Evangelistic Preaching (01)

5 03 2009

Image by Ethan Kent, via Streetsblog.org

Image by Ethan Kent, via Streetsblog.org

I’ve been thinking about evangelistic preaching lately, so I thought I’d start a little series about writing evangelistic talks. I’m no expert on the subject, and much of what I’ll say is not original. In fact, lots of it probably comes from John Chapman, who is a national treasure, and was one of my trainers when I was a student minister with Evangelism Ministries. I’ve lost track of which ideas belong to him and which are mine. So with that caveat in place, here’s my (or his?) first thought.

1. The passage.
I guesstimate that about half of the ‘failed’ evangelistic talks I’ve heard have done so primarily because of the choice of passage.
Why do some evangelists, or evangelists-in-training, have to pick hard passages? I’ve done it myself, and it’s a big mistake. Do they do it to be clever? To be ‘original’? To be ‘unpredictable’? They’re all dumb reasons.
You want a passage that will easily connect with, and be understood by your hearers. You could preach evangelistically from Zechariah 5 (I’ve been tempted), but why would you when you could go for John 3:16, or the parable of the prodigal son? It would require so much explanation to make Zechariah 5 work evangelistically that you’ll miss the boat. Not because you can’t do it, but because your hearers are not biblically literate!
So, it’s better to go simple. Don’t be afraid to be predictable (it’s only predictable to Christians anyway, and they’re not your target). Pick a passage that connects to people. A passage that is easily understood. A passage that presents Christ clearly, so that even if you botch the talk, he will still ring in people’s ears.
Posted by Con Campbell

What preachers can learn from Lincoln

8 01 2009
Image by Believe Collective, via Flickr

Image by Believe Collective, via Flickr

It’s the most famous speech in American history. School children learn it word for word. And it is indeed a powerful word; or, rather, words—just 272 of them (depending on the version you use to count). Yes, it’s Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, of November 19, 1863.

‘Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.’

What can preachers learn from Lincoln? Others have suggested some things already (see Justin’s thoughts here), but I thought I’d mention a few things that strike me. (I’ve previously posted on what preachers can learn from Obama, and since Obama self-consciously styles himself on Lincoln, this seemed appropriate. Also, it’s the 200 year anniversary of Lincoln’s birth this year. Also, I’m a huge Lincoln fan.)

1. Obviously, the speech is SHORT. At two minutes’ length, most preachers are barely into their introduction, or have yet to finish adjusting the microphone, saying hello to their congregation, welcoming visitors, or throwing in some joke. Actually, I don’t think the length is particularly instructive for preachers, except to say that Lincoln achieved incredible heights and profound insight with so few words. It is simple, but carefully crafted (mirroring Pericles’ Funeral Oration in Thucydides’ Pelopennesian War). It does not waste a single word. Edward Everett, on the other hand, preached for two hours before Lincoln spoke, but who remembers what he said? In fact, Everett himself perhaps said it best, when he commented to Lincoln, ‘I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.’

2. While being short, the speech encapsulated the spirit of America, by invoking the Declaration of Independence (‘all men are created equal’), by casting the civil war as a struggle for a ‘new birth of freedom’, and by the closing words, ‘that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth’. I would love to see preachers tap into the spirit of the family of God. Not so much with explicit descriptions of what the kingdom is like, but by conveying the aesthetic of that reality. Take them there.

3. As did Obama, Lincoln spoke of the past (the birth of the nation, and the blood spilt at Gettysburg), the present (‘we are to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us’), and the future (‘this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom’). The effect of this is that his hearers were reminded of who they are and where they came from, and where they are going. Lincoln even makes an ‘eternity’ statement: ‘that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth’. Preachers would do well to remind their hearers of similar things: who and where they were before God called them, the challenges that confront us in the present age, and the glorious future, which is, indeed, eternity.

