Category Archives: preaching

Theological Triage and Pulpit Supply Ministry

I was recently reminded of an article Dr. Al Mohler posted almost 9 years ago, entitled “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity” (click here to read in full).  In his post, Mohler makes a case for a first, second, and third order classification of Christian doctrine.  Just as the medical community uses triage to assess the urgency of a situation they must address, theologians, preachers, and churches can make use of a method to determine what issues matter the most and deal with them accordingly. 

A broken arm and a heart attack are two different things, and both need addressing.  However, a broken arm is not necessarily life threatening in the way that a heart attack is.   Yet, you would not want to let a broken arm go without treatment, despite the fact that it is not the first order of importance.

In a similar manner, the three levels of doctrine proposed by Mohler do not imply that any of those doctrines is unimportant.  So, what are those three levels?

1. First-order doctrines “include those doctrines most central and essential to the Christian faith . . . such as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture,” as well Jesus’ virgin birth, perfect life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and future bodily return to earth.  These are “the most fundamental truths of the Christian faith, and a denial of these doctrines represents nothing less than an eventual denial of Christianity itself.”

2. Second-order doctrines differ from first-order ones “by the fact that believing Christians may disagree on the second-order issues, though this disagreement will create significant boundaries between believers. When Christians organize themselves into congregations and denominational forms, these boundaries become evident.”  Among second-order matters are the meaning and mode of baptism, the structure of church government, and qualifications for leadership (which would define one’s view on whether women can serve as pastors).

3. Third-order doctrines include issues on which believers “may disagree and remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations” and would include the interpretation and timing of biblical eschatology (end-times) and certain matters of Christian liberty (matters about which the Scriptures do not directly say what is or isn’t permissible for Christians to do).

How Theological Triage Should Shape Pulpit Supply Ministry

I find Mohler’s three-tier categorization of doctrine helpful.  He doesn’t argue that any doctrine is unimportant.  But he does provide a helpful distinction so we can know which are of the greatest urgency to get right, and as a gauge for what constitutes proper fellowship.  If you preach outside the bounds of your local church and denomination, there are several implications for filling the pulpit as a guest preacher.  (If you are uncomfortable in settings outside of those where you find agreement on all three levels, this article will have little significance for you.)

As a general rule, we should limit ourselves to explaining and applying first-order doctrines in our preaching.  This does not preclude mentioning various interpretations related to second or third-level issues when preaching.  But if we deal with these, we should be fair by representing the major diversity of viewpoints briefly, identifying them as important but secondary, and moving on, not seeking to push any of them in this particular setting.  

One of the reasons we should limit ourselves to preaching first-order doctrines is that the basic level of fellowship as fellow believers, for many of us, may be the very basis on which we are legitimately invited to that church in the first place.  I am not ashamed to reveal that my view on second-order issues includes a belief in congregational church government, credo-baptism (baptism by immersion for believers only) and complementarianism (which understands the Scriptures to only qualify godly men as pastors), and that my third-order views include premillennialism and that I personally abstain from all alcoholic beverages.  Yet, I have found myself invited to speak in churches with real believers in our Lord Jesus Christ who have a different type of church government, different understanding of baptism, pastoral ministry, the millennium, or Christian liberty.  Frankly, some of these churches are ones I can preach in but could not join as member!  Nonetheless, we share a commitment to Scripture and the Gospel of Christ, and there is no lack of preaching to be done as relates to the first-order doctrines, matters of which many in our pews and chairs have a deficient understanding.  

There could certainly be exceptions.  If a Baptist is supplying in a Baptist church or a Presbyterian in a Presbyterian church, it may be suitable to get more specific on baptism or church government.  A church may even invite you to speak on a second-order or third-order doctrine precisely because they want more instruction on the specifics of a particular interpretation.  But to go into a church with a different view of a second- or third-order doctrine and seek to change them in one sermon could be seen as uncharitable, unwise, and the waste of a good opportunity to speak of what is most urgent.  (And probably a good way to not be invited back.)

This discussion may also raise another question: should I preach in a setting where I know the church is in error on first-level doctrines?

