Preaching from the Bible – Getting it right
The work of preaching and teaching God’s word is a listening work before it is a speaking work. In the book of Isaiah, the Servant of the Lord gives us a window into the heart of his ministry:
The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of those who are taught,
that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary.
Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear
to hear as those who are taught. Is. 50:4.
God can use donkeys and rocks to proclaim his praise, but he has chosen humans through whom he spoke and continues to speak his word to us today. But the tongue cannot teach what the ear has not heard. So the great work of preaching is first and foremost a work of listening, hearing, paying careful attention to the words of the text of God’s word to hear what God is truly saying.
We interviewed Artizo Director of Training Rev. Ben Roberts, and Preacher Mentor from St. John’s Vancouver Rev. Aaron Roberts about the challenge of getting it right.
What does it mean to ‘get it right’ when preaching from the Bible?
Ben: ‘Getting it right’ in preaching has a lot to do with what you think the end goal of preaching is. We teach our apprentices that the treasure is in the text. That is to say, the closer you get to understanding it, the better the questions you bring to it, and the more time you spend in it, the more gold it will yield.
The end goal of a sermon is to hold out the glory of Christ so that those who hear are transformed by the encounter with him. This can only happen through the Spirit-empowered word. If you begin by thinking that preaching is primarily meant to motivate your listeners to change, or a platform for communicating your framework (whether it be theological, political, or cultural), then your framework will replace the text as the message, the text becomes a pretext for your own agenda.
Of course, to be human is to unavoidably bring our frameworks, and the work of exegesis is meant to remind us that we strive to do the hard work of humbly letting the Bible challenge our assumptions. In our training, we often use the phrase “the treasure is in the text” and ask apprentices whether they have prioritized “their framework or the text?”. These beginning assumptions are keys for growth as well as “getting it right.”
Getting to the main point is important because it forces you to reckon with the meaning of a passage. Until you get to the main point, you haven’t actually figured out the meaning. Main points are critical to communication – we always tell the interns their sermon “needs to be a spear, not a thousand toothpicks”. To miss the main point is to fail to communicate effectively what God’s word is saying, and ultimately weakens our faith and understanding of our Lord and his Gospel.
We believe the the Word of God is his revelation, that is, it reveals something from God that we couldn’t figure out on our own. This means the Bible’s insight and commentary will always exceed my own theories or opinions on a subject – it must form the foundation, and can speak far beyond sensational speeches.
What does it take to establish a deep understanding of the passage?
Aaron: You have to understand where it fits in the flow of the whole history of salvation history and the culture of the day. You have to get behind the translation to some of the original words to get to the original intent – the contemporary application, where the passage fits into the ‘argument’ or flow of the specific book, paragraph, and so on. You have to let the passage speak to YOU personally as well. But you also have to do your best to be winsome. That’s the communication problem, and it takes years to get good at that.
When you prepare a sermon, what are the steps you go through?
Aaron: I spend about an hour of preparation per minute of sermon. So a 20-minute sermon takes 20 hours. That’s a chunk of time, and not many ministers have that luxury. As a minister, we have an obligation to faithfully explain the passage instead of making a sensational speech about some important social issue. We have to keep reminding ourselves that the gold is in the text and to do the solid work of exegesis before thinking about applying it. Don’t aim to be original, aim to be faithful to what the Bible is saying. Here’s the process:
- Study the passage.
- Read good commentaries.
- Listen to good sermons on the same passage.
- Collect all your info.
- Then make the jump from exegesis (critical interpretation) to homiletics (the art of preaching).
- I go back to all this newfound knowledge and try and work out the main points.
- I use a flowchart or mind map to paint an outline.
- Then I pretend I am standing in front of a congregation and think how I would say each piece and write a manuscript of that.
- Then I do lots of edits, fine tuning it.
We noticed something about David Short’s sermons: he preached on Acts several times in different years. Each time he preached on the same passage, it was evident that he spent time on the passage again because each time he preached his exegesis was different – fresh and better than his last sermon.
Ben: I love your observation about David’s sermons changing. Every time I’ve preached on a text for a second time, I’ve had to do serious rewriting. As we grow in Christ, and our understanding of Scripture, it continues to illuminate our understanding of who God is, and helps us make connections we hadn’t seen before. This means we simply “see” things we hadn’t before, even though we may build on our previous work.
Beyond that, to work the treasure image a bit further, the Bible is an inexhaustible mine. Because it is inspired and empowered by God’s Spirit, our patient meditation will never exhaust the riches to be unearthed there, even over a lifetime of study. Every time I sit down with a passage I find something I didn’t see the last time. This also has to do with humility – not believing we have the final say, but committing ourselves through a life of listening to the Word.
Aaron: If I am preaching on a passage I have used before, I will look over my notes from the previous passage. I am often disappointed in what I have said in the past, and try to improve it by looking at my original sources and looking up new ones.
What are the mechanics of preaching training and mentoring at Artizo?
Ben: In each weekly meeting one apprentice presents; we rotate through everybody week by week. They may be doing an exegetical presentation (walking us through the steps of sermon preparation), leading a Bible study, presenting a sermon (either written specifically for us, or one that they have, or will, use in a church), or giving a talk aimed a particular skill (leading a vestry meeting, youth talk, children’s talk, etc.). We try to work lots of different styles of this over the course of the two years. We read the passage and pray for them, then they go for it, uninterrupted.
