Archives For Preaching

I recently finished Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ classic book Preaching & Preachers. There is no lack of talking points for the good Doctor. He is dogmatic, opinionated, and assertive about what he believes preaching to be. I found myself convicted, confirmed, and even bemused to the point of laughing out loud. The book was rich for me in all kinds of ways. For example, one interesting thing was how MLJ regarded altar calls in church services.

I grew up in a church tradition where altar calls were standard practice. And while I’ve preached many a sermon that included an altar call, for years now my church (and my preaching in it) doesn’t have them. Some believe this absence to be, at best, pastorally unwise or, at worst, incredibly unbiblical. 1 I thought it might be good to hear at least from one respected, if not hallowed, preacher on the reasons he didn’t employ them in the preaching event.

#1: It is wrong to put direct pressure on the will.
#2: The response of the man who “comes forward” isn’t so much the Truth itself as, perhaps, the personality of the evangelist, or fear, or some other kinds of psychological influence.
#3: The preaching of the Word and the call for decision shouldn’t be separated.
#4: The implication that sinners have an inherent power of decision and self-conversion.
#5: The implication that the evangelist is in a position to manipulate the Holy Spirit and His work.
#6: It tends to produce a superficial conviction of sin.
#7: You are encouraging people to think that their act of going forward somehow saves them.
#8: The implication that the Holy Spirit needs to be helped, aided, and supplemented – that the work must be hastened instead of leaving it the hands of the Spirit
#9: It raises the whole question of the doctrine of Regeneration.
#10: No sinner ever really “decides for Christ”; he flies to Christ in utter helplessness and despair as his only refuge and hope.

What is MLJ’s counsel to do en lieu of altar calls? The Doctor concludes:

The appeal must be in the Truth itself, and in the message. As you preach your sermon you should be applying it all the time, and especially, of course, at the end, when you come to the final application and to the climax. But the appeal is part of the message; it should be so inevitably. The sermon should lead men to see that this is the only thing to do. … I believe that the minister should always make an announcement in some shape or form that he is available to talk to anybody who wants to talk to him about their soul and its eternal destiny. 2

What Lloyd-Jones wants to make clear is that one doesn’t confuse not having an altar call with not having a call to respond at all. For him, the call to respond is peppered throughout the sermon. The issue at hand for the Doctor is the technique or instrument which employs altar calls for conversions. If you’d like to know more, I highly encourage you to pick up a copy to see his argumentation behind these ten reasons. If anything, it will be good food for thought for your own practices in preaching.

Notes:

  1. However, one would be taxed to produce an explicit example in the New Testament of a church service altar call. Maybe because it’s a fairly modern invention (See Charles Finney’s 19th century “anxious bench” technique).
  2. Preaching & Preachers, Zondervan, 2011, 296.

Recast : to melt something down and reshape it into another form;
to present something in a different way.

Let me give you one simple way to increase the effectiveness of your sermon. It has to do with recasting or presenting your sermon’s main point 1in a fashion that may not be intuitive for some. What do I mean? Often, because of training as preachers and expositors of the Scriptures, many a pastor constructs a main point that’s perfectly true to the text and immensely clear for the listener. For example, this week one of our campus pastors, after working through the parable of the Lost Son in Luke 15, constructed the main point of his message as follows:

Jesus came to seek and save the lost.

It’s good. It’s true. But I challenged him to recast it. Why? Because this is a main truth for the head, and it needs to be something more. I told him it needed “truth with some skin on it” – something you could relate to, feel, connect with. Listeners need truths presented in a way that speaks not only to their heads but their hearts as well. That’s why an effective preacher will ask himself if his message’s main point can be recast from a Main Truth for the Head into a Main Truth for the Heart? This isn’t an appeal for emotionalism or guilt-trip gimmicks, but an earnest rephrasing of a truth in order that congregants might better connect with both the intellectual and emotional reality of that truth.

But that can be hard to do. So, I asked my fellow pastor, “What is the emotional center of your message? What moves you about what your read in Luke 15? What stirs you in your gut about Jesus’ appeal to his listeners?” Without hesitation he responded, “Yancey, it’s that he’s there and he’s waiting.” That was it! He had just recast his main point and didn’t even realize it. Can you see feel the difference?

Jesus came to seek and save the lost.   vs   He’s there and he’s waiting!

The recast point has skin on it. It appeals to the heart. It’s something listeners can lean in to and feel for themselves. This is value and power behind recasting. It wraps our hearts into the main point by giving hooks to hang our emotions on instead of solely being in the head. In other words (and to channel my inner Jonathan Edwards), recasting hits after the affections and, as such, makes for a better message.

Try it. Ask yourself this week if your message’s main point needs recasting in order to hit both head and heart.

Notes:

  1. Yes, I generally favor one-point messages

No, Stephen King isn’t a pastor. I don’t believe anyone would confuse him with one. I think King himself would gladly acknowledge that reality. What you cannot deny is that he is both a prolific and successful writer. For years, good friends recommended I add his book On Writing to my reading list. So last week I grabbed it. Let me be clear, I have no illusions I’m a writer (I’m a speaker) but I am intrigued about writing better. I loved reading William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and William Strunk’s classic The Elements of Style, so I thought King’s book would at least be interesting. Man, was that an understatement. On Writing was absolutely fascinating! One of the reasons I enjoyed King’s book were the parallels it offered to sermon creation. Let me highlight one example concerning editing.

King speaks about the need to jettison anything in your creation that doesn’t move the story along. He writes, “If it works, fine. It if doesn’t, toss it. Toss it even if you love it. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once said, ‘Murder your darlings,’ and he was right.” 1 Too harsh? Hardly. What is true of writing novels is true of writing sermons. Far too often preachers deliver bloated, chunky, or dense messages which are difficult for the congregant to process simply because sermonizers refuse to cut things from their manuscripts. This is the classic example of a preacher being more in love with his content than its reception. It’s hard not to be. The finalized sermon manuscript is akin to having chest full of golden nuggets after dirtying yourself in the depths of the earth for the better part of a week. You love what you find. It came at a price. Plus, you believe that all of these discoveries will truly help your recipients (I mean, they are gold aren’t they?).

The problem with that is it’s not true. Many nuggets we think we need (our darlings) really aren’t needed. Indeed, they may be:

  1. Unaligned with the main idea of the sermon,
  2. Overkill a point or idea we’ve already explained,
  3. Give too much detail which loses our listeners,
  4. Be too theologically obtuse for people to think through,
  5. Or just a bad idea that we think is a good one.

Whatever the reason, if it doesn’t serve the listener it doesn’t serve the sermon. Cut it. The struggle is that preachers become emotionally attached to their content. King writes, “When a novelist is challenged on something he likes – one of his darlings – the first two words out of his mouth are almost always Yeah but.” 2 I hear the same things from preachers. Heck, I hear the same thing from myself. I try to defend the reason [X] should be in my sermon with a stable of Yeah but’s. Not to mention, in my heart, I’m protesting: I worked hard for that nugget! I came up with that nugget! I love that little piece of gold! My sermon should have every piece of gold I found! But great preaching is not only deciding which nuggets you bring with you in the pulpit but which nuggets you leave behind.

My fellow preachers, take King’s advice, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” 3

 

Notes:

  1. Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, New York: Scribner, 2000. 197.
  2. Ibid, 226.
  3. Ibid, 222.