Strengthening My A.R.M.

One of my favorite images the Bible uses for God is a redeemer with an outstretched arm, as he is described bringing Israel out of slavery in Egypt. The implication is that God is powerful and far-reaching to bring his people back to him. I can’t help but picture God reaching out to collect his people and hugging them close to his chest. The beauty of that image is that God still does this today. He still reaches out to his people and draws them close to himself.

One of the ways that I’ve seen him do this personally is through preaching. At its best, people can learn about God in a real way and experience his redemptive, outstretched arm through hearing God’s word explained. Unfortunately, at its worse, preaching can also bore us to tears.

With that in mind, I think through obsess about three pieces to every message I deliver before I step into the pulpit. I believe each piece makes the sermon have a bigger impact on the congregation. Naturally, in true preacher fashion, those three things are also an acrostic: A.R.M.

ACCURATE – I ask myself the most important questions first. “Is what I’m saying true? Is it true to what the Bible meant to say?” This is the most fundamental question because it goes back to what I believe is the purpose of preaching: to glorify and reveal God’s character, plan, and message to his people. People can’t grow in their understanding of God through inaccurate teaching. Plus, if you’re wrong about something, you lose credibility. Not everyone will catch every mistake, but over time if I’m repeatedly messing up and taking things out of context, people see it. If I endeavor to glorify God in my preaching, it has to start with being accurate.

RELEVANT – The second question I ask focuses on relevance. “How does this matter to every person in the room?” Even if I accurately explain the Bible, people want to know how it matters to them. What difference does it make to their lives? Have I thought through how it matters to me? I can up the relevance of my message by paying attention to the questions common to people (e.g. purpose, meaning of life) and shared experiences in our culture (e.g. major events everyone is talking about, including pop culture). I can also simply talk to different groups and tell them how to apply the message. A single friend mentioned that a pastor said one sentence to single people about why a marriage message mattered to them and it made all the difference for her. Suddenly, the sermon was worth listening to. I’m learning it’s often easier to avoid things that might alienate people in the congregation, a practice that is increasingly necessary as my church grows in number and diversity. The bottom line is that paying attention to the audience demonstrates that I care about them. More importantly, it demonstrates that God cares about their lives and has something to say to them.

MEMORABLE – The last question is my favorite, “Am I presenting things in a way that someone could remember in their everyday lives?” It’s my favorite because it’s the most fun, creative part of the process. I’m fortunate to be an environment where I can come up with off-the-wall stuff that somehow makes it to Sunday morning (hello Katy Perry music in church!). The struggle with this is to not cross into gimmick territory. A gimmick, to me, is something done for its own sake to make a splash (e.g. “Isn’t it cool that we did …?”). I want the message to be memorable, not the element. Even if the element is memorable, I ask myself whether it will point back to the message. My hope with using Katy Perry wasn’t to be cool, but to remind people of the message every time they heard that song.

My prayer in all of my preaching is that Paul’s command to Timothy would be true for me:

Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth. 2 Timothy 2:15

Those are the three elements I look at in preaching; what about you? What are questions you think preachers/speakers should ask themselves as they prepare? What am I missing in my list?

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