Friday, May 4, 2018

"Connect-Four" Preaching - A Method For More Effective Sermon Preparation And Delivery

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1 Corinthians 1:21 "For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe."


One of my favorite games as a child was what was known as "Connect Four". The object of the game involved two players with black and red checkers attempting to line up their respective colors in a yellow upright game board. Each player would take turns, dropping their checkers into the upright board. The board was so designed to allow each player to see all the checkers. The first player to align four of their colored checkers either diagonally, vertically or horizontally resulted in "connected four". Consequently, once "connect four" was achieved, the game was won. Once the game ended, one of the players would then slide a small lever at the bottom of the game board to release the checkers for the next game.

Whenever it comes to preparing sermons, I think of the game "Connect Four". Each week I preach three messages. For the last 26 years I have had the honor of following God's call on my life to proclaim His word to whomever will give a hearing. As a pastor, I'm charged to give heed to myself, to doctrine and to preaching - since all three are enabled by God to save my soul and the souls of those hearing the sermons (see 1 Timothy 4:13-16). God has chosen by the Person of the Spirit to attend and empower preaching as His main vehicle for converting sinners and changing lives (see Romans 10:11-17). 

Whenever I have finished preaching the Sunday night message, my mind begins to consider the following week's messages. As I go through the spiritual and mental process of preparing sermons, I find four areas to which I must connect to preach more effective messages. I call this "connect four" preaching. So, what are those four areas necessary to have connection to prior to and during the preaching of any sermon?

1. Connect to God in prayer.

I once heard it stated that true, Spirit-filled preaching will manifest when the preacher has become thoroughly acquainted with the God of the book. Whenever we look at the greatest preacher of all - the Lord Jesus Christ - scarcely do we find any episode in His life untouched by prayer. He prioritized time with the Father in prayer (see for example Mark 1:35). To the degree the preacher spends time on their knees in prayer, only then will power in their preaching be witnessed on their feet. Acts 4:13 divulges the secret behind the Apostles' preaching and lives:

"Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus."

Theological training is important. Investing one's time for education in how to rightly expound the scriptures is an expression of devotion to the Divinely-called task (see for instance 2 Timothy 2:15). However, unless a man has given himself to a life of prayer - his sermons will have no life. So, connecting to God in prayer is the first point of contact towards effective sermon preparation and delivery. Now notice the second connecting point...

2. Connect to your audience.

How well do I as a pastor know the people to whom I preach every week? The pastor must not only invest himself in prayer, but also into the people for whom He prays. I have found that as I get to know the people and they in turn become more familiar with me - God begins to break down walls. Undoubtedly, the warfare waged by the kingdom of darkness against the church deals with matters of unity. Why? Unity in the church is the chief evidence the Christian has to a watching world that the Christian worldview is true and relevant. Pastors and their congregations need unified for the proper atmosphere in which the Spirit can work in their lives. 

Whenever I have spoken in conferences, nursing homes or other churches, there is a certain way I find myself preaching. The connection between myself and the audience is more general. However, when I am preaching at the church I call "home", my preaching is more specific and pointed. Why does this happen? 

In the ancient world, the Greeks (mainly from the writings of Aristotle) developed a method for determining what made for effective public speaking (i.e. "rhetoric"). The quality they assigned to this particular element that describes the connection between the speaker and their audience was termed "ethos". A speaker could possess eloquence of content (what they called "logos") and powers of persuasion (or what they called "pathos"). However, if the speaker lacked "ethos" or that quality of connecting his life and subject to the lives of his audience, the given message would have no impact. This criteria gleaned from the ancient world still has much bearing in how we evaluate effective sermons. 

Whenever you read Paul's letters in the New Testament, notice how often he references individuals. Paul was a people person. He knew his audiences in varying levels. The more "ethos" or "rapport" Paul had with the churches to whom he wrote, the more personal and specific his correspondence became (remember, Paul was Jewish and ministered in and among a predominately Greco-Roman world). 

