5 Ways to Preach Like a Pharisee

Pharisees and Jesus
Photo by bbaltimore.

Many of the Pharisees were probably great teachers and skilled speakers. I’m sure many were charismatic, skilled communicators. But by the time Jesus arrived on the scene, the Pharisees, on the whole, were killing the culture around them spiritually. Jesus had a lot of work to do just to unwire people from the performance-driven, legalistic trap of pharisaism.

I’ve been guilty of preaching like a Pharisee before, and as I review my sermons from the past, I cringe a bit as I peruse certain periods of my ministry when I placed undue burdens on my listeners in the name of “preaching the Word.” I’m writing out of my own past tendencies (and present tendencies I’m still trying to snuff out) as well as out of what I observe across the landscape of evangelical preaching.

The following tips will work to draw a moderate-sized crowd. A pulpit characterized by negativity and belligerence will draw a moderate-sized crowd of masochists who draw energy to go on another day by being beaten up spiritually. But it won’t make Jesus-like, craveable disciples. So use them at your own risk.

How do you preach like a Pharisee?

Preach Your Opinions Instead of the Absolute Truth of Scripture

Exalting your own opinions about extra-biblical issues as though obedience to them is equivalent to obeying Scripture is dangerous. It creates the very burdens on the backs of people that Jesus came to remove. It also hurts the trust of your hearers. Consider my hero, W. A. Criswell who once promoted segregation as a biblical mandate only to repent and change his policy later. His opinion about a cultural issue caused many to question his credibility. Thankfully, he had such a high respect for the authority of Scripture that he changed course, publicly and with apology. Besides, you’re probably wrong more than you think you are.

Promote Moralism Over Grace-based Living

Your role is to present biblical truth, allowing the Holy Spirit to transform the lives of your hearers with the power of God’s revelation. Your role is not to make people behave. Repentance has to do with changing the mind and belief system so that behaviors follow, but when we promote better behavior, we put the cart before the horse and fail to exalt the grace that enables us to live differently.

Make People Feel Guilty Enough to Make Short-term Commitments

Guilt is a terrible motivator. Yes, we sinners must come to grips with our sin by means of the conviction of the Holy Spirit, but it is the Holy Spirit’s job to bring that conviction. I can get people to give more money, sign up to serve in a ministry, or go share the gospel by making them feel guilty about not giving or doing enough. Or I can empower them to give, serve, and share by inspiring them with hope. God dangles rewards in front of us in eternity as motivation for action rather than feelings of guilt over our sinful past. I owe Him everything, but He doesn’t remind me of that. He simply challenges me to go forward in hope and for the pure enjoyment of Him and His grace.

Beat People Into Skepticism

Jesus once told the Pharisees that they had a tendency to make people “twice the child of hell as they were before.” What did He mean? People had come to the Pharisees, as religious leaders, to find the ultimate fulfillment God could offer. What they received was a long list of rules that were impossible to keep. After their repeated failures, they would finally turn away in disgust and it would be a long time before they listened to another religious leader again. Sound familiar? My heart breaks for the victims of spiritually abusive churches that have little understanding or compassion for the hurts and problems of people in pain.

Dress the Part

If you wear a three-piece suit and cuff links because you’re into that sort of thing or because it appeals to the community you’re trying to reach, more power to you. But if you just like to wear the “preacher” uniform and appear lofty and ministerial, repent now. I get a bit nauseated when I see a leader who has that “preacher strut.” I won’t describe it – you’ll know it when you see it. It’s usually the result of my desire to impress my peers outweighing my desire to connect with the lost. This is not a rant against “dressing up.” It’s just a warning against trying to “dress the part” of the superior religious leader.

More than ever, a skeptical, broken world needs our authentic, truth-saturated, grace-based, Spirit-filled message of the cross and the resurrection. And they need to see it embodied in our lives as much as they need to hear it proclaimed from the podium.

The Three Key Components of a Solid Sermon

Me. Preaching.There are certain elements that must be included in every single sermon that we ever preach. They are non-negotiable. To put it another way, every sermon you preach has three key components…

The God Component

The “God component” is what sets preaching apart from other kinds of public speaking. We are God’s spokespeople. We preach His word, not ours. And as we consider the role of God in the sermon, we have to ask some pretty pertinent questions:

  • Have I recognized that God is the ultimate authority on the meaning of His word?
  • Have I consulted with the Author of the word in prayer?
  • Have I trusted the results of my preaching to the Spirit who moves among his people?
  • Have I made Jesus the central character of the sermon?

