On March 29, 2022, I was invited by Senator John Thune to be the guest chaplain for the U.S. Senate, and to open the day’s proceedings in prayer. Such an occasion is an honor and a privilege. It also requires some sustained thought about what exactly to say. I thought it might help others called to minister in the public square if I reflected briefly about what I prayed, and why.

The Senate chaplain, Dr. Barry Black, kindly sent along some instructions for the opening prayer. Here are the parameters I was given:

  • 60-90 seconds
  • Prayer must be scripted and submitted in advance for the Congressional Record
  • Written prayer should fit on a 4.25 x 5.5 inch sheet of paper
  • Free to pray within your own faith tradition, according to conscience
  • Prayer should not contain personal political views, sectarian controversies, or any personal opinions regarding foreign policy

In public events like this, I find it wise to hew closely to tradition. So I opened up the Book of Common Prayer to explore what resources it might give for a public prayer in a congressional or governmental setting. And that’s when I realized: almost all of the church’s public prayers are meant to be prayed aloud in public worship. They assume a room full of people who share a common faith and are offering shared petitions.

But that’s not the setting of the U.S. Senate. Christian charity in this context requires honoring the diversity of people in the room. I should not presume to speak for everyone present. Rather, the occasion requires that I address God, as one who worships him, on behalf of the Senators and their staffers, without assuming a shared faith – even as Daniel did in Babylon (Daniel 2:17-31).

So I wrote the following prayer:

Almighty God:

Every one of us in this chamber now – whether Senator, staffer, or civilian – is first of all a human being, made in Your image. And so we pray: give us grace to acknowledge our limitations, admit our faults, and affirm our fellow human beings, despite our many differences. Let us always remember that to You, and You alone, we must give account.

Those who serve in this chamber have been given a noble and weighty responsibility: to seek and serve the common good of these United States. And so, as they attend to the work before them this day, grant them the wisdom of Solomon; the courage of Esther; the patience of Jeremiah; and the humility of Mary. May they be guided by Your providence, and strengthened by Your common grace, to fulfill Your purposes for this nation. Through Jesus Christ our Lord: Amen.

[Full disclosure, lest you think these words just flowed from the pen: I spent the better part of 4 hours thinking and praying and editing and refining.]

Here are my background thoughts on the specific words and themes I chose to use:

Almighty God / through Jesus Christ our Lord: Simple & traditional. The language of Christian liturgy that would be familiar to most anyone who’s ever attended a church. Honors God as Almighty and Christ as Lord in a way that’s basic and fitting for the occasion.

Every one of us in this chamber: the Senate floor includes not just Senators, but staff members and stenographers and interns and pages. I wanted to honor everyone in the room, relativizing differences of power and emphasizing our shared humanity.

is first of all a human being, made in Your image. The imago Dei is the most foundational aspect of anthropology and the starting point for all the Bible’s teaching about ethics and public policy. The first thing about us is our human-ness; and that fact can point a way through our political and social divides. Before we are Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, powerful or ordinary, we are human.

And so we pray: give us grace to acknowledge our limitations, admit our faults, and affirm our fellow human beings, despite our many differences. Our shared humanity means we have limitations and faults. And we need grace to admit that. But when we do, it opens the way to affirm our fellow human beings. We are not competitors in a high-stakes, zero-sum political game; we are human beings who do have the capacity to appreciate one another despite our differences.

Let us always remember that to You, and You alone, we must give account. Especially in places of power and influence, we must always remember that there is a God who is a higher authority, and before whose eyes all our work takes place. “No creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13; see also Matthew 12:36, Romans 14:12, 1 Peter 4:5). Some of those present, no doubt, don’t think they will actually give account to God; which is why it’s appropriate for me to ask God, by his grace, to remind us of this fact. For on the day we all stand before him to give account for our lives, pleading ignorance won’t be an option.

Those who serve in this chamber have been given a noble and weighty responsibility: to seek and serve the common good of these United States. As I thought about the moment, I was overwhelmed with both the nobility and the weight of the office our Senators hold. Their decisions reverberate throughout the world and affect every American life. Serving the American people well requires setting aside self-interest and working for the common good. It requires give-and-take; it requires debate and discussion; it requires conviction and compromise. Naming both the nobility and the weight of the office reminds those present of the seriousness and significance of their vocation.

