On Being a Bi-Vocational Pastor

I remember several years ago when I first became aware that celebrity pastors live in a different world than ordinary pastors. They have staffs. They’re better paid. They often have fewer preaching responsibilities. They don’t have to clean the bathrooms. They probably don’t meet with the volunteer janitor on a Saturday morning to install LED bulbs above the platform, so the video livestream can capture a better picture. They’re well-meaning, but they live in a different world. A parallel universe. Only someone disconnected from “normal” ministry could write something like this:1

… the Holy Spirit has commissioned us to be his instruments, and our job is to do everything we can to be sharp instruments in his redemptive hands. I will tell you what this means for me. It means that I can’t have a fresh encounter with the truths I am to communicate from a particular portion of Scripture on the week that they are to be preached. A week does not give me enough content and communication time. I work ahead to prepare to preach wherever I am called. This means that when I prepare the content of a message, it is the message that I’ll be preaching in three or four weeks.

This gives time for truths to marinate in my own heart and become more deeply and practically understood. On the week that the sermon is to be preached, I preach it aloud to myself some fifteen or twenty times. As I do this, both my understanding of the passage and the creative ways it can be communicated deepen and develop.

In this excerpt, Paul Tripp is trying to exhort pastors to dedicate time to studying the Bible and communicating well. He’s trying to help. I never finished his book. I stopped when I read that bit, and never picked the book up again. This is a utopia, a fantasy; a world of make believe. All that’s missing are the unicorns. Who knows, maybe they were on the next page?

In this article, I’ll briefly sketch what my ministry activities were during the past week. It’s representative of what happens most weeks. I don’t intend to hold myself up as a role model; I’m well aware of my shortcomings. I only wish to present a more realistic look at pastoral ministry, from a bi-vocational perspective.

Christmas madness

I did my Christmas sermon this past Sunday (23 December) from Zechariah’s prophesy about his son, John (Luke 1:67-80). I think it went pretty well. My own experience is that Christmas and Easter are not well-attended; people are often away visiting family.

After church, I had very little time to relax. The Christmas Eve service was the next evening, and my sermon was not ready. This isn’t as troubling to me as it once was. The hard reality is that I don’t have time to do what Paul Tripp recommends. I can’t write a sermon weeks in advance, preach it to myself 20 times, and marinate in a Spirit-filled glow. I don’t have time.

For Christmas Eve, I knew I wanted to explain why the virgin conception matters, which meant I knew I wanted the Christmas Eve sermon to be from Luke 1:26-38. I arrived home from church, had lunch, drank a double espresso, then collapsed in my armchair for two hours or so and read a bit of Dallimore’s biography of George Whitefield.

Around 7:00 p.m last Sunday, I sat down and wrote my Christmas Eve sermon. I was done by 9:30 p.m. I was up early the next morning, went for a 30 minute walk while listening to a digital audiobook of Moneyball, then looked over the sermon notes before I got ready for work. I cut a bit from the text, and it was off to work for me.

Few people were at the office on Christmas Eve, which meant I had little to no managerial duties. I took advantage of this by spending most of the day working a fraud case involving title insurance, in which I suspect a title insurer is being quite naughty. “The State of Washington will have its revenge!” I cackled over my coffee.

The Christmas Eve service began at 6:00. I leave work at 5:00. My introduction wasn’t done yet, and I wasn’t happy with the sermon, either. I saved two 15-minute breaks during the day and fired up my nifty tablet at 4:30 to iron things out, once and for all. I succeeded, and was off to church.

I advertised heavily for the Christmas Eve service. I ran Facebook ads within a 10-mile radius for three weeks. I asked people to think about why the virgin birth mattered; why did Jesus have to come that way? We got lots of interest and lots of promises to attend. We had bulletins and Gospel tracts ready to give new visitors. We ended up having no visitors, but about 40 folks from the congregation attended. I was privately disappointed, but we had to try … and we have to keep trying, too!

The sermon was a bit longer than I wanted it to be, at about 25 minutes. It’s very, very strange to shift gears from Investigations Manager to Pastor within a 60-minute timeframe. I didn’t enjoy preaching the sermon and felt out of sorts. I’ll never go straight from work to preaching again, if I can avoid it.

The sermon after Christmas

Tuesday was Christmas, so I didn’t do too much with sermon prep. I’m doing a series through the Gospel of Mark, and I did read the next passage (Mark 8:27-33) several times on Christmas Day.

I don’t preach verse by verse; I do passage by passage. That is, I don’t necessarily dwell on every single verse; I try to communicate the message of the passage. What is the hinge of Mark 8:27-33, when you consider the rest of the book? Clearly, it’s Peter’s confession. Everything else is white noise. Commentators wonder about a “deeper” significance to Jesus’ trek to Caesarea Philippi, or speculate about whether “on the way” (Mk 8:27) is an allusion to the Christian faith (Acts 9:2). That’s not the point! Go write a paper on these alleged “nuggets,” if you wish – just don’t preach on them!     

