Challenges in Preaching
There are habits, and then, there are habits. Some are good and some are bad. Some are beneficial and recommended; some are detrimental and to be avoided. Among the former category there is one that has generally stood me in good stead, and that is to find and read at least one book on preaching during my summer holidays. Of course, there have been years when this habit has paid only meager dividends; however, this past summer I once again struck paydirt.
It came in the form of a book entitled Christ-Centered Preaching (Baker, 1994). It is written by Bryan Chapell who is professor of homiletics (preaching) and president of Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.
Here is a book that I can wholeheartedly recommend to every one of our readers, and to you pastors in particular. If there is one book about preaching that should be on your reading list this year, this is the one. I say that for a variety of reasons. For one, here is a book that is clearly written, well illustrated, complete with questions and exercises. In other words, an excellent text for those preparing for the ministry and a great refresher for those already in ministry. For another, here is a book that gives wise counsel and necessary instruction on the principles and preparation of expository sermons. Then too, here is a book that seeks to help preachers preach Christ-centered messages.
The standard approach when reviewing a book such as this would be to elaborate on each of the above reasons; however, it may be more insightful for you to see how Chapell deals with a number of challenges that are closely associated with preaching. What kind of challenges am I referring to?
Defining a Sermon
What is a sermon? What sets a sermon apart from a series of statements? Chapell says that for a sermon to be a sermon it needs to possess unity, purpose and application.
With "unity," he means that a sermon can only be about one thing, have one theme, possess one unifying concept. The preacher should be able to state that theme in one sentence.
With "purpose," Chapell introduces us to what he calls "The Fallen Condition Focus" or the FCF. He defines the FCF as "the mutual human condition that contemporary believers share with those to or for whom the text was written that requires the grace of the passage." Hence preachers need to ask not only "what does the text say?" and "what concerns does the text address?" but also "what do my listeners share in common with those to whom the message was first written?"
With "application," the author says that every preacher has to have one question at the top of the list. And the question? It is "So What?" Chapell states that "the message remains uncooked without thoughtful, true-to-the‑text application ... a grammar lesson is not a sermon. A sermon is not a textual summary, a systematics discourse, or a history lesson ... Preachers who cannot answer a 'So What?' will preach to a 'Who cares?' ... We are not ministers of information, we are ministers of Christ's transformation."
Rightly Viewing the Text
Chapell entitles his third chapter "The Priority of the Text" and insists that this is the place where every preacher must start. "The text itself is the source of the truths we ultimately present." But what constitutes a text? It needs to be "an expository unit" which he defines as "a large or small portion of Scripture from which the preacher can demonstrate a single spiritual truth with adequate supporting facts or concepts arising within the scope of the text."
In elaborating on a proper viewing of the text, Chapell deals with sermon length (no hard and fast rule can be laid down), series sermons (recommended, but there are pitfalls), contexts (what to preach is influenced by the calendar, situation, events, catechisms, and above all the Holy Spirit), cautions (do not avoid familiar text, or search for obscure ones, or use spurious ones), tools of the trade (Study Bibles, lexicons, concordances, dictionaries, commentaries), principles of interpretation (consider the context, use the grammatical-historical method, observe the historical, cultural, and literary context, determine the redemptive context).
In his next chapter the author continues to explain how the preacher should regard the Word. In the process he makes a strong plea for expository preaching as the only approach that does justice to the Scriptures.
As he says, 'expository preaching does not merely obligate preachers to explain what the Bible says, it obligates them to explain what the Bible means in the lives of people today.'
He quotes with approval the words of John A. Broadus,
the application of the sermon is not merely an appendage to the discussion or a subordinate part of it, but is the main thing to be done.
To support his view Chapell cites biblical passages such as Luke 24:27-32; Neh. 8:5-8; 1 Tim. 4:13; 2 Tim. 4:2 to explain that true exposition involves three elements: presentation of the Word, explanation of the Word and exhortation based on the Word. Or, using the more traditional terminology, expository preaching consists of the three components of explanation, illustration and application. As for how much attention is to be given to each component, that will vary depending on any number of factors ranging from text to preacher to audience.
Still, true preaching is not just a matter of method and approach, it also involves attitude. In that connection, Chapell has some wise words to say about the preacher's need to see himself as someone under divine authority, as someone who should preach in a biblical manner, as someone who reflects humble boldness, and as someone who strives for Christ-likeness.
Getting a Handle on the Text
After dealing with the underlying principles of expository preaching, Chapell goes on to address the preparation. Here he gives some much needed direction in what I would call "the mechanics of preaching." For example, as preachers handle the text, they need to ask six basic questions:
- What does the text mean?
- How do I know what the text means?
- What concerns caused the text to be written?
- What do we share in common with:
a) Those to (or about) whom the text was written and/or
b) The one by whom the text was written?
- How should people now respond to the truths of the text?
- What is the most effective way I can communicate the meaning of the text?
In addition, they need to take four necessary steps. First, they need to "observe ... listen to the text, absorb it, wrestle with it, digest it, immerse in it, breath it in as God's breath, pray over it." Second, they need to "interrogate" and this involves exegeting the passage (what does it say?), outlining the passage (how does it fit together?), back grounding the text (where does it fit?). Third, they need to "relate" which means to "consider the impact the information should have on the congregation." Fourth, they need to "organize" their research in such a way that they have some idea of sequence and order, that they have exhausted and covered it all, that they have highlighted certain ideas and subordinated others.
Moving from Text to Sermon
Yet if Chapell helps us to interact in a proper way with the text, he also helps us to move beyond the text to the sermon. How does he do so? By stressing that "a well-planned sermon begins with a good outline — a logical path for the mind."
