3 Gospel-Nurturing Questions to Ask in Sermon Preparation

A few weeks ago, my daughter called to update me on her field trip to the nature center with my grandson Cash. When I answered the phone, her voice was shaky. Here is how the conversation went:

My daughter: “Cash committed a murder today! We were in the butterfly exhibit and I took my eyes off him for like 30 seconds. When I found him crawling out from behind the trees, I could see he was carrying something. When I asked him to show me, he unfolded his cupped hands and – MOM – pieces of a dead, mangled, yellow butterfly fell to the floor!”

Me: “Oh no! What did you do?”

My daughter: “We hauled our heinie to the next exhibit as fast as possible! When the coast was clear, I told Cash; ‘Hey buddy. You can’t hold the butterflies. You can hurt them. They are soft and fragile. Ok?’ Mom, it was so sad. He looked up at me and said, ‘I just hold it a little bit. I just look at it. Teeny Tiny. So soft.’”

I empathized with both sides.

  • The murderer: How sad that this little nature lover accidentally killed something he adored. In his passionate zeal, he came on too strong. He didn’t realize his own power and it had irreversible, devastating consequences.
  • The victim: How sad that this butterfly had his life violently and unexpectedly crushed. I’m sure he thought he was in a safe place. I mean, is there any place safer for a butterfly than in the protected butterfly habitat at the nature center?

The story represented something else to me. It’s really not that big of leap, if you think about it. Church communicators can be murderers. Our message is the victim.

Here are three questions to ask ourselves so that we won’t kill the gospel message in our zeal to communicate quickly and effectively:

#1: Am I coming on too strong?

Do we get in a hurry and come on too strong in our zeal? Are we bypassing Jesus in our eagerness to help people take steps towards Jesus? It’s a common shortcut and it’s tempting: just get people to the destination we’ve prescribed for them as quickly as possible.

We suck the life out of our content when we use all of our promotional real estate pointing people to programs and events in our church instead of next steps with Jesus. Our communication comes across as high pressure and out of touch when we forget to connect people to the higher ideals and spiritual disciplines outside our own church-sponsored events. Life change is not limited to an individual transaction on our church calendar.

Pro tip: Don’t tell the whole story in promotions. Just share little appetizers to pull people into what you have to offer. Then build a sequence of little content nuggets around a central theme in all the communication intersections along your audience’s journey of discovery (e.g., web, social media, platform, bulletin, lobby, etc.).

#2: Do I lack awareness?

Have we created a safe environment for people to ask questions and explore faith, or are we telling people what to think and do—rushing ahead to solve the problem for them? How can we slow down, trust God’s part in the process, and spend more time pointing people to places they can find the answer on their own, even if they color outside the lines a little bit along the way?

When we are students of culture, we have better relationships with ALL people, not just OUR people.

Pro tip: Link to resources, articles, and content from a variety of sources that address the questions people are asking about life, relationships, community, and healing. Don’t hesitate to share content from other leaders, industries, and environments to help people with whole life context around their spiritual next steps.

When we trust and empower individuals with a variety of reinforcements, they naturally take steps towards deeper levels of commitment inside their church family because they have ownership in the journey.

#3: Is my delivery sterile?

In our attempt to achieve professionalism and excellence, our institutional brands have become overdesigned, polished, and censored. Where can we do a better job embracing the imperfections of our humanity to demonstrate vulnerability and authenticity as fellow travelers on a journey?

When we create more space and environments for personal conversations, people are less skeptical and start to respond because they can relate.

Pro tip: While your corporate website can be centralized and standardized, loosen control over organic, conversational outlets like social media. Crowd source photos and content to build community, not perfection. Measure engagement, not graphics standards compliance. While the teams will need coaching along the way, be sure to promote connection over content and nurture conversation over correction.

Effective communications, on both individual and institutional levels, is about locating and disarming the landmines that have the potential to kill the message. But, it’s not difficult to make incremental improvements.

Just look for, and reduce, the areas where you might be wearing people out, turning people off, or taking up space with white noise to bring life back into your messaging.

>Read more from Kem.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kem Meyer

Kem Meyer

Kem Meyer has spent almost three decades working with small business, big business, not for profit, tech, finance, PR, advertising, schools and churches. They all have issues with communications; for better and worse. And, learning from them all, she's developed quite a knack for finding the simple themes that increase organizational clarity and remove barriers that get in the way of our messages.