How should I frame Peter’s confession? What should I do with it? I pondered this as my family prepared to head to my sister’s home for Christmas dinner. Then, I did something strange. Even though I’d just read the passage several times on Christmas morning, I conflated Mark’s account with Matthew’s. I decided to frame the sermon around Peter confessing Jesus was the Son of the living God, even though Mark doesn’t record him saying this! I even did a short promo video for it, because I was so excited!

It was Thursday evening before I realized I’d done something terribly wrong. Should I stick with the “what does ‘Son of God’ mean” approach? After all, what’s wrong with bringing in parallel passages to flesh Mark out, right? I decided against it, because throughout the series I’ve been trying to let Mark be Mark. This was too bad, because I had the entire sermon planned out in my mind. I knew exactly where I wanted to go to chat about what “son of …” means in the Bible, and what it means for Jesus.

So, I had to desperately re-calibrate. I got up early to ponder what to do. At about 6:00 on Friday morning, I decided to make the sermon answer “what does ‘Christ’ mean?” I went off to work, listening to Moneyball in the car, while the sermon outline percolated in my mind.

Everyone has a hobby horse. For some folks, it’s being a Baptist fundamentalist. For others, it’s dispensationalism. For some, it’s eschatology. For me, it’s the doctrines of God and Christ. Peter’s confession meant something. It’s the first time in Mark’s Gospel where any disciple makes anything close to an accurate estimation of who Jesus is. So, what should I give the congregation, from this?

I could cram 8:27-9:1 together, and bring discipleship in, too. But, that won’t do. I need to focus on the implications of the confession. So, how can I explain what “Messiah” means? The easiest thing would be to focus on Christ’s three-fold office of prophet, king and priest. I love Millard Erickson’s formulation, where he alters this to Revealer, Ruler and Reconciler. But, I’m actually preaching Mark 8:27-33, not a topical sermon about “Messiah.” So, I need to cover the Mark passage, while leaving enough room for a generous digression about “Messiah” within the sermon.

What Old Testament passages address the prophet, king and priest angle? That’s not too hard; I settled on (respectively), Deuteronomy 18:15-19, 2 Samuel 7:12-16, and Psalm 110. So, what’s the sermon outline?

  • Leadup to the confession
  • The confession, what it means, and what have you done about it?
  • Jesus’ prediction of His death and the full Messianic picture
  • Exhortation to repent and believe in the real Jesus

I started the sermon late Saturday morning. I worked for about 90 minutes, then stopped to chat with a prospective associate pastor for about two hours. I returned to it in the afternoon, at about 2:00 p.m. I was done with the rough draft by 4:30 p.m. I left it again, and returned in the evening to finish it off. I printed it, and made some corrections. I was up at 4:30 a.m. to review it one last time, and made some small changes.

At church, I usually spend a great portion of the singing, before the sermon, praying that the sermon would go well. Today, as I was praying, I was suddenly seized with the thought that I didn’t have nearly enough exhortation in the sermon. I was terrified it would come across as an academic lecture, not a sermon. As the congregation sang the last song, I feverishly reviewed my notes and marked perhaps six passages in pen with the word “EXHORT!”

The sermon went very, very well. It was probably one of my better ones, lately. I actually had a visitor come up to me afterwards, in tears. That hadn’t happened to me, before. After church, we went out to lunch with a co-worker of mine who came to church. Then, my wife and I visited a church member in the hospital, and listened as he told us stories of his days as an Air Force fighter pilot in Vietnam.

Summing up

I opened this article with the quotation from Paul Tripp because, for many ordinary pastors like me, his advice is divorced from reality. I’m bi-vocational, which means it’s not possible for me to do what he suggests. I live in the real world:

  • I’ve had to get very, very good at doing sermons with shorter prep time.
  • I have to be ok with doing sermons on a Saturday.
  • I have to be ok with not having time to chase Koine Greek mysteries through a text.

I think this has made me better. I think I’m a much better preacher now than I was several years ago. I think my circumstances have forced me to jettison some of my more academic tendencies, and focus on the essence of a text. I used to spend two days on the Sunday sermon. Now, I’m a better preacher, and I can think about the sermon all week and write it a few hours. This isn’t laziness; it’s efficiency borne out of necessity. My sermons are better, deeper, shorter and more practical.

I suspect bi-vocational ministry will increasingly be the realistic future for young preachers. I’ve tried to explain what that looks like, for me. One thing it means is that sometimes you must put away the naïve advice of celebrity preachers, and use your training as best you can with the time you have. God will help you. He might even make you better!

Notes

1 Paul D. Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 149.  

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T Howard's picture

Quote:
I don’t preach verse by verse; I do passage by passage. That is, I don’t necessarily dwell on every single verse; I try to communicate the message of the passage. What is the hinge of Mark 8:27-33, when you consider the rest of the book? Clearly, it’s Peter’s confession. Everything else is white noise [emphasis mine].