I would say YES – BUT.  

Yes, but don’t pretend to agree with a church that denies a first-level doctrine in order to get such an opportunity.

Yes, but in this situation you are positively obligated to speak on first-level doctrines.  Whereas you want to generally avoid second- and third-level doctrines in many churches, you never want to avoid first-level doctrines.  

Yes, but make clear what is so important about first-level doctrines.  And make it clear that you cannot deny these teachings of the Bible and still be a Christian.

Yes, but make it clear that you disagree with them and show them from the Scriptures, not just your opinion, why they are wrong and what is correct.

Yes, but don’t do it with a hatred or malice toward the people.  Patiently, clearly instruct, as Paul says to Timothy, “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine” (2 Timothy 4:2).

Yes, but don’t expect to be invited back.  It may be the only time you have to bear witness to the truth in such a circumstance.  And there may even be believers there who have been waiting for someone to tell them the truth.

All this emphasis on first-order doctrines should not discourage us from knowing what we believe about the secondary doctrines.  It should not make us shy away from joining a church based on agreement with first- and second-level doctrines.  And if you are a pastor, it shouldn’t make you second-guess whether you should preach in your church doctrines that are not first-level.

Theological triage should help us deal with the most urgent issues when we serve as guest preachers, and leave those matters of important, but lesser urgency, to our own churches and the personal conversations we have.  After all, why should we try to fix a broken arm if the person needs treatment for a heart attack first?

Crossway has good deals on several books now through April 20 (Kindle editions).

Preaching the Cross is a good collection of written versions of the messages delivered at the 2006 (inaugural) Together for the Gospel conference.  Included are two very helpful messages by Drs. Ligon Duncan (Preaching the Old Testament) and John Piper (Why Preaching Is Particularly Glorifying to God), as well as sermons by the other speakers.

The Gospel and Personal Evangelism (which I have reviewed here) is an excellent work and only 99 cents this week.

“There’s a Psalm for That”

In our highly technological age, we often assume that any problem can be tackled with a computer program, mobile app, or invention.  And we certainly have seen a number of needs addressed.  I use my phone on a daily basis for easy access to an alarm clock, camera, calendar, and, oh, yes, a telephone (but there are also apps that will let me use it as a level with a virtual bubble, print wirelessly, play games, watch videos, listen to my music collection, check my bank account, etc.).  For so many things that a person would like to do…. “There’s an App for That” ™ (literally ™ – Trademarked by Apple in 2010, but my phone happens to be Android, for what it’s worth).

In our highly technological age, we often forget to interact with a resource that deals with virtually any spiritual problem with struggle with.  And we certainly have a number of them.  Confusion, depression, anxiety, and fear, as well as thankfulness, joy, and celebration are all dealt with in this resource.  For so many things that we as sinners struggle with…  Yes, it’s in the Bible.  But even more specifically, there is one book that is especially suited to the whole range of human emotions.  Whatever your situation, however you feel…. “There’s a Psalm for That” (and yes, I realize others have thought of this adaptation of the catchphrase).

In many ways, the book of Psalms is the “app store” of the Bible, a place you can go and search for God-inspired material about what you are going through.  You can tell by the New Testament “ratings” (69 quotations versus 51 for the next most quoted Old Testament book, Isaiah, out of 263 total citations), which include use by Jesus and the apostles, that the Psalms ought to be used by Christians (not that we shouldn’t use the rest of the Old Testament and the Bible!).

Feeling far from God but looking for hope?  Check out Psalms 42 & 43.  Struggling with fear?  Psalm 27.  Expressing thanks?  Psalm 106 and 107.  Got contentment?  Psalm 23.  Oppressed by enemies?  Psalm 55.  Want to praise the Lord with music?  Psalm 150.  Facing a crisis where it feels like your world is falling apart?  Psalm 46 (God is our refuge and strength – a very present help in trouble, even though the earth be removed and the mountains quake!).  This is not an exhaustive list.  There are 150 Psalms that cover the whole range of human emotions – yours to download, peruse, pray, sing, read, apply – no credit card information required.

