Just because something is true does not mean that it is of utmost importance. An idea must be both “true” and “relevant to the present time” to be worthy of our intense consideration.
This idea of relevance is an interesting one. Some people ignore it altogether and others place an intense amount of effort into showing the relevance of an idea or teaching. I am about to start a series that looks at four postures that preachers have taken to relevance and the demonstration of it.
The first way that we have demonstrated relevance is through “Brute Force.” Here is where we end up saying, “You better believe it or else!” The “or else part” could be “you will go to hell” or “you will be confused” or “you will be deceived.” Another softer approach is “you don’t really love Jesus unless you believe it.” Examples abound of this kind of preaching. I listened to the Bible Answer Man defending the trinity. He argued that if you don’t believe in the trinity then you are not a Christian. Here the argument is basically you must believe this or you are not in right relation with God and ultimately are lost. There was no attempt to demonstrate how the doctrine makes any difference in our living, just a statement “You Must Believe it or else!”
This kind of relevance, however, will not stand up in the real world. When I am dealing with real issues in my own life, these kinds of approaches to relevance makes me put this doctrine on the back burner. Even if I agree with the doctrine, I can’t use it, I can only “believe” it. I have to go to something else when I am hurting. I have to go to something else when I am in need of something.
Some think that most doctrines are only relevant in this perspective, however it is my contention that it is not that the doctrines are only relevant through brute force, it is that we have not thought through the practical ramifications of our doctrines.
I am not saying that there is never a place or time for the “Brute Force” method of relevance, but I think that it is used way too much and if not supplemented with something else turns “truth” into “irrelevant truth.”
Paul Scott Wilson, on page 22 of the first edition of the book The Practice of Preaching quotes Phillip Brooks at length in writing:
Much of our preaching is like delivering lectures upon medicine to sick people. The lecture is true. The lecture is interesting. Nay, the truth of the lecture is important, and if the sick man could lean the truth of the lecture he would be a better patient, he would take his medicine more responsibility and regulate his diet more intelligently. But still the fact remains that the lecture is not medicine, and that to give the medicine, not to deliver the lecture is the preacher’s duty.”
This quote is filled with profound thoughts. There are definitely preachers who think that their job is simply to tell the truth. They simply speak the truth and sit down. Some would even argue that application is the job of the hearer. But even those who attempt to apply the message in the life of the believer simply have a religious lecture. The people marvel at the knoweldge of the preacher, but go away unchanged.
Then there are those preachers who think that the sermon is a form of religious entertainment. They know exactly the right buttons to press to get the desired result of congregational jubilation. However, the people may marvel at the preacher’s ability, but they also go away unchanged.
But if we are truly going to use the metaphor of the church being a “hospital for sinners” as we are so often taught, then we must recognize that the sick don’t go
to the hospital with the intention of dying. They go to the hospital with the intention of getting medicine that will heal them. They do need information,and the best doctors give that to them, but they don’t go to the hospital to hear a lecture about the etymology and history of the ailment that has afflicted them. Neither do they go to the hospital to simply hear a word of encouragement that may make them feel better, but does not change the condition. No, they come for healing.
Brooks’ reminds us that it is our job to give the medicine. The sermon is medicine. You will learn something, but it is medicine. In many cases, you may get happy, but it is medicine. Medicine that supply’s according to Wilson, “renewed hope, stronger faith, and recommitment to mission.” It is medicine that changes things. As you put together your next message. Please think about what kind of medicine does your message provide? Have a purpose of transformation in your sermons. And if you don’t have this dimension to your sermon, then go back to the drawing board and come up with one that will invite the people to experience the transforming God.
There is an interesting discussion in our new forum about whether it is right to attempt to emulate another preacher when learning how to preach. You can join the conversation and read what was written here: http://shermancox.wpengine.com/emulatepreachers.
One writer stated the following common thing:
You do the work, God will bring the inspiration it is not you who should be in the pulpit but THE PREACHER Jesus by way of the Holy Spirit, you need to get out of the way and let God have God’s way.