Being a bi-vocational elder who just finished preaching Hebrews 10:1-10 this past Sunday to our congregation, I appreciate the dilemma of finding time in one's week to handle the text in a sufficient manner given everything else one must get done. However, rightly dividing the Word of Truth is our primary responsibility. It's not "white noise" to know, understand, and communicate more than just the main point of the passage to our people. I agree that there are just some things we can't or shouldn't cover from the pulpit. For example, in my passage the author of Hebrews quotes from Psalm 40:6-8 and makes a significant change from the original Hebrew. Why he does that is interesting, but not worth spending the time during the sermon to address it. However, it was needful that I know, understand, and be able to communicate that to my people if need be.  It gives me a better grasp of the passage and of how the author of Hebrews views and cites the OT. That helps me ultimately to become a better exegete of God's Word.

Tyler, I know you know and advocate this, but in a bi-vocational setting having more than one bi-vocational elder can be a tremendous blessing and help to us. It allows us to share the burden of leading, shepherding, teaching, and preaching. When we share the load, it provides more time for us to focus and prepare.

TylerR's picture

Editor

If an OT quote is there, you should indeed go to that text. I always do this.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

On the Paul Tripp quote: I think it actually works like that for some guys. And even for me sometimes it comes close. By "close," I mean that often passages of Scripture and/or themes for preaching/teaching reach my consciousness long before I teach them, and I revisit them multiple times before anything like a sermon comes out of it.

But when I have regularly scheduled preaching duties, this is a process that happens parallel to preparation for those regular duties. It's a bit like side roads along the freeway. The scheduled work is usually sequential through a book of the Bible, and each event arrives in a way that demands a focused, efficient, preparation process--it's the freeway. But while that's going on, these other studies are continuing in bits and pieces along the side roads. Often when a regularly scheduled event comes along something on the sideroads merges onto the freeway and becomes part of the understanding/message/context in that pulpit event.

I know some guys study texts well in advance as Tripp describes, but if you're teaching regularly, that process results in overlap... you're studying multiple texts at the same time. For me, because my mind has only so many front-burners, that just results in muddled thinking and sometimes outright confusion. I have to have stuff on the back burners all the time, but the front burner has to be exclusive for What's Next.

The way that played out, when I was really busy with pulpit work, was that anything I was ruminating over, digging into, that didn't have an event attached to it, was casual, intermittent, spontaneous... and early in the week. Then, as Sunday approached, all that had to be set aside to focus exclusively on What's Next. With separate series going on in Sunday School, AM preaching and PM preaching, it was tough to keep things separated. But I could (still can) only focus on thing at a time, so I often had to have Sunday AM out of the way before I could really focus on Sunday PM the way I wanted to. This made for grueling Sundays! But I did find ways to assemble bits of preaching and teaching material well ahead of time so that the final assembly could be done pretty quickly very close to the event... with mind uncluttered by other studies.

(It actually started to get almost easy after about 8 years)

TylerR's picture

Editor

I think about the passage a lot throughout the week. I first figure out what the main point is, then I make a framework of the passage in my mind, then I figure out what to emphasize and what to let go. I only write it on Saturday, but I already know what I'm doing by then.

People need to heed Robinson's admonition about the "big idea." If you figure out what the main point of the passage is, in the context of the book, you'll be ok. The more Bible you know, the richer the sermon will be.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

T Howard's picture

While in seminary, I happened upon the book Text-Driven Preaching, edited by Daniel Akin, David Allen, and Ned Mathews. It wasn't a required text for my classes, but I picked it up from the Lifeway bookstore at SBTS while I was attending a conference. There are two books that have fundamentally changed how I view a biblical topic. The first book that fundamentally changed my view of theology was Grudem's Systematic Theology. The second book that fundamentally changed my view and approach to sermon prep was Text-Driven Preaching. The basic premise: let the text of Scripture determine the main point(s) and flow of your sermon.

I appreciate the "big idea" guys like Robinson, but reducing every text to a single point robs the text of the contours and details that the author believed was important to his audience. For example, I could boil down Hebrews 10:1-18 to "The supremacy of Christ's sacrifice." But, if that is the only thing I communicate about this passage, my congregation misses the argumentation, emphasis, and nuance that the author communicates to his audience.

Instead, Hebrews 10:1-10 itself breaks down nicely into three main points: the necessity of Christ's sacrifice (vv 1-4), the sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice (vv 5-7), and the purpose of Christ's sacrifice (vv. 8-10).

Now, I grant you, we can get bogged down quickly into sub-points and sub-sub-points (especially in the epistles) if we're not careful. But, we should at least be communicating the main points as the author makes them in the text instead of subsuming them into one big idea for the sake of homiletic cleanness.

TylerR's picture

Editor

It's very difficult to have discussion about preaching theory online. When I say "find the main point," I don't mean to imply that you ignore everything in favor of your big idea. That would be ridiculous. I don't really want to argue for "I am of Robinson" and "I am of [insert name here]."

