Setting hearts on fire

chapman-setting-hearts-fireJohn 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:

  1. its content is a summary of the whole Bible message of Jesus as the Saving Messiah
  2. it is aimed specifically at unbelievers
  3. 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:

  1. State the point
  2. Show me in the Bible
  3. Explain it
  4. Illustrate the point
  5. 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.

Made to Stick

Made_to_StickOver summer some of our tents got damaged. We had a major windstorm blow through the campground, causing trees and branches to come down everywhere. Two major rips in one tent and a dozen minor tears in the shade tarpaulin. Gaff Tape to the rescue! This tape is seriously potent stuff. It fixes the problems and it goes on easily. There’s really only one problem. You can’t get it off! You can pull the tape away, but the sticky residue remains as testimony to the holes it once covered. The stickiness sticks even after the tent has been professionally repaired. If only that were true of all my good ideas, all my sermons, all my visions for the future! Communicate and they stick – at least all the bits that really mattered.

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath is a book for people who want to communicate. Not just say things, but be heard, understood, remembered, and embraced. The authors have written this book for people who want their ideas to change people’s opinions and behaviours – that is, to make their ideas stick. As a pastor, I don’t want to be merely whistling into the wind. I’m keen for people to be excited by the message of God, to remember what’s important, to change how they think and speak and act, and to pass the message on to others. How sticky are my words and ideas? How much is remembered from my sermons? How do I go about seeking to communicate the life giving words of God?

Sadly, I hear some preachers with a love for God’s message, who come across as boring as the paint job on a navy ship. And I hear others, whose messages are largely froth and bubble, a mix of cliches and pop psychology, who get remembered because they manage to communicate in a sticky way. A good message deserves to be communicated in the very best ways possible. This book offers some great ideas, and you’ll find that many of them are pretty sticky!

The authors have identified six common features to sticky ideas. They’ve expressed them by the acronym SUCCESs. A pity they couldn’t think of a seventh – but maybe the lack of a final S makes it even more sticky?! These are the principles they found at work…

Simplicity
Unexpectedness
Concreteness
Credibility
Emotions
Stories

1. Simplicity

This is not about creating sound bites or necessarily short messages. It has to do with stripping the idea down to its core. What is its essence?

A successful defense lawyer says, “If you argue ten points, even if each is a good point, then when they get back to the jury room they won’t remember any.”  (p16)

This isn’t about dumbing things down. It’s separating the interesting ideas from the important. It’s separating the important from the most important. It’s distilling the essential out of the most important. Then you’ve got simple.

I see this as a trap for preachers. You’ve been working in a passage of Scripture, soaking yourself in it, picking out gems, discovering new paths, having the occasional ‘aha’ experience. You’ve worked hard in your preparation. There are so many things you want to say. And you do! You have enough different good ideas for a series of sermons and people are left wondering what on earth you said. Occasional preachers and student preachers are especially prone to this. If you only get to say things once every now and then, you’d better make the most of it. Yes! But that doesn’t mean saying everything! It means saying what you most want to say and making it stick.

2. Unexpectedness

The most basic way to get people’s attention is to break a pattern. We tend to be creatures of habit and we get lulled into the security of consistent patterns. Unexpected ideas are more likely to stick because they make us pay attention and think. The extra attention sticks the ideas into our memories.

I remember hearing a sermon by a friend, where he began by saying he had two important announcements to make. The first was that someone, let’s call him Tommy, was being kicked out of the church because he’d done a, b, c, f, j, k, m, p, and q. These things were seriously bad and you could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium. This was going to be a heavy time for the church. We’d never faced anything this intense before. How would it be handled? The speaker had everyone’s attention. No one would forget this sermon. In fact, they’d be hanging out to get home and recount it to others.

