Preaching with Style: Advice from Strunk and White

I’ll admit that my title was a bit of click-bait. I don’t mean “style” in the sense of flair or fashion, but in the sense intended by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White in their little book The Elements of Style. In the final chapter “An Approach to Style,” Strunk and White discuss the broader meaning of style as that mysterious aspect of writing that “ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind” or that “are capable of stirring the listener deeply.”

Recently when I was flipping through the pages of this slender volume, I was impressed that the advice of Strunk and White for writers could as easily apply for preachers. So I’ve adapted five of their points as advice for preaching.

So be aware: most of these words are exactly Strunk’s and White’s. I’ve just mangled them a bit by replacing words like “writer” and “writing” with “preacher” and “preaching” and by referring to the Word and Spirit of God. The result is a remarkably relevant for preaching.

1. Place yourself in the background.

To achieve style in preaching, begin by affecting none—that is, place yourself in the background. A careful and honest preacher does not worry about style. As you become proficient in your knowledge of Scripture and the task of communication, your style will emerge, because you yourself will emerge, and when this happens you will find it increasingly easy to break through the barriers that separate you from other minds, other hearts—to speak to those minds and hearts the words of God—which is, of course, the purpose of preaching.

2. Preach in a way that comes naturally.

Preach in a way that comes easily and naturally to you. But do not assume that because you have acted naturally your sermon is flawless. When learning to preach, do not consciously imitate other preachers. On the other hand, don’t avoid being an imitator. Instead, take pains to admire excellent preaching.

3. Do not overstate.

When you overstate or exaggerate, listeners will be on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows it will be suspect in their minds because they have lost confidence in your judgment or your poise. Alas, overstatement is a common fault of preachers.

4. Avoid fancy words.

Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted to use a Greek or Hebrew word when there is an English word handy, ready and able.

5. Be clear.

Muddiness in preaching does not merely disturb the whole sermon, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope: death on the highway caused by a badly worded road sign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expecting to be met at an airport and not being met because of slipshod e-mail. Think of the tragedies that are rooted in ambiguous preaching and be clear!

Finally, preachers gain their style more from their heart’s attitude than from methods of preparation and delivery, for as an elderly preacher once remarked, “Preaching is an act of faith, not a trick of homiletics.” What you are as a preacher, rather than what you know, will at last determine your style of preaching. If you preach, you must believe—in the authority of God’s Word, and in the ability of God’s Spirit to apply it to the hearts of your hearers. No one can preach decently who is distrustful of the Word’s power, or whose attitude toward his hearers is patronizing.

Preach for an audience of One. Start sniffing the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and you have failed as a preacher, although you might make a nice living.

How to Prepare Sermons: John Stott’s Six Steps

The task of preaching God’s Word remains a constant challenge and joy to me. One of the books that has most shaped my approach to preparation is John Stott’s Between Two Worlds. In particular, his chapter “Preparing Sermons” provides a roadmap for the journey from Scripture text to delivering the sermon.

Stott concedes that sermon preparation “is a very subjective matter” and that “there is no one way to prepare sermons.” Still, he believes that there are “six stages through which, in one way or another, most of us find it necessary to pass.”

1. Choose your text.

Possible factors for choosing a text include: the liturgical calendar, events of public interest, pastoral considerations, and personal considerations.

2. Meditate on it.

This step involves discerning both the text’s meaning (original intent) and its message (implications for today).

3. Isolate the dominant thought.

Every passage has one main theme. And every sermon must leverage “only one major message.” This is the primary way in which a sermon differs from a lecture. After hearing a sermon, people are expected only to “Remember the dominant thought, because all the sermon’s details have been  marshalled to help them grasp its message and feel its power.”

4. Arrange your material to serve the dominant thought.

This involves discerning the structure (which should neither be invisible nor intrusive), and choosing words that are simple, vivid, and honest. It also involves using illustrations, the most effective of which are “anecdotes, culled from history or biography, from current affairs or our own experience.”

5. Add the introduction and conclusion.

The introduction must do two things: arouse interest and introduce the topic. The conclusion focuses the personal application of the sermon.

6. Write down and pray over your message.

Stott advises that preachers manuscript their sermons, but then “reduce the manuscript to notes, and take these into the pulpit with us.”

The Pastor as Public Theologian

My first encounter with Kevin Vanhoozer came when I read his article “Theology and Apologetics” in the New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics. I found myself deeply stirred by his statement that “we need a biblically informed shape of community life fully to see, and to taste, the wisdom of God in a consistent and compelling manner.” He closes his article by calling Christians to committed discipleship as the most effective apologetic: “In the final analysis, the best apologetic is the whole people of God speaking and acting as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, arguing, living, and dying as wise witnesses to the way, the truth and the life.”

This positive memory of Dr. Vanhoozer’s article made me excited to see his new book, coauthored with Owen Strachan, The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision.

