Every Saturday I imagine how difficult it must be for regular attenders of my church to have to sit through another couple hours of hearing my voice again. It makes me both nervous, and cautious. It makes me review my entire message looking for things that need to “go.” It makes me critically listen to what I’m about to say, and try to avoid my own “stupid factor.”
In spite of my six full pages of carefully written notes, every Monday, my mind seems to so easily recall the stupid things I said, that I wish I hadn’t. I regularly ask my church family to grant me a 10% stupid factor—forgiveness for things I might say that don’t have a clear context, that need further explanation, that may even be inaccurate in some aspect. No matter how cautious I am, I’m still human and I still find words and phrases escaping my mouth that could have been more carefully put together or contextualized.
Here are ways I’m trying to grow as a Bible communicator…
1. Refuse untrue/unverifiable illustrations— urban myths and sensational stories are often entertaining and emotionally moving, but I don’t want to lead people to believe something that isn’t true. The fact that they can Google something while I’m preaching is even more of a motivation to be careful. The Bible is credible. Sensational stories can detract from the effectual working of the supernatural Word of God.
2. Lose aged clichés— “If you throw a rock into a pack of dogs…” Sometimes we use clichés and punch-lines, more than scripture. Some clichés we’ve heard so many times that they actually make us “tune out.” I pray for total avoidance of aged or useless clichés that sound pithy but provide very little actual substance or practical insight to the scriptures. On top of this, aged clichés may as well be a deliberate attempt to “exclude” some of our listeners and play only to those who “get them.”
3. Avoid self-serving clichés and filler—Personally, my most common one is, “Are you awake? Are you still with me?” I also say “Uh, Umm…” way too much. At the root, these things are pointless—they are my attempt to insure my hearers are still connected to what I’m saying or to fill gaps of silence. They are born out of my insecurity as a speaker. For a hearer who is trying to concentrate on Bible content, these fillers can be distractions from the working of God’s Spirit.
4. Run from unbiblical clichés— How often is the phrase “bless God” used in ways that having nothing to do with actually “blessing God.” “Preach the gospel, and if necessary use words.” “Pray like it’s all up to God, work like it’s all up to you.” “If you don’t tithe, God will get His 10% another way.” God’s people need more than a collection of pithy or punchy one-liners—which are often unbiblical as well. Frankly, some sermons boil down to very little Bible and just a lot of cultural whit—a kind that only makes sense in certain cultures. One-line, or “punch-line” preaching doesn’t aim at communicating the Bible. It aims at emotional response—like a stand-up comic timing a laugh from the audience.
Certain styles of preaching do not cultivate the heart with the powerful Word of God. They merely tickle the ears with punchy, caustic, political, or witty punch-lines that stir a rousing or emotional response. The sermon becomes more like a pep-rally than a worship service. For hearts that are starving for well-studied, well exposited truth, this leaves them anemic, hungry, and malnourished—which ultimately makes for a malnourished church family. I am happy to disassociate myself as far as possible from this type of unbiblical “preaching.”
5. Never remove scripture from its biblical context— Like “Jesus wept…” “Why did He weep?—because you aren’t doing more for Him!” Another oft twisted passage is “I will get me unto the great men.” (Which, with further reading, reveals men who were also devoid of biblical truth.) In 38 years of Christian living, I’ve heard plenty of sermons that have nothing to do with the actual meaning of their launch-point text. Some were completely unbiblical. Others would have been accurate if presented from portions of scripture that supported them. Ignoring what the Bible actually says to make it say “what I want” is so very dangerous. It’s editing God’s Word rather than declaring it as He gave it.
Reading a scripture and then sharing five random philosophical observations is NOT biblical preaching. This is the fastest way for a biblically-thinking person to quickly tune out the rest of my message. Misuse of scripture leads to lost credibility as a pastor—and rightly so. A preacher who twists and distorts scripture should not be trusted. God’s Word says what He wants it to say, not what I want it to say. My job is not to rewrite it. My job is to declare it as is. May we be completely comfortable letting the Bible say what it says, and not say what it doesn’t say.
