Any listener to your sermon could have a gazzilion questions buzzing round. ‘Why should I invest twenty five minutes listening to this person? Can I tweet and listen at the same time? Will what the preacher says actually help with the mess I’m in? Is what is being said true?’ And so on – some questions are significant, some trivial.
And any preacher knows that in all that mix, there’s only really one issue to deal with: how to show them Jesus.
But if I’m not careful, my one answer never touches their gazillion questions, and God’s questions never get asked.
So I’ve found that there are six questions for me to ask myself, with a bit more bite to them, which help me to focus as I prepare. They’re a test, if you like. If I can’t answer them simply, then I need to do some more work.
1. What do I want people to know?
This is the ‘text’ question. But it needs to be answered as bluntly as it’s asked, because it’s so, so easy to miss this slightly. I don’t want people to know that I have three points beginning with P, or that one translation gets it wrong: I want people to know the message of this passage. So answer the question.
2. Why do I want people to know it?
Aha – a trick question. Have you understood the purpose of your passage? What is it intended to do – encourage, warn, rebuke? Because rarely, only very rarely, is the the bible intending simply to inform us of something.
I’ve been too gentle there. I can’t think of any bible passage that just informs us. So just ‘knowing’ stuff can’t be the end point – though it is always the starting point
3. What do I want people to do?
Repent? Believe? Pray? Give? Love? Serve? Stop doing something? Start doing something?
My hero John Chapman, the great Australian evangelist, used to say they there were only ever two applications to any bible passage – repent and believe. From one angle, he’s right, because that’s the gospel. But turn it slightly, and you’ll see you have to answer that question much more carefully from any one passage, to avoid being trite, and flattening the message too smoothly. What exactly am I to believe here? How exactly am I to repent?
4. Why do I want them to do it?
Legalism can look like repentance – which is why the motivation is critical. What reasons does this passage, or – if I need to fill in some background – what reasons does the gospel give, for people act in the way the passage expects? Spell it out, so that the pharisees don’t go home patting themselves on the back.
5. What do I want them to feel?
Joy? Fear? Loved? Lament? Delight? The emotional range of scripture is vast, while the emotional range of many Christians is quite limited. Those who fear emotionalism far any emotional response at all, while those who engage their emotions do so in only the area of praise and celebration.
But look at the passage, and consider its emotional impact. How could you stretch your hearers, so they feel as they should?
6. Why do you want them to feel it?
It’s not enough for people to feel in general – they must be moved by scripture as scripture intends. For gospel ends. And certainly not to flatter your own ego as a communicator why can move people as you wish. That’s show-biz – which is all well and good in its place, but it’s not our place.
So we have to consider how to use our preaching to serve the text, in thinking about their affections as well as their understanding.
Some might say that that is precisely the point that emotionalism come in, but I’m not so sure. Because I think I see preachers deliberately using their preaching to refuse to allow people to engage with their emotions. It’s all what Marshall McLuhan used to call ‘cool’ communication – we preach judgement and love, hell and heaven, as if neither was particularly special, and to stroll away from one and amble towards the other a matter for a gentle afternoon’s meandering. After lunch and a nap.
It’s so far from the danger of emotionalism that it’s become its opposite, a sterile, stoical, rationalist response to a gospel of no urgency and no saving power.
Six simple questions, then, to sharpen your thinking about your next sermon:
- What do I want people to know?
- Why do I want people to know it?
- What do I want people to do?
- Why do I want people to do it?
- What do I want people to feel?
- Why do I want people to feel it?
I think the first four questions come from Andy Stanley, in Communicating for a Change, and the last two from John Ortberg. The combination, and the explanations, are my own.