Trinitarian Ministry to Body, Mind, and Soul

A series of articles originally written by Jonathan Stepp, edited by Michael Morrison.

2. Preaching

In keeping with the themes we outlined in chapter 1, each chapter in this series will seek to address a ministry practice from three perspectives:

  1. The definition of that ministry in the light of who Jesus is.
  2. How we practice that ministry in serving people who already know they are children of the Father, and how we practice that ministry in serving someone who does not already know this truth.
  3. How we follow Jesus’ instruction to “feed my sheep” by practicing that ministry in such a way as to speak to the whole person: body, mind, and soul.

In this chapter, we will look at the ministry of preaching, so we will begin with the question: What is preaching in the light of who Jesus is?

We have defined ministry as:

Our ongoing participation in Jesus’ work, through his Holy Spirit, to give himself to humanity so that we will know in body, mind, and soul, who we are in Jesus as children of the Father.

In the simplest sense, preaching is our participation in this work of Jesus through the words we speak as ministers. This includes sermons, but it also includes any of the words we use as we share in the way that Jesus is working in another person’s life. Since preaching is primarily about words, we should define preaching by thinking about our words, the words of the Bible, and Jesus as the Word of God in the flesh. [1]

The Word of God, God’s communication to humanity, was done most perfectly as a person – a person named Jesus (John 1:1, 14). Jesus is the Word in the flesh. The second person of the Trinity speaks the reality of God’s life to humanity. In doing so, the Word also speaks to humanity the reality of who we are. As creatures of the Creator, we cannot fully know ourselves apart from the one who created us.

The Word of God – Jesus – tells us who God is and who we are. This understanding of Jesus as the Word is foundational to our understanding of preaching, since preaching is the use of words to talk about God to people and to talk to people about themselves. If we are going to stand in front of a congregation and use words to talk about God and people, then those words must have their source in and flow from the one, original, unequaled Word of God to people: the Word in the flesh, Jesus Christ.

To say that preaching is about Jesus seems elementary and self-evident. Nevertheless, there are countless sermons we have heard – and given! – that have had little or nothing to do with Jesus except in an indirect way. [2] The fallenness of our human nature means that we will always find new and creative ways to talk about ourselves, our human work, and our self-effort, and ignore the reality of Jesus, the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

The practice of preaching means our ongoing participation in Jesus’ preaching through his Spirit. It also means our growth in our skill and ability to preach. If we are to grow in our skill and ability, then we have to be more in step with the preaching ministry that Jesus is doing through his Spirit, in humanity. That means our preaching should always be becoming more Christ-centered.

In the Protestant world, the phrase “the word of God” almost always refers to the Bible. Many preachers say that they are called to “preach the Bible.” But as soon as we begin to see that Jesus is the Word of God, we begin to see that it might be wrong to define preaching solely in terms of the Bible. Is it the Bible we are called to bring to people, or is it Jesus?

Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Jesus is the resurrection. Jesus is the adoption and salvation of humanity. The Bible is none of these things. The Bible is a book, not a person. The Bible is information, not relationship. The Bible is part of the creation, but Jesus is the Creator and the union of the Trinity with humanity.

If the Bible is the subject of our preaching, if the Bible is the main thing we are trying to help people understand and know better, then we are guilty of idolatry. We are trying to lead people into relationship with, and trust in, their Bibles instead of relationship with, and trust in, their older brother Jesus. [3]

Depending on where you are in your thinking about Jesus and the Bible, some of those statements may be very challenging to you. They were challenging to me when I first heard them because I had been thoroughly trained – even indoctrinated – into thinking of my faith as a Bible-centered faith instead of a Christ-centered faith.

Over the next few pages, we are going to explore the interplay of the Word (Jesus), the words of the Bible, and the words of our sermons, and see how all three are necessary parts of preaching. We will put each of the three in perspective and see why the Bible is the written word of God and divinely inspired, and how even our own words of preaching can be called “inspired.”

Before we do, however, it might help you to think briefly about the history of the Bible and the Trinity’s relationship with humanity.

Consider Abraham: he had no Bible, yet he had a relationship with the Triune God who loved him and created him. Who spoke to Abraham and said, “I will give you a son”? It was the Word, the second person of the Trinity, who would later come in the flesh as the man Jesus Christ. Abraham heard and believed the Word of God without ever having the words of the Bible. It is possible to have a vibrant, healthy relationship with God and not have a Bible. Abraham did, and so did the early Christians.

The Christians of the first century were blessed to have the Hebrew Bible (for most of them, in a Greek translation), what we call the Old Testament. But they did not have the New Testament. The first documents were written 20-30 years after the church was founded. Yet the book of Acts tells us that thousands of people came to faith in Jesus without ever having seen or read what we call the New Testament (Acts 2:41).

Not only was this the case for the early Christians, it was also the case for the majority of Christians through the centuries, until printing and literacy improved. Prior to the invention of moveable type on the printing press, books were enormously expensive to produce, and most people were illiterate. The only time most Christians saw a Bible was when the one literate man in the village – generally the priest – read from it on Sundays.

In contrast to these historical realities, we in the evangelical Protestant world often have a view of Christianity that almost says “you cannot be a Christian unless you have a Bible and read it on a regular basis.” There is some truth in that sentiment: Our faith depends on us knowing that we are loved as children of the Father. That is taught in the Bible, but there is more than one way for it to happen. The printed word may be the most effective way for some people, but not for all. Many people are visual and learn better from seeing pictures with words, or even pictures alone. This was the medieval origin of stained glass windows.[4] The windows, along with murals and altar paintings, pictured the words of the Bible and gave people a way to access and think about the truth revealed in the Word, Jesus Christ.

The phrase “the word of God” has a threefold definition: First, the word of God is the Word, the second person of the Trinity who now lives forever, fully God and fully human, as the man Jesus Christ. Second, the word of God is the word spoken about Jesus by the church: the apostles, the prophets, and even ordinary pastors and ministry leaders like us. Third, the word of God is the Bible, the written record of what the apostles spoke in their words about Jesus.[5]

In the practice of preaching, how can we understand the interaction between these three aspects of God’s word: the Word of God, the words we speak, and the word of the Bible?

