the preached word.

So, when looking for illustrations it’s a good idea to consider the phrases and moments that are regularly (but not, always thoughtfully) repeated. For example, when preaching on our relationships with one another, why not use the greeting of peace to press the point home? 

When preaching on the ascension, why not refer to the words in the thanksgiving prayer: ‘Lift up your hearts!’ When preaching about the centrality of the gospel, why not explain why we stand during the gospel reading?

And then of course there is Holy Communion. Is there be a better way to preach our dependence on Christ than to remind our people that we shall soon be nourished by him in the Lord’s Supper? Is there a better way to speak of the Jesus’ sacrifice than to remind them of the solemn night when he broke bread with his friends? Is there any physical act that provides a better experience of the gospel than coming forward with empty hands, and finding in Jesus’ death and sacrifice the sustenance we need? Maybe there is, but I can’t think of it.

When these liturgical or sacramental moments are integrated into our teaching, it can liberate them from the sphere of ‘mere habit’ to become discipleship tools that will continue to work years into the future.

3. The church year and lectionary are your friends

Most prayer book churches also preach according to the lectionary and observe the seasons of the church year. These are additional ways that the gospel story can be brought to the people year after year. Theologian Scott McKnight says that the church year:

‘is all about the Story of Jesus, and I know of nothing – other than the regular soaking in the Bible – that can ‘gospelize’ our life more than the church calendar … Anyone who is half aware of the church calendar … will be exposed every year to the whole gospel.’ 1
In this context it makes sense to locate the day’s preaching emphasis with at least one eye on the bigger story that is being narrated each year.

Similarly, the lectionary, when used well, can be a great ally. While it’s often said that sequential preaching through a book helps the preacher avoid hobby horses, my own observation is that no method guarantees this. It is disturbingly easy to preach through book after book and barely touch on the doctrines of the Trinity, or the two natures of Christ, or the virgin birth, or the sacraments – or many other things which our forebears thought essential for the Christian to understand.

While the lectionary is not a foolproof device, if used well (not slavishly and inflexibly) it provides scope for covering, each year, the great doctrines of the Christian life, while at the same time walking us through the life of Christ. And it still provides considerable freedom to preach through books – the pattern with which many evangelicals are more familiar.

Informed use is the key. For example, the seasons of Advent–Pentecost are ideally suited to more theological preaching, centred around the gospel reading. The Sundays after Pentecost are a good chance to return to sermon series through particular books. (For more guidance on wise use of the lectionary, see O’Day and Hackett, ‘Preaching through the Revised Common Lectionary’, Abingdon Press, 2007.)

It is also good to find ways to unify, as far as possible, the different texts – up to four – that are read during the service. Tim Keller insists that each text has a ‘surplus of meanings’. So it makes sense to allow the church calendar and lectionary to bias our exegetical focus, so that the readings work in harmony with each other rather than at seeming disconnected.

The person who believes in the self-authenticating quality of Scripture will not feel compelled to explain every passage in detail. But where possible, passing reference to the various readings of the day helps demonstrate how Scripture’s many different voices all testify in unison to the same bigger story.

4. Jesus (not the text) is the hero

Much evangelical preaching tenaciously clings to a single text, so that the structure of the text determines the structure of the sermon itself. While a good method in some contexts, this isn’t usually well-suited to a prayer book service due to the shortage of time and the abundance of Scripture readings. It’s worth remembering that the task of the sermon is to edify - not simply to explain a particular text. In the end, it’s more important that our people are gripped by the hope proclaimed in Romans 8, than that they understand the structure and word choices used in Romans 8.

The best prayer book preaching, therefore, shows the sort of freedom we find in the apostolic preaching in Acts, i.e. preaching which regards the text as authoritative, but does not get bogged down in historical-grammatical exegesis or a desire to explain the text in detail. Other contexts (e.g. the Bible study group) are better suited for that. In the sermon, it’s best to keep the main thing the main thing. The main thing is always centred on Christ and his saving work, and my advice is unapologetically to lift people above the weeds of detailed exegesis, and show them the wider theological landscape to which the text refers. It may feel a bit naughty the first time you do it, but it’s worth persevering.

Conclusion

Besides being an expectation of Anglican clergy, our Anglican liturgical forms are a great gift to the gospel preacher when used thoughtfully. But they also require us to be reflective and open to re-evaluating how we think about ministry—including the preaching ministry. This can lead to the discovery that, when word and sacrament operate alongside each other, the minds and hearts of our people are saturated in the gospel in a more holistic way. And who knows? This saturating process might have the added advantage of drowning a few unnecessary evangelical shibboleths about liturgy. Your 8 o’clock congregation will thank you.



1. Scott McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel (Zondervan, 2011) p.155

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