If anyone wants to see an example of what I do mean (and don't mean) about crafting sermons, you can look at the notes from my latest sermon, or notes from any of my sermons.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Yes, the "big idea" is not actually reducing the sermon to a single point. What it is, is finding the thematic unity in the text. Depending what sort of text it is (epistle vs. poetry vs narrative etc), there isn't necessarily going to be anything like what we think of as an "outline" in the text, but there will be a primary theme or primary relevance to the congregation. That becomes the big idea and the other assertions/truths in the text are developments of that idea.

One of the best ways of deciding how big of a chunk of text to preach is finding that central theme/message. The ideal is to begin and the preaching text where the focus on that theme begins and ends.

This is also a way, probably the best way, to avoid the "miscellaneous commentary" sort of sermon... where the speaker does verse by verse analysis and makes more or less valid but always disconnected assertions from each verse or two until time runs out.   . . . . this is very hard stuff to sit through on a regular basis and the biblical writers did not write that way. That is, they didn't sit and pen the text with random principles in mind. There is a thematic, if not necessarily "logical," progression in the text. That should focus the sermon.

TylerR's picture

Editor

When you choose a passage, you have to do several things:

  • Decide what the passage is. You can't just carve out some verses; you have to select a natural unit of thought. You have to balance the preaching time you have with the context. You might be able to cover a passage in 5 minutes, but you may do violence to what Mark intended. Maybe the passage is so important that you'd better slow down, and do it in two sermons?
  • Decide what the main point is. Assuming you chose a coherent thought-unit, that passage has a point, an emphasis, an overriding something that's important to get across. For me, I chose Mark 8:27-33. I initially wanted to do 8:27-9:1, but decided to split it. What's the point is Mark 8:27-33? It's Peter's confession, coupled with the fact that, despite the good confession, Peter still doesn't understand everything about the Messiah - He has to die, too!
  • Decide what you want the congregation to do; the 'so what?' question. I wanted the congregation to leave (1) knowing who the Messiah really is, and (2) challenged to be sure they believe in the real one, not a fake one (see the beginning portion of my sermon notes, or watch the first few minutes of the video).

My own method is to preach the sermon by asking questions about the text aloud, voicing some commonsense questions anyone would have as he go through it, then answering them. In this way, I walk the congregation through the passage. In my notes, the questions are in bright blue.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TylerR's picture

Editor

Aaron wrote:

Yes, the "big idea" is not actually reducing the sermon to a single point. What it is, is finding the thematic unity in the text. Depending what sort of text it is (epistle vs. poetry vs narrative etc), there isn't necessarily going to be anything like what we think of as an "outline" in the text, but there will be a primary theme or primary relevance to the congregation. That becomes the big idea and the other assertions/truths in the text are developments of that idea.

Agreed!

One of the best ways of deciding how big of a chunk of text to preach is finding that central theme/message. The ideal is to begin and the preaching text where the focus on that theme begins and ends.

Agreed!

There is a thematic, if not necessarily "logical," progression in the text. That should focus the sermon.

Haymen!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Josh S's picture

As a bi-vocational pastor, I can relate to a lot of this. I'm currently transitioning from one "secular" job to another. In the long this should help my situation. But in the mean time it means I'm working three different jobs (does that make tri-vocational?). At times trying to fulfill all my responsibilities to the church, both my employers, my wife, and my daughter can be overwhelming. Sometimes I've felt like I'm doing so much and yet nothing well.

But God is good. I've found His grace to be there when I need it. It's humbling to see God use a sermon or devotional despite the fact that I wasn't able to spend as much time on it as I would have liked.

Josh Stilwell, associate pastor, Bethany Baptist Church, Des Moines, Iowa.

ScottS's picture

Tripp's "I preach it aloud to myself some fifteen or twenty times" definitely takes up huge chunks of time that I can see a bi-vocational pastor not having. Just a 30 min. sermon would be 7.5 hours a week at the 15 count!

However, it seems lead time is doable. So when Tripp says "when I prepare the content of a message, it is the message that I’ll be preaching in three or four weeks" is without question doable, though maybe not immediately. What I mean is, if you plan a Sunday where someone else is preaching (be it a visiting pastor/missionary, a qualified elder, a young man with a desire to preach, or some other "special" presentation), but you still prepare a sermon that week for the following week, then that following week be working on the next, you gain a week's lead time (you just keep working at the same "pace" as before). After two or three times of that in a year, then you have your 3-4 week lead.

Yes, you will have to spend a little bit of time "reviewing" (tweaking?) the sermon you wrote a few weeks before, but overall, gaining that lead time that way would not impose much more weekly time on the preacher, and I do think that such a lead time would be helpful and realistic.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

Larry's picture

Moderator

I was bivocational for about eight years or so, maybe longer; I don't remember when I started. I wouldn't say Tripp is disconnected from "normal" ministry. That is normal for him. Normal for others is different. Tyler has given an excellent outline of why bivocational pastors, while sometimes necessary, is not a great way to go about it. He is constantly stressed for time and running last minute so that the sheep he is supposed to be feeding get second place to the nonsheep he is investigating. That's normal life for him. But it comes at a cost. 

