The Bible and Preaching: Four Tips

1. Use it!
I would like to think it is unnecessary to encourage pastors to use the Bible in their preaching.  But enough preachers these last few decades have let the Bible fall out of use that it is worth mentioning.  Why wouldn’t pastors be using the Bible?  Perhaps it is because the “how to” sermon is more easily understood and its relevance is more immediately obvious.  The books of the Bible were, after all, first written to someone else and the relevance of Mephibosheth is rarely as clear as a sermon on how to raise your children.

But this is who we are and this is God’s primary place of speaking to us.  The Bible is a sacrament of revelation, where ordinary words, indeed ancient words, become the very word of God to us today.  These are our stories, the family stories we tell during dinner or around a campfire.  They define us.  They give us our sense of direction.  We use them to wrestle with the issues the family is dealing with today.  If we ignore them, we lose our sense of who we are.

2. Remember “The Rules” of Application
There are rules for applying the Bible today, just like there are rules to using language.  We studied the English language in high school and college and sometimes those were hard courses.  It’s much easier to use the rules than to learn them.  The application rules that we as Christians have learned in church are complicated when you take them out and describe them.  But we do follow rules.

Some of these application rules are more valid than others.  Some of them, for example, are denominational rules.  We “know” the text can’t mean something because the rules tell me it can’t.  My traditions tell me what the “naughty verses” are that do not fit so easily into my paradigm and the ones that are my “key verses” and memory verses.  While clearly many of these denominational rules are open to re-examination, these rules sometimes reflect God’s working with particular communities of faith.  God has ministered and led particular faith families through these rules. 

The key is never to split or get into destructive fights over these sorts of things.  There’s nothing wrong with individual Christian traditions having their own unique identities as long as we don’t mistake our group for the true church and don’t become divisive.  Indeed, we can hardly integrate biblical teaching together without making the kinds of choices that denominations represent.  This side of eternity we have to live with some uncertainty to biblical meaning.

But at the core of the rules is pay dirt.  At the same time that Martin Luther was crying, “Scripture only,” he was still interpreting the Bible according to the rules of common Christianity.  These are the core beliefs that God unfolded in the church by the Spirit in the first few centuries after Christ.  A person reading the Bible who doesn’t know these rules is just as likely to start a cult as lead people to hear the word of God.

Another dimension to the rules is a sense of when the Bible’s words are locked up in the ancient world and when they seem to leap off the page in direct relevance to today.  When we read something and think, “Whaaat?” we are often reading something that our spiritual common sense is telling us does not apply directly to today.  Clothing of mixed thread?  Don’t trim the edges of your beard?  Veil yourself while praying?  We know “The Rules” and they steer us in application.

3. There’s always room for reformation.
Balancing the spiritual common sense that the Spirit unfolds is the prophetic voice.  Sometimes our corporate common sense gets off track.  Sometimes our current culture needs to be critiqued.  This sort of critique tends to come from two directions. 

First, it can come from the original meaning of the biblical texts.  These texts did actually mean something when they were first written.  That meaning was a function of how words were used when the books were written.  Recovering the most likely meaning these words had is a science that studies things like grammar, history, and ancient literature.  Few ministers are really competent interpreters of the original meaning.  There is much room for improvement here.  Every once and a while, God sends a Martin Luther along to remind the church where it has let its common sense stray from the fountain of our story and identity.

But reformation can also come from prophets who can sense that we have strayed from basic principles.  Ironically, if one danger is to stop using the biblical text, the opposite danger is to get so close to the text that you forget the big picture.  This is the danger of fundamentalism, the danger of becoming like the Matthean Pharisees who were good at the letter of the Scripture but quite incompetent followers of God.  From time to time God sends prophets to help us see the heart of God once more and apply first principles to new situations.

4. The Spirit does just fine without us.
Perhaps most important is to realize that the Spirit does not need us as preachers.  God is in no hurry, but He gets us where He wants us to go, slowly but surely.  It’s like the person who tells the pastor after the sermon how much it helped them with such and such, but you realize you said nothing of the sort.  So God leads his dear children along.  Misinterpret boldly that the Spirit may come!  Not intentionally, of course, but you will misinterpret the Bible from its original meaning and you will do it often.  Try not to, but recognize that the Spirit will work with your words regardless.

And He doesn’t need an hour to do so.  We have to wonder in our attention deficit age if any sermon over twenty minutes is anything but a preacher enjoying listening to him or herself talk.  The people stopped listening ten minutes ago or more.  Say what God has put on your heart as you have danced with Scripture.  Then let God do the rest.

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  • B Whitesel

    Great insights Ken.

    I’ve noticed that an inordinate number of growing and healthy churches preach through the Bible in a linear, historical fashion. Basically this means each week another passage is considered in historical order. From Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa in the 1970s to Mars Hill of Seattle today, I have observed that this style of preaching has several advantages.

