In listening to a number of sermons from other preachers over the years, I think that many of them could be improved markedly by asking three questions during preparation. Most certainly these questions are the kinds of inquiries that are going through the minds of the congregation as they listen. Many listeners are more sophisticated about the preaching that they hear and the interpretation of the passage than many pastors understand, and they are more sensitive to when a passage is being misinterpreted or misapplied than many pastors realize. Many are also left feeling empty when the sermon is overly academic, more in the manner of a Bible school lecture.
What is the significance of the passage for a modern day believer? Why should I care here in the twenty first century what was being said or done in this Biblical passage which is the subject of the sermon?
The sermon needs to go beyond any academic background on the passage and deal with its timeless theological significance and its current application. Too many preachers get stuck in the background and do not go on to tell what the passage teaches us about the God of the Bible, the salvation he has provided, and what it means to me today. The impression that this gives is that the preacher has spent more time in learning about the Bible and too little time in learning how to live the Bible. The sermon comes off more as an academic lecture than a heart felt exhortation to trust and obey God and follow his Word.
This problem tends to happen more with pastors who preach through a whole book at a time. What comes up on the preaching schedule for next week’s sermon is the next passage in order in the book. The problem with this approach comes when the passage does not enter into the pastor’s life significantly enough to be able to bring out much more than an academic lecture. In this case the pastor would do best to do a lot of praying over the passage and seek to get what God is saying through the passage much more beyond the background and interpretation. It’s a good rule of thumb that each sermon needs to be preached by the preacher to himself and through himself before he preaches it to the congregation.
It needs to be said that preaching through a whole book at a time is a comparatively recent practice in preaching. As far as I can tell, it was practically unknown in evangelical circles until the 1950’s. It does leave the preacher and the congregation with a definite expectation of what will be the subject of the sermon from one week to the next. It does leave a sense of continuity between one sermon and the next. I don’t think that it necessarily tends to build a more Biblically literate congregation, though. What would tend to build a more Biblically literate congregation from the pulpit tends to be a greater demonstration of accurate interpretation and reasonable and workable application of the Bible during the sermon. But a stronger Sunday School for adults and children and small group Bible studies in conjunction with Biblical preaching from the pulpit tend to build a Biblically literate congregation.
“How can you say that?”
What is the basis for your interpretation and application of the passage that you’re preaching on? How did you come to that conclusion?
The more sophisticated listeners, especially those with a modern study Bible, are sensitive to when a sermon takes a passage out of its immediate context, its context in the Bible as a whole and its context in terms of its linguistic and historical background. Many can pick up on the non-sequiturs of misinterpretation of a passage. The problem with this approach is that the hearers understand instinctively that a misinterpreted passage of scripture does not command their belief, trust and obedience. Misinterpretations from the pulpit leave them with little profit from the sermon and a diminished view of the scholarship, if not the character, of the preacher.
I would encourage pastors to read or re-read a work on interpreting scripture at least once per year. One which I recommend is D. A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies. James Sire’s Scripture Twisting is another which I would recommend. It’s directed against the cults but there are a number of their methods that evangelicals fall into when they misinterpret scripture. For example, one of the most common ways in which pastors misinterpret scripture in the pulpit is overspecification. This is where a passage is made to say much more than it actually says. The cults do this very often to support their doctrines, and congregations instinctively understand when this overreaching of the passage takes place.
It’s a good idea to give sufficient basis for the interpretation of the passage in the sermon. Make your case for why you believe it means what you say it means. This does not have to be long, but it can be made brief and accurate. I personally avoid going into Greek and Hebrew beyond saying things like that the passage can be better translated in such and such a way, or that the original language has such and such an implication. That way, the congregation can understand the scriptural basis for living out the application of the passage that the pastor gives.
“Who are you talking about?”
One of the difficulties in applying the scripture is that it can become the pastor taking surreptitious potshots at individuals within the congregation. There are times that I could tell by the descriptions given which individuals the pastor was addressing. Sometimes when congregations see this tendency in the pastor they can tell who has irritated the pastor in the past week or so, or they can tell which individual or individual the pastor is addressing. This in turn grieves the people in the congregation that see this happening, and diminishes their opinion of the character of the pastor who does this. C.H. Spurgeon once mentioned that the pulpit in his day for pastors who did this was called the “Coward’s Castle.”
The best way to address this is to write out the application of a scripture beforehand and avoid trying to improvise it from the pulpit. This will avoid this kind of ‘emotional leakage’ of personal irritations during the sermon. Also be sure to address individual problems with individuals in the congregation outside the pulpit. Use the time in the sermon to feed, correct, and instruct the whole flock and not to go after one individual sheep. Usually, when a pastor does this, the application of a passage will apply to other believers and other churches, and the pastor can preach the same sermon in other churches with the same blessing without having to rewrite the application for each congregation.