THE AUTOPSY OF A DEAD SERMON Monday, Feb 23 2015 

Many sermons have little any affect on the listeners when it comes to decision making. As my friend Jim said “They are D.O.A, dead on arrival”. This discussion is not about truth that was last month. This is about effectiveness. Even a dead body has some truth associated with it, but it doesn’t have life.

If you get offended by this discussion you are not reading carefully. Sermons aren’t for and about the preacher. They should be about God, not the human instrument and it should be for the listener. I have no idea how many sermons I have heard in my almost 80 years. I have no idea how many I have preached over 55 years of ministry but a number of them were DOA. I looked over some of messages from those first years in the pastorate and I wondered how anyone ever listened to them. It isn’t that I was not sincere; I just wish someone would have shared the following with me. It wasn’t until my post graduate work that I had a professor who was willing to rip my disjointed thoughts into pieces. I thank God for that man.

GETTING STARTED

Sermons aren’t supposed to be entertainment and the preacher is not an entertainer. That doesn’t mean humor and illustrations are out of the question. But those are only tools and they shouldn’t be the main thing a listener remembers about the sermon. Every message ought to begin with a clear statement of where one is headed and what if any decision or action would be expected. The sermon needs to focus on that subject and lead the person to the stated action. It should close with a clear statement of the idea and clearly lead to any action the speaker intended the listener to have. This is simply the outline of the old black preacher. “I tells them what I going to tells them, then I tells them and then tells them what I told them.” At any point in the message the listener should be able to know what the idea, goal and action is.

AN APPROACH

There are many forms that a message could take. None of them are necessarily bad. Some however are better than others. Many effective preachers have done well with a verse by verse exegetical approach. It may be the best approach but doctrinal, topical or devotional messages have their place. It is not difficult to make an exegetical approach as dry as dust however. A discourse should not be a technical seminary lecture but the local church is in serious need of teaching, no matter what the makeup of the congregation is. At the same time all messages always should teach. One way to test this is to write in the margin of one’s outline the doctrines being taught by the sermon. Working through a bible book as a series is safe in that sooner or later you come to every doctrine and serious issue that needs to be shared.

As the pulpit master carefully reviews his sermons for the year there are some things he should find. Central doctrines should have been clearly dealt with. A central doctrine is not limited to the things you have to believe to go to heaven. There are subjects that open the door understanding important doctrinal areas. I often ask how long it has been since you preached or heard some speak on the Blessed Hope, the any moment return of Christ for the Church. What someone believes is really not as important as how they got there. That is the real test.

THINGS THAT KILL SERMONS

In a former article I discussed the issue of “time” as it relates to a message. One of my students asked “how long does it take for you to prepare a message”? My answer was “it takes fifty four years”. It takes time to prepare an effective message, one that will deliver the intended response. This may sound strange but it takes more time to prepare for a well ordered thirty minutes message than it does for a rambling hour. That is no recommendation for sermonettes that produce christianettes. An effective message has no time for unrelated word slurs.

There are very few preachers who have the ability to hold the attention of an audience for an hour and a half. Many times long winded sermons are there only because the speaker likes the sound of his own voice. The real issue, however, is not the length of a sermon. In a previous article I outline the problem of referring to time. At any place in the message we mention time it will distract the listener. References such as “time is my enemy”, “I don’t have enough time”, “I am almost done”, “this is my last point”, or even “finally” are fatal. They don’t believe us anyway having heard those disclaimers to many times before. If you give the listener any hint that you are almost done, you are done. They are zipping up bible covers, putting on a coat or ordering lunch, but you are done. Don’t bother to give an invitation you lost them and your sermon is incomplete. How to hold their attention is another matter for another article.

GIVING LIFE TO A MESSAGE

In diligent preparation every word should be weighed. Preachers who wing it are in for a fall. While there must be solid truth taught there is need for application. One should note that application is not part of interpretation. These can only be added once the interpretation is finished. If we begin with the application before the text we are on dangerous ground. An illustration may be used to introduce a message but even that should rise from the theme of the text that has been settled by exegesis. If the listener goes away with a desire to come listen again the message was alive. Dead messages send people away empty and cold.

DUMB THINGS PEOPLE SAY Tuesday, Feb 3 2015 

Some of the things people say are just plain funny, while others are extremely harmful. Quite often, things that are stated are only strange because of where they are uttered. This is like the visitor who goes to the OB ward to visit an obviously expectant mother. The visitor says, “Are you still here?”  Then there is the man who is visiting at the funeral home and comments about the deceased, “My, he looks so nice”.  My favorite is church bulletin humor.  “The Pastor’s message: What the fool said”.  Dumb things can often be quite entertaining.

