Getting Better at Preaching

I recently read a fascinating article by Hershael York entitled “Four Reasons Why Some Preachers Get Better and Others Don’t.” Since York has been a preaching prof for sixteen years, he has some street cred on the topic. The four reasons he highlights (calling, teachability, passion and reckless abandon) are certainly instructive, but his list is not meant to be exhaustive.

So here’s a fifth reason why some preachers get better and others don’t: some learn to be more Christ-centered in their preaching.

Becoming more Christ-centered as a preacher was the focus of this year’s Heritage BryanPreaching Lectures with Bryan Chapell. Dr. Chapel is probably best known for his excellent book, Christ-Centered Preaching. It’s a book we use in our homiletics courses at Heritage and one every preacher should own.

You may think that every Christian preacher or teacher is automatically “Christ-centered”. Sadly, that’s not the case. As Chapell points out, we easily slide into preaching what he calls “the deadly be’s” (be like. . ., be good, be disciplined).

While these messages are not bad in themselves, they are bad by themselves. If they are disconnected from the gospel of Christ, they can turn sermons into moralistic, self-help messages. The solution is to make sure our sermons are legitimately Christ-centered. They must highlight what Christ has done for us as the basis for what He calls us to do.

As preachers come to better understand what it means to preach Christ-centered sermons, their sermons will get better. And their hearers will be better for it!

We’ve posted Dr. Chapell’s preaching lectures on the Heritage website (click here). If you are a preacher, do yourself and your people a favour by listening and learning!

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Big Mistake

As I’ve written in a previous post, I’m spending this year with Jeremiah by studying the book that bears his name. Ten months into it, I can tell you that focusing repeatedly on the same book of Scripture has proven a rich way to get into God’s Word.

boxset-transparentI was reminded of one of the chapters from Jeremiah last weekend at a Steve Bell concert. Steve performed a number of songs from his newly released project Pilgrimage. One song, entitled Big Mistake, made me think of Jeremiah 2. It also made me think of how we are prone to do what Israel did—trade in our freedom by returning to old patterns of slavery and bondage.

Jeremiah 2 laments Israel’s descent from devotion to desertion. The Lord recalls the loving devotion His people had shown Him when He rescued them out of Egypt: “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the desert” (2:1-2).

Sadly, the honeymoon didn’t last long.

In spite of God’s goodness in protecting them from their enemies (2:3), leading them through the desert (2:6) and giving them a fruitful new homeland (2:7), the Israelites quickly became unfaithful to Him. Instead of remaining a devoted bride, they played the harlot. They ran into the arms of other gods and wound up trading freedom for slavery.

It’s easy to shake our heads at the foolish choices Israel made. Except we sometimes do the very same thing. We turn our back on God’s goodness and turn back to old sin patterns. We treat our freedom in Christ as if it were a Big Mistake.

As you listen to Steve’s song Big Mistake, ask the Lord to reveal if you are descending from devotion to desertion, from freedom in Christ to slavery to old ways.

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love (Galatians 5:13)


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Pure Gold

This summer Linda and I were both deeply impacted as we read Pure Gold, David McCasland’s biography of Eric Liddell. We had been to Scotland in May and had visited Eric’s hometown of Edinburgh. We’d also taken the train to St. Andrews where the opening “running on the beach” scene from Chariots of Fire was filmed.250px-Chariots_of_Fire_beach

Most of the world remembers Liddell for his performance in the 1924 summer Olympics in Paris. He refused to run the event he was favoured to win (100 metres) because the qualifying heats took place on Sunday. Then he went on to win a gold medal in an event in which he was a huge underdog (400 metres).

After the Olympics, instead of remaining in Scotland and living the life of a sports superstar, he headed for China as a missionary. This part of his life story is far less known but is actually far more impressive.

While in China, Eric met and later married Flo MacKenzie, the daughter of Canadian missionaries from Toronto. The demands of missionary life and the outbreak of WWII forced them to be separated for much of their married life. When the Japanese invaded China, Eric and hundreds of other missionaries were placed in an internment camp. While imprisoned, he suddenly developed severe health problems. To the surprise and dismay of all in the camp, he died of a brain tumour at the young age of 43.

As I read Liddell’s biography, I felt an undeniable sadness in the story of Eric’s untimely death. But larger than the sadness, I felt a sense of wonder at a life so devoted to Christ and so marked by the graces of God’s Spirit. At Eric’s funeral, a close friend spoke these words in tribute:

I say that Eric is the most remarkable example in my experience of a man of average ability and talents developing those talents to an amazing degree, and even appearing to acquire new talents from time to time, through the power of the Holy Spirit. He was, literally, God-controlled, in his thought, judgments, actions, words, to an extent I have never seen surpassed, and rarely seen equalled. . . .

