The recent State of Theology study by Ligonier ministries puts into quantifiable results the fact that the Evangelical Church is astoundingly ignorant and misinformed about the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. It isn’t hard to understand this when sermons continue to get shorter and substance grows thinner. Moralism, stories, pop psychology, and video clips fill up the time given for preaching and the results are predictable.
How can we beef up the theological content of our sermons while not overwhelming our congregations with long dissertations and dry lectures? As in many things in life, we must strike a balance. How can we do that?
Preach the text. Expositional preaching is not the same as a theological diatribe. Every text contains theology, but not every theological message is expositional. Stick to the text and explain the passage by making the theology in it clear.
Make sure you understand the depth and breadth of the theology in the text. As the one expounding the passage, you must know the greater concepts of theology inside and outside of the passage. Pull out that systematic theology and refresh yourself with the broader and more full ideas involved in the particular theological concept you are addressing. This will guard you from saying something contradicted elsewhere in Scripture.
Be clear about the theological idea before you preach on it. Nothing makes a muddy sermon than not knowing what you are talking about. If you can explain the main idea of a theological concept to a 10 year old, you understand it well. Break it down into bite-sized ideas and use illustrations or similes in order to communicate to different levels of spiritual maturity.
Don’t be afraid of using theological terms, but be sure to define them. Don’t avoid using words like justification, atonement, even hypostatic union, but make sure that you define the word and idea. But be careful that in defining a word, you don’t oversimplify a complicated concept for the sake of being clever.
Connect the theology with living for Christ. God places theological concepts in his Word because they are important, but it is the job of the expositor to mine the riches and point out the practical application of each idea to life. Show them the riches of theology and make them thirst for more. The Puritans were masters at this!
As we add theology each Sunday we will serve up rich, meaty spiritual meals that will satisfy and strengthen the congregation. Your church doesn’t have to be near a seminary, highly educated, or even made up of mature believers to do this. Start at whatever level your church is at spiritually, and then move them toward greater maturity and theological precision with patience and love. Not only will they thank you for it, you will be inoculating the church against false doctrine and false teacher as well, making your job as a shepherd so much easier.
Getting the correct meaning of the text is first and foremost when you are preparing a sermon or Bible study. If you get that wrong, then everything else will be wrong. But the exegesis is only the beginning of sermon preparation. For the listener to gain any benefit from the exposition, the expositor will need to adequately illustrate and apply the text. Since application is a necessary element that newer expositors can struggle with, I’ve laid out seven helps for making sure that you get the application right.
Apply the text. I say this because there are some young preachers who actually believe that it is not necessary to include application in the sermon. You can call it “implications,” but the fact remains that you are to bring the Word of God to bear upon the hearts and lives of your hearers. When John the Baptist preached in the wilderness, he applied the text specifically to his hearers–to the crowd, soldiers and tax collectors (Lk 3:10-14).
Find the universal principles. These are the timeless principles which are true at all times for different groups of people. For instance, God tell his people that he will never leave them, that he will provide for them and protect them. He also says that they are not to worship any other gods. God’s people are also told that they are to love, pray, be patient and not anxious, etc. God is described throughout Scripture as never changing, and so his character is immutable. This can lead us to certain conclusions about him. He always keeps his promises, therefore the righteous will inherit life, and the unrighteous will be judged. These are just a few examples.
Meditate on how you will respond to the text. Sometime a lack of application is a sign that the preacher has not meditated long on the text. Ask yourself the following questions to help: Does this text impact your life?What will you now do, believe, be thankful for or repent of because of this text? So what? Why did God inspire and preserve this passage of Scripture? If you can’t answer these questions for yourself, neither will your listener know what to do either.
Think about your listeners. Knowing your audience will go a long way to help you think through the application and how it will affect their lives. Who are they? (Careers, education, marital status, children, etc.) What are they going through right now? (joys, trials, spiritual life) How will this text impact them when they hear it? Will it help them? How?
Be pointed and specific. Don’t fall into the trap of just telling people to “pray more” or “read your Bible more” or “have more faith.” Tell them how. Be specific enough that they have a few ideas about how they can apply the text—this is helpful for the newer believer. Give the bigger theological picture so that the more mature believers can see other application in their own lives outside of your suggestions.
Use “You” in your application. Don’t shy away from being the messenger of God. He is speaking to them through you.Don’t let a fear of man soften what the Lord has said. You may include yourself (“we”), but you must also speak directly.
