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preaching the cosmic scope of what god is up to – mark keown


Emma and I had a fascinating discussion this morning at breakfast here at Westminster College in Cambridge. The conversation partners were a delightful Sydney scientist couple visiting their daughter studying in Cambridge. As we talked he was intrigued by my NT scholarship sharing that he too is an academic working in the area of environmental science.

We also learned that he and his wife attend an evangelical church in Sydney of a popular denomination which shall remain nameless. In his ecological work he is observing and documenting first-hand the devastation of the natural life in the areas around Sydney due to climate change. He spoke of a tragedy occurring as we speak whereby these areas are becoming wastelands bereft of animal life. He was genuinely grieved. He works with others who are observing this all over Australia.

He started asking what was going on in theological thought around ecology and faith. I told him, heaps! As the church responds to the ecological challenges we face in the present by going back to the Scriptures and Christian story and consider God’s perspective on all this.

They shared about science and faith and the narrowness of the views of those in their Christian orb. He spoke of a complete disconnect from the world of science, ecology and church. I heard a couple who sensed that the gospel was way bigger than personal salvation, discipleship, worship, the church, and evangelism. But due to the failure of the teaching they have experienced, aside from their sense that “wait there’s more,” they lack any real theological understanding of the cosmic creational scope of the gospel. This is because no-one has ever taught them that there is a way of looking at the gospel that preserves the centrality of personal salvation and speaks of the fullness of the scope of what God is doing on planet earth.

We got talking about God and his creation, the possibilities of evolutionary theism, salvation as cosmic restoration, and a restorationist eschatology, i.e. that God’s ultimate purposes in Christ is to restore the whole cosmos with restored humanity at the centre of his purposes (esp. Rom 8:19–22). It was fascinating and unsurprising to hear him speak of difficulties of relationship with passionate six-day creationists. We spoke about different ways of reading Genesis and the story of the gospel. They shared that they were committed to love and unity wanting to remain in close fellowship with others who differ. Yet, they were finding this hard.

What got me was that they had never heard anyone articulate the gospel story with its full cosmic dimensions. Their experience was of moving around churches and only ever hearing a dualist spiritual-secular world-view.

They asked what theologians thought about this. I told him about movements of thought which were exploring all this, science and faith, a holistic view of the gospel, the place of ecology, justice, and more. I suggested authors, books to read, places to explore further to get him going. They were genuinely excited.

What can we glean from this? I was reminded that we as preachers must not fall prey to preaching a truncated narrow dualist gospel. While we must always preserve the importance of personal salvation, evangelism, the church and its local mission, we must preach the gospel in its fullness so it touches the questions of the day, the work our people are doing, the fullness of what God is doing on planet earth. We need to do a regular review of what we are preaching to ensure that we are not falling prey to preaching a narrow gospel. My sense is people are hungry for the full story. Let’s tell it.

preaching theologically – mark keown


We live a context in which Christians are biblically and theologically challenged. There are a range of reasons for this including anti-intellectualism, theology having a bad name, people living of scraps from the internet, preaching that does not challenge, poorly theologically equipped popular preachers, and more. One of the critical needs of our age is to inspire our hearers not only to live the Christian life, but grow in their understanding of the Bible and theology. We want them to dig deeper. So how can we preachers help facilitate this process.

First, we need to keep ourselves theologically sharp. If we have an undergrad degree, we need to keep reading not only Scripture and the newspaper, but some good theology. There is nothing worse than a preacher’s library covered in dust, out of date, or unused.

Second, if we have not studied theology, we should do so, even if only part-time or by distance. We need to be stretched to stretch our people. Postgrad study is an excellent way to push us to further theological depth. I have seen great examples at Laidlaw of preachers who have come and done this. I take my hat off to them.

Third, when we preach, we need to develop the skill of bringing theological depth and insight to our hearers in a meaningful way. That means making them aware of different views, how to interpret, books and resources that are inspiring us, snippets from church history, theological language well explained, and all with touches of humour, inspiration, connection, and at the appropriate level. This means it has to be a part of us, not something manufactured. Something processed to the point of ease of delivery and framed for the level of our people. It has to be ‘natural’ and not ‘forced.’

Where different views are in mind, I believe we should preach with conviction giving the view that we are convinced of (or in the process of thinking an issue through). However, we should do so making them aware of why other people hold diverse views. For example, I remember doing a sermon on tithing. I went through the two main views, suggested my own, but left the congregation with Rom 14-15 encouraging them to go and decide for themselves and then live out of their conviction without judgment on the other. There is also nothing wrong with us saying we are working on something ourselves, demonstrating that we too are growing theologically.

What we really want is for people to leave Church interested in learning more and with guidance as to how to do so. We want them to go to small groups and pick up the discussion points. We want them to come and ask questions. That said, perhaps also we need to teach them how to dialogue theologically with grace and seasoned with salt as well.

The Sunday sermon of course will only ever be a taster. In most churches we are preaching for a short period to a group that covers the wide range of theological understandings and levels. As such, developing pathways for further learning is critical. I am delighted to hear of churches that are doing summer/winter schools, developing theology programs in their churches. Bring it on. Then there are a range of colleges for the really interested.

