The Foundations of a Sermon

Not too long ago, my family was invited over for dinner by one of my friends from my seminary days.  Receiving an invitation from anyone rarely happens, so we were excited to make it work, and to have grown up conversations about ministry and the Word of God.  Both Julie and her husband, Steve, are on the teaching team at their church, so naturally the conversation shifted at some point to sermon preparation and delivery (buy her book, by the way — it is phenomenal!).  I had made a remark along the lines of finding sermon preparation easy, as “all” it involves is finding the point of the passage and making it the point of the sermon!

The conversation had me thinking, and so I wanted to lay out the three foundations (or sina qua non, if you will) of sermon writing.  While I do not have the opportunity to preach and teach nearly as much as I’d like, these are the three aspects I strive to incorporate every chance I am given.

Convey the Content in Context

In the strictest sense, nothing is more foundational to a sermon than the biblical text — book, chapter, and verse.  Without a exegetical exposition of God’s Word, the preacher becomes little more than a motivational speaker doling out their own advice and maxims.  Scripture is sufficient for all things (2 Tim 3:16-17  All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. — more on that later), and we would do well to let the Bible tell us in which direction a sermon should go.

While nuanced definitions abound, a sermon is expositional when it considers a unit of Scripture (e.g., a verse, a paragraph, a chapter, etc) in its context, and offers an explanation thereof.  It is exegetical when the historical and grammatical context of the unit is considered, and is allowed to speak for itself, without our prejudices or preconceived ideas forcing us to a foregone conclusion.

We find these methods found in Scripture itself:

Ezra 7:10  Now Ezra had determined in his heart to study the law of the Lord, obey it, and teach its statutes and ordinances in Israel.

Neh 8:7-8  [The] Levites explained the law to the people as they stood in their places.  They read out of the book of the law of God, translating and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was read.

Note especially the role of the Levitical priests in the Nehemiah passage — they read the Law, then made sure that the congregation could understand what was being read.  This is still the role of the modern preacher.  We need to make sure that the content of the passage is being conveyed, and that it is being viewed through the lens of the context in which it is found, whether that is the paragraph, or even extending to the literary style of the book or culture of the time.

The point of the passage should be the point of the sermon.  Why did the Spirit direct the authors to write any given command, narrative, or teaching?  If we cannot give a one sentence summary of the passage, and therefore our sermon (since the two are one and the same), we need to revisit the text and refine our goal in communicating truth.

Converge upon the Cross

While each unit of Scripture has its particular truth and message that the Spirit intends it to convey, there are themes that are present throughout the entirety of Scripture.  One theme that should find its way into every sermon is that God will fix the sin problem — the good news, the Gospel.  In other words, that the Father sent the Son into the world to pay the penalty of death for the sins of humanity, and that by believing (the Greek means to consider something to be true) in that work, each individual can once again be reconciled to the Father.

This second foundation is also demonstrated in Scripture, most notably in Acts.  Peter does this expertly from the Old Testament in Acts 2 and Acts 3, and Stephen in Acts 7.  Also note Paul in Acts 17:2-3:

As usual, Paul went to the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and showing that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead: “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah.”

Or Apollos in 18:28:

For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating through the Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah.

Not only does converging upon the cross make good expositional sense, but it also makes great practical evangelistic sense, as well.  We should not take the opportunity lightly when God brings people within earshot, and to be used by Him in that way.  Depending upon the size and location of the church, it is not unlikely that there will be men and women there that either have never heard the good news, or have never responded to it by belief.  I have heard several sermons in which words like sinsacrifice, grace, and belief have been completely absent!

Even as believers, it serves us well to be reminded of who we were, who we now are, and who we will one day be!  To be reminded of that grace and love is no small matter!

Connect to the Congregation

And that brings us to the third foundation of a sermon: connecting to the congregation.  Many view this as the primary — if not sole — purpose of preaching; yet, if it is not first grounded in an understanding of the original intent and meaning of the passage, we have once again descended into a form indistinguishable from secular motivational speaking. By ignoring the passage, we are elevating our words above God’s Words, as if we have something to add that hasn’t already been said.

Depending upon the text at hand, Scripture can have one (or more) of many different outcomes.  For example, it can convict us of unrighteous attitudes and actions, it can console us in times of injustice and hopelessness, it can encourage us unto a path of sanctification, or certainly not the least of which, it can lead us to the grace in which all of it is steeped.

Paul writes in 2 Tim 3:16-17:

All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

[Sidenote: As often as these verses are quoted to support the inerrant, divine nature of Scripture, it seems to be just as often overlooked that the Scripture Paul writes about here is, contextually, the Old Testament!  While the New Testament is surely to be included at this point, how prevalent is the aversion to the Old Testament for its lack of practicality?]

God’s Word is intended to be applicable.  We are hard-pressed to read it and not walk away affected by it through the enablement of the Spirit.  The author of Hebrews writes in 4:12:

For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword.

Or consider what God says in Isaiah 55:10-11:

For just as rain and snow fall from heaven and do not return there without saturating the earth and making it germinate and sprout, and providing seed to sow and food to eat, so My word that comes from My mouth will not return to Me empty, but it will accomplish what I please and will prosper in what I send it to do.”

If we are preaching the content in context, connecting it to the congregation shouldn’t take a Herculean effort.  God’s Word is powerful on its own accord to accomplish His purposes.  Our job as preachers is to minimize our words and to maximize God’s.

Our job, by the illumination of the Spirit through prayer and study, is to be faithful in preaching the Word of God.  Admittedly, the style in which this is done may differ.  No two preachers are alike, whether it’s in their delivery, or in the individual speaker’s mechanics (e.g., the tone, cadence, nonverbal cues); yet our goal should be one and the same: to the glory of God through faithfulness to the Word of God.