The second announcement was that there was no such person as Tommy. He’d made him up! He wanted to get us thinking what should we do, what would we do, if these things actually happened. You might argue that the intro was ‘gimmickry’, however I’d respond that it moved me quickly and directly to the weight of the issue. This was more than a trick to get my attention. It persuaded me why I needed to listen. I heard it over 20 years ago, and I think it remains one of the stickiest sermons I’ve ever heard. Because he got my attention and held it, I can even remember the main point and the passage of the Bible being taught.

Getting people’s attention is one thing. Keeping it is another. Too many messages start well, and then deteriorate into boredom. We need to maintain people’s interest. The ideal way to do this is to create mystery, to breed curiosity, to show a gap in the audience’s knowledge that they want filled. It’s this gap that holds people’s attention. This is why people will keep watching a B grade movie to the end. They want the gaps filled and the tensions resolved. This means we need to highlight gaps in people’s knowledge that they want filled. Rather than simply filling their minds with facts, we want them to be seeking answers to their own questions.

To make our communication more effective, we need to shift our thinking from “What information do I need to convey?” to “What questions do I want my audience to ask?”  (p88)

 3. Concreteness

Concrete ideas are stickier than abstract ideas. Aesop authored some of the stickiest stories in history. We remember the message of The Tortoise and the Hare or The Boy who cried Wolf or The Goose that laid the Golden Eggs, far more easily than we could ever remember the abstract messages they portray. Yet because of the concrete story, we also remember the meaning. Here’s an example:

One summer day a Fox was strolling through an orchard. He saw a bunch of grapes high on a grape vine. “Just the thing to quench my thirst,” he said. Backing up a few paces, he took a run and jumped at the grapes, just missing. Turning around again, he ran faster and jumped again. Still a miss. Again and again he jumped, until he gave up out of exhaustion. Walking away with his nose in the air, he said: “I am sure they are sour.” It is easy to despise what you can’t get.  (p98)

If we want our ideas to stick we should err toward concrete ideas rather than abstractions. A V8 engine is concrete, whereas a high performance motor is abstract. A tightrope walker above Niagara Falls is concrete, whereas stepping out in faith is abstract. Engineering drawings are abstract, whereas walking onto the factory floor and showing where the part should go is concrete.

The authors argue that concreteness is the easiest of the six traits to embrace and that it may also be the most effective.

Crafting our ideas in an unexpected way takes a fair amount of effort and applied creativity. But being concrete isn’t hard, and it doesn’t require a lot of effort. The barrier is simply forgetfulness – we forget that we’re slipping back into abstract speak. We forget that other people don’t know what we know. We’re the engineers who keep flipping back to our drawings, not noticing that the assemblers just want us to follow them down to the factory floor.  (p129)

4. Credibility

Why do people believe ideas? There’s a multitude of influencing factors. We’re influenced by our parents and friends. We believe because we’ve had experiences that lead us in this direction. Our religious beliefs have an impact. We believe because we trust authorities on the matter. People develop core beliefs that operate like a set of gates allowing them to accept or reject new ideas. If we want to persuade a skeptical audience to believe a new message, then we face an uphill battle against so many other influences.

External authorities, such as an expert or a celebrity, can add weight to a message. The trouble is we don’t always have access to such authorities. At these times it’s important that our ideas have internal credibility. They must be logical and coherent. They need to stand up for themselves.

An important way of establishing credibility is to make a ‘falsifiable claim’. You ask the audience to test the idea for themselves. Can they prove it wrong? Will they check it out to seek if it stacks up to its claim? Testable credentials can provide an enormous credibility boost, since they essentially allow your audience members to “try before they buy.” (p157)

This approach resonates with how I should see communication about God working. The external authority is God himself, but if people don’t recognise his authority, they can at least test the claims. They don’t need to begin with accepting the divine authorship of the Bible, but can ask questions of verification. One area of internal credibility has to do with “does it work?” I want to encourage people to check out Jesus. I argue that he makes a huge difference to people’s life. I explain the difference he has made to mine. And I invite people to check him out for themselves. Does he make a difference?