An image that may be helpful to us in thinking about preaching the three-fold word of God is the image of a window. [6] Consider what a window does. It allows those who are inside a building to see outside, or those who are outside to see in. It reveals and makes known something that would otherwise be hidden from us. If we look out a window and see some strange object we have never seen before, we may need help to understand what we are seeing. It would be helpful if someone who has been on the outside would come and help us understand what we are seeing. In this seeing and knowing, however, the window is not the object to be studied. We don’t pay much attention to windows unless they need cleaning or repair. We simply look through them to see what is on the other side.

In this analogy, the Bible is the window. What we see when we look through the window of the Bible is Jesus. Through the Bible, we see that Jesus is in the Father and the Father is in him. We also see that he is in us and we are in him (John 14:20). In seeing this reality – the reality of God the Father, Son, and Spirit, and our inclusion in that life – we understand ourselves and our relationships with one another.

The Holy Spirit comes alongside us and helps us understand what we are seeing. It is in this regard that we speak of our preaching as being “inspired.” The Holy Spirit gives gifts to certain members of the church – preachers – to help explain to others what we are seeing when we look through the window of the Bible and see ourselves in Jesus.

There are times in our lives and ministries when we need to look at the Bible specifically – its history, grammar, construction, etc., – just as there are times we have to clean the windows of our house or repair a crack in the windshield of the car. But the window itself is not the main goal. The goal is whatever can be seen through the window.

Looking through the window of the Bible and seeing Jesus helps us to understand who God is and who we are. That knowledge – knowing Jesus – helps us to know why we are here, how we should live, and how we are created to relate to each other.

Although the Bible includes instructions, it is not an instruction book on how to live. That is not its main purpose. Nor is it an instruction book on how to do ministry. Rather, it is a window to help us see Jesus. Jesus shows us how to live and how to do ministry. The Bible is one source of our knowledge about what Jesus did and what he is doing; the Holy Spirit is also a source of knowledge about what Jesus is and what he is doing. Jesus shows us what life is and how to live, and what ministry is and how to do it, by living with us in relationship and participating with us in our life and existence.

Here is what happens when we are preaching: we look through the window called the Bible and we see Jesus. In seeing him, we see things that are familiar to us, yet hard for us to understand and believe. The Holy Spirit comes alongside us and inspires us with the thoughts and words to understand, believe, and explain to ourselves and others this Jesus that we see in the Bible.

Preaching is our participation in Jesus’ words, through his Spirit, to humanity, about himself as the Word of God spoken of in the words of the Bible. We will elaborate in a moment. For now, this description is merely meant to help us see how all three aspects of the idea “the word of God” should be used in defining preaching.

This also helps us understand why we say the Bible is the inspired and infallible word of God. It is the window given to us by the Father, in Jesus, through the Holy Spirit. That makes it inspired. As the gift of the Father to humanity, it is reliable. We can trust that it is not some kind of funhouse mirror that merely reflects back to us a distorted image of our own thinking. We can trust that our Father has given us a window that accurately shows us who we are in Jesus. That makes it infallible.

No other window has this origin. That is why we rely on the Bible alone for our doctrine and faith. Any other window that we might create without this kind of direct involvement of the Holy Spirit will suffer too much from the distortions that we put into it from our human nature.

Over the centuries after the books of the Bible were written, the Holy Spirit led the early church leaders to see that these particular books – as opposed to many others that were around at the time – were the ones that had been created with this special involvement on the Spirit’s part and could therefore be read as inspired and infallible.

What is preaching?

We are now ready to create a definition of preaching that incorporates our understanding of Jesus’ identity as the Word of God, and our understanding of Bible and of the preaching of the church, as words that bear witness to him. We can begin by saying that preaching is a statement, or an announcement, that is being made. It is not a request, an invitation or a sales pitch.

Again, our window analogy might be helpful. If you look out the window and see a thunderstorm coming, you do not say: “if you believe that a storm is coming, then one is coming, but if you do not believe it, then it will not happen.” No, you look out the window and you say, “a storm is coming.” Your statement, or announcement of the fact, may require some response on the part of those who hear your statement. But their response does not cause the event to come to pass.

In a similar way, the preaching of Jesus, the Word of God, is an announcement of a fact. The Word says to humanity: “You are forgiven, you are included, you are adopted, you are children of the Father in me, and I am your brother.” He does not invite us to become his brothers and sisters. Rather, he tells us that is who we are. Our response to this is to believe it or not, accept it or reject it, but our response does not cause this reality to come into existence, any more than the reality of a thunderstorm depends on whether people believe that the storm is coming.

The Greek word evangelion, which we usually translate “gospel,” carries this meaning. It refers to the announcement of good news[7] – for example, the good news that the Emperor has won a victory over his enemies. Those who hear this announcement are invited to believe that it is true, but their belief does not cause the event to happen. The event – the Emperor’s victory – has taken place. It is an established fact that cannot change; the evangelion is an announcement about what has already happened.

When we preach, the Holy Spirit is enabling us to see humanity brought into the life of the Trinity through Jesus. Jesus conveys this truth to us, and the Holy Spirit helps us understand what we are seeing when we see Jesus. Then Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, gives us words to speak – words that come as close as we are capable of – to express the inexpressible glory of what we see.

Here is a Christ-centered, Trinitarian definition of preaching:

Preaching is our use of the Bible’s words, and the words Jesus gives us, to participate in Jesus’ announcement to humanity, through the Spirit, of the truth: the truth of who God is, of who Jesus is, of what he has done, of what the Spirit is doing, of who humans are as adopted [8] children of the Father in Jesus.

Preaching is a re-presentation of truths that God has given to us. Preaching is something Jesus does through us, something in which he allows us to participate by the Spirit.