With this being said, it would not be fair to characterize the Psalms as band-aids or quick fixes for our problems.  But sometimes the Psalm is the medicine for the situation (and we may have to take it multiple doses!).  Other times, the psalm helps us to trust the Great Physician for His wisdom and timing in placing us in that situation or helps us to wait on Him to remove the problem in His appointed way and time.

In the preface to his commentary on the Psalms, John Calvin wrote (and this quote is worth citing and reading in full):

I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;” for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated. The other parts of Scripture contain the commandments which God enjoined his servants to announce to us. But here the prophets themselves, seeing they are exhibited to us as speaking to God, and laying open all their inmost thoughts and affections, call, or rather draw, each of us to the examination of himself in particulars in order that none of the many infirmities to which we are subject, and of the many vices with which we abound, may remain concealed. It is certainly a rare and singular advantage, when all lurking places are discovered, and the heart is brought into the light, purged from that most baneful infection, hypocrisy. In short, as calling upon God is one of the principal means of securing our safety, and as a better and more unerring rule for guiding us in this exercise cannot be found elsewhere than in The Psalms, it follows, that in proportion to the proficiency which a man shall have attained in understanding them, will be his knowledge of the most important part of celestial doctrine. Genuine and earnest prayer proceeds first from a sense of our need, and next, from faith in the promises of God. It is by perusing these inspired compositions, that men will be most effectually awakened to a sense of their maladies, and, at the same time, instructed in seeking remedies for their cure. In a word, whatever may serve to encourage us when we are about to pray to God, is taught us in this book. And not only are the promises of God presented to us in it, but oftentimes there is exhibited to us one standing, as it were, amidst the invitations of God on the one hand, and the impediments of the flesh on the other, girding and preparing himself for prayer: thus teaching us, if at any time we are agitated with a variety of doubts, to resist and fight against them, until the soul, freed and disentangled from all these impediments, rise up to God; and not only so, but even when in the midst of doubts, fears, and apprehensions, let us put forth our efforts in prayer, until we experience some consolation which may calm and bring contentment to our minds.

Struggling with something in your life?  Feel far from God?  Need to rejoice?  There’s a Psalm for that.

Preaching and Statistics

95% of people who read the first paragraph of this article will not finish it.  According to a study done by the …. okay, just kidding.

Seriously, though – have you ever considered why we use statistics and what they actually are?  (And the number did grab your attention at least for a second, right?)

Why Do We Use Statistics?

Many times we hear (or preach) sermons in which certain numbers are thrown out to demonstrate or verify or teach some supposed reality about the thing we are addressing.  Sometimes we have a good reason to use a statistic.  Other times… we really don’t (and many times our reasons for using them are some mixture of motives).

Relevance & Clarity

Sometimes we simply want a number that shows people things really are relevant.  There are actually people in the real world.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1 out of 4 women in the US die of heart disease.  When we start thinking of the likelihood that 25% of the women we know could die from this disease, it makes us think a little differently.

According to a 2012 Lifeway study, 80% of churchgoers don’t read their Bible daily.  That may explain a lot of ignorance of the Bible and disobedience to the Bible in our churches.

Artificial Authority

Have you ever noticed how some listeners’ ears perk up when you give a number?  Once you mention 35% or 60% or 1 out of 10 or whatever percentage or ration you use, it is almost as if an extra air of authority and scientific precision has overtaken the room, even if only for a moment.  Those numbers sure make things sound measurable, careful, and “official.”

Shock Value

“The divorce rate of Christians is the same as that of the world!” This is an inaccurate, but popularly repeated mantra.  Sometimes we hope a statistic will wake people up.  Or get their attention… or get us some attention.

What Statistics Are

Before you quote that next statistic in your message, think about what statistics actually are.

1. Statistics are numbers.
2. Statistics are numbers based on studies done of people.
3. Statistics are numbers based on studies done of people who sometimes lie.
4. Statistics are numbers based on studies done of people who sometimes lie by people who sometimes lie.
5. Statistics are numbers based on studies done of people who sometimes lie by people who sometimes lie and are sometimes based on too small or limited a segment of people to give an accurate representation of reality.
6. Statistics are numbers based on studies done of people who sometimes lie by people who sometimes lie and are sometimes based on too small or limited a segment of people to give an accurate representation of reality and are often prone to manipulation.