5. Emotions

Believing credible ideas isn’t enough. People need to care if they are going to act in response. Much of this chapter seems to be about appealing to people’s self-interest. People are motivated if they feel they’re going to get something out of it. Appealing to people’s self-interest gets their attention. An old advertising maxim says you have got to spell out the benefit of the benefit. In other words, people don’t buy quarter-inch drill bits. They buy quarter-inch holes so they can hang their children’s pictures. (p179) This is the WIIFY – what’s in it for you – aspect of advertising. The authors argue that good communication needs to include this aspect. People need to have their needs engaged if they’re going to buy into the idea.

There are principles here that are more than appealing to selfishness. It’s more to do with people understanding their need to engage with the ideas. That it matters. To them. This is more than facts and figures. It’s more than analysis and reason. It’s about making things personal, showing how much they matter.

The authors have identified that people care more about the particular than the pattern. Like Mother Theresa’s comment: If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will. (p203) If we want people to act, then we need to do more than get them to make a rational response. They need to take off their analytical hats. We must show how our ideas connect with something they already care about. We appeal to what they value, who they are, and want they want to become.

All this might appear very manipulative, and it certainly could be used this way. We could simply end up reinforcing people’s selfishness by encouraging them to focus on their own desires. However, I think we should reflect on the emotional component of making ideas sticky. The world I come from tends to be very cerebral and doesn’t give much thought as to what moves people. We are emotional beings. Let’s not overlook this fact. We can be very passionate about things that matter deeply to us. Let’s tap into people’s passions as we communicate.

6. Stories

Good stories are very sticky. They can provide inspiration that moves people to action. They can help rehearse situations that enable people to perform better when they face similar real life circumstances in the future. A bit like a mental flight simulator that prepares people to respond more quickly and effectively.

Firefighters naturally swap stories after every fire, and by so doing they multiply their experience; after years of hearing stories, they have a richer, more complete mental catalog of critical situations they might confront during a fire and the appropriate responses to those situations.  (p18)

Stories help anchor important ideas in reality. They could be used to explain the idea, illustrate the idea, or apply the idea. You don’t always have to create the sticky story idea. Sometimes it’s just a matter of identifying them when they come your way.

The beauty of stories is that they naturally embody most of the SUCCESs framework.

Stories are almost always Concrete. Most of them have Emotional and Unexpected elements. The hardest part of using stories effectively is making sure that they’re Simple –  that they reflect your core message.  (p237)

Application

If you’re in the business of communicating ideas that you want to change people’s lives, then read this book. You probably won’t like everything – I didn’t. Some things might clash with your worldview – they did mine. But it’s worth reading. The ideas here are worth considering. Communication is two sided. We can talk and talk, write and write, advertise and advertise, preach and preach… resulting in no visible change. No changed thinking. No resultant action.

There are no guarantees here. You could be the world’s greatest communicator and still no one changes. Isaiah the great prophet from around the eighth century BC had a powerful message to communicate, but he was told that the people would not change. Instead they would be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving. (Isaiah 6:9)

We can’t control who will be changed by our message and who won’t, but we must not hide behind poor communication. If the message matters then so does the medium. If you want everyone to read something in the paper, then you write a gripping headline and put it on the cover. You don’t hide it away in small print somewhere toward the back.

In my role as a pastor/teacher I want to apply myself to my message, but also to improving my modes of communication. What will help people to grasp and retain the message? What will help people to understand why it matters so much? What will inspire people to take action? How can I make my sermons stickier? How can I communicate our vision in a stickier way? These are all questions worth asking.

Communicating for a change

communicating_for_a_changeCommunicating for a Change by Andy Stanley and Lane Jones is both a joy and disturbing to read. It’s a joy because it’s so engaging and well written. It’s disturbing because it asks serious questions about how well our sermons are communicating with people and what difference they’re making to people’s lives. The book is written in two parts with very distinct styles. It begins with the story of a truck driver training a preacher in how to communicate sermons that make a real impact! This section is both humorous and persuasive. The second half shows the imperatives for good preaching being worked out in practice. This is where the rubber hits the road, so to speak!

