Dr Eugene Peterson on what he looks for in a sermon

Eugene Peterson was for many years James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College. He wrote many books on spirituality and pastoring, and he is probably most well known for The Message, his translation of the Bible in the language of today. Now retired from full-time teaching, Eugene has something significant to say about preaching. It should not be about what we should be doing, but what Christ has already done- “kerygma” or proclamation.

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INCEPTION of the good news of God’s grace

InceptionThe plot of INCEPTION

The film INCEPTION, starring Leonardo Dicaprio, poses an intriguing proposition, and by extension an interesting spiritual application. The action film is science fiction with a tantalising idea: that ideas and secrets and technology can be extracted from people while their subconscious mind are at their most vulnerable- during dream state. So the hero is skilled at extracting secret industrial information from people, and is highly in demand by competitor clients, as well as a fugitive from those who have been milked. The tension is set when he was asked to plant an idea rather than extract ideas from a particular heir of a near monopoly. Its a tight fast-moving, suspenseful movie which ends with a successful conclusion and we are meant to assume that the idea bore fruition and the client who hired him reaped the harvest from the growth of that idea.

How is  preaching like INCEPTION?

Some people think that preaching is passe and ineffective. The monologue they say is doomed to failure in a world that is increasingly interactive, and that grew up on sound bytes, moving visuals and immediate gratification of senses. Young people and increasingly the older ones as well are having shorter attention spans than ever before. It used to be 20 minutes but I speculate that it is much less, perhaps a worrying 2 minutes! Is the sermon as a method of communication past expiry date?

Despite all this I still believe there is a place for the sermon. It does help to have power point visuals, or fill in the blanks outlines in the bulletin, or to keep the sermon interesting.  However, the sermon is not a lecture, or an interesting public talk. A sermon has life: it is impregnated by the preacher’s soul and the Spirit’s life-giving power. And the worship service is the equivalent of the dream state, when a person, with all his rational and spiritual powers intact (unlike in dream state), is most receptive to receiving an implantation of the eternal, life changing good news of Jesus Christ. With the implant of an idea, that God in Christ reconciled the world to Himself, and joined them to the life of the Triune God, the recipient would have received a word that would generate life and transformation, leading to a harvest of the Spirit, the fruit of righteousness.

INCEPTION means the beginning, the start of a process, a project and it does appropriately describe what can possibly happen through preaching of the good news of God’s grace, and its reception into the receptive, believing heart. When the Word is implanted it is just the beginning of a process, a project that will culminate in life transformation and the greater glory of God.

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Tips for the introverted preacher

Came across a book (Adam S. Hugh, Introverts in the Church, 1976, IVP Books, Downers Grove: Illinois) my son borrowed from the National Library. The book was quite interesting and I mostly had Amens and affirmations to the author’s many ideas and insights as I did a rapid read. Found a part that I thought would be particularly helpful to fellow preachers who are introverted. Here is an extract from pg 147:

Whereas some extroverted preachers may struggle with repetitiveness and superficiality, some introverted preachers may err on the side of erudition and ambiguity. Our ideas may be profound but they may not settle in the actual, tangible lives of our listeners. With all of these potential hazards, I emphasize the following things when I mentor young introverted preachers:

1.  Preach as an introvert, not an extrovert. Use thoughtful pauses and silence as a way to add gravity and contemplativeness to your sermons.

2.  Modulate your voice. People hear the tone of your voice before they hear your words. You will hold their attention better by changing the pitch and tone of your voice, and a significant component of persuasion is the conviction with which you share your ideas.

3.  Break up your lofty ideas and biblical exposition with stories, examples and illustrations. They help put flesh on your ideas and makes them tangible to people.

4. Preach to inspire, not merely to inform (suggestions three and four are particularly important for introverts who score high on the thinking category of MBTI).

5.  Be present. Introverts are prone to get caught up in their sermon notes and their presentation, giving the impression that they are not fully present to the congregation.