After they finish, one apprentice is on deck to be the first responder and give feedback. We have guidelines for how to do that but they don’t follow them rigidly, and they get better at criticism over time. But it’s a good starting point because usually the apprentices are initially very hesitant to criticize or challenge anything, and need an explicit command to do so. This in itself is an important pastoral skill they practice.
After the critique is finished, we open it up to everyone else for comment, ask questions, and make suggestions. Generally this is where David Short, Susan Norman and I jump in. The feedback could be about their presentation, the exegesis of the text itself, what we are aiming for when we preach, and so on. Generally this part is where the magic happens – and it happens in Artizo particularly because apprentices are working with seasoned pastors and trainers who are good exegetes, who can point out mistakes and make suggestions.
We provide a methodology for working through a passage that emphasizes the tools of good interpretation and attention to the text. We also reinforce the conviction that this is God’s word, and we must understand what it is saying, not project what we’d like it to say. So, ultimately, it has to do with the theological convictions and experience of the apprentices’ mentors, and a methodology that keeps the apprentices on the right track.
Aaron: I am a preaching mentor. So I meet with interns before they preach to help them write their sermon after they have done the academic heavy lifting. Then I listen to the sermon afterwards to give them feedback. Typically, I block out an hour, play back the sermon, give feedback, and do some pastoral work with the intern as well.
If someone has been through Regent and has made it into Artizo, then they are likely pretty good out of the gate. But making the jump from the study to the pulpit is tricky when you have spent four years sitting in a library writing academic papers. This means writing a sermon for the ear, not the eye.
Theologically, students are mostly in the ball park – so delivery is what I tend to focus on. Sometimes we talk about fundamentals around communication, like learning how to manage the tension in a space through varying the density of ideas as well as variations in voice.
Outside of delivery, editing seems to be a big issue for young preachers. They tend to want to say too much – let the congregation see the fruit of your study, not the sweat of it. That means, although you know 20 really interesting things about the passage, only say the most important things.
So how do you evaluate a sermon? How rigorous is it really?
Aaron: Good question. It’s rigorous. We divide evaluation into four big sections: theology, organization, application and style.
Theologically, and very importantly, was the sermon faithful to the text? Was the sermon expositional? Did the sermon submit its shape and emphasis to the shape and emphasis of the biblical passage? Is the main point of the biblical passage the main point of the sermon preached? If it’s not, then the sermon is not exegesis, but it’s eisegesis – imposing the preacher’s ideas on the text.
To understand a Greek word, you need to understand the sentence, and to understand the sentence, you need to understand the paragraph, the chapter, and how the chapter fits into the whole book. Once that context is established, the sermon is not just an opinion, but it is actually what the bible says. So we evaluate if the passage was set in its biblical theological context.
We look for a main idea and evidence of a main idea throughout the sermon.
We look at organization, a clear structure to the material. Was the introduction useful in putting people at ease, orienting them to the passage, to the sermon series? Does each section drive the main point home? Was the transition from one point to another easy to follow? Does every point push the main point forward?
Many preachers use illustrations. We evaluate whether the illustrations are used effectively. Did the illustrations illuminate the exegesis or did they substitute the exegesis? Was an illustration so good that it took over the sermon and became the main point?
A sermon’s application is a motivator to a response. We look for the application and if the application arose from the text.
Lastly, we look at style – did we find the sermon is compelling, interesting and winsome? There are four reasons a sermon isn’t compelling.
First, because it likely hasn’t made the jump from exegesis to sermon. Young preachers and experienced pastors can all write a good exegetical paper and read it – they mistake expository preaching for a running commentary. So the sermon doesn’t come to life.
This also happens if there’s a lack of personal conviction on your part, if you aren’t touched by what you are preaching. The lack of personal conviction will come across as simply sharing your musings.
Thirdly, doing context badly. Context is helping people understand the gospel, by connecting with culture. We affirm and reject aspects of the culture we find ourselves in, and that comes out in our preaching. A sermon won’t change lives if we affirm culture too much and the gospel loses its edge. Nor will it if we keep it too alien, so that no one can relate.
A preacher also needs to understand the basics of tension, the rhetorical fundamentals. And of course manner, body language, and pitch, pace and style of speech all play their part.
At St. John’s Vancouver, we have built a culture of a Training Church, where we give peer-to-peer evaluations to each other, not just to Artizo apprentices. We are responsible to reconcile people to God through the gospel. Rigour is essential. Time is precious. We cannot afford to preach a useless sermon. Because sermons should change lives.
Executive Director of Artizo, Canon David Short, adds:
Without clear, biblical, expository preaching, all the other parts of ministry suffer.
The priority of preaching is clear in the New Testament, and it preserves congregations from the agendas and hobby-horses of their ministers, and protects ministers from the crushing needs of their congregations. It allows God to set the agenda for us. His questions for us are far more important than ours of him.
It is just too easy to come to a passage and throw together some devotional thoughts you believe are helpful. But without the hard work of listening to the text, whatever we say does not have the power to “sustain . . . him who is weary.” Refreshment and renewal can only come to congregations, when those who preach have ears awakened by God, and who spend themselves hearing what God is saying before they speak, so that what they say is not just nice ideas, but the pure word of God. This is what we are trying to do in Artizo.
Joel Strecker re-enacts the training experience of how Artizo interns receive training in preaching. We follow Joel as he prepares a sermon, wrestling with the
passage, presents it to the Artizo group, receives criticism and direction, and close with him formally preaching the sermon. watch video