The audience of preaching, in one sense, is the whole human race, even though believers constitute the majority of the people who listen and respond. The content of preaching are the truths about God, Jesus, the Spirit, and humanity. The most visible form of preaching is the sermon. However, the words spoken in every ministry context – from communion to counseling – are also preaching the gospel announcement. We will come back to this in later chapters as we address the part that our words play in all ministries.

How do we practice the ministry of preaching?

In chapter 1 we described people who already believe the truth about who they are in Jesus, and those who do not yet believe it. How does Jesus announce these truths about himself to people who already trust in him, and how does he do it to those who do not yet believe? Specifically, we want to ask in this chapter how Jesus makes this announcement through sermons, and hence, how we join him in this ministry.

Let us begin with those who already believe in Jesus. [9] No one’s belief is ever as mature as it could be. We, too, need to grow in faith. So, even when we think of people who know that their identity is hidden in Jesus, we are still thinking of people who – as Barth says – need to be “strengthened in that knowledge.”

We want the Holy Spirit to show us how they need to be strengthened in their faith. We can learn how people need to be strengthened only as we live in relationship with them while listening to what Jesus is telling us through his Spirit. So spend lots of time with the people you preach to. Eat meals with them, at home, at church, and in restaurants. Go to the movies with them, hang out at ball games with them, and let them talk.

As a preacher, you have ample time to talk, but first you need to listen. Ask them about the weather, sports, their jobs, and their families. Listen to them long enough for them to open up and begin to talk to you about their dreams, fears, and hopes. As you listen, listen prayerfully, with one ear turned to the people and one ear to the Holy Spirit. Ask Jesus to help you hear and understand the cry of the hearts of the people.

This kind of relationship and listening does not happen in months – it usually takes years, especially in our culture. We do not live and work side by side, in a single village, with the people we minister to. At best, we see most of them twice a week – a few hours on Sunday and a few hours in a small-group setting. Therefore we have to be patient in our listening and committed to the long haul of years in people’s lives.

This listening is not designed to create sermon topics, per se. In other words, we do not want to hear Jane complain about her husband on Tuesday and then give a sermon on Sunday about inconsiderate husbands. Our sermon topic is always Jesus and then, in light of who he is, what he means for our lives. If there is a specific problem in a person’s life, it should be addressed personally, in counseling, not publicly in a sermon. Public correction would most likely shut the communication down; people would not trust us with their real thoughts.

However, by listening, and hearing in the Spirit, what is really in the hearts and minds of our audience, we can begin to get a general sense of where people in our audience need strengthening in their beliefs about who they are in Jesus. This general sense of how our people think and what they feel should guide our choice of what to emphasize in our sermons from week to week as we preach about Jesus.

This listening also helps us understand where “Christian living” fits into preaching. Since we have defined preaching as our participation in Jesus’ announcement to humanity of who they are in relationship with God, you may wonder, “what about sermons on marriage, child rearing, prayer, etc.?”

As we listen to the people we are ministering to, we will find the Holy Spirit drawing our attention to the ways in which they believe and do not believe the good news of Jesus. The ways in which they do not believe the good news, or need to be strengthened in their belief, will affect the way they live: their marriages, their child rearing, their prayer life, etc. So, we join with Jesus in proclaiming who Jesus is, and what his significance is for each of us. As part of that proclamation, we offer practical illustrations of how believing this good news can be lived out in our lives. Romans 6, for example, ties Christian behavior to Christian identity.

We can also find guidance by being attentive to our own needs. We are human, in the same boat with everyone else. We also need to be strengthened in our faith and knowledge of who Jesus is and how our identity is transformed by him. We, like everyone, need to have our vision of Jesus clarified and expanded as the Holy Spirit ministers Jesus’ faith to us. So we can find a lot of direction about what we need to say to strengthen others in their relationship with Jesus by looking at ourselves and where we need help. If we have moved to a new area and have not had the time to get honest and open feedback from the members, we can still find our own spiritual needs a helpful source of topics to preach about, and many of our needs will be needs in the congregation as well.

It only makes sense, in the light of the Trinity, that preaching begins with relationship and listening. As Seamands points out in his chapter on relational personhood, we have been created in the image of the God who is relationship. [10] The ministry of the Father, Son, and Spirit begins with their ministering to and listening to each other and then extends to their inclusion of us in that relationship through the Son. Trinitarian ministry must have relational listening as its starting point.

This concept of listening to others and to ourselves helps us see how the practice of ministry is an organic process that flows out of life itself. The Trinity created this relational world we live in, and our ministry grows up out of this life. As I take my kids to school, visit with people in the hospital, counsel those who are struggling, go to the movies, play sports, and live life with those I minister to (family, neighbors, church), I am always thinking about who Jesus is for us in this life we are living together. Out of this Spirit-led, Christ-centered reflection on life comes my direction as to how to minister. The minister’s first task is to live a relatively normal, relational life with the people he ministers to.

In your practice of preaching, you want to begin by listening to others and to yourself to understand where the faith of your church needs strengthening. When the nature of these needs becomes clear, you can use the Bible and the worship seasons of the church as your starting point, to talk about who Jesus is and to help yourself and your people grow in your knowledge of him.

Preaching to people who do not have faith in Jesus

Although most people in our culture have heard of Jesus, and even accept that he was a real person in first-century Judea, many do not believe that Jesus has any significance for their own lives. They do not understand, for example, that Jesus was God in the flesh, that he died for our sins, that as the second Adam he gave humanity a new start in life. When we speak to such people, how should we practice the ministry of preaching?

Since most of us minister in small churches, we will know if a visitor is present when we get up to speak. If possible, meet the person before the service begins. You do not have to interrogate visitors about their beliefs, but if you have met them and learned that they are nonbelievers, then you can make minor adjustments to your preaching to accommodate their needs.