Adventures in Secular Jobs, part two

During my time in college and seminary, I was a church hopper.  I’d go from church to church, usually where there was a need, or at least a place for me, in their music ministry.  I can think of six churches off the top of my head that I attended on any given Sunday, at least for a little while.  One of the biggest problems I had was that I didn’t feel like any of them were a place I could settle down long term and really feel as though I belonged.

In the case of one church, I remember vividly when I knew that it certainly was not home.  The first time I heard the assistant pastor preach, it was quite… accusatory.  In fact, I noticed it even before he was offered the position!  The best way to explain the preaching is in the technical sense — it was all second person, virtually little first.  And very condescending, at that.  In other words, “You need to do this.”

“What is wrong with you?”

“If you are not living such a such, then you are living in sin.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of encouraging, exhorting, and sometimes generically exposing (this would be an example of non-generic).  I just prefer to do it in first person:  “We need to make sure we are doing this.  What is wrong with us?”  Or even in third person:  “If a believer is not daily submitting their lives…”  Regardless of what person he utilized, it always seemed so angry and condescending.  I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he meant it to spur and convict.

But in reality, it was a big turn off.

In my years in the secular job world, I’ve come to realize that employees tend to get a lot of condescension thrown their way.  A verbal dressing down.  As an employee at 7-Eleven, I’d have customers regularly berate me, whether it was over the availability of coffee, or the inability to buy cigarettes with a food stamps card.  (My favorite in the latter cases is when they would then set down their iPhones, pull out a wad of benjamins, and buy $50 in lottery tickets, only after visiting the casino down the road.)

In other jobs, I’ve worked for very exacting men, who would tell you to do something a particular way, only to cuss you out for following their instructions exactly.  Men and women who will focus on the 0.1% wrong with a completed task, instead of being pleased with the 99.9% and offering constructive feedback going forward.

(For the record, I’ve also worked for great men — godly men — who were an utter joy to work for.  Here’s looking at you, Drew Hoober.)

And it got me thinking.  Surely I am not the only one who has had jobs where our work, our fruit, even our very selves are constantly belittled.  Why would we want to go to church only to be further accused, chastised, and marginalized in a similarly harsh fashion?  I’ve come to realize that, when I arrive at church, I’m looking for living water to soothe my battered soul.  I’m looking for friendships that build up, offering encouragement where it is needed, and loving accountability out of concern for my fellowship with God.

As much as I need that from other people, I pray that I am that healing balm to those I come in contact with.  That my teaching, my worship leading, my conversations are so grace-filled, so Christ-centered, so saturated in the Word of God, that those I come into contact with feel an insatiable desire to grow closer to God, and to worship Him accordingly.

Adventures in Secular Jobs, part one

A year ago, I was preparing myself for licensure in the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches.  I took a lengthy written exam, which I then had to defend in an oral examination a few months later.  As I sat before a handful of pastors within our district, I fielded questions left and right about determination and free will, how one must respond to the Gospel, and numerous others I can no longer recall.  At the end of it all, I was pleasantly surprised when they approved me.  One of the pastors (the most encouraging that day) said that he himself worked a secular job for years even though his heart was in the ministry.  Eventually, he found himself in the pastoral role he is in today.

I wish to be clear.  There is nothing wrong with working a secular job.  There is nothing inherently less worthy about it.  We can’t all be in full-time ministry.  Yet, I feel strongly about how God has led me to this point, and it is *quite* discouraging to now be a thirty-something and performing tasks way outside my training.  I attempt, to varying success, to glean lessons for when the day will come when I will be in vocational ministry.  My goal is to start to writing about these lessons, not only to crank out some writing, but also to serve as a reminder of my growth now, as well as what men and women in the congregation deal with on a daily basis.

The first is that for those people who have secular jobs, and especially when families are thrown in the mix, free time does not exist.  Let’s look at my daily schedule:

  • 5:00am – wake up, shower, brew Laura’s coffee, prepare the boys’ lunches, make Laura some eggs
  • 6:30am – get Laura and the boys on the road
  • 6:35am – get myself on the road
  • 8:00pm-5:00pm – work
  • 6:00pm – arrive home from work, only to have two hours with the boys and Laura before we go to bed at 8:00pm (repeat ad nauseum)

If you see something missing in here, it’s because it sadly usually is.  There’s zero time for growth, fellowship, and development.  I’d be willing to bet that this is true for many in any congregation.  When they come to church on Sunday, they are starving, and some may not even realize it!  Pastors need to respect that time, and respond appropriately.  Churches have an unfortunately small window that they are willing to sit still and listen to God’s Word being proclaimed.  How we use that time to equip, encourage, and exhort for the coming week is crucial!

Being short on time also impacts what people are able to do in the ministry.  I’m involved with a series we’re doing right now, and the only time I can break away from the family and accomplish what I need to is Wednesday night, when Laura has youth group.  That means on a Wednesday night, instead of being part of a Bible study, fellowship, or choir, I’m sitting at home alone typing feverishly to try and finish before Laura gets home with the boys.  Working a secular job is teaching me to appreciate those that volunteer their time to assist a ministry for which one day (Lord willing) I would like to do vocationally.

It’s teaching me that I’m going to need flexibility in how I respond to a person’s spiritual needs, and that it doesn’t always fall within my daily office hours, or at a time that I’m not trying to get a task done.  Ministry is about the people, and if I make it about a to-do list, I so easily will go off course.

For now, I strive to be faithful to where God has called me at this time.  Let me be honest — it’s difficult!  I have several of these I’ve been thinking through, so hopefully I’ll be updating a little bit more as the days go on!