Preach Better Sermons


Christianity Today’s Christian History email newsletter dropped a nice gem in my inbox this morning. On this date in history:

May 3, 1675: A Massachusetts law goes into effect requiring church doors to be locked during services. Officials enacted the law because too many people were leaving before sermons were over.

Here’s an idea: Instead of passing a law, preach better sermons.

Don’t Miss It.

Seb Agresti

This is artwork by Seb Agresti, who has had work published in The New Yorker and elsewhere. I think I saw this image in the Dense Discovery newsletter.

The icon for this image has been sitting on my computer desktop for weeks. My six year old son, sitting in my lap and observing it asked, “What’s that?” I opened it and said, “What do you see?”

He said, “Those people are sitting on a phone!” I then asked him what he thought the artist was trying to convey, which led to a discussion of interactions with technology. Our exchange boiled down to this: “People spend so much time looking at their phone that they miss a lot of what is beautiful in life.”

So, as you likely are reading this from your phone, turn it off. Put it away. Look at the ocean, the mountains, the sunrise (all three appear in the image above). Hopefully in the company of a friend. Have a conversation. Climb. Go on an adventure. Or sit still.

Don’t miss it.

April Book Notes and Kindle Deals

I’m reading a few books at the moment, which isn’t my norm. Normally I focus on one or two. But a couple of my selections are lengthy, which means I’ve set daily goals to spur progress and keep my reading balanced. I finished a book by Thomas Lynch, Whence and Whither: On Lives and Living, this morning. I also finished Job as I continue to make my way through the CSB.

So what else am I reading? There are four books on my stack. First, I’m reading The Federalist Papers, written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. This morning I finished Federalist 61 and 62. At the conclusion of 62, likely written by Madison, we read, “No government, any more than an individual, will long be respected without being truly respectable; nor be truly respectable without possessing a certain portion of order and stability.” America is presently more orderly and stable than we’re led to believe by many of our loudest public voices, and reading The Federalist Papers has helped me both to be more thankful I’m part of the American experience, and more knowledgeable, I think, as a citizen.

I’m also reading a sermon a day from James Montgomery Boice’s Foundations of the Christian Faith. I am not a Calvinist, like Boice, so I disagree with him in some respects. But I’m profiting from his work, as this book is comprehensive, pastoral, systematic, and biblical. Last week the Boice sermon I read on a certain day corresponded perfectly with something I was speaking on that night. Sweet Providence. God is sovereign. I agree with Boice in that respect.

The other two books I am reading are Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness and Jen Pollock Michel’s Surprised by Paradox.

Here are the April Kindle deals on Amazon I’ve noticed:

Prices on the above books vary, but mostly range from $1.99 to $4.99.

Want more on any of these titles? Leave a comment. I’ll be happy to expand on my recommendations.

Keep reading.

March Book Notes and Kindle Deals

Photo by Brandi Redd on Unsplash

This month I’ve finished reading two books: Vicki Robin’s Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence and John and Julie Gottman’s Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. Both are secular books, the first one on finance and the second on marriage, and are each easy to read, helpful and potentially enriching.

Eight Dates includes wonderful conversation starters for couples on finances, sex and intimacy, dreams, play and more, and makes solid suggestions on how to frame these conversations in different settings, whether a romantic spot or restaurant or during a cozy evening at home. Stated differently, you can spend some money or you can go cheap and accomplish the same aims. Some of my readers might want to know that the Gottman’s include examples from both same-sex and opposite sex couples, conversations between people who are in committed relationships.

The Gottman Institute researches all kinds of relationships in our modern world, with a focus on what makes a relationship healthy and happy. They also uncover what makes relationships break apart. They study “masters” and “disasters,” passing along their discoveries. The principles in this book are the strength. The examples are there to illuminate.

Your Money or Your Life has been around. I read the updated version, published last year. I want to be a better steward of my resources, which is more than my money, but money is a significant part of that. I want to save as much as I can, give as much as I can, and do a good job taking care of my family. This is a program worth considering, and exalts the virtues of simplicity and generosity. Robin also does a good job of de-stigmatizing money talk and combats our addiction to consumption.

On my desk are a couple of other books. I’m reading Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s Think Again: How to Reason and Argue and Seeking God Together: An Introduction to Group Spiritual Direction by Alice Fryling (which I’m reading for a class). One of the next books on my stack is by Timothy Carney, Alienating America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse.

I spent some time looking through the book deals this month on Amazon, and the only one that caught my eye was Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft, which examines work. The link will take you to a physical copy, not a Kindle book, at a nice price break. Crawford is a sharp guy.

