what’s your problem? :: writing relevant sermons

April 5, 2011

Yesterday I posted six sermon prep tips :: how i get ready to preach– a three minute drill on what I think through as I’m getting prepped for a message.  I stuck to the “from the hip” format yesterday.  It was my three minute answer to a Bible School student asking for pointers as he prepared his first sermon.

Today I want to follow my list up with an important seventh step (which, to be honest, should probably be #4). Let’s call it, “What’s your problem?”

Here’s what I mean.  I walk a tightrope when I think about preaching. As a Seminary student I haven’t yet been in the position where I have to chart out a majority of the the preaching a schedule for a church over the course of a year.  I have given several messages over my last sixteen years in ministry, but as a Worship and Executive Pastor, my teaching came as individual messages, or once in awhile in a series of two, back to back.  Without the constraints of a preaching schedule, I have had the luxury of handpicking an issue or passage of scripture that was really resonating with me at that moment.  This gave me the opportunity to dig into the Word and let God speak deeply to my heart in an area I was wrestling with.  To use a common buzz word, this made the messages I was giving very relevant to me.

So what do I mean by walking a tightrope?

The joke in the Lutheran Seminary preaching classes I’ve been in this year is, “You can preach a topical message once a year… and then you go home and repent.”

And yet, TOPICAL preachers often choose to preach that way because they feel it makes their messages more RELEVANT to their congregation.  That’s not a bad desire.  The point of the joke is this:  As preachers of THE WORD, our job is to exposit (draw meaning out of) the Bible.  God’s Word has the power to change lives.  We err when we start with our own ideas, and then use random passages from scripture out of context as “proof texts” to solidify our idea.  The key phrase there being “OUR idea.”  Currently I am on staff at Living Hope Church, where the preaching tends to be more topical.  But I would contend that, done well, this form of preaching can be Spirit-filled and expository – illuminating truth from God that He has spoken about in a number of passages.

“Walking the tightrope” here means living in tension between Gospel-centric expository preaching, and relevant, topical expository preaching.  As long as you are using a truly exegetical hermeneutic (taking truth FROM the text instead of using the text to support pre-determined ideology), I think that BOTH styles of preaching are Biblical, powerful, and effective…  In fact, I would contend further that this is not an either/or discussion.  I think you can (and should!) often do BOTH at the SAME TIME.

But we need to unpack this idea of “relevance” a little further.  How many churches these days use “relevance” as a marketing buzz word?  It’s everywhere.  There is even a fascinating magazine targeting Christian 20 somethings called RELEVANT.  I’m a subscriber.  Not because I endorse everything in it, but because it is a great picture of how this generation of Christians thinks – about life, about God, about church.  To them, “relevance” is a high priority.  And often, “church as usual” feels like more of a religious hamster wheel than the forceful Kingdom-building, earth-changing, love-powered Body of Christ they want to be a part of.

To be honest, I understand that frustration.  Since high school, I have OFTEN said, “I don’t want to play church.”  NO WAY.  I want to BE the CHURCH, and as a preacher, I pray the Holy Spirit works in power through me, to save souls and to stir the congregation of saints on to real LOVE and life-changing GOOD WORKS.  But I don’t think that the desire for relevance comes from a lack of relevance in the Bible.  That could hardly be farther from the truth.

Instead, whether or not messages are structured topically or as exegetical studies of a certain passage, our job as preachers is not to “make the text relevant” to our listeners.  Instead, our job is to help them see HOW the text IS relevant for them.  Right now.  Today.

That leads me to me to my seventh (or fourth, if you insert it into my last post) tip for sermon prep… the one I’ve called, “What’s your problem?”

In his book Biblical Preaching, Pastor Haddon W. Robinson said, “Effective delivery begins with desires…”  If you want to preach in a way that makes the message you are speaking immediately relevant, you need to ask yourself, “So, what?”  In other words, “What desire in my listeners does this message address.”  In other words, “Why does this matter?”  In other words, “What are the consequences of these people NOT hearing this message?”  In other words, “What problem in the lives of these people does this message from  God seek to address?”

In other words, “What is your problem?”