The Communicator Component

The component has to do with me, the preacher. I need to ask certain important questions about my own role in the preaching experience:

  • Have I live and embodied the word in my life? That is to say, have I been the incarnation of the message I hope to convey on Sunday morning?
  • Can I honestly say I’ve spent adequate time in preparation, so that my mind, heart, and soul are all immersed in the text and it’s meaning?
  • Am I humbled by the weight of the responsibility of being God’s spokesperson to people whose lives and eternities hang in the balance?
  • Have I been the same person at home and in my private life and in my various relationships that I plan on being in the pulpit when I am teaching on Sunday?
  • Am I prayed up?
  • Am I fired up?


The Audience Component

The final component has to do with the people to whom I am preaching. My audience matters.

It sounds good, and makes a great soapbox issue to proclaim that preaching ought to be God-centered not man-centered. The fact is, Jesus himself would not be welcomed or accepted by some today in the world of preaching because he wouldn’t be considered scriptural enough. Jesus preached to the needs and the hearts of human beings with problems.

We have had plenty of arguments around the subject of whether or not we should preach to the felt needs of society. The problem with these arguments is often there is a failure to understand that felt needs are real needs that are felt. And Jesus spoke to those needs.

My audience matters so much to the heart of God, that He sent His only son Jesus to die on the cross for their redemption. I need to consider their needs if I hope to please the Author of the word. His intention for his message is that it convinces, converts, and changes the lives of its hearers.

I need to be asking questions about my audience as I am preparing the message:

  • Have I spent time with people, getting to know their hurts, habits, and hang-ups? Do I know what it is like to be human, to err, and to have messed up before a holy God?
  • Every text has not only a primary principle, but an implication for the everyday lives of human beings. Have I dug into the text deep enough, not only to discover what it says about God, but also it’s practical implications for the lives of people?
  • Have I prepared not only an explanation of the meaning of the text, but also at least one, if not several calls to action?
  • Am I willing and ready to ask people to change their lives entirely on the basis of what I am going to say? And will I do this with the authority that God has granted to me, and the humility that is calling should create in me?


Approaching Easter Sunday As a Pastor

EasterEaster Sunday is special. In spite of the competition from little furry bunnies who deliver colored eggs and sugar-induced hyperactive episodes among children, it’s still a holiday that is fairly “religious.” That is to say, Jesus still gets a fair amount of attention, possibly because it’s always on Sunday and churches draw such attention to the resurrection. This is good.

As a Pastor, I know that Easter Sunday excites me because I’ll see new and unfamiliar faces in our weekend worship service. Most Pastors (those who aren’t jaded toward the occasion) get the warm fuzzies as we approach this big day because of the opportunity to address an unusually large crowd of attenders. As my own church gears up for this special Sunday, I wanted to pass along some wisdom I’ve learned from fifteen years of celebrating this special time as a congregational leader.

Here are tips for approaching Easter as a Pastor…

  • Remember Jesus. It’s all about Him. His resurrection is the first half of the Easter story and the promised and guaranteed hope for the future resurrection of all believers is the second half. Make it a day of worship.
  • Remember family. Easter Sunday afternoon has always been as meaningful to me as the morning service because our family gets to spend quality time together.
  • Remember Jesus as a family. I love peeps and chocolate bunnies as much as the next guy, but it’s even more important to have family conversations about the story of Jesus’ resurrection. Read it from the gospels together and talk about the wonder of that morning.
  • Remember children. I like church Easter egg hunts simply because we’re smiling at kids for the 4.2 minutes it takes for them to locate our carefully hidden plastic eggs. If having an egg hunt means you will welcome more kids to church on Easter Sunday, go for it. I know you’ll be faithful to present the gospel to them and their parents since you’re remembering Jesus already.
  • Remember to celebrate. This is a day of victory and triumph. It kinda deserves a smile.
  • Remember a lost world. People will come to your church on Easter who may only come once or twice the rest of the year. You can try to shame them into coming more (and it probably won’t work), or you can just love them and have compassion on them the way Jesus often had compassion on crowds who only showed up when he had food. Love them. Treat them lovingly. Maybe they’ll be back because of love.
  • Remember the questions of a lost world. The resurrection is unbelievable… if you’re a naturalist. If you don’t embrace the supernatural God of Creation, you’ll have a tough time with the miracle of the resurrection. Remember this. Don’t fear the big questions, and don’t be afraid to let Scripture give answers.
  • Remember to be the church. What do you do every Sunday when guests come? Do that, but do it even better. Welcome newcomers. Smile. Serve them. Love their kids. Guide them around your campus. Meet their need for friendship.
  • Remember who you are. Don’t try to be the church you’re NOT on Easter. Be you. Pastor, you should preach. Your worship leader should lead. And while the day is special, the worship service should give people an idea of who you always are, not just who you are on a holiday.
  • Remember that people count. So don’t just count the people. Metrics are valuable and big attendance days can help us envision what our church will look like if we work together. But don’t forget that every face is the window to a soul deeply loved by God.