I think you get the idea.  Done by people with studies of people, not all statistics are equally valuable, helpful, or valid.  Sometimes surveys limit the choices of respondents who would not choose any of the options, yet choose one just to complete the survey.  Some respondents may lie to someone in person but tell the truth in an online anonymous situation.  Some have too small a sample to accurately speak to the larger populace about an issue.

Some statistics are well-researched, reasonable, and helpful.  But even they cannot boast of perfect certainty as to their results, just a (hopefully) clear pointer to what appears to be the case, based on the questions they asked and the answers they found.

The Nature of Gospel Ministry

The nature of the ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ should inform us as we consider how to use or not use statistics.  It is the certain Word of God we are to preach with authority (2 Timothy 4:2), not human statistics, which may be filled with error or skewed.  We are to renounce “the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2).

Don’t give in to the temptation to use statistics as a cheap shortcut or filler.  If you decide to use a statistic, doublecheck it to make sure it’s from a reliable source and a good study of the question it addresses.  Statistics should be used to illustrate truths, needs, and relevance, but must not be used to supersede the authority of the Bible or give a higher “proof” to the truths revealed in the living and active Word.  God says in Isaiah 55:11: “So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.”  That’s true not just 95% of the time, but 100%.

For more tips on “3 Ways to Recognize Bad Statistics” see this article by Ed Stetzer, president of Lifeway Research.

Free Download: Sermon Log Template

Free DownloadA sermon log can be a great tool to help keep track of one’s preaching history and income for accurate reporting for the next tax year.  It basically consists of a record, based on a given year, of the dates, locations, mileage, and honorarium for a given preaching appointment.

There are many ways to do this (including an Excel spreadsheet, mobile note taking apps, etc.), but it definitely should be done.  Keeping a sermon log will help you vary your preaching if you have frequent appointments with the same congregation (including avoiding inadvertently re-preaching a sermon).  The sermon lView postog will also make it easy to add up your honorarium income and mileage so you can report this on your income tax return (schedule C).  Whatever way you choose to do it, just make sure to keep track of your appointments and the specifics so you do not forget them!

Feel free to share, copy, or modify the following as you see fit (but we would appreciate it if you tell folks where you got it from, if anyone asks).

Studying and Preaching the Bible in the Digital Age (Part 4 of 4): Resources for Presenting Lessons and Sermons

Bible Digital AgeThis is part 4 of a 4 part series. Part 1 is herePart 2 is here; Part 3 is here.

Several resources are available to help in presenting lessons/messages and in recording them.

Presenting

For the following, you will need a setup at the church where there is already a computer or a place to plug in your device (know what you have — VGA? HDMI? etc.  Apple devices can work with Apple TV’s on same WiFi network, or with an HDMI adapter for a direct cable; many Android devices have MICRO HDMI ports that use a microHDMI to standard HDMI cable).

Powerpoint

Keynote (Mac)   (iOS) (has some compatibility with Powerpoint files, works great with Apple TV)

Slideshark iOS (free, use with Powerpoint slideshows you have made; works great with Apple TV)

Prezi iOS  computer program

Deck Slideshow Presentations (Android)  ( iOS)

Haiku Deck Slideshow Maker (iOS)

Recording

Voice Recorders (There are many options you can find, but most cost a few bucks to have unlimited recording time; I really like RecForge on Android; I’ve also used an MP3 voice recorder from Sony, with a lapel mic attached)

Please comment or contact us if you would like us to look at other resources to add to these lists.  Here are some other resources listed at ProPreacher:  iOS    Android

Who’s Robbing Whom? Some Thoughts on Pulpit Plagiarism

PulpitSupplyHandbookBookCoverby Doug Smith

Is it wrong to preach another pastor’s sermon?  Pulpit plagiarism can be a hot topic.  To commit plagiarism, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “to use the words or ideas of another person as if they were your own words or ideas.”  This issue is certainly not new, but there has been a good bit of discussion in the last few years concerning possible answers to this question, some of which are quite disturbing.

