Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).

This week I learned about goal setting from Dr. Ed Gray, Professor of Counseling at Harding School of Theology. His lecture used a “MAPS” model to teach that goals should be measurable, attainable, positive, and specific. The whole time I was thinking, “This can apply to church leadership!”

Leaders in each church need to ask, “What has God gifted this specific congregation to do in this specific community? Where can this church’s resources, skills, and passions meet the opportunities in the community?” Exploring those questions can result in goals that are measurable, attainable, positive, and specific.

Malaysia Football 2007 cropped


Churches can struggle to set measurable goals. We don’t want to force the Holy Spirit into any box of our own understandings and ambitions, nor do we want to become so numbers-focused that we measure success by buildings, budgets, or baptisms. We can, however, set measurable goals. They might include increasing church members’ involvement in small groups, better integrating the various components of the church’s education ministry, or equipping more Christians to serve in the surrounding community. Even if we never establish numerical expectations, we can look back after a few months to see if we’ve made progress.


We need goals that are challenging yet attainable. Changing our city into a utopia might be a bit unattainable and lead us to discouragement and maybe even burnout. Partnering with a local school’s tutoring program might be more attainable. Implementing conflict management processes can be attainable. Equipping people for intergenerational relationships and missional service is attainable, as is offering teachings about prayer.


Church goals need to rise above “Don’t do ______.” Positive goals are about what we plan to do. Maybe we want to preach more from the Old Testament while not neglecting the New Testament. Maybe we want to become more holistic in our support of missionaries. We might want to plant a church. Maybe we want to build friendships with residents of a nearby apartment community.


Churches can benefit from general goals like “lead people to Jesus” or “bless the world.” But we need to complement general goals with specific ones. We need to ask, “Based on who we are and where we are, what specific ways might God want to use us here? Whom do we want to lead to Jesus? How do we plan to do that? What are specific ways that we can bless the community around us?”

Collaborative Leadership

Dr. Gray said, “When clients have clear goals, they make better progress.” This is true not just in counseling but also in church leadership.

For that progress to happen in a healthy way, leaders need patience and sensitivity. We need to avoid any temptation to barge into church decision-making and push our own agendas, no matter how right or important we think our own convictions are. Faithful church leadership requires intentional practice of the other-centeredness we find in Jesus. Effective leaders empower other people to join the process of setting goals. Instead of immediately taking action or quickly offering solutions, we need to guide people to determine church goals.

Only then can we practice the “body of Christ” approach to ministry that the Apostle Paul teaches (1 Corinthians 12).

Experienced Christians should build relationships with young adults. That was the focus of my previous post.

On my Facebook timeline, I added a link to that blog post. A friend commented, “In ages past, the emerging adults looked to the elder adults for wisdom. Now many emerging adults disregard the elder adults… Somehow we have to change our attitudes to ‘sharing and learning’ rather than ‘taking and demanding.’”

Overcoming the communication gap between generations requires work on both sides. To turn the intergenerational nature of the church into a blessing instead of a blockade, older and younger adults need to build relationships with each other, listen to each other, learn about each other, and cooperate in unity, letting God work through their similarities and differences.

Saturday’s post addressed elder adults about emerging adults, so now let me address emerging adults about elder adults. More specifically, I want to offer seven reasons that emerging adults should build relationships with elder adults.

STG with LKF Malaysia 2006

1. A relationship is two-way. Don’t expect elder adults to take all the initiative. Get out of your “comfort zone” and do something.

2. Elder Christians can give you wisdom that they’ve collected over the years through personal experiences and through learning from others. Listening from wise people is a common theme in the biblical book of Proverbs. For a passage about younger people paying attention to older people, check out Proverbs 4:1-4.

3. Elder Christians can teach you about spiritual disciplines, including ones you’re passionate about and ones you don’t know about or prefer to avoid. (Spiritual disciplines are practices like prayer, study, meditation, fasting, celebration, and service that open us to God’s transforming work in our lives.)

4. Elder Christians can provide relational support. In those times when you get a bad grade or land on the dean’s list, when you get a date or get dumped, when you find a job or lose one or don’t know how to look for one or don’t know that you need one, you need a friend to welcome you into a home and maybe a hug.

