Monday, March 27, 2017

8 ways to improve the preaching in your church

I believe the Bible is vital for the flourishing of the Church. But sometimes we've got locked into stale and stagnant modes of helping people engage with the living word of God. Here are eight tried and tested ways of injecting new life and creativity into your preaching.

Book based preaching

Too often we expect Sunday preaching to be sufficient to keep the members of our congregation fed for the entire week. Sometimes it can be difficult to inspire the church to read the Bible for themselves in the week or to invest the time in spiritual reading. Using a book as the backbone of a preaching series can be an example of what educationalists call 'flipped learning' – where most of the learning happens outside of the classroom/lecture hall/church building. If church members can find time in the week to read part of a book, then when we gather together things can be taken to another level of understanding through interaction, conversation, discussion and Bible preaching. Some books are designed to be used in this way: I have experimented with the format in my books, especially Route 66. Currently our little church is working through Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together and comparing it to Scripture and our own experiences. But a whole range of different books can work in this way.

Tag Team preaching

In order to encourage less experienced preachers and perhaps to increase the diversity of voices we have experimented with Tag Team preaching. We prepared the overall theme of the sermons together in a big weekly team meeting and then divided into pairs of experienced/novice preachers to flesh it out. Sometimes the experienced preacher would go first and then hand on to the novice for the final 10 minutes. Sometimes it was more of sandwich in which the experienced preacher 'topped and tailed' the talk. Either way the benefit of this kind of preaching was that the congregation got a range of voices they weren't used to hearing that often brought a fresh perspective to the text. People who weren't quite ready for a full solo preach had the opportunity to be mentored and gently introduced to preaching. Experienced preachers had to learn to be flexible and innovative in their own preparation.

Interactive preaching

Very few teaching environments involve a static passive audience listening to a monologue. It's not that there is no place for this kind of teaching, but it is important to realise that this is not the only way that the Bible should be taught – it wasn't even the normal way that the New Testament describes preaching taking place. Jesus often asked questions and responded to questions, as did the apostle Paul. So why don't we experiment with forms of preaching that will help the congregation delve more deeply into the word of God? This could begin with opening the service up with a question that people can discuss. Discussion could be provoked by a short video clip or a quote. When I read the Bible during my sermons I often ask the congregation to pay particular attention to parts they find most challenging, troubling or difficult. I get them to feed those back afterwards or I take questions. Most of the time it is easy to predict the queries a passage will raise, and they'll be covered in your sermon notes. But there is also something exciting about hearing what God might be saying to the congregation through any particular passage that you may not have picked up on by preparing in a study or in advance.

Globally connected preaching

We are called to be a global family. We are told that when one part of the body suffers the whole suffers. When one part of the body rejoices the whole rejoices. Looking at the New Testament epistles, there is a sense of this global communion as Christians are informed about how things are going in the other churches. Sometimes Paul will challenge Christians by the generosity of other churches (check out the Macedonians in 1 Corinthians, for example). In our digitally connected age it is strange that we don't use these tools more effectively. I've enjoyed live Skyping with Christians facing difficulties around the world and asking them to teach us about serving God in hard places. I know of other churches that link up with missionaries or partner churches around the globe and know something of the privilege both to be prayed for by these believers and to offer prayer for them.

Response preaching

As a student at university my mentor used to take me on road trips when he was preaching in different contexts. Sometimes he would use the journey to help me work out how to prepare a sermon. Sometimes he would ask me to give my testimony as part of the event he was preaching at. But one time he asked me to listen live to the talk and lead the response time at the end. I had never listened more closely to a sermon! Of course if you replicate this in your church, you could give a bit more warning by sending your sermon skeleton or script to someone in advance. Why not choose someone you know may have a gift in prayer or ministry. Why not choose someone you know whose testimony connects with the theme of your talk? Or why not choose someone spontaneously you can see has been listening intently and may have something to share?

Whole book preaching

In an increasingly biblically illiterate Church, it might be a great time to switch things around and instead of preaching just one verse at a time, one paragraph or even one chapter at a time why not try and preach a whole book in one sitting. Teaching in this way may help our congregations to be able to navigate their Bibles more effectively. Books of the Bible that are rarely taught are made accessible to people. When was the last time you heard a sermon on Lamentations? or Ezekiel? or Jude? There are lots of books that don't fit into a neat sermon series and therefore get overlooked for years, if not decades. You may not want to do a whole year of teaching like this. But why not try a five-week series teaching the Pentateuch or a 12-week series on the Minor Prophets?

'What would Jesus say?'

Our little church was seeking to teach a series on some of the big issues facing society and we wanted to make the services accessible to people who don't normally do church. So we tied the series to personalities that people in our community could relate to. We covered topics such as sport (What would Jesus say to Alex Ferguson?), hospitality (What would Jesus say to Jamie Oliver?) politics (What would Jesus say to Boris Johnson?) and friendship (What would Jesus say to J K Rowling?) It was a fun series. We started with a short biographical sketch/quiz of the person in question and a group discussion to see what members of the congregation thought God might want to say the person in question or which parts of the Bible might be particularly appropriate to them at this time in their lives. Then the preacher would open up a Bible passage that they had prepared that touched on a theme that was significant in the person's life. We tied to the morning preaching to events that the whole church and invited friends could get involved in – an all-age football match, a bring and share lunch, a litter pick and a hustings, for example.

Vocation based preaching

My sister-in-law boasts that her church contains more than her fair share of dentists. Perhaps, I tell her, they should meet in the afternoons – around 2.30? Joking aside, churches do seem to collect groups from similar types of jobs. Perhaps you have a lot of education-based members – students, teachers, teaching assistants, dinner ladies or head teachers. Perhaps you have a lot of health professionals – nurses, counsellors, community nurses or doctors. Perhaps you have a lot of social care workers – foster carers, local politicians, care workers or looked after children. Perhaps you have a lot of creative professionals – artists, musicians, dancers, chefs. Why not organise a teaching series thinking about what God has to say into these fields? You could involve people from each profession in the service. Some could lead prayers for this sector, some could give testimonies, some could share bible passages that had inspired or sustained them in the work that they do, others could preach and lead.

I am not saying that any or all of these strategies will guarantee brilliant preaching, but as we engage with our Bibles differently, perhaps its message will come over in new and exciting ways, reminding us again that God's word is powerful, relevant and trustworthy. Why not try a few and find out?

(c) Christian voice newspaper

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