Read an Excerpt
Unleashing the WordPreaching with Relevance, Purpose, and Passion
By Adam Hamilton
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2009 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePreaching with Purpose
For the next few hours (if you actually read this entire book in one sitting) we're going to spend time together, and I will be sharing with you what I hope will be at least a few great ideas for sermons, a host of insights that will rouse your own creativity, and some concrete hints that may improve your effectiveness in preaching.
What I share with you comes not from what I have read in a textbook, though I have read numerous books on preaching, and I am sure they have shaped my preaching in many ways. Nor does what I will share with you come from my seminary courses on preaching, though I had several excellent preaching professors who, I am sure, influenced my preaching more than I even realize. What I share with you comes from getting up week after week and preaching, six times per weekend, to a congregation of wonderful, and by and large highly educated, people, most of whom were relatively unchurched prior to joining the church I serve. It comes from working with the group of incredibly gifted folks on our worship planning team, who together help me to constantly refine and improve both the sermon planning process and the actual writing and preaching of the sermons themselves. It comes from preaching hundreds of weddings and funerals over the years, and watching as a significant number of people actually joined the church as a result of the ministry provided at those times. And it comes from listening to people as they share with me what speaks to them, and sometimes what frustrates them, from the sermons I have preached.
Before we jump into specific techniques and ideas related to preaching, it seems appropriate to begin by laying out my thoughts on what preaching is supposed to be.
What Is Preaching Supposed to Be?
I understand that in preaching we are assuming the terrifying responsibility of speaking on behalf of God. This should be a frightening proposition—one misstep and we find ourselves violating the third commandment by misusing the name of the Lord, while misleading or potentially damaging our hearers.
Fortunately we are not left to our own thoughts when it comes to trying to discern what God's word is for our congregation. We have a starting point—the Scriptures. We believe that in and through the Bible God offers us a timeless word for our lives and for our world today. Paul, writing to Timothy as he gave oversight to the church at Ephesus, offered this important reminder:
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:14-17)
Effective preaching begins, then, with effective listening. My wife, LaVon, is a sign language interpreter at a local community college. She interprets the instructors' lectures so that students who are deaf and hearing-impaired can take these courses. In order to do her job properly, she has to listen very, very carefully to the instructor. If she misses a word, or fails to understand a concept, she cannot properly pass on the idea to her students. She knows that these students don't come to class to hear what she knows about math or English or art. They come grateful for her willingness to use her skills to help them hear what the instructor has to say on these topics.
In the same way, we who are preachers are charged with listening very carefully for what God would say to his people. Unfortunately God does not dictate our sermons to us. In order to hear this word we must study carefully what God has already said through the Scriptures. We are the interpreters, and our parishioners come not to hear what we know about any given topic, but to have us use our skills and training to interpret and translate what God would say to them, in a way that they can understand and apply to their lives.
What Is Preaching Supposed to Do?
If this is what preaching is supposed to be, what is preaching supposed to do? In other words, what is its purpose?
I probably missed this lecture in seminary, and I am even a little embarrassed to admit what I am about to tell you. But after two degrees in theology and ministry, and multiple preaching classes; after reading some of the best books published on preaching, and after having preached hundreds of sermons, I had never stopped to think about what I was supposed to be doing when I preached.
Don't get me wrong. I knew I was supposed to do my homework—carefully exegeting the biblical text, praying about the implications of that text for my hearers, inviting God to speak to and through me, searching for a handful of good illustrations, and then delivering the sermon with enough passion, conviction, and clarity that people would be moved. I understood all of this. But I had not stopped to think about the goals or aims of my preaching.
I suppose if someone asked me what the goal of my preaching was, I would have come up with an answer. But it was several years into preaching on a weekly basis before I realized that I needed to gain some clarity on why I was going through this exercise each week. What triggered this, I suppose, was the need I felt to clarify the purpose of the church itself. Why did this church that I was pastoring exist? What was its purpose? What were we trying to accomplish here?