Note that I’m not suggesting you start with a problem and then scramble to find texts to support your best answer.  Rather, I’m suggesting starting with a text, and asking “What problem is this text addressing?”  And you know what?  Jesus is going to be in the center of that tension.  The cross is going to be in the center of that solution.

As I’m prepping a message, and I want to make sure it comes across to people as a relevant, right-now message for them to hear and absorb and respond to today, I ask myself, “What’s your problem?”  And then I make sure to highlight that tension and give them a solution by message end.

To review then, here’s the updated sermon prep list, including this extra seventh bullet point that I felt required a bit more discussion.  Feel free to add to these (or challenge me if you think I’m off my rocker) in the comments below…

Sermon Preparation Tips

(1)  PRAY!  It’s God talking, not you.

(2)  Identify your target.  Believers? Not?

(3)  Figure out the BIG IDEA of the text (The main thing you think God is saying here in one sentence).

(4) Keep it relevant – ask “What’s your problem?” and then make sure you provide a solution from the text.

(5)  Make sure you are saying what the text says, not using it to prove your own ideas.

(6)  Think about the “KNOW, FEEL, and DO” before you write it out:

(7)  Make sure you include both LAW (our need for God) and GOSPEL (God’s solution in Jesus) in EVERY message.

 Creative Commons License
“what’s your problem? :: writing relevant sermons” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Posts Twitter Facebook Google+

Psalm 24:7 & Luke 10:42 >> Like David, and Mary, I'm in pursuit of my one thing. I'm the Pastor at St. Olaf Lutheran Church in Montgomery, IL. Pastor, teacher, writer, communicator, designer, and drummer. I definitely got the better deal in my marriage to Amy. And I couldn't be any more proud of my five amazing boys. Deeply grateful.

2 responses to what’s your problem? :: writing relevant sermons

  1. I think the word you are looking for is application vs. relevance. It is the hardest part of sermon prep, because of the deeply personal nature of application. The text must first be applied to the preacher before he can ever preach it. In so doing the preaching is being exposed, the text is applied to the personal life of the preacher. The Holy Spirit takes the Word and applies it to the preachers life, in my case revealing the depth of my sin again and again and again and…again, I think you get my point. As a preacher sits under the Word and it is applied to him, so then you, as the preacher, must share how the Word is applied to the lives of the listener allowing the Holy Spirit to do the same or similar or totally different work (He does that some times because it’s His prerogative to do whatever He wants since He is God and all) in the listeners.

    The expository sermon then has the ability to be both topical – through application and truly expository – finger in the text and in the text alone. Expository preaching fails to be “relevant” when it is not applied or the preacher does not allow the text to be applied to him personally.

    2 quotes about preaching that impacted me.

    “I want to know Christ, not because it makes me preach better, but because it allows me to preach with integrity. It allows me to preach with hope, with a sensitive heart and with conviction. And that’s better than preaching better.” Ed Rowell

    “If the preacher is not first preaching to himself, better that he falls on the steps of the pulpit and breaks his neck than preaches that sermon.” John Calvin

    • Jason – this is awesome. Thanks for your thoughtful response. I think you are exactly right. I know that “relevance” gets thrown around a lot, but you put a finer point on it.

      You said, “Expository preaching fails to be ‘relevant’ when it is not applied or the preacher does not allow the text to be applied to him personally.” DING DING DING! 🙂 I agree.

      Further, I think topical preaching OFTEN misses the mark in that it fails to be truly expository out of a search for “relevance.” However, I’m not ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater completely. I do think it is possible to discuss a topic by looking at multiple passages that address it – it is just imperative that we do the hard prayerful work of making sure we communicate what the TEXT has to say, rather than “proof texting” our talking points. I think that can be effective – and Biblical – and Spirit-led… it’s just hard to do.

      Likewise, I suppose, truly expository preaching is also “hard to do,” in that there is an limitless well of spiritual truth in the Word. It’s alive and it speaks today, so we need to repent, pray, listen, and submit to the Spirit’s lead. Every time.

      I love what you had to say about the message speaking first for the preacher. And your quotes are fantastic.

      God bless, Jason. You’ve helped me think more clearly. Thanks much.