Thoughts on Preaching

I’ve been intentionally experimenting with my preaching over the past few years. I am grateful for the expository preaching model I was handed at seminary. It’s a good model. It’s the best model. But, there are different flavors within that broad framework. The past few Sundays, I’ve tried something radical for my sermon preparation. It is radical for me, but perhaps not for you. I shall share it, anon.

But, first some observations about expository preaching, as it is sometimes practiced―as I used to practice it!

Against audiobook commentary preaching

I have grown increasingly disappointed with a style of preaching I shall call “audiobook commentary.” This is where the pastor is basically an Audible version of an introductory bible commentary. Abraham Kuruvilla, whom I consider to be the ablest preaching teacher working in North America today, summarizes this pretty well:

This I call the hermeneutic of excavation—the exegetical turning over of tons of earth, debris, rock, boulders, and gravel: a style of interpretation that yields an overload of biblical and Bible-related information, most of it unfortunately not of any particular use for one seeking to preach a relevant message from a specific text.

Abraham Kuruvilla, A Vision for Preaching: Understanding the Heart of Pastoral Ministry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015), p. 13.

Last year, my wife and I attended a conference where we were subjected to this very approach. During a time while we waiting to be “refreshed,” I dutifully listened to a pastor (with both an earned DMin and a PhD) explain the alleged Latin etymology for the English word “sword.” This pastor was a disciple of John MacArthur, and preached just like him. Indeed, MacArthur personifies this audiobook commentary style of preaching. He is a faithful expositor and a steadfast shepherd, but I don’t believe he is the best preacher. This observation is heretical in some circles, but here I stand. I understand if you disagree.

Exegesis is not preaching. It’s a waypoint on the road to preaching.

You don’t need more commentaries

You don’t need another commentary. There is nothing new to say. I promise. I swear. I just read C.K. Barrett’s remarks on John 4:23 (The Gospel According to St. John (London: SPCK, 1958), pp. 198-199), then cracked open D.A. Carson (The Gospel According to John, in PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 224). He appears to have copied Barrett, down to the choice of specific phrases, without citing him. At the very least, Carson echoes Barrett to an eyebrow-raising degree. I’ve no idea if he did it deliberately, nor do I care. My point is there is likely nothing new to be said.

You want an exegetical commentary? The language work has been done. It really has. You hopefully had language training yourself, too. Barrett will do you fine. So will Calvin. If you get yourself a small, trustworthy stock of exegetical commentaries, you won’t need to buy anymore.

Most commentaries have little value for preachers, because they specialize in hermeneutical excavation. They don’t help you understand the passage as a passage. As literature. As a composition. As a pericope that God is doing something with. Instead, they often major on grammatical observations, syntactical nuances. They summarize oodles of scholarly literature, then sometimes forget to make observations of their own. They’re good for technical reference, perhaps, but you probably have enough of those.

Their interpretive filters are too often cardboard. I just read R.C.H. Lenski declare Peter uttered an imprecatory curse at Acts 8:20. This is unlikely. Maybe … (and call me crazy) … just maybe Peter utters an angry exclamation! Maybe there’s no theological weight behind his short statement, which I translate colloquially as “you and your money can go to hell!” (cf. Phillips’ translation).

Here’s another example.

If you’re preaching on Stephen’s sermon before the Council (Acts 6:8 - 8:1), a discussion on whether Stephen properly applied Amos at Acts 7:42-43 is useless to you. It means nothing. It does not help you communicate God’s message to your congregation. It might interest you. It might intrigue you. It might pique your interest for an article. It does nothing to help you preach the passage. That’s why most commentaries are unhelpful homiletical aids.

You probably don’t need more commentaries.

Preach by passage, not by verse

How many sermons would you use to preach Stephen’s speech before the Council (Acts 6:8 - 8:1)? Six years ago, I did it in four sermons. A few weeks ago, I did it in one sermon that totaled 50 minutes … and I think it was 10 minutes too long.

