Thursday, February 24, 2011

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 the reality of God. Believe it or not, even Christian people forget.

2. We can call attention to the actions of God in history. That is, after all, the content of the Bibles on which we base our preaching. We should never fail to mention the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

3. We can testify to our own experiences with God. While preachers need to avoid calling attention to themselves, we can appropriately talk about how we have experienced the God that we are trying to help our listeners experience.

4. We can create space for encounters with God. Neither the worship service nor the sermon should be filled with non-stop activity and words; space can be created for people to experience God.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


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 from generation to generation of guitarists.

Preachers engage in sampling, too—and we should.

We should acknowledge those thinkers and preachers and writers whose words help to shape and guide us—whose words strike us as being especially true—and we should allow their words to help to shape and guide our words as we try to tell the truth. Frederick Buechner, Barbara Brown Taylor and Eugene Peterson play that role in my preaching.

It goes without saying, I hope, that when we quote our models we should say so, but sometimes our sampling will be more a matter of viewpoint or tone or phrasing.

Still, all preachers have to find their own voice; we need, however, to avoid the prideful pitfall of believing too much in our own originality; we are, after all, the heirs of a great tradition.

When it comes to our use of the Bible, however, sampling won’t do…

Thursday, February 10, 2011

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 careful about how I say it, but I will, in the heat of the moment and, I hope, under the influence of the Spirit, say things that I didn’t write and that I didn’t intend to say.

It’s interesting to me how often the things I didn’t write but did speak are the things that people remember and the things to which they offer response.

Dr. Giddens was right: the Spirit speaks just as surely in the study as in the pulpit.

The opposite is also true.

And in both places the Spirit keeps things interesting—and dangerous…

Thursday, February 3, 2011

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 biblical text; that is as it should be, since God has in God’s grace given us our Bibles as the objective standard on which to base and by which to test our words.

Still, does not real authority in preaching come from our direct relationship with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit? Must not the core of our preaching come out of that relationship for our preaching to be truly authoritative?

After all, is not the goal of our preaching to help people find and to grow in their own personal relationship with God?

And if we are not careful, do we not run the risk of communicating that fidelity to propositions is more important than fidelity to a Person?