Worst Sermon Ever

On Saturday night I was struck with a feeling that I have from time to time: that my sermon for Sunday was not good. I was convinced it was one of my worst sermons ever.

As I looked it over I thought: My exegesis and hermeneutics are good, I’m presenting the Gospel and talking about how the Gospel speaks to all of life…  The essential elements were in place, so what was I worried about?

Maybe I was just tired from the long drive back from California, maybe I was just feeling that the final draft wasn’t like the way I originally envisioned the message. But I went to church on Sunday morning asking God more than usual to speak through me, even through this message.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way. But here’s the irony: it seems that every time I feel this way, convinced that my sermon – although it has all the right elements – is not my best, God seems to use it in an extra special way.

This Sunday, through this message, I had more than one person respond to my invitation to give their life to Jesus and make a decision for him. Another person told my wife that it was the best sermon I had ever preached. I got several emails and text messages after church about the message from people saying they were encouraged and blessed by it.  Here’s the audio of that message.

On a previous occasion, where I specifically remember telling my wife that my sermon was going to be my worst ever, I preached a message which again someone afterwards told me was my best ever, and now has also become one of my favorite sermons as well. When it recently aired on our radio program on GraceFM, we had several people contact our church asking for copies of it. A newer member of our church ran across that message a week or so ago and shared it on Facebook, and then wrote me that if I preached that message every Sunday, he would come – it was the best sermon he’d ever heard in his life. Here’s the audio of that message.

What should I make of this?

I heard Timothy Keller say once in a lecture to pastors about preaching, that we should always seek to prepare “Good Sermons” – meaning that we should make sure all the essential elements are in there: good exegesis and hermeneutics, good presentation of the Gospel and of Jesus as the answer to all the riddles, that they are “Good”. Our job is to prepare “Good Sermons” – because only God can make a sermon “Great” – and that happens, when the Holy Spirit takes our “Good Sermons” and makes them “Great” in the hearts and minds of our hearers. If we try to make “Great Sermons” we will be trying too hard to do something that only God can do.

When I heard him say that, I agreed in theory that he was right, but more and more I am experiencing the reality myself. God likes to glorify Himself, and it’s less about me that I am inclined to think. Praise God for that.

The Age of Technique

I have been reading Timothy Keller's new book: Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism. Much of the material is familiar to me from lectures I've heard him give, but I am still very much enjoying reading it, and it is presented very well.

Here's one quote from the book which caught my attention:

Our era has been called the “age of technique.” No civilized society has put more emphasis on results, skills, and charisma— or less emphasis on character, reflection, and depth. This is a major reason why so many of the most successful ministers have a moral failure or lapse.

I think he's hit the nail on the head. Oh, that our society as a whole would care more about depth of character than simply pragmatic results – and that especially we who are Christians would be more focused on godly character than we often are.

What Makes for Good Preaching?

What differentiates good preaching from mediocre preaching?

Surely you know it when you hear it, but it can’t be just a subjective thing – there must be some criteria that differentiate good preaching from not-as-good preaching.

I recently heard Timothy Keller differentiate between good preaching and great preaching. He said that “good preaching” is the altar and that “great preaching” is when God brings the fire upon the altar. In other words: preachers shouldn’t strive to preach “great” sermons, but should work to preach “good” sermons – because only God can take a “good” sermon and by the power of the Holy Spirit make it a “great” sermon within the hearer.

So what makes for good preaching?

Here are some thoughts:

  • A good sermon, no matter what text it is preached from, has to preach the Gospel. Just as every town in England has a road which leads from it to London, every text in the Bible has a road from it which leads to Christ. If all the Scriptures ultimately point to Him, a good sermon must preach the Good News of Jesus Christ.
  • Yet, a good sermon must be faithful to the text. It must not manipulate the text to simply be a “proof text” to back up the point that the speaker wants to make; it must be true exegesis, which determines what the author, and God through the author, intended to communicate through that text.
  • Furthermore, good preaching is an art form – it must be informative, it must be touching emotionally, and it must be moving inspirationally.  I heard Timothy Keller say that when you are preaching, people should be taking notes, but when you get to the part of your sermon that is about Jesus, you should seek to portray him as so captivating that people can’t help but stop taking notes when you talk about Him, and when they leave, they should leave wanting to do something because of what they’ve heard.
  • Another friend of mine – and an elder at White Fields Church – put it this way:
    • In our conversation he even put it this way: “A good sermon takes you to a place you’ve never been before, or it takes you to a place that is so intimate that you are emotionally moved”

What do you think?  What are other essential elements of “good” preaching? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

The Interactive Sermon

The past 2 Sundays at White Fields we’ve been trying something new, where our background slide invites people to text or tweet their questions in during the sermon. Once we get these questions, I will answer some during the service if we have time, or I will answer them on The City – our church’s in-house social network.