I almost titled this section “read the bible as literature,” but thought better of it. However, it’s true. You should try to capture the bible’s flow of thought pericope by pericope, or passage by passage. We express thoughts in paragraphs, in sections. We don’t do it in sentences. Sentences are pieces of a whole. But, that’s too often the way we preach. I just saw a pastor announce on social media that he planned to wrap up his series on Jude, by preaching vv. 20-25. This means he cut his last sermon at v. 19. Why would you do that?

We’ll do one sermon covering Stephen’s false arrest (Acts 6:8-15). Another on God’s promises to Abraham (Acts 7:1-16), where we bring in some Genesis tidbits and wax eloquent about the Abrahamic Covenant. Then, we’ll discuss Moses’ origin story, praise the Hebrew midwives who refused to bow to Pharaoh, etc. (Acts 7:17-23). If we’re adventurous, we’ll fold Moses’ flight to the desert into that sermon (Acts 7:23-29). And so it goes, until we finally dispatch Stephen into Jesus arms by mercifully concluding the miniseries at Acts 8:1.

The problem is that’s not what Stephen did. He selected and deliberately framed (and re-framed) key incidents from Israel’s past in order to make a powerful accusation to the Council. The shape of his sermon should be ours. It was one sermon. One message. It had rhetorical force because of that shape.

“But,” we object, “it would take two hours to preach Acts 6:8 - 8:1 verse by verse!” Yes, it would. That’s why you don’t preach it verse by verse. You preach the passage. You hit key points paragraph by paragraph, discerning and following the shape of Stephen’s argument.

To borrow another insight from Kuruvilla, scripture isn’t a window we point through towards an object inside. It’s a stained-glass window we point at, like a curator at a museum. We show it to people. We describe it. We explain it. Then, we show them what this beautiful picture has to do with their lives, so they can be more like Christ.

It would be criminal to cut Stephen off, to atomize his speech into a miniseries. To turn his denunciation into a sermon about Moses in Egypt. To spend five minutes explaining why Stephen correctly applied Amos 5:25-27. Leave that bit to MacArthur.

Shorter sermons

I believe that if you go over 40 minutes, you’re going on too long. I know the objections. I understand that, if people consume all sorts of awful content the other six days of the week, they ought to be able to listen to a 50 or 60 minute sermon. I agree. But …

I suspect that, like me, you really don’t have 50 minutes of content. I think you could have made your point better by cutting some stuff out. I’m willing to bet 10-15 minutes of your sermon was unnecessary; the debris from all that excavating. I suspect you “feel” your sermons are better when they’re shorter. If that’s your experience, I don’t believe it’s an accident you feel that way. It’s because they are better when they’re shorter.

Maybe this is all just me. Maybe I’m not gifted enough to fill 50 minutes with dynamic content. Maybe you are. Maybe your pastor is. Maybe you’re awesome, and I’m just ordinary. It’s possible. But, maybe we’re both just ordinary people, and neither of us should really be preaching for 50 minutes?

My goal is 35 minutes. I rarely make it. But for the past three weeks, driven by a quest to be more efficient with my time as a bi-vocational pastor, I’ve changed my approach to sermon prep. This approach has yielded shorter, better sermons (31, 38, and 35 minutes, respectively). They’re tighter, more focused, and more direct. I ruthlessly ditch rabbit-trails that are unnecessary to the author’s point in that passage. In the latest sermon, on 10 October 2021, my notes ran to a mere 866 words―506 of which were the scripted introduction + conclusion. My notes for the body of the sermon ran to 360 words (this is not an outline, but notes regarding the text). I also finished my prep on Thursday, which is unusual for me because I’m bi-vocational.

In the next article, I’ll share a sermon manuscript and how I now prepare my notes. I’ll also embed the video of a sermon.