5. Elder Christians can tell you about successes and failures that have shaped their lives. Those stories can shape you and empower you to perceive situations from more informed perspectives.

6. You can be a blessing to elder adults. Greet them. Listen to them. Ask questions. Learn. Look at pictures with them. Sit and reflect. Your presence will bless your more experienced friends as their presence blesses you.

7. You set an example for other emerging adults when you befriend elder adults. Be part of social change.

The church needs intergenerational relationships; but Christians may sometimes overlook, neglect, or ignore college-aged people who have much to offer. Older church members often don’t know how to connect meaningfully with college students and other young adults. In The Slow Fade: Why You Matter in the Story of Twentysomethings, Reggie Joiner, Chuck Bomar, and Abbie Smith encourage more experienced Christians to recognize college-aged people, to find common ground in the bigger story of what God is doing in the world, and to engage in a process of mentoring that focuses on people instead of planned products. To mentor is to journey with another person, sharing joys, sorrows, convictions, and questions. The goal is a process of lifelong maturing, not a destination at which a person is spiritually mature.


The personal stories and practical suggestions in the book provide help and hope for any Christian, regardless of spiritual maturity or ministerial giftedness, and any church, regardless of size or fiscal resources, to engage in intentional relationships with emerging adults. Older Jesus-followers can nurture those relationships by talking with and listening to college-aged people, having coffee with them, hosting them for meals, joining them in activities they enjoy, and exploring life and faith with them in unplanned, informal ways.

Demographic research forms the foundation for the authors’ message. The book presents evidence for the college age group’s tendency to drop out of church life, and the reasons are many. Some don’t see the church as relevant to their experiences and interests; some have suffered alienation in the church. The authors call the church to live out biblical commands of intergenerational influence. Doing so involves a process that is bigger than programs and that benefits the church and mentors, not just the college-aged mentees.

I’ve seen several books that try to empower students to remain faithful during their college years, and others have taught me theological foundations and practical “nuts and bolts” for leading a campus ministry. This book, however, takes a fresh approach in nudging the wider church to embrace the blessings of intergenerational relationships.

I’m glad that God has blessed the church with some full-time campus ministers and young adult ministers, but the burden and blessing of establishing and nurturing healthy intergenerational relationships belong to the whole church. College students and other young adults long for “identity, belonging, and worth.” They need to know who they are in God’s eyes, where they belong in God’s community, and how they can serve valuable roles in God’s ministry. The church must listen to those youthful voices, appreciating their insights and offering wisdom.


This post is a modified version of a review I wrote for Campus CrossWalk in May 2011.

“…Christian preaching today needs revision. Such reforming begins with a close and faithful reading of Scripture, an engagement so serious that the world of Scripture ultimately sets agendas and invents expectations for meaningful life” (David Fleer). That conviction fueled a series of seminars in Rochester, Michigan, and Nashville, Tennessee, that produced ten books edited by Dave Bland and David Fleer, leading professors of preaching in the Churches of Christ.

Bland Fleer Books

At the center of their work is a view of preaching as an engagement with the world of Scripture. Fleer, reflecting on a keynote address by Luke Timothy Johnson, writes that the “preferred approach is to engage the world Scripture imagines. We begin, therefore, with a hermeneutic of generosity, which as Johnson explained, ‘[tries] to understand the world imagined by Scripture, not by explaining it, but by understanding it so as to learn from that world and to engage it critically, marking the ways we do or do not live in that world and to discern what that means.’ We can progress homiletically only if we let go of our own preoccupation with the world that produced the Bible and begin to engage the world the Bible produced…. Our consistent belief in this series has been that preaching is rooted in the biblical text and that to speak to the deepest levels of human need we must move into the world of the Bible where there exists a place preachers may invite their congregations to enter.”

This approach to preaching has found its way into the thinking, speaking, and writing of preachers in and beyond the Churches of Christ. I’m doing some research on this development and inviting your help. Where have you seen or heard this view? Has it impacted your or a friend’s preaching? Have you read or heard something about living in the world of the Bible, living out the gospel, or a similar idea?

(The quotations in this post are from Preaching Hebrews, edited by David Fleer and Dave Bland and published by ACU Press in 2003. I am conducting this research as a student at Harding School of Theology.)

