I am going to start a series of posts today on the subject of the sermon appeal. The sermon appeal is a time in the sermon where the preacher asks the congregation to change in light of the sermon presented.
One of my preaching mentors told me once that every sermon, Bible Study, or religious lecture should end in an appeal. Certainly this is from a particular conservative evangelical perspective, but I do think that it is an important part of the sermon even for those who do not come from such traditions.
One of the great attractions of the appeal is that if you end with an appeal it will provide direction to your sermon. If the preacher thinks about the appeal, that preacher will know what she or he is asking the people to do with the message. This helps the preacher solidify and craft the message in a way that she may not have been able to do without focusing on the appeal. If you plan on an appeal, you will at least be directing your sermon in a particular direction. Focusing on a particular direction is very important.
Another great benefit of an appeal is that it provides a tangible way for the people to respond in the service. Certainly the “rubber hits the road” in the daily lives of the people you address as they attempt to live out the implications of the gospel preached, but the first step is to get them to move. People are more likely to live out that which they have publicly accepted. Certainly this is not always the case and there is a hypocritical impulse in all of us, but it is also true that change does happen and sometimes “taking one’s stand” is the first step to a more faithful life. Some can trace a change happening after sitting at the “mourners bench.”
Perhaps one of the strongest reasons for having an appeal is that it is the tradition of your particular congregation and/or denomination. If you have read this site for any period of time you know that I am not against tradition. Tradition is important. We should use tradition to promote the Gospel of the Kingdom. However, we should not allow tradition to stand in the way of our presentation of the Gospel. It is my opinion that in most cases a well placed and faithful appeal goes a long way towards promoting the truth that was presented.
In short, why have an appeal? Because it can help the preacher to ask herself “What do I want the people to do with this message?” For these reasons, I think you should carefully reconsider the appeal if you are not used to given them in your sermons.
In my sermon consulting work, sometimes individuals indicate difficulty finding something to “celebrate.” As you know, celebration is the time in the sermon where we intellectually experience the truth of the message. However, sometimes individuals look long and hard for something to celebrate and can’t find it either in the text or in their sermons.
First, look for the good news. If you have no good news then I am sure you will not have any celebratory components. Certainly there are times when celebration is not warranted, but in most cases, our sermons should have good news. So what do you celebrate? The truth of the good news in your text. I would definitely encourage you to check out Frank Thomas’ book They Like To Never Quit Praisin God for a method that centers around finding that Good News in the text.
Ultimately, if you have difficulty finding a celebration, then I would encourage you to attempt to find the Good News first. Then, more than likely, the celebration will jump out at you.
Second, look for God’s activity rather than ours. A sermon full of prescriptions will make it difficult to find something to celebrate. Certainly there are times when a “celebrative challenge” might be helpful, but sometimes we find it difficult to find the close in our sermon because we overemphasize our responsibility or activity over God’s activity for humanity.
Some of these sermons end up having the pastor either castigate the people for not doing “this or that” or they end up being prescriptions for the people to do “this or that.” This is not a conservative versus liberal thing. Liberals have their “this or that” moments just as conservatives. So sometimes we castigate the people for not being loving or making the newcomer more welcome. Sometimes we castigate the people for not following the commands of God. Sometimes we castigate the people for looking at the wrong television programs or wearing their “pants too low or skirts too high.” Sometimes we castigate the people for sexual promiscuity and other areas of sexuality.
Certainly there is a place for correction, but if that is all your sermon all the time, then it will be difficult to find the celebration. I would encourage you to think about and preach about what God does for humanity in addition to the ethical demands of living in line with God. Then you will find it easier to get that close.
Finally, if you must emphasize our activity, emphasize God’s making our activity possible. Ok, there are times when we need to do a challenge. There are times when you must emphasize human activity. I would encourage you to spend a little time discussing how God makes that activity possible. God empowers our living. God makes godly living possible. God enlightens our mind to what we should do. So even though the brunt of your sermon may be about human activity, that does not mean that you don’t make room for God.
In short, if God is not in your sermon, then it is not a sermon, it is a “suggestion.” Whether you have a celebrative close or not, I would encourage you to make sure that what you say that your “Good News” should be plain in the sermon. In addition, who God is and what God does for and in humanity should be just as prominent as your prescriptions for Christian living.
Blues preaching gives full voice to the painful places of life. It is as honest about sorrow as it is about joy…In lament, sorrow is not washed away before it is acknowledged as sorrow. Lament is not afraid to look at the blood and the dirt, and name it what it is.
There is a place for pain in the preaching moment if we are to speak to the real world. Too often we “wash away” pain before fully describing the pain we are attempting to wash away. Sometimes we are especially prone to do this during times of hurt. During national or local crisis, and sometimes during personal crisis. We quickly jump to “weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5), before we have allowed ourselves to experience the night which will lesson the power of the joy and the morning.
There are some ramifications for our preaching. When we jump to quickly to the joy, we can reduce the reality of pain in this life. Our sermons can become an alternate reality where good always wins down here and evil never makes any progress against God’s people. We can end up preaching about guaranteed financial benefits for serving God when our congregation provides many examples of this not being the case. We can end up preaching about guaranteed healing from diseases when the funerals you had to officiate last month demonstrate that is not true.
