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Making it Personal

In the second of his series on communication, Ray Evans continues to unpack what preachers need to be thinking about as they work on the passage in front of them. This time he looks at sermon headings.

Making it Personal primary image

What is the weakness when it comes to preachers and their headings? Answer: Abstractions abound!

Let me unpack this. Jay Adams1 contrasts (albeit far too neatly) what he calls ‘the lecturer’s stance’ and ‘the preacher’s stance’.

The Lecturer

The lecturer talks about the Bible, what God did long ago and far away to the Israelites, and in the third person (he, they). The lecturer acts as the knowledgeable expert, he has information to convey, and invites the congregation to come and listen to him explain to them what they did not formerly know.

The common response? “That’s all very interesting, (if not of immediate relevance).” I have to confess this is not dissimilar to how I felt when a physics teacher began to explain Newton’s laws of motion.

The Preacher

Here’s the difference. The preacher talks to the congregation about themselves from the Bible. He talks about what God is doing and what they ought to be doing, and speaks in the second person (you) style.

The preacher still must do all of the text work just as (if not more) thoroughly than the lecturer, but brings it as a message ‘to you right here and right now’. It is not merely a download of interesting information, but a message to transform lives.

A Worked Example

This will be seen in the way the outline headings are phrased and constructed. Adams gives an example from 1 Corinthians 12 to contrast the two styles:

The lecturer’s big idea is, ‘The gifts of the Spirit’. His headings are:

  1. The source of the Corinthian’s gift.
  2. The function of the Corinthian’s gift.
  3. The purpose of the Corinthians gift.

By contrast the preacher’s big idea (a phrase Adams doesn’t use as it tends to be too cerebral and emphasise information) is: ‘Use your spiritual gifts’. The headings this time are:

  1. God gives all of you gifts.
  2. God gives you them to use.
  3. God gave them to use for the benefit of others.

Can you see the difference? Each time the preacher will then go back and explain how the passage explains the point he is making, but the message via the headings is cast in the ‘you and now’. The preacher is speaking to people, not lecturing about information.

Too often, sound evangelical expositors invite hearers to come to a passage, learn things they hadn’t seen before and then they add some application at the end.

Adams puts it like this:

“A preaching outline is the outline of a message, an outline of a talk directed to people in order to change them in some way that God wants to see them changed. A lecture is the outline of a talk designed to inform… It is a learned discourse on a subject.”

He also adds the comment, “When preachers who use the lecture format… realise they must apply the message, what they do usually is to tack on an application at the end.”

Ever done that?

Poor Habits

Now, a good communicator (because of their speaking and rhetorical skills) can mask what is poor methodology. We can let the substance of the message forgive the failure of the form. People may not realise quite what is happening. But in the long run, the hearers won’t sense they are being addressed as directly from God’s word as they could be.

Once one starts looking out for this issue of abstract headings, it becomes painfully obvious that far too many have fallen in to this poor habit. Some headings are doctrinal: Sovereignty, Responsibility and Eternity. Others may be historical: Joseph’s dreams, Joseph’s rejection, Joseph’s misery. My worst headings also add alliterative annotation (!) – as if that helps. Sermons everywhere are based on this methodology of abstract headings.

God’s people have to work hard to engage with this. They may have to listen to 30 or more minutes before there are some (brief) personalised applications. Preachers assume that people come wanting to know more about the knowledge locked up in the text. Many do, and growing in knowledge of God’s word is a good thing of course, but my observation is that people who love this approach are those who like solving the puzzles in the passage. A kind of Christian Sudoku on a Sunday morning can be very rewarding… for some.

There will be lovely ‘ha-ha’ moments (a ‘ha-ha’ was a hidden ditch planned by the great landscape gardeners of the 18th century to bring delight to country gentlemen walking on their estates). Some with a certain mind-set, training, and enthusiasm can thrive on this, but their positivity can serve to cement a preaching methodology that is built on abstractions. Others flounder, but feel unspiritual if they say so.

The Solution

So how can we help ourselves? Here is a simple rule of thumb. Ask yourself, “What application am I going to make from this heading?” Then turn that into your heading!

For example, if the heading you came up with from the study of the text was ‘Sovereignty’ and later you were going to encourage believers to trust the God who is in control of all things, your heading will become, ‘Trust the God who is in control of all things’. Then explain from the passage why they can do that – because it shows that he is sovereign (and all that means).

As one thinks of, or writes down, more specific applicatory headings the hearers will more easily sense they are being addressed by God himself, and will much more readily see what the passage has to do with them. As you get better at this, you will find many ways of framing headings. Next Sunday, for example, I am going to ask my hearers three questions about their lives which the text implicitly asks.

This methodology doesn’t mean missing the nuances of the text, nor steamrollering over redemptive historical insights in order to get a rush of ‘relevance’. It means working as hard as ever at that, but then genuinely speaking to people from the passage.

Tim Keller helpfully pointed out that every passage will be able to speak three ‘messages’. One will be about what it says to me as an individual and my personal spiritual development. Another will be what it says to us about community formation as the covenant people of God. And it will always speak to us about him and his redemptive purposes.

Indeed, Keller agues we should always end up there. The motivation to live out what he says comes from the grace and power of the One who is the ultimate fulfilment of all the Bible speaks of.

For those of you committed to expository preaching may I plead with you to really listen to this concern? Why not try to replace abstraction headings with more specific applicatory headings? You will find yourselves engaging with your audiences and holding their attention for much longer. For you are now addressing them with God’s word. Which will be the subject of the next article.

Footnotes

1. Jay E. Adams, Preaching with Purpose (Zondervan, 1982).