In his introduction, Vanhoozer presents an overview of the book’s argument. I quote this overview below, interspersed with explanatory comments from his conclusion.

Our task in this book is to argue, first, that pastors must be theologians;

Pastors are theologians whose vocation is to seek, speak, and show understanding of what God is doing in Christ for the sake of the world, and to lead others to do the same.

second, that every theologian is in some sense a public theologian;

Pastors are public theologians because they work for, with, and on people—the gathered assembly of the faithful—and lead them to live to God, bearing witness as a public spire in the public square.

and third, that a public theologian is a very particular kind of generalist.

[A “generalist” is] one who specializes in viewing all of life from the perspective of what God was doing, is doing, and will do in Jesus Christ, . . . one who understands all things in light of what is in Christ, keeps company with Christ, acts out the eschatological reality of being raised with Christ, and helps others to do the same.

How I Use Evernote to Index Sermon Illustrations

Shortly after I opened up my Evernote account in 2011, I realized it could be a powerful tool for capturing, indexing and retrieving sermon illustrations. Here’s how I do it.

  1. First, I use Google Chrome’s Evernote web clipper to capture articles, pictures, or anything think I would serve as a fitting illustration for a particular point or Scripture passage. Evernote also has apps for iPhone, iPad and other devices, so you don’t need to be at your computer to snag an illustration. Sometimes I enter a note manually if it’s from a book I’m reading. You could even take a picture of the page and enter it that way, if you don’t want to take the time to type it out. If the text is clear enough, Evernote will actually be able to recognize and include that text in a search.
  2. After pulling the note or resource into Evernote, I tag it. When choosing which words to tag the note with, I ask myself,”If I needed this resource to illustrate a point or Scripture passage, which words might I search to find it?” I enter the several most relevant words I can think of. Obviously, if it’s a Scripture passage, you would want to tag it with a Scripture reference in addition to other words. It’s important to tag the notes well if you want the right illustrations to come up when you do a search.
  3. Then when I want to search for an illustration, I simply select my “Sermon Illustrations” notebook, and type a keyword into the search bar.

Here are two examples of how I have used Evernote recently:

evernote2EXAMPLE ONE: I was preparing a sermon on Philippians 4:2-3. In my study of the passage, it seemed apparent that Euodia and Syntyche had once formed part of powerful gospel team. However, the conflict between them had derailed their effectiveness. Instead of working to advance the gospel, they were fighting with each other. I wanted to give an illustration of someone who lost effectiveness because they were fighting the wrong battle. I came across an illustration from the sports arena: 2009 Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes Jr. gained notoriety for criticizing his teammates’ performance to the media. It had been a growing habit with Holmes, so much so that it was said that he “had a habit of doing more running with his mouth than with the ball.” In one important game, he even started to pick a fight in a team huddle. When Holmes should have been concentrating his efforts against his opponents, he was instead ripping into his own teammates. The offensive coordinator had enough. He pulled Holmes from the game. The entire New York Jets team was embarrassed, especially their team captain—Santonio Holmes. Holmes had damaged his team’s morale and compromised their unity.

When I pulled the article into Evernote it also occurred to me that this would also serve to illustrate Ephesians 6:12, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness.” So in addition to tagging it with “unity,” and Philippians 4, I also tagged it with “spiritual warfare,” “Ephesians 6” and “Ephesians 6:12.”

Although I had to search for the illustration online, I used Evernote to capture, store, and index it.

imageEXAMPLE TWO: I was reading a book recently–Socrates to Sartre and Beyond: A History of Philosophy. I came across a description of Socrates’ dialectic method. Using this method, Socrates “pretends to be ignorant about a subject and then tries to draw out from other people their fullest possible knowledge about it. His assumption was that by progressively correcting incomplete or inaccurate notions, he could coax the truth out of anyone. He would often expose contradictions lurking beneath the other person’s views–a technique called elenchus–and thereby force the person to abandon his or her misdirected opinion” (p. 34).

The word “elenchus” reminded me of the word used in 2 Timothy 4:2, ἐλέγχω, translated “rebuke/reprove” or “expose.” Paul used the verb form of this word to instruct Timothy concerning how he was to preach the Word: “Be ready in season and out of season; reprove (ἐλέγχω)rebuke, and exhort” (ESV). Although the best way to understand a word is how it is used in its immediate context, it struck me that the description of Socrates’ method helped clarify my understanding of this word here. The preaching of Scripture should also “expose contradictions lurking beneath” the listener’s views, “and thereby force the person to abandon his or her misdirected opinion.”

I thought that would nicely fill out one’s understanding of that word if I ever teach or preach on this passage.

So I created the note you see below. As you can see, I included only two tags, “2 Timothy 4” and “preaching.” These were all the relevant words I could think of.

evernote1

Here are a few important (probably self-evident) considerations that would inform any approach to storing and indexing sermon illustrations.