Point people to the Cross and the Holy Spirit. We don’t want to err into moralistic preaching that simply calls people to be good. The Bible does teach morality, but it does so by addressing the heart and God’s work through justification and sanctification. Don’t take a short cut and simply tell your hearers to “be good.” Also, preach the need for Christ to unbelievers who are unable to obey since they are unregenerate. Make sure you remember that your audience is mixed. Finally, preach the necessary power of the Holy Spirit for the believer to change. We cannot change in our own power. Don’t frustrate Christians with a command they cannot do by themselves. Teach them to depend upon the Lord for change.
Although there isn’t a substitute for actually conducting a funeral yourself, it is possible to be better prepared to have those conversations that will make for a better memorial and graveside service. Like many things in pastoral ministry, after struggling to figure out how to do something as a new pastor, I figured out a way that worked for me and then standardized a format that made my “system” repeatable.
After being contacted by a church member or someone who has lost a loved one, it is best to set a day and time as soon as possible to meet together to talk about planning their service(s). Because most people have been to a funeral, we can assume that they might have some idea about how they would want the service of their loved one to be ordered. That assumption is almost 99% incorrect. Most people have no idea how a service should be ordered, what elements they might want to include, who they want to speak, or even how long they want the service to be.
We obviously think about the need for comfort as a part of ministering to those who are mourning, but part of bringing comfort is helping the loved ones walk through a very confusing and difficult time by leading and guiding them through a very scary and unfamiliar process.
I developed my Funeral Service Planner as a way of walking through the typical services that people desire for a funeral, including a viewing/wake, memorial service, and graveside service. I not only ask about the particular elements that the family might want, but I also mark the order of each element in the service as well as which family members will be involved. The lines to the right are for names of those involved, including the pastor, if desired. The short lines to the left of service elements are to place a number for the order of the element when it will occur in the service.
Viewings or wakes are normally connected to Roman Catholicism, but sometimes they are conducted by a family of different faiths. If no priest will be present, then a Protestant pastor might be looked at as one who should do something. If this is the case, you might want to choose some passages of Scripture to read and pray. The rest of the time can be left for family to mourn together and if the casket is open, for them to say their goodbyes.
The last element, “full burial” follows the graveside service. Some families opt to wait until the casket is lowered and the vault (a concrete protective box) is placed over the casket, and then the whole thing is covered by dirt. In many funeral services, this is done for an extra fee and must be pre-arranged. If this occurs, it extends the time at the cemetery, and can be somewhat traumatic for the family to watch because it involves heavy machinery pounding down the ground to compact the soil. It would be best to know this so the family will be aware of the extra cost and what happens.
My form looks like this:
Funeral Service Planner
Decedent’s Full Name:__________________________________ Age:______ Saved? ____
Viewing/ Wake? Date, Time and Location: ______________________________________
___Family and Friends Memories (Prepared or open? _________ How many?____ )
___Prayer ___Gospel Message
Special music? _________________________
Other minister co-officiating? __________________________
Graveside Service? Date, Time and Location: ____________________________________
Scripture Reading (Jn 11:25; Ps 103)
Words of Interment Prayer
Other elements? ____________________________________
Contact info: Pastor Richard Bargas Office: (XXX) XXX-XXXX Email: XXXXXX@gmail.com
When I fill out the above form, I make sure to include as many details as possible. Some things, like particular family involvement, will sometimes be confirmed at a later date. After I have sat and walked through this process with the family, I will usually either photocopy or email a copy of the completed form to the family so they can know the order of the services and who is doing what. This is especially helpful the next day when they have a hard time remembering the meeting details because of their grief.
Normally, people are so overwhelmed with stress and the emotion of the day that they will need to be guided through each service element during the funeral, but it is good and comforting for them to know that you are in charge and know what is happening. I have included at the bottom of my form my church office number and my email in case they needed to get ahold of me, since I sometimes conducted funerals for friends of friends.
One last thing. There is a place in my form for a gospel message in the service. For me, this is a non-negotiable element. I won’t do a funeral if I’m not allowed to freely share the gospel, and I normally only take about 15 minutes to do so. I once had a person say they didn’t want me preaching at their guests. I replied that as a minister of the gospel I don’t know of any other hope to give to people than the hope of salvation in Christ. If they didn’t want this hope presented, then they didn’t want me to conduct the service. I spoke with a gentle but firm resolve. The widow took a second to think about what I said and then agreed that she did want this and asked me to do the service. She even thanked me after the service for the great comfort the Word of God brought. Fellow pastors, don’t fail to point the grieving to Christ, our only hope!
Below you can download a PDF copy of my form. Be aware that the contact info at the bottom of the form is no longer valid for me, so please don’t try to contact me at the phone number or email address.