Most of what the Bible says about God appears in the first two thirds of the book. Many Christians call it the Old Testament. Some call it the Hebrew Bible. Our understanding of God’s character would shrink greatly if we were to look only at the New Testament, and we cannot understand the New Testament without the story we find in the previous books of the Bible.

For these reasons, the church needs to maintain (or, in many cases, to reestablish) a prominent place for the Hebrew Bible. That’s why I get excited about works like Fleming Rutledge’s And God Spoke to Abraham: Preaching from the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 2011). The book contains fifty-five sermons; and the author’s goal is to nurture a passion for the Bible, especially the Old Testament, and a desire for communicating its world and message.

And God Spoke to Abraham

The author’s passion for the Hebrew Bible, which began early in her life through familial influence, continues in And God Spoke to Abraham. She points out that the Old Testament was the early church’s only scripture, and she claims its importance for today in two ways. First, the Old Testament functions as “the operating system for the New Testament;” “the Old Testament is indispensable for the New, and… it is not only possible but vital to preach from the Old Testament for the way it drives the New.” Rutledge challenges her readers to approach the Old Testament as Christians, not as if the New Testament were nonexistent. Second, Rutledge challenges preachers “to teach the Old Testament for its own sake.” One reason for this is respect “for the integrity of Jewish heritage… [reverence] for the story of Israel in light of the past hundred years.” A stronger reason is that the church needs a robust picture of God. “Thus we must read the New Testament in light of the Old.” In relation to this second reason, Rutledge also mentions that embracing both the Old Testament and the New Testament can prevent an unhealthy division of them, as seen in Marcion. Although the church long ago rejected his view, “the insidious tendency to reject or downgrade the Old Testament on the grounds of its inferiority is with us still.” Rutledge advises preachers to proclaim the Bible as “a seamless garment” but not to ignore “the individual biblical voices in their distinctive form[s].”

Rutledge approaches the Old Testament as a theologically informed explorer of the Bible. Her greatest contribution in And God Spoke to Abraham, however, is as a preacher, not as an academic theologian or Bible scholar; so let me shift from Rutledge’s passion for the Old Testament to her communication of it.

When I was in eighth or ninth grade, an English teacher taught my class that, as young writers, we needed to learn the rules before earning the right to break them. Rutledge seems to have accomplished both feats. Some of her sermons fit the standards of a college public speaking course; in others the preacher effectively takes great liberties.

Most of these fifty-five sermons begin with what speech teachers call “attention-getters” (e.g., news stories, poems, stories, hymns) to involve her listeners in the preaching experience, and some of the sermons end with connections to their openings. These openings, as well as illustrations throughout the sermons, frequently arise from the preacher’s higher-than-average familiarity with literature. That characteristic can benefit literate audiences or irritate listeners who prefer Madden over Milton.

Rutledge’s occasional spurts of linguistic artistry compel me to continue reading: “squirming desperately like worms in a can,” “a culture so lost to us that we know it only from digging it out of the ground,” “left the taste of ashes in my mouth,” “as though Death were shredded Kleenex.” My favorite of the rhetorical relishes appears near the end of the Easter sermon titled “A Way Out of No Way.” Looking at the resurrection through the exodus, the preacher assures her congregants that in “the face of death… there is another, greater Way; there is another, greater Life; there is another, greater Power.” Then, rhythmically, musically, in the spirit of Miriam, she thrice invites, “listen, listen, people of God… Listen, listen, people of God… Listen, listen, people of God…”

Scripture, theology, history, literature, music, movies, recent events, and personal experiences converse energetically in Rutledge’s sermons. The theological questions impress me; Rutledge guides her people through pondering that leads to answers (or at least to more faithful perspectives). At times, however, by using this skill the preacher can abandon the text; so preachers should be careful.

I earlier identified Rutledge’s dual call (1) to embrace a relationship between the Old and New Testaments and (2) “to teach the Old Testament for its own sake.” Some of the sermons in this volume clearly do the first part of that call. While her movement between the Testaments is smooth, impressive, and helpful, I benefit more from her preaching when it arises from the Old Testament itself without reference to the New Testament. Different opinions exist on this subject, and I do not claim any authority here. I simply am refreshed by examples of preaching that let the Hebrew Bible speak. Must we preach Jesus in every sermon, or may an Old Testament text speak on its own without input from the New Testament? Rutledge’s exploration of that question seems unfinished, as is mine.

