The minutes of the early Methodist conference record John Wesley’s advice to preachers. He said a preacher should aim to do four things:
- Offer Christ
- Build up
Wesley does not explain what he means by these terms.
I take them to mean something like the following:
- Invite – to lay out for the congregation a vision of Christian holiness and/or Christian life; to invite them into this life by showing them what it means in its fullness.
- Convince – to challenge or stir up the congregation with the distance between the vision and the reality of our lives
- Offer Christ – to present the good news that in Jesus the door is opened for those who would accept the invitation
- Build up – to exhort and encourage the congregation to accept the offer of Christ or to stir up the grace they have already received to go on toward full holiness
I’m not at all certain that I have correctly described what these terms meant to Wesley. In reading his sermons, I do think I could stretch them to cover the various moves he makes in many of his sermons. In his advice to preachers, he suggests that they do these four things in various proportions in different sermons.
As I read over them, I am reminded that I tend to go the lightest on the second move, convince. I often find that I leave the exploration of the gap between the vision and the reality under developed or left to implication. Preachers such as Andy Stanley suggest we start at this very point. He writes of the need to open up questions and discontent in the congregation before you can offer them the good news. His style of preaching as laid out in his book Communicating for a Change might be sketched out as Convince, Offer Christ, Invite, Build up.
Of course, there is no one way to preach. But I do find it fruitful to ponder such things and try them out.
I stumbled upon the text of the first sermon I ever preached. It was at licensing school five years ago. You’ll figure out the text pretty quickly.
Join me now on a hillside in Judah. It is summer. The sun beats down through the humid air. We sweat and look in vain for a cooling cloud or even a gentle breeze. For forty days we have stood here on this hill. We wake up after a restless night on the hard ground. We eat a breakfast of dry bread and cheese. We take up our wooden shields and our spears, and slide helmets on our heads. And we stand in the sun staring across the valley at another army drawn up to oppose us.
We stand every day and listen to the Philistine giant rant and taunt us. Goliath is his name. He stands nine feet tall! His shield is so heavy, one of us could barely lift it. His spear is a bigger around than a normal person’s arm. He stands there in front of his army, in front of our army, and demands a champion come forward to fight him.
Craig Adams has overcome his aversion to offering preaching advice to share his thoughts about preaching and sermon preparation. It is worth your time to read, ponder, and perhaps argue with.
Here’s a taste. Adams says time spent in crafting a sermon is often wasted.
Why is that? Because the number one rule for preaching (and public speaking, as well) is: have something worthwhile to say! If you don’t have anything worthwhile to say, no amount of sermon technique is going to save you. You are dead in the water. On the other hand, if you’ve got something worthwhile to say — and you are excited about saying it — you’ve still got a good message. Good technique can make a good message better. But, it can’t save a boring or pointless or vacuous message. That is still boring. (And, don’t bother with the Power Point, either.)
A reading for the third Sunday in Lent: Luke 13:1-9
A sermon draft I posted here in 2010, the last time this text came up in the lectionary, has been getting a few hits this week. My thinking has not changed much since then. But I do notice that I must have been preaching from the NIV that week.
In verse 8, the NIV says “the gardener” will spread fertilizer around the tree. The NRSV gives us what I assume is a more literal translation with “manure.”
So, the question arises: Have you been flinging around manure like Jesus this week?
In the class I teach at Indiana University, use a classic piece on communication early in the semester to set up conversations with the students about the processes and parts of communication.
Part of the chapter is a four-part explication of what has to happen for communication to have a chance to have the effect you desire.
- You must gain the audience’s attention.
- You must use a set of “signs” that the audience can understand and that the audience interprets in the same way you do.
- You must evoke a need within the audience.
- You must give the audience a way to act or respond that is possible for the audience.
In both the chapter and the class conversation we talked about the fact that communication almost never has the effect we intend if we do not start from where our audience is. You need to start within the beliefs and values the audience already holds and then try to move them toward the goal.
None of this is new or revolutionary, which is why I use it with sophomores.
But it does get me thinking about the sermon as an act of communication. I hear common sermon advice in here. Andy Stanley wrote a whole book that pretty much covers these same points. Rick Warren writes about the need for to evoke a felt need. Paul in Athens famously followed the bulk of this advice when he preached. Even John Wesley shows in his journals how much he thinks about where his audience is as he determines what to preach.
And yet, I am also mindful of how many voices — especially post-liberals and neo-Barthians — counsel treating the sermon as an impossibility. Will Willimon writes often about the fact that it requires a miracle for us to hear the sermon rightly.
So, I wonder about the balance between technique and Spirit in preaching — and communication in general.