For now, I’ll leave you with this sermonic gem from Abraham Kuruvilla from a recent chapel session at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he lately took up residence as Professor of Christian Preaching. The content is good, but note particularly the homiletical technique he uses. I’ll explain more, later. For now, behold his sermon:

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There are 25 Comments

G. N. Barkman's picture

Tyler, your conclusion that an exegete does not need another commentary makes sense for those who use commentaries like encyclopedias.  If one is simply harvesting facts, one should get the best encyclopedia available, gather the available facts, and move on.  Perhaps a second encyclopedia is useful, but surely no more than two.  But, for those who read commentaries more like a discussion between the author and the reader, the more the better.  Each commentator has his own insights into the text, and the thoughtful reader will be stimulated to consider new perspectives from every high quality commentary.  Reading multiple commentaries becomes a stimulus to deeper thought and meditation, which provides invaluable insights into the text.  This then becomes the basis for effective exposition that stimulates the hearers into fresh insights and applications.

G. N. Barkman

Paul Henebury's picture

to what Greg says above, I would say that reading several commentaries (e.g. 5 - 7) reminds us that we all have strengths and weaknesses.  Something one man may not think is worth noting is brought up by another.  Something asserted as fact by one may be refuted or questioned by someone else.  

For example, perhaps my favorite NT scholar is James D. G. Dunn.  Not because I agree with him a great deal, but because of the way he looks at things and his capacity to analyze clearly.  But then I know I need to read others to "normalize" things.  "Others" may include Calvin, Morris, Bruce, Marshall, Cranfield, Lenski, Lightfoot, etc., for the NT.  The greats.  Then some of the talented second fiddles.    

Finally, exegesis is not a magic bullet.  This is for the obvious reason that it is OUR exegesis., and OUR exegesis is not the final word.  I am reminded of what Ben Witherington says in the intro to his Romans Commentary where he makes a point of saying that he prefers the older way of handling the Greek (probably referring to the over-technical treatments in vogue today).  I am presently reading Constantine Campbell's Paul and the Hope of Glory.  Campbell is at the forefront of modern approaches to Greek exegesis and yet I find myself having to disagree with him half of the time.  Why?  Because exegesis does not happen in a cognitive or theological vacuum.           

Having said all that, I LIKE where Tyler is coming from.  I love what he says re. Barrett versus Carson.  I do think that if we stick with newer commentaries we will be fooled into thinking their insights are new too.  The golden age of commentary writing is behind us (IMHO).  Perhaps I will write on this myself, but I have generally stopped buying commentaries because I have good ones already.

As for Tyler's opening diatribe against what he calls "audiobook preaching" (I don't think that's quite right but...), I couldn't agree more.  When I lived in Texas I came across those influenced by R. B. Thieme. The style of preaching is basically word-studies.  It's awful!  

I'm waffling now so I'll leave it there.  Thanks Tyler for a stimulating article.  

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

T Howard's picture

The late Dr. Rodney Decker taught us that when you preach, the process of exegesis is like the process of making a cake. You don't serve the ingredients of the cake; rather, you serve the completely baked cake. If your preaching is a running commentary, a series of word studies, a discursive lecture on verbal aspect, or a trip through the various exegetical options, you're not serving your people cake. You're serving them flour, water, baking soda, etc.

Let them eat cake!

 

 

JD Miller's picture

My favorite part of your article was the section, "Preach by passage, not by verse."  I also liked the reminder to keep the messages below 40 minutes.  I set that goal a while back and for a about a month I was around 35 minutes most of the time.  The last couple of weeks I have let the time creep back up and I had the longest in 20 weeks (just under 46 minutes).  I do like the flexibility to allow the passage to dictate the length of the message to an extent, but I still need to be disciplined to say what needs to be said without using unnecessary words. 

David R. Brumbelow's picture

I believe there are several valid methods of preaching, as long as they are biblical.  It also helps if the sermon is interesting, and meets needs.  I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying of a preaching professor, “There are no bad short sermons.” 

Both scholarly and devotional, preaching commentaries can be helpful.  A few of my thoughts on the subject, from several years ago:

http://gulfcoastpastor.blogspot.com/2010/03/commentaries-and-bible-study...