For example, if you are use theological words that you would not usually define for your “normal” Sunday crowd, you might take a few seconds to explain such terms as you use them. Such words might include “grace,” “righteousness,” or “Trinity.” You should also try to clarify any “in-speak.” This is a good practice even if there are no visitors! For example, if you refer to a denominational leader whom the visitor would not know, you might explain who he is.

The first task of preaching to nonbelievers is to remove – as much as possible – barriers to understanding. [11] We do not remove those barriers by simply discarding all uniquely Christian language. If we give a sermon and do not talk about God the Father, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, adoption, eternal life, resurrection, grace, forgiveness, or other key ideas of the gospel, then we have not given a Christian sermon. We have given a motivational speech.

We remove barriers to understanding not by eliminating all terminology, but by explaining the terms. Here are a few examples:

  • Instead of saying “the incarnation,” we might say “when God the Son became human, an event we call ‘the incarnation.’”
  • Instead of saying “the Trinity,” I might say “God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
  • Instead of saying “Jesus makes us righteous,” I might say “Jesus puts us into a right relationship with his Father, himself, and the Holy Spirit.”

Do not allow your concern about speaking to nonbelievers to drive you to abandon the Christ-centered content and vocabulary of the gospel. Rather, let that concern drive you to find simple, easy-to-understand ways of explaining the gospel.

In addition to the means of communicating, we also want to think about the content of our communication to the nonbeliever in our preaching. Do nonbelievers need to hear sermons that are different than what believers need to hear? No. Believers and nonbelievers need to hear the same message. The Bible was written for both.

The message announces who Jesus is, what he has done for us, and what difference it makes for us that we are already children of God. This message strengthens believers in the grace and knowledge of Jesus; this same message communicates to nonbelievers knowledge they did not have before, and calls for a response.

This message, simply by announcing a fact, automatically demands a response from nonbelievers. When we stand in front of a group of people and tell them “you are included in Jesus, he is your brother and God the Father is your father,” we force our listeners to respond in one of three ways:

  1. They may believe,
  2. They may think, “That sounds good, but I want to know more” or
  3. They may say “I don’t believe it.” Even if they think they are delaying a decision, they have already fallen into category 3.

This is a reaction to an announcement, a statement of fact. We have not invited them to do anything, asked them to believe, or invited them to buy into a sales pitch we are making. [12] We have announced news. We have made a declarative statement about who Jesus is, and his significance for them, and they must respond either favorably or negatively to that statement.

A rejection – even a vehement and angry rejection – of the message may be seen as a success. If we faithfully participate in Jesus’ announcement of himself as the union of the Trinity with humanity, then we should expect some people to say, “No! I do not believe this! I am in control of my own existence; Jesus is not. I am offended when you tell me that Jesus died for me, forgave my sins, and has made me a child of the Father without my permission or action.”

Whether nonbelievers accept or reject the gospel is not the measure of whether we have been faithful in proclaiming it. By the nature of what it says, a faithful announcement of the gospel demands a response – and that response can be negative. Every human being is free and distinct in Christ to respond to the truth about himself by rejecting that truth. God gives them the space to do that.

So, the basic content of our sermons is the gospel. It’s the same whether we speak to 20 people who have been Christians all their lives, or 2,000 people who have never heard the name of Jesus. The basic content is “Jesus has included you in what he has done to give us all a relationship with the Father.” [13] This announcement strengthens believers in their faith and confronts the nonbeliever with information about themselves that they may or may not be ready to receive.

As we think of preaching in this Christ-centered light, it simplifies the task of preaching in a way we might not expect. Because of who Jesus is, we already know the most important fact there is to know about every member of every audience we ever speak to: they are embraced by the Father, through Jesus, in the Holy Spirit. Therefore we do not have to try to navigate a complex river between the shores of “winning the lost” and “building the believer.” The truth of Jesus accomplishes both those tasks simultaneously, and there is no difference between those two tasks. The same announcement about humanity in Christ that wins the nonbeliever also builds up the believer. A message designed to build believers also puts it in into the context of what Jesus has done, [14] and therefore presents the good news for nonbelievers, too.

The difference is not in what we need to say to each group, but in how each group responds. The believer will say “I believe! Tell me more about my relationship with the Father, Son and Spirit!” Nonbelievers might say this too, as they come to faith, but there is also the chance that they will reject the announcement about Jesus.

What if people who say they are believers reject the announcement? Perhaps they think, “Yes, Jesus died for me, but God won’t forgive me unless and until I repent and be good for a while.” Such people misunderstand the gospel – no one understands it perfectly – but Jesus saves them anyway. Such people need to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We all need to be further strengthened in the truth about who Jesus is, either in personal counsel or in congregational preaching.

Here are a few examples of how we might make the announcement about Jesus to an audience – such as that of a Sunday morning worship service – that is composed of both believers and nonbelievers:

  • Because of who Jesus is and what he has done, I am confident to tell you that you belong to the Father – no matter what you believe about God.
  • Your Daddy in heaven loves you and has embraced you as his child in Jesus. The Holy Spirit is speaking to your heart that this is true. Let Jesus share his faith with you about the truth of who you are in him.
  • We all experience pain when we believe a lie about ourselves – the lie that God doesn’t love us unless we earn his love. Lies put us in bondage, but the truth sets us free. We know joy when we believe the truth that we are included and we are children of the Father.

Preaching Christ in this way wins the nonbeliever and builds up the believer.

How do we feed Jesus’ sheep in body, mind, and soul through preaching?

Finally, we want to think about how we participate in Jesus’ announcement of himself – and how we do that in body, mind, and soul.

Body: Preaching engages our bodies primarily through vision and hearing. [15] Therefore we need to remove obstacles that prevent people from seeing and hearing us.

Many of us preach in environments that we do not have full control over: schools, meeting rooms, or churches that belong to others. Even though we do not control the environments, we can control what we do in those environments. Look at your environment before the service starts, especially if you are a visitor or are in an environment for the first time.