I believe we need to take seriously the biblical and theological illiteracy of our age. We have our people for 20–30 mins or so on Sundays. We preachers need to lead them in how to think theologically. This is one dimension of our task.

expositional, thematic, or narrative preaching? – mark keown


When I was a young preacher the big question was expositional versus thematic preaching? Should we preach expounding the Scriptures passage by passage, focusing deeply on one passage, drawing out its meaning? Should we preach thematically, drawing from all of Scripture or key portions thereof to discuss a theme? In more recent times, narrative preaching has become more popular, with people preaching out of story or as story. Which way to go?

In my view we need a rich balance of all of the above. Each approach teaches a different skill, important for all Christians to develop. Exposition teaches the skill of exegesis – reading a single passage and connecting it to its context Scripture and applying it to today’s world. This is the bread and butter detailed stuff we all need. Preaching progressively through a book of Scripture helps the hearer learn the skill of reading in historical, social, immediate context and the books developing message. My wife Emma recently preached an expositional series on Ruth. It was sensational to hear people talk about the ‘aha moments’ they got from the book and redemption history.

Thematic preaching is equally important. Christians need to learn the skill of interpreting a theme across redemption history. We can show how something is found in the OT, fulfilled and interpreted by Christ, and understood and applied in the early church. Take the Temple for example. We can show them the development of ideas from creation as temple, the impact of the Fall, the Tabernacle, the temple in Zion, Christ as the temple, believers individual and the church corporate as the temple, the context of pagan temples of the Greco-Roman world, and the new creation in which the cosmos will be the temple of God in its fullness. Such preaching teaches people how to read the Scriptures as a whole, as an unfolding narrative, with Christ at the centre, and the new heaven and earth as climax.

Narrative preaching feeds the imagination and soul. Good expositional and thematic preaching is always in a sense narratival. It draws on narrative and is infused with narrative bringing alive the text to our context. Yet, narratival preaching differs in that it is as a whole story-based. We go from our exegesis or thematic analysis to developing the message as ‘story.’ While in Dunedin training for Presbyterian Ministry I went to Knox Presbyterian for six weeks in which I sat under David Grant who each week took a passage of Scripture and turned it to narrative. Each week I was spell bound and found my imagination awakened, my heart stirred, and my desire for God quickened. I discovered the power of narrative.

Of course, good preaching blends the three approaches, with a gifted communicator moving from exposition to thematic development to narrative freely.

In my view, Jesus did all three. We find him preaching expositionally in places like Matt 22:41–46 where Jesus brings out the messianic meaning of Ps 110:1. We find him preaching thematically in the sermons in John as he ponders things like “the bread of life” (John 8). We find him preaching narratively on many occasions (parables), expounding passages like “the second great commandment” with glorious stories like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37).

The people we preach to require different connection points and skills. By switching things up in the pulpit we will keep alive their desire and we can surprise so that they leave the church motivated and equipped to meet life’s many challenges.

mark keown – making space for evangelism

One of the great tensions for any pastor is how to integrate evangelism into the life of the church. One element of this is when and how to preach the gospel in the natural flow of church life. This all relates to the main function of the sermon. Is it to feed those already in the room, to edify the saints? Is it is to preach to win the lost?

The church gathered is primarily a gathering of the saints for worship, fellowship, and edification. It is a sign of the gospel to the principalities and powers that God is calling forth a new humanity. As such, we preachers primarily preach to feed the sheep. This is multi-faceted with three elements: 1) To deepen their desire to worship by preaching the Triune God that their faith is deepened and they are drawn to adoration and service; 2) To urge and equip people to love their brothers and sisters and a desire to use their gifts to serve and build God’s church; 3) To equip believers for the challenge of being missionaries in the sphere into which God has called them – their family, work, social networks. We hope our preaching sees fruit of the Spirit bud in their lives, overflowing into worship and action for the gospel to build the church and mission as they leave each Sunday.

If that is so, where is the place of evangelising from the pulpit? Some would argue evangelism happens away from the church pulpit, outside the church whether one on one, intentional evangelism, small groups (e.g. Alpha), or in the flow of ‘normal’ life as people ‘gossip the gospel.’ The church is the place for those who respond, for believers, where they are fed. While I fully agree that evangelism should be done this way, I don’t think that this means the church should be an evangelism-free zone.

Another approach is that evangelism is for the ‘expert’ like a Greg Laurie, believers’ bringing their friends to hear the gospel from the evangelist. This is great to a point, but does not mean that the preaching of the gospel for conversion should not be a natural part of church life.

A third approach is to have special event-services on a regular basis to which members of the church can bring an unbelieving friend. This would involve a well thought out seeker-friendly service, wonderful hospitality, and a sermon that seeks the articulate the gospel with clarity, conviction, ‘gentleness and respect.’ Pastors who feel ill-equipped can utilise the evangelist and the church prepare well with prayer and preparation. This is great and should be a part of regular church life – but is it all that we should be doing?

