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preaching at funerals – reuben munn

Earlier this year I officiated the funeral service of a young woman in our church who had committed suicide. She was in her 20s and had a young family—a husband, a 7-month old daughter and a 2-yr old son. After the birth of both her children she had severe post-natal depression, with the second time being much worse and more prolonged. In the darkness of her depression she took her own life. It’s about the most horrendous thing you can imagine happening to a family, and our whole church community felt the heavy weight of grief.

I usually give a short message at funerals, just a few minutes. I wanted to be open about the awfulness of what had happened, and not sugar-coat the circumstances of her death. But at the same time I wanted to bring out the reality that she had a genuine faith in Christ, even though she struggled to hold on to God near the end. I latched on to Romans 8:37-39 in the Message translation: “Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture. None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.”

Once I had that Scripture in my head, the message came together around it. I described how this woman knew Jesus and because of that, he was with her through everything. Even the darkest days of her depression couldn’t separate her from the love of Christ. Even when she couldn’t hold onto God, he was holding onto her. Even death itself couldn’t separate her from Christ because he had already died for her. In death and life she was absolutely secure in the love of Jesus because of his death and resurrection. I tried to talk positively about where she now was—in heaven—without suggesting at all that her death itself was positive. That was a difficult tightrope to walk. But people seemed encouraged by the meshing of grief and hope in the service.

Thankfully not all funerals are that hard. They can be a great opportunity to preach ‘out of season,’ beyond a church context and into a space where there are invariably non-Christians present and people are thinking about life and death more than usual. Here are a few other things I’ve learned about preaching at funerals . . .

  1. Be specific about heaven. If the person is a Christian, don’t talk about them being in a ‘better place.’ Be confident about describing them at peace and rest in heaven.
  2. Talk about ‘life after life after death’ (Tom Wright). Heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world. Talk also about the future resurrection, when we will all receive our new bodies together and enter God’s new creation.
  3. If the person is a non-Christian, you can still involve God. As long as the family is comfortable, it’s still good to pray at non-Christian funerals, to commit the person to God, and to encourage the family to find strength in Christ. Just be careful with your words so you don’t say something you don’t mean!

What would you advise for preaching at funerals?

too much preaching – reuben munn

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I am drowning in preaching. Way too many messages to prepare, way too little time. I’m doing sermon preparation every working morning and most evenings at the moment, which is not healthy. My normal frequency of preaching is three Sundays out of four. Even that is pretty high and I wouldn’t mind cutting it down to three out of five. But last Sunday I started a run of preaching five consecutive Sundays.  Having done that before, I know that the problem starts around week three when I run out of freshness and energy for preaching. After that week four and five are all business, no pleasure. It’s just a case of cranking out sermons, without really experiencing the joy of preaching.

On top of that I have some external preaching commitments in April-May, and some of the time I had planned to use in February preparing for those got swallowed up with some personal issues I was dealing with. That’s resulted in a compressed time-frame to prepare those messages, hence the evening work. It’s not a good situation.

I suppose this is a good time, in the middle of the homiletical storm, to reflect on all this, the effect it has, and how I can avoid this situation in the future. I see the following effects of preaching too much: 1) a lack of freshness and creativity in preaching—sermons become dry (if they weren’t already) and more exegetically than application focused. 2) A loss of interest in preaching on my part. It stops being life-giving and becomes a burden. 3) I just get tired, which is never a good space to be in when doing sermon prep. There are plenty of jobs you can still do well when you are tired, but preaching is not one of them.

So how do we avoid over-preaching? I guess it’s a case of knowing what a healthy frequency of preaching looks like for us and sticking to it. It means knowing what time of day is best for us to do sermon prep and not trying to cram too much extra prep into unfruitful time slots. And it means doing what we can to develop other preachers who can share the load. These are all lessons I am still learning! For now, I need to get back to preparing this week’s message…

driven, focused and centred – reuben munn

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This year has solidified for me three simple but central convictions about preaching. I’ve carried these convictions around for a while, and they have been said many times by many people, but they have become more clearly and firmly pressed on my heart in the course of preaching through Exodus this year. For me, good preaching is three things:

  1. Text-driven

There is a real discipline to allowing the text to set the agenda for the shape, flow and content of the sermon. Even though I’m committed to this in principle, I find it a constant temptation to pull the text this way or that, depending on where I want to go (or want the congregation to go!). It’s hard to truly submit to the text as a preacher, to give it—and thereby the Spirit—real authority over the preparation of the message. I’d rather use the text to preach the latest book I’ve read, or an issue that I think is pertinent to the church. But the extent of my willingness to submit to the biblical text is a reflection of my trust in the providence of Christ to speak through Scripture.