Much of this post is modified from a review I wrote for the Biblical Preaching course at Harding School of Theology in February 2013.

Many Ways to Preach

People who have listened to a lot of preaching tend to expect preaching to be like what they’ve heard, and preachers tend to preach in ways that they’ve seen and experienced. Without a broad exposure to various forms of preaching, preachers and listeners can view certain preaching styles as real preaching and other styles as not preaching at all. To help us increase our appreciation of different ways of preaching, I’m sharing a slightly modified version of a book review I wrote a few months ago. It’s about a rather short book called Determining the Form: Structures for Preaching, written by Wesley Allen and published by Fortress Press in 2008.

This review points out that these preaching forms are not mutually exclusive. A faithful and effective sermon can draw from and combine two or more forms. A conversation yesterday reminded me of this. After I had preached for a church in the Memphis, TN, area, a seminary student who had recently read Allen’s book asked me which of the preaching forms my sermon had followed. I responded that my preaching form in that sermon had been a freestyle mixture of forms; it had drawn from the four pages and valley forms but had not fit completely in either one.

Determining the Form

Preachers are called “not simply to preach the Word, but to effect a hearing of the Word.” Standing on this conviction, Wesley Allen presents a concise, well-organized introduction to sermon forms. The author teaches homiletics and worship at Lexington Theological Seminary and serves as an elder in the United Methodist Church. Prior to his seminary position, Allen spent eighteen years in “parish and campus ministry” (LTS website). He holds a bachelor’s degree from Birmingham-Southern College, a Master of Divinity degree from Yale, and a doctorate in New Testament from Emory; and he is a widely published author in the fields of homiletics and biblical interpretation. This book appears in the “Elements of Preaching” series, of which Allen is the editor. Determining the Form seeks primarily to teach new preachers and secondarily to increase the toolboxes of pulpit veterans.

Chapter One lays out a rationale for discussing sermon forms and points out that the “what and how” of preaching should go together; the “how flows from the what.” The how is the form, which the author defines as “the overarching rhetorical structure of the sermon—the intentional ordering of ideas and imagery designed to convey a specific gospel message and offer a particular experience of that message to a particular congregation.” After a brief history of forms in preaching, the chapter presents the need for preachers to know and use multiple “forms that over time engage the whole person of the listener.”

Chapter Two presents three “rhetorical qualities that should be part of every sermon regardless of the particular rhetorical strategy employed. These qualities are unity, movement, and climax. A sermon should be unified in its message and should have a narrow focus; sidetracks detract from clarity. In terms of movement, a sermon should, like a movie, have “a beginning, a middle, and an end.” The movement needs to be slow and clear. The parts of the sermon should be connected and should lead to a climax. In the language of Eugene Lowry, the climax is the scratch for the itch presented in the sermon’s beginning. These three qualities are more than “add-ons to proclamation. They are its vehicle.”

Chapter Three provides a case study of First Kings 19:1-15a. Allen’s exegesis of that text leads him to “use God’s recall of Elijah to help focus the congregation’s understanding of the church’s mission.” Each of the remaining chapters considers “how a particular form functions in the abstract and then [shows] how it might work to achieve this particular sermonic claim based on this particular biblical text.”

Each of the remaining chapters begins with “a diagram or flow chart so that readers get an introductory visual impression of the movement of the form and relationships of its parts,” explores the form’s “logic and purpose,” and evaluates the form’s strengths and weaknesses. After discussing each form, the author presents a filled-in version of the opening model. Those seven forms are propositional lesson, exegesis-interpretation-application, verse-by-verse, four pages, valley, new hearing, and negative to positive.