So now whenever we consider these observations, how do they operate in the context of Biblical preaching? "Ethos" or "personal connection" between oneself and the congregation requires the Person of the Holy Spirit to complete the circuit. As preachers pray for their people and the people in turn pray for their pastors, the Spirit's work in making this connection is enhanced. Connecting to God in prayer and connecting to the given audience makes for even stronger preparation and preaching of sermons. Notice the third connecting point....

3. Connecting to the text.

Connecting to whatever Biblical text I'm looking to expound is essential if the sermon aims to be Biblical, Christ-centered and practical. Out of all the methods for preaching sermons, none connects the preacher to the text any more than expository preaching. Expository preaching takes seriously each word, phrase and turn of expression. The aim of expository preaching is to "expose" the people to the meaning of the text. Preparing expository sermons takes work. Effort. Much prayer. The time need to dig into the original languages (whether through the use of concordances or original language texts, if so equipped to do so) behind our English Bibles is well worth the time. Reading commentaries, understanding the historical backgrounds and various theological motifs are entailed in the sermon preparation process. Why? So as to connect oneself to the text. 

I have found in the process of preparing sermons, whenever the text makes its journey from the realm of mental analysis to heart-level emotion to gut-check conviction, only then do I find myself "connecting-to-the-text". Each preacher will have different methods of preparing sermons. Some will know the languages in which the scriptures were revealed (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek) while other preachers will possess a great familiarity with the English text. Whatever other tools and resources lie at the preacher's fingertips, the goal is to connect to the text and to have that text connect to the preacher. Remember: God's word isn't just another book, its the Living Book! The Bible alone convicts sinners and changes lives (see 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Hebrews 4:12). 

So in "connect-four" preaching, one needs to connect to God in prayer, connect to their audience and connect to the text. Now let's consider one last contact point for effective sermon preparation and deliver...

4. Connect the sermon to yourself

It is usually near the end of the week that I find myself reviewing sermon notes and whatever I'm aiming to preach. On average, I find that 90% of what I bring to the pulpit never gets said. Why is that? Admittedly, I prepare way more than I could ever preach in the allotted time I have. Moreover, in the delivery of the sermon, the Holy Spirit will bring to mind other details that were not "in the notes". As I pour over dozens of scriptures in preparing a given sermon, I will often ask myself: "am I living out this sermon?" My wife and I are convinced that whatever God is trying to teach or looking to teach us, it is usually indicated by the sermons I'm preaching. 

Connecting the sermon to one's life gives credibility to the sermon, since the preacher's ability to press his hearers to a decision is connected to whether he himself has pre-committed to whatever he is preaching. Put another way: although I may point a finger in the direction of the congregation, yet, there are three fingers point back at myself. To illustrate: consider the episode in 1 Samuel 17 of David and Goliath. King Saul offered David his own personal armor. David tried on the armor but chose to forego the King's enticing offer. Why? 1 Samuel 17:39 reports David's reasoning: "these have not yet been tested". David would not go into battle against the giant with untested armor. The preacher that has not applied his sermon to his life will find himself at a great disadvantage. David's sling and five stones were chosen because he had used them in previous experiences. Each point or key thought the expositor  delivers in the sermon must first had made personal contact in their lives. The river of God's word is chocked full of smooth stones. Sermon preparation is all about selecting which truths are needed to knock down the giants of unbelief. Before the sermon ever goes public, it must first find its application in the private life of the preacher.  

Whenever the preacher as effectively connected the sermon's application to his own life, it makes all the difference between preaching "at" the people versus preaching "to" the people. So often we hear accusations of hypocrites populating our churches. What is worse than hypocrites in the pews are hypocrites occupying God's sacred desk. If preachers will but make sure they are connecting God's truth, in God's book, into their life - only then will they have  the ability to connect the truth to others. 

Closing thoughts:

In today's post we considered a way towards more effective sermon preparation and delivery: i.e. "Connect-Four" preaching. We discovered four vital connections necessary for ensuring proper preparation and delivery of Biblical sermons:

1. Connect to God in prayer
2. Connect to one's audience
3. Connect to the Biblical text
4. Connect the sermon to one's life

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