And so, as they attend to the work before them this day, grant them the wisdom of Solomon; the courage of Esther; the patience of Jeremiah; and the humility of Mary. The best public-square prayers are full of biblical imagery, calling forth the great heroes and high points of Scripture. I chose to explicitly name four characters (two men and two women), from four genres of Scripture (wisdom, OT narrative, prophecy, and NT gospel), who display three of the four classical virtues (wisdom/prudence, courage/fortitude, patience/temperance) – plus humility, which is greatly needed in places of power. By naming Esther, Jeremiah, and Mary, I also pay honor to the Jewish and Catholic traditions.

May they be guided by Your providence, and strengthened by Your common grace, to fulfill Your purposes for this nation. The classic Protestant doctrines of providence and common grace come into play here, as I acknowledge that national leaders are agents of God’s providence and beneficiaries of his common grace, whether they acknowledge Christ as Lord or not. Would I like to see widespread Christian revival in our nation? Yes. Would I like to see each Senator come to personal saving faith in Jesus Christ? Yes. But as a Christian and an American, my hope is not in spiritual renewal nor in Damascus-road conversions (though I pray for both). My hope is in a sovereign God who works all things according to the counsel of his will (Ephesians 1:11), guides history according to his sovereign purpose (Acts 17:26-28), and to whom will ultimately flow the honor of all the nations (Isaiah 60:3; Psalm 110; Revelation 21:26).

I don’t imagine these thoughts are necessarily new or novel, and I suspect those who serve in these kinds of spaces more regularly will have much to add. These are just the reflections of an ordinary pastor trying to serve well in a not-so-ordinary moment.

In the past week, it’s suddenly become commonly accepted wisdom that congregational singing is dangerous. We’ve been told that singing together in church could lead to a “super-spreading event.” We’ve been warned that if we sing together in worship, we will expose ourselves to higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

Except that none of that is verifiably true.

Does singing together spread COVID-19? The correct scientific answer is: possibly.

We have anecdotal evidence of people being infected after a choir practice. We have a study from 1968 on tuberculosis. However, a causal link between singing and the spreading of COVID-19 has not yet been scientifically established.

But you wouldn’t know that from how pastors and church leaders are talking about it.

Two weeks ago, TGC posted an article with the click-baity title “Is Congregational Singing Dangerous?” (Implied answer: yes.) This week, an article by Houston pastor Steve Bezner has been making the rounds. In it, Bezner claims: “Some studies have suggested that singing—yes, singing—spreads respiratory droplets further than coughing.”

Notice the key word: suggested. Apparently the mere claim that “some studies have suggested” is enough to count for empirically verified science in some circles. But hold on a minute… when you actually drill down into the details to learn what science has established, a different picture emerges:

So, just line up the data: COVID-19 spreads through respiratory droplets; singing produces aerosolized particles, which are even smaller than droplets; choirs have gotten sick after singing together; therefore singing is dangerous! Case closed, right?

Except that’s not how science works. Correlation does not equal causation. As a researcher quoted in the Guardian article points out: “The evidence for a link with singing and spreading the virus may look compelling but is still anecdotal… Without data from comparably large groups who interacted in the same way but didn’t sing, it’s hard to be certain that the singing was responsible.”

In private correspondence, a pulmonologist who runs the COVID ward at his local hospital made the same point: “We know from news reports that churches have been identified as areas where concentrated transmission has taken place. Singing? Close proximity? Fellowship? We cannot tell which one is responsible.”

At least one researcher, in fact, claims to have evidence that singing ISN’T the cause of the choir outbreaks. Professor Christian Kähler of Military University Munich told the Guardian: “I have been studying how droplets and aerosols behave for decades, and I was very doubtful that musicians and singers were spreading the virus. So I decided to measure just how strong was the airflow from them… We studied singing in low and high frequencies… And based on the flow analysis we did of these performances… [we] found out that singing is quite safe. It was not the cause of the outbreaks of Covid-19 at these concerts. Air was only propelled about half a metre in front of a singer, and that is not far enough to cause the infection levels of these outbreaks.”

Now: we’re learning more about COVID-19 every day. It’s possible that further research will establish a definitive link between singing and spreading. But we shouldn’t act as if such a link exists when it doesn’t.