6. Don’t show your homework. Be thorough in your study and preparation, but in the actual sermon, keep your research and thinking process in the background.

7.  Don’t be intimidated by mistakes. If you stumble over your words or lose your place, people may actually feel more connected with you and listen more carefully.

8. Use preaching as an opportunity for self-revelation.

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Preaching radical grace

tullian tchividjianTullian Tchividjian is the Senior Pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. A Florida native, he is a visiting professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary and a grandson of Billy and Ruth Graham. What he has to share about sermons seasoned with grace is encouraging and enlightening. Read this extract from SermonCentral.com and if you like the article and want to know how he prepares his sermons, read the rest HERE.

SermonCentral:  How can pastors evaluate their sermons to see if they’re really preaching Jesus + nothing?  What kind of litmus test can we take to make sure we get grace right in our preaching?

Tullian: The litmus test that I use for myself is that if people walk away from my sermons thinking more about what they need to do than what Jesus has already done, I’ve failed to preach the Gospel.  The Gospel is the good news that Jesus has done for me what I could never do for myself.  And a lot of preaching these days is “do more, try harder,” like you said.  It’s behavior modification.  We come to church expecting God to give us a to-do list or the preacher to give us a to-do list.  As long as we are given a to-do list, we maintain some measure of control over our lives.  Just tell me what to do.

This message of radical grace, that “it is finished,” is difficult for the human heart, the sinful heart to grasp because we’re so afraid of control being wrestled out of our hands.  So we come to church saying, “Pastor, my marriage is in trouble…my children are going off the deep end…my business is failing…I’m coming to you as the expert to tell me what to do to fix my own life…”  And as a result, our lives get worse, not better, because we’re taking matters into our own hands.

So my job at the end of every sermon—and this is the grid by which I preach—I preach God’s law, and then I preach God’s Gospel.  Both are good.  The law diagnoses my need and shows me that my best is never good enough.  So I’m always trying to help our people realize that they’re a lot worse than they realize and they’re a lot more incapable than they think they are.  But the good news is that God is more than capable, that He’s already done everything we need for Him to do.  He’s already secured in Christ everything we long for.  So my job at the end of every sermon is to, in some way, shape, or form, encourage our people by saying, “Cheer up.  You’re a lot worse off than you think you are, but God’s grace is infinitely larger than you could have ever hoped or imagined.  It is finished.”

And what I’ve discovered is that the people who lean on “it is finished” most are the ones who end up being the most free and whose lives change the most.  It’s the people who constantly demand to-do lists and then preachers who capitulate to that demand and give them to-do lists, those are the people who get worse.  I’ve realized, and I’m only 39 years old, but I’ve realized the more I try to get better, the worse I get.  I’m just realizing I am a narcissist.  I think way too much about how I’m doing, if I’m doing it right, have I confessed every sin.  In other words, I’m thinking much more about me and what I need to do than Jesus and what He’s already done.  And as a result, I’m not getting better.  I’m getting worse.

I’ve come to the realization that when I stop obsessing over my need to improve, that is improvement.  When I stop obsessing narcissistically over my need to get better, that is what the Bible means by getting better.  That’s why Paul was able to say at the end of his life, “I’m the worst guy that I know, and the work of grace in my life is that I’m free to tell you that.”  I think the whole notion of what it means to progress in the Christian life has been radically misunderstood.  Progress in the Christian life is not “I’m getter better and better and better…”  Progress in the Christian life is, “I’m growing in my realization of just how bad I am and growing in my appreciation of just how much Jesus has done for me.”

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Extracts from “Preaching from the soul” by J.E Kalas

KalasIt was like a refresher course in preaching. Reading it was a breeze. It was well-written with good analogies and metaphors that stimulated and enlightened. The author  was President and now senior Professor who trains seminary students at Asbury Theological Seminary in preaching. The book’s content was established, old school stuff and he gave his personal perspectives on them, Preaching from the souldrawn from years of experience and reflection. Nothing earthshaking or radically new, nothing trailblazing or controversial. Even so his writing style has a way of drawing you in to eat and drink from its pasture and still waters. It is a good read for  experienced preachers: reminders, ideas to work with for fine-tuning and polishing and motivating us to excel in our craft and ministry. It’s available in Trinity Theological Library. Here are some extracts from the book that will give an idea of what’s inside.