While I think that one should beware of self-sufficiency in the pulpit, one should also recognize that God expects you to be in the pulpit. God chose you for some reason. God decided to use your talents, interests, and experiences in the pulpit to address that which needed to be addressed in your particular congregation. Certainly God didn’t have to choose us. Certainly God could have chosen another preacher, but it is God’s sovereignty that chose us at this time at this place.
I am reminded of the Judges 7:16-20. Here God was going to do a great work through Gideon and the people were to yell not that it was just Gideon. That would be problematically thinking that humanity can do it totally on our own. In our context of the preaching event, it is too difficult for us to even think that falsity for a second. But also, the people were not to yell that it was just the sword of the LORD, which would promote the idea of passivity. No the people were to acknowledge that God has chosen to act through Gideon at this time, but also that God is ultimately the one in charge.
Someone said that preaching is truth through personality. It is our very self that allows us to speak to people who are going through something. It is our experiences that become the raw materials that God uses to craft a message of power and comfort to the people of God. In short, we cannot totally step aside and let God take over. I would argue that we should stand right there and allow God to go into our experiences and help us find that story that will illustrate the truth. Perhaps God will use our mannerisms to bring home that word of power. Maybe God will use even our mistakes to teach truth as God did with Jonah. God chose you, so stand up, and yes remember it is God that sent you there, but also remember that it is you that God sent. Remember it is the sword of the preacher and of the LORD.
This is a very good Question. It is too bad that there is not a universal answer. It is highly dependent on where you preach. For example, there are some contexts where preaching longer than 20 minutes may cause people to start fidgeting. There are other contexts where the people would feel cheated if you only preached for 20 minutes. While there is no universal answer to the question, there are some principles to keep in mind.
If you material is 15 minutes. Preach those 15 minutes with strength and vigor, and then sit down. If you preach longer than your material, then you will begin rambling which is of no use to anyone.
If you have come to preach a particular sermon, think very carefully about adding things to that point. You must support the point of the message, but if you add things, however good these things may be, you will detract from the original message God gave you to preach. Most preacher have more material than they know what to do with, but people cannot hear everything you have to offer even if they wanted to try. Find your point and preach that.
If the people are leaving from the message, that may be a cue that you are going long. Now it is true that the Spirit may tell you to say certain things that may not be popular. We as preachers must hold to that prophetic voice, however, we also must recognize that every thing that tells us to go long may not be the Holy Ghost, but perhaps some other Spirit. Listen to the people and the Spirit to determine when it is over.
If you listen to the people and the Spirit, preach the message God gave you and only that message, and then don’t preach more than your material, you will more than likely hit a right balance. I have found that for myself, my optimal sermon is between 25 and 35 minutes, thus I have a bias towards that length of time. I normally tell preachers to preach 30 minutes unless they really have good reason to go longer. I do have to admit though that there are very strong preachers who preach for an hour.
So how long should you preach? Shoot for 30 minutes unless you don’t have enough material for 30 minutes, then preach the material you have. If you have more material than 30 minutes, then preach as long as you are on the main point and the Spirit and the people are all in agreement that you should continue.
Some preachers preach a message that demonstrate that they are disconnected from the pressures and pains of the lives of their congregants. No doubt being a pastor has unique challenges, but some preachers are not able to translate their own struggles into something that can be useful to the congregation.
There are some preachers who in the vernacular are all in our Kool Aid and know the flavor, but then there are others who seem to never quite get to our street. Instead of understanding the people, they are separate from them.
When you are connected to the struggles of people you are less likely to take an approach that looks down on others. When you understand the struggles you are more likely to recognize the difficulty of living a life true to principle in this world. You will still teach the truth, but as one who struggles following the truth yourself.
One preacher broke this rule when he told the people it was none of their business whether the pastor tithe’s or not. He then preached a sermon lambasting the people for not tithing. When you understand the struggles of the people you are less likely to put up a false separation between you and the people. You are less likely to think that you got “some kind-a holy” that makes you “more holy” than your people.
People come to church to hear that there is good news even in this world that can look pretty dismal at times, if you can’t understand how dismal that world is, then you can’t understand the depths of the Gospel. Stated another way, if you don’t understand your people’s struggles, then why are you preaching?