And… remember Jesus… no matter what else you forget.

Graphic by Pierce Brantley.

The Savior-Sensitive, Seeker-Sensitive Church

CrossIn 1975, Bill Hybels assumed the leadership of a fledgling church plant that would grow into the rather influential Willow Creek Community Church. Under Bill’s leadership, the church pioneered many concepts in the seeker-sensitive strain of worship and ministry. In 1997, Bill and his wife, Lynne, co-wrote Rediscovering Church, an inside look at how the church grew from 100 to 15,000 in weekend attendance.

In 1980, Rick and Kay Warren relocated to Orange County, California to launch Saddleback Church. In 1995, Rick released The Purpose Driven Church, which spelled out the purpose driven paradigm and philosophy of ministry, one of the most transferred church models in history. It also told the story of how Saddleback had grown from seven people to well over 10,000 in weekend attendance (as of the mid-1990’s).

Because both churches emerged as influential institutions in evangelicalism at about the same time, and because both churches publicly espoused what each called seeker-sensitive worship, both have often been lumped together as carbon copies of each other. Actually, there are dramatic differences between the models. Not long ago, the Reveal Study demonstrated that Willow Creek had struggled to produce lasting change in the lives of new believers. Bill is an excellent leader, so he and Willow Creek are adjusting the way they do church and I know God will continue to bless their turnaround, as He already is.

Because both church created widely followed methodologies, the seeker-sensitive approach to worship has been talked about plenty in the last twenty years. Saddleback no longer even uses the phrase, primarily because it’s been hi-jacked by leaders who expect nothing of believers and really do choose to water down the gospel and minimize the “all in” commitment required of every believer.

Having served on staff at Saddleback, I can tell you personally that being purpose driven is far less about a worship style than it is about having an intentional process for moving people forward toward spiritual maturity, ministry, and mission. There’s a great backstage video interview with Rick Warren in which he explains why Saddleback is concerned about moving people from “come and see” to “come and die” and you can watch it here.

In 1985, Paul Chappell became the Pastor of Lancaster Baptist Church in the high dessert of southern California. The church has experienced phenomenal growth over the years and has produced visible change in the lives of thousands of people and the surrounding culture. Pastor Paul and one of his associates, John Goetsch, co-authored a little book entitled The Savior Sensitive Church that offers a critique of the seeker-sensitive movement, at least as a whole. I’ve read it, a couple of times actually, and while I don’t agree with some of the specific convictions at which Drs. Chappell and Goetsch arrived, I do think it’s a great book with brief but powerful insights. (By the way, it’s important to read more than just the guys we agree with in totality or we’ll never challenge our assumptions or grow beyond our current experiences.)

It’s very easy for us to get the impression that there are two sides to the debate over how to do church. It would seem there is the seeker-sensitive angle, then the Savior-sensitive. Or there are those who are all about evangelism and growth to the neglect of biblical discipleship and then those who are all about discipleship to the degree that they become totally insensitive to seekers. In fact, I think it’s often easy for us, as leaders, to peg other leaders as one or the other and then begin to criticize according to our preconceived assumptions. Therein lies the problem.