Ultimately we drafted a purpose statement for our congregation that reads, "The purpose of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection is to build a Christian community where nonreligious and nominally religious people are becoming deeply committed Christians." I shared with our people that everything we do as a church should somehow tie back in to that purpose statement. Every ministry, every program, every service should be designed to help us accomplish the mission outlined in this purpose statement. (Though this realization and the development of our purpose statement came some time before I had heard of the Saddleback Church in southern California, and before the publication of Rick Warren's excellent book The Purpose-Driven Church, I am not sure anyone has summarized these ideas better than Warren has.)
It was then that I realized my preaching was no different from any other avenue of the church's ministry. And I began to understand that the purpose of my preaching each week is to do everything a sermon can do to "build a Christian community where nonreligious and nominally religious people are becoming deeply committed Christians."
I took this one step farther and asked, "What does a deeply committed Christian look like, and what role might my preaching play in helping develop this kind of person?" To answer the first part of this question Methodists have, for over two hundred years, looked to Jesus, who taught that we are to "love God with all your heart, soul, and mind" and "love your neighbor as you love yourself." We describe these two as personal piety and social holiness. John Wesley, the eighteenth-century founder of Methodism, used one word to describe the end or goal of the Christian life: sanctification. With these ideas in mind, I was gaining clarity around my purpose in preaching. It was (1) to help foster and build authentic Christian community where Christians learn to minister to one another and develop healthy, caring relationships; (2) to attract unchurched and nominally churched people; and (3) to help my hearers come to love God with their intellect and their heart and to reflect that love in their actions toward others.
Accomplishing the Aims of Preaching
As with most successful ventures, I believe effective preaching must start with the end in mind, and then a plan must be developed to accomplish that end.
This, however, is not how I thought of preaching prior to this time. My sermons, up to 1992, were derived from texts assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary—a set of scripture readings for each weekend of the year using a three-year cycle. Each week I would choose one of four preassigned texts, and away I'd go. I had no overall plan for what I hoped to accomplish by my preaching over time. No sense of trying to balance out certain kinds of preaching with other kinds. It was simply a week-to-week effort of preaching the best sermon I could from the assigned text. (I find that many pastors who come from traditions that do not use the Lectionary nevertheless prepare sermons in a similar way. They choose scriptures to preach on, or topical themes that seem interesting, but without a thought to how a year's worth of sermons may work together to accomplish a clearly stated goal.)
Imagine with me a carpenter going to a job site each week, finding plenty of wood and nails, and then working on building whatever he or she got excited about building that week. The carpenter might decide one week he wanted to build cabinets. The next week he was excited about building garage doors. The next week it might be pouring concrete. No one hoping to build a house would work that way. No, if you want to build a house you must develop a set of plans, put together a construction timeline, and then work this plan step-by-step so that each part of the house is built in its proper order until the plans are fulfilled.
Again, I am embarrassed to admit that I prepared my sermons, week after week, in this way. But there it is. You have probably already thought through this issue, and you may already have a picture in mind of what you hope the people in your congregation will know, become, and do as a result of your preaching in the next year or two. You may have carefully thought through what it looks like to become a committed Christian and what kind of sermons it would take for this to happen. If so, I commend you. But if not, you are in good company. Most pastors I know have not looked at their preaching in this way.
Here's what happened once I started looking at the purpose of my preaching. I began to see that there were really at least five things my sermons needed to accomplish across the course of a year, in order to have a reasonable chance of fulfilling the church's purpose of building Christian community, helping to reach nonreligious and nominally religious people, and moving all our members toward becoming deeply committed Christians:
1. Evangelism 2. Discipleship 3. Pastoral Care 4. Equipping and Sending 5. Institutional Development
To borrow the home-building metaphor once again, each of these five represents a different specialty—a different part of the construction process. Evangelism may be the foundation; Discipleship the framing of the home; Pastoral Care may be the roof, heating, electrical, and plumbing systems; Equipping and Sending the finish work—paint, carpet, and trim that makes the house complete; and Institutional Development might be the upkeep and maintenance required to keep the house in good condition.
Once I gained some clarity on the importance of these various types of sermons or, better, of these various aims to be accomplished by my preaching, I needed to develop a plan to accomplish them.
Excerpted from Unleashing the Word by Adam Hamilton Copyright © 2009 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.