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comment_post_ID); ?> Great work Bubba! Its exciting to see how God has blessed your faithfulness over your lifetime into remarkable, fruitful, Kingdom expansion! Jesus DID say, "without Me you can do nothing!" (John 15:5). No surprise that He rewards "thick and thin" prayer with great fruitfulness! :)
 
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Eliminate Dull Sermons Using These Seven Tips

Ever write a message or talk that even you suspected was boring?

That’s exactly where I found myself this week.

I’d outlined my message for our current series weeks ago, but when I went back into it 6 days before delivery, I realized I’d written a basically boring sermon on a fundamentally exciting subject.

What’s worse, it moved me into one of the worst cases of writer’s block I’ve had in years.

I worked at the message day after day but I just couldn’t make it interesting, despite having a fascinating subject (heaven).

Don’t get me wrong. As a preacher and Christian, I’m the first to tell you God’s Word is never boring. But sometimes we preachers make it boring. That’s exactly where I was heading this Sunday.

I kept tweaking the message for a few days with little success. I still found it…boring. And preachers, if you’re bored by your message, it’s a guarantee your audience will be as well.

How did I get through it? Well, I dug out everything I know about beating writer’s block and solving the problem of boring writing.

It worked…I think. You only ever really find out on Sunday. But I’m no longer bored by my message. In fact, I’m excited to preach it.

Almost every communicator I know has been there…so I thought I’d share my 7 best tips on beating writer’s block and eliminating boring sermons.

1. Find the tension

If a sermon or piece of writing comes off as boring, it’s often because it lacks tension.

As much as we all dislike tension personally, without the tension, there is no story.

Think of the universal plot line for every story/book/movie you’ve ever loved.

It’s NOT this:

Good thing happens.

Another good thing happens.

Then lots of good things happen forever.

As much as we wish our lives were tension-free, there’s actually no story in that. You’d never watch a movie without tension.

Instead, the universal plot line people come back to again and again is:

Things are good.

Something bad happens (enter death, illness, a villain, a problem).

There’s a struggle between good and evil.

A hero enters.

Good wins.

Hopefully, people live happily ever after.

If there’s no tension in a story, there’s no story.

So what’s the tension point in your message?

If you can find that, you’ve created a plot line the audience will follow and identify with. Because everyone has tension in their lives.

For my message, the focal point was that heaven is a beautiful place…beautiful beyond words.  The tension points in the message became the fact that most of us don’t realize how beautiful it is, and that we experience both beauty and tragedy in this life. Once I picked up on those points, the message became both more relevant and interesting.

2. Identify, build and solve an actual problem

Most people showing up at your church, at your blog or who open the first pages of your book face problems they don’t know how to solve: marriage problems, money problems, hope problems, forgiveness problems.

When you identify a problem and lead people to a solution (or potential solution), your message immediately becomes relevant.

What I had to do in my message was identify a problem that most people would want to see solved.

In my message, I zone in on why people instinctively hate the idea that there’s a hell or separation in eternity, but I also explain how that resolves some of the tension people find impossible to resolve in their lives right now.

Ironically, your writer’s block problem often gets solved if you can identify and solve someone else’s problem.

3. Find the Why

You can find tension and find a problem to solve but still not have a fascinating message.

Why?

Because you haven’t yet identified why any of it matters.

In any kind of communication, the why is the most important question you can answer for someone.

Why establishes relevance. When you establish the why – a money problem suddenly matters to your listener; when you explain why forgiveness is an issue, or why the existence of hell or the beauty of heaven matter, interest in a subject piques.

The problem with far too many sermons and far too much Christian writing is that they focus on the What and the How and they completely miss the Why.

In this post, I outline the 5 questions I use to evaluate every message as I write it (I got them from Andy Stanley). My two most favourite questions are the questions of why the audience needs to know what they need to know and why they need to do what they need to do.

When you’re stuck, keep asking yourself “Why does any of this matter?” When you can answer that, you’ve got an interesting message.

If you can’t answer why your message matters, your message won’t matter.

4. Look for surprises

Even in an age of declining biblical literacy, familiarity is a problem with preaching from the Bible.

It’s a problem because people assume they know what a text means. And even people with little Christian background assume they know what Christians would say about an issue.

Even as a preacher, you might read a text and miss the shock and surprise of the original text.

To get over this, I try to pretend I’m reading the text for the first time. My text this week was from Revelation 21-22. Here are some surprise angles that could make a sermon on Revelation 21: 1-3 (and this just scratches the surface on three short verses):

John is in exile on the Island of Patmos and he sees this? Why? What would that have meant to him?

Wait…there’s a new earth, not just a new heaven? What????

And why a new heaven? What’s wrong with the old one?