Some authors on this issue have done a fair job hedging their bets (“While the data is still coming in, it appears the path forward is wise caution… singing may generate more risk than normal speech,” writes Ken Boer at TGC). But others have made outright false statements (“the virus spreads through singing,” Steve Bezner claims). Part of the dynamic at play in this moment is the proliferation of secondary sources (blogs, Medium posts, Twitter threads, etc) where reputable sources (epidemiologists, biologists, infectious disease specialists) draw inferences and make their own conclusions in an attempt to offer their “expert opinion” on what we should do. Though at times these insights can be helpful, they’ve created a nebulous universe of pseudo-science where hasty and unverified conclusions are shared with frightening speed and presumed authority. For instance, in an article linked by Bezner, Erin Bromage, a Professor of Biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, flatly assumes that the Skagitt Valley Chorale became sick through singing: “Deep-breathing while singing facilitated those respiratory droplets getting deep into the lungs. Two and half hours of exposure ensured that people were exposed to enough virus over a long enough period of time for infection to take place.” Bromage claims to know that “deep breathing while singing” caused the infection in the chorale members, despite the fact that this has never been established. As the L.A. Times reports: “There is still much to learn about the choir outbreak, starting with the original source of the virus… the county official said she hoped that a study would be conducted someday to determine how the infection spread.”

In Bezner’s defense, he’s likely taking Bromage’s word for it and treating his assertion as an established scientific fact. But Bezner would have been wise to check the primary sources himself. And this is the problem I’m trying to address: a telephone game that’s leading to great confusion among church leaders. Bromage on his blog draws an unverified conclusion; Bezner on his blog assumes and amplifies Bromage’s assertion; a church planter I know reads Bezner’s blog and shares it with his church; and the average person in the pew walks away convinced that congregational singing is dangerous.

The way each church treats the questions at hand (choosing to gather or not gather, sing or not sing, wear masks or not wear masks, etc) is up to them. My purpose in this post is to urge us to strive for accuracy and precision in how we talk about this. The past three months have created heightened anxiety and fear and concern in all of us. If we now give God’s people the impression that singing is certifiably dangerous, we do them a great disservice.

Some have asked: granting my point that the evidence is merely anecdotal and not scientifically verified… isn’t that still a good enough reason to refrain from singing in worship? It is not my goal in this post to address the “should we or should we not” question. My point is summarized in the title: please stop saying singing is dangerous. My concern is not with what churches choose to do, but with the way their justification of these decisions treats a possibility as a certainty, creating unwarranted fear, anxiety, and division within the people of God.

My greatest temptation is cynicism. My deepest struggle is despair. I envy Christian leaders who possess unabashed confidence in the gospel; I’m personally more prone to bouts of unbridled skepticism. I regularly doubt the Scriptures I preach, the God I worship, the worldview I espouse.

If, like me, you tend toward cynicism, this post is for you.

From the outside, you might assume that the pastoral vocation would encourage and strengthen faith. I’d argue the opposite is often true. Pastors have a front-row seat to the ugliness of human sin and its manifestation in the church. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been lied to, lied about, and slandered. I’ve believed the best about people who (it turned out) believed the worst about me. I’ve watched pastors I trusted abuse their power, betray their calling, walk out on their marriages, and even abandon the faith. And as I write this, I know I’m preaching to the choir. You have your own stories of betrayal and disillusionment. Cynicism is tempting because there are things to be cynical about.

One of God’s most gracious gifts to the cynical person is the gift of honest Christian friends. Recently, as I was processing a spate of cynicism and despair with a trusted friend, he suggested a book I hadn’t heard of: Seeing Through Cynicism by Dick Keyes. I read it and found it challenging and helpful. In this post, I want to summarize some of the book’s most valuable insights. 

Seeing Through Cynicism by Dick Keyes (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2006)

Dick Keyes is a graduate of Harvard University and Westminster Seminary who has worked with L’Abri Fellowship in Southampton, Massachusetts, since 1979. Now in his 70s, he’s given his life to patient, thoughtful interaction with skeptics of all stripes. This makes his reflections on cynicism mature, measured, and wise.

