Preaching a New Way

In this article, I’ll include excerpts from a recent sermon and share some thoughts about sermon preparation and delivery. Every pastor prepares sermons differently. My goal here is a combination of mechanics and approach―how to best capture and communicate what God is doing with what He’s saying, and to deliver shorter, more effective sermons.

All the examples which follow are from a sermon on Acts 8:2-25, titled “Peter and the Magician.”

Introductions

The introduction and conclusion are now the only portions of my sermons I script. Here is the introduction:

 

I use Abraham Kuruvilla’s acrostic “INTRO method,” which takes strong discipline but is well worth it (A Manual for Preaching: The Journey from Text to Sermon (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019), ch. 7). I leave it to the reader to seek out his text and read the approach for yourself, but you can see it in my outline.

You begin with a striking image that grabs people’s attention, to get them to commit to listen to the sermon in those first crucial minutes. I never use books of illustrations or scour the internet. I read quite a bit and my illustrations usually come from (1) news stories I read, (2) historical anecdotes, or less often (3) stories from my law enforcement and investigations career. You must be able to make some kind of tangible leap from the illustration to the substance of the sermon.

You then pivot to ask probing questions, to get the congregation to see why they ought to listen―why they must listen. You should never tell people the application or reveal “what God is doing with what He’s saying” in the introduction. Do. Not. Do. It. You are not a lawyer, making an argument. Don’t lay out a precis of your “case,” then spend the sermon “proving” it to a jury. Just ask questions that provoke introspection, related to the application move that is implicit in the text. In this case (see above), you can see where I go with my questions.

I then switch to a general statement of the topic, usually in the form of a question to be answered. Again, do not unveil your application or the force of the passage.

Then, state the passage text and lay out a “contract” of sorts by providing the structure of the sermon―the “moves” you’ll be making, so the congregation can follow your progress. Kuruvilla sums it up well (Manual, p. 191):

The Image says: Get ready to hear this sermon.

The Need says: This is why you should hear this sermon.

The Topic says: This is what you are going to hear.

The Reference says: This is from where you are going to hear it.

The Organization says: This is how you are going to hear it.

I try to keep my introductions to four minutes. I made it with this sermon. However, this past Sunday (16 October 2021), it ran to 5:30. You can’t win them all … I did this introduction in about four and a half minutes:

Move 1―The Scattering

Here is where my newer method for preparing my notes takes form. I include virtually no notes at all. I simply highlight key things I wish to emphasize, and insert terse comments on things I want to be sure I don’t blank out on as I’m speaking:

This is where my choices for emphasis might raise some eyebrows. As I said in a previous article, I don’t think “audiobook commentary” preaching is real preaching at all. So, I don’t comment on everything in the text. I leave a lot out. I only highlight the key points that I believe God would have us “see” in the text, in light of what I believe He’s “doing with what He’s saying.”

So, this means I do not dwell on the nature or extent of the persecution. I basically let the text float me along and only make a few comments. I note Luke’s interesting word choice to describe Paul’s fanaticism, but move quickly. I cover vv.1-3 in perhaps two minutes. I believe it is a mistake to park here and chat about persecution. That is a worthy topic, but it isn’t Luke’s point in this passage. It is an appropriate topic for the confrontations with the Council at Acts 3-4.

Acts 8:4-8 present another challenge, and another opportunity to resist audiobook preaching. How many of us are tempted to stop with Acts 8:2-8? The problem is that this is only setting the stage for the real point of the passage―Simon’s conversion and his confrontation with the Apostle Peter.

Don’t get me wrong―you can do something with Acts 8:2-8. I just don’t believe you’d be sensitive to the “connectedness” of the passage if you did. This section sets the stage; it isn’t meant to stand on its own. Don’t cut it here and make a sermon about persecution + evangelism, then conclude with a flourish with something like “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church!” What are your people supposed to do with that information? They’ll have heard a lecture, not a message aimed at transformation.

So:

  • I resisted the urge to speak on the apostolic sign gifts. I mentioned them, but didn’t park there. I emphasized they were markers of God’s kingdom power breaking into a black and white world with brilliant colors.
  • I spent more time emphasizing the “paid attention to” remark, which Luke repeats several more times. It’s critical to understanding Simon’s mindset, and his actions.

I covered vv. 4-8 in four minutes. The entire sermon is 11 minutes long, as I finish v. 8.

Move 2―The Magician Joins the Family!

