Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Couch Me?

I guess by the very definition of the word "best" you should only have one best friend. I have three best friends. Three people who have brought blessing to my life by the dump truck. Kim is first and "bestest" by far. She knows me more, loves me more, and puts up with more than the other two combined. A lot of guys wouldn't count their wives as a best friend. Two thoughts on that: They're not married to Kim and I'm not a lot of guys.

The other two "best" friends of my trinity of community are Mitch Wilburn and Grant Boone. These two brothers have a permanent place in my heart and I am confident that I wouldn't have ever met Kim if it wasn't for them. I wouldn't be half the man I am today without the encouragement, equipping, and example of Mitch and Grant. I talk with them both at least 3 times a week and 99.9% of those conversations include some serious laughter. Mitch is the Preaching Minister for the Park Plaza Church of Christ. Grant is a sports writer and broadcaster for and the Golf Channel. Both are borderline nuts.

To offer even a hint of my friendship with these two (even more so with Kim) and the impact they've had on my life is the stuff of future posts. I could write a book on each. Today I just want to share a quick story about my buddy Grant. (note to non Lake Cities members: this post is basically a microcosm of how I preach - long intro to get to the point!)

Grant and his 8 year old son Nicholas flew from Abilene to DFW yesterday and arrived shortly after 10am. At 10pm (12 hours later for the chronologically challenged) I heard the words that I love to hear, "Couch Me?" which is Boone for, "Can I crash at your house?" As with last night, the "Couch Me?" usually involves travel to or from DFW airport, although we've couched the entire Boone family on their way to or from Nashville as well.

Last night I had just walked in the door from some pick up basketball when the text arrived. I was looking forward to a hot shower and a cold ice pack. But when I get the "Couch Me?" call, time stops momentarily and I become giddy with excitement! I headed out the door and down the road on the short 15 minute trip to the airport. As I pulled to curb in terminal B, I expected to see a frustrated father and sad son (they were supposed to catch an Indians game as a part of this father-son trip, but missed it due to the weather related flight delays). Instead, I was greeted by two truly joyful and Jesus filled people! Grant immediately began bragging on how incredible Nicholas' attitude had been all day (including both the three hours they sat in the plane on the tarmac and the three hours they stood in line to try and get on another flight) and I didn't have any trouble believing him. Nicholas was in great spirits and full of tales from the day's travel.

When I hear, "Couch Me?", it is always a good thing. Yesterday, it was even more special.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A Good Sermon

One of my favorite church bulletin bloopers is, "During the absence of our Pastor, we enjoyed the rare privilege of hearing a good sermon when J.F. Stubbs supplied our pulpit." Ouch!

Every Sunday I hear "That was a good sermon!" or "That was one of your best!" or "You hit the ball out of the park on that one!". Yet I am not naive enough to believe that everyone feels the same way. In fact, most Sundays, I don't feel like that so I know that at least one person thought it wasn't all that great.

Yesterday, I ran across the following article on "What Makes a Good Sermon" which is a question with which, I'm constantly wrestling. I pray consistently to be used by God, filled by the Spirit, and poured out like wine every time I step up to the pulpit. I have a burning desire to passionately communicate God's message to God's people with God's power. This article assisted my quest. I've included it below and invite anyone to comment with their own input on the subject. What points do you agree with and are there some with which you disagree? What would you add? Who are some preachers that you believe consistently communicate God's story dynamically? What is the best sermon you've ever heard? (Sermon on the Mount doesn't count) I'm anxious to hear!!!

Lessons from Preaching Today Screeners
Ten criteria used by our experts to choose the best sermons

I have the privilege of being one of the sermon screeners who review about 250 sermon recordings sent to Preaching Today Audio each year. It is a rare opportunity to hear a wide variety of the best (usually) of American preaching. What follows are the 10 questions by which we evaluate all the sermons received by Preaching Today, and some of the lessons we've learned from listening.

Is this sermon grounded in Scripture?

Most sermons we hear are Scriptural, but many do not " keep their finger on the text. " Listeners are not taken to Scripture frequently through the sermon. The effect is subtle — the source of authority seems to shift quietly from the Bible to the preacher. Too few sermons actually try to follow the reasoning — the logic — of a text.