David R. Brumbelow

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

David R. Brumbelow wrote:

I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying of a preaching professor, “There are no bad short sermons.”

I actually hadn't heard that, and as a layperson who listens to sermons, rather than preaching, I beg to disagree somewhat.  I've heard 90 minute sermons where I wondered where the time went, and 20 minute sermons that seemed interminable.  Now, I'm glad that the latter were 20 minutes rather than 90, but still, even a short sermon can be really bad, and a long sermon great.

I tend to think that either of those extremes is not the ideal for most men.  From my experience, even a really good sermon that is very short often leaves me wanting, and feeling like it was a "campfire challenge," but it's a rare man that can fill a long sermon so well that you don't notice the time.  Even with an excellent speaker, I wonder if that long a sermon could not have been broken up into two.  For myself, I usually think 45 minutes is a pretty ideal length, with anything from 30-60 being fine, depending on the sermon, speaker, and topic.  YMMV, of course.

Dave Barnhart

Don Johnson's picture

I always tell our guest speakers, "preach until you are done" -- and also give them a rough idea of our schedule.

I think it is kind or ridiculous to make arbitrary rules about sermon length. The thing is, the preacher has to be immersed in the text and let it go. If he is, the result is good. Too often dull sermons are the consequence of not much thought, study, meditation (and too few commentaries, likely...)

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

LGCarpenter's picture

As far as preaching by passage, the length of the passage preached in one sermon depends upon the purpose and the audience.  I mostly agree with Tyler's points.  However, I actually enjoy sermons that dig deep and provide some of the raw ingredients for me to chew on, in addition to the completed cake, to use the analogy.  I'll take the four focused sermons that go deep into the sections of a passage, and then a fifth that pulls the first four together and drives home the overall point of the scripture.

Mr. LaVern G. Carpenter

Proverbs 3:1-12

David R. Brumbelow's picture

Dave,

“There is no such thing as a bad, short sermon,” is told in humor, not as a hard, fast rule. 

David R. Brumbelow

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

David,

I guess I didn't take it as complete humor from your context.  It obviously can't be literally true, but for all I knew, there were some who took it as more-or-less generally true.

Dave Barnhart

JSwaim's picture

Good to see that you are back on the Kuruvilla bandwagon, Tyler.  For a few of your posts I thought you were jumping off!

I recently purchased Kuruvilla's  commentary on Mark.  WHAT A RESOURCE!  Kuruvilla really helps you follow the literary strategy of the writer in narrative sections and he shows you how to develop it into a sermon.  The video that Tyler posted is an excellent example of this.  I've always felt pretty comfortable teaching/preaching didactic sections of scripture, but not so comfortable with narrative.  I think Kuruvilla has helped me turn the corner in this area.  I do quite a bit of pulpit supply.  Recently, using Kuruvilla's commentary, I have preached the first chapter of Mark in two sermons.  Lord willing I get to repeat these at a different church at the end of October.  Looking forward to it. 

BTW, each sermon was about 35 minutes long.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Like death and taxes, the sermon length debate will probably always be with us.  Spurgeon said that 45 minutes was his targeted length, and he maintained that quite consistently.  Not many are as gifted as Spurgeon, so I doubt that we should plan to exceed that standard on a regular basis.  But not all situations are equal.  The expectations of the congregation play a large role.  Some are accustomed to no more than thirty minutes.  Exceeding that by fifteen more will accomplish little good.  Others are accustomed to an hour or more.  In that situation, 45 minutes will seem short, assuming it is a good sermon and well delivered.  We probably all tend to believe we are better preachers than is likely true.  With that in mind, shorter is usually better than longer.  I aim to keep mine under 45 minutes.  (I confess that I do not always accomplish my aim.  I am fortunate to have a congregation that encourages me to preach longer, but that comes after many years development.)

G. N. Barkman

T Howard's picture

Having just watched Kuruvilla's video that Tyler posted, I would caution us to beware of exegetical maximalism, or finding "golden nuggets" from every grammatical detail.