In the athletic world, no one knows how he did it—it remains a mystery; but for his progress in the spiritual race there is a very clear and definite explanation. First of all, absolute surrender to the will of God. Absolute surrender—those words were often on his lips, the conception was always in his mind; that God should have absolute control over every part of his life” (283-4).

I finished the biography with two growing convictions: First, I want to live more fully yielded to Christ. Eric spent time each morning in Scripture reading and prayer, drawing strength from Christ and dedicating himself to Christ. That’s a pattern I want to continue to emulate.

Second, I want to keep reading Christian biographies as they inspire the right kind of desires in my soul. John Piper is right about the value of reading the biographies of godly men and women from the past:book

Good biography is history and guards us against chronological snobbery (as C. S. Lewis calls it). It is also theology—the most powerful kind—because it burst forth from the lives of people like us. It is also adventure and suspense, for which we have a natural hunger. It is psychology and personal experience, which deepen our understanding of human nature (especially ourselves). Good biographies of great Christians make for remarkably efficient reading.

Why not watch (or rewatch) the movie Chariots of Fire (Academy Award winner for Best Picture) which tells the story of his gold-medal Olympic run.  Better yet, why not read Pure Gold, the biography that tells the rest of the story.





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Paul, Bonhoffer and Heritage

On Thursday, September 11, I was privileged to speak at the first seminary chapel of the year at Heritage.  The message I gave was one I’ve been preparing for weeks.  No, make Rick in chapelthat years.  Or perhaps decades.

Serving at Heritage is a calling that runs deep in my soul.  Thirty years ago I thought I would be headed to Brazil to train spiritual leaders.  Instead of heading south, God directed us north–to Canada.

Recent years have only increased my passion for the work of training up leaders for Christ’s Church and His global mission.  Dealing with cancer has added to my sense of urgency.  So has reading about another seminary–one you may never have heard of.

This summer I’ve been learning about the seminary that Dietrich Bonhoeffer started in theFinkenwalde years leading up to WWII.  Bonhoeffer was alarmed at the rise of Hitler and saw where things were headed.  He launched an underground seminary to train ministers who would stand firm and serve well in troubled times.

In many ways, I see storm clouds gathering over our part of the world.  Things will not get easier for those who stay faithful to God’s Word and the gospel message.

The message I gave at our first seminary chapel of the year was taken from 2 Timothy 3.  It lays out a crucial part of my vision for Heritage:  training men and women who will stand firm on God’s Word and serve well in difficult days.

Would you pray that God would strengthen us for this important mission.

You can listen to the sermon here:



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Off to a Great Start!

It’s been a wonderful week here at Heritage as we’ve launched a new school year.  ClassesStudents have started for both college and seminary.  The resident halls are full of life again.  There is a strong sense of energy and anticipation on campus—plus a little angst as students look over their upcoming assignments in the course syllabi.

For months, our faculty and staff have been preparing for this semester.  We’ve gathered each week over the summer to pray for the students who would study at Heritage this year.  We’ve sought get ready spiritually, academically and logistically.

Convocation 1On Tuesday, we had our Convocation Chapel.  It was a special time of worship, prayer and hearing from God’s Word.  Dr. Bob McGregor told how his time at Heritage Seminary had given him a deep passion for God’s Word.  He challenged us from John 17 to join the mission Christ has for His Church by centering our lives on the gospel and living it out together in the Church.

For this to be an impactful year at Heritage, we will need “the gracious hand of our God” on us (Ezra 8:22).  That’s why I’m asking you to join me in bringing these requests to God in prayer.

1. spiritual protection (“deliver us from the evil one”—Matt. 6:13)

2. educational impact (“let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly”—Col. 3:16)

3.  relational harmony (“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace”—Eph. 4:3)

4.  financial provision (“And my God will meet all your needs”—Phil. 4:19)

We’re trusting God for great things this year because we have a God who can “do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20).

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Bonhoeffer’s Teaching on Preaching

If you aren’t familiar with the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, you should change that.

Bonhoeffer’s Bon Metexample of standing for Christ under the Nazi regime will inspire fresh courage in you (I’d recommend Eric Metaxas’ book: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy).

A lesser-known part of Bonhoeffer’s ministry centers on the two years he headed up an underground seminary in Finkenwalde (1935-1937). During these years he trained future pastors—preparing them for ministry in a turbulent, hostile society.