I carry a PDA — one of those little hand-held computers. The screen is bright and colorful, but if I don't touch the screen the light goes off after about a minute. The words are still there, but there's no light. It is hard to read. Sermons are like that. We need to keep tapping the Scripture as we preach — reading the next sentence in the text, pointing to a phrase explicitly, asking them to look at a certain verse — if we hope to keep the light on the Bible and not ourselves.

Is the exegesis and theology sound?

My most frequent reaction to this question after hearing a sermon is: Sound? Yes. Deep? No. A few sermons unload so much exegesis that you'd think this was an oral final exam in seminary. But most sermons, while true, do not display well the surprises, ingenuity, or depth of Scripture. I suspect the preacher didn't study well.

When it seems the preacher and the original writer are in sync with each other, that is a unique work of the Holy Spirit, and upon that sermon there is unction.

To the natural mind (versus the spiritual mind), the Bible is always counterintuitive. Good sermons reveal how the text teaches us to think differently, showing us how God's truth and logic challenge our " old man " way of thinking.

Screener Jeffrey Arthurs, associate professor of preaching and communication at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, noted another issue: " I am sometimes concerned with 'how-to' sermons typical in the seeker sensitive movement. These often take verses out of context and elevate other sources of authority (especially ethos) on a par with Scripture. "

As to the theology in a sermon, preachers are sometimes surprisingly careless in their choice of words, belying fuzzy theology. But more often, I have the feeling the preacher didn't realize the rich nuances of theology in the text before him, like someone looking at the Grand Canyon and preaching, " Boy, is that big! " We shortchange God's people when we shade their eyes from the glory of theology.

Would you describe the sermon as having unction/anointing?

This is the most difficult question to answer. Screener Scott Wenig, associate professor of applied theology, Denver Seminary, says, " If the sermon really 'connects,' then I'll answer yes. I would guess that less than 15 percent of the sermons I screen meet this specific criteria. "

A sense of passion is a possible tip-off to unction, but sometimes that is more a matter of personality and style than the work of the Holy Spirit. Ultimately, the most sure sign to me is if Scripture speaks loud and clear; if not only the full sense of a passage is made clear, but also the passion of the biblical writer. When it seems the preacher and the original writer are in sync with each other, that is a unique work of the Holy Spirit, and upon that sermon there is unction.

Did it engage your mind from beginning to end?

Scott Wenig says, " Most sermons I listen to don't do this. The sermon must move and hum to keep attention. " One of the benefits to manuscript preachers is that their sermons tend to be tighter, better edited. But most preachers are more extemporaneous. Their sermons tend to bog down somewhere. A stale illustration will do it, or belaboring a point that is already clear, or trying to milk some humor from a story.

Screener John Koessler, chairman, pastoral studies department, Moody Bible Institute, puts another factor very simply: " Are the ideas interesting? " One thing that will certainly engage our minds and hearts are great biblical ideas, expressed well. It takes work and time to hone an idea to vivid expression.

Is the sermon fresh?

Think garden-fresh. The sermon doesn't have to be something you've never heard before, but it needs to come across as crisp, tasty, and newly-harvested. It seems that sometimes preachers are telling their folks things they surely already know and believe, and doing so in terms the congregation would probably find overly familiar.

Koessler identifies one key test of freshness: " I want the speaker to avoid cliches. " Cliches come when a preacher hasn't thought too much about how he will say something and so naturally reverts to road-weary words and phrases. I listened to a fine sermon recently and found myself thinking again and again, That man thought hard about how to say that well. As a result, a familiar theme was fresh.

Is the sermon well-structured and clear?

John Koessler explains that he wants to " be able to discern the major movements within the sermon. I prefer to have the outline points stated and emphasized. I think it is clearer if they are stated as complete sentences rather than phrases. In a narrative I want to be able to follow the plot clearly and have a smooth transition to application. "

Jeffrey Arthurs adds, " The key to clarity is restatement, review, and repetition. The key moments in sermons where those techniques are needed are the transitions. "

Is the sermon well-illustrated?