4. Lincoln cast the civil war in the light of fulfilling the catch-cry of the Declaration of Independence, ‘all men are created equal’. While the war had been about preserving the union, the nation needed to know that all this bloodshed was for a higher purpose, which it really was. The war was noble because the real issue was that of slavery. All men are created equal, and government is of the people, by the people, and for the people—whatever the colour of their skin. The practice of slavery, rather, was a form of tyranny. Gettysburg created a vision of the noble struggle for freedom and equality.

Preachers need to cast suffering and struggle in light of the greater good to which it contributes. We know that suffering produces character and hope, but it also contributes to that grand vision of the eschaton, in which God will bring an end to suffering, and we will know that the struggle against the opposing forces of evil has not only been endured to the end, but has been the work of God for our good, and for his glory.

5. The address was not considered a success at the time. The Chicago Times was scathing in its review, though there were some positive reviews as well. And yet the speech has endured, in spite of Lincoln’s prediction within the speech itself: ‘The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here’. It has not only endured, but has shaped nations—and not just the U.S. The Constitution of the Republic of France is based on the principle of Lincoln’s words, and contains a direct translation of the speech’s most famous phrase: ‘gouvernement du peuple, par le peuple et pour le peuple’.

What may preachers learn from this? I am struck by the fact that the popularity, or otherwise, of a message is no necessary indication of its long-term effect, nor of its poignant truth or profundity. But if the message is remembered, if the spirit of the family of God is made known through it, and if the grand vision of the glory of God is impressed upon its hearers, then we might thank God that it was not a ‘total failure’, as Lincoln had worried his might have been.

Posted by Con Campbell

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

23 11 2008
trois canetons / three ducklings

Image by OliBac via Flickr

Do you ever worry you are repeating yourself? If you are a preacher, you should be glad! You should be ecstatic. You should be overjoyed, when you find you are repeating yourself (did I already say that?). When you repeat yourself people take note. Repetition is a powerful way to emphasize something in a talk. But I wonder if you every thought about the different ways you can repeat yourself:

Epanaphora occurs when one and the same word forms successive beginnings of phrases expressing like and different ideas, as follows: “To you must go the credit for this, to you are thanks due, to you will this act of yours bring glory.” In Antistrophe we repeat, not the first word in successive phrases… but the last as follows:… “Gaius Laelius was a selfmade man, a talented man, a learned man, to good men and good endeavour a friendly man; and so in the state he was the first man.” Interlacement is the union of both figures… “Who are they who have often broken treaties? The Carthaginians. Who are they who have waged war with severest cruelty? The Carthaginians. What are they who have marred the face of Italy? The Carthaginians. Who are they who now ask for pardon? The Carthaginians.” (from Rhetorica Ad Herennium, 1st Cent BCE)

Why not think about using one of these at a climactic point in your next talk?

Bruce Lowe

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What preachers can learn from Obama

7 11 2008

Whatever your political bent, there are a number of things that preachers could learn from Obama’s victory speech. 

Obama victory speech

Image by Captain Nandu Chitnis via Flickr

1. He did not draw attention to himself

I would think that on the cusp of a profoundly historical event, and an extraordinary achievement, it would be all too easy to turn inward. To dwell on one’s journey, and focus on one’s hopes and dreams fulfilled would be a temptation that too many of us would not be able to resist. But Obama didn’t do that. It was about the people, not him; it was their victory, not his.

Preachers are to put Jesus on centre-stage, not themselves, and are to serve the people. Our hearers are not there to give us an audience. They are not there to glory in our abilities or godliness. And yet I’ve heard not a few preachers who are more self-aggrandizing than Obama was. That gives me pause.

2. He reflected on the big picture

Obama painted a picture of where America has come from, and how this election fits within it. Lincoln. Luther-King. Slavery to civil rights to a black president. The occasion was sharpened in its significance and importance by Obama’s skillful reference to the past. 

Preachers need always to paint the big picture. Not in a clumsy, here’s-how-Jesus-fits-in way, but in a way that helps their hearers appreciate the significance of their topic, why it matters, and how extraordinary God’s cosmic plan for reconciliation really is. 