Perhaps there is nothing blocking people’s view of you, but there may be elements that create a sense of distance between you and your listeners. It might be an unusually high stage or pulpit. It could be an unusually large lectern that allows the audience to see only your head. Anything that seems to put a barrier between you and the audience should be set aside. You want the audience to see that you are with them, on their side, talking to them in a normal way, and you want them to be able to see your gestures and understand what your body language is communicating about your message.

In some meeting rooms, the stage is relatively high for the length of the room, and if we stand on the stage, it seems like we are looking down on the audience. In such cases, it is probably best that we do not stand on the stage when we speak. When we stand on the floor, this allows us to be on the same level with the audience.

Be conscious of your body language when you preach. Input from others – family, friends, and video – can be helpful. Ask others to let you know if you are stiff, failing to make eye contact, or not moving with natural gestures that help bring your point across. For example, when some people first start preaching, they have a nervous habit of putting their hands in their pockets and jingling whatever change or car keys happen to be there. That habit probably does nothing to help nervousness, and it can seriously interfere with the audience’s ability to receive the message. If necessary, remove everything from your pockets before you speak, so you will not have anything to fiddle with.

Hearing is also vital. Again, seek the help of others. Are you speaking loudly and clearly enough? Is there a natural, logical flow to what you are saying, or do you seem to be skipping from point to point and losing your audience? If someone took notes on your sermon, would they know what to write down, and how one idea led to another?

Having the right amount and the right kind of notes can be important. If your nerves take over and you forget what you want to say, or how to say it, then you will probably tend to become vague in your logic and drop your voice level, and become more inarticulate. If so, you will need more notes.

What is the right amount of notes? It’s the least amount that you need to give a logical and coherent sermon. If you can give a sermon that makes sense – even if you forget a couple of things you wanted to say – without any notes, then you may be more effective going without notes. The fewer notes you use, the more natural and engaging your sermon will be.

However, if you cannot give a sermon that flows and makes sense without a full manuscript, then you should use a full manuscript. Just print it out in a large font to make it easier to have some eye contact with the audience. It is better to read a sermon and express the gospel clearly than to speak without notes and leave your audience wondering what you were trying to say.

Most speakers fall somewhere in the middle: they need an outline of the key ideas but do not need to write everything out word for word. Experiment with different methods and do not be afraid to try weaning yourself off notes as time goes by and you gain more experience.

In general, the younger you are and the more preaching experience you have, the more likely it is that you can learn to speak without notes. New pastors may need more notes than later, when they have more experience. But as they grow older, they may need to go back to more notes than they used earlier, due to the natural deterioration of memory. There is no shame in using more extensive notes – but there is shame in mangling the message because you are afraid of looking older.

One additional point is that some topics need more extensive notes than others do. Sometimes your message will rely extensively on personal experiences, and you may be able to tell those stories quite well without notes. But other topics are more cognitive, and you may need to choose your words carefully so that the audience does not misunderstand.

One simple technique for minimizing your use of notes is to make the scriptural text itself your outline. In Ephesians 2:6-10, for example, you can read what Paul says about grace and then talk about it. Then you can read what he says about faith and talk about that. Last, you can read what he says about works and talk about that. The text is a simple, three-point sermon: grace precedes faith and faith precedes works, and all three are given to us by the Trinity.

Mind: Preaching, more than almost any other ministry except counseling, addresses the minds of Jesus’ people. The words, feelings, and thoughts in our minds are elements that need to be brought into captivity (2 Cor. 10:5). Our minds need to be renewed in order to enable us to believe what Jesus, the Word of God, is telling us about himself and who we are in him (Rom. 12:2).

In preaching, we have a unique opportunity to lovingly confront the wrong thinking of those we minister to. In counseling, we sometimes have to say to a person, “your thinking is wrong.” Such a moment, necessary as it is, creates confrontation and pain at a personal level, and it can sometimes be difficult for people to deal with it.

In preaching, however, we have the chance to let people look at wrong ways of thinking without experiencing it as a personal confrontation. In preaching we can say, “let’s think about some wrong ways of thinking and some right ways.” [16] Those whose thinking has been wrong are then able to take a step back and examine their own thoughts in a safer, more anonymous way. Sometimes it can be easier for us to change our thinking when we do it while listening to others talk, than when we are being directly confronted with our mistakes. Instead of being told, “Your thinking is wrong,” we have to ask, “Do I fall into that ‘wrong’ way?” We come to the conclusion on our own.

There are right and wrong ways for us as human beings to think about God and ourselves. Wrong thinking about God, from Adam and Eve down to us, has been the source of much of our sin and suffering in our relationship with the Father and with one another.

Our fallen human nature leads us to think of God as distant and angry. But in Jesus, we see that God is with us and forgives us. Human nature tends to think that God rewards us for our good actions and punishes us for bad actions. Yet we see in Jesus that bad things (like crucifixion) happen to good people (like Jesus). When we suffer, we often think that God has distanced himself from us, but Jesus shows that suffering can mean that we are so close to him that we are sharing with him in his sufferings, just as he shares with us in ours. It gives us a new perspective.

A major part of our participation in Jesus’ ministry of preaching is our role in exposing false, blinded thinking, and announcing the truth and light of Jesus’ correct thinking about God and humanity. As a single light dispels the darkness in a room, so the light of the gospel dispels the darkness in the minds of the people we serve in Christ. As with all the ministry of Jesus, he could choose to do it without us, but he has chosen to include us in his work to renew people’s minds and help bring their thoughts into captivity.

Ministering to people’s minds means that we have to go back to what we said earlier about listening to people. As we know people in real relationships, we see more fully how their thinking needs to be clarified in order to strengthen them in their understanding of Jesus.

One technique that is helpful in this regard is to make sermons more interactive. By opening space in a sermon for people to comment and ask questions, we create an environment where we can all check our minds against the truth of Jesus’ mind and let him correct our wrong thinking. Often there are many people in an audience with questions about what has been said in the sermon, but they are shy about speaking up. If just one or two people are bold enough to speak up, they will usually articulate questions that others also have. Sometimes the preacher has not thought of the question, or did not know whether it was important enough to include in the sermon. Allowing time for such interaction in the sermon allows the audience to say what they need, and to receive the food that will be most helpful to them at that moment.