Stanley’s philosophy of preaching is this:

Every time I stand to communicate I want to take one simple truth and lodge it in the heart of the listener. I want them to know that one thing and to know what to do with it.  (p12)

He’s critical of approaches to preaching that try to say too much and end up not saying anything clearly at all. Whereas a typical sermon might have three or four different points, an intro and a conclusion, his approach is to keep it to one point. Make your one point, make it clearly, apply it well! This may sound too simplistic. What if the passage of Scripture has three or four separate points? Then, he would say, we have sufficient material for a series rather than a sermon. I seem to remember a certain J. Chapman saying something like this! If the preacher can’t find the one major point of the text, then he has more work to do until the one big idea is clear.

Having one big idea does not constrain you to simple five minute, one point, messages. Presumably, the text of Scripture develops a flow of logic to arrive at the big idea. If so, then this will usually offer the best structure for your message. Follow the flow. You may discover three or four sub points, but they won’t be separate and unrelated ideas. Rather, they will develop the argument to arrive at the one big idea.

Stanley suggests that we see a sermon as a journey:

I’ve always thought of a sermon, or any talk for that matter, as a journey. You start somewhere, you go somewhere, and ultimately you end up somewhere. The question is, did you end up where you wanted to go?  (p38)

With this image in mind, a sermon outline should be like a map. It guides us on the journey to the big idea. We go from here, to there, to our destination. This is the sermon journey. By contrast, some sermons simply put marks on the map and then talk about the different places. They don’t show us the best routes between places or how to get where we need to go.

As a preacher it is humbling to think about how few of my sermons might actually get remembered long after they are given. Most likely, very few. If I was asked what were the four points in my message on Sunday, I might struggle to remember every one (let alone a twelve point sermon I gave once!) But one point, taking things deeper rather than wider, should be different.

Stanley distils seven imperatives from his story that he applies to preaching. And I think he’s made his point, because I can’t remember them all without looking back at the book! His points are as follows:

Determine your goal: What are you trying to accomplish?

If you don’t know what you are trying to do with your preaching then you won’t know if you’ve achieved it. I agree with Stanley that our goal should be much more than imparting information from the Bible. I’d argue that we are seeking to apply the gospel-shaped Word of God to people’s lives, for the purpose of God transforming their lives. This is something we ought to be passionate about. People’s lives hang in the balance. This isn’t take it or leave it theological education.

Pick a point: What are you trying to say?

The point might be an application, an insight, or a principle. We need to find the central idea that holds everything together. This will lead the preacher to address two questions: (i) What is the one thing I want my congregation to know? (ii) What do I want them to do about it? Stanley calls us to work hard in our preparation, digging around until we discover this central idea, building everything around it, and then making it stick. This will mean omitting material and shaping what’s left to make one coherent point.

Create a map: What’s the best route to your point?

Stanley has his own template that he uses on most of his sermons. It goes like this:

Me -> We -> God -> You -> We

orientation -> identification -> illumination -> application -> inspiration

This template ensures logical flow. It begins by raising issues that connect with the hearers. People need a reason to listen. There should be a tension to be resolved, such that they’re eager to hear how God’s word answers their questions and resolves the tension. This leads to the “So what?” and the “Now what?” questions, before finally casting a vision for how things could be when God’s word is applied.

Internalize the message: What’s your story?

We’re called to own our message, to internalize it, and to know it personally. Stanley urges us to preach with conviction and passion. There’s something less than persuasive about a preacher who stumbles over their notes, while telling us how important the message is! For the author, this means knowing where he is going so he is not note-dependent. Some things are written in his notes and others are not. The key to knowing the message isn’t rehearsing a text, it’s knowing the map, where you want to get to, and being clear about the key points along the way.