3. He was understated… and it worked

With such a momentous occasion, I would expect someone else to be swept away with emotion. Yet Obama was calm and steady. It would have been easy to ride that wave of undulating excitement and emotion. Instead, Obama chose to speak with reserve and poise. The effect of this, for me, was to think that this guy is in control, and is serious about the challenge ahead. 

I’m not saying that preachers shouldn’t get excited. But sometimes I think preachers can make the mistake of thinking that unless they get worked up, their message won’t ‘hit home’. This just isn’t true. Obama spoke with reserve and understatement, and it was powerful. 

4. He spoke about the abstract in an accessible way

The part of the speech I’m thinking of here is when he started talking about the 106 year old woman who voted that day. She was born when women were not allowed to vote, and African Americans were not allowed to vote. She lived through two world wars and through the civil rights movement. She lived to see the day when an African American would be elected president. Then Obama pondered his daughter’s life, and what she would live to see, and what the world would be like at the end of her lifetime. What Obama was doing, of course, was to speak about an abstract thing in a tangible, concrete way. He was describing the progress of a country, and the enormous changes that have occurred within the last century, as well as the hopes for a better future. But he clothed this in a lovely story about an old woman, and the prospects of a young girl. 

I think preachers need to work hard at talking about great, yet abstract, truths in ways that are tangible and concrete for their hearers. Not everyone copes with abstract thought very well, and even when they do, it is often far less engaging than less abstract material. This might be read as a plug for sermon illustrations, and I guess it is in a way, but it’s more than that. Illustrations are one way of making abstract thought more accessible to hearers, but there are other ways too. And I think we should work hard at it. Obama did it beautifully and seamlessly. 

5. He cast a vision

Instead of making a big deal about the significance of an African American president, Obama cast a vision beyond himself, into the future, involving the commitment of the nation. He acknowledged the seriousness of America’s problems, and he asked the people for their help. He was no superhero who would solve their problems on his own strength. But together they could do it.

Preachers need to cast a vision beyond themselves, into the future, involving the commitment of their hearers. We need to point to the challenges ahead and yet provide hope that, in Christ and with the Spirit, we may, together, honour Christ.


This whole post has been about ‘human’ techniques to do with good communication. But we should remember that preaching is much more than this. We preach, filled with the Spirit of God, wielding the sword of the Spirit, while the Spirit works in people’s hearts, pointing them to Jesus. Obama was great, and the spirit of the event was powerful, but it was not a patch on the Spirit at work as God’s word is proclaimed. 

Posted by Con Campbell

Union with Christ: what is it? (01)

4 11 2008
Image by Peter Riches  

Union with Christ is a prevalent theme in Paul’s writings, yet seems to be somewhat underdone in preaching. The theme is expressed through phrases such as ‘in Christ’, ‘with Christ’, ‘through Christ’, ‘in the Lord’, ‘in him’, and other related phrases. Notice how often such phrases occur within Ephesians 1:3–13.

‘3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, in Christ; 4 for He chose us in Him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love 5 He predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ for Himself, according to His favor and will, 6 to the praise of His glorious grace that He favored us with in the Beloved.

7 In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace 8 that He lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. 9 He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure that He planned in Him 10 for the administration of the days of fulfillment—to bring everything together in the Messiah, both things in heaven and things on earth in Him.

11 In Him we were also made His inheritance, predestined according to the purpose of the One who works out everything in agreement with the decision of His will, 12 so that we who had already put our hope in the Messiah might bring praise to His glory.

13 In Him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation—in Him when you believed—were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.’

(Ephesians 1:3-13 HCSB)

There’s little question that ‘in Christ’ and related phrases are common for Paul, appearing all over the place in his letters. As readers of the New Testament, then, we would do well to contemplate two related questions: what is union with Christ? and what are the implications of this theme for preaching? I’ll be exploring these questions in my next few posts.

posted by Con Campbell