I’ve read all three books. I’ve studied all three of these churches. And I’ve learned a great deal by watching the ministries of Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, and Paul Chappell. I chuckle inside when someone asks me, “what do you think of (fill in the blank with some well-known Pastor)?” and I often reply with, “I’m a big fan, and here’s what I learn from him.” For some reason, we have the impression that if you learn from John MacArthur, you can’t possibly be fond of Rick Warren. Or if you learn from Rick, you can’t possibly be fond of John Piper. After all, these guys are… different!

When I was in Bible College, that’s how I thought. In fact, I still read and hear the discussions of young, eager seminarians who know far more than people with decades of experience doing the very same thing. Listen to a guy preach. Hear a catch phrase or three. Brand him as weak, strong, heretical, soft, worldly, etc. Then criticize everyone who listens to him. My mind is drawn to Paul’s rebuke of this kind of thinking in the Corinthian letters. He made it clear that God never intended for us to line up behind our favorite leader, such as Paul or Apollos, and create imaginary lines of demarcation between “our camp” and “their camp.”

Instead, I’ve come to some conclusions. Regarding the leaders I’ve already mentioned, you need to learn from Rick Warren about leadership and about creating an intentional process for discipling people. You need to learn from Bill Hybels how to be authentic and authoritative from a depth of personal character. You need to learn from Paul Chappell the importance of standing by your convictions and preaching truth without apology.

You also need to learn from John MacArthur to stay in the study longer to feed people from the depth of God’s Word. You need to learn from Chuck Swindoll about communicating with humor and grace the gospel of Jesus. You need to learn from Al Mohler how to silence skeptics, from Jack Hyles and John R. Rice about being constantly conscious of lost souls around you, and from W. A. Criswell about having a passionate, unwavering commitment to the full counsel of God, from Andy Stanley about systems, and from Craig Groeschel about communication in a technological age.

You need to hear the passion of Chrysostom and Athanasius about standing against heresy. Adrian Rogers can teach you about packaging God’s Word in a relatable, understandable way. Charles Spurgeon will teach you about unction. John Wesley and George Whitefield will fire you up to get on a horse and go to the furthest hamlet to thunder forth the gospel.

Some of these guys are Calvinists, others Arminian and some Wesleyans (particularly that Wesley guy). Some have been revolutionary, others have gone practically to their graves defending truth. Learn from them. Repent of the arrogance you have about your camp, and open your ears.

With all of that said, let me return to my original discussion. My hope and desire, as we plant Grace Hills Church, is to be both Savior-sensitive and seeker-sensitive (though I don’t like the latter phrase anymore either because of its misuse). We need to be Christ-centered in our theology as well as our methodology. We need to walk in wisdom toward those that are without (those would be seekers). We should start with the cross, identify with the needs of lost people, and develop people into fully devoted followers of Christ.

Not all debate is bad. It can yield good self-evaluation and out of the dialog can come healthy change. But debate isn’t the priority Jesus gave to the church just before He ascended to heaven. Making disciples of everyone on the planet is. So let’s get started.

Photo by Matt Gruber.

The Role of Preaching In Church Planting

Stephen F. Olford PreachingThere various viewpoints on the best church planting model. Some launch fast and large to attract the masses. Others launch slowly and intentionally with more of a one-on-one disciple-making mentality. There are probably cautions with any approach to planting, and one of the cautions I would raise is simply don’t neglect the power of preaching, even in a brand new church plant.

When we began the work of planting Grace Hills, I was reading everything I could and consulting every church planting leader I could reach about the best strategies for beginning a new church from scratch. I learned plenty about starting small groups, structuring our new church’s systems for leadership and communication, and gathering a launch team to carry out the ministry and mission of the church. What I didn’t hear much about was the role of preaching.

There is an eternal principle to be remembered when planting a new church: “Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe.” 1 Corinthians 1:21 NLT

The word preaching is literally the telling of the good news, and doesn’t necessarily refer to proclaiming the gospel from a pulpit by someone in full-time vocational ministry. This kind of preaching happens anytime anyone shares the gospel with someone else. But the word preaching has always been identified in church history as also referring to the proclamation by a herald of the gospel. And the proclamation of the gospel is something God blesses. Preaching is a practice that changes the lives of hearers.

As a church planter plans his initial timeline, calendar, and launch strategy, it’s important to consider where proclamation fits into the picture. Contrary to some conventional wisdom, I would argue that in many cases, public preaching needs to happen early on in the life of a new church. My rationale?

