Pannenberg on Listening to Preaching

As I was doing some additional dissertation work last night, I came across a wonderful paragraph by Wolfart Pannenberg in his text Theology and the Kingdom of God which concerns how we might approach listening to sermons.

When people are equipped to listen judiciously, the sermon is no longer an authoritative word Wolfhart_Pannenberg-1of God but an attempt to reformulate the substantial truth of the Christian faith. This reformulation is carried out in the context of contemporary experience and understanding of reality in all dimensions of human existence. It should be related particularly to the life of the community which is invited to participate in the reformulation. Thus the sermon offers an example and some guidance for the members of the community in their own thinking about the Christian faith and its present truth. The people should not judge blindly, and certainly they should not uncritically parrot the ideas of their preacher. Rather they are called to reflect in an educated and responsible way, taking into account not only theoretical information but also a comprehensive understanding of their won life’s experience. Preachers should make a special effort to speak to the concreteness of life experience.(emphasis mine)

He goes on to talk about how the goal is to recognize the maturity and autonomy of the individual. This is the goal of equipping the saints for the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:12-16.) In our day of superstar, celebrity preachers who offer kind words of encouragement with little substance behind them the call for preachers to equip their congregations with critical thinking skills is rare. Yet in his wisdom, Professor Pannenberg is encouraging the orators among us to do just that.

May we endeavor to accomplish such a calling.

Feb 2014



Encountering God: A Sermon

Recently, I was able to preach in the Sunday services at Sugar Creek Baptist Church where I serve as the pastor to Young Marrieds. My topic was around the idea of encountering God in the midst of our lives. You can check out the sermon here:

Encountering God

One of the things that I believe is that so many of us miss opportunities to encounter God because we are dialed into our everyday lives and frequently distracted. However, as God is working in the world there are opportunities to encounter His presence and capture something amazing.

My primary text came from Luke 28:13-35 there the resurrected Jesus meets with two of His followers, Cleopas and a companion, during their trip between Jerusalem and Emmaus. So often, God encounters people in the middle of their journey, this seems like an appropriate scene to use.

Behind our encounters with God is the big idea of the text:  God places divine moments in our journeys to capture our attention and communicate his grace.

The reality is God desires to meet with His people and we an experience the blessing of His presence in our lives if we are looking for it. As the writer of Hebrews reminds us in Hebrews 13:2 some of us have even  “…welcomed angels as guests without knowing it.”

The real tragedy in the life of too many followers of Jesus is that they’ve gone their entire Christian lives without a meaningful experience of God’s true presence. As a result the Christian life isn’t what they expect and isn’t fulfilling the needs they have. Encountering God in the midst of our everyday journeys allows us to capture a renewed vision and experience His grace.

So what are you doing to put yourself in a place where you can see God at work and encounter the blessing of His grace and presence? Is this a goal you frequently seek out throughout your life?

Jan 2014



Pastors and Sermon Research Help

While strolling through my Twitter timeline I noticed a discussion between Dr Anthony Bradley and Jared Wilson about pastoral sermon preparation and research firms that provide assistance. Dr Bradley’s take was that this is a bad idea and is a kind of corruption of the pastoral office. Here is Dr Bradley’s tweet. (As a note, I do respect Dr Bradley and his work on a great number of topics.)

In case you’re not familiar (which most people aren’t) with the situation, there are several sermon research firms out there that, for a fee, partner with a pastor (usually of a church that can afford such a fee) to provide research of illustrations, statistics, stories, and other background information for sermons. One of the primary groups that provides this service is Docent which has been around since the early part of this century. There are a couple of other firms also.

Over the past several years this kind of sermon development has come under fire from some theologians (though usually not practioneers) and other folks who observe a lot of what goes on in churches. In an earlier post, Carl Trueman made note of this trend when he pronounced: “One instinctively knows it is strange and feels it is wrong; but as with many such well-intentioned things, it can be hard to articulate precisely why.” Jared Wilson provided an excellent reply in his post over at The Gospel Coalition titled: “What Does Docent Research Do?” So, what should we think about these services?

Personally, I know of at least two dozen pastors who utilize this service. While in seminary, I was asked to lead a team for Docent. Though I turned them down, it was not for philosophical or theological reasons…I simply had too much going on, I still respect the service that Docent provides. Several of my friends in seminary did work for Docent and had a good experience with them. For the pastors I know who use Docent, or another sermon research group, they are usually rather happy with the process.

Essentially, and Jared summarizes this well from his own personal experience, this is a person or group of people who are given sermon topics, titles and Scriptural passages already developed by a preaching pastor. The task is to then provide some illustrations, stories, statistics, and other relevant sermon components to recommend to a pastor in their preparation for that sermon. As Jared, and others, point out, these research firms do not write the sermons for a pastor.

