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the ‘first fifteen’ puts the emphasis at the wrong end of the sermon – steve worsley

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m passionate about expository preaching, and I can think of no bad thing to say about my preaching mentor, Paul Windsor, who created the ‘First Fifteen’.

For any who don’t know, the First Fifteen are fifteen questions you can ask of a passage of Scripture to help you unpack its meaning and to seed ideas for your sermon.  It’s a great tool and it sits solidly within the expository preaching tradition and associated values.

Many of us who are Paul’s students have used the First Fifteen for years; some of us use it on a weekly basis.  It helps you see layers of meaning that you may otherwise not recognise.  We are intent on being faithful to Scripture and seeking carefully after its meaning rather than imposing our own thoughts on it.

However, I’ve come to think that this weight of time attention we give to understanding the text is often not matched by a similar weight of time and attention to its application to life.  Do we need a Second Fifteen which pertain to how we can diligently, creatively and compellingly apply the text’s meaning to the lives of our congregation members?  There is a real art to doing it well.  It takes time, attention and prayer.

Ask yourself: What percentage of my sermons are about life application, as compared to the percentage that unpack the text’s meaning?  How much time do I give to each as I prepare my sermon?  On the day you preach, which of these two will go furthest to transforming the hearers?

Recently I heard an expository message where it became clear that the preacher’s key idea was that in trying to ‘upgrade’ our Christianity or add special new things to it, we can find ourselves falling back in to rules-based Christianity.  This seemed a pretty good take on the passage.  We heard about some church rules from the past that now seem ridiculous – ‘You must speak in tongues to be truly filled with the Spirit’; ‘Women must be silent and wear head coverings’; ‘Baptists must not dance’ etc.

That’s as far as we got. Inside I was screaming: ‘But what are the rules that we live by today that hold us back from being better followers of Jesus?’!!* I accept that it’s a hard question, but when you really think about it, there are a number of good answers.  Even if the answers vary from person to person, this question deserved time in the sermon to get us really thinking about it. It felt like a missed opportunity for people to be released from things; or to find greater freedom or to walk more closely with Christ.

It made me wonder whether the spiritual gift of preaching revolves more around this instinct for incisive application than the skill of unpacking the text’s meaning?  Okay – I can hear you saying it’s both/and!  But if preaching’s effectiveness hangs equally on both, then when will someone devise a Second Fifteen that help us preachers open our people up through compelling life application?

*Equally that sermon could have asked, What are the kind of things we add to our Christianity today which are actually not improvements?

4 Comments

  1. Just checking how this reply function works. It doesn’t appear anyone responded to this post which may mean everyone agrees and it’s just darned obvious! Or it could mean it was just a really weak post. And the fact that I’m replying to my own post is in itself quite interesting. Perhaps I’m just not comfortable with failure?

  2. i’m replying to your post in my next post, so i didn’t want to reply in the comments and use up all the fodder for my post. people are generally very shy about internet commenting a lack of replies doesn’t signify failure, unless generating replies was the only goal! 🙂

  3. paul windsor says:

    Thanks for this post, Stephen. I did not want to jump in early and shut-down any reflection or interaction. The issues you raise are important.

    A couple of responses:

    (a) The challenge I have passed onto students – particularly those committed to biblical exposition – is that for however long you spend in the word figuring it out, aim to spend that much time in the world figuring out how the word can best ‘play’ in that context. Surely Stott’s double-listening requires no less effort?! So I hear your cry 🙂

    (b) My understanding of the journey from text to sermon is that it is a journey which visits five corners. Start in the text – move to the listener – onto the world – across to the preacher … and then all material that this journey furnishes is brought back to the text as it must control the shape and purpose of the sermon. Now the purpose of the First Fifteen is purely a first corner activity – it is only really about the text. The listener, the world and the preacher must all be engaged subsequent to the First Fifteen – and so you are right in your instinct that expresses the need for a Second Fifteen. I would agree with you.

    enuf

    thanks for the engagement

    Paul

  4. Nice to get your input on this question Paul! Yeah – I recall your emphases around the five corners and encouragements to spend plenty of time in each. I guess the deeper question I am asking is: Can you teach any preacher to be really good at sermon application or is it completely a matter of gifting?

    Paul – given how much free time you have(!), what do you reckon about putting together a ‘Second Fifteen’ for us to try out in our churches? (hey – it’s worth asking!)

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