1. Keep it stocked. Like a food pantry, a sermon illustration database is only as useful as you keep it stocked. It’s one thing to have a really cool way of capturing ideas and illustrations. But it takes time to build it into something useful. Expect this reap significant benefits after several months at the earliest.

2. Be purposeful in what you include. It’s just as important to know what to keep out as it is what to keep in. With internet search engines, you can always access information on any topic. Our problem is not so much getting information, but wading through all the stuff we don’t need. Don’t give into the temptation of making your sermon illustration database another Google.

3. Be constantly on the prowl for good illustrations. You have to get into a mindset of looking for snippets that illuminate Biblical truths or passages.

4. Know your Bible well. The better you know the Bible, the more you will be able to connect anecdotes, statistics, news articles, etc. with Scriptural truths.

Finally, one more aspect that can exponentially increase the usefulness of this tool: you can share notebooks with others. If you and other pastor or ministry friends decide to collaborate on capturing and indexing sermon illustrations, you can develop a really powerful resource.

Do you use Evernote to index sermon illustrations? What methods have worked for you? What else do you use Evernote for? Share by commenting below.

How the Congregation Benefits from Preaching that Honors Authorial Intent

In an earlier blog post, I discussed how a commitment to authorial intent drives the content and application of expository sermons. In this post, I discuss how this commitment benefits the congregation.

First, preaching that honors authorial intent teaches the congregation what is truly important. A heavy diet of topical sermons can give the subtle but dangerous perception that the Bible is primarily meant to answer self-oriented concerns. Preaching that gives weight to the intent of the author will give priority to God’s concerns.

Second, such preaching spares the congregation from doctrinal aberration that can result from a preacher’s theological “hobby horse,” or from imposing a theological grid over the biblical text.[1] Instead of producing a congregation of “system-Christians,” the expositor who honors authorial intent will nurture “Bible-Christians.”[2]

Third, preaching that honors authorial intent teaches people how to rightly read the Bible for themselves. P. Adam states that “preachers have a better opportunity than anyone else to teach good biblical theology and to model a hermeneutically sound use of the Bible.”[3] As people simultaneously hear expository preaching and read the text, they clearly see that the message of their preacher and the message of the original author are one and the same. Thus they will realize that Bible study is not for the intellectual or spiritual elite, but for anyone who will read Scripture with a common-sense, grammatical-historical hermeneutic, and with the faith that it is the Word of God.

These words of J. I. Packer should be etched in the minds and hearts of all expositors: “The prime secret of freedom and authority in preaching . . .  is the knowledge that what you are saying is exactly what your text says, so that your words have the proper claim to be received as the Word of God.”[4] Some might argue that it is both useless and impossible to preach what the text’s author meant. But if the God who spoke in Bible times is alive today, such preaching, rather than rendering the sermon irrelevant, is the only kind of preaching that has relevance, integrity and supernatural power.


[1] D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Baker Books, 1996), 14.

[2] Leland Ryken and Todd Wilson, Preach the Word: Essays on Expository Preaching: In Honor of R. Kent Hughes (Crossway, 2007), 148.

[3] T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (InterVarsity Press, 2000), 106.

[4] Ryken and Wilson, 148.

The Centrality of Authorial Intent in Expository Preaching

P52Because of my preparation for some classwork and upcoming preaching responsibilities, I’ve been thinking a lot about expository preaching, particularly the importance of authorial intent. The priority of authorial intent is something every preacher must come to grips with, particularly because of the strong temptation to skew a passage to make it fit the message.

Ignoring authorial intent in interpreting Scripture is not only a temptation for busy pastors; it is also a deliberate philosophical decision made by many modern scholars. Impatient with the irrelevant findings of exegesis, and swayed by a postmodern epistemology,[3] these scholars have decided that it makes little difference what the author actually meant, so long as the reader can derive from it personal significance. When it comes to the task of preaching, the impact of these divergent hermeneutical approaches is enormous.[4] From the perspective of an existential hermeneutic, expository preaching (which seeks to make plain the meaning of a text) is an exercise in irrelevance, if not pure presumption. If, however, Scripture is seen ultimately as the product of a single Author who spoke through a variety of human authors, preaching that honors authorial intent is seen, not as irrelevant or presumptuous, but as the only kind of preaching that matters at all. Thus a commitment to a hermeneutic that keeps authorial intent central is necessary for expository preaching.

A preacher’s commitment to authorial intent drives three main aspects of expository preaching, two of which I discuss here, and the third which I plan to discuss in a follow-up post. These two aspects are the content of expository preaching and the application of expository preaching.