Some prominent pastors, such as Rick Warren and James Merritt, openly encourage other pastors to take their sermons and preach them – even without giving proper credit.  However, others disagree. On December 7, 2006, the Albert Mohler Program featured a radio interview between Dr. Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), and Hershael York, a pastor as well as a professor of preaching at SBTS.  They are in agreement about this issue, and the title of the program reveals their perspective: “Plagiarism in the Pulpit: Stealing the Material We Preach.”  They believe a pastor should actually take the time to study and prepare messages suited for his own congregation instead of using something prepackaged and pre-processed.  Shocking, isn’t it?

For years, in addition to full-time teaching, I have preached in a supply capacity, filling in for pastors or serving churches that do not have a pastor.  Study time is a premium amidst family and work responsibilities. It could be tempting to steal others’ sermons.

However, I believe Mohler and York are exactly right about this issue.   I realize there are variations on pulpit plagiarism, ranging from preaching another’s sermon verbatim to extensively modifying it.  Regardless of the extent, when credit is not given where credit is due, people are being robbed.  And the interesting thing is that the ones who suffer the most are not the people whose material is being used, but the people who are stealing it and the people who are having it fed to them.  Pulpit plagiarism robs pastors and congregations in at least five ways.

  1. Pulpit plagiarism robs pastors and congregations of spiritual nourishment they can only get from someone who lives among them and labors in the text of Scripture.

The pastor who is content to steal others’ sermons robs himself of the valuable discipline of study and its benefits for himself. He has less reason to devote hours throughout the week to the Word than he would if he were preparing the sermon himself. The plagiarizer deprives himself of a great blessing that God would freely give to him and the congregation if he would devote himself to the Word.

The congregation also gets the short end of the stick. Just as the milk from a mother’s breast contains nutrients specially and uniquely suited for her child, a pastor who studies the Word and knows his congregation will be able to feed Christ’s sheep with a diet suited to their needs better than any prepackaged sermon can. Phillips Brooks said that a true preacher is one who utters “truth through his own personality,” and this is what every congregation needs. There are particular applications of the text that may be irrelevant to a congregation if taken from a “canned” sermon, and there are particular applications they need that cannot be gained except from their own pastor’s labors in the Word. This is especially true in foreign countries where the people may have no clue as to the point of certain illustrations from American culture and have certain needs that preachers from other backgrounds might not touch upon.

2. Pulpit plagiarism robs pastors and congregations by discouraging consecutive exposition.

Many pastors have found that the best way to feed Christ’s sheep is through expounding the Scripture book by book. This enables the preachers to share passages with the big picture of its context in mind. When done correctly, expositional preaching lets God set the agenda and makes His Word the authority, rather than the preacher. There are variations on this method.  One can, like John MacArthur, preach dozens of sermons from one Bible book.  On the other hand, one can preach overview sermons which cover an entire book in one sermon, in addition to covering smaller units of Scripture.  Faithful expositors, no matter how large a preaching unit they use, agree with what Mark Dever has said: “An expositional sermon is one in which the point of the passage is the point of the message.” And the best way to ensure that you are preaching the point of the passage in each message is to preach consecutively through a book of the Bible.

A plagiarizing pastor may preach expositionally if he steals material from someone who preaches through books. But I would imagine the tendency for many would be to preach whatever sermon strikes them for the week or whatever the latest topical offering is from the mailing list they are on or the magazine to which they subscribe.

3. Pulpit plagiarism robs pastors and congregations by encouraging laziness.

A pastor is called to be diligent (2 Timothy 2:15). He is called to take time to think in order to gain understanding: “Consider what I say; and the Lord give thee understanding in all things” (2 Timothy 2:7). He must get the knowledge he needs and take time to process that knowledge through meditation and research and study. He must pray and labor. Preaching another man’s sermon requires none of this. One could certainly modify it, but the temptation to carry over as much as possible to prevent as much work as possible will be there.