Now we move to the heart of the passage, and this is where I spend most of my time:

My notes speak for themselves, so I won’t belabor the point. Notice that I have no “notes,” in the traditional sense. I’m working entirely from highlights, with some occasional cryptic notes that I want to be sure I remember to emphasize. My hermeneutical aim is to focus on the way Luke juxtaposes the allegiance shift from Simon to Phillip. This is critical. You cannot miss this in favor of speculation about the genuineness of Simon’s faith. Commentators will do this. Ignore them. It’s irrelevant to Luke, it’s irrelevant to you, and it’s irrelevant to your congregation. Luke is not interested in Simon’s salvation―he’s interested in his reaction to Peter and John when they mediate the gift of the Spirit!

It’s the allegiance shift that’s important, because it sets up Simon’s reaction at the forthcoming “Samaritan Pentecost.” Notice that the Samaritans previously “paid attention” to Simon, but now they’ve “paid attention” to Philip. Notice also how Simon encouraged people to give him quasi-worship. This should be your focus. But, again, it cannot end here. Don’t cut your sermon and tell folks to return next week―that would be awful! Move quickly to the confrontation.

I covered vv. 9-13 in five minutes:

Move 3―The Confrontation (Pentecost 2.0)

I’m still not quite at the crucial part of the sermon. Rather, we have here the final piece of the puzzle that sets up the event:

I spend little time on this―I want to hasten on. My focus is not on the theological implications of the Samaritan Pentecost, though I do mention it. Instead, my focus is on the fact that Simon, the magician who had used dark arts to deceive many, literally sees something more powerful, more awesome than anything he’s ever seen before. What would a man like Simon do, in this circumstance? He’s an immature professing believer―what will he do?

My short notes reveal I don’t tarry long, here. I do something unusual and script a list of rhetorical questions to ask the congregation, because I want to get this right. I cover vv. 14-17 in less than two minutes:

Move 4―The Confrontation (Simon and Peter)

Now, we get to it:

 

This is the heart of the sermon. This is where Simon’s request to Peter can be seen in a holistic light. The guy is reverting back to type; he sees a chance to obtain some of the notoriety he once had while still serving God. He’s bitter, envious, chained up by his own sin. Simon wants his social position back, and he sees a “good” way to get it.

This is more “real” than viewing Simon like a Looney Tunes character and declaring he was a heretic, or “immature.” That’s no good. He was a real person. We’re real people. We do things for the wrong reasons. We lie to ourselves. We “know better,” but we do it anyway.

Again, I script a few particularly important notes, but I basically survive with highlights and terse comments in the margin. I covered vv. 18-24 in just over seven minutes, by far the longest time I parked during the sermon:

Exhortation

I again follow Kuruvilla’s formatting, here, and use a “Tell + Show + Image + Challenge” approach. In this sermon, I ditched the last “image” and only used three elements. Again, I fully script the conclusion because it’s important to land this plane well:

Some final thoughts

My burden here is to share my new method for sermon preparation: no manuscripting, highlights for important things, terse comments in the margin for very important things, and scripted comments only for the most critical items.

This style requires a certain comfort with extemporaneous speaking, within limits. It also takes ruthless message discipline―a quest to go beyond exegesis to synthesis, a sensitivity for genre, an eye for natural thought-units, and an ability to sift the considerable chaff out of the commentaries. It also demands a relentless focus on application―on practical sanctification. How will God’s implicit movement to action in this passage make our congregation more like Christ, corporately and individually? What does God want us to do with what He’s saying? Concretely, exactly, not abstractly?

I’ve found this new style is working for me. The sermons are shorter, tighter, more focused, more direct, more helpful. They take much less time to prepare. It may not work for you. But, then again, perhaps my thoughts here can be helpful to you.

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There are 13 Comments

T Howard's picture

Tyler, thanks for showing us the process you follow in preaching. Question for you: if you were the audience listening to this sermon and wanting to take notes, what would be the key points (not necessarily in outline form) from the sermon that you would write down to help you to remember the sermon and the application?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

INTRO seems like a pretty good sermon evaluation/prep tool, among others. One preacher who regularly did a great job from my point of view as a listener had a simpler tool. Ask yourself three questions: What do I want them to know? What do I want them to feel? What do I want them to do?    ... this isn't comprehensive and doesn't address the issue of handling the text correctly at all, so a variant I prefer is more along the lines of: What does the passage want us to know? What does the passage want us to feel? What does the passage want us to do?  (Resemblance to orthodoxy, orthopathy, orthopraxis is not coincidental.)

There's some ground between true "audiobook commentary" preaching and "leaving a lot out."

I don't take the position that every sermon should be one-text and focused on every word in that text. That doesn't work at all for narrative or poetry, for example. And I think pastoral leadership requires at least the occasional topical message.

