4 Diagnostic Questions for Every Sermon
Providing the baseline for your sermon.
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As we launch a new series of skills articles called "Back to the Basics," we asked a younger preacher (Daniel Fusco) and a veteran preacher of almost 25 years (Matt Woodley, Editor of PreachingToday.com) to weigh in on the four basics of every good sermon. Think of them as four simple, routine, diagnostic questions that will help you prepare every sermon. It's like going to the doctor's office for a routine checkup. They almost always ask the same set of questions: What's your weight? What's your temperature? What's your blood pressure? What meds are you currently taking? It's basic stuff, but it provides the baseline for the rest of your checkup. In the same way, these four questions provide the baseline for everything else in your sermon.
So here are the four basic, routine, diagnostic questions we asked Fusco and Woodley to address:
- What does the text say?
- What does the text mean today?
- How is the Holy Spirit leading us through this text?
- Where is Jesus in this text?
What does the text say?
Daniel Fusco: As I approach preaching the Bible in an expositional manner, I need to begin with my particular text. What does it actually say? As preachers, we can constantly battle lesser pursuits, but our main job each Sunday is clear: to explain a specific text so our listeners clearly understand what the original author was attempting to express to the original hearers of the text.
So I always have to begin by understanding (for myself) and then articulating (for others) what the text is saying in that context. This involves literary, historical, and exegetical analysis to help people connect the text we are studying with the entire scope of the Bible and, ultimately, with the plausible application it confers on our current culture.
I think of the goal of preaching this way: to hide behind the text. That means I want the text—and nothing else—to take center stage. I want to explain it definitively in a way that is simple, yet not simplistic; easy to grasp, yet still challenging. I want to lay out the playing field, to help the people of God understand the heart and ways of God.
Matt Woodley: I love what Daniel is saying here. I've spent the last five years as the editor of PreachingToday.com reading and listening to hundreds of sermons. I've also spent many hours coaching other preachers—either before or after they preach. And here's one of the top five pieces of advice I'd give to the preachers in America (and across the world, too, at least based on my time in Africa and Asia): give us more Bible! Please! Give us more of the text. Base what you say more on a specific text—or even a series of related texts (although that's a little trickier).
Of course there's the other end of the spectrum, too—preachers who bore people to death by only exegeting a biblical text. As John Stott said more than 25 years ago, preaching always involves the fine art and craft of bridging two worlds: the biblical text and today's world. Preachers can err on one side or the other, but it seems to me that most preachers today stay on the "today's world" or the "here's my very interesting opinion and thoughts" side of that bridge.
While he was visiting the United States before all hell broke loose in Nazi Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer attended a worship service in midtown Manhattan. In a diary entry dated Sunday, July 2,1939, Bonhoeffer wrote, "Church, Park Avenue. Rev. ____ on 'Today is ours,' no text, no echo of Christian proclamation. Rather a disappointment … The Americans speak so much about freedom in their sermons … [but] freedom for the church comes from the necessity of the Word of God … Whether the church in America is really 'free' I doubt. They are lonely Sundays over here. Only the Word makes a true community." Need I say more? Preach the Word.
What does the text mean today?
Daniel Fusco: In this second routine diagnostic question, I'm moving the application of the text to our lives here and now. I like to say that biblical theology is meant to be an embodied theology. We don't want to leave the Bible as ancient stories and accounts. God desires for us, as his family, to live out a God-besought reality where we find ourselves desperately desiring his presence in our lives today. I believe that helping people apply the unchanging and timeless truths of the Scriptures to their everyday lives is one of the reasons that teachers are gifts given to the church (Eph. 4:11-12).
The practice of applying the principles we glean from the text to our present lives and culture is hard work. I can study the Bible at the church office, but I need to start doing my application work in my favorite coffee shop. Understanding what the text says is bookwork. I need to surround myself with commentaries, lexicons, and other scholastic resources to successfully mine the nuggets in the text. But this diagnostic question thrusts me into my people's lives, people in all sorts of different life situations and stages.
Matt Woodley: Preaching must be made accessible and then applied to human hearts and communities in specific life situations. And as Daniel has said, that takes work. It's also a labor of love. This diagnostic question always starts with relationships. Here's a simple formula: visitation application. In other words, your application doesn't just come from the text; it also comes from what you know about your people. How does this specific text apply to the needs, sinful tendencies, questions, longings, and struggles of the people in your community at this particular point in time? If you don't have at least an inkling of an answer to that question, your applications won't lead to life change.