4. Pulpit plagiarism robs pastors and congregations of a safeguard against false teaching.

If a pastor is too lazy to study for his own sermons, he will probably be too lazy to check out the exegesis and application of another’s sermon to make sure that it is legitimate. He may begin teaching all sorts of false doctrine without even realizing that he is promoting unbiblical ideas. How can he guard the flock if he only takes for granted that he is feeding them healthy food?

5. Pulpit plagiarism robs pastors and congregations by rendering thieving preachers obsolete.

If a pastor simply preaches a sermon from another preacher, why couldn’t someone else from the congregation preach? Why not simply have the person with the most pleasant voice preach? Why not have the person majoring in drama preach a stolen sermon? Better yet, why not show a video every week of a favorite celebrity preacher?

If a pastor simply steals sermons from someone else, why go through all the trouble? Why not fire the pastor or free him up to do the other things he needs to do and let someone else preach a “canned” sermon or show a video?

In his book, Walking with the Giants, Warren Wiersbe gives a relevant warning:

Two dangers we must avoid as we read the sermonic literature of the past: imitation and plagiarism.Imitation robs me of my individuality, and plagiarism robs me of my character; both are insidious. One young preacher was so taken with the sermons in a certain book that he decided to preach them as a series. What he did not know was that one of his members owned the same book and had read it. As the member left the service one Sunday, he said to his pastor, “That was a fine sermon this morning!” Then he added with a smile, “Next week’s is good, too!” The problem, of course, lies not with the character of the printed sermon but with the character of the preacher reading it. Blackwood was rather blunt in his counsel: “If one is tempted to steal the fruits of other men’s labors, one ought to let such books severely alone. . . ”

Francis Bacon, in one of his essays, compared students to spiders, ants, and bees, and we may justly apply the illustration to preachers. Some preachers never study but, like the spider, spin everything out from within, beautiful webs that never last. Some are like ants that steal whatever they find, store it away, and use it later. But the bee sets the example for us all: he takes from many flowers, but he makes his own honey.

So, let us neither spin sermons without study, nor be thieves like the ant. Let us be like the bee. As we benefit from a multitude of sources, we must make the final product our own. We need to be, as Dr. Erwin Lutzer said, those who milk many cows but make our own butter. Let’s learn from many sources.  Let’s assimilate what we have learned and produce our own sermons. If we fail to churn our own butter and merely lift our messages from other men, we do not merely rob them (even if they say it is okay), but we rob ourselves and the people of God of a rich spiritual feast.

A version of this article was originally posted at SharperIron.

* Audio of this radio program is available at www.albertmohler.com

 

 

Praying for Eight Things Pastors Need from the Holy Spirit

In C. H. Spurgeon’s book on pastoral ministry, Lectures to My Students, he talks about eight ways pastors need the help of the Holy Spirit. Several of these apply specially to preaching, but there is much application for ministry in general as well. After reading this list, I am reminded that we are utterly helpless if we do not have the help of the Holy Spirit, and any ministry will be powerless if not empowered by Him. I have summarized and adapted these below as an encouragement to believers in Christ to pray these things for your pastor, or if you are a pastor, for yourself and fellow ministers of the Word. Pray for the Holy Spirit to grant:

1. knowledge – that God would illuminate his study of the Word, particularly showing him the things of Christ.

2. wisdom – particularly, how to use knowledge rightly and communicate it appropriately to various types of people.

3. freedom of utterance – a boldness of speech that clearly and appropriately communicates the truth in the choice of words and emotional expression, and is also free from that which would distort, dishonor, or distract from the message.

4. an anointing on the entire delivery during his preaching– so that not only in his speaking, but in his body language, eye contact, demeanor, and consciousness, the Spirit would specially rest upon him and use him.

5. the actual effect of the gospel – that the Holy Spirit would work in the lives of hearers, producing the lasting change that comes from the work of God in hearts, instead of apathy to the message or manufactured or manipulated responses that are not genuine.

6. a spirit of supplications – that the pastor would continually rely on God in prayer, daily, as well as in the midst of his ministering, including while preaching.