I’m not certain why some who are or aren’t actively involved in vocational church ministry would have a bone of contention with these groups. We all know plenty of theologians (I can start naming some them if we wish) who use the services of TAs and GAs to do research for them in preparing articles, books, and other scholarly materials. This seems to be the same kind of service.

The research firm doesn’t write the final sermon/paper but it does help with some of the research. Just like a theologian in their office.

From my own experience I’ve known pastors who had their sermons written by a staff member. In fact, I know of one very significant pastor who, in the past, would have his sermons written out, exegesis and all, by a faculty member of the seminary near their church. The pastor would rise up to the pulpit on Sundays and read off the sermon, its illustrations, and entire content…in a television ministry church.

That seems to be more of a problem than the work of a group like Docent.

So when I see other tweets like this one, it seems we’ve missed the point:

Bradley Tweet 3

For my take, so long as the pastor is developing the sermon wholly on their own, using their own exegesis, their own ideas, while also checking a document of possible illustrations, stories, statistics, and other relevant data, this is makes the sermon no less biblical nor any less honest.

What is a problem is when a pastor has their sermons written out by someone else completely, and they simply stand and deliver. This is not what sermon research firms do and it isn’t accurate to characterize them as agents of plagiarization. In fact, the kind of service they provide for a church is no different than the service provided by so many TAs and GAs for theologians and scholars in almost every discipline and academic field. For those who prepare these briefs for pastors, usually seminarians or junior associate ministers, this is a helpful discipline to inform them and educate them on their own sermon preparation. As these sermons are delivered under the grace of God, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and always pointing to the Cross of Jesus Christ, much Kingdom work is done in the hearts of those who need a closer connection with God.

More than a few churches employ in house research personnel, and one of the fastest growing trends is using a collaborative team (or creative team) to help with the overall presentation and planning of a sermon and sermon series.

Now if a pastor is downloading and preaching complete sermons without attribution, if they are opening to Spurgeon and reading, and if they are stealing first person illustrations from another pastor and applying them to own lives, these are problems worth confronting. However, I see no difference in these two acts.

So what do you think? What did I miss? Is this a proper comparison?




Length of Sermons

Thom Rainer has a great post on some non-scientific (but pretty accurate) data he collected from an informal Twitter survey. Dr Rainer asked how long your pastor usually preaches.

Here’s a quick chart that summarizes his findings:

Dr Rainer then develops several takeaways which are worth exploring.

  • Most pastors preach sermons lasting in a relatively small range: from 26 minutes to 45 minutes. Of those reporting, 85% of the sermons fell in that time range.
  • The median of all the times reported was 36 minutes. That means that 50% of the sermons were shorter than 36 minutes, and 50% were longer than 36 minutes.
  • Among the laypersons who offered comments, six out of ten thought the length of the pastor’s sermon was just right. Four out of ten thought the sermon was too long. None thought the sermon was too short. (source)

The length of a sermon is always a touchy subject for both preachers and their congregations. Since our churches are, by and large, still bound to somewhat agrarian scheduling (the 11:00 service is usually our main one) the length of the message often has a critical stopping point resting against it…Sunday lunch.

It seems to be an accurate observation that the average sermon is right at 36 minutes. From my experiences, I would say the window of 35-40 is probably about normal for most evangelical churches. Of course, in my first church our of seminary, the pastor got up to preach and would go for a solid hour before he stopped. Guest preachers were expected to hold to the same pattern.

For those of us in the “business” side of ministry, it should be comforting to know that most of our people think that sermons are just the right length. Perhaps this kind of qualifier is due to people enjoying their own pastor’s style to which they’ve grown accustom, along with the reality that if you don’t like the length of a sermon you can just head down the road.

One of the practices which I’ve tried to keep up for the past 10 years is who I listen to during the week. Thanks to the amazing technology in my smartphone, I can instantly listen to the most recent update of anyone of 10 preachers I subscribe to through this service. In my quick, even less formal, poll I noticed that they all went between 35 and 45 minutes. Only two of them are confined by radio ministry. Several of the preachers on my device preach longer than 45 minutes. That is for long runs on the treadmill usually.

It is compelling that younger preachers are going about preaching longer. I wonder if there is any correlation to one’s theological disposition and the length of preaching. Perhaps not, but it would be an interesting poll. The younger pastors I follow (with several exceptions) are almost all preaching over 45 minutes to nearly an hour. That says something about our rising generations. My own preference is to preach for 30 minutes max. If I can’t make my main point in that time, I need to do better at honing my homiletical approach.

Anyways, just a couple of thoughts this morning. Dr Rainer is an excellent voice in the church world and you should read whatever he puts out. You’ll benefit and your ministry will increase. So what are you seeing?

What are you seeing in your church? How long are the sermons? Do you prefer longer or shorter sermons?

Jun 2013