Soul: Body, mind, and soul are inseparable constituent parts of what a human being is – not elements that can be divided from each other. When we speak of ministering to people’s souls, we mean the inner depth of their being, at a level below conscious thought, where their sense of self and identity resides. This is closer to what the Bible has in mind when it says “soul,” than the idea of Greek philosophy, which sees the soul as a metaphysical substance that can be separated from body and mind and have its own existence.

In this class, “soul” means the heart of a person’s self-awareness and existence. This is the core reality out of which all their thinking and acting is flowing. This is the place within our personhood where we most deeply perceive ourselves to be “good” or “bad,” “loved” or “unloved,” “accepted” or “rejected.” The truths or falsehoods that we believe, and the actions we perform, can have a profound impact on this inner self-identity. Likewise, the inner self-identity in our souls can powerfully influence what we think and do.

What does this have to do with preaching? Since Jesus is the union of the Trinity with humanity, he touches the soul of every human being. Deep within every human life, at the soul level, in the most basic core of our identity, is the fundamental truth that we belong. We are loved. We are accepted. This is true because of the Son of God’s union with our human nature in his humanity as the man Jesus Christ. This truth is communicated to our souls by the Holy Spirit, and this truth points us to the Father, who loves and accepts us.

It is this core truth that causes us to feel pain when we are rejected, excluded, and told that we do not belong. At the most fundamental level, below consciousness, we were created to be loved and accepted in Christ. When others make us feel unloved and excluded, such a lie wars against reality itself, the reality that the Trinity is embracing humanity.

Conversely, when we hear the truth of our Father’s love for us in Jesus, that message resonates to the depth of our being, in our souls. It rings true even if our minds cannot explain it and the actions of our bodies do not express it very well. But the truth does not penetrate into our souls automatically – the Holy Spirit must break through the objections of our human nature, in which we (like Adam and Eve) fear God instead of trusting him.

When we view human nature in this way, for all that we are as we are embraced in Jesus, it inspires our preaching with a boldness and authority that transcends our natural human perspective. You can stand before any audience, anywhere in the world, and boldly announce to them their inclusion in the life of the Trinity. As you do so, you can know that in the depth of their souls that message will resonate, resound, and echo with the authoritative confirmation of the Holy Spirit as he communicates the knowledge of Jesus into the depth of their being. This interplay of soul, mind, and body expresses itself in different ways, depending on where people’s minds are in the process of being renewed and bringing every thought into captivity. Here are some examples of how people respond:

  • I wish I could believe what you’re saying [soul], but I just can’t see how it could be true [mind], so I’m not coming to your church anymore [body].
  • I want to believe it [soul], but I just don’t see how it fits with the Bible [mind], so I’m going to listen skeptically [body].
  • Somehow I’ve always known that God had to be this way [soul], and I can’t yet explain how I know it’s true [mind], but I want to learn more and help others learn this good news [body].

Humanity was created for the purpose of participating in the life of the Trinity. It is the shape and purpose and destiny of every person. It is not just the destiny of our souls — it is our destiny in our full personhood – soul, mind, and body. Since our status as God’s children has been brought about in Jesus, this destiny is now infused into human nature itself. This purpose calls to us from the deepest place in our being, where the Father is loving us in Jesus, through the Spirit. It calls to us from the depth of our souls even when we are completely unaware of what is happening.

The more we meditate on the reality of humanity’s union with Christ, the more we see that preaching could never work if this union did not exist. If we were completely cut off from Jesus and his Spirit, then no human’s fallen soul could ever believe the gospel. Our sinfulness would always distort and doubt what we were hearing. Faith is a gift of God to us in Christ (Eph. 2:8). This is what Purves means when he talks about the vicarious humanity of Christ, and how Jesus is both “speaking God and a hearing man, and this for us.” [17] As God, he speaks authoritatively to us. As a human, he listens submissively and gives the perfect response to what God wants.

This gives us confidence to preach. We know that when people hear the good news that they are included in God’s love, they are hearing the very reason for their existence, and the Holy Spirit is bearing witness to them in their souls that what they are hearing is the truth about God and about humanity. So be bold in your preaching. Be confident that the truth will reach its target – not through human wisdom or eloquence, but by the Spirit of truth making it effective. What Christ is speaking through you into the souls of your listeners is the fundamental reality of all existence.

Principles and Practices of Preaching

by Michael Morrison

What is preaching?

Preaching is the art of communicating God’s word to encourage, exhort, and correct (2 Tim. 4:2). It is generally based on Scripture, although in some cases its basis may be hidden (e.g., Acts 17:22-29). The ultimate goal of preaching is to join Jesus in his ministry of bringing people into sharing the fellowship of the Father, Son and Spirit. As part of that goal, preaching should help people have faith in Christ, and to be transformed by the renewing of their minds (Rom. 12:2).­ It should present the gospel of what Christ has done for us, and how he wants us to respond to his grace. It should help them receive biblical information and exhortations, and implement them in their lives and the way they think. It should address their spiritual needs, including those they did not know they had.

Preaching is not a form of entertainment, although it may sometimes be entertaining as a means to its primary purpose. It should not be boring, for that would hinder its purpose. It may address contemporary issues, but preaching should also address issues that contemporary society tends to overlook. There are two primary ways to let Scripture be the basis for the topics of our sermons: either to follow the lectionary cycle, or to systematically preach through biblical books. [18]

When a contemporary issue is so pressing that everyone in the congregation is thinking about it anyway (for example, a recent tragedy in the congregation, community, nation or world), then the cycle may be interrupted and the congregation’s concerns can make them more receptive to what God’s word may be for them in such a situation. Neither lectionary nor expository preaching seems to be the pattern found in the New Testament – preaching should be driven by its primary purpose, not an advance commitment to a particular format or cycle.

