While on mission to Indonesia, an American pastor felt insulted that the group of national pastors to whom he was preaching did not look him in the eye. For the duration of the sermon, these pastors kept their faces down, fixed solely on their papers. Of course his concern was relieved to learn each one actually was listening with extra care, giving their intention in order to pass along the same sermon soon after. A sense of insult transformed into a sense of honor.
When we preach, we don’t just preach to our church but through our church. We preach in order to create conversations that follow in small groups, at dinner tables and in coffee shops. What we offer from the pulpit needs to be suitable to be served at the table as a palatable meal to our people. These are the people we walk with daily and the ones who will walk the good news we preach into every corner of our community while we are home recovering from the sermon.
We have found that the integrative form of preaching is particularly useful in encouraging preaching through our churches. This sermon form described in Choosing to Preach (Zondervan 2006) and Preaching with Conviction (Kregel 2001), shapes the sermon around four significant questions. It is our experience that sermons shaped around such questions are more readily assimilated by our listeners and are then passed along more effectively within small groups and through informal conversation.
What’s the Story?
Every text tells a story and is an integral part of the larger biblical story that describes God’s rescue of the fallen world through the good news of Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection. Identifying the details of the story can help our people see humanity in the text, creating an experiential encounter with the message that will not be shaken off easily. This first question asks the listener to look at the scene in the biblical passage as the curtain opens: “Who is on stage? Where is the action happening? What has been happening up to this point?”
Take, for example, the story of the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion in
As an example, we could tell the story through the eyes of Simon from Cyrene. What motivated his spur-of-the-moment decision to carry Jesus’ cross? What did he risk by making this kind of move? Was he trying to identify with Jesus, or was he showing sympathy for Jesus’ plight? Was he hopeful in that moment, or was he resigned to the failure of Jesus’ cause?
Of course, to make this powerful, we have to tell the story, painting a picture of the situation so as to place the listeners in the text. If we are successful at helping listeners feel present to the story of the text, it will embed within them emotionally and intellectually. Such sermons have staying power and are more likely to be re-told or re-presented by our listeners in the days to come.
What’s the Point?
We want to teach the truth of the text to the people. If the truth is going to become portable for our people, then it needs to be framed in a memorable way. Following Haddon Robinson, we might ask, “What is the big idea?” If we can encapsulate our message in a single, memorable statement that’s repeated often in the sermon, we give our listeners the means to share the message with others as it comes to mind during the week.
One of our recent sermons was taken from
A few days after having preached this sermon, a listener showed us an email stream that she had participated in at her office. In the context of a discussion on being asked to compromise one’s ethics in business, this listener made the point that “the best defense is a clear conscience.” In so doing, she re-preached the sermon to her co-workers. She reported a tremendous sense of empowerment for the gospel through this experience.
It is critical that our big idea is fully derived from the intent of the text. It is important to dig into the details of the text. We want to make sure we are getting the text right, because it is the Word of God that needs to travel through our churches, not just the opinion of the preacher. We want our people to walk away with a clear understanding of the author’s intent and how it addresses them as we help them hear the voice of God in the text of Scripture.
We need to remember our own thinking sounds considerably less clever when it is passed along and repeated throughout the church. Repetition of our own thinking may help the church grow, but it is the repetition of the Word itself that will convert sinners.
What’s the Problem?
The truths of the Bible are not always easily accepted. If we offer biblical truth with honesty and integrity, there will be conflict in the hearts of those who hear. By intentionally utilizing these conflicting elements, we help our listeners struggle to bring their own presuppositions in line with God’s truth. Through this means, our abstract ideas are pointed such that they become consequential for the listener. We actively invite consideration of the problems that our preaching implies, calling our listeners to take these things personally and inviting a deeper engagement.
The problems we have could be factual, theological or personal. In another of our sermons, taken from the famous “Armor of God ” text in
This time, however, we chose to go a little deeper. We chose to engage the fact that people are not so quick to stand up to opposition. We decided not to duck the discomforting implications of our message. We put our fears on the table and tried to understand them.
Afterward, one woman expressed to us her deep fear of engaging the struggle against flesh and blood because she had been hurt so deeply in the past. Of course, it shouldn’t surprise us that people are going to have to contend with the truths we sometimes too blithely offer to our listeners. Together with this particularly honest woman, we were able to apply the gospel directly to that fear, taking seriously the woman’s problem, and ultimately seeing born a new freedom that only comes as the Spirit of God applies Word of God to human hearts.
Take the time to address those problems, and you will address the deep concerns of your listeners. Through this means, our preaching will start to show up in their conversations long after we have quit preaching. Hearts don’t change without a fight. Good conversations can get under the surface and deal with the cognitive objections to affect our people in powerful ways.
As they are transformed through the address of the Word to their hearts, our preaching penetrates through our listeners into the contexts and relationships that make up their lives.
Preaching through your church is when the preaching of the Word of God goes through their hearts first.
What’s the Difference?
Every text intends to make a difference in us and through us. The question is whether we will have the courage to take our preaching beyond the hypothetical and get it to the place where we can anticipate God doing something tangible through the sermon by His powerful presence. Can we speak as if speaking the very words of God, expecting the ground to move and the doorposts to shake?
Then, the final question is, “What’s the difference?” This question calls us to imagine the result if we really believe God intends to move through our preaching and through our church as the sermon finds tangible expression in the lives of the members.
Another of our recent sermons was based on the story of the young men who expressed their faith in Jesus by their unwillingness to be hindered in their efforts to find healing for their paralyzed friend (
The difference we referred to in this sermon was to challenge people to think of their own friendships through the lens of faith in Jesus. What would it mean for people to exercise faith in the authority of Christ in the context of their own friendships? What is different is that our listeners are challenged to recognize the purposes of Christ for their friendships, allowing the sermon to preach through into the relationships that extended beyond the ones present for that sermon.
We have found the four questions of the integrative model to be powerful in creating sermons that echo beyond the first preaching of the actual sermon. Our goal is preach in ways that help our listeners live and articulate the message repeatedly, allowing the sermon to take on new forms of life and proclamation long after our expression of the sermon.
We must not just preach to our churches; we must preach through them as they go in obedience to Jesus who gave the command to preach in the first place.
Robert Campbell is pastor of Santa Margarita Community Church in Santa Margarita, California.
Kenton C. Anderson is President of Northwest Baptist Seminary and Professor of Homiletics, ACTS Seminaries of Trinity Western University, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.