Wait…heaven’s a city? What about the endless golf game in the sky that people imagine?

What’s this bride and groom language all about and why is it so intimate?

Hey, in Greek, the word for ‘dwell’ is ‘tabernacle’…does this go back to the Old Testament and John 1 and then the Holy Spirit dwelling in us (actually, yes it does) and what on earth does this mean?

See…that’s just three verses.

Approach the Bible as a stranger or a child and it pops to life.

5. Talk to someone another writer about your problem

Honestly, when you go to a non-preacher or non-communicator for advice, their advice often isn’t that helpful.

Why?

Because writing problems are usually best understood by other writers.

So sure, you can ask questions of your neighbour or someone else who doesn’t write for a living.

But keep in mind that a quick consult with another writer or preacher can zero in on the problem faster than you might think.

6. Imagine you’re being pulled off the stage…

I don’t know how I developed this trick, but it’s tremendously helpful.

Years ago when I felt stuck in the writing process, I started imagining myself being pulled off the stage in the middle of my message (almost by a cane…like in the comics) and getting 30 seconds to shout out my last line before the message was over.

If I didn’t have anything to shout in that last line, I knew I hadn’t found the main point of my message.

If I could say it, I’d found the tension and the main point of my message.

Last week, the single line was “You should have a better plan for eternity than you do for your next vacation.”

Try this exercise… it works.

7. Come back to it another day

If you find that you’re striking out, again and again, pack it in and come back to it fresh in the morning. I find so many breakthroughs happen this way.

Of course, that doesn’t work if you’re starting your message Saturday morning for Sunday delivery.

But if you work ahead like I do, time becomes your friend as much as deadlines do.

So work ahead. And come back to it fresh after a good night’s sleep.

> Read more from Carey.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is lead pastor of Connexus Community Church and author of the best selling books, Leading Change Without Losing It and Parenting Beyond Your Capacity. Carey speaks to North American and global church leaders about change, leadership, and parenting.

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comment_post_ID); ?> I agree 100%, you can tell if a church is doing this it grows, if there's no growth there's poor leadership..
 
— Dennis Whiterock
 
comment_post_ID); ?> Great work Bubba! Its exciting to see how God has blessed your faithfulness over your lifetime into remarkable, fruitful, Kingdom expansion! Jesus DID say, "without Me you can do nothing!" (John 15:5). No surprise that He rewards "thick and thin" prayer with great fruitfulness! :)
 
— Mike Taylor
 
comment_post_ID); ?> I loved this presentation. It helped greatly as I organized an Outreach Ministry of The Shepherds Care. Thank you. Esther Callaham Mahgoube Emmanuel Pentecostal Church New Jersey
 
— Esther Mahgoube
 

Clarity Process

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The Tone of Your Sermon Should Match the Tone of the Text

A good suggestion from Calvin Miller’s Preaching

A brief word about genre: it exists; honor it. Paul’s letters are different from the Psalms, from the minor prophets, from the Pentateuch. Preachers should not handle the Bible as though there is no difference between the various kinds and styles of biblical writing.

When preaching any passage, get in touch with the author.

  • When you preach Jeremiah, find something of the melancholy in it and let the tone suffuse the sermon.
  • When you preach Ecclesiastes, do it wistfully.
  • When you’re in the Psalms, let there be a hint of melody about it.
  • Let the fire out of the Apocalypse and let courage bleed from Esther;
  • let the wind blow in Acts.

Further, find ways of illustrating every individual sermon text with insights and moods that communicate the genre.

  • T. S. Eliot will better illustrate the Psalms than will Billy Graham. Billy might do better in the book of Acts.
  • Let the poets speak to Genesis 1, and the newspaper to 1 Thessalonians.
  • Archibald MacLeish would do better commenting on Job than a prosaic commentator.
  • Let Shakespeare’s sonnets speak to Ruth and Frodo Baggins to the Christ-redemption passages.

Above all put on your touchy-feely wardrobe and pick up the agony and ecstasy and every nuance of form that rings through the various writers of Scripture. To understand this—to feel this—is to give a great gift to your auditors. The gift is one of tone, relationship, and the subliminal.

To fail to honor genre is to give your people the fuzzy notion that the Bible, like the Golden Plates of Nephi, was handed down from heaven as a single piece, and all of it is pretty much alike. But the biblical heroes were immensely different.

  • Ezekiel borders on the neurotic,
  • Isaiah on the elegant,
  • Jeremiah on the morose,
  • Micah on the visionary.