  1. Metanarrative-focussed.

While being driven by the text, I also want as much as possible to connect that text to the entire biblical narrative. I want to explore how this text fits into the overall story of Scripture, stretching from creation (and before, in the eternal life of the trinity) through to new creation. But that doesn’t mean using the text as a springboard into other passages. I think sometimes preachers assume that’s what it means to preach the big story of Scripture—fit as many biblical passages as possible into one sermon. This is where we have to hold this conviction in one hand and the conviction to be text-driven in the other. Our message must still be thoroughly grounded in the given text, but carefully place that text in the context of Scripture as a whole. This often requires a zoom-in-zoom-out approach, where we shift between a focus on the text itself and a broader focus on thematic connections to other parts of Scripture.

  1. Christ-centred.

The importance of Christ-centrality in preaching was hammered home to me by Tim Keller’s latest book, Preaching. He says, “Every time you expound a biblical text, you are not finished unless you demonstrate how it shows us that we cannot save ourselves and that only Jesus can. That means we must preach Christ from every text.” I’ve found it particularly fruitful this year exploring the various ways that the Exodus story points to Christ. For example, in my message on the plagues of Egypt I talked about how the plagues symbolically pictured God undoing creation, pushing the world back toward darkness and chaos. This was ultimately fulfilled at the cross when Jesus took the ultimate plague of God’s judgement upon himself and this was accompanied by darkness coming over all the land (as per the ninth plague—creation undone again). This not only deepens our picture of Christ, it helps our hearers see the depth and richness of the Old Testament as a shadow of what was to come. No matter what our text, our sermon is not finished until we have preached Christ!

These three convictions are guiding beacons for me as I prepare each message. I pray they will increasingly define and shape my preaching in the years to come. What are the central convictions you have about what constitutes good preaching?

 

when the congregation preaches the sermon – reuben munn

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Preaching is always a dialogue. Just because you may be the only one speaking, that doesn’t mean it’s a monologue. As Tom Long says: “The hearer is not at all passive in the listening process. The space between pulpit and pew bristles with energy and activity. As the preacher speaks, the hearer races ahead in anticipation of what might be said next, ranges back over what has already been said, debates with the preacher, rearranges the material, adds to the message, wanders away and returns (sometimes!). In short, the hearer is a co-creator of the sermon.”

I love the thought that as I am preaching, I am making something together with my hearers, and that the delivered sermon is the shared creation of preacher, congregation and Spirit. That also explains why sermons don’t tend to date very well. A message that seemed like a winner in one context falls flat in another. Why? Because its success depended partly on one of the co-creators of the message—the congregation.

This growing awareness of the congregation as co-creators of the sermon is leading me to place a greater emphasis on the role and responsibility of my hearers during preaching. I want them to know I’m not going to do all the hard work for them, at least not up front. A few weeks ago I did an introductory message to a series in Exodus, in which I explored how Exodus imagery is found throughout Scripture, particularly in relation to Israel’s return from exile, the life and death of Jesus, and the new creation. As we read various texts from the prophets, Psalms and gospels, I asked the congregation to listen for echoes of the Exodus story. I pointed out bits and pieces in these texts and asked (rhetorically) where they had heard these words and phrases before. Eventually I explained the various connections but first I tried to send the congregation down the path ahead of me to make these discoveries for themselves.

Emphasising the active role of the hearer in preaching lends itself to a more inductive style of preaching in which questions and tensions are raised by the text(s) and provoked by the preacher. Don’t give the answers too quickly…make your hearers answer the questions themselves first by wrestling with the text. Don’t resolve all the tension for them…let them sweat it out for a while! And don’t always give away the whole structure of your message up front…let them piece it together as you go along. Tom Long’s comment that the audience even rearranges our material in their heads can be an invitation to give our hearers ‘off-ramps’ and ‘on-ramps’ during the message where they may detour to another part of the sermon in their minds. In practical terms, this may be as simple as saying to your hearers, “let’s park that question for now and we’ll come back to it later,” or “we saw this same pattern earlier in the text.” That signals to the hearer that they might want to mentally re-organise some of the content of your message. Of course this can all become very muddy and confused if we’re not careful…there is no substitute for simplicity and clarity (and I can’t resolve that tension for you!).