The response we’ve gotten to this has been really good! I’ve really enjoyed engaging with people and answering their questions. You can read some of those discussions here. Look for the posts titled “Sermon Follow-Up”.

I think that in this day and age, with the proliferation of the internet especially, sermons need to be more interactive. Finding the right way to do this though, is what is hard.

Timothy Keller, at his Sunday night services in NYC, has had a question and answer time for years. It’s a main part of the service – and it invites skeptics to come and do what New Yorkers do best: be skeptical and inquisitive. Tim Keller has said that the average young adult in New York is a thinker and thinkers have questions, and if you want them to really consider Christianity, you have to give them a chance to have their questions answered.

Nowadays, any news article you read online gives readers the option to engage in a comments section, where they can have a discussion about the content of the article. Any attitude in churches of “don’t question anything” is completely disconnected from where our culture is at today, especially with young people. Furthermore, I feel that if pastors are not answering the real questions that people are asking and struggling with, if we are not addressing the issues that people are really wondering about and discussing, then we have become irrelevant talking heads. If everywhere in the world there is transparency and discussion is encouraged, but at church we have smokescreens and we don’t like questions, what does that communicate to people? Perhaps that we lack the confidence that is required to allow people to ask questions? That shouldn’t be the case.

However, the danger in opening up to engagement like this, is that it inevitably gives a platform to haters – people who don’t have sincere questions, but who ask questions in order to be critical or in an attempt to trip others up. This is something that Jesus dealt with a lot from the Pharisees and Sadducees, who put a lot of effort into tripping him up. I’m sure that Timothy Keller gets tons of people like this as well, but it doesn’t deter him from encouraging people to ask questions and give him the chance to offer a biblical answer.

What are your thoughts on encouraging engagement with sermons? How have you seen it done effectively – or ineffectively?

What Are We Fighting For?

Recently I have been reading the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.

I’ve been very impressed with the way that Bonhoeffer acted as a Christian during the Nazi period, in which EVERY Christian was faced with an intense ethical dilemma because of the evils acted out by the Nazi regime.

This Sunday at White Fields I taught 1 Samuel 11. In that chapter the town of Jabesh-Gilead is attacked by the Ammonites, and Saul, hearing the news, sends a message to all the men of Israel that they need to come to the defense of the people of Jabesh-Gilead, or else.
This was a time in Israel, when it would have been wrong to do nothing.

Surely, Bonhoeffer lived in such a time as well – when it would have been ethically wrong to do nothing in the face of the evils of the Nazi regime. If being a Christian is all about being conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29), and as those who are part of the body of Christ, God would have us do His work, being his mouthpiece, his hands and his feet – there are great implications, as Bonhoeffer knew better any, for us as Christians and how we act and respond in the face of evil, injustice and other things which God is opposed to.

Bonhoeffer famously said:

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In light of this, I can’t help but wonder what the great issues of our day, and our time and place are. What are the things that God would have us as Christians stand up for and fight against in this day?

It says there in 1 Samuel 11, that when Saul heard about how the people of Jabesh-Gilead were being mistreated, the Spirit of the Lord came upon him, and he became angry. That anger moved him to action.

I wonder what the issues are in our day that we should rightly be upset about, and that God would move us to righteous action for.

Yesterday, Eric Metaxas, the author of that biography about Bonhoeffer wrote this on Twitter:

Do you agree?  If so, what are the issues in our day that we should be pushing hard about?

To add a counterpoint, this is what Timothy Keller posted on Facebook today:

Jesus didn’t come to solve the economic, political, and social problems of the world. He came to forgive our sins. – Timothy Keller

It is true that Jesus did come to redeem the world, not by fixing the social problems of the day, or by driving out the Romans, but by dying on the cross for our sins.

What does this mean for us as Christians? Should our focus be other-worldly, i.e. saving people from this world unto the next life and the world which is to come, since this world will soon pass away — or, since eternal life starts now (John 17:3), should we be seeking to do the will of God here and now by coming against evil social structures and injustice, working to put an end to human suffering? Certainly this was a major theme of the Old Testament, but not something addressed much in the New Testament.

Are these two concepts at odds with each other, or can they be reconciled?

I don’t believe they are at odds – I think there is a healthy “both this and that” approach, but finding that balance of focus and knowing which hills God would have us fight on is something for which we must seek wisdom and guidance from God.

I’d love to hear your thoughts! Feel free to comment below.