Using exegetical maximalism in your preaching is just as bad as using exegetical fallacies.

Bert Perry's picture

I was reading a biography of a pastor in Communist China, and one thing he noted was that when Americans came to serve, the churches there tried to make sure that he was comfortable preaching and teaching for hours, because actual copies of the Bible were rare, and therefore they felt that teachers ought to go longer so as to impart more of the Scripture in one sitting.

I must confess that if I were in the position of teaching in such a context, I would be very tempted to simply read an entire epistle, or even an entire Gospel, to impart the best possible picture of Scripture.  If I went off on my own path, I'd be likely to impart my own culture while the listeners were powerless to be a Berean and fact check me.

And in that sort of context, my lack of skill in the Chinese language would be killer. :^)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

josh p's picture

I had a similar situation a few months back. My pastor badly threw out his back the night before service. He had been preaching through Hebrews so he asked me to just read through it as a sermon. It is sermonic so it actually worked quite well. I gave a few opening    remarks about the public reading of scripture and started reading. It took about 45 minutes and a lot of people commented how good it was to hear the book read as a whole. 

JSwaim's picture

Using exegetical maximalism in your preaching is just as bad as using exegetical fallacies.

No one should ever utilize an exegetical fallacy in his sermon for any reason.  In contrast, "exegetical maximalism" is a highly subjective problem.  I wouldn't equate the problematic aspect of the two.  

It did seem that Kuruvilla looked at the clock late in his sermon and decided he had time to include an additional insight.  Though I am a fan of shorter serrmons, for him I'd make an exception!

JD Miller's picture

Many years ago I realized I was not intelligent enough to be dogmatic about theological convictions based simply on details of the tense and voice in the Greek.  As I watched others making dogmatic assertions, I assumed that they were grasping something from the text that I was missing and that they were much smarter in this area than I was.  This is not an area I am skilled with.  I decided that my limited grasp meant that I needed to look to the commentary of those much more learned than I was.  I soon discovered that on many of the most controversial subjects there was not "settled linguistic science" on many debates.  Suddenly the light bulb came on in my head.  If the best and brightest scholars were not able to use these details to settle debate, then I should not be expecting to either.  No doubt, I wish I had a better grasp on these subjects, but I am thankful that I recognized that I did not understand them well enough to end up abusing them.

The more I read on this subject, the more thankful I am that I didn't "think" I understood these issues better.  One of the dangers I see in using Exegetical Maximalism as a preaching technique is that it gives the layman in the pew just enough information to end up jumping to some unreasonable conclusions.

T Howard's picture

JSwaim wrote:

Using exegetical maximalism in your preaching is just as bad as using exegetical fallacies.

No one should ever utilize an exegetical fallacy in his sermon for any reason.  In contrast, "exegetical maximalism" is a highly subjective problem.  I wouldn't equate the problematic aspect of the two.  

Kuruvilla's highlighting that Mark referred to blood only two times in his gospel and referred to scourging / affliction two times in his gospel, etc. as saying that he was doing so to link the woman and Jesus is just exegetical speculation and nonsense. His joke about zombies actually unwittingly points to the silliness of these types of observations. It's almost as bad as employing numerology to figure out secret codes or secret meanings in the text.

Avoid this type of "golden nugget" preaching.

M. Osborne's picture

@JD: I have found that overexegeting the Greek language often strains the limits of just how much ordinary language can convey.

Most often, the original languages simply help me know what a text can't mean (e.g., because the English was somewhat ambiguous), and sometimes they establish what a text must mean, but rarely do they give me some kind of "aha" that I would never have seen in the English.

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

M. Osborne wrote:

Most often, the original languages simply help me know what a text can't mean (e.g., because the English was somewhat ambiguous), and sometimes they establish what a text must mean, but rarely do they give me some kind of "aha" that I would never have seen in the English.

If the original languages regularly gave you "aha"-level insights that you didn't see in the English, it might be time to consider a different English translation...