The propositional lesson form has also been called the “university sermon” and the “three-point sermon.” It is “deductive and topical,” calls for exegesis in preparation but uses “logic unconnected to the logic of the text” in the actual sermon. A sermon in this form presents an argument, stating the thesis in the introduction and proceeding with points supported by illustrations. This kind of sermon has a didactic, persuasive purpose. The form has three weaknesses. First, it reduces “every biblical text… to logical propositions, thesis, and subpoints.” Second, “people do not learn and listen in a deductive mode as much as they do in an inductive manner.” Third, the points frequently “become multiple mini-sermons.” This form, however, can be effective “in the black church” and in this “post-Christendom, post-denominational day” when people listening to sermons need instruction.

The exegesis-interpretation-application form is also called the “Puritan Plain style” and consists of a foreshadowing introduction followed by three main parts that focus on “biblical exegesistheological interpretation, and… hortatory application.” The exegesis part is inductive, and the other two parts are deductive. This kind of sermon focuses on the theological interpretation but climaxes in the application. The form’s strength is “its ability to function didactically… However, too often this type of sermon is more informational than inspirational.” It also “can become three separate lectures,” and preachers frequently omit the middle section.

A verse-by-verse sermon “works through the biblical text for the day from beginning to end, allowing the structure of the text to determine the structure of the sermon.” After an introduction, the preacher exegetes a portion of the text, makes an application, exegetes the next portion of the text, makes another application, and continues this process through the chosen text. This form “draws on the form and logic of the biblical text” and counters “biblical illiteracy,” but it suffers two weaknesses. It “is not appropriate for all occasions,” and its users “can easily allow the divisions of the text to win out over the unity of the text.”

The four pages form, after an introduction, “moves from the ancient text to the contemporary context by way of direct analogy” and “has a clear turning point in which the direction changes.” The “pages” are the problem in the text, the problem today, the good news in the text, and the good news today. The order of those “pages” can vary. This form’s main strength is its simplicity, which also can be a weakness. “Viewing every biblical text in terms of sin –> grace or law –> gospel is somewhat reductionist” and can “diminish the full scope of the Christian faith.”

A valley sermon is “simple in structure” but “emotionally complex;” after an introduction, it goes “down into the depths of an issue, problem, or question and then” hinges and moves upward “with the good news that addresses, solves, or answers that was introduced in the first half.” The biblical text generally appears at the hinge, and the sermon ends “with a climactic image.” This form has “great potential for engaging hearers intellectually and emotionally and inspiring a behavioral response,” but it can suffer “difficulty with creating an ascent that is able to overcome the experience of the descent.”

The new hearing form can be helpful when a preacher wants to counter a commonly held perspective. Without a “separate introduction,” the sermon’s first movement introduces the topic and establishes a widely accepted view, which the second movement rejects. The third and final movement is the climax, claiming “about half of the time of the sermon,” and should provide an experience of the sermon’s claim. This form has an instructional strength but has a weakness; it “has the potential to open minds but will rarely do much to move the heart.”

The “Negative to Positive” form inductively moves from an introductory question through a series of rejected answers to a “proposed answer—at least a third of the sermon.” Such a sermon requires consistency in argumentation. “To reject a set of possible answers on one basis and to accept another on a different one is not fair to the issue nor does it really aid the congregation in making a theological or ethical judgment.” This form “can leave hearers in their heads and not move them into their hearts or inspire use of hands unless imagery is used well.”

Determining the Form is a book with multiple strengths. It presents sermon forms as options from which a preacher can choose instead of presenting them as mutually exclusive options that demand a preacher to choose one over the others. It can breathe life into the preaching of ministers “stuck in a… rut” (Brosend). The book is concise (Wilson) yet easy to read. It covers well a vast amount of literature from the field of homiletics but, catering to students and busy preachers, avoids excessive jargon. The book’s balance is impressive, providing almost equal attention to the seven forms. The author maintains a steady focus to present a clear overview of strategies. The guiding three qualities of “unity, movement, and climax” are employed throughout the book to provide coherence. Two final strengths are the figures that visualize the forms and the example sermon plans that demonstrate how the various forms can be implemented. For all these reasons, I agree with Lee Ramsey that Determining the Form should be a mainstay of the introductory class on preaching and a welcomed refresher for the busy pastor who hungers for a renewed appreciation of sermon structure and content” (Ramsey). The book also can empower listeners to more fully appreciate and participate in diverse preaching forms.

