Preaching is a complex ministry, but one of the core ingredients is effective explanation of the biblical text. If this is removed, then it is difficult to see how what remains can be biblical preaching.
Yet it can be tempting to remove explanation. Why not simply read a bit of Bible and then say what you want to say, making the odd vague connection? This passes for preaching in many places. What’s more, surely that can be more interesting than dull explanation? Of course it can, but the answer to the problem of a poor version of something good and important is not to replace it, but to do it well. How?
1. Recalibrate your appreciation of God’s ability as a communicator. Unless you are gripped by the fact that God is a great communicator, everything else I say here will fail to register. Know that if your listeners could really see the richness and relevance of what God is saying in any passage, they would be gripped and transformed. But if you don’t see it, they are going to struggle. Many Christians trust God to have created everything, to have worked out a redemption plan and to have final justice and a glorious eternity all worked out, but at the same time to be a poor communicator. This is mystifying.
2. Give appropriate amounts of engaging context. Too much context will turn the sermon into a historical lecture. Too little will strip the text of meaning. The biblical text is not a random set of assertions that have mystical power by virtue of inspiration. God gave us inspired text that was always set in a historical and situational context. Rather than being dull background stuff, this is often a key way to forge connections between the text and your listeners. Get to know the background context and determine where the points of engagement are for your listeners today.
3. Set the scene textually. Many of the biblical books were written to be digested whole, but we tend to cut and slice. That doesn’t mean we have to preach a whole book in every sermon (although that is an option to consider sometimes). It does mean that we can’t just drop people into an alien text without any orientation. Be sure to orient your listeners to what is going on in the big picture of the book before expecting them to be gripped by the specific text of your sermon.
4. Don’t explain every word with equal effort. Recognize that in any passage there will be a gravity center. Take people there and help them see why that is the case. Explaining seven introductory clauses to get there will numb your listeners and they will lose track of the point of the passage.
5. Explain visually, not just conceptually. When an idea becomes clear to a listener, they don’t say, “Ah, I grasp your conceptual logic!” No, people say, “Ah, I see what you're saying.” What do they see? A clear picture of the idea being explained. We need to engage listeners at the level of imagination. There is a screen in the hearts of listeners and by fault it begins foggy and confused. Clear the smoke and form images as you explain the text, or as you describe the application. If you can see it, they will. If you are grasping for concepts, they see smoke.
6. Let the structure do its work. As you help people see the structure in a passage, it will begin to explain itself. Orient listeners to the “chunks” before diving into the details. Give a newcomer to town the landmarks before explaining details of smaller side streets. Highlight connectives or repetition in content so the shape starts to form on the page—“Notice how many verses begin ‘By faith…’ in this section. As you scan down the page you can see, ‘By faith…’ in verse 3, ‘By faith…’ in verse 4, etc. Eighteen times the writer does that. But then in verse 13 that pattern is broken. This four verse thought in the middle is being marked out as the central pivot of the passage. Let’s zero in on that pivot…”
7. Take people there, or bring the truth here. Decide whether you are going to transport listeners to back then and describe things so vividly that they can smell the air, or whether you are going to bring the biblical truth to today with a contemporary simile, “this is like…” Weak explanation tends to flow from indecision about listener location. Take them there, or bring the Bible to today. Actually, do both, but do both deliberately and definitely.
8. Judiciously use explanation from others. Don’t get me wrong; there are thousands of people who are better at explaining that text than you or me. We should be ready to take advantage of that. But they aren’t standing where you are. They might be Martin Luther, but your listeners may be ready to dismiss him because of some perception they have of him, or they may be hard-pressed to distinguish him from his namesake in the twentieth century. They might be a great contemporary scholar and commentator, but your listeners may be distracted by their funny sounding name (they don’t know anything else about him/her) or by your superior learning (they don’t have books like that). When you use someone else’s explanation, start with “one preacher put it like this…” and then add further details judiciously for your particular listeners.
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