4 Posts from September 2014

Good Communication—Keep it Simple

If I make one mistake more often than any other as a preacher, it is assuming more than I should about my congregation. I assume people want to know what the Bible says. I assume they know I have their best interest at heart. I assume they understand the context. I assume they have a theological frame of reference. And having begun on those shaky assumptions, I begin building a great big sermon when the foundation has not been laid.  I’ve discovered it’s better to keep the message simple (but not simplistic), to take it a little slower and to establish a good, firm foundation. Then I can build my case.

I’ll never forget when I was asked to speak to an audience who didn’t have a lot of biblical knowledge. I decided to start simple. “I will be referring to passages in the Bible according to numbers,” I told them. “For example: ‘John 3:16.’ Now, the ‘3’ stands for the chapter, and the ‘16’ stands for the verse.” And Cynthia was sitting on the front row rolling her eyes like, “Oh, man, they’re going to think Chuck fell off a turnip truck!”

But would you believe it? I had a guy come up to me afterwards and say, “All my life I’ve been wondering what those numbers are, and what that colon in the middle was for. Now I know! That’s a chapter! And that’s a verse!” No kidding. Most people will never see the inside of a seminary. (That’s why they have hope!) They don’t know a lot of the things we think they know. And unless we keep it simple, we lose them . . . and they never will.

I received an e-mail not long ago from a friend whose teenage daughter had taken notes during my sermon and then had written my application points on her bathroom mirror. (My friend sent me the picture.)

4 timeless principles

I’ve said for many years that if I can communicate in a way that teenagers get it, write it down, remember it, and then apply it—I will have accomplished something very gratifying.

Keep your stuff simple. The goal is to communicate, remember—not to impress.


Good Communication—Be Interesting

Some of us who are evangelicals seem to think that because we’re teaching the Bible we can bore people with it. And that there’s something wrong with the audience if they go to sleep on us. I know a great Hebrew term for that line of thinking: Hogwash!

A good communicator is interesting. Look at how Solomon put it: “The Preacher sought to find delightful words and to write words of truth correctly” (Ecclesiastes 12:10). Did you notice, “delightful words”? The preacher sought to find that which would bring emotional delight. How about that! I take that to mean he’s looking for clarity as well as an interesting, even captivating use of terms.

I heard a true story that theologian Carl F. H. Henry told as he spoke to a group of radio broadcasters. The late Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr decided to write out his theological position, stating exactly where he stood philosophically. Being a profound thinker (and a bit verbose), it took him many sheets of paper to express himself. Upon completion of his masterwork, he realized it needed to be evaluated by a mind much more practical than his own. He sent the material to a minister whom he knew had a practical mind and a pastoral heart. With great pains the clergyman slogged through the ream of paper, trying desperately to grasp the meaning. When he finally finished, he worked up the nerve to write a brief, yet absolutely candid, note in reply. It read:

My dear Dr. Niebuhr:
I understand every word you have written, but I do not understand one sentence.

. . . stop and think about the words you’re using. As well as the sentences you’re stringing together. Go to war against clichés and “Christian-ese” bromides no one understands—or cares to. If you don’t, you’re boring! And so am I.

When people listen to us, they should want to embrace the truth we’re teaching. If they reject it, however, it should not be because of our delivery. Being an interesting and clear communicator means you have thought through a passage, and you are serving the meal so that anybody can understand it. That includes the raw pagan who just walked in and sits in the back.

If you’re talking code language, you’re talking to yourself and the three seminary graduates that are in your congregation. You’re boring. Don’t go there.


Good Communication—Be Well-Prepared

If sweat were blood, my study would be red. So would yours. As pastors, part of what helps us become good communicators is paying the personal price for being well-prepared. That takes hard work.

“The Preacher,” Solomon tells us, “also taught the people knowledge”—and this occurred by “pondering, searching out, and arranging” his thoughts (Ecclesiastes 12:9). These verbs are in the intensive stem in the Hebrew. In other words, in becoming well-prepared, you have to sacrifice. The cost is high! Both in time . . . and in tools.

Buy books that help you understand the Word of God. Some of my best books are what I call my “blood” books. When I was in seminary, I used to donate a pint of blood and in return receive twenty bucks. I bought the Old Testament series by Kyle and Delitzsch with blood money. I bought Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament with blood money. They were supposed to take my blood only every six weeks, but I’d occasionally go in after five weeks. One time I pushed it to four weeks! Cynthia told me, “I think you’re kind of pressing it on this thing with your library.” And she was right. But hey, where else can you have 100 scholars at your fingertips when you’re stuck away in Fargo . . . or Frisco! Get and use good tools.

You’ll have to deal severely with the temptation to dance around a passage rather than to dig in deeply—especially when time is of the essence. So start early. We both know that Saturday night panic doesn’t yield quality stuff on Sunday. “A mist in the pulpit puts a fog in the pew” is another way of saying it!    

I would encourage you to write down more of your ideas. Don’t rely on your memory. Write down those fleeting thoughts that come to you in the middle of the night. Many times I have gotten up to write something I didn’t want to lose. Those times that I didn’t do that, almost without exception, I forgot them by the next morning. I must go through half a yellow tablet of paper per sermon writing things down. I have discovered that it is in the writing of my thoughts that my ideas take shape and narrow into understandable terms. It is in the “pondering, searching out, and arranging” of thoughts that the preacher is well-prepared.

Oh, and please . . . don’t feel bad about taking your notes and outline into the pulpit! (They never told you that at seminary, did they?  Me either.) What could be more frustrating than being well-prepared to communicate only to forget half of it after the choir sings? The best expositors I’ve heard use notes.

Changing lives is God’s job. We rely on Him for that—unquestionably. But being well-prepared . . . that’s our responsibility.



Good Communication—The First Step

I don’t mind being called a preacher. One of my lifetime goals has been to be a good preacher. That takes hard work. You know that. Good communication is never automatic. Sometimes you may think you’re coming through clearly only to be surprised when a member of the congregation, or even your wife, without your asking, shares with you that your message didn’t come through. We’ve all been there!

I want to write in the next few posts about helping your message come through.

The greatest privilege in the world is to have people listen when we speak. But I never assume that the congregation comes to listen—to really listen. Rather, I usually assume they approach my message with a ho-hum spirit. Therefore, I have to earn the right to be heard every Lord’s day. We owe it to our congregations to prepare and then present good meals. I think that’s what Solomon had in mind when he wrote about the Preacher:

In addition to being a wise man, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge; and he pondered, searched out and arranged many proverbs. (Ecclesiastes 12:9)

Did you notice where preaching should begin? With being . . . before doing. Before you teach the people you are to be a wise man. Remember how Jesus chose twelve men, “that they would be with Him and that He could send them out to preach” (Mark 3:14). Notice the order? First they were with Jesus . . . then they preached.

The hard work of good preaching begins with the fear of the Lord—true wisdom. Don’t assume its presence. As you work hard to cultivate a genuine, growing relationship with God, wisdom will come.

Don’t take any shortcuts with that first step.