When the time rolls around for elections, we are subjected to some of the dumbest things I have ever heard.  You sometimes have to wonder how anyone could possibly be elected who appears to be totally brain dead.  I love one-liners, and they probably are the best way to respond to dumb statements, if you are not still laughing after five minutes.  Dumb things are not always verbal; sometimes they are put in print.  I tend to do this in emails because I never spell- check them.  That can get you into a lot of trouble, as some of you well know!  Then there is social media. This is the king of written dumb things.  It covers almost 50% of the comments posted. We live in a world that doesn’t think. That, of course, is the fruit of today’s liberal American education, and almost everyone I know struggles with thinking before speaking.

IN THE CHRISTIAN CIRCLES

Let me begin with dumb things preachers say.  An oft repeated statement is, “The lost will be separated from God for eternity” or “The worst thing about hell is that God is not there”.  Unless you have a different God than the one described in the Bible, that is a dumb statement.  The God of the Bible is omnipresent.  That means He is present always, everywhere, for all time and eternity.  There is NO place where He is not eternally present.  The psalmist put it this way: “If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.”  (Psalm 139:8)

My pet peeve involves a string of things that all mean the same thing.  “I believe”, “I think”, “my view”, “my opinion is”.  Let me be blunt.  What the preacher believes, thinks, opines is not relevant.  I don’t care.  What we want to know is what the clear teaching of the Word of God says.  If you don’t know, either say so or wait until you do know.  The authority in the pulpit is the Word of God, not the imagination of the preacher.  If you do know what the Bible says, then say it clearly and pointedly: “The Bible says…”  That is not arrogance; it is obedience.

We should all agree that preachers telling lies in the pulpit is dumb.  Everything we say ought to be tested with the truth.  Let me focus on lying about time: “This is my last point”, “I am almost done”, “Just a minute more”.  This is fine if it is true; but if you then ramble on for another half hour, let’s face it – you lied, and that is dumb.  Oh, I see – “the Lord led you”.  Why do we always blame our errors on God?  That is also dumb.  The best preaching doesn’t ever refer to time.  It holds the attention of the listener so that, when the end does come, the listener is surprised.

The problem appears to be that there is more error taught in the name of God than truth.  Part of this has to do with a tragic, casual approach to the study of God’s Word.  Digging in the text is hard work.  It takes time, energy, and persistence.  I often wonder why anybody listened to me in my early years of preaching, and I wish I had known then what I know now.  What I do know, for sure, is that I now know very little of the whole even after fifty-seven years of ministry!

A second problem with this issue of dumb things is the infringement of “historical theology” upon the clear teaching of the Scriptures.  Instead of being like the saints at Bera (Acts 17:11). who “searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so” too many preachers blindly accept what other men have said about the text.  Everyone wants to be loved and accepted, so asking questions about historical positions is off base.  To those who have chosen to be followers of a man, disloyalty is almost criminal.  Even the faithful know better than to ask questions about historical conclusions that don’t make sense.

This would include the problem of the worship of scholars.  I repeat: scholars and scholarship have great value for all of us, but they do us no service if we are not allowed to ask questions. How often are scholars wrong?  The answer is “often”, and that is easy to prove.  With so many and such varied conclusions about a text, they couldn’t possibly all be right.  Maybe one of them is; but even if one is right, it means the majority must be wrong.  Let me remind you that the Bible was not written to scholars; it was written to the common man.  Deep inside, the liberal in you may be saying that this writer is opposed to scholarship and serious education, even if the evidence is the exact opposite.

THE HEART OF DUMB THINGS

The road to “dumb things” is paved with wrong interpretation.  Actually, it is paved with wrong systems of interpretation.  I am racing to finish the book “The Normal Hermeneutic”.  In it I deal with the word “interpretation”.  The Bible interprets itself.  God put truth in, and He wants to lift it out of the text.  Somewhere, it seems, we got the idea that God needs our help; so, we began to add our wisdom to that of the scriptures.   We end by adding our ideas to the text.  Our task is to find out what God has plainly said and to make sure that is what we teach.  What has happened is that we teach what we think about what the Bible says and so end up saying a lot of dumb things.

An example of this problem is found in our own national government.  The founding documents of this nation are its laws.  The responsibility of the courts is to see that the original documents are upheld and that people obey those laws.  Now enters a system that allows the courts to interpret the law rather than uphold what was written.  The product is a corrupted judicial system that does not represent the original documents.

That is exactly what has been done to the Bible.  Instead of letting the Bible speak, we have added our ideas and ignored the things we don’t like.  So, we end up drowning in a sea of dumb theological ideas.  And then there is music…but don’t even get me started!