I want to expect more of my hearers in preaching. I want to call them to a greater level of mental and emotional participation in the sermon and a greater level of responsibility for the final creation. In what other ways can we facilitate the role of our hearers as co-creators of our sermons?

text and table together – reuben munn

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I want to pick up on a comment made by Roger Driver-Burgess in response to John Tucker’s blog post, Highways to Christ. In his comment, Roger mentioned that Christocentric preaching has been made easier in his church by the weekly observance of communion, usually after the sermon. In his words, “Every week I need to find my way from the text to the table, and there is always a way.” I thought that was really well put, a thought-provoking statement which got me thinking about other connections between the text and the table, between preaching and communion. Whether your church takes communion each week (as ours does) or less regularly, it is worth considering whether we can strengthen the relationship between text and table in our gathered worship so that Word and sacrament are more fully integrated in the life of the church.

If the heart of our preaching is the Gospel of grace, then preaching should connect naturally with communion itself. Communion is where we invite people to encounter Christ in the bread and wine and claim their belovedness in him. Rather than simply being a purely symbolic remembrance of Jesus’ death in the past, communion can become a dynamic and living means of grace in the present by which Christ meets us at the table, just as we have met him in the pages of his Word through the sermon. Communion can be a moment when it all comes together—the sermon, the congregation, the preacher, the text of Scripture, all at the foot of the cross. Although our preaching should always be Christocentric, communion can truly bathe our sermon in the death of Jesus, and seal on the hearts of our congregation what has been preached, or perhaps prepare them for what is about to be preached. Communion is a time and space for people to more fully receive the gift that God is giving them through our preaching—the assurance that in Christ they are loved and blessed even though they are broken, and that they are sent out to be given to others as a living sacrament, poured out for the sake of others. Isn’t that what our preaching is all about?

So I’m trying to create more time and space for communion in our services, often as a response to what has been preached. One practical shift this is bringing about is that the conclusion of my sermons is often less about wrapping up the sermon, and more about opening up new space for people to reflect on what God is saying to them through his Word. Communion then provides the perfect contemplative space for this, not simply as a time to meditate, but as a way of the congregation hearing God confirm his word to them, in view of what they have heard through Scripture and especially in view of the cross (which hopefully are connected!). My sermon conclusion is therefore not just looking back over the message, but looking forward to what God is about to do when we meet him in Christ at the table.

Are there other connections between text and table that could be explored?

preaching to non-christians – reuben munn

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I’m currently writing a series of talks for a course our church is running called The Story of God. It’s designed for non-Christians as an introduction to the Christian worldview, journeying through the biblical story over five sessions. I’m enjoying the challenge of preparing messages especially for a non-Christian audience, which is not something I do very much. It is raising some interesting issues for me around communicating Scripture and the gospel to those outside the family of God.

Firstly, telling the story of Scripture to non-Christians is forcing me to identify what plot-points in the biblical story are important to cover in order for them to grasp the scarlet thread that weaves its way through the biblical narrative. Covering the Old Testament is particularly tricky. Is Abraham in or out? What about Noah (I figure he’s gotten enough publicity recently, so he’s out!)? How much of the story of Israel pre-Jesus is really important for non-Christians in understanding the gospel? I have used the theme of the image of God in telling the story, so I’m talking about Israel as God’s image-bearers in the world, and how they fared in that vocation. That provides a kind of macro look at Israel’s role in the story of salvation, without getting caught up in the details. I have found the image of God motif a really rich one for telling the whole story of Scripture, especially in exploring the identity of Jesus (the perfect image), the Christian life (being transformed into the image of Christ) and the future new creation (the image of God fully restored in humanity).

Then there is the challenge of defining terms and succinctly describing key moments in the biblical story. What do you do with sin? Is that word so laden with unhelpful baggage that it is best discarded when talking to non-Christians? I have chosen to keep the word ‘sin’ in use because it’s in the Bible, but I’ve defined it as human beings distorting the relationships that comprise the image of God (relationship with God, self, others and the world). Is that a legitimate way of defining sin for non-Christians, or a strained attempt to carry the image of God concept throughout the story? And what about the atonement? How do you boil that down for non-Christians without becoming it becoming cliché or cluttered? I’d like to include every model and metaphor of the atonement available in order to present the fullest possible picture, but of course that’s impossible, so which one do I choose? I’ve also chosen to use the word ‘repent’ when describing what it means to become a follower of Jesus, but again, I’ll try to define the word as carefully as I can, and name the ways in which the word has been abused.

The great thing is that trying to tell the story of Scripture as clearly and succinctly as possible for a non-Christian audience is helping clarify the shape of my own theology. And it is giving me a fresh passion for communicating the gospel (however we define it) to those who have not yet embraced it, that their eyes may be opened to see Jesus and respond to him in faith.

a preacher reflects on being in the lion’s den – reuben munn

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Earlier this month the KiwiMade preaching forums were held around the country and I was privileged to participate as one of the preachers in Auckland. Our text was the temptations of Jesus in Luke 4, but given the occasion it may have been more appropriate for us to preach on Daniel in the lion’s den! It was a daunting challenge: preaching to an audience of preachers, preaching on the same text as three other preachers on the same day, and being publicly reviewed by a panel of preachers. Thankfully the panellists didn’t have buzzers so we were each able to make it through our messages uninterrupted! It was a great experience and one that I’ve drawn several reflections from on my own preaching journey.