What are some of the principles that lead to a good outline? Chapell mentions the following: unity, brevity, harmony, symmetry, progression, distinction and culmination. Becoming more specific, he also spends some time on "the proposition" or the theme of a sermon, and concurs with the words of Henry Jowett who once wrote,
I am of the conviction that no sermon is ready for preaching, nor ready for writing out, until we can express its theme in a short, pregnant sentence as clear as crystal.
From the theme or proposition, Chapell moves on to describe how to develop the main points and emphasizes that "each main point is a division of the thought presented in the pro-position." Next, he deals with sub points: their types and position. Finally, he conies to "the basic F-O-R-M" meaning that each outline should be,
Faithful to the text,
Obvious from the text,
Related to the Fallen Condition Focus, and
Moving towards a climax.
Getting the Message Across
If one of the great challenges of preaching has to do with moving from the text to the sermon, then surely another has to do with making the sermon effective. Chapell cites Reuel Howe who interviewed a host of people and came away with the following complaints about sermons:
- sermons often contain too many complex ideas;
- sermons have too much analysis and too little answer;
- sermons are too formal and too impersonal;
- sermons use too much theological jargon;
- sermons are too propositional, not enough illustrations;
- too many sermons simply reach a dead end and give no guidance to commitment and action.
So what is the solution? Chapell believes that it lies in the use of illustrations. At one time he was not so convinced but now he takes the view that "they are essential to effective exposition not merely because they stimulate interest, but also because they expand and deepen our understanding of the text." To prove his case Chapell cites a long list of famous preachers who all used illustrations. More important yet, he cites the preaching of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself of whom it is said that "He did not say anything to them without using a parable" (Mark 4:34).
Still, there is always a difference between knowing what should be done and actually doing it. Chapell realizes this and so goes out of his way to teach his readers the art of illustrating. In addition, he realizes that illustrations can be abused and gives some needed pointers about using them prudently and pastorally.
Applying the Sermon
Chapell is convinced, however, that expository preaching is more than a matter of proper illustrations. It also has to do with powerful applications. Early on in his book he touches on the need for application in the preaching. When he deals with sermon preparation, he comes back to it again.
What does he say about the practice of application? For openers, he notes that "preachers make a fundamental mistake when they assume that by providing parishioners with biblical information the people will automatically make the connection between scriptural truth and their everyday lives."
He quotes David Veerman who says,
simply stated, application is answering two questions: So what? and Now what? The first question asks, 'Why is this passage important to me?' The second asks, 'What should I do about it today?'
He also cites C. Trimp who said,
God caused the Word spoken in those days to be put in writing with a view to us and our salvation ... A respect for the true nature of the Bible opens the way for applied explanation in preaching.
Yet once again agreeing that something must be done and actually doing it can be two different things. To help us bridge the gap between principle and practice Chapell dwells on the components of application. They can be captured in four key questions:
WHAT? (What does God now require of me?),
WHERE? (Where does he require it of me?),
WHY? (Why must I do what he requires?),
HOW? (How can I do what God requires?).
Following a brief explanation of each of these questions, the author goes into the structure of application, as well as its difficulty. As he does so he continually comes up with pithy and insightful comments. Here is a lengthy one:
Sound application ventures out of hypothetical abstraction and elbows its way into business practices, family life, social relationships, societal attitudes, personal habits, and spiritual priorities. Application disrupts lives and as a result is the point at which listeners are most likely to tune out a sermon. Whether we like it or not, the breaking point of most sermons is application.
Making the Sermon Christological
In the third main part of his book Chapell develops what is called "A Theology of Christ-Centered Messages." How does he do this? For starters he takes up again the matter of FCF – Fallen Condition Focus and works it out in greater detail. Referring to 1 Cor.9:8-12, he highlights the phrase "this was written for us" to show that what Moses said long ago was applied in Paul's day and, by extension, should be applied in our day too. Repeatedly, in one way or another, Scripture reveals our fallen condition. Why? To highlight the need and way of redemption.
And yet not every text is directly or obviously redemptive, so what is a preacher to do with those that are silent? He is to realize that every text has a context. Every text is part of a whole. Indeed, every text has to do in some sense with God and with His redeeming work through Jesus Christ.
The Bible states Chapell, is not a self-help book. The Scriptures present one, consistent, organic message. They tell us how we must seek Christ who alone is our Saviour and source of strength to be and do what God requires.
At the same time the author warns us that messages that are not Christ-centered or redemptively focused become man-centered. More often than not they promote the "deadly Be's." Under this category we have "'Be Like' Messages" which stress that listeners must strive to be like a particular biblical personality. We also have "'Be Good' Messages" which assume that believers can secure their relationship with God by adopting right behaviour. We have "'Be Disciplined' Messages" that urge believers to improve their relationship with God by trying harder. All such messages, says Chapell, are deadly because they assume that we are able to do something ourselves about our fallen condition. They bypass the saving work of Christ.
Biblical preaching is Christocentric preaching. It becomes that not just by citing the name of Jesus or some event in His life. It becomes that by demonstrating "the reality of the human predicament that requires divine solution."
Moving from such general statements Chapell becomes specific and suggests a procedure for redemptive exposition. He also presents us with models, messages and marks of redemptive exposition. Again, there is much to learn from his perceptive comments on Christ-centered preaching.
As well there is much to learn from what he says about sermon introductions, conclusions and transitions. The same can be said for the appendices where Chapell deals with delivery, dress, style, divisions, proportions, methods of preparation, methods of presentation, reading Scripture, wedding messages, funeral messages, evangelistic messages, study resources and sample sermon evaluation form.
In conclusion, here is a book that should be read and re-read by every preacher of the Word. It will help you greatly as you seek, with God's help, to meet the challenges of preaching.