Reflection Summary: Preaching that Changes Lives by Mike Fabarez (2005)
Because the weekly sermon is typically the most visible and by far the most common interaction that most congregants have with their church, developing an acute sense of what sermons should communicate and how they should be framed represents an essential need for all who would seek to inspire others and help them change their lives in meaningful ways. This need and how to address it are described and discussed in Mike Fabarez’s text, Preaching that Changes Lives, together with a number of useful empirical observations and insights that can help guide the process. This reflection summary provides a chapter-by-chapter summary of this book followed by a statement concerning what was learned and how this learning is applicable to the author’s life and ministry.
Part I – Rethink Your Task
1. Understand the life-changing power of preaching. As the title of this chapter indicates, although effective preaching has the power to change lives, far too many clergy members are subjected to inordinate pressures concerning the content of their sermons and even more importantly, to “keep it short.” For instance, Fabarez advises that, “Up-and-coming churchmen – many with a God-given passion and an untapped gift to preach – are taught to keep their Bible lecture positive, palatable, trendy, and above all, short” (2005, p. 4). While positive messages from the pulpit are always possible, of course, the Word of God is not necessarily amenable to interpretation and truncation in this fashion. Moreover, Fabarez emphasizes that although they can be, the Bible does not call upon preachers to be psychologists, motion picture directors or entertainers (although they wear these hats in some capacity from time to time) but rather to “stand in the gap” and “preach the Word” (p. 5). In addition, in rethinking the task, preachers should keep in mind the enormous power that God’s Word delivered in a sincere and timely fashion can have on effecting changes in the daily lives of others. As the author emphasizes, “A good sermon is one that bears fruit – a message from God that transforms believers’ lives. We must purpose to evaluate every sermon we preach in light of the biblical change it brings about in the lives of our congregants!” (Fabarez, 2005, pp. 9-10).
2. Adopt a life-changing method of preaching. It is one thing to recognize the power of preaching, but it is quite another to put the things that are needed to change lives into motion through the delivery of God’s Word only what is essentially a once-a-week basis for many parishioners. While preachers have the entire field of oratory available to them for this purpose, Fabarez points out that, “Expository preaching provides our best hope of attaining His desired results” (2005, p. 15).
Part II – Prepare to Change Lives
3. Make sure your life is changing. Battlefield commanders recognize the importance of leading others rather than merely directing them to achieve a given mission. Indeed, it is far easier to inspire others by yelling, “Follow me!” than it is to order a charge. Therefore, in order to remain effective, preachers must ensure that their own lives are changing for the better as well. In this regard, Fabarez notes that, “The personal life of the preacher is the foundation upon which his every sermon stands. If you are to preach life-changing sermons, you must be able to say with 1 Corinthians 11:1, ‘Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.'” (p. 25). Moreover, in order to inspire, preachers must identify common points of convergence between themselves and their parishioners to make a “connection.” For example, Fabarez advises, “If you only consider Sunday’s text in light of your audience and its spiritual needs, you may be edified, but only in areas of common need. Scripture will impact your life, but only at the point best described as the ‘lowest common denominator’ existing between you and your congregation.” (p. 33). In addition, the author provides some more oratorical advice in this section to help improve this connection between preachers and parishioners. A good example of this guidance is found in Fabarez’s empirical observation that, “Since verbs are the key to understanding the meaning of any text, we should target them for study first in any passage of Scripture. When it comes to determining the passage’s intended impact on life, we should revisit the imperative verbs. Oftentimes the passage’s imperative verbs will help govern the length of the passage to be preached.” (p. 41).
4. Study your passage and your audience. In the business world, it is axiomatic that in order to improve anything, it must first be measured and understood and this is also the case with preparing for sermon delivery. According to Fabarez, there are four key questions that should be posited during the preparatory sermon-writing phase as follows: (1) what specifically does your audience have in common with the original audience? (2) in what specific areas does your audience lack commonality with the original audience? (3) how is my audience currently practicing the applications? and, (4) how is my audience currently neglecting or abusing the application?” (pp. 48-50).
5. Frame an outline that will change your audience. Just as strategic managers in the business world analyze where their organizations are at present and envision how they will guide them to where they need to be, Fabarez recommends developing an outline for the sermon that is designed to address the specialized needs of the congregation. For instance, Fabarez suggests that, “If the purpose of preaching is to change lives, and if outlining is understanding the highpoints of our sermon, then we should make the passage’s applicational thrust the underscored points of our outline, accentuated throughout the entire sermon.” (p. 58). Likewise, the author also provides some solid guidance concerning how best to maintain the flow of the sermon by moving “the wording of your points out of the indicative mood (the way things are) and into the imperative (a call to the way they should be)” (p. 63). A particular noteworthy observation offered by Fabarez also underscores the influential nature of the clergy but also the individual responsibility of parishioners to listen and apply the lessons of sermons to their own lives. In this regard, Fabarez concludes that, “While some preachers worry about sounding heavy-handed or oppressive, we must never ignore our calling as heralds. We ought to frame our outlines in a way to be clear about the listener’s responsibility.” (p. 63).
6. Pray, pray, pray for a sermon that will change lives. Realtors will argue that “location, location, location” is the most important thing while seasoned musicians counsel that novices need to “practice, practice, practice.” Similarly, Fabarez suggests that many preachers fail to not only pray about their capacity to deliver a life-changing sermon, but the content and oratory strategies that are best suited for the purpose. “If powerful, life-changing preaching is our aim, then like Luther you must resolve that open books and open eyes can only constitute half of the study. [We] have not prepared until we have prayed” (p. 72). Furthermore, while most pastors invest numerous hours each day in Scripture study with respect to their next sermon, they only invest a half an hour in prayer based on the survey data to date. From Fabarez’s perspective, this time management approach is sorely lop-sided and he stresses the need to gain the contemplative insights that can be attained about an upcoming sermon through prayer. Indeed, according to Fabarez, “Surveys consistently reveal that while pastors spend hours in a given day studying a passage of Scripture to be preached, on average they spend less than 30 minutes praying. Presumably, much of that meager half hour is spent on issues unrelated to the sermons they are preparing” (p.72). To help guide the process, the author provides a series of five fundamental requests that should be incorporated into prayers about imminent sermons: (1) Pray that the message you are preparing will be an evident part of your own life; (2) Pray for the protection of your sermon preparation time; (3) Pray that you will be given grace and illumination to rightly divide His Word; (4) Pray that the words you choose will be effective tools for the Holy Spirit to employ; and (5) Pray that you will have insight into the needs of your audience as they relate to the sermon you are preparing.” (pp. 73-74). In addition, another especially noteworthy observation by Fabarez concerns the need to move beyond the written text to embrace the spiritual teleprompter, as it were, when the situation calls for it: “Since effective preaching rarely springs from manuscripts or memorized scripts, there is always a certain amount of spontaneity in one’s vocabulary. Pray that God’s Spirit will govern your words” (p. 74).
7. Come to grips with the time it takes to prepare a life-changing sermon. One of the harsh – and…