Principles

What are the primary principles we need to remember as we prepare sermons?

First, that we are the messengers, not the creators of the message or the focus of the message. Creativity is involved – in our desire for effectiveness, we may seek new ways of delivering an old message; we seek creative intersections of Scripture and society; we seek to make the message faithful to the original, but always new. Despite the importance of our creativity, we strive to deliver a message from God, not from ourselves. We need to accurately convey what Scripture itself teaches, and beware the human tendency to read our own ideas into the text. Homiletics starts with hermeneutics. We need to discern principles in the text, and discern how they apply today. Prayer, and sensitivity to the Spirit, is part of preparation.

In our messages, we need to point people to God, not to ourselves as indispensable mediators. We do not want parishioners to think, “I could never have gotten that out of the Bible on my own. I might as well not try. My spiritual growth is dependent on the pastor.” Rather, we want people to think, “If I think about Scripture in depth, I could understand it better, just as the pastor does. I’ll do my best, but I am also glad that we have a pastor, and I want to be enriched by the blessings God gives the pastor.” We want to present God’s truth as accessible, not as exclusive to trained professionals. Good preaching is good for the church, but ironically, the better the oratory skills of the preacher, the more danger there is that people will be attracted for the wrong reasons. Good preachers should help people see beyond the messenger, so that they are following Jesus, not the preacher.

Second, the authority of the message comes from God, not from the speaker. The preacher speaks not as one who is above the congregation, but as part of the congregation – the message speaks to the preacher as well as to the others. God may speak to the preacher primarily during preparation rather than the delivery of the sermon, but the preacher should still acknowledge being under the authority of the word of God, rather than one who wields its authority over others. Even when preachers are personally innocent of a specific fault, they must acknowledge that they are human, struggling with other issues. Like Jesus, we are able to empathize with human weakness, for we are also tempted in every way – and unlike Jesus, we sin (cf. Heb. 4:15).

Third, preaching should remind people of what God has done. It is not a report of our search for divine light, but rather a report of how God is speaking to us, revealing to us the goodness and grace of God. Preaching should reflect God’s supreme self-revelation in the form of Jesus Christ. What he said and what he did show us what God is like, and it shows us the nature of the divine life for which we were created and for which we were redeemed. We need to remind people of what he has done, and encourage them to trust in him for their salvation and sanctification. The God who did not spare his own Son can be counted on to provide all that we need for the completion of our transformation (Rom. 5:10; Phil. 1:6). Every sermon should include the gospel.

Fourth, the sermon is not just information, but a catalyst for transformation. We want the message to have results in people’s lives – bringing about the full range of biblical responses: faith, repentance, obedience, love, joy, humility, etc. We let Scripture set the agenda for what the expected response might be, and we respond to Scripture by faithfully repeating its explicit and implicit exhortations. As Fred Craddock says, we must not only report what Scripture says – a sermon must also do what Scripture is intended to do.

Fifth, the messages should be theologically accurate. We do not want to invent or perpetuate errors. We acknowledge the inability of human language to fully describe God, but we also acknowledge that God uses human language as a means of self-revelation. We strive to use human language as best as we can, being attentive to the nuances of words (which are always changing), the ways in which our words might be misunderstood, and clarifying what we mean as well as what we do not mean. We do not merely repeat the words of Scripture[19] (even unbelievers could do that), but we seek to put them into other words to expand or limit what is meant. Theology helps shape the parameters of our paraphrase.

Sixth, preachers need to know the audience. We not only need to know the content of our message, we also need to know how it intersects the lives of the people who are listening to us. We need to show how the passage is relevant to their needs. (We do not make it relevant – it already is relevant, so we need to discern how it is, and explain how it is.) There are occasions when we are a guest speaker and do not know our audience well, and must therefore be more general in what we say (this is even more true when we are speaking in another culture), but ideally we should be aware of what’s going on in the lives of our brothers and sisters in the faith. In this regard, small churches should do better than large churches, and certainly better than a mass-media ministry in which the message must be even more generalized. We need to know the crises and triumphs of the congregation, their fears and (sometimes) an excess of confidence in their own abilities. We need to know the audience so that we might know when to emphasize God’s faithfulness to us (e.g. Rom. 8:31-39) and when to emphasize our need for response (e.g., Rom. 11:19-21).

Last, we need to know when to stop preaching, and by that I do not just mean ending the worship services on time. “Preaching” should not be our primary means of communication with members, spouses, children, and neighbors. We are not perpetual fountains of good advice, nor are we always speaking with divine authority on every topic that comes up. When we step out of the pulpit, we step into a different role in the congregation. People may still look up to us as authorities (and hopefully we do have some earned authority – that is why we are asked to speak in the first place), but we do not always have the same authority as when we are delivering a message that is intentionally researched, thought out and structured to be a cultural transposition of God’s word into our own situation. We need humility from start to finish, and we should not think more highly of ourselves than we ought (Rom. 12:3).

Putting it into practice

What are the mechanics of sermon structure and delivery?

A sermon’s structure should serve its purpose, that of helping us be transformed into the image of Christ. There is no divinely mandated sermon structure; that is to some extent shaped by the subject matter and the rhetorical customs of the day, which shape what the audience expects to hear. The style used in an Episcopal church would not be very effective for a Pentecostal audience, and vice versa. This is part of what it means to know the audience. Some audiences expect illustrations from contemporary movies; others from articles in Atlantic magazine. Some expect sermon points to be supported with philosophy and logic; others expect personal anecdotes. Most audiences are flexible, but the more we make them flex, the more we need to compensate in other areas. Our understanding of the ethos of the audience can help us put our message into a format that will make it easier for them to receive the message.