Reviews Cited

Brosend, William. Sewanee Theological Review 53:2 (2010), 234-36.

Ramsey, G. Lee, Jr. Homiletic 34:1 (2009), 47-48.

Wilson, Paul Scott. Interpretation 64:2 (April 2010), 218.

I wrote the original version of this review as an assignment in the Sermon Development and Delivery course taught by Dr. Dave Bland of Harding School of Theology.

C babySome parents give babies names that sound nice, and some parents choose names because they’re unique. Other parents live in countries that have laws about naming children.

In Germany the first name must make obvious whether the child is a boy or a girl, and the name “must not negatively affect the well-being of the child.”

If you live in Denmark, you can’t give your child the name Monkey.

If you live in New Zealand, you can name your child Violence or Number 16 Bus Shelter, but you can’t name your baby Fish and Chips.

In Sweden you can’t name your child Metallica or Superman or Ikea or Elvis, but you can call your baby Lego or Google.

This might seem strange to you, and it seemed strange to one couple in Sweden. They didn’t like all these restrictions, so they submitted this as a name for their baby: “Brfxxccxxmnpccccllllmmnprxvclmnckssqlb111163.” How do you say that? It’s Albin. The authorities rejected that name, so the parents submitted another name: A. (It’s not pronounced A. It’s Albin.) Authorities rejected that one, too.

In Genesis 41 we find some baby names. A dad named Joseph chooses the names for their meanings. He’s been beaten, sold, abandoned, resold, trapped, and imprisoned. He knows suffering, and the names he selects tell us something about his suffering. He names his sons Manasseh and Ephraim.

If you look up the meaning of Manasseh, you might find that it means “making forget” (G. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary ). That goes along with what Joseph says: “It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and my father’s household.”

“God has made me…” God has empowered Joseph, equipped him, strengthened him. God has empowered Joseph “to forget all [his] trouble and [his] father’s household.” Joseph certainly has suffered trouble, some at the hands of his brothers and some at the hands of Egyptian authorities. God has empowered Joseph to forget his trouble and his family of origin. This forgetting is more than just forgetting, but it’s less than total forgetting. It’s more than just a slipping of the mind, but it can’t be a complete forgetting because Joseph mentions the trouble and the household. (He can’t mention something if he’s forgotten it.) This forgetting is a strong forgetting. Joseph’s trouble and family no longer bother him. They don’t hold him back. He still remembers them. They’re still part of his identity and always will be. But they don’t block what God wants to do in his life.

If you look up the meaning of Ephraim, you might find that it means “fruitful land” or something similar (summarized from Wenham). That goes along with what Joseph says: “It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.” Again we see that God has empowered Joseph: “God has made me fruitful.” Fruitful means productive. The Bible uses it in relation to producing children, and Joseph probably has that in mind here. God has given Joseph two sons, but Joseph is fruitful in more ways than having children. He’s fruitful, or productive, in several areas. In chapter 39 we see that in Potiphar’s house “The Lord is with Joseph so that he prospers” and that “the Lord gives him success in everything he does.” Then we see that in prison “the Lord is with him; he shows him kindness and grants him favor in the eyes of the prison warden. So the warden puts Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he is made responsible for all that is done there.” Joseph is fruitful in Potiphar’s house. He’s fruitful in prison. He’s fruitful when Pharaoh tells him to interpret his dream. He’s fruitful when he gives Pharaoh unsolicited advice. He’s fruitful in his role as prime minister. He’s fruitful as a family man. God empowers Joseph to be fruitful.

Notice where this takes place – “in the land of [Joseph’s] suffering.” Joseph’s literal land of suffering is Egypt, and that certainly applies here. But it’s also more than literal. It’s his context of suffering, his world of suffering. God empowers Joseph to be fruitful, to be productive, in the midst of his suffering. Suffering doesn’t have to separate us from God. God can empower us and make us productive even when we’re suffering.

Whatever your suffering, God can empower you to live productively. No matter what you’ve been through, God wants to use you. No matter how dark your story, God can equip you to do good.


This blog post is a modified portion of my sermon for Park Avenue Church of Christ, Memphis, TN, December 1, 2013.

I modified the Bible quotations from past to present tense.


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