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what is the hardest sermon you ever preached? – steve worsley

angry mob

Was it the sermon you did on Gay Marriage, knowing an ill-advised word could cause a church split? Was it the time you offended the creationists by not preaching their line? Did you get buried under the weight of Numbers or Romans or tied in knots explaining the ‘genocide’ of Joshua? Did you drown in Revelation, going chapter a week, only to find the ‘Tribulation’ lasts thirteen chapters?  Were you unstuck on Paul’s view of women? Was it tithing, veils, hell, or the age of Methuselah?

I don’t think it was any of those. I doubt you can even remember what the topic or passage was. What made it hard was those sets of disdainful eyes looking up at you. You would rather have been anywhere other than church that Sunday, or doing anything other than preaching. If only every conflict you faced in the church could be resolved by Sunday morning, but it can’t. And that day you had to get up and do your job knowing that some in the congregation were fuming. ‘Who does she think she is?’ ‘How can he even think to be up there preaching when he’s been so blatantly un-Christlike?’

It might have been easy to brush off that day, if none of it were true. But even in that semi-processed state you knew you hadn’t got things right. It was a lot to carry: the weight of those disdainful eyes and the internal weight of your own sin.

And yet, you had to get up and do your job. It would be petulant to say, ‘I don’t feel up to preaching today’. Or to feign a headache or stomach bug. And who would step in for you at the last minute anyway?

What does God say to you in those unworthy, unresolved moments?

He says,

Those Sundays matter more than anything. I know how hard it is. I know you felt like a fake. I know you just wanted it to be over. I know you wondered in that moment how you ever got to be a preacher and whether that sermon should be your last.

But that Sunday mattered to me. You put yourself through it for me and for the many who were unaware of that conflict who needed to hear from me that day. The call I put on your life to preach was tested and honed that day. You took the hits. But you didn’t fold.

The funny thing is, you thought there were empty chairs in the room that day, but they weren’t empty. The room was packed with the company of heaven. And it was no glib party they were having as they backed you, applauded you and urged you on, their Amens raising to heaven.

Thank you so much for preaching the hardest sermon you ever preached. It didn’t go unnoticed.

every preacher should be on twitter – steve worsley


We happen to have a radio announcer in our congregation – Kath Bier, who is one of the two hosts on The Breeze. Discussions with Kath reveal reasonable crossover between the role of a radio host and that of a preacher: Both of us want to be in tune with the issues affecting people in our world. In Preaching Class days we used to talk about ‘exegeting the culture’, or ‘holding the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other’.

Paul Windsor used to encourage us to listen to music that teens and young adults are listening to; not because we should necessarily like it, but to find out what messages are coming through to young people. He encouraged us to look out for lists of top songs or movies or books that people are connecting with; anything that helps us get in touch with our culture. He encouraged us to read as much as we possibly can in a week, and to particularly look out for worthwhile biographies. Then when we give illustrations in our sermons, we are drawing out of more than just our own personal tastes and experiences, and are much more likely to connect with the world of our listeners.

Over time, it’s easy for us preachers to get very lazy at this and default to the things we like.

Social media drives many of us nuts. It definitely has its pros and cons. But I was really struck by a comment from Kath the other day: ‘The best way to find out what the issues are that are affecting people out there, is go on Twitter’. I signed up for Twitter yesterday. I have no idea how it works yet and already have people ‘following me’. This feels like a real case of the blind leading the blind!

I’m keen to see how helpful Twitter can be in informing my ‘exegesis of the world’. I know some other preachers listen to talkback radio as their way of being ‘in touch’. How do you do it? How important is cultural exegesis to you?

called to preach: but only in the safe confines of a church? – steve worsley


How can we describe the calling to preach?  Is it that we sense God at work while we’re preaching?  Or that we enjoy sermon preparation as much as delivery?  Is it the God given ability to make Scripture understandable to today’s listeners?  Or better still, to apply it in such a way that gets behind people’s defences?  Or is it simply that we miss it when we stop doing it?  Ah… it’s probably all of these.