Dave Barnhart

T Howard's picture

M. Osborne wrote:

@JD: I have found that overexegeting the Greek language often strains the limits of just how much ordinary language can convey.

Most often, the original languages simply help me know what a text can't mean (e.g., because the English was somewhat ambiguous), and sometimes they establish what a text must mean, but rarely do they give me some kind of "aha" that I would never have seen in the English.

Exegetical maximalism can turn into a form of gnosticism or claim to secret knowledge. When pastors employ this kind of exegesis they are in essence telling their people that only the pastor (or someone with knowledge of the original languages) can determine what Mark was really trying to communicate. There's what Mark wrote, but then there's "the deeper things" that Mark really meant to communicate. That's why I said earlier it's as bad as committing exegetical fallacies.

Do biblical authors use different literary techniques in their writings? Absolutely. Do they do so in such a subtle way that one has to decipher the "hidden meaning" behind the text to fully understand what they meant to communicate? Highly doubtful.

JSwaim's picture

THoward said

...saying that he was doing so to link the woman and Jesus is just exegetical speculation and nonsense.

 OK, I understand your previous comment more clearly now.  Thanks for your replies.  To you, it seems, over-exegesis IS exegetical fallacy.  Fair enough!

However, when it comes to exegesis, what we have is "words".  There are many elements that go into understanding a writers words.  A part of that evaluation is the frequency of their use.  If a word is used frequently, that stresses the importance of the word.  Sparing use of a word may also signify stress upon it.  Just as in speech a person can stress his words by yelling some of them, he can also stress then by whispering them.  Either way, the speaker is stressing his words.  One of the practices that Kuruvilla employs in his interpretive work is doing word counts in a program like BibleWorks to see what words/root words a writer uses frequently and sparingly, because these factors clue the exegete as to what the writer is stressing.  It's a valid practice and adds understanding to a writer's meaning.

As a "for instance", in the book of Genesis Abraham is declared to be righteous.  One other person in the book is declared to be righteous.  Do you think that is significant?  You bet it is!

Bert Perry's picture

I don't know the grammar terribly well in either language, but what I do find when I look up words in the ancient languages is that there is often a sense which is tenable in the English translation that simply doesn't work in the original Greek or Hebrew, or a connotation/denotation in the original languages that explains how the ancients thought to a degree about matters, but which is simply foreign to modern English speakers.  Another reality is that at times, it's really easy to read your own culture into the text ("well, 'love' must mean this here, so....."), and going back to the original languages helps slow that down.

No doubt that if this is a constant feature of your investigation (per Dave B), you really ought to see if you can find  a better (generally "more literal") translation, but even the best translations have to deal with the fact that translation is as much art as it is science.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

T Howard's picture

JSwaim wrote:
However, when it comes to exegesis, what we have is "words".  There are many elements that go into understanding a writers words.  A part of that evaluation is the frequency of their use.  If a word is used frequently, that stresses the importance of the word.  Sparing use of a word may also signify stress upon it.  Just as in speech a person can stress his words by yelling some of them, he can also stress then by whispering them.  Either way, the speaker is stressing his words.  One of the practices that Kuruvilla employs in his interpretive work is doing word counts in a program like BibleWorks to see what words/root words a writer uses frequently and sparingly, because these factors clue the exegete as to what the writer is stressing.  It's a valid practice and adds understanding to a writer's meaning.

The key word in your entire statement above is may. Yes, authors can and do emphasize certain words in various ways. However, word count alone tells us nothing except raw frequency. Whether it's significant is based on genre, context, and the literary devices the author employs in his writings. The word count may be frequent or infrequent based on the topic being addressed. The author may even use a hapax. However, even the presence of a hapax may not be exegetically significant in determining the meaning of the pericope.

Remember, the biblical author is trying to clearly communicate his point / purpose to his readers. Just as we are communicating here on Sharper Iron. Will he purposely obfuscate the message he is trying to communicate by encoding it in linguistic or grammatical subtleties? Highly unlikely.

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