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If It's Not How-To, It's Not Preaching (pt. 3)

A forum on protecting and respecting this practical preaching style

This is part three of a three-part series. In parts one and two, Ferguson and Smith provide a healthy definition of how-to preaching and discuss some advantages and disadvantages of the style.

One criticism of how-to preaching is it is often based on biographical or narrative texts, and the sermons violate the intent of the text. As Haddon Robinson says, the book of Ruth was not given to teach you how to deal with your mother-in-law.

Colin Smith: That's going to be a struggle for every preacher. Recently, in the series I preached on Micah, I came to Micah 7, where he says, "Oh, what misery is mine." He talks about going to gather summer fruit and not finding the fruit there. In preparation for this message, I started out talking about frustration and your dreams not being fulfilled, and then came to realize as I looked at the passage more closely that that actually wasn't the point at all. The issue was not that Micah's dream was not fulfilled. The issue was that the godly had been swept from the land. Therefore his misery was not a misery to try and be resolved; it was the kind of misery that we need much more of.

We need this kind of misery that aches over the fact that believers are too often living lives that are like unbelievers.

Can how-to preaching be overused?

Dave Ferguson: If we're talking about the narrow definition, yeah, I think so. Or if it's poorly done, then, yeah. But if we're constantly interacting with the text and saying: Now what? What's the application here? Is it grounded? Then no, I don't think it can be overdone. I want every message to have that component to it.

Smith: A congregation is built around the diet they are fed. If folks are regularly fed how-to preaching, there will be a demand in that congregation for how-to preaching. If folks are regularly fed expository preaching, there will be an appetite for that, too. It's self-fulfilling. Therefore, there is a responsibility on all of us as pastors and leaders to think deeply about the long-term implications of what we're doing. What is going to be the best kind of diet? And what is the way to present it most effectively?

If I can fill my words as full as possible with His words, then I can be fairly confident that there will be some blessing that comes from God as a result.

Many pastors have never heard or used a preaching approach that is not in the narrower how-to mold. What are other ways to approach a sermon?

Ferguson: I want all of our sermons to have life application, using the broader sense of "how-to." The one refrain that comes up a lot in our teaching team meetings, usually toward the end of the meeting as a check, is, "Okay, where's Jesus in this?"

If the teaching is Christocentric, whether it happens to be expository—which I think is terrific—or topical, which I think is equally effective, we feel like we're doing what God wants us to do.

Smith: I try to think about three main questions when preparing to preach:

1. Does this say what this text says? Sometimes I'm seeing something that's generally about the theme in the text but not actually what that text says about the theme.
2. Is this a sermon? I got that from Jay Adams. I'm gathering information from the Bible, but is this a message? Is this earthed, to use that phrase again, with where the people are?
3. Is it Christian? Again, this is from Jay Adams, who says the definition of a Christian sermon is one that will get you thrown out of a mosque or a synagogue. That's what happened to the apostles when people realized what they were saying. And so the question really is, Is it taking me to Jesus Christ?

God has never promised to bless my words, but he has promised to bless his Word. If I can fill my words as full as possible with his words, then I can be fairly confident that there will be some blessing that comes from God as a result.

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

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If It's Not How-To, It's Not Preaching (pt. 2)

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