Happy reading!


Is Preaching the “Big Idea” a Bad Idea?

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Conventional wisdom says no.

But in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (Vol. 61, No. 4, Dec 2018), Abraham Kuruvilla says yes, the “Big Idea” is a bad idea, and preaching the Word of God for the people of God is the right idea. Scripture is not something to be distilled to a key idea to remember, but is a text to be preached, and the task of the preacher is to present the Word of God in a manner that allows the congregation to do the work of theology together. Kuruvilla argues further that Scripture not only says something in its proclamation, but does something, and therefore exhortation is not primarily argumentative, but demonstrative.

“Big Idea” preaching offers principles and practical wisdom, often in the form a of memorable or arresting statement that conveys an important concept drawn from a Scriptural text. When this preaching method is taught, it is recommended that the key concept of the sermon be written as a clear, concise, and compelling sentence. It is the main “take away” or point. Kuruvilla calls this the distillate–the thing leftover when the text has been boiled away. Everything else in the sermon is illustrative of the distillate.

But that is the problem. Kuruvilla writes:

Such an operation assumes that the text is a conglomeration of unordered (disordered?) data. And the distillate is the product of an interpreter’s reworking of this raw textual data and its massaging into something supposedly more intelligible and easier to grasp (and preach)–the Big Idea. One would then have to wonder at God’s wisdom in giving the bulk of his Scripture in non-propositional form. Perhaps deity would have served himself and his people better had he just stuck to a bulleted list of timeless Big Ideas rather than messy stories and arcane prophecies and sentimental poetry, all of which turns out to be merely illustrations or applications of “underlying . . . principle[s] behind the text.” This Big Idea approach of traditional evangelical homiletics may even suggest that once one has gotten the distillate of the text, one can abandon the text itself.

I’ve seen it happen. Kuruvilla says that the alternative is for the interpreter to “pay close attention to the text, privileging it, not just to discover some kernel hidden in it, but to experience the thrust and force of the text qua text, in toto and as a whole–the text irreducible into any other form.”

That’s easier said that done. But it can be done. It can be done by trusting God and the people of God. God works through the preaching of the Word, and the Spirit works in the lives of the people. The Word should be explained carefully, and applied faithfully. But by preaching the Scripture in toto, allowances are made for God to take a minor note of the text and sound it more fully in the life of a particular hearer. More possibilities are opened beyond one assertion or Big Idea.

Kuruvilla says that it is time for preaching methodology to change, to recenter on the Word and to rethink our approach. Perhaps the shift can be sped along if it comes from two direction: preachers who chose to more fully and carefully exposit the Scriptures within the sermon, and congregants who gently urge their ministers to exhort them directly with the Word of God.

The Prodigal Drone

Here is a fun story. Several weeks ago we took our family drone for a flight in the front yard. I messed the whole thing up, and thought J’s Christmas gift was gone forever. I shared this on Nextdoor.

Drone Story

I’m happy to report that our drone found its way home. A neighbor found it in his backyard, posted about it on Nextdoor, and another neighbor who had seen my post connected the two of us. It took about three weeks. But we were reunited.

And it felt so good.

Gratitude: Humbling and Elevating

Being grateful to a Supreme Being and to other people is an acknowledgement that there are good and enjoyable things in the world to be enjoyed in accordance with the giver’s intent. Good things happen by design. If a person believes in the spiritual concept of grace, they believe that there is a pattern of beneficence in the world that exists quite independently of their own striving and even their own existence. Gratitude thus depends upon receiving what we do not expect to receive or have not earned or receiving more than we believe we deserve. This awareness is simultaneously humbling and elevating.

– Robert A. Emmons, “Queen of the Virtues and King of the Vices” in Psychology and Spiritual Formation in Dialogue: Moral and Spiritual Change in Christian Perspective, 174

Emmons writes that gratitude increases spiritual awareness, promotes physical health, maximizes the good, protects against the negative, and strengthens relationships. It “frees us from ourselves,” though gratitude can be “hard and painful work.”

According to Emmons, to remain in the discipline of gratitude we must pay attention and actively remember what we have received that we are grateful for, which can be reinforced by practices like letter writing or keeping a journal, and through worship, particularly when our liturgies help us notice God’s activity and recall God’s faithfulness both past and present. God may have been active in our lives directly or through a neighbor. And signs of God’s faithfulness may be found in our lives today or through hearing the story of Scripture. Gratitude requires an “external focus.” A self-focused way of being inhibits gratitude.

What are you grateful for today?