    1. Attendees begin to grasp the historical process of God’s revelation.
    2. Attendees learn a complete story rather than just snippets. More comprehensive understanding of the story usually results.
    3. This gets attendees into the Buble more because they can more easily read ahead (or review the story) to enhance understanding.
    4. This also creates anticipation (“What will happen to Ruth and Boaz next week?”). Think LOST 😉
    5. Curriculum of Sunday Schools and other types of small groups can be coordinated with the sermon to create unity across sub-congregations.
    6. This builds upon a postmodern preference for narrative.
    7. This creates a better flow as the whole story unfolds for a postmodern generation that is increasingly biblically illiterate.
    8. Finally, this tactic can promote Ken’s (inferred) advice that preachers become more “competent interpreters of the original meaning.”

    I’ve also noted in these healthy churches that the preachers tie these narratives to “how to” lessons (though only one lesson in each sermon today, rather than three). Thus, they adhere to Ken’s admonishment to balance the Bible with application.

    And, just a note on length. Ken is right, sermons are shorter today. But I also believe that each preacher has an innate length for their optimum sermon. And, as Ken alluded, this is often about 10 minutes shorter than the preacher thinks. But I have found a good measuring tool for proper sermon length: the preacher should ask their spouse 🙂

    Just some thoughts to add to your good insights Ken.

    • Dr. Whitesel,
      Thanks for the wise advice about asking your spouse as a measuring tool for sermon length.
      My fiancée has no problem telling me when I talk to much 

  • RE: time

    the interesting thing is that Bob mentioned Mars Hill. Driscoll routinely preaches to and past the 45 minute mark. I sense a disconnect between those that say the message should be 20 minutes to make up for attention span, yet we find a very successful multi-site church like Mars Hill going bananas?

    To what would one attribute it to?

  • Lenny Luchetti

    Ken writes: “But this is who we are and this is God’s primary place of speaking to us. The Bible is a sacrament of revelation, where ordinary words, indeed ancient words, become the very word of God to us today. These are our stories, the family stories we tell during dinner or around a campfire. They define us. They give us our sense of direction. We use them to wrestle with the issues the family is dealing with today. If we ignore them, we lose our sense of who we are.”

    Well said, Ken! Too often, we lose our story and, as you point out, our identity as the people of God because of how we tend to preach. More often than I’d like to admit, I preached relevant points that were disconnected from the biblical story of God’s redeeming love. Depending on the genre and form of the Bible text being preached, there may be a place for extracting relevant points. However, the danger of that is that we force the bible to fit into our world instead of having our world reshaped, reenvisioned, and reclaimed by the biblical story.
    Lenny

  • Justin J. Nierer

    When I think of length of a sermon,I simply think of a good sitcom which lasts, without commercials, maybe 23 minutes.

    Open, Engage, Create Conflict, Resolve Conflict, Apply.

    🙂

  • Justin J. Nierer

    As for Dr. Luchetti’s comments, I always remind my congregation of one very important point, “context is key” and I have spent a lot of time teaching and pointing out exactly what context is within a Biblical passage.

    I got into some trouble once when I was at a camp and heard an awful evangelist preach on oil for 45 minutes. Afterwards I said (and loudly according to my wife) “that sometimes oil is just oil.”

  • I think we have to be sensitive to the time thing, but I think we have to balance the whole attention span argument with the fact that people will go to see a 2-3 hour movie over and over again. Perhaps part of the problem is that we don’t bring the Word to life in a way that captures the listener’s hearts. That takes prayer, time in the Word and preaching what God is saying to preach in the way He has designed you to preach and He knows your audience. I am not promoting long sermons. But this ten-minutes-between-commercials attention span argument many raise kind of went out the window with advent of cable and pay-per-view tv, not to mention blockbuster movies (not the store). For my part, Andy Stanley’s book “Preaching for a Change” 9which emphasizes the single point mindset) realy affected my composition, but didn’t cause me to completely throw out my overall delivery to be a clone of his – that’s not who God made me and I’m not preaching to his congregation. But it did cause me to start looking at the passage and not just build point upon point toward a conclusion, and instead look for the overiding and undergirding truth of the whole passage, then parcel the (sub)points that build toward or point to it, revisiting the overall truth every 4-7 minutes. It’s not Andy and it’s not Charles (who are both awesome), it’s me as God designed me to preach. And that’s what I’m promoting – not what I do, not what they do, but what God wants each of us to do individually in delivering His Word, doing it in accordance with how He designed and gifted us. People who love to hear themselves talk need to shut up and let God talk. But we have to be willing to open our mouths for Him to speak through, and all of the methods, rules, advice and guidelines are worthless without the direction of the Spirit Himself, however long- or short-winded He’s feeling that day. 🙂

  • Oh, an addendum to my previous comment: One can also afford themselves a huge measure of freedom, build anticipation and allow the congregation the opportunity to “read ahead” in preparation, whether you are preaching topical and/or expositional series or “stand-alones”, by praying and planning ahead enough to publish your sermon titles and scipture texts you will be preaching from well ahead of when you are bringing them. While it lends itself to freedom by many accounts,claiming the expositional high-ground of always preaching straight through the Bible non-stop also has the down-side of providing an excuse (or cover-up) for lack of intentional planning.

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