I think the Scripture had a lot of wisdom in saying that those who preach the gospel should live of the gospel, and that elders who do it well are worth of double honor. I don't think we "improve" on that by being bivocational. There is good reason to be suspect of the general model of intentionally bivocational where the 2nd vocation is a full-time job (actually the 1st vocation). The truth remains that those who preach the gospel should live of the gospel. In some cases, that won't be possible. In some cases it is simply allowing churches to disobey the Scriptures. Sometimes churches get short shrift because they will tolerate what the 2nd job won't tolerate. Churches will tolerate a lack of preparation; real jobs won't. It's a challenge, and there are not easy solutions, but sometimes, one has to choose between jobs. When I was bivocational, it was necessary for me to have a truly 2nd job--one that worked on my schedule and allowed me to do what I needed to do. The church shouldn't have to take what's left, as a general rule.

On to schedule, virtually everyone but the most disciplined struggle with it. But Tripp's model is not unmanageable, nor out of the realm of possibility. 

Let's say a pastor spends 10 hours on a sermon. What if that is three hours three weeks out, four hours two weeks out, and three hours on Friday and Saturday just before preaching? That means any given week will have three hours on a message coming this week, four hours on a message coming next week, and three hours on a message coming two weeks from now. 

The problem is that the tyranny of the urgent means it is difficult to keep ahead. A lack of focus and discipline means stuff gets pushed aside until it has to be done. So the three hours the first week gets pushed back because ... Then it gets pushed again ... Then the week of, it is crash time which means you can't work three weeks out because you have to do this week what you should have done three weeks ago. 

The reality is that it is ten hours in one week (or two days) or ten hours over three weeks. It's the same amount of time. So Tripp's view isn't impossible, nor unreasonable. Such lead time also enables you to shape the current sermon in light of the sermons to come. 

BTW, A good book (novel) on this is Bruce Mawhinney's "Preaching with Freshness." It is a fictional story that addresses this very issue. 

In the end, people have different rhythms and study habits that work best for them. People are also unfocused and undisciplined. People encounter unexpected events. And people are busy. But ten hours (or 12 or 20) is ten hours (or 12 or 20) no matter how long ago it was. I can't do much work three weeks ahead of time. It doesn't do me a lot of good. But my study habits are mine and not someone else's. My only point is that it can be done if one wants to and it works for them.

One more thought: When Tripp says he preaches it 15-20 times, that's a lot. I don't think he preaches every week so that is perhaps unrealistic. But consider all the time available for practice. Say you take a 5 minute shower twice a day. And there's the dressing time of, call it, ten minutes.There's  15-20 minutes of practice preaching. Say you have a 15 minute commute to work. There's 30 minutes. That means every day, you could practice preaching your message, completely with starts and stops, redos and retrys. 

Tyler takes a 30 minute walk. What if that 30 minute was preaching out loud and trying things out. If you do that 3 times a week, that's another twice through. So that is 8-10 practices a week without changing anything you are already doing. If you add on all the "down time," like going to sleep or walking from the car to the store or to the office. Or many other things. 

Again, in the end, find something that works and then try to make it better. 

TylerR's picture

Editor

The congregation doesn't get leftovers or seconds. Nobody could ever accuse me of that. I've done fulltime and bivocational. The latter is better for me, in a dual pastor arrangement.

Larry clearly feels strongly about the fulltime model. That's fine. I disagree, for reasons I've explained elsewhere. If your church can provide for a fulltime pastor and family, then go for it. If not, then you'll have to go bi-vocational or close.

Ciao.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

T Howard's picture

TylerR wrote:

When you choose a passage, you have to do several things:

  • Decide what the passage is. You can't just carve out some verses; you have to select a natural unit of thought. You have to balance the preaching time you have with the context. You might be able to cover a passage in 5 minutes, but you may do violence to what Mark intended. Maybe the passage is so important that you'd better slow down, and do it in two sermons?
  • Decide what the main point is. Assuming you chose a coherent thought-unit, that passage has a point, an emphasis, an overriding something that's important to get across. For me, I chose Mark 8:27-33. I initially wanted to do 8:27-9:1, but decided to split it. What's the point is Mark 8:27-33? It's Peter's confession, coupled with the fact that, despite the good confession, Peter still doesn't understand everything about the Messiah - He has to die, too!
  • Decide what you want the congregation to do; the 'so what?' question. I wanted the congregation to leave (1) knowing who the Messiah really is, and (2) challenged to be sure they believe in the real one, not a fake one (see the beginning portion of my sermon notes, or watch the first few minutes of the video).

