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5 Veins of Deep Preaching

When our church said, "We want deeper preaching," here's what they meant.

Several years ago, our teaching team decided it would be good for us to get some feedback from our people about our preaching. Their overwhelming response was "We want deeper messages." I was surprised and a little taken back by this since I felt that we already were creating reasonably deep messages. We decided to probe further by asking people what depth meant to them. Again their answers surprised and confused us. While everyone wanted deeper messages, they differed widely on what "deeper" meant. Not only were our messages missing the target for many people, they disagreed on what the target actually was.

After analyzing their responses further, though, the feedback started to make sense. We were able to group people's ideas about deeper preaching into five areas, and we began thinking through how to increase the depth of our sermons in each of these areas. As we began viewing depth as a multifaceted reality, it revolutionized the way we planned series and developed messages. Our preaching team now digs down for five aspects of sermon depth.

1. Biblical depth

Biblical depth centers around exploring the primary passage of the message. This involves processing the richness of the original context, leading people through the nuances of the text, and helping them to develop a broader biblical framework by connecting the passage to other parts of Scripture. Biblical depth opens people's eyes to the value of Scripture and anchors them to the truth of God's Word. While people are generally less interested in the conjugation of Greek and Hebrew verbs and the opinions of various commentators, they do value exploring the world of the biblical writers and connecting their thoughts to the broader themes found in Scripture.

As an example of a pastor who provides biblical depth in an accessible way, I think of John Ortberg, pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California. (http://mppc.org)

We recently did a message series at our church called Kings, in which we used a Discovery Channel approach to understanding the kings of Israel and Judah. We handed our people an oversized playing card that contained the names of each king, placed on a timeline, with key pertinent information and a simple visual reference to the trajectory of their spiritual life (for example, a spade represented a king that turned away from God). This helped to make a difficult biblical history both understandable and fun.

Biblical depth matters because our words lack the capacity to transform people in the way God's Word does. No matter how thoughtful, eloquent, or persuasive our messages may be, they are only as powerful as our ability to connect the hearer to the heart of Scripture.

2. Intellectual depth

Intellectual depth brings added reflection to the main idea of a message, thinking through the questions, issues, and perspectives raised by the Scriptural text. This depth gives greater context by connecting to a range of thought and opinion on the subject.

My tendency is to focus on the what of a passage (What does this passage say?) and then move quickly to the how (How does this work in our lives?). I easily neglect the why question (Why is this important to God? Why do we struggle with this? And so on). Intellectual depth comes from probing the why questions that arise from a passage of Scripture.

Of the preachers whom I regularly listen to, the one who excels at connecting people to the why question is Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, New York, (http://sermons.redeemer.com/store/). The intellectual depth of these preachers expands people's thinking, demonstrates the depth of God's wisdom, and proves that Christian thought can not only stand alongside but also lead its secular counterparts.

Last fall we spent several weeks exploring what the fourth chapter of Philippians says about joy. Some of the why questions we asked were: Why do we wrestle to have joy? Why do Christians battle against depression and anxiety? Why do Christians, who believe that joy comes from God, often choose to look for it in other places? This process of working through what was behind our struggles to have joy transformed this series from an encouraging reminder into a voyage of discovery.

3. Experiential depth

Experiential depth opens a supernatural dynamic in the message. Strong preaching not only comments on what God had to say long ago, but it also invites him to speak in the moment. People need not only to learn about God, they need to experience God. One way we do that is by creating moments for hearers to become more aware of God's presence during the course of our messages. Those moments can be as simple as a time of reflection, a moment of prayer, or an activity designed to draw people into the immediate presence of God.

For instance, one of my favorite services of the year is on Good Friday. We have a tradition that has become meaningful for our people. We set aside a portion of our service to reflect on our individual sins and to write down the specific ways in which we have failed God over the previous year. After processing through the list with God and asking his forgiveness, every person carries their sins to a wooden cross and drives a nail through them, connecting them personally to Christ's sacrifice on their behalf. It is a transcendent, sacred moment that powerfully communicates the message of the gospel. Our history has shown that in that experience, the presence of God often touches people.

Bill Hybels and the teaching team at Willow Creek Church in South Barrington, Illinois, are well known for providing experiential depth in their sermons. (www.willowcreek.org)

We have found that the more we create opportunities that invite God to work, the greater the work that our people experience him doing. Of course, God always lives in the preaching of his Word and is active in the hearts of listeners, and we are not looking to manufacture manipulative, emotional moments. But people in our culture increasingly process life through an experiential lens. Usually the younger the congregation is, the more this holds true. Our ability to lead the next generation spiritually hinges on our capacity to connect them to the presence of God through our message.

4. Cultural depth

Cultural depth targets greater insight into relevant cultural issues. There is a constant flood of ideas emanating from our culture—from politics, technology, movies, books, music, mass marketing, the internet—that form a national conversation, of which our people are a part. This conversation is impacting their lives and shaping their perspective. Our role is to help people understand how the ideas of Jesus intersect with and influence that discussion.

Last fall, we did a message series called Lost in Suburbia. We understood that though suburbanites live in close proximity to one another, they are relationally isolated. We are all alone—together. We explored this phenomenon and how it connects to Jesus' teachings about relationships and community.

Too often, Christians have a knee-jerk reaction to our culture—either embracing it uncritically or rejecting it without really taking the time to understand it. Thinking through the nuances of our time and place in history is an essential part of contextualizing the message of Christ in a language native to our culture. This is a pivotal choice for the church as a whole—we cannot afford to be either spiritually compromised or culturally isolated. Rather, we must find ways to preach the unchanging truth of Jesus Christ in a way the people around us can understand.

Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Church in Atlanta, is an example of a preacher who provides cultural depth. (www.northpoint.org)

5. Applicational depth

Depth in sermon application provides a concrete pathway for people to integrate the ideas of the message into their everyday lives. This kind of depth is centered on specific next steps, easy-to-grasp handles, and clear how-to's—items people can act on immediately after hearing a message.

Our church emphasizes this. We regularly provide our people with take-home activities, guides, and resources to reinforce the message and help them take the first steps in making it real in their lives. Increasingly we have been finding ways to connect our message to social media such as blogs, Facebook, and Twitter to create environments that continue and expand the dialogue around how to live out our faith.

We always ask ourselves, "As a result of this message, what are we asking our people to do—and how are we going to support them in it?" This intention shapes the way we approach our messages. Preaching can transform people not only on the weekend, but the other six days of the week as well. By helping people make good decisions, engage in healthy behaviors, and develop life-transforming habits, we lead them towards the abundant life that God has promised to all who follow him.

David Daniels and the team at Pantego Bible Church in Fort Worth, Texas, is an example of a church that does an exemplary job at providing depth in sermon application. (see www.pantego.org)

Although we aim to preach with a multi-faceted perspective on depth, I've found it's better to focus on one or two areas of depth in any one message. Though we cannot drill down into each area during every message, we seek to balance them out over the course of a year. In developing our preaching calendar, we not only plan the subjects, we also prayerfully consider the depth gauges of various series.

In an age when we are literally flooded with information, we need to be sure that the message of Christ has staying power with our hearers. Depth adds value, sets our words apart from the background noise of our culture, and builds lasting change. When we embrace a multi-faceted understanding of depth into our preaching, we have the best chance to leave a lasting mark on the hearts of others.

Scott Chapman is senior pastor of The Chapel, in Grayslake, Illinois. www.chapel.org

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