Another approach is for preachers to preach the word in a systematic manner and allow the text of the day to speak, and the gospel to flow from it, and perhaps an appeal for conversion, when the Spirit leads. If this is a regular part of a sermon with a seeker-friendly environment, then a believer in the church can bring a friend anytime, knowing that they will hear something of the gospel. This requires the preacher sitting with the text imagining that their hearers are primarily the people of God gathered, but with a thought to those who are present that are not believers. It is great if preachers know in advance that unbelievers are coming, so training their people to let the preacher know is helpful. I believe that a good preacher can preach in such a way that challenges the saved and unsaved alike, but it is not easy.

The truth is that all of the above and more is required. Ideally, the church breaths mission and evangelism, with both corporate life and individual lives drawing people to God. I challenge us all as preachers to give thought to this question to ensure that the clarion call of the gospel is ringing out of in and from our communities of faith. NZ needs it more than ever.

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Mark Keown has been a Presbyterian and Baptist Pastor and is currently Senior Lecturer in New Testament at Laidlaw College. He is married to Emma (Minister, Glenfield Presbyterian). His works include What’s God Up To On Planet Earth and Congregational Evangelism in Philippians. 

mark keown – letters as sermons

As those of us who are evangelical believe, the Bible is our primary resource for preaching. Our role is to stand in the tradition of the apostles and preach the living gospel which is found within the Scriptures. But there is another dimension to consider. The Bible is itself a training ground for preaching. The New Testament is full of sermons and we can study these as sermons and learn a lot about preaching from the way that the writers of the New Testament preached (see

Here I want to show how this works for one letter, Philippians, a letter I spend a lot of time studying. Rhetorical Criticism is a means of analysis which treats the New Testament letters as speeches, comparing them with Graeco-Roman speech forms. A number of scholars have sought to interpret Philippians in this way. While their ideas are debated and most scholars agree that the letters do not quite fit this form, but rather blend a variety of letter and speech forms, the overall point that the letters were also speeches is undeniable. They were written with the intention of being read aloud by the letter’s deliverer; in the case of Philippians, probably Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25-30; 4:18). This means we can look at Philippians as a sermon and we can gain some insight into how to preach from it.

Philippians is kind of a macro-sermon in that it addresses a whole church and its issues. It is as if the church’s senior leader is challenging the church to rediscover its core values and get back to basics. It begins with thanksgiving and prayer which alert us to the issues at stake, ‘partnership in the gospel’ (1:5) and love (1:9-10) i.e. unity in living and sharing the gospel. There is a personal story of Paul’s situation in 1:12-26 where the focus is the gospel’s advance, unity and hope. Through the story the Philippians are urged to continue to engage in evangelistic mission, to be unified unlike the divided Romans, and to be confident and joyful that God will bring them through their challenges.

Philippians 1:27-2:18 gives the first direct appeal of the letter. It is cleverly constructed with 1:27-2:4 essentially paralleling 2:12-18 with two great parallel commands: ‘live as citizens (of heaven on earth) worthy of the gospel of Christ’ and ‘work out your salvation’ (1:27; 2:12). The Philippians are to consider what heavenly citizenship and the life of salvation looks like, and live it. These commands are developed with specifics emphasising unity, perseverance, hope, joy, love and continued mission engagement. One thing that stands out in Philippians is that Paul continually comes back to the same points again and again through the letter, but describes them differently cumulatively calling for his hoped for response. Good sermons do this. In the centre of passage in 2:5-8 is the core example of the letter, Jesus. Paul here picks up what may be a well-known hymn and presents Christ as the core pattern. Great sermons always point to Jesus and bring it back to him. He is our salvation and our example.

This is followed by two illustrations that they can connect with, one of the church’s other founders Timothy and their own apostle Epaphroditus. These two embody the Christ-pattern of 2:5-11 of selflessness, sacrifice, service, gospel engagement, courage, humility and love. Good sermons bring things home with examples.

Philippians 3 addresses an external challenge, false teaching. The enemies are identified (3:2, 18-19) and countered with an appeal to stay resolute to the gospel and its glorious hope. Again examples are given, Paul and others who embody authenticity. Good preachers equip people for the challenge of heresy.

Philippians 4:1-9 brings things home what the appeal looks like: that the disputing groups reconcile, joy, hope, peace, prayer, correct thinking, and emulation of their founder Paul. Finally, Paul ends with thanksgiving for their wonderful generosity to him, they providing for them. Notice how the sermon is framed with positivity toward the recipients, love and hope at each end.

I could go into great detail on all of this, but I hope you get the point. I urge you to study the letters not only for their content but for their rhetorical patterns. They embody good preaching and encourage us to do the same.

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Mark is a senior lecturer in New Testament at Laidlaw College, Auckland NZ. He has been a Presbyterian and Baptist Pastor and is often found preaching and teaching in churches. He is married to Emma the minister of Glenfield Presbyterian, and has three wonderful daughters. His books include Congregational Evangelism in Philippians (Paternoster, 2008), and What’s God Up To On Planet Earth (Castle, 2010).