My own method is to preach the sermon by asking questions about the text aloud, voicing some commonsense questions anyone would have as he go through it, then answering them. In this way, I walk the congregation through the passage. In my notes, the questions are in bright blue.

Tyler, not to belabor the point here, but expositional preaching that is text-driven allows the text itself to determine the first two "steps" you list above. In some cases, it also provides the third step for you. That is why spending time translating the Greek / Hebrew yields tremendous benefits to the (bi-vocational) preacher. It forces him to get into the text, see the indicative verbs (usually the main ideas communicated in the passage), the participles (usually the supporting points), the connective tissue (to help trace the arguments and thinking of the biblical writer), and the nuance and emphasis of the passage. Thus exegetical work is more valuable to me than reading 3 or 4 commentaries on the passage because I often discover for myself what the commentaries either mention or even miss. For example, in Hebrews 10:10, what does the phrase "once for all" describe? Most English translations (and many commentaries) make it seem like "once for all" is the description of "the offering of the body of Jesus Christ" because that is what the phrase describes in 7:27 and 9:12. However, as I translated this verse, I discovered that the writer of Hebrews actually uses this phrase in 10:10 to modify the periphrastic verb construction "we have been sanctified." So, not only did Christ offer himself once-for-all-time as our sacrifice, but that resulted in once-for-all-time sanctification of the believer. What are the "so whats" of this passage? The author of Hebrews lays them out for us in 10:19-39.

I don't need to spend time belaboring over deciding the passage, determining the "main idea" or "main point," or even sometimes the significance of the passage to my congregation. I preach the text as it was meant to be understood. Now, I grant you, it's much easier to do this with an epistle than with narrative. But, even within narrative, the author often uses literary devices to signal when he begins and ends the pericope.

TylerR's picture

Editor

We seem to be talking past one another. Take care.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

T Howard's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

Yes, the "big idea" is not actually reducing the sermon to a single point. What it is, is finding the thematic unity in the text. Depending what sort of text it is (epistle vs. poetry vs narrative etc), there isn't necessarily going to be anything like what we think of as an "outline" in the text, but there will be a primary theme or primary relevance to the congregation. That becomes the big idea and the other assertions/truths in the text are developments of that idea.

Unfortunately, some of the preachers who write books about "big idea" homiletics (e.g. Andy Stanley) do actually advocate reducing the sermon to a single point.

Not a fan.

That is why I let the text itself determine how many "points" there are to my messages based on the passage under consideration. It's not always three points and a poem.

Larry's picture

Moderator

Unfortunately, some of the preachers who write books about "big idea" homiletics (e.g. Andy Stanley) do actually advocate reducing the sermon to a single point.

Including Bryan Chappel: "How many things is a sermon about? One thing. Sermons may have many facets, many components, many subsets of a central idea. But essentially, every sermon is about one thing." (https://www.covenantseminary.edu/resources/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/20...). I think Stanley uses the single point idea much in the same way. You make a single point and then everything else supports that. Haddon Robinson was very similar. Essentially it is that the sermon should be able to be capsulized in one statement. Stanley goes for something memorable. 

The points are actually supporting point of the big idea. They are not individual messages.

So in short, it seems that you might be using "point" differently than Stanley, Chapell, etc. do. 

T Howard's picture

Larry,

Perhaps you and Aaron are correct that I have misunderstood the point about "big idea" homiletics. Smile If what you've written above is true, then I have no issues with that. However, having read Stanley's, Communicating for Change, I'm pretty confident that he is not in the same camp. For Stanley, every sermon only has one point---not one big idea with multiple points supporting it---and that one point is further reduced to a "sticky statement." If the text has multiple points, he breaks it out into multiple messages. He believes that multiple point preaching is less effective at producing life change in your congregation than single point preaching.

That is the "big idea" preaching model I'm against because it doesn't allow the text to dictate the message, but rather molds the text and biblical author into your one "sticky statement."

That being said, I apologize to Tyler for derailing his post about the realities and constraints of bi-vocational preaching into one about homiletic methodology. I appreciate the dilemma Tyler faces. However, I believe that preaching is the number one priority of pastors (bi-vocational or otherwise) and that we do a disserve to our people if we preach our messages with the attitude that everything in the passage other than the big idea is "white noise."

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

If there is really only one point to the sermon, you would just say it and you'd be done. It would make for really short sermons. I haven't read Stanley on this but it sounds like he has overstated his big idea concept or in some other way been unclear about what he means. It would be interesting to see some of his outlines.

From Doug McLachlan, I learned a keyword-list method. I was actually already doing it but not as intentionally, and didn't have a name for it. It's so effective for organizing communication of all sorts, because it's really just an expression of the way language and logic work (categories and items). 

Anyway, if I were a betting man, I'd bet a pizza that if I had a few of Stanley's outlines, I could translate them into keyword lists and show that he actually has subpoints that develop his big idea.