Another problem with not addressing pain is that it limits our preaching topics when we don’t confront the pain. Sermon planning will cause you to address many issues in your congregation. Pain and hurt is one of them. Sometimes we act as though pain stops after the funeral. Maybe the divorce happened, but after a few weeks we act as though the break is not still painful. However, we all have people in our congregation who are living in pain. They come to church and too often we give them palliative care for a moment rather than applying the balm in Gilliad to there real issues. We too often speak of pain, spend a few moments discussing it, and then add a whoop where we minimize the pain. But if you want to address real needs. we must confront pain.
Ultimately, we limit the power of Grace to overcome when we don’t confront real pain. Some of us may be fearful that grace cannot overcome the pain. Certainly there are instances of evil seeming to overcome in this life. But we as Christians believe that “where sin abounds grace did much more abound.” (Romans 5:20). That means that where we find sin, we need to look closer to find the grace of God healing and reconciling. Where we find hurt, don’t throw a band aid on it, look deeper to find the grace of God there seeking to help us live in this world of pain and heartache. Where we find hurt, God is there, yes, and sometimes we may even have to admit we are having a hard time finding God, but we go on by faith.
Finally, preaching that does not confront pain will ultimately make us irrelevant. As Jones notes, if we are honest about pain, then we will gain the ability to be honest about the God that overcomes that pain.
Great preaching has a practical bent. It helps real people deal with real issues that they deal with in real life. Often preachers when confronted with this reality will skimp on the doctrine. They end up addressing issues in a topical manner without applying the foundation of a doctrine based in sound theology.
Sometimes preachers even go so far as to denigrate doctrine as useless and unprofitable. But without sound doctrine you are rudderless. You are simply drifting about without any real rock. The Bible author said that there would come a time when people would not endure sound doctrine (2 Timothy 4:2-3).
The issue is not preaching “practical” sermons instead of “theological” or “doctrinal” ones. The issue is demonstrating to your people the different doctrine makes in real life. No it is a false dichotomy to separate practical from theological. Go head on and preach your doctrine. Preach the doctrines that are in your own ecclesial tradition. But as you do it, please let the people know why it matters.
I repeat we don’t have a dichotomy between “doctrine” and “Jesus.” Please don’t continue this false dichotomy. If you are forever putting down doctrines then you will help create a people who “can not endure sound doctrine.”
Preachers do not simply perform our written orations with great oratorical skill. We all have heard preachers with all the skills of great orators, but something in missing. The people shout, but there is something missing. The people are happy and sometimes feel as though this is an important component of the African American tradition. They love to hear the preacher and they may even understand the moment as merely something to enjoy as folk art. the worship service is nothing more than a show for this individual hearer and the hearer may not be changed. No we need transformative sermons.
Then there are the Bible lecturers who leave the people with a book full of notes. The people may know great things about Israel. They may know esoteric facts about Melchizedek and Revelation’s prophecies. However, great preaching is not merely about knowing more facts. It is about turning the page and becoming a transformed follower of the almighty power of God.
But here is the key, there are those preachers who may not have the eloquence of some of the “princes of the pulpit.” They may not have all the theological and biblical knowledge of some of those who turn the pulpit into a classroom, but they know something about the Most High God. They know something about the Spirit. They can sing with the slaves “I know I’ve been changed, angels in heaven done changed my name.”
How do they do this? There are two things I want to emphasize here. First, I want to emphasize the importance of a vital and growing connection to God through the enlightenment of the holy Ghost. The preacher needs to know the holy Ghost and needs to be connected to the third person of the Godhead. Don’t fall into the trap of attempting to preach in your own power. Negros may shout, or maybe they will be informed, or maybe both, but will they be changed by a transformative sermon?
To ensure transformational preaching, the preacher must have such a message that calls the preacher first of all to be changed. Stop only preaching about how someone else needs to get better…Have you ever preached in such a way that you have been convicted of your own sins and shortcomings? If not, you might see that your people have not either. so first, we need a vital connection to the Spirit. Next we need messages that touch our own hearts before we preach them.
Finally, if we are seeking to preach transformative sermons, then we need to make a scary and error prone move. We must have the audacity to move from what God did in the past tense, to what God is doing. Yes, we might say the wrong thing. Yes we might get it wrong from time to time, but there is much preaching that never says what God is doing today. If you want to preach a transformative sermon then you must first of all understand what the text said and what God did, but move from there to having the audacity to say what God is doing today, in your context, at your congregation.
There is a piety that leaves God in the book but does not allow God into the present. Does God today work with the weak and the hurting? Does God today, help us overcome the sins that bind us? Does God today attack structures of inequality and evil? Does God today stand with the hungry? That is the move that we are to make if we are to preach transformative sermons.
So let us seek that connection to the Holy Ghost. Let us preach messages that call for transformation and change in us as well as our people. and finally, let us have the audacity to name God and God’s work in our present circumstances. Then we will be preaching not as a “bible lecturer” or as a “orator,” but as a “prophet.” As a prophet, we will preach transformative sermons!