I'm also OK with looking at a text, seeing multiple truths and topics in it (that are really there) and choosing one to emphasize per the need of the congregation at the time.

But there are risks...

  • Listeners can get distracted by the bits you decided to skip. 'Mental dialog: Why didn't we talk about this? What does this phrase mean?'  The skipped bits might even seem to contradict the parts you didn't skip.
  • If we always choose an emphasis we want and never identify and preach the emphasis of the text (this is not always possible w/certainty or high confidence, I realize), we risk hobby horsing.
  • Keeping a close relationship between assertions/emphases and the text not only imparts the core of the message but also teaches hearers how to interpret Scripture. It's sad to waste that opportunity on a regular basis.

That said, my own habit has been to look for the emphasis, truths, applications in the text and select what to emphasize and shape the message around that, a good bit of the time. But I also try to be very textual (lot's of "look at this word" and "look at this phrase" and "why am I saying X? Notice verse 10" etc.), explain my reasoning concisely, and at least acknowledge what I'm skipping over. In narrative, sometimes it's kind of a "I'm going to skip over several verses here to help us manage the time and stay focused this morning" etc. Other times, it's closer to "There's an interesting phrase in v.3 we can't go into right now. Hopefully we'll get to it another day."

What I want to say above all else is "It's really the Book that matters, not my thoughts." I want to communicate that by how I interact with the Book, not by saying "it's really the book that matters."  Their relationship with the Word is going to matter long after my message and long after I'm gone.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

T Howard's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

INTRO seems like a pretty good sermon evaluation/prep tool, among others. One preacher who regularly did a great job from my point of view as a listener had a simpler tool. Ask yourself three questions: What do I want them to know? What do I want them to feel? What do I want them to do?    ... this isn't comprehensive and doesn't address the issue of handling the text correctly at all, so a variant I prefer is more along the lines of: What does the passage want us to know? What does the passage want us to feel? What does the passage want us to do?  (Resemblance to orthodoxy, orthopathy, orthopraxis is not coincidental.)

My sermon delivery has been tremendously shaped by the book Text-Driven Preaching. One of the insights I gleaned from the book is to write the main points of your sermon as an application. In other words, your sermonic points should do more than just describe what is happening in the passage, they should call for a response from your congregation.

After listening to Kuruvilla's sermon that Tyler shared, I'm intrigued as to how someone in the congregation would take notes based on how the narrative was presented. To me, Kuruvilla's sermon lacked an organizing structure. Instead, it seemed more like a random assemblage of exegetical points / details. I gleaned that Mark was presenting the woman as a disciple par excellence and contrasting her to Jesus' own disciples. Kuruvilla showed what made this woman's faith better than the faith of the disciples. However, Kuruvilla's sermon lacked an organizing structure to help his audience process and remember the flow of the narrative and subsequent application. His best attempt was to describe the pericope as a sandwich / hamburger.

That being said, I come to the text with an analytic mind that looks for relationships and a logical thought process. Sermons that lack points, guideposts, or some sort of framing tend to be less helpful to me as I'm making notes and thinking about application to my life.

Don Johnson's picture

I used to be much more critical of other preachers and their styles than I am now. The thing is, God uses all kinds of styles to accomplish his purposes. If you look back to, say, chrysostom, I don't know anyone who uses his style today. Are we so arrogant to say God can't use that style, or didn't use that style? I don't think so. I have my own style, with many influences. I don't follow any one particular "preaching guru". I've read a good number of them, pick up hints here and there. 
 

in the end what we are required to do is be faithful to God's word and preach the gospel. If a man does that, I don't criticize his style

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

T Howard's picture

I appreciate Tyler posting about his preaching journey. It is both instructive and helpful to me to see how other guys make and present the cake. It's also a good reminder that expository preaching is not a style but a methodology. Each expository preacher needs to find his own "voice" or style. Too many guys want to imitate their preaching heroes instead of learning from their heroes and developing their own voice.

Tyler's posts help us also understand that we need to constantly sharpen our preaching blade. I certainly need sharpening. The biggest weakness in my preaching is lack of application. That is why I switched over to an application-focused sermonic outline. That forces me to think in terms of application when I preach through a pericope.

So again, Tyler, thanks for showing us the process you follow in preaching.