6. Lose unverified statistics—We live in the Google/smartphone age. If I throw a statistic out that rings untrue or even intriguing, several people in the room will likely grab their phone and Google it while I’m preaching. It’s not uncommon for someone to approach me after the service with additional information about a quote or story I used. It’s common for them to repost a key illustration or quote, which they simply Googled after the message. If my information is inaccurate, other parts of the message lose credibility as well. If I can’t substantiate it, I likely won’t use it, or at best, would at least be honest in citing that I cannot find a source of support.
7. Get rid of filler—This is easy to do, and in some circles, even encouraged. Rabbit trails can be dangerous. They tend to take me down a road that has nothing to do with the text or purpose of the message. Typically, off-handed comments or shoot-from-the-hip zingers just detract from biblical content. Some believe that rabbit trails are “Divinely inspired.” God’s Word is Divinely inspired, my rabbit-trails are not. I’m not a fan of reading every word of a message from a script, but there’s a great gulf between speaking from the heart out of a wealth of study and preparation, and just shooting from the hip or spouting off in spontaneity because of a dearth of preparation. It’s as different as a fountain of spring water is from a raging, dust-storm.
8. Be honest about extra-biblical opinion or preference—How often is opinion and preference presented from the pulpit as though it were doctrine. Jesus has something to say about that. (Matthew 15:9 “But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”) Everybody has a right to preferences, personal convictions, opinions—and to base them on biblical principles. But nobody has the right to equate personal convictions as biblical mandates, unless the Bible clearly does so. Doing this is a distortion of God’s Word and of pastoral authority.
If I’m sharing my opinion, I want to be sure the hearer knows the difference between my opinion and God’s Word. I want to shoot straight. Unfiltered, diverse opinions, when presented as inspired truth, are confusing to a hungry heart and weakening to a church family.
9. Put a clear boundary around exaggeration—Hyperbole is a tool of communication. Exaggeration presented as truth is just lying. Hearers understand humor, but they are distracted by overstated and manipulative content. I have always been most impacted by pastors and teachers who were comfortable being understated, deflecting of credit, truthful, and comfortable with who they really are.
10. Refuse to stoop to manipulation and coercion—I pray our church family will attend more services and grow in faithfulness. I pray that our growing Christians will become more involved and more connected. I will forever be passionate for the spiritual growth and health of our church family. I won’t ever stop challenging, reproving, or rebuking as God’s Word directs. But none of this requires manipulation, guilt, shame, or coercion. Manipulating or coercing someone into “behavior that is good for them” is not good for them. It’s just a precursor to eventual resentment. I want to trust the work of God’s Spirit. I want to rest in the power of individual soul liberty. I want every Christian to be comfortable growing at God’s pace, not by my force or attempt at control.
11. Avoid inflating or promoting self—Many years ago I was exposed to a group of preachers who elevated themselves more than Jesus in their pulpits. How much they read, prayed, preached, counseled… how many had been saved or called under their preaching… how “great” they were/are.” I’ve been in contexts where the message really just made me think how great the speaker is, not how great Jesus is. This is a triple-edged sword—it gives the listener an overinflated sense of the speaker, a personal sense of failure, and an lower view of the Saviour.
The truth is, I struggle at the Christian life as much as any one else in my church—and knowing that just might help others be faithful in the fight. Nobody is great but Jesus—we all know that. Self-inflation is nowhere near biblical mission.
That’s my list of 11 ways I’m trying to grow as a pastor/teacher!
Purging the message and growing as a communicator is an attempt to empty the message of self and distractions. Can we succeed 100%, all the time? Not likely. Can we grow in self-lowering that we might become transparent and the message truly Christ-centered? I pray so. In thirty years or so, I pray that my church family will have been exceptionally well-fed from God’s Word!
What would you add to the list? What ways are you trying to grow as a Bible communicator?