Getting back to Tyler's topic: they are connected, because the way you structure your message content and delivery has a huge impact on how long it takes to prepare a quality sermon/lesson. We want to get the message of the text right, but at that point we're only half way to being prepared to communicate a message.

So finding a good approach to structuring messages, and getting good at that approach, is vital if you have tough time constraints.

I was never really "bivocational" but did always have lots of other part time things going on, whether teaching school, or editing, or tech support/database development...or all the above. So I did have to learn an efficient process.

TylerR's picture

Editor

No worries. The "white noise" remark could have been phrased better. My point was that the essence of the passage isn't why Jesus headed toward Caeserea Phillipi; it's the confession. I think the big difference with me in the last few years is that I've become much better at distilling things down, and leaving more material on the cutting-room floor. 

I had to read Stanley's book in seminary as an example of how NOT to structure a sermon! I might read it again. I just browsed through Robinson yesterday, and hadn't read him since seminary, either. 

I think it would be very hard to teach preaching, because that medium is communication poured through personality. It's not a hard science. How can you teach that! I was a pastor for a few years before I took my first homeletics class

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Larry's picture

Moderator

However, having read Stanley's, Communicating for Change, I'm pretty confident that he is not in the same camp. For Stanley, every sermon only has one point---not one big idea with multiple points supporting it---and that one point is further reduced to a "sticky statement." If the text has multiple points, he breaks it out into multiple messages. He believes that multiple point preaching is less effective at producing life change in your congregation than single point preaching.

I think Stanley is right on this, and I think it is very similar to Chappel and Robinson. I think the underlying philosophy is different. However, if you can see through the weaknesses of Stanley's philosophy, there is much help in some of his approach. 

In the end it boils down to "here's your problem, here's what God says, here's what you do." What else if preaching if that's not it? Virtually every part of the Bible is that. It is virtually all topical (which is why the rejection of topical preaching seems curiously unbiblical ... but that's another issue).

That is the "big idea" preaching model I'm against because it doesn't allow the text to dictate the message, but rather molds the text and biblical author into your one "sticky statement."

I don't think this is true at all. If you were to read these guys, they would not accept this. The big idea comes out of the text. That is where I think Stanley goes too easily off the rails, though I haven't listened to him much. The big idea has to come out of the text. 

For those unfamiliar, here is an excerpt from Communicating for a Change that helps to explain it: https://www.sermoncentral.com/content/andy-stanley-birth-one-point-preac...

The genius of the sticky statement is that it does what sermons are supposed to do: Boil it down to what the passage requires of us in a practical memorable statement. The weakness of it is that it too easily becomes a substitute for the text. I think too many sermons are too abstract. They are exegetical lectures. The sticky statement changes that.

However, I believe that preaching is the number one priority of pastors (bi-vocational or otherwise) and that we do a disserve to our people if we preach our messages with the attitude that everything in the passage other than the big idea is "white noise."

I am not sure what the "white noise" is about, but if we have properly identified the big idea, everything in teh text should support it. If there is something that doesn't support it, then perhaps we have a big idea that is too small.

I think it would be fine to preach more than one message from a passage to emphasize different things. I am not sure why that would be a problem. So again, in that sense, Stanley is on to something (at least theoretically though we can reject his application of it). 

Bert Perry's picture

I had the chance--challenge really--to spend half an hour or more on the phrase "prince of peace" from Isaiah 9:6, and I reckon I violated a lot of what Tyler writes about here because I had to dig deep into just two Hebrew words.  It was a lot of fun, but if I had to do it three times a week or so, I definitely wouldn't have been able to do it.  Maybe after a LOT more Hebrew study--say a decade or so.  

Which is a long way of saying that I concur with the notion that if we have multiple men qualified to teach, we might well find that (at least if they are industrious) the overall level of teaching goes up markedly.  Corollary; a pastor ought to spend a significant portion of his time training his replacements.  

Nothing against what Tyler is doing now; it's where he is and I don't fault him for doing precisely what I do with Sunday School.  But by golly, it was fun tracking down how the word "sar" is used and noting that it corresponds pretty well to how Christ relates to the Father.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

I appreciate all the comments. Here are some remarks on what we have so far:

On bi-vocational ministry

I've said many times that I think a dual-pastor model is the best. Because I'm a realist, that means one or more of the pastors need to be bi-vocational. Speaking for myself, my congregation doesn't have the funds to appropriately support one guy, fulltime. So, I'm bi-vocational. Because of the financial struggles I went through at my last pastorate, I don't think I'll ever transition back to being a fulltime pastor until maybe my children are out of the house. I want to be able to provide for my family, and take care of my kids. I anticipate that someone will make a remark about how we need to be sacrificial, trust God, etc.