Nevertheless, there are times to use an unexpected format, if this serves the communicative purpose. If the scripture passage is normally at the beginning of the message, there may be occasions or topics in which it might be rhetorically more effective to delay it. Or the speaker may wish to dress in costume and speak as a biblical character in order to make a particular point. The purpose is not to draw attention to the speaker or the technique, but it should always serve the communicative purpose.

Some preachers begin with a reading of the entire passage of scripture they wish to exposit (this is common in churches that use the lectionary), and the sermon proceeds on that foundation. Other preachers read one or two verses and explain them, then one or two more, with commentary alternating with scripture. This format works particularly well when the verses are displayed on a screen – we proceed through the text in short segments at a time, commenting on historical background, word meanings, and application as relevant to each verse. Other preachers may approach the task in different ways.

Many preachers use a manuscript, and so does the U.S. President, for formal speeches. When we preach, we have something important to say, and we want to do the best that we can to ensure that we say it right. It may not look “cool” or “gifted,” but it is the format that works best for some. The priority is the message, and our method should help the audience focus on the message – our method should not be a distraction, and the best method will be different for different preachers in different circumstances.

One other consideration is that preaching isn’t the only thing a pastor needs to do. Although some preachers say they need 35 hours to prepare a good sermon, most of us don’t have that kind of time, and we have to find a rhythm that works best for us.

Can we compete with TV? No. Television programs have huge budgets and large staffs, for content, audio, and visuals. The presenters of such programs have been selected as the best of the best – not just in the top 1 percent, but in the top .001 percent. It is not realistic for every church of a few hundred (or less) people to have preachers and programs in the top .001 percent. Nor is it realistic to expect that every preacher be as good as the televised preachers. We cannot compete on that basis, nor should we try. We are not entertainers, but messengers.

We may not be in the top .001 percent when it comes to rhetorical gifts, and we need not get depressed about it. But we should do the best we can, with the time God has given us, with the gifts he has given us, where he has placed us. Our job is to know what God says, to know our audience, and to help one connect with the other, to facilitate the work that Jesus is doing in their lives. We should trust God to do the rest, and that does not necessarily mean popularity. Of course, it can hurt our feelings when some people would rather watch sit-com re-runs instead of listening to us preach, but their choice should not affect our sense of self-worth. Our goal is to be effective for those who do come.



[1] For an exposition of this idea, see Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, volume 1, section 4.

[2] Sometimes we mention Jesus even while ignoring who he actually is; his name is invoked primarily to add support to our own ideas.

[3] It is good for people to know their Bibles better, but the Bible is not an end in itself – it is of value primarily because it tells us about Jesus (see John 5:39-40). The Bible is trustworthy, but it is not our Savior – Jesus is.

[4] John Harries, Discovering Stained Glass (Buckinghamshire: Shire, 2008), 7.

[5] As noted by Karl Barth in Doctrine of the Word of God: Prolegomena to Church Dogmatics.

[6] This is sometimes called the “iconographic nature of Scripture” and is discussed by many authors. One source is M. Robert Mulholland, Jr., Shaped by the Word: The Power of Scripture in Spiritual Formation (Nashville, TN: Upper Room, 2000).

[7] Gerhard Friedrich, “Euangelizomai,” page 267-273 in  Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, eds; translated and abridged by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged in One Volume (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985).

[8] “Adopted” is a metaphor; it does not imply that we humans were ever the children of any other father. We were created as children of God and we never stopped being his children. The metaphor of “adoption” is designed to communicate to us the truth that we are his children, not the precise mechanism of how we became his children.

[9] This is sometimes phrased as “those who believe the truth of who they are in Jesus.” We should believe this truth, but this truth does not in itself save us – we are saved by Jesus, and our faith should ultimately be in him, not just in a truth about ourselves. Salvation is based on a personal relationship, not a cognitive achievement. We are saved by faith, not by knowledge. After a person comes to have faith in Jesus, then cognitive growth also occurs. Your audience may contain people who trust in Jesus but do not yet grasp (or are unable to put into words) the way in which he transforms human identity.

[10] Seamands, Ministry in the Image of God, 35.

[11] We may not be able to remove all barriers to belief – that is the Holy Spirit’s role – but we do our best to help people have an accurate understanding of what they should believe. We do not want them to reject the gospel merely because we have used terms they do not understand.

[12] This does not mean that sermons should never exhort – the Bible has plenty of exhortations for both nonbelievers and believers. One exhortation is: “Repent and believe the gospel!” It is a command. However, belief cannot simply be commanded, or turned on by will – a person either believes or does not. The biblical commands to believe are a rhetorical way of affirming that it is the truth: This is something you can believe in, and stake your life on.

[13] Jesus phrased it, “The kingdom of God has come.” God’s realm has invaded ours, and we need to change our way of thinking and respond to that. Paul phrased it, “Jesus died for our sins and God has through him reconciled all humanity to himself.” Jesus has acted and given us a relationship with God. The message describes God’s action in Christ, and how that affects us.

[14] If we attempt to “build” believers without the context of grace, we will most likely fall into legalism. What Christians do should flow out of what Christians are, and that flows out of who Jesus is and what he has done.

[15] If we preach on the radio, or people listen to our sermons on the Internet, there is no visual content. But in a congregation, it is possible for people to see us, and we should do what we can to make the most of visual possibilities.

[16] Paul does this. “Does this mean such and such?” He responds, “By no means!”

[17] Purves, Crucifixion of Ministry, 81.

[18] One potential problem with this approach is that some preachers take five years to get through a book, which means that people in the audience may receive only a narrow slice of biblical teachings before they move to another city. Preachers who can get five sermons out of one verse may be viewed as superb preachers, and perhaps they are, but they are giving the congregation very small servings of gourmet food. The ratio of human words to biblical words is very high. At least for me, I find that ten verses of Scripture is usually a better basis for a sermon, and it enables the preacher to explain more of the Bible each year. It also forces the preacher to focus on what is most important, rather than exhaustively pursuing every detail.

[19] Those words originated as a translation of a divine concept into Greek, and for most of our parishioners, they are a human translation of the Greek into English.