The greatest impression I came away with from the day was a renewed appreciation of the diversity of preaching styles and methods. It’s so easy to get blinded by our own preaching model to the broad ways in which God’s word can be effectively proclaimed by different people. Among the sermons at the Auckland forum we had deductive, narrative, contemplative and a crossbreed. We had pacers, standers and a beautifully devotional message preached from a wheelchair. Some sermons were highly illustrative, others imaginative, others more teachy. From the one passage, the four sermons travelled in four different directions, yet each of them remained faithful to the text. Jesus’ temptations produced a variety of rich reflections, ranging from comfort for those in spiritual dessert places to caution for those tempted to compromise with the world.  And through all of these ways and means, Scripture was faithfully preached and Christ was made more fully known.

I was reminded that there is not one right preaching model. Yes, there are some non-negotiables: preaching should be biblical, Christ-centred, clear and sincere. And there may be approaches to preaching that are better suited to congregations as an ongoing diet. But we each have to find our own preaching voice and become comfortable in our own skin.

Then there was the whole issue of receiving feedback. As Geoff New put it on the day, “sermons are birthed, and we treasure them like our children.” So it wasn’t easy subjecting my ‘baby’ to the critique of others, especially in front of the whole room. But it was a really valuable process. The panellists were forthright in their comments, and I had to fight the urge to become self-defensive at times, but they were genuinely helpful. It is rare to receive that calibre of feedback in preaching, beyond the one-liners you get after a church service. These were very thoughtful comments, both at an exegetical level (from the Lukan scholar on the panel—thanks Sarah Harris!) to remarks about structure, flow and delivery. At times the panellists disagreed with each other (not quite X-factor, but close), which in itself was an insight into how messages are heard. Something that jars with one person is warmly received by another.

All up I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It was challenging for me personally, both leading up to and during the day, but it has been strengthening for me as a preacher. And I hope that all those of us who attended came away nourished by Scripture, encouraged by the kerygma of the gospel, and renewed in our calling as preachers.

preaching in bad head-space – reuben munn

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Recently I’ve had to preach when it hasn’t been well with my soul. I had a really tough week and was experiencing major inner turmoil. It wasn’t even well with my body; I had a mild stomach bug at the end of the same week. I arrived exhausted at a weekend on which I was due to speak at a marriage conference, give a talk at a wedding ceremony and preach at our church. It was like staring up a huge mountain that I felt completely incapable of climbing.

On the Saturday morning I sent a text to my elders, asking for their prayer. They sent back assurances that they were praying for me, and off I went to speak at the marriage conference. I decided to adjust the ending of that talk in order to speak out of my own sense of physical and emotional brokenness at the time. I told the story of how earlier in the week, in the middle of the anguish I was feeling, my wife Anna had prayed for me, and what a special and powerful moment that was. I didn’t talk about the situation itself but simply how Anna had supported me through it. It seemed that people who were listening connected more to that story than anything else I said. It really seemed to resonate with them.

That experience reassured me that it’s ok at times to speak out of our brokenness and weakness. If that’s where we are at, I don’t see much point in putting on a fake happy face and pretending to be all jovial in the pulpit. I know nobody likes a sour puss, but I want to be real with people I speak to, and sometimes that’s going to mean being real in my pain. It’s encouraging that when people sense vulnerability in a preacher they often connect deeply with it and relate more emotively to what is being said. This is not an attempt to go for the sympathy vote but simply a plea for us to be a bit more raw with our lives in preaching; both in our joy and our suffering.

I got through the wedding talk that weekend as well, and the following morning’s sermon. I didn’t have my usual energy level but other than that things seemed to go ok. Even my upset stomach eased when I was speaking. I can’t remember much of what I personally prayed those days; I think it was more of a sense of just trying to rest in God’s presence and peace rather than using any particular prayer words. God was so faithful to me (and hopefully to those who listened!) and it reminded me that my preaching really is in his hands and not mine.

