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Showing posts from 2011

The Narrowing of Taste & Its Impact on Preaching

Today while listening to the Sirius/XM Deep Tracks channel I heard “Sue Me, Sue You Blues” from George Harrison’s 1973 album Living in the Material World. I used to own that album (vinyl, naturally) and wish I still did.

When I plunked down the money for the LP I was mainly interested in hearing the single “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth).” As I listened over and over to the disc, though, I came to like other songs on it even more, especially the title track and “Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long.” The thing is, though, that I had to listen to the entire album to find the variety of music and the hidden treasures on the record.

That’s the way we used to listen to music. Oh, we’d listen to the hit singles on our favorite radio station (WQXI FM out of Atlanta for me) but we’d buy the albums and listen to all the songs on them—over and over.

Hearing that old song from that favorite old album of mine got me to thinking about how the way people listen to music has changed. Listening to …

Sit Down! And Shut Up?

One of my seminary professors told a story in class about a student who was invited to preach in a church in which the tradition was for the congregation to be more vocal in its responses than the type of reaction to which the young preacher was accustomed.

Not too far into his sermon a lady jumped up and shouted, “Sit down and shut up—you done spoke the truth!”

“And so,” our professor said, “he did.”

I have been trying lately to make some changes in my preaching, one of which is to be less tied to the lectern (the preacher’s security blanket) and to written notes (the preacher’s other security blanket). So, I’ve been moving around the pulpit area a bit more.

I’ve seen preachers move around the pulpit area to excess; I’ve even seen them leave the pulpit area and run up and down the aisles slapping deacons on the knee.

I don’t anticipate going that far.

One Sunday morning a few weeks ago, about three-fourths of the way through my sermon, I felt a tremendous urge to sit down. So I walked o…

An Experiment in Preaching

A friend who in his late fifties took a new pastorate said that he had written the last sermon he ever intended to write, meaning that he planned to use the vast collection of sermons that he had built up over his career and produce nothing new.

I have in my paper and electronic files every sermon I have ever written; I even have the outlines, some of which were lifted straight out of the back of my trusty Thompson Chain Reference Bible, from my first halting efforts, which were quite different than my later halting efforts.

I have at times “re-preached” some of my “greatest hits”; in so doing I heeded the wise words of my wise father who once told me, “If it was worth preaching once it’s worth preaching twice.” And if it’s worth preaching twice maybe it’s worth preaching thrice or more!

Over the last twenty-five years I have written full manuscripts for 99% of the sermons that I’ve preached and 90% of the time I’ve taken that manuscript into the pulpit with me.

Last Sunday I began an ex…

Preaching to Everybody

It’s a funny line that really isn’t funny: “That must have been a great sermon, Preacher…I didn’t understand a word of it.”

I am concerned, though, that there are many times when many if not most of the people in the congregation would say something like that.

I say that not because I think that my sermons are all that hard to understand—although sometimes they are—but because of the variety that characterizes a congregation.

Over there sits someone who has been a seriously thoughtful Christian for fifty years; right in front of her sits someone who has never decided to follow Jesus.

Over there sits someone who hasn’t missed a worship service in decades; over to his left sits someone who is participating for the first time in decades.

Over there sits a 90 year old woman; two rows behind her sits a nine year old boy.

Over there sits a professional with a bachelor’s degree and two graduate degrees; on the other side of the room sits a laborer with a GED.

And we preachers are supposed to preac…

Preaching to the Dying

I have always had a keen sense of my mortality; perhaps it’s because I had to deal at any early age with the death of a loved one or perhaps it’s because I was blessed and/or cursed from my genesis with the awareness of my inevitable demise.

Whatever the reason, I am aware that I preach as a dying man speaking to dying people. At the end of my sermon we are all 20-25 minutes closer to dying than we were when I started.

What do dying people need to hear?

First, they need to hear an acknowledgement and affirmation of their mortality. Death is a fact of human life. That truth should not be morbidly dwelt upon but it should be freely acknowledged and its awareness should lie behind all we say. We do our listeners no good if we feed the culturally promoted illusion of permanence.

Second, they need to hear that they can experience God in loss and pain. Illness, injury, grief, functional decline—all of these create weakened and broken places where the grace of God can be especially experi…

Preaching as Worship

Pastors do not preach in a vacuum; we preach in the context of a worship service the focus of which is on, or at least is supposed to be on, God.

It follows, then, that our sermons should contribute to that experience of worship by helping to focus the worshippers’ attention on God.

How can we preachers attempt to make that contribution?