The title of the book pays homage to C.S. Lewis’s famous observation in The Abolition of Man: “You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things forever… To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.” Keyes adopts this rubric as his baseline definition of cynicism: “Cynicism… has to do with seeing through and unmasking positive appearances to reveal the more basic underlying motivations of greed, power, lust, and selfishness.” Throughout the book, he identifies three targets for cynicism: other people, institutions (government, family, church, marriage), and God.

Cynicism, of course, is the air we breathe. It saturates our political discourse, it inundates social media, it’s the key to modern humor. We live downstream from postmodernism and from three influential philosophers – Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche – who taught us to “see through” economic patterns, psychological biases, and power dynamics. Without dismissing the critical insights of these thinkers, Keyes wants to help us question our cultural assumptions and “suspect our suspicions.”

If, like me, you wrestle deeply with cynicism, this is a book worth reading from start to finish. In this post I merely want to summarize six key insights that were helpful to me in my own struggle with cynicism. I’ll also leave you with a few salient quotes from the book.


Cynicism operates from a hidden idealism. “Cynicism is usually expressed in innuendoes, passing remarks, moods, cartoons, glancing blows, hints, insinuations, unacknowledged assumptions, and jokes. The full self-confidence of its suspicions, enabling it to unmask all things in its vision, are whispered… The genius of cynicism is that it is a voice in your ear which does not usually hang around long enough to be interviewed.” Every cynic is a closet idealist, assuming the superiority of his vantage point. The power of cynicism is that as it critiques the ideals of others, its own ideals are generally hidden from view.

Cynicism is a claim to know all things. Cynicism is a generalizing and totalizing project: because some people act from self-interest, the cynic concludes that all people are driven by self-interest. By claiming to “see through” the motives of others, the cynic assumes a posture of omniscience. “Cynics see through the illusory truths of others to get down to the ‘real truth’ beneath… Far from losing confidence in truth, cynicism has put enormous trust in a different set of truths – its own tools of cynical inquiry.” Though often cloaked in the language of skepticism, cynicism is in fact a claim to absolute truth and objectivity.

Honest dialogue requires that we “reverse the flow of suspicion.” Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche claimed that all religious belief could be reduced to human projection: “the idea of God [provided] a needed crutch, a smokescreen, or both.” But in the same way, both crutch and smokescreen can be motivations for cynicism. The critique cuts both ways. We need to subject cynicism to its own tools of analysis. As we do, we discover that “there is no neutral, objective, or unbiased place to stand” when asking questions about ultimate reality. “Our ideas about God’s presence, absence, or unknowability are all self-involving ideas… They necessarily implicate us or make claims on us, our priorities, and our futures. A dispassionate neutrality is impossible.” Our existing commitments create an interpretive filter through which we evaluate reality. We need to suspect our suspicions.

Cynicism is attractive because it’s partially true. “Cynicism at its best dares to recognize that things are not as they should be… It is suspicious of spin and plastic smiles… [it] has a refreshing aversion to naivete, sentimentality, hypocrisy and blind optimism.” The problem with cynicism is that it goes too far: “Cynics presume to see through those that they cannot in fact see through at all.” For instance: the postmodern cynic adopts a skeptical view of language; words are merely tools that mask agendas of power and oppression. Is this true? Certainly, in some cases. But it’s also true that “words have also been used to clarify, challenge, and motivate people to overcome prejudice, oppression, and injustice.” (Think, for example, of Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.) This is the “yes, but” that a healthy response to cynicism requires. Yes, words can be tools of oppression… but not in every case. In the end, cynicism is too simplistic. It’s overconfident in its suspicions. It claims an omniscience it doesn’t have.

The biblical alternative to cynicism is “qualified, redemptive suspicion.” A qualified suspicion acknowledges that not every silver lining has a cloud: despite the brokenness of the world, people are capable of genuine goodness. A redemptive suspicion “is willing to risk giving the other person the benefit of the doubt.” It dares to hope. In a fallen world, suspicion is warranted; we should not trust every person or believe every story. But biblical suspicion looks inward as well as outward. It is self-critical before it is critical of others. It recognizes the possible errors in my judgment and the possible biases in my viewpoint. With qualified, redemptive suspicion, “we can recognize the brokenness that the cynic sees – but without losing the hope that the cynic rejects. [And] we can recognize the glory in the world that the cynic cannot see – but without the sentimentality that the cynic fears.” God, who sees the human heart more clearly than any of us, is not a cynic about humanity. Neither should his people be.