The task will not be easy. It is difficult work to make a genre live. It is like the studious work of an actor, who will study for weeks the part he wishes to portray before he ever steps out on stage to portray it. Then when at last he interprets the part, he is captive to it. The role alters the player’s complete personality, and the actor cannot easily shuck what he has worked so hard to gain.

Even within a single writer there will be various tones.

  • Moses is a furious zealot in Exodus, but in Deuteronomy he is a reflective old man. Don’t preach both passages the same way.
  • Paul is firm and tough in 1 Corinthians, but he is moody and tender in 2 Timothy.
  • Jesus is full of parables in Luke, but full of prayer and philosophy in John.

Giving these various moods and tempos, styles and emotions will bring to your people a rich sense of the varied nature of how God speaks through human agency. Let the Bible become as variegated to you as you would like it to be to them. God does after all speak in various ways his wonders to perform.

Read more from Trevin here.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Trevin Wax

Trevin Wax

My name is Trevin Wax. I am a follower of Jesus Christ. My wife is Corina, and we have two children: Timothy (7) and Julia (3). Currently, I serve the church by working at LifeWay Christian Resources as managing editor of The Gospel Project, a gospel-centered small group curriculum for all ages that focuses on the grand narrative of Scripture. I have been blogging regularly at Kingdom People since October 2006. I frequently contribute articles to other publications, such as Christianity Today. I also enjoy traveling and speaking at different churches and conferences. My first book, Holy Subversion: Allegiance to Christ in an Age of Rivals, was published by Crossway Books in January 2010. (Click here for excerpts and more information.) My second book, Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope(Moody Publishers) was released in April 2011.

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Recent Comments
comment_post_ID); ?> I agree 100%, you can tell if a church is doing this it grows, if there's no growth there's poor leadership..
 
— Dennis Whiterock
 
comment_post_ID); ?> Great work Bubba! Its exciting to see how God has blessed your faithfulness over your lifetime into remarkable, fruitful, Kingdom expansion! Jesus DID say, "without Me you can do nothing!" (John 15:5). No surprise that He rewards "thick and thin" prayer with great fruitfulness! :)
 
— Mike Taylor
 
comment_post_ID); ?> I loved this presentation. It helped greatly as I organized an Outreach Ministry of The Shepherds Care. Thank you. Esther Callaham Mahgoube Emmanuel Pentecostal Church New Jersey
 
— Esther Mahgoube
 

Clarity Process

Three effective ways to start moving toward clarity right now.

Conquered by the Text: Make Sure God’s Voice is Heard

I don’t know how many times it’s happened. I pick a text as the basis for a sermon. I think I know what the text is going to say, but as I study I find out that the text isn’t interested in conforming to my ideas. The wrestling match begins.

There are only three outcomes to this wrestling match.

First, I can try to pin the text down and control it. This has simply never worked. The text is simply too powerful for me, and I’m always overmatched. (A lot of sermons are preached that don’t say what the text says, but never because the preacher has conquered the text. The preacher can only slither away from the fight and pose as the winner, but we all know the truth.)

Second, I can look for a new text. I’ve done this, but the new text confronts me with the same problem. I just end up in a new wrestling match, but with less time. You can spend the entire week looking for a text you can control, and still end up in the fight of your life.

Third, the text wins. I’ll wrestle the text. I’ll stick with it long enough and maybe even think I’m winning. But eventually the text will overpower me and pin me down. I’ll stand up and preach that Sunday a bit battered, as one who has been conquered by the text.

The third outcome is the only one that produces sermons worth preaching, or sermons worth hearing. We must be conquered by the text.

My prayer every week is this: Let the text win.

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Darryl Dash

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VRcurator — 03/11/13 5:29 am

I'm glad you found them helpful!

LARRY — 03/09/13 2:39 pm

As I have just wrestled with a text all week, these words were a blessing

Recent Comments
comment_post_ID); ?> I agree 100%, you can tell if a church is doing this it grows, if there's no growth there's poor leadership..
 
— Dennis Whiterock
 
comment_post_ID); ?> Great work Bubba! Its exciting to see how God has blessed your faithfulness over your lifetime into remarkable, fruitful, Kingdom expansion! Jesus DID say, "without Me you can do nothing!" (John 15:5). No surprise that He rewards "thick and thin" prayer with great fruitfulness! :)
 
— Mike Taylor
 
comment_post_ID); ?> I loved this presentation. It helped greatly as I organized an Outreach Ministry of The Shepherds Care. Thank you. Esther Callaham Mahgoube Emmanuel Pentecostal Church New Jersey
 
— Esther Mahgoube
 

Clarity Process

Three effective ways to start moving toward clarity right now.