1. We can avoid calling undue attention to ourselves. While we should do our best to engage our listeners, the purpose of that engagement is to call their attention to God.

2. We can avoid the reduction of preaching to moralizing. Preaching should alert people to or remind people of the grace of God and take away from and not add to a legalistic mindset.

3. We can avoid the reduction of preaching to “how to” lists. People need guidance on living but they need even more to know that God is with them in their daily lives.

4. We can avoid theorizing about God. Preaching is proclamation, not speculation.


1. We can remind the Church of t…


I don’t listen to a lot of rap or hip-hop music—I know, you’re shocked, deeply shocked, to hear that.

I am familiar, though, with the practice of “sampling” in many recordings in those genres. Basically, to sample is to borrow a portion of a previously recorded song in the making of a new record. Classic examples (I’m sure that you preachers who are also hip-hop aficionados will scoff at my use of such obvious illustrations) are the use of Chic’s classic Good Times in the record that is generally regarded as the first hip-hop record, Rapper’s Delight by the Sugar Hill Gang (1979) and M. C. Hammer’s sampling of Rick James’ Super Freak in Can’t Touch This (1990).

A debate once raged about whether such sampling was appropriate but it seems to be an accepted practice now. It’s just as well since, musically speaking, there is not much new under the sun; pretty much any blues or rock lick that any guitarist will play tonight has likely been played many times before and been passed down f…

Preaching as Writing and Speaking

My mentor, the late and much lamented Dr. Howard Giddens, liked to say “The Holy Spirit can speak to the preacher in the study as well as in the pulpit.”

I have taken that observation to heart in my preaching career; I work on the text and the text works on me and as the text and I fight it out I truly believe that the Holy Spirit is right in there with us, sometimes refereeing and sometimes inciting.

99% of the time I end up sometime before Sunday with a sermon manuscript that contains words that I, in concert with the text and with the Holy Spirit, have labored and even agonized over in my desire to get them as right as I can and, if I do say so myself, what I produce is often a pretty good read.

I don’t know that it’s always such a good preach.

I don’t preach the manuscript, by which I mean that I don’t read it to the congregation. Oh, there will be places in the sermon where I stick real close to what I have written because there is something that I want to get just right or to be …

The Preacher's Authority

They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes (Mark 1:21-22).

The difference between the teaching of Jesus and that of the scribes did not have to do with a difference in the possession of authority—it was not that Jesus had some while the scribes had none—but rather with a difference in the nature of the authority: the authority of the scribes was a derived authority while that of Jesus was a direct authority.

Specifically, the authority of the scribes was derived from the authority of the text of the Scripture to which they were devoted while the authority of Jesus was based on his fidelity to his direct relationship with the Father.

There are implications here for preachers who are modern-day scribes (in the best sense of the term) and who risk being modern-day scribes (in the worst sense of the term).

We preachers base our preaching on the…

The Divine and the Human in the Text and in the Word

In the course of reviewing the book The Social Life of Scriptures, edited by James S. Bielo, Mark Noll says,

Christian believers of every sort have almost always spoken of the Bible as divine revelation in human form. The best classical teaching on Scripture has insisted that the divinity, the humanity, and the inseparable intertwining of divinity and humanity are crucial for understanding and appropriating Scripture [Books & Culture (September/October 2010), p. 12].

When we are dealing with Scripture, we are dealing with “the inseparable intertwining of divinity and humanity.” Is there a difference, though, in the “inseparable intertwining of divinity and humanity” that is present in the Bible and that which is present in Jesus Christ?

Unless we preachers keep our constant attention on the twin facts that the Bible is divinely inspired and humanly produced, we will lose the appropriate sense of its power and its pertinence. The Bible is both a divine Word and a human word, which…

More Junk Doesn’t Make It More Better

Here in the middle of the 52nd year of my life I am trying hard to simplify it; I’m trying very hard to decide what things are really important to me and to do those things and to let everything else go.

As a part of that project I am also trying to simplify my sermons.

Among the third-hand critiques of my sermons (only one person ever said it to my face and that one person did it in writing—but she did sign her name) that I have heard over the years is the observation (or accusation) that they can sometimes or often be too cerebral; it has been said to me by a cacophony of voices (at least three over my almost forty year career) that “Mike is a great teacher but he’s not a great preacher.”

For my part, I never claimed or even aspired to be great at teaching or preaching.

For what it’s worth, though, I do think that good preaching has a teaching element to it; proclamation includes instruction.

Still…I agree that at times my sermons get a little too complicated; I have too much “on the o…