First, this commitment to authorial intent drives the content of expository preaching. Operating from this conviction, Haddon Robinson insists that “first and above all, the thought of the biblical writer determines the substance of an expository sermon.”[5] Bryan Chapell clarifies the negative implications of the expositor’s task: “When preachers approach the Bible as God’s very Word, questions about what we have a right to say vanish. . . . We have no biblical authority to say anything else.”[6] This commitment to authorial intent is the reason that texts on expository preaching stress the importance of painstakingly observing exactly what the text says.[7] Clearly, the meaning of the text as the author meant it forms the essence of expository sermon’s content.

Second, a hermeneutic that keeps authorial intent central requires the application of expository preaching. While the content of the expository sermon is the text’s meaning, the purpose of the expository sermon is the text’s application—bringing the text to bear on the contemporary audience.[8] Application is not merely one component of the whole expository sermon. Rather, it is the end which every component serves to leverage.[9] Neither does the importance given to application conflict with a hermeneutic that honors authorial intent, as if the preacher is only allowed to report the facts of the text and say no more. On the contrary, since such a hermeneutic includes both the divine and human elements of authorship, contemporary application is absolutely necessary for expository preaching.[10] Hershael W. York and Bert Decker reflect this conviction when they explain that “the preacher will experience the greatest anointing of the Holy Spirit and the greatest effectiveness possible when he places himself squarely within the confines of the biblical author’s content.”[11] When the expositor appropriately applies to his hearers the truth of a text, he demonstrates sensitivity not only to the intent of that text’s human author, but also to the intent of the Holy Spirit as the author of every biblical text.[12]

The third aspect of expository preaching driven by a commitment to authorial intent is the benefit to the congregation, which I plan to discuss in the next post.


[1] Walter A Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.; Carlisle, Cumbria, U.K.: Baker Academic; Paternoster Press, 2001), 614.

[2] Walter C Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching and Teaching (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1998), 149-50.

[3] Millard J Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1998), 54.

[4] Scott A. Blue Reynolds, “The Hermeneutic of E. D. Hirsch, Jr. and Its Impact on Expository Preaching: Friend or Foe?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (June 2001): 269.

[5] Haddon W Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001), 21-22, emphasis mine.

[6] Bryan Chapell, Christ-centered Preaching Redeeming the Expository Sermon (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2005), 32.

[7] John MacArthur, Rediscovering Expository Preaching (Dallas: Word Pub., 1992), 211-15.

[8] Robinson, 51.

[9] Chapell, 211.

[10] Hershael W. York and Scott A. Blue, “Is Application Necessary in Expository Preaching?” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology (Summer 1999): 80.

[11] Hershael W. York and Decker, Preaching with Bold Assurance: A Solid and Enduring Approach to Engaging Exposition (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 29.

[12] Robinson, 21. Robinson’s definition of expository preaching rightly emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit, stating that “the Holy Spirit first applies [the biblical concept] to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies [it] to the hearers.”

“I Didn’t Know Scripture Well Enough to Preach Christ.”

Picture1I recently listened to the panel discussion from TGC’s 2011 national conference, “They Testify about Me: Preaching Jesus and the Gospel from the Old Testament.” I was struck by something Tim Keller said about the early years of his preaching ministry: “I realized I didn’t know Scripture well enough to preach Christ.”

This candid admission coming from this seasoned preacher resonated with me. I’m convinced that if my preaching will be both true to the text and focused on Christ, I must know the Bible better than I do now. I must saturate my heart and mind with all Scripture. As long as I am content to splash in the shallows—those passages I’m comfortable with—I will not grow in my ability to preach Christ from all Scripture. I must wade in above my head, exploring passages I know less about.

This summer there are two ways in which I seek to saturate my heart and mind with Scripture:

First, I’m listening to Scripture on audio nearly every spare moment of the day and night using the Bible.is ESV drama edition. Within the past two weeks, I have been able to listen to Exodus through 2 Samuel (seven OT books). The ESV drama edition brings the text to life with different vocal actors, background music and sound effects. Sometimes these effects can be distracting, but overall they have helped bring out the human side to the events and situations. Another advantage to reading the Bible this way is that it forces me to go much slower than I would if I were merely reading it on the written page. When I finish listening to the Bible this way, my plan is to listen to a different version (without the music, drama and sound effects).

Second, I have been developing a document entitled “Notes on the Whole Bible.” The document is organized by book of the Bible, with individual chapters as subheadings. I’m trying to focus my notes on big picture connections I see as I read the Bible. I’m not so tied to working on this that I feel like I have to be constantly writing as I listen to Scripture. But there are two main advantages to having this sort of document in progress. First, it forces me to articulate those big-picture connections I see as I read the Bible, ensuring that I’m not just hearing Scripture, but processing it. Second, it is a resource I can go to when I preach from those books of the Bible in the future.

My hope is that reading and writing about Scripture in this intensive way will not only help me become a better preacher, but help me know and love Jesus more.