  • Public preaching is a practice God has promised to bless and has rewarded with changed lives for two thousand years.
  • Public preaching isn’t necessarily the most important means of casting a vision (via leaders in conversation works even better), it is still huge for setting the direction of the body.
  • Public preaching brings the body together around a unified theme from Scripture.
  • Public preaching counsels, consoles, and encourages the masses.
  • Public preaching allows an expressive outlet for the gifted communicator.
  • Public preaching provides a special time for response, whether that looks like a traditional altar call or not.
  • Public preaching gives an opportunity for a passionate leader to motivate people and rally them to the cause of Christ.
  • Public preaching provides an atmosphere into which followers of Jesus can bring people who are far from God into the hearing of God’s truth.

Don’t misunderstand. We still want to establish that “bringing people to the preacher” is not evangelism, but it can be part of evangelism. We want to equip disciples to make disciples, for sure. But bringing people into the point of community to hear a public proclamation of God’s truth is at least one prong in our discipleship approach that shouldn’t be entirely neglected.

Does this mean that there should be a pulpit up front with people seated in rows facing the Pastor? Not necessarily. In fact, that isn’t the picture of preaching we see in Jesus’ life. He taught from boats and sitting on grassy knolls. The apostles preached standing in the colonnades of the Temple. Paul visited the synagogues and engaged the crowd during times of public conversation.

Preaching will probably look different in the early life of a new church, but don’t neglect it. Don’t underestimate its intrinsic power for drawing people into a relationship with the Creator.

8 Ways to Hook Your Congregation Into Your Message

HookThe biblical text should be the grand centerpiece of every sermon. But we often take what should be the centerpiece, and move it to the front of what we have to say. In most cases, reading the text should come first in importance, but not first in the order of a message. Whether you’re looking back at Plato or Jesus, virtually every culture has had great communicators who realized the power of attention-grabbing hooks.

1. Start with a deep, human need instead of jumping right into the exegesis and historical-grammatical analysis of the text. When you move from the need to the text, people have the context of its meaning for their lives.

2. Launch with a relevant story. We remember stories that are vibrant, funny, and powerful. And stories connect my heart to the text before my head grabs hold of it.

3. Tell a joke. That is, if you’re funny. I know a fellow Pastor who served a very discouraged congregation, but after years of opening with humor, they experience joy together every week.

4. Use an object lesson. You may not be able to match Ed Young’s capability to drive a tank on stage to illustrate spiritual warfare, but you can hand out puzzle pieces to represent how we all “fit” in God’s family or hold up your shoes as an illustration of an essential need many people live without.


5. Begin with someone’s testimony. This is also great for the middle of the message, but having someone address your topic from their life’s experience shows the congregation that there are others who struggle and others who overcome. Your words have increased credibility when someone “normal” has already proven the practical possibility of achieving what you’re about to preach.

6. Share the results of some word-on-the-street interviews. You can find these clips, or film them yourself as a chance to connect with your community. If you’re going to preach an apologetic message, interview people about their religious viewpoints.

7. Show a related video clip. Some great storytellers and artists have invested their talent into framing concepts in motion pictures. Take advantage of their work for the purpose of setting up your message in an artistic way.

8. Talk to the crowd. This, of course, depends on your setting, but with text messaging and Twitter, we can talk with our audience in real time as never before, fielding questions and allowing the crowd to speak to itself as we teach.

Our options for opening a message are almost limitless, but what we don’t have to do is jump right into the text. It’s still the most important thing we will share all day, but it doesn’t have to come first.

Photo Credit

Go, Disturb Your City

Disturb Your CityTwo thousand years ago, the good news of Jesus Christ had a tendency to upset entire social structures, flipping society upside down and leveling the playing field so that people from any position in life could have a restored relationship with God because of what Jesus Christ accomplished by His death on the cross. Throughout the New Testament, we read repeatedly of cities that were “disturbed” by the presence of the gospel (Acts 17:6).

This coming Sunday, I’m going to begin challenging those who are gathering as Grace Hills Church to disturb Bentonville, Rogers, and northwest Arkansas. That means we’re going to get intentional about infiltrating the culture around us, serving the city, loving the city, and changing the face of the city by the power of the life-changing message of Jesus Christ.

I’ll post the notes later, but I simply wanted to ask you – have you disturbed your city?