Engage your audience: What’s your plan to capture and keep their attention?

If communication is to be compared with taking people on a journey, then it’s important that they stay on the bus with us! Stanley challenges the common suggestion that people have shorter attention spans these days. He says the key issue is our ability to capture and hold their attention. If people are on board, can see where they’re going, and they want to get to the destination, then they’ll stay with us. It’s up to the preacher to work hard at being engaging, not to blame people for disengaging.

Find your voice: What works for you?

Authenticity communicates volumes. Authenticity covers a multitude of communication sins. If a communicator is believable and sincere, I can put up with a lot of things. But if I get the feeling that I’m listening to their stage personality, big turnoff. I imagine you are the same way. I want to hear you, not your best rendition of your favourite communicator.  (p169)

Having said, “Be yourself”, Stanley won’t allow us to hide behind our bad habits. We need to work to become clearer communicators. If we’re going to improve then we’ll need to listen to ourselves, seek constructive feedback, and make changes. And keep on doing this!

Start all over: What’s the next step?

Preachers get stuck. Sometimes we just can’t seem to get to the big idea. Other times we can’t work out how best to communicate it. This is the reality. It doesn’t always come easily or on time! We are ultimately inadequate for the task of preaching God’s word, so we need to learn to depend upon God. It’s only the work of God’s word and Spirit that will change people. I must never forget this. Clever communication is not enough!

When we get stuck, it should lead us again to prayer. Please God, work through me and your word, by your Spirit, to transform people. Stanley also suggests going back and asking five questions. He finds these questions regularly give him renewed traction:

  1. What do they need to know?   INFORMATION
  2. Why do they need to know it?   MOTIVATION
  3. What do they need to do?   APPLICATION
  4. Why do they need to do it?   INSPIRATION
  5. How can I help them remember?   REITERATION

So what do I make of this book? And will it help our preaching?

To be honest, I found it refreshing and stimulating. It made me think again about the earnest responsibility and important craft of preaching the Scriptures. Preaching is something we should take seriously, keep practicing, keep learning about, and be open to making changes. The creative approach of this book models the passion of the authors that we should do this well. It’s God’s precious life-transforming word we’re handling, so let’s give it the respect it deserves.

13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. 14 Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you. 15 Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. 16 Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.  (1 Timothy 4:13-16)

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.  (2 Timothy 4:1-2)

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.  (James 3:1)

Communicating for a change is a potent double entendre. ‘Communicating, for a change’ is a sad indictment on some preaching. Words are spoken, but the hearers are rarely engaged. Communicating for a change‘ is what we’re called to do. Preach the word so that people are moved to trust God and follow him with their lives.

I believe this book can help us to work at clarity in our preaching. Unless you believe that you should be offering a verbal commentary on every detail of the Bible passage, then you will need to be selective in your handling of the text. Being faithful requires you to let the Bible speak, and this means working hard to understand the issues, the logic, and the overall message. It means speaking in such a way as to reveal God’s word, not disguise or veil it.

I have some concerns bubbling up as I read this book. The author seems to start mostly from human issues and then find Scriptures to address them. The danger of this angle is that we control the agenda. A book-by-book, chapter-by-chapter, or passage-by-passage approach to preaching forces us to deal with whatever issues God’s word places on our agenda. It keeps me from my hobby horses and it helps me reevaluate my priorities.

I wonder also whether it places too much importance on the message being fully memorable. If preaching helps people get into the text for themselves, then as they go back to the passage afterwards (like good Bereans, Acts 17) God’s word should become clearer and more readily applied. Or to put it another way, we don’t want the listener to remember more of what the preacher said than what the Bible says. Surely, the preacher is to fade into the background and let God’s word take centre stage. I think Stanley would agree with me here, and say it’s all the more important we preach with clarity and conviction.