Craig Toliver's picture

Don Johnson wrote:

I used to be much more critical of other preachers and their styles than I am now. The thing is, God uses all kinds of styles to accomplish his purposes. If you look back to, say, chrysostom, I don't know anyone who uses his style today. Are we so arrogant to say God can't use that style, or didn't use that style? I don't think so. I have my own style, with many influences. I don't follow any one particular "preaching guru". I've read a good number of them, pick up hints here and there. 
 

in the end what we are required to do is be faithful to God's word and preach the gospel. If a man does that, I don't criticize his style

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pzaKOV_h-xY

The Biggest Step the IFB Needs to Take

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Mark's point is part of what I was trying to get at. Growing up, I heard faithful expositors on Sundays (sometimes topical but still expositors) and often in school chapels, but also in school chapels I heard the R.B. Ouellette approach: little or no relationship between the assertions and the Scripture portions they supposedly derive from. (An no, Mark, that sort of preaching is not unusual for R.B.)

Ward is a lot more sanguine about the whole thing than I tend to be. Maybe that sort of handling of Scripture is less damaging than my instincts tell me it is.... but I can't feel that deeply.

So, it's just a passion of mine that when I preach or teach, I want them to not only get my point but also get how I got it from Scripture.

About note taking...

During high school, someone decided all students needed to take notes on every sermon in chapel and at church during the week. That typically meant at least 5 a week for me in those days. It didn't take long to discover that some preachers had an organized message and some didn't. So for the latter, you just wrote down random thoughts that stood out during the message.

I'm not convinced that lack of clear structure meant these were bad sermons. Some were, some weren't. But that's a bit of a modern expectation, and some guys were quite effective despite having no structure I could identify.   Still, though it's a modern expectation you have to preach in a culturally effective idiom. But do people even still expect clear structure? I'm not sure that's any longer the case. But it's moot in my case. I can't preach without one. 

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Aaron, your experience is very much like mine.  I took notes on about six sermons a week for many years.  I later realized that this was some of the best possible training for ministry.  I saw other men struggling with sermon structure, but I had analyzed the structure of hundreds of sermons before I began to preach regularly.  For me, structure came almost as naturally as breathing.  I think that practice, first an assignment, then a habit, was more valuable to me than any course on homiletics. 

Bob Jones, Jr. advocated sermons without an obvious structure.  He was a master orator, but I believe congregations learn and grow better when they look for the structure of sermons.  In fact, my wife will sometimes complain if she hears a sermon where the structure is not clear.  To her, such a sermon seems poorly prepared.  I once taught a class in homiletics in a local church Bible Institute.  Some men found sermon outlining difficult.  Others did so with ease.  Usually those who excelled were men whose own pastors made their sermon structure clear. 

Bob Jones did not teach that one should not have structure, but that it should not be transparent.  Well and good for some people, but for those who themselves teach SS or preach, learning by the example of others is probably the best training they can receive.  For that to happen, the structure needs to be obvious.

G. N. Barkman

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Aaron Blumer wrote:

I'm not convinced that lack of clear structure meant these were bad sermons. Some were, some weren't. But that's a bit of a modern expectation, and some guys were quite effective despite having no structure I could identify.   Still, though it's a modern expectation you have to preach in a culturally effective idiom. But do people even still expect clear structure? I'm not sure that's any longer the case. But it's moot in my case. I can't preach without one. 

As a listener rather than a preacher, I think a sermon has to have at least some structure if it is to accomplish it's purpose.  It doesn't have to be so clear that I can make an immediate outline of parallel points.  Like you, I had to take a lot of sermon notes when I was younger.  I no longer do so, as I find that while trying to write down the last point made, I often miss the current one.  That's not ideal.  I can't listen well to follow the arguments if I'm spending too much time recording them.  (And, it's even harder to do if the sermon has no discernable structure when I'm trying to decide what to write down.)  My wife likes taking notes, and I can refer to hers later if I need them.

However, a topical sermon needs to support the points the preacher is making about the topic, and an expository one has to bring out the point(s) of the passage.  If the sermon has no structure at all, but meanders around, it really doesn't do its job for the listener.  A good sermon must needs be true to scripture and well argued, and hence, a good sermon will have a structure that eventually becomes clear, even if it's not immediately obvious like 3 parallel points with sub-points.  Good oration can be interesting to listen to, especially if the speaker is captivating, but if it doesn't make and support an argument (whether or not I agree with the argument made), I think it was an overall waste of time.

Dave Barnhart

T Howard's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

Mark's point is part of what I was trying to get at. Growing up, I heard faithful expositors on Sundays (sometimes topical but still expositors) and often in school chapels, but also in school chapels I heard the R.B. Ouellette approach: little or no relationship between the assertions and the Scripture portions they supposedly derive from. (An no, Mark, that sort of preaching is not unusual for R.B.)