Koessler responds, " My first question is whether it is illustrated at all. " Many sermons are not well-illustrated, and I think the reason is that illustrating takes time and work, added to all the other elements of sermon preparation. Many of the illustrations we hear are easy; they came quickly to the preacher's mind and are not sharpened particularly well. Quite often it seems that the illustration isn't quite focused enough — a little too general. It fits the sermon like those baggy jeans on a teenage boy. Increasingly, we're hearing video clips as illustrations. Some work very well, but they tend to be general, and sometimes I wonder what a pastor was doing watching that film.

It is rare to hear metaphors used well. They take time and imagination, but they are such wonderful windows. The Puritan John Owen was a past-master from whom we can learn. For example, he said in one sermon, " The world is but a great inn where we are to stay a night or two and be gone. What madness it is to set our heart upon our inn as to forget our home! "

Analogies work well for giving a fresh understanding of an idea. For example, I recently filed away a news story about a whale carcass exploding on a city street under " life gets messy. " That is an illustration by analogy. It will bring smiles and nods of understanding.

Examples, on the other hand, are stories of people actually working out the sermon's principle — how God provided for a generous giver, for example, or a quote from someone who feels life crashing in on her. Koessler adds, " I want to hear the speaker apply the illustration — tell me its significance. "

Did the message challenge you?

Sermons that challenge listeners as tough as we screeners are pretty special! Again, a rule of thumb is, the more biblical it is, the more challenging. Good sermons have a kind of time-delay medicine pushed into my subconscious mind that keeps treating my soul, keeps dosing me hours and days after I've finished listening.

I often wonder how well a sermon I'm hearing was prayed for. Though I don't know how to gauge it, I think a sermon that has been prayed well carries a long-term potency. Prayer is a means of unction.

For a sermon to challenge us, it has to have a great-heartedness, a grand idea about it. Some sermons feel lightweight.

Is the delivery effective?

All the screeners note something most preachers don't usually think about — the sound of our voices. Scott Wenig says, " Most sermons I listen to for PT leave much to be desired here. " He points to " a lack of variety in terms of voice, inflection, and pacing. "

I listen for a good command of language and emotion. Some preachers are so casual that they undersell weighty subjects. In an effort to " put the cookies on the bottom shelf, " they drop them on the floor. A sermon about sin that is funny, for example, is missing something. Sermons can be warm and human without sacrificing dignity.

Underneath our listening is the subconscious question, " Is this a godly person? Do I discern a Christlike heart and mind? " Somehow we discern that in a preacher's delivery.

Is the application true to Scripture and to life?

Many preachers work hard at this, but John Koessler warns, " Do not tell me the obvious. If it is something that I already know that I should do, help me to understand why I am not doing it. I especially want the preacher to help me explore the nature of the problems I face in implementing the application. "

We usually think of application in terms of what we should do, but much of Scripture addresses how we should think.Romans 12:1 says we will be " transformed by the renewing of our minds. " Show people how their typical thinking is contrary to the truth of Scripture, and then bring sanctified tools of rhetoric to persuade them to think with the mind of Christ. That is application even if we do not speak of doing something.

Saturday, June 02, 2007


We just returned from a 30 hour whirlwind trip to Abilene. Laura took the ACT for the first time. She did well enough to be accepted to ACU, but plans to take it several more times in an effort to secure some scholarship money. We left last night around seven and arrived at the Jensen's (some dear friends from Abilene) around 10. It was great to see the Jensen's and wish it could have been longer.

After a some time at Starbucks, I ate some of the best BBQ on the planet (Harold's) with one of the coolest guys on the planet (Cope). Then it was off to the hill (what the locals call the ACU campus - but it's not much of a hill) to meet Kim, Laura, and Emily prior to test time to give Laura her calculator and pray with her. I ran into ACU legends Bob, Jan, K-Ro, and several other friends. I also got to spend time with Phil Schubert which is always a treat.

Emily ended up staying the weekend with Lenda Jensen and going to Highland's Break-Through Retreat (Lenda is a group leader) and will come home on Monday when the Jensen's take Mendy to the airport.

All and all, it was a great trip.

On a side (and sadder) note, please continue to pray for the Brown and Bailey families. For the most up to date information about those wonderful families click here.