I love the call to passion and engagement in preaching. Great preaching warms the heart. Dull preaching puts people off God – and that is not excusable. I’ve listened to some sermons that sound like a person talking about their PhD. They obviously know a lot about the topic, and it means a lot to them, but it hasn’t engaged me or any of the other listeners, it seems. I’m not quite sure why we need to listen or what point the speaker is trying to make. This book calls us to make a priority of engaging people.

I’ve never heard Andy Stanley preach, so my assessment of this book is not shaped by the talks he produces. At the end of the day it’s not about the right model or technique. It’s about communicating God’s will to the hearts and minds of others, so that the gospel transforms their lives. This must be theologically-driven. It’s the nature and power of God’s Word that will lead me to handle it with great care and to be deeply concerned about the way it impacts others.

Saving Eutychus

Saving_EutychesI should declare my hand on this book. I’ve only met the Irish author, Gary Millar, on one occasion as he and his family sat in front of me at Chappo’s memorial service. I’ve known the Aussie one for over 30 years. Phil and I met at uni, studied theology together, and have partnered together in ministry often over many years. Phil sent me an advanced copy of this book (pdf only – I’m waiting for my published copy!) and invited a review. Here’s a quote from Phil’s email …

If you like it, we’d love a review on macarisms. If you don’t like it, it would be good to just forget you ever saw it 😉

This might sound like a ‘suck up’, but I really did enjoy reading this book! It’s full of wisdom, tried and tested, Biblical, theological and practical. I don’t preach as much these days, but I’m pleased to have been given this book just prior to my next gig. As I prepare this week and next to preach on Matthew 9 and 10, I plan to filter my preparation through the advice of this book.

Saving Eutychus, by Gary Millar and Phil Campbell, grabs it’s title from a popular eclectic blog written by Nathan Campbell. Eutychus was the bloke in Acts 20 who fell asleep, toppled out of the window, and died during a very long sermon by the Apostle Paul. Without criticising Paul, this book is an OH & S workbook to keep sermon listeners alive.

Saving Eutychus doesn’t just mean keeping him awake. It also means doing our best to keep him fresh and alert so he can hear the truth and be saved.  (p15)

The chapter I most needed to read was the opening on prayer. I easily identified with Gary’s temptations to get up and get busy. No time for prayer – there’s too many urgent things to do… like check Facebook, twitter, read the sports results etc. Sad, I know! And I need constant reminding that talking to God about stuff is the most useful thing I could be doing. This chapter encourages us to pray for our preachers. It also encourages preachers to pray that God will work through our words to transform and change people. Even having been struck with cancer, I still have a temptation to self-reliance. I need continual reminding that I might sow, plant, water and weed, but only God gives the growth. These words spoke to my heart:

God doesn’t use people because they are gifted. He uses people (even preachers) because he is gracious. Do we actually believe that? If we do believe it, then we will pray – we will pray before we speak, and we will pray for others before they speak. It’s that simple.  (p21)

The authors want to help us preach faithfully without being boring. This means people being profoundly impacted by what they hear. We should expect to be changed as we hear God’s word preached. In recent times, I’ve heard two words too often when it comes to describing preaching – encouraged and challenged. Now, there’s nothing wrong with these two responses to preaching, but God’s word promises to do so much more. Gary writes: I want to be challenged, humbled, corrected, excited, moved, strengthened, overawed, corrected, shaped, stretched and propelled out into the world a different person. (p27) In short, we want preaching that changes people.

The key to heart-changing preaching is not about tricks of emotional manipulation. It’s about letting God’s message come clearly through the sermon. The Bible is the life-giving, transforming, re-creating word from God. So the preacher can do no better than to let God speak. It’s not up to us to come up with a message. We simply need to put in the hard work to grasp God’s message and then let him speak. Don’t get in the way of what God has to say. This is what expository preaching is all about.