Soul preaching happens when the speaker seeks to deliver not only a message, but his or her own soul, and to deliver it in such a way that it reaches the soul of the hearer. The speaker is communicating ideas, insights, and convictions, but all of these are marked by the quality of the speaker’s own soul. As a result, soul preaching is intensely personal, because it comes from the soul, the innermost totality of the speaker, with the intention of reaching that same innermost place in the hearer. Such preaching is inherently passionate. (2003. 10, 11)

No better thing can happen to our preaching than having a passionate love affair with the Bible. This isn’t easy for us preachers. We suffer the burden of familiarity, and in most cases (as a seminary professor, I hate to say it), we also suffer the burden of an education. We become too bookish about the Book, so that we see it as a source of sermons and studies, and we are more taken with problems of scholarship than with the wonders of its continuing power. (2003. 19)

That’s the way we preachers must always feel. There must be in us something that reaches out to people in general, yes, but specifically to these people sitting before us as we step into the pulpit. This reaching out makes a communicator. It is almost impossible to preach effectively to people unless there is something in us that reaches out to them. (2003. 31)

The title should set the boundaries for the sermon. Or to put it another way, the title should remind the preacher, all through the process of preparation, where the sermon is going, so that he or she will be able to lead the congregation to the promised land of the sermon’s purpose. (2003. 44)

In any event, a preacher must not seem dependent on notes or manuscript in the opening several minutes. This is no time for looking down; it is the time for direct, eye-to-eye communication, for a feeling of immediacy and intimacy, because it is here that the preacher and the people begin to establish their relationship. If the preacher is tentative, or more taken with manuscript and notes than with the people, the relationship is put at a disadvantage. (2003. 56)

A good sermon ought to have the feeling of progress. This feeling is easier to bring about in a narrative structure, but it is still essential in a linear sermon or a line-by-line exposition. It is the feeling that the sermon is going somewhere. It is not simply a collection of facts and illustrations, but facts and illustrations that proceed with some kind of logical progression. (2003. 69)

In biblical narrative sermon, the struggle comes at the outset, as you seek to find the plotline for that particular sermon. Once you get hold of that wondrous thread, it will likely lead you on almost beyond your will. Novelists often say that they don’t know how a story is going to unfold until they see what their characters do. So too with a narrative sermon; frequently it carries you to places you hadn’t imagined. The linear sermon, on the other hand, is quite easy at the outset. Outlines require only limited imagination, though some proper refining. Then you begin the search for illustrations, quotes, supporting material. In a narrative sermon, most of this data is implicit in the plot itself. However, the search for the plot can be disheartening, no doubt. (2003.76)

In the pursuit of a cohesive theme, search for the meaning in each phrase. Still better, look for the soul in each passage. When you find the insight that warms your soul, chances are good that it will warm the souls of those listening. In the process, you will also be somewhat protected against the tedium that can slip easily into line-by-line exposition. This is related to knowing what interests people- which in most cases has to do with where their needs lie. (2003. 81, 82)

Don’t signal that the end is coming. When the preacher says, “I close with this,” or “Just one more thing,” you have divided the listener’s focus. Instead of concentrating on what you’re saying, they begin to think of what they’re going to do when the sermon ends. (2003. 88)

The conclusion that finds its theme in the title and introduction blesses both the preacher and the listener. For the preacher, it simplifies the search for closing material by narrowing the field. For the listener, it makes the sermon more compact, more focused, and thus easier to remember. (2003. 91)

(Reference:  Kalas, E.J. 2003. Preaching from the Soul. Nashville, TN: Abingdon.)

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