Bad interviews & bad preaching: three questions to ask (and answer) when preaching

Somebody highlighted the following clip from Sky News on Twitter. They hailed it as a great example of not giving politicians an inch.

Personally, I see no point in these sorts of interviews. If a politician is terrible, it would be nice if journalists would let us make up our own mind by letting them answer their questions in their own words so that we can judge it for ourselves. This is the kind of interview in which we learn precisely nothing about the views of the politician – good or bad as they may be – because they simply weren’t given the room to answer the questions being put to them.

Of course, there is an opposing danger. It is encapsulated in this still infamous interview between Jeremy Paxman and Michael Howard. The whole thing smacks of this problem, but the most overt example begins (and continues) from around 2.51 and moves into the most infamous part by 4.11.

The opposing problem to journalists refusing to allow politicians to speak so that we hear their answer is allowing them to speak at length, in carefully worded language, and then moving on so that we also learn nothing about their views. Paxman, in my view, does what is right in this interview. He allows Michael Howard to speak but when he fails to answer a simple question, ensures it is asked again and again. We didn’t learn nothing, we were able to see Howard doing all he can to avoid answering the question which, for those with eyes to see, offers its own answer.

I was set to thinking how this sort of thing applies to our preaching. I think both these dangers can exist. On the one hand, there is problem of the preacher noting every little detail he has noticed in the text such that he is, effectively, interrupting repeatedly what the text is ultimately trying to say. They are the kind of sermons that are the equivalent of the Iain Duncan-Smith interview above. We learn very little about the text because the preacher keeps interrupting to point out yet another thing he has noticed that, whether in the text or not, doesn’t really serve the ultimate point. These things are even worse if these interruptions are for chiasms or “interesting” Greek syntax (if there is really such a thing!). These types of sermons get so bogged down in interruptions to the main point that they all get lost in the detail and we end up learning almost nothing at all.

On the other hand, we can end up heading down the Michael Howard route in our preaching. The text before us is clear and the questions to which our people will want answers from the text are obvious enough. But the sermon spends the entire time dancing around those questions. By the end, no real answers come. We may have had some questions drawn out of the text, the preacher might even have floated them himself, but we get to the end and we haven’t heard an answer. We come away from the sermon having learnt very little indeed because all that was floated were a series of unanswered questions or the questions that were answered were utterly irrelevant to the ones that we actually wanted to know.

So how do we try to rein in these potential problems? There are lots of things we might say, but I think there are three questions worth asking of any given text. In fact, they are three questions that would allow almost anybody to lead a Bible study should they need to do it. That’s not to say the answers are necessarily very easy to find, but they do at least home in on the key issues we ought to be addressing. For those who do preach regularly, if you can’t answer these three questions clearly and you haven’t done so anywhere in your sermon, I would be confident in suggesting you have a duffer on your hands and you might want to think about a rewrite.

So, what are those three questions? There is nothing earth-shattering here, just what is painfully obvious but we so frequently fail to do:

  1. What does this text mean?
    And/or
    What is going on in this text?
  2. How does this text relate to Jesus?
    And/or
    What does this text tell me about Jesus?
  3. What are we supposed to do with whatever this text is telling us?
    And/or
    How are we supposed to behave/think/change/respond to what this text is saying?

If we stick to, and meaningfully answer, those three questions then we are likely to avoid either pitfall we mentioned before. We will allow the text to speak without waffling on about incidental details that are of no great significance to the people in front of us. At the same time, we will recognise there are key questions that require an answer and we will make sure we actually come to answer them.