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If It's Not How-to, It's Not Preaching (pt. 1)

A forum on protecting and respecting this practical preaching style.

This is part one of a three-part series.

PreachingToday.com: There are two ways to look at how-to preaching—a broad definition and a narrow definition. The narrow is the way that how-to preaching is used pejoratively, which we will talk about shortly. The broader definition is sermons that are framed as how-to—that is they give steps or principles about how to get whatever you're after in your life: the knowledge of God, a peaceful marriage, whatever.

Given that broad definition, do you preach how-to sermons?

Dave Ferguson: I'm not sure I would have thought of our church's teaching as "how-to," but, on the other hand, if someone was to leave after a weekend experience and not feel like they had a new way to live out the Jesus mission we talk about, I would feel like we didn't do our job.

We have a teaching team, and we collaborate on all our talks. We write our messages in community. When we're doing that, in the same way that an individual will get stuck when trying to write a message, we will often get something like writer's block. Those times we get stuck, we'll come back to Stuart Briscoe. He gives this outline for preparing to preach: What? So what? Now what? And whenever we get stuck, we go back to that. What are we trying to say? So what's the big deal about this; what's so important that we need to take this thirty minutes? And now what do we want people to do? And on that now what part, that's where, every time, we want to give them either a new way to think, a new way to act, or something new that they're supposed to be. So, in that respect, I guess I'd feel comfortable saying our teaching is "how-to."

Colin Smith: I come from the perspective of being committed to expository preaching. But all preaching has to be earthed. It has to connect with the lives and experience of people. Although preaching can arise directly from the Scripture and be driven by the Scripture, that is not enough. Where does it land?

Give me a recent example of a how-to sermon that you felt bore fruit.

Smith: I did a series called "Keeping Yourself in Spiritual Shape" that came from the last few verses of Jude and walked through principles of what it means to build yourself up in faith, to pray in the Spirit, and so forth. But the way in which it was titled and the image of spiritual fitness and keeping in shape seemed to open people up to the message in a way that was entirely different from if I had said there's going to be a series on the end of Jude for the next few weeks.

Ferguson: The series we just finished was called "Impossible Is Nothing" based on Jesus' teaching that if you have the faith of a mustard seed, when you say to this mountain move from here to there, it will move; nothing will be impossible with you. The second week into this experience we had everybody write one prayer on a Post-it note—because we wanted them, for that whole month during this series, to dare to pray a mountain-moving prayer.

People came up after the meeting and put the prayers on a giant poster board that said faith on it. During the series I was back in the café area after the message, and a guy who was there for the first time, just taking his first steps on his way back to God, came up to our campus pastor and told him he wanted to be baptized. The campus pastor said, "What brought you to this decision?"

He said, "I don't know. I just feel like God's really working on me today." Then our pastor noticed over the man's shoulder that there was a lady crying behind him. It turned out it was his mom. She said, "I just have to tell you. When I filled out my Post-it today, I was praying that you would decide to get baptized."

What percentage of your preaching would you say is presented through the title, promotion, announcements, in such a way that it could be called a how-to sermon? People are promised something that they would want in their life.

Smith: I would hope that it was most, if not all, of what I'm doing now. Which I hope is some evidence of growth from where I was before. I look back with embarrassment on my early years in preaching. In my second year as a pastor, I preached a series on Jeremiah that lasted fifty weeks, and it was called "Jeremiah."

I would not do that nowadays. Now, I would preach Jeremiah, but I would find a way of framing it that shows the connection upfront. I preached a series on Micah for ten weeks last year, and we called it "Close Encounters with the Living God." We played up the Close Encounters image. We're doing an expository series at the moment on just one psalm: Psalm 73. It's called "I Almost Gave Up: Practical Help for Discouraged Believers."

Ferguson: I'd share the same sentiment. I think there are only two series in the last four years that had a title that began with "How To__." But our intention every week is to make sure that people walk away with something that helps them better live out the mission of Jesus. And when we're living out the mission of Jesus, we are always living in our best interest. Not necessarily success-wise, but at least significance-wise.

In part two of this interview, Ferguson and Smith discuss the benefits of how-to preaching and address some of its criticisms.

Dave Ferguson is the lead pastor of Community Christian Church in Naperville, Illinois. Dave provides visionary leadership for NewThing and he is the president and board chair for Exponential. Dave is also an adjunct professor at Wheaton Graduate School and the author of many Christian leadership books including The Big Idea (Zondervan, 2007).

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