Phil has been banging a drum for a long time now. Clarity, clarity, clarity! It’s so important. If there’s a bushfire approaching your home, then you want the warning to be clear. If you’re taking potent drugs for a serious illness, then you want the labelling to be clear. If you have a message of life for all eternity, then you want the preaching to be clear. It matters! Saving Eutychus gives us a top ten list for making our preaching clearer and it’s good stuff.

  1. The more you say, the less people will remember
  2. Make the ‘big idea’ shape everything you say
  3. Choose the shortest, most ordinary words you can
  4. Use shorter sentences
  5. Forget everything your English teacher taught you
  6. Am I repeating myself?
  7. Translate narratives into present tense
  8. The six-million-dollar secret of illustrating
  9. People love to hear about people
  10. Work towards your key text

Not all these headings are self-explanatory, but together they offer great tips on making things clearer. Many good communicators tend to do these things instinctively. They’re the building blocks of clarity, especially with the spoken word. If you’re starting out as a preacher, or if you suspect that you’re not keeping people’s attention during your talks, then take the time to work through each of these points.

I’d say the big idea of this book is discovering the big idea of the Bible passage. If you don’t understand what the passage is saying, then you’ll simply pass on your confusion and ignorance. Hard work is required. Interrogate the Bible text until you’re clear on the big idea. What does it mean? What’s it saying? What does this have to do with me? If we can’t answer these questions, then we have no right preaching… yet. There’s more work to be done.

big_ideaPhil is a high-tech computer geek, but when it comes to working out the big idea, he goes old school. Strictly pen and paper. Write out the text, work out the logic, create a visual map of the argument, note repetitions, connections, links, and jot down questions to be explored. This takes time, but its rewards are great. You get it in your head to mull over and over during the week. Visual learners are able to see what’s happening. This exercise goes a long way to uncovering the big idea. And once you’ve got that idea, then you can start working out how it applies in the light of the gospel. Application is the goal, but you need to get there via the text, and that takes time.

Both authors are concerned that we produce gospel-shaped sermons. Gary writes: Just about the worst thing that can happen when we finish preaching is that someone will walk out the door of the church buoyed by their own resolve to try harder. (p77) The preacher’s role is to be faithful to the Bible in pointing people to Jesus. This means reading backwards and forwards. Things happened to others in the past that have been recorded for us in the present. I read the Bible as a Gentile not a Jew. This has big implications for how I relate to the Old Testament. I’m also a human being (yes!) and that puts me on common ground with Adam and everyone after him. It’s all about reading the Scriptures with wisdom and care, seeing how things progress towards and climax in Jesus. This book offers some good advice on preaching in a way that is shaped by the big idea of the Bible.

Saving Eutychus also includes practical tips for delivery. Varying pace, volume and pitch helps keep the listeners awake and engaged. How do you know where to put the emphases? Again, the answer is the same. It needs to be shaped by the big idea. If you’re clear on what you want to communicate, then you’re much more likely to communicate clearly!

In the last couple of chapters and the appendix we get to read a couple of sermons by the authors. These are run of the mill Sunday sermons. Phil shares the what and the why of his preparation and we get to see him putting his ideas into practice. Gary and Phil both critique each other, offering helpful insights and feedback at different points. It’s useful to see this modelled and to be offered a framework for providing feedback. They provide a sermon feedback form that can be used to invite feedback on our sermons, or to train others in preaching. When it comes to feedback, I agree with the authors that feedforward is preferable. It’s better to be able to improve the talk before you go live, than to wish you’d changed it afterwards.

So… I want a real copy of this book! I’ll be recommending it to the preachers in our church and networks. I’ll be encouraging those training to give Bible talks to work carefully through this book. I’ll be suggesting they listen to some recordings of the authors to see how they model what they teach. I’ll be critiquing my own preparation and talks in the light of the wisdom here.

But just one question… in a book that says to choose the shortest, most ordinary words you can… what’s with the “illocutionary effect”? Really!!