But has one facet of the calling to preach been lost?  Like many of you I have read biographies about some of history’s best known preachers.  I was amazed at how much preaching the likes of Wesley and Spurgeon did outside of churches.  They seem to have referred to it as ‘Field Preaching’.  If these two men were told that they must limit themselves to preaching inside churches I’m certain they would feel that their calling to preach had been violated.  But we pastors in today’s world seem to readily accept that limitation.  Don’t we?  Similarly, I thought about biblical characters like Paul speaking in the square in Athens, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and Peter at Pentecost.  Would any of these men have been happy to limit their preaching to the insides of religious buildings?

I’ve got to admit, I’ve found it far easier over the years preaching inside churches to people I know, who are convinced of many of the same things that I am.  For long stretches of my ministry I’ve been happy to keep my head down and accept that this is the way it’s done.  Yet deep down something doesn’t sit right.  Like an itch that I just can’t scratch.

What am I suggesting?  That we all go out into our local shopping malls, preaching notes in hand and unleash last week’s sermon on the unsuspecting shoppers?  Not quite.

It was probably more out of a sense of duty or guilt that I agreed to join OAC (Outreach and Church Ministries) and do some creative evangelism at the Petone Fair a couple of years back.  But a part of me came alive in doing that.  I found it immensely liberating to be able to talk to groups of people on the street about God.  I love those conversations and most NZers seem to hardly ever have them.  The same inspiring feelings hit me when I talk with unchurched folks on an Alpha course or preach to a secular crowd at a wedding.

So now I find myself asking: Is this just a personal thing that Steve Worsley gets a kick out of, or is it part of the calling to preach which so many of us have?  What do you think?

easter is easy but what do you preach at christmas? – steve worsley


I’ve found it useful to do a fun event in winter to perk people up, so when my new worship leader suggested we do a Mid Winter Christmas service I was immediately on board.  I’d been to mid winter Christmas dinners before but hadn’t heard of a mid winter Christmas service.  Beyond its practical benefits, I soon realized this opportunity for what it was: Most people are on holiday on Christmas day so even the best Christmas sermon is heard by few.  But here, in the middle of the year we would all be together.

Then I remembered how often I feel stumped at Christmas time.  What do you preach?  Easter is so much easier: salvation, eternal life, the resurrection stories, and the drama that plays out from Good Friday covers so many human emotions and needs.  There’s endless material and various possible directions.

At Christmas time the clichés threaten constantly: ‘The world thinks Christmas is about presents but today I’m going to tell you that it’s really about Jesus.’  Of course this is true, but, well … I think our people know this already!  At least cognitively.  We can find that each year we’re just trying to find a new way of saying the same thing.  And what can we show them of Jesus at Christmas time?  Jesus hasn’t done anything yet; he’s just a cutesy newborn baby.  What is our end point?  Are we trying to get people all clucky and gaga over the idea of this cute newborn baby so they’ll forget the distractions of presents?  There’s got to be more to it than that.

Well, I’m painting this issue in broad strokes.  Of course there are many good angles to come from when preaching at Christmas.  It’s just that they can take a fair bit of thought, reflection and prayer – things we don’t often have loads of time for in the crazy busyness of the Christmas season.

I’ll post some of my responses to this dilemma below, but before I do that I’d love to hear from as many as possible of you.  What do you preach at Christmas time?  Which illustrations have worked well?  What application do you bring?  Which theological or contextual aspects seem most pivotal?  What’s your angle?

If we get lots of posts on this it might help us all arrive into Advent with ideas to burn!  Go on … tell us what you’re thinking!

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?

steve worsley: the problem of exposition and bias

A year or so ago I found myself interviewing some of our highly regarded preachers for a resource I was creating called, One Step Ahead Preaching. I wanted to create a ‘master class’ environment where preachers from across the denominations could learn from some of our best preachers.

On the DVD I ask these preachers a myriad of questions about all aspects of preaching. One question from the final session proved particularly revealing: “Are there any overarching themes in Scripture that we should look out for as we go about our preaching?” (more…)