The next week was much brighter. It’s easy now to drift into self-reliance, but I think the experience of that dark week has left a mark on my preaching. I am more willing to be broken before those I preach to, and at the same time I’m painfully aware of the temptation to do so out of pride (false humility). I am more consciously aware of my total dependence on God throughout the whole process of preaching. And I’m encouraged by the words of Psalm 31: “I trust in you, Lord. I say, ‘you are my God.’ My times are in your hands.”

reuben munn – counterpoint preaching

I was talking the other day to a friend about a Christian conference he had been to. In the context of telling me about one of the speakers, my friend made an interesting comment: “when it comes to Christian speakers, I find it helpful to ask, ‘who do they think is the enemy?’” In other words, what is the viewpoint or paradigm that their message is subtly (or not so subtly) opposing?

That question struck me as an interesting one to ask of preaching. In our preaching, who do we think is the enemy? Maybe the word ‘enemy’ is too harsh. A softer question might be: what is the counterpoint to my preaching? It seems to me that most preaching is a counterpoint to something. Sermons tend not only to promote a particular way of thinking, but also to counter an alternative way of thinking. By identifying what that alternative is, we are better placed to evaluate and improve our own preaching.

The senior pastor of our church before me was big on defending the Christian faith against non-Christian sceptics. His preaching counterpoint was secular humanism or atheism. So his preaching tended to be heavily apologetic, giving rational arguments for the truth of the gospel. For me, I think my primary preaching counterpoint these days is a staunch Christian fundamentalism that truncates the gospel and reduces theology to a set of rigid, abstract propositions. That’s where I used to be, and having moved away from that personally, I find that it has become the counterpoint to much of my preaching. So my preaching often attempts to broaden people’s understanding of the gospel and connect people to the overarching narrative of the Scriptures.

This may seem like a bit of a negative way to think about preaching, as a counterpoint to an alternative way of thinking. But I have found that identifying my preaching counterpoint has helped me become more self-aware as a preacher. It has also helped me make adjustments so that my preaching is not too one-sided; I am trying to interact with other counterpoint views and perspective that I may otherwise ignore.

Does this idea of a preaching counterpoint ring true for anyone else, and if so, can you identify what yours is?

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Reuben Munn is Senior Pastor of Shore Community Church on Auckland’s North Shore, whose teaching features on the TV programme Connection Point on Shine TV.

reuben munn – preaching in crisis

As I sat watching the unfolding horror of the Christchurch earthquake aftermath on TV last week, I have to admit that one of my concerns was a bit more selfish: does this mean I need to throw out this week’s sermon and start over? Our church is in Auckland and many people in the congregation weren’t directly affected by the event. But we were all shocked at what happened and wanted to show our solidarity with and support for Cantabrians. Should I completely rewrite my message in view of the tragedy, or stick to the message I had prepared?

That’s a difficult question for preachers, especially because in the case of crisis events we are often forced to answer it quickly. In this case I had several days before Sunday, but disasters can arise at the last minute and throw everything up in the air. It is worth thinking through how we as preachers determine our response to such events.

There are certainly times when it is appropriate to set aside whatever we have prepared and address the situation directly. Maybe this is what Paul meant when he told Timothy to be ready to preach the word “out of season” as well as in season. Those out-of-season moments come when unexpected events are weighty and significant enough that they need to be spoken into from the pulpit. When the hearts and minds of our congregation are gripped by a tragedy (even if they’re not directly affected by it), we risk becoming disconnected and irrelevant if we ignore it in our preaching. Moreover we lose an opportunity to help interpret that event biblically and give expression to the grief and hurt people may feel. Even though it may require some late night hours of rewriting, it is worth it to bring the gospel to bear on the realities of life that are confronting us.

For events that are not as close to home, or not as serious (I know, this is subjective—how do you apply scientific criteria to these things?) it may be appropriate to carry on with the message we’ve planned, but find another way to address the situation in the service. This could be through a pastoral prayer, a special offering, or comments we make at the beginning of our message before launching in.

I chose to rework my existing message around the Christchurch earthquake. I was planning to speak on Ecclesiastes 1 and there is a natural affinity between that passage and the sense of futility we feel at the devastation the quake has caused. And the earthquake has reminded of the fragility and transience of life, which the writer of Ecclesiastes laments. This approach seems best when we are already working with a passage that speaks into the situation. The danger is that we end up twisting the passage to make it fit the circumstances and try to make it say something it’s not really saying. So we need to be careful that we are still being lead by the text, while making application to the situation.

I’m aware that my task is nothing compared to that of preachers in Christchurch who will be standing before congregations on Sunday that are suffering deeply. I pray they may be given grace and strength to speak an out-of-season word through which God brings hope and healing.

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Reuben Munn is Senior Pastor of Shore Community Church on Auckland’s North Shore. He also preaches on the TV programme Connection Point, a ministry of SCC, which screens on Shine TV. He enjoys reading and is a keen piano player.