7. a spirit of holiness – that the pastor will be set apart from the world, kept clean from that which is impure and defiling, and living a life in public and private that is worthy of the gospel.

8. a spirit of discernment – that God would help the pastor to know how to deal with a variety of people, including those who are difficult, and that he would make the best choices in using his time, being able to see, value, and choose what is best for a given situation.

From volume 2 of Lectures to My Students, “The Holy Spirit in Connection with Our Ministry” (free eBook from Google; this chapter begins on page 15)

Book Review: Biographical Preaching by R. Larry Overstreet

R. Larry Overstreet, Biographical Preaching: Bringing Bible Characters to Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2001) [Christianbook.com   Google Books]

Reviewed by Doug Smith

One of the turning points in my life occurred when I first began sitting under expository preaching.  Another happened when I began to learn what expository preaching was, and how to do it.  It’s not that God uses only expository preaching; He certainly uses other approaches.  However, there is nothing like taking a text of Scripture and explaining its content and urging its implications on a congregation.  Furthermore, it seems to be a logical implication of texts like 2 Timothy 3:14-4:4 and even the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20).

There are many helpful books available on the general subject of expository preaching.  Many authors helpful break down the steps of studying a book or passage of Scripture, analyzing it, and preparing a sermon that faithfully communicates the text.

Preaching consecutive textual units (through a book or portion of a book) is probably the most frequently promoted way to preach expository messages, but it is not the only way.  Dr. Larry Overstreet, an experienced pastor and seminary professor, has written a persuasive volume advocating Biographical Preaching as another approach for the preacher.  His book is clear, concise, practical, and of a rare breed.  While not the only book on the subject, it is one of few readily available, and it treats the matter with more depth than any subsection the present author has reviewed in other books on preaching (although the brief treatment by Irvin Busenitz in MacArthur’s edited book, Preaching, previously entitled Rediscovering Expository Preaching, is worth a look.  Its appearance in The Master’s Seminary Journal is here in pdf form:  “Must Expository Preaching Always Be Book Studies? Some Alternatives”).

Summary

The meat of the book is comprised of seven chapters.  In order, they deal with the definition, philosophy, value, method, mechanics, model, and variety in biographical preaching.  In addition, there are two appendices containing example sermons.

Overstreet views good biographical preaching as a subset of expository preaching.  He defines it as “the method of preaching that expounds a Bible character, based on careful exegesis, to deduce the principles that regulated his or her life and to apply the principles to the modern listener” (13).  He distinguishes between historical biographical sermons, which emphasize “the development of the person in history,” and character biographical sermons, which focus on “the inner nature of the person” in all areas: “spiritual, mental, moral, emotional, social, and even physical” (15-17).

One key issue in biographical preaching is the nature of the narrative portions of Scripture.  Most biographical material in the Bible is drawn from the narratives of Scripture, which do not directly relate commands to readers.  The issue at hand is whether narratives are intended to be prescriptive (telling us how to live) or merely descriptive (relating what happened in the storyline of God’s activity).

After setting forth the role of the Holy Spirit in inspiring the Bible (an act that guarantees its accuracy) and in empowering the preacher, Overstreet considers the purposeful intent set forth in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, which teaches that “‘All Scripture’ is purposeful for (1) teaching, and/or (2) rebuking, and/or (3) correcting, and/or (4) training in righteousness, and (5) for an overall purpose stated in 3:17” (28).  In addition, he cites Romans 15:4 and 1 Corinthians 10:6, 11 to demonstrate that Christian believers can look to the Old Testament for instruction and hope (29).  He concludes:  “The biographical preacher, then, can approach the Word of God with confidence that the principles gleaned from the lives of the people included therein are pertinent and relevant to lives today” (31).

Although the author sees practical relevance in the narratives of the Bible, he does not lose sight of their theological significance.  Since the narrative portions of Scripture highlight “the working of God in and through the lives and actions of people,” the preacher must remember that “God is always the ultimate focus of a biblical narrative” (32).  Furthermore, each narrative can be viewed at three levels:  the ground level of the individual(s) in the story, the middle level of how the story figures into the bigger story of the people of God, and the top level of how the narrative functions in the overarching plan of God (33).  Proper exegesis is necessary to analyzing and applying the text appropriately and avoiding reckless spiritualizing or allegorizing (32).