On the cult of the fulltime pastor

I was hesitant about using that title, but I decided to do it. There is nothing unbiblical about going to bi-vocational route, if it makes sense for your congregation and the people you have. Every situation is different. Don't think you HAVE to have a fulltime pastor. Speaking for myself, this arrangement allows two men to be paid part time and share teaching responsibilities, and allows funds to do ministry. I'd rather take a part time salary and enjoy the generous benefits of my secular job, then be a fulltime pastor and have little money left over for ministry. But, my church owns its building and has no debt. None. As I said, it all depends!

On the bad ministry prep paradigm

Young men need to learn marketable skills that will allow them to have something better than a menial, minimum wage job. I just spoke to a wonderful guy the other day, a prospective associate pastor. He's been in school his entire life, has his MDiv at 28, and wonders how he'd ever be able to find a secular job that can support his family. He's been in school his whole life.

The path of Christian kid + bible undergrad + seminary degree + "fulltime Christian service" = success is increasingly unrealistic and detrimental. Online and virtual education options are a Godsend to local churches, which can now keep their young men in their home churches while applying theological training in real time and (hopefully) confirming their pastoral gifts and calling among the brothers and sisters who know him best.

On preaching

Everybody has their different approaches, and that's fine. Speaking for myself, I never preach isolated verses. I always preach passages. Sentences exist in paragraphs, and paragraphs in larger units of thought. Language doesn't work at the level of the isolated sentence, or even the isolated word. It all comes back to context. Because this is true, why not preach the passage instead of the individual verse? Most people have read Moises Silva's hilarious discussion about over-interpretation. I did my own version of this phenomenon a while back.

So, I preach passages. I also think it's fairly uncontroversial to say that passages have a point; they were written to communicate something. Why did Mark write Mark 8:27-33? How does it fit into what came before it (e.g. Mk 8:1-32)? How does it fit with what comes after; especially the discussion about discipleship and Jesus' transfiguration? How does it fit into the rest of the book?

With narrative, passages (or, perhaps better, coherent thought-units) say many things, but they do have an overarching point. What is that point? This doesn't mean other things are inherently unimportant, but they may be less important depending on the venue in which you're teaching. This leads me to another point ...

Preaching is not bible study

Everyone with a seminary degree says he understands this, but I don't think this is true. When you preach, you want to move your audience to do something with the information you're giving them. It's an exhortation towards some kind of action. You don't exhort someone with a shotgun exposition of a passage. You have to give people something to leave with; something the passage impels them to do given what it says.

Bible study is different. Recently, I translated and taught my way through 1 Peter. It was fun. We spent one year on that book. We took rabbit-trails. We pondered words. We chatted about what the "milk of the word" was. We argued about 1 Peter 3:21ff. We did Bible study.

Bible study is not preaching.

I've generated enough controversy with these comments, already. I understand if you disagree. That's ok. I wish you the best. I think we're each trying our best, with the time we have, given our own circumstances.

I wrote the article to encourage bi-vocational pastors. I didn't expect it to ... evolve into what it now is. But, that's the risk I took by writing it here, where comments are a part of the game. I hope it encouraged someone. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Jim's picture

My take on you Tyler:

  • God has used circumstances to prepare you for bi-vocational ministry:

    • Military background
    • The mess in Illinois where you were harshly treated
  • You seem to operate very efficiently

My take on bi-vocational:

  • It's not the ideal ("the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel" - 1 Corinthians 9:14
  • It's a Biblical option (seems a given w regard to Paul!)
  • It's not sinful to provide for one's family: "But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel." 1 Timothy 5:8
  • It's a reality for many a man, many a church! 
    • I was bi-vocational for several years myself (they were the happiest years of ministry for a number of reasons). Here's one:

      • I bought a Chevy Geo new when my Pontiac J-2000 (that I got for free) died
      • The offerings to our church dropped the month after seemingly as a punishment for my buying a new car
    • The church where I am a member has a bi-vocational pastor. 
T Howard's picture

Jim wrote:

  • I was bi-vocational for several years myself (they were the happiest years of ministry for a number of reasons). Here's one:

    • I bought a Chevy Geo new when my Pontiac J-2000 (that I got for free) died
    • The offerings to our church dropped the month after seemingly as a punishment for my buying a new car

 

Grrr. Don't get me started on the similar stupidity I've seen in regards to this kind of stuff. Church members who take regular vacations to Disney World, lease new cars every two years, take their boat to the lake twice a month during the summer, and enjoy a 401K, generous employer-sponsored health benefits, etc. have a conniption when their pastor buys a new car and complain that they must be paying him too much. I have no patience for that and that is one of the many reasons I've chosen to pursue bi-vocational ministry.

Jim's picture

There are 3 categories of pastors financially:

  • The adequately supported. [God bless those people who so do!]
  • The under-supported. They have a choice:
    • Find some sort of a job to provide adequately for their families ELSE
    • Grin and suffer in near poverty
  • The non-supported
    • The non supported know they must labor in society else they will starve
    • Probably in most cases their churches are unable to support them (various reasons)

My choice: Got a job in IT (something that surprises me to this day ... I could actually do!)

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