So here's my advice: visit your people. Ask questions and listen to their struggles and questions. Every time I write a sermon, I sit with what I call my "imaginary sermon prep committee." So, for instance, this imaginary committee might include the following real people: Cindy, the wounded and skeptical unbeliever from the coffee shop; Gabi, the 40-something mother of four; Robby, the successful bond trader; Tim, the 26-year-old single guy who struggles with same-sex attraction. Of course, that imaginary committee continually includes new real people, but you get the idea. They force me to ask, "How does this particular text speak to their lives right now? How does this text help them understand and know and follow and grow closer to Jesus?"
How is the Spirit leading through this text?
Daniel Fusco: This third diagnostic question continually reminds me that the deepest truths of Scripture are conveyed through the text to people in the Spirit of truth, who indwells the follower of Jesus. I'm trying to bring that into reality week after week by giving the Spirit of God room to work in my study prep time. I'm asking the Lord for the Spirit's supernatural guidance. Our work is not primarily literary or intellectual. Our work is spiritual and supernatural! I fear that many of us are not giving the Spirit room to lead in our preparation, application, and even in our proclamation.
So I want my sermon prep and delivery to be more led by the Spirit, knowing that "… those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God" (Romans 8:14). This is not an area that we can leave to presumption.
Matt Woodley: Agreed! At PreachingToday.com, we believe that preaching is a craft. I would even add that it's a human craft. But, of course, it's also a supernatural process and event in which the Holy Spirit speaks through his Word to the people Christ has purchased for himself.
Consider for a moment how utterly foolish preaching is—on a human level, that is. You and I—such sinful, flawed, and limited creatures—dare to stand up before a group of people and say, "Thus says the Lord." And then we draw out the implications of the Word of God and apply it specifically to their lives. Who is worthy for such a task? It's presumptuous and downright ridiculous … unless the Holy Spirit is behind it all.
I remember at one point in my pastoral career, I was preaching every week in the midst of great personal pain and physical weariness. I remember telling God every Sunday, "Lord, I can't do this. If you don't show up, I have nothing to say." And week after week, the Holy Spirit showed up in quiet but miraculous ways. During that dark season, God taught me an important lesson: "I'll need him just as much for every sermon for the rest of my life." To apply a saying of Jesus: "With man preaching is impossible, but with God all things are possible."
Where is Jesus in this text?
Daniel Fusco: This question reminds me, as a preacher, that Jesus is the centerpiece of every sermon. The big story of Scripture always leads back to him. Jesus himself said (speaking of what we call the Old Testament): "You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me" (John 5:39). The entire Bible testifies of the work of the Father through the Son, applied by the Spirit. So my goal is to preach Jesus from every text.
I also need to add that sometimes it seems like we can neglect to proclaim all of the social implications of the message of Jesus. We have a tendency to want to proclaim only one side of the Good News—the part about Jesus conquering sin and death and making dead people alive. We should love to preach the good news of imputed righteousness and personal salvation. Yet at the same time, that message has massive social implications. We need to proclaim that part of the Good News, too. This point is way too important to dismiss, particularly in light of the social issues of our day and the ever-growing need for the presence of the church in this world.
Matt Woodley: I recently spoke with a wise church leader who had an insightful critique of a sermon she had just heard. "It was all about having faith, and the need to walk by faith," she said, "but the message never brought us to the source of our faith—Jesus. It was all about us trying to get more faith, not more Jesus."
I recall Tim Keller once mentioning a more positive critique that his wife Kathy gave to one of his sermons. She said that when Tim preached on the text and our response to the text, it was all grounded in God's Word, for sure, but then when he got to Jesus—the hero of the story, the source of our faith and redemption and obedience to the text—Kathy Keller said (I'm paraphrasing), "Tim, you started to soar, and we started to soar, and it all led us right into the presence of Jesus."
I'm all for doing careful exegesis of each specific text, given its original culture and audience, but at some point, every sermon needs to soar toward and with and in and through Jesus. This diagnostic question always leads to a parallel question: am I throwing my people back on their own resources, or am I leading them to Jesus? So along with "give people more Bible," I'd also add another "top five" piece of advice: give people more Jesus in your preaching. It's hard to overdo that.
Daniel Fusco is the Lead Pastor of Crossroads Community Church in Vancouver, WA.