John Chapman’s Setting hearts on fire: A guide to giving evangelistic talks is the book that I wished I’d had when I started out as a preacher. It’s clear on the Bible and it’s clear about preaching the Bible. It offers a template for approaching, preparing, and delivering talks in a faithful and captivating manner. You don’t have to be an evangelistic preacher to gain from this book. You don’t even have to be a preacher at all. If you’re involved in teaching the Bible in Sunday School, youth group, Bible study, or school scripture then you’ll find so much of value here. In fact, if you want a book that will help you to read the Bible for yourself, know what the Bible is about, and know how to respond to the Bible, grab yourself a copy. It’s gold!
The opening chapter shows the importance of preaching. It matters because it involves being God’s mouthpiece to others.
That is the wonder of preaching and teaching. A human is speaking but the listeners encounter the living God speaking. (p23)
Chappo’s understanding of preaching comes from 2 Timothy 4:1, where Timothy is charged to Preach the Word. This is the task. It’s not simply imparting wise words from someone who is well trained and can come up with good ideas. No, it’s faithfully passing on the very words of God. God is a speaking God. He communicates by words. These are very powerful words. They bring life. They transform and change people. They bridge the chasm between God and people, such that people are welcomed back into relationship with God. Preaching, therefore, is a weighty responsibility.
Preaching God’s Word is an unequal partnership between God and the preacher. God works through the spoken word, by the power of his Spirit, to effect change in people. For this reason, we are called to pray for the work of understanding and proclaiming God’s message. We need to work hard at it. Praying and preaching are our side of the partnership. Chappo warns against three things that can get in the way of people responding to the preaching of God’s word. He mentions 1) unbiblical teaching; 2) preachers showing off; and 3) the spiritual blindness of listeners. I would add a fourth: 4) confusing the message. If the preacher hasn’t worked out what it means, or how to communicate it clearly, then people can be left unclear about what God is saying or how they should respond.
Chapter 2 of Setting hearts on fire is an inspiring chapter. It speaks of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Saviour and King. Chappo shows how this is the entire message of the Bible in a nutshell. He takes us from Genesis to Revelation, with great clarity, summarising the big picture (or metanarrative) of the Bible. He shows how the Old Testament points to Jesus and how Jesus fulfils the Old Testament. If you’re not sure how the Bible hangs together then you should probably take 15 minutes to read through this chapter. What’s more you shouldn’t begin teaching the Bible until you do!
While this is a book on evangelistic preaching, Chappo shows how all biblically faithful preaching will be evangelistic because it will point people to Jesus. Three things distinguish evangelistic preaching in this book:
- its content is a summary of the whole Bible message of Jesus as the Saving Messiah
- it is aimed specifically at unbelievers
- its style is controlled by the target audience (eg. absence of jargon and technical terms, user friendly)
Chappo is not saying that every talk should have John 3:16 tacked on at the end of it, or that ever talk should be the same three point summary of the gospel. Rather, we should work within the context of the passage, the book, and the whole Bible, so as to point people to Jesus. His aim in this book, and for preaching in general is for people to respond to God’s word, in the same way that the disciples responded after hearing the resurrected Jesus teach them the Bible:
Were not our hearts burning within us, while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us? (Luke 24:32)
Every sermon, talk and Bible study should be headed in the same direction – pointing people to Jesus. Every sermon, talk and Bible study should be seeking the same positive response to the Word of God – repentance (turning back to God) and faith (trusting in God to save them through the work of Jesus). Chappo shows us how to do this without violating the text or importing external ideas into the passage of the Bible.
This is a liberating book for the preacher, because it makes clear what is God’s work and what is the preacher’s work. How people respond is up to the listener and God. It’s good to be reminded that the Holy Spirit knows our listeners more than we do and loves them more than we do. This takes the pressure off the preacher. Our job is to proclaim the word faithfully, while God is responsible for changing people’s hearts. Therefore we should pray and work hard at our preaching.
After offering some tips on how to choose passages for evangelistic preaching, Chappo moves into the second half of the book on preparing and preaching the word. He offers us an excellent outline for structuring the shape of talks:
- State the point
- Show me in the Bible
- Explain it
- Illustrate the point
- Apply it
This is easy to remember. One point for each finger: 1) state it; 2) read it; 3) explain it; 4) illustrate it; 5) apply it. I’d recommend this as a good shape for any preacher. It gives balance in helping people to work from the Bible, to changing their lives. This chapter models how it’s done, with Chappo giving us the text of a talk he was working on at the time. He shows how he gets from there to here in a way that is clear and transparent. Sometimes I hear preachers and I wonder what mental gymnastics they’ve done to get to the sermon, or what they expect their listeners to do once they’ve finished. With Chappo’s model you work toward a coherent Bible-shaped message.
Chappo was a master illustrator, and he encouraged illustrations for a variety of reasons. They help clarify or reinforce an explanation. They arouse interest, recall attention, or offer a mental break to the listeners. They help people to learn a little about the speaker, which is especially important if people don’t know you. They engage the emotions as well as the intellect, and they tap into different learning styles. The main focus here seems to be in illustrating the explanation of the passage. I’ve found it can also be helpful to illustrate the application, or transition to the application by way of illustration. There are some good ideas about different types of illustrations and some important warnings about the unhelpful use of illustrations.
After the body of the talk has been prepared, Chappo urges us to give careful attention to its introduction and conclusion. Hooking people in at the start is critical if they’re going to stay with us for the next 20 minutes or more. He recommends a few ideas such as asking people a question, using a shocking statement or statistics, appealing to a known need, or telling a story. Likewise, it’s important to end the talk well. Assuming there’s been application throughout the talk, we should tie it together and restate key points as we finish. The conclusion shouldn’t be tacked on as an afterthought. This is the last thing people will hear, it should be important and clear.
Preachers vary from those who use a full manuscript to those who don’t use notes at all. Chappo used a half-way approach with notes and points and there is a sample in the book. Work out what works for you. If you use a full script, it’s important not to be dependent upon it. If you don’t use notes, then you will need to be disciplined and clear so you don’t meander all over the place. The important thing is to know your talk, and this will mean practising it beforehand.
There’s much more wisdom in this book: suggestions for styles of preaching from different parts of the Bible; choosing the kind of talk and length of talk; the temptations that face a preacher; words, emotions, body language; some sample talks and talk outlines; and a sermon assessment guideline.
I recommend every preacher have this book in their toolkit. If you’re starting out, then you’ll find it a huge help. If you’ve been doing it for a while, it will help you recalibrate. If you’re involved in equipping others, it will provide an excellent training manual. Get yourself a copy.