We see only the back side of the tapestry. God, in his providence, is working out his sovereign purposes in history. “What we can see as finite, dependent creatures, limited in space and time, is only a tiny piece of the back side of a tapestry, with only the crudest inklings of what the front side of the tapestry of God’s providence must look like.”


“Cynicism is prudent… Believing in the integrity of another person, the validity of an institution or the goodness of God are all high-risk convictions. They are potential setups for disappointment. If you are concerned first and last for emotional safety and survival, cynicism is going to look quite attractive.” (p. 82)

“All men have a natural fear of making a mistake – by believing too well of a person. However, the error of believing too ill of a person is perhaps not feared, at least not in the same degree as the other.” (p. 80, quote from Soren Kierkegaard)

“The cheap pleasures of cynicism are always in plentiful supply. Abandoning them is like going on a diet or giving up smoking. Hope, in other words, is the thing that takes work.” (p. 211, quote from Michael Kinsley)

“If there is an alternative for cynicism, what is it? …[It is] the lifelong determination to see the world as it really is, as much as we can, with eyes open. This means being suspicious of the deceptive filters of our culture and of our personal experience – filters both sentimental and cynical. I am looking for wisdom expressed in a redemptive suspicion, limited by humility and tempered by love and mercy.” (p. 171)

“As cynicism sees through people to unmask them, love also ‘sees through’ them, but with a very different agenda. When we believe and hope in someone, we are also looking through or beyond them, past their face-value appearance or past track record. We see their potential for growth in goodness, strength, and virtue.” (p. 186)

I’m confident my struggle with cynicism will be a lifelong battle. But I’m thankful to Dick Keyes for helping to map the terrain more clearly, and for providing keen wisdom for the journey.  

I recently spent a couple days with four pastor friends. All of us are in our 40s. All of us planted churches in our 20s and 30s. And all of us have been leaders in the Acts 29 Network for over a decade.

We love what Acts 29 stands for, and we love the history and the sense of brotherhood we share because of it. But as we reflected on the past decade, we observed that the early years of Acts 29 were marked by an energy and momentum that the later years have lacked – especially in North America. The question is: why?

Statistically, the “boom years” of Acts 29 were 2007 to 2012. During that five-year period the movement grew from 140 churches to 424 – a stunning 200% growth rate. Over the most recent five-year period (2012-2017), the movement’s growth rate has held at a much more modest 45%. Now, by any standard, a 45% growth rate is still a stunning success! But compared with the boom years, it represents a three-quarters reduction in the rate of growth, as well as a reduction in the actual number of churches planted (284 vs. 195). The data affirms our intuitive discernment: momentum has slowed.

Certainly Acts 29 has seen its share of organizational challenges during these years – most notably Mark Driscoll’s descent from leadership and all its attendant chaos. But in spite of this, Acts 29 today is more structurally sound than it’s ever been. And Acts 29 churches are more tangibly committed to church planting than ever. All Acts 29 churches give 10% of their internal giving to support church planting efforts, and many of them either host or support regional church-planting residencies. Organizationally and logistically, the movement is on firm footing.

So what accounts for the slowdown? Here’s my hypothesis: Acts 29’s boom years were fed by a leadership pipeline that no longer exists.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, church planting was not the vocation of choice for young leaders. Most men who felt a calling to ministry looked for opportunities as interns, youth pastors, associate pastors, or campus ministry staff members. That all began to change through the influence of two men: Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll. Though many other voices were sounding the call to church planting, Keller and Driscoll were the ones gaining the attention of younger leaders. Keller’s call to urban renewal resonated with many who were troubled by the megachurch’s suburban captivity. And Driscoll’s sanctified irreverence challenged the saccharine sentimentality of the evangelical subculture. Both men blended Reformed theology with missional innovation in a way that resonated with young pastors everywhere.

