Crossroads Worldwide Ministries sponsors a one-year internship for discipleship and ministry training they call Community Discipleship House (CDH). I am good friends with the guys who lead this ministry—their work is top-notch.
One of the CDH-ers (as they are called), contacted me for an interview about my preaching experience. Replying to the questions turned out to be a an interesting and helpful time of reflection about the awesome and gut-wrenching and joyful task of presenting Scripture to God’s people. The questions and my replies are below….
1)You are asked to speak at a college conference with a diverse crowd. You are asked to speak about the Holy Spirit in 4 talks. How would you go about preparing? Do you have a process?
I would begin with prayer. Preaching entails the responsibility to express accurately, passionately, prophetically and pastorally the self-revelation of God from the Scriptures. So the process is sabotaged from the beginning unless we turn desperately to the One who can most help! In the scenario you presented, the diversity of the crowd and the complexity of the topic are daunting, but in no way unmanageable under divine guidance. So prayer is the 1st step.
In the praying, there will be reading, the reading of Scripture texts—pertinent texts that provide direction and guidance for the topic at hand (the HS, in this case). Now, let me be clear that my reading of specific texts is preceded by lots of other reading. By regularly spending lots of time in the Bible, a preacher can have a wider, general understanding of where to go when specific topics are assigned. (Incidentally, I have highlighted all references to the Spirit throughout the entire Bible in yellow for easier access—I have done this for a number of urgent and controversial themes that have seemed to require more attention than others in my years of pastoring and preaching).
More on this prayerful reading. When I find specific texts in Scripture to which God seems to be directing me for the sermon prep, I would read widely all around those texts. For instance, if I am reading about the Paraclete in John (a Johannine term for the Spirit), I would make sure I understood the Johannine understanding of the Spirit as indicated elsewhere in that Gospel. At a minimum, I would read the entire Farewell Discourse (John 14-17). I would also spend a great deal of time in Romans 8 where Paul presents his clearest, strongest vision of the Holy Spirit. But Romans 8 is the tail end of a long, winding series of arguments that begins in the beginning of the Epistle, so I would read Romans 1-8 before I ever set myself to do serious exegetical work on just ch. 8.I would also try to consider what texts regarding the Holy Spirit are already in the minds of my hearers, and how those texts may be misunderstood or misapplied. 1 Cor 12-14 comes to mind, of course. So I would likely devote one of my talks to “Myths About the HS” and seek to carefully and pastorally dismantle some unbiblical ideas.
2)How do you think that storytelling plays a role in teaching Scripture? If you do use stories then how do you make them come to life?
Stories are employed in preaching for the sake of clarifying or entertaining… and in some cases these two can go nicely together. But ultimately the use of story must be to clarify. When you are trying to engage an unruly crowd, or a bunch of folks who just don’t want to be within earshot of a sermon, then stories have the effect of grasping attention. Tentatively, I think that is okay. The problem is when stories are used for entertainment but never really lead to clarification of the topic or text at hand.
But we must be careful not to readily demonize stories in the homiletical task. Much of Scripture is in narrative form, and the entire Bible narrates a massive saga, a bold, compelling story of God’s powerful and gracious program of redemption. As a matter of fact, I would go so far as to say that stories can communicate in ways deeper and more profoundly than the delineation of certain doctrinal points. I love doctrinal points. I just love them. But sometimes, there are truths beyond the communicative strength of a sentence. Last Spring, I found myself so mystified by the Gospels’ narrations of Jesus’ death and resurrection that I ended up just reading the texts and walking the college students before whom I preached through the accounts. I did not try to explain what was happening behind the texts so carefully provided by Matthew, Luke, Mark and John, trusting that the inspired power of their theological reportage would be sufficient. I just sought to beckon the congregation into the haunting, gripping, inspiring narratives.
There are times, of course, when I have gone deeper into the theological issues at hand in the narrative accounts… but sometimes it is okay to just leave everyone lost in the wonder of the narrative. It is okay if a sermon mystifies sometimes more than clarifies… because being mystified can lead us to worship.
More practically speaking, when I preach on a story, I usually rely more on a story form. And I should probably say that I do not actively look for stories and illustrations as a preacher, though I try to keep my ears and eyes open lest God provides one that would help.