I've never heard of or read R.B. Ouellette, but if what Mark describes is true, his preaching is nothing more than spiritualizing. This kind of preaching was rampant in the large IFB church I attended out of college. People were amazed by all the "spiritual truths" that various guest preachers would pull out of the text they preached. Many of these men had honorary doctorates and were known as revivalist or evangelistic preachers.

To Mark's point, when someone actually spent the time to understand the text being preached, most of what these noted revivalist preachers said came from their imagination instead of the Scripture. Regardless, they received numerous "amens" during their sermons and were invited back year after year because of their "powerful preaching."

I agree with Mark and Aaron. This type of preaching is dangerous to the health of the church. This type of preaching fuels all sorts of aberrant doctrines in IFB churches (KJVO being the most notable).

JSwaim's picture

I thnk this paragraph summarizes the objection(s) to what Tyler is presenting both in his sermon and the link to Kuruvilla's

After listening to Kuruvilla's sermon that Tyler shared, I'm intrigued as to how someone in the congregation would take notes based on how the narrative was presented. To me, Kuruvilla's sermon lacked an organizing structure. Instead, it seemed more like a random assemblage of exegetical points / details. I gleaned that Mark was presenting the woman as a disciple par excellence and contrasting her to Jesus' own disciples. Kuruvilla showed what made this woman's faith better than the faith of the disciples. However, Kuruvilla's sermon lacked an organizing structure to help his audience process and remember the flow of the narrative and subsequent application. His best attempt was to describe the pericope as a sandwich / hamburger.

The interesting thing to me is that the writer objects that he could not take notes from the sermon, yet he fully grasped the meaning of the sermon himself.  He got the main idea (I gleaned that Mark was presenting the woman as a disciple par excellence and contrasting her to Jesus' own disciples).  He recognized the supporting evidence for this main thrust (Kuruvilla showed what made this woman's faith better than the faith of the disciples).  And though he complained that the sermon had inadequate structure, he knows the structure of the biblical paragraph itself ( [he] describe[d] the pericope as a sandwich / hamburger).  If I preach a sermon and my audience comes away knowing my main point, understanding the elements of the passage that contribute to the main point, and understand the structure OF THE TEXT, I don't care if they get my sermonic structure or if I have one.  Those things are secondary to understanding the text itself.

I think this "new homiletic" is kindof like watching a movie.  At the end of the movie, rarely if ever have I taken notes so that I can produce an outline of the plot.  But if the movie was interesting and I followed the story, I can usually give an accurate summary of the movie.  .When preaching didactic sections of scripture, I think outlines are a fine thing.  But in narrative sections, I think this "new homiletic" more effectively communicates the truth of scripture.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I have to admit I've seen more narrative passages awkwardly carved up and 'ruined' in sermons by the traditional outline route than by the 'no discernable structure' route. I'm sure I've done it a few times. So I'm not for saying we need to structure narrative preaching the same way as didactic passages. My only push back on 'new homiletic' is that there's always a tendency toward a trendy overreaction dynamic. So, in conservative evangelicalism--as in all things human--we see something that's a problem or not as good as it could be, then overcorrect by pushing an alternative that rejects both the good and the bad in the 'old way.'"  Then eventually the cycle repeats, swinging back the other way.   

So I guess what I'm saying is that there isn't any need to say always preach narrative with a traditional outline or never preach narrative with a traditional outline. The core commitment needs to be to correctly understanding the text and what it means and then to effectively communicating what a particular congregation at a moment in time needs to see in that correct understanding. It can be done with or without this or that sort of structure.

When I preached through Acts I didn't find it difficult to identify a strong theme in the text and shape the delivery around that using a traditional outline while retelling the story (though not always: sometimes the group already knows the story well, and so I didn't really retell it). When I preached through 1 and 2 Kings, though, that was far more difficult, because sometimes a thematic unit has quite a lot of verses in it. So you find yourself preaching three chapters in one sermon. So I got more creative with those. At the time, I'd attended some workshops on narrative preaching at a conference. They were helpful in some ways but I walked away convinced that I could not preach narrative the way they were advocating (it was much closer to this 'new' homiletic though we're talking a decade ago at least). The key is to let the story dominate, but I couldn't do that without a structure that was comfortable for me in delivery. 

So my view on narrative is that a preacher needs to find a mode of delivery that is comfortable for him while being diligent with the text. If they do, they'll get out of the way and the story will dominate. So, my advice: let the story grip you. Make sure it grips you. Then communicate the way that works for you. If you do that, there's no way the story is going to fail to dominate.  (And I think it works for the audience too, regardless of the official structure of the message.)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

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