Bon 14Some of his lectures from Finkenwalde are preserved in Volume 14 of The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. I found his lecture on preaching to be fascinating. While I differ with some of his views (for example, he dismissed the need for sermon introductions, conclusions or applications), I’m convinced Bonhoeffer has much pastoral and homiletical wisdom to pass on to all who preach or teach God’s Word:

Here are a few of his insights that I found to be highlights:

On keeping the sermon tied to the text of Scripture:
“A sermon is discourse that is characterized as being a sermon on a given text. Because the sermon claims to be God’s word, it is bound to Scripture. The promise that it is God who is speaking derives solely from the sermon itself being commensurate with Scripture.” (14: 489)

On how to write out your sermons:
You should not write the sermon all at once. Stay with the chosen text . . . . Begin at latest on Tuesday, have it finished at latest on Friday. You must work on it at least twelve hours. A written sermon that is finished is not yet a finished sermon!” (14:488)

On getting free from your notes as a preacher:
“Memorize not words but connected lines of thought. For every section, note the first and last ideas, then the material between them. ” (14:488)

On the importance of Saturday night for Sunday sermons:
“By all means keep Saturday evening free . . . . Refuse basically all invitations within the congregation.” (14:488)

On effective sermon delivery:
“Monotony, lack of movement is false. Speak with the utmost truthfulness, naturalness, [and] simplicity; no senseless screaming to wake the congregation up! When speaking about the trumpets of the Last Judgment, no need to suggest that we ourselves are those trumpets. [Speak with] as much enthusiasm as possible for the subject matter. Genuine pathos! [Speak with] as much confidence and cheerfulness in the exclusive power of the word.” (14:505-6)

On how to tell when preaching is having a fruitful impact:
“The best sign of a good pastor is that the congregation reads the Bible.” (14:489)

On the value of a loyal, honest wife:
“Lucky the preacher who, since married loyalty is the best, finds in his spouse his own conscience, such that she has the courage for truth, precisely for the sake of love, and does not shrink . . . from criticizing and admonishing . . . . Thank God if you have a wife who genuinely can criticize you.” (14:502, footnote 82)


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A Tribute and a Challenge

We’re gearing up for the start of a new school year at Heritage; this coming Monday is move in day for our new college students.  My  prayer is that God will use our faculty and staff to help prepare these men and women for life and ministry.  My hope is that we will have the impact on them that Dr. Howard Hendricks had on me.

Dr. Hendricks (affectionately known as “Prof”) was a teacher at Dallas Seminary during Howard and Jeanmy years there.  Recently, I was invited to contribute an article to a book Dallas Seminary is producing to honour His life and legacy.  Writing the tribute not only gave me the chance to express my gratitude, it also provided the basis for a challenge I gave to our profs.  All of us who serve as teachers (in churches, classrooms, workplaces) have something to learn from Dr. Hendrick’s example.  Here’s the article I wrote:


“You cannot impart what you do not possess.”

That’s a line I heard Dr. Hendricks say numerous times. It was one of his many memorable sayings; one of his quotable quotes.   I recently repeated it to the faculty and staff at Heritage College and Seminary.

As part of our preparation for the coming school year, our faculty and staff at Heritage gathered for a morning of prayer and instruction. As part of the challenge I gave our team that morning, I quoted Dr. Hendrick’s line: “You cannot impart what you do not possess.”

That line has special significance for all of us who are called to teach God’s truth. If we hope to impact the lives of those we teach, we must first be impacted by the truth ourselves. We must follow the pattern of Ezra who “devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel (Ezra 7:10). We must allow God’s Word to possess us before we seek to impart it to others.

One of the reasons Prof Hendricks impacted so many of us who sat in his classes was due to the fact that his life was so clearly marked by God’s Word. My first semester at Dallas, I took his class “Bible Study Methods.” By the time I arrived in 1980, he’d been teaching this course for decades. Although he had taught the course many times before, his enthusiasm for the material was still fresh. His passion for studying the Bible (observation, interpretation, application) was contagious.

I’m one of many who can say that Prof Hendricks shaped my love for God’s Word. In large part that’s true because he imparted what he possessed.

On the morning I spoke to the faculty and staff at Heritage, I also told them about a second saying I learned from Prof Hendricks. As I challenged all of us to give ourselves fully to the ministry to equipping students for life and ministry, I quoted Prof’s memorable line: “If you want them to bleed, you have to hemorrhage.”

That saying is a bit graphic, but it communicates an important point. Those of us who are teachers and preachers must come to our task with energy and passion. If we are anemic, our words will seem weak and sickly.   The apostle Paul put it in a succinct way when he wrote: “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord” (Romans 12:11).

One of the reasons Prof’s classes were so popular was that he was so energized as a teacher. He believed it was a sin to bore people with the Word of God and made sure his classes were never boring. It was almost impossible not to pay attention.

My desire for all of us who teach at Heritage College and Seminary is that we emulate the energy and passion for God’s Word that Prof Hendricks evidenced for over 50 years. As we follow his example of imparting what we possess and hemorrhaging enthusiasm for God’s Word, we’ll serve our students well—the way Prof Hendricks served so many of us.

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