Overstreet argues for the value of biographical preaching because of its popular appeal, practical nature, powerful ability to impact lives, and profitability in making the Bible come alive for people (chapter 3).  He then lays out a method for this approach:  examining the relevant texts, studying the background, analyzing the person, using imagination, and focusing the sermon (chapter 4).  He provides helpful lists of questions to ask to gather key data concerning the person’s life, character, and practical application (82-84).

Chapters five and six give further strategies and examples to promote thorough preparation, while chapter seven advocates the use of dramatic monologues in biographical preaching — assuming the perspective of the character (possibly including props and costumes).  Appendix one gives a sermon example, while appendix two shows how a monologue may be presented.

Evaluation

Overstreet lays a great homiletical foundation and reviews essential elements of sermon preparation.  His theology and view of Scripture are clearly articulated and underlie his views on preaching.  His focus on application and contemporary relevance appropriately shape his approach to biographical preaching (the sermon is not a lecture, but something to teach us about the life that pleases God).  Furthermore, I found the book convincing on the usefulness and propriety of biographical preaching.

The book is realistic and helpful for one seeking to preach a biographical sermon.  The author is honest about the hard work involved, but does not leave the preacher to guess how hard it will be.  Practical helps are given, such as the lists of questions to ask (an invaluable inclusion) and examples of sermons.  Overstreet walks the preacher through essential elements in preparing, such as outlining, transitions, titles, introductions, conclusions, and illustrations.  He leaves no doubt as to what is involved in preparing a biographical sermon.

I found the author irenic concerning other views.  He respectfully interacts with Sidney Greidanus (192, note 1; Overstreet refers to Greidanus’s Preaching magazine article, “The Necessity of Preaching Christ from the Old Testament”; cf. related article, “Biographical Preaching Revisited”, a response to “Salvaging the Old Testament Biographical Sermon” by Timothy Peck, an article endorsed by Overstreet), who does not see a legitimacy to biographical preaching.  He also disagrees with Warren Wiersbe in Preaching and Teaching with Imagination (where Wiersbe suggests that monologues should only be done by those with adequate training and talent; see 199-200, note 5).

My only caveat — and at this point it is a personal one — is the advocacy of dramatic monologue for a sermon presentation (chapter 7).  I understand that my opinion may be the minority in many circles today, but – with all due respect to those who disagree – I have not yet become convinced that drama has a place in the public worship meeting of the church.  I understand that some of the concerns overlap with much preaching:  using imagination to fill in some blanks; dramatic use of the voice, etc.  I am also aware that God sometimes commanded people, especially the Old Testament prophets, to do dramatic things (in those cases, as an illustration of a spiritual truth for the nation Israel or as an analogy for something God was going to bring to pass).  However, what I continue to come back to is that drama was not unknown in the Greek culture of the ancient world.  It was perfectly accessible in the apostolic age.  Yet, nowhere in Scripture is it commanded or modeled as a strategy of communicating truth to the church.  My fears are that it could contribute to an entertainment mindset (even if that is not the intention), and, perhaps even more significantly, inadvertently undermine its content because of the nature of its medium (truth being presented by someone who is pretending to be someone else).  Perhaps I am carrying things too far here.  Intelligent hearers will know that the preacher is not really the individual he is portraying.  Nevertheless, I daresay that those who are convinced that dramatic monologue has a place in the preacher’s toolbox will find in this book some very practical helps for preparation, even if I am not convinced of its propriety.

Conclusion

I heartily recommend Biographical Preaching as a valuable resource.  It is an enjoyable and clearly written resource that persuasively shows the value and propriety of biographical preaching and gives a clear strategy to walk one through the steps of preparing such messages.  For those of us committed to preaching through books of the Bible, utilizing resources such as this to give a little more variety to our preaching may help breathe new freshness into our preaching, as we show people today what we can learn from the individual lives recorded in the Bible.