The church planting candidates that flooded Acts 29’s boot camps and assessments in the mid-2000s were youth pastors, college pastors, and church staff members – in other words, men with real church ministry experience. They’d preached sermons, done evangelism, discipled new Christians, and learned to submit and serve under someone else’s authority. In a sense, these leaders were ready-made church planters: they were already committed to God’s mission, they were experienced and fruitful in ministry, and they felt called by the Holy Spirit to step out on their own and lead missionary church-planting efforts. They didn’t need to be trained, equipped, and prepared; they just needed to be sent.

No longer is that the case. Are there still youth pastors and associate pastors mulling a call to church planting? Sure. Some of them are reading this post. But they are not nearly as plentiful as they once were. Ready-made leaders who are theologically mature, missionally fruitful, self-aware, and ministry-experienced are harder and harder to find. No longer is there a glut of church staff members and campus ministry leaders who have put in 5 or 6 years in ministry and are starting to dream about church planting. Now, church planting has become a first option for many seminary graduates. Denominations and agencies and networks are pushing church-planting much more aggressively. The guys who used to aspire to youth ministry or campus ministry now aspire to be church planters. And many of them lack the patience to serve on a church staff for five or ten years before launching into church planting.

The surge of interest in church planting is a great thing. But it comes at a cost: a longer gestation period for potential church planters. In the boom years, Acts 29 spoke of planting 1000 churches in 10 years – and that seemed realistic based on the surge of ready-made leaders pouring into our ranks. But as my investment advisor always says, “past performance is not indicative of future results.” Turning a seasoned youth pastor or college pastor into an effective church planter is a two-year project; doing the same with a young seminary graduate is more like a ten-year project. The pace of church-planting must slow accordingly.

In one sense, Acts 29 is already adapting. During our re-organization in 2012, we realized that we had basically been an “attractional” movement, using events and podcasts and platforms to attract young leaders toward church planting. What we hadn’t done well was to grow our own leaders from within. Our marketing materials spoke of “churches planting churches,” but in reality we were more like a fraternity of church planters. So we began to build residencies and training programs and new initiatives that would develop leaders from within, enabling our existing churches to plant new churches by raising up leaders internally.

In my opinion, our rhetoric still needs to catch up with reality. Sometimes the rhetoric of church-planting movements (not just Acts 29, but others also) can create the expectation of continuous exponential increase. Acts 29 speaks of “planting churches that plant churches that plant churches” – and indeed, that is what we want to be about! But underneath this rhetoric, we need to acknowledge that this may be a ten- to fifteen-year process. Statistically, only 26% of existing Acts 29 churches were planted out of another Acts 29 church, and only 7% are third-generation plants. My own church, Coram Deo, has finally reached “grandfather” stage – having planted a church (Providence Austin) that has planted another church (Trinity Church Austin) – but even that was by attracting leaders from outside and then developing them. If we’re talking about real missional church-planting… if we’re talking about moving a man “from pagan to planter…” then we’re talking about a decade or more of discipleship, spiritual formation, and leadership development. The conditions that spurred the growth of Acts 29 in the boom years simply do not obtain anymore. We must adjust our expectations and our methods accordingly.

In my opinion, the ongoing flourishing of missional church-planting in North America will require three important shifts:

  • A shift in strategy: church planting networks need to slow down the pace and expectation for church planting. They need to focus on slow growth rather than exponential growth, and on long-term leadership health rather than short-term results. To say it another way: planting 100 churches this year does not guarantee 100 healthy churches 5 years from now.
  • A shift in rhetoric: church planting networks need to speak honestly in order to create appropriate expectations. Americans are addicted to “vision,” and in the evangelical world, vision often means hype. Church planting networks should resist this temptation and instead cast a realistic vision focused on long-term influence. Keller’s wisdom is instructive here: for years, he has spoken of moving New York City from 1% evangelical (1990) to 15% evangelical (still a distant hope – right now it’s at 5% evangelical after almost 3 decades of work). This kind of long-term vision builds an expectation of slow, steady progress rather than immediate results – and it encourages seeing church-planting as a lifelong calling.
  • A shift in aspirations: young leaders who think they want to be involved in church-planting need to aspire to work on a church staff for 5-10 years as a first step. Most aspiring church planters I meet are impatient. They don’t know who they are; they don’t have an accurate assessment of their gifts; and they don’t have the wisdom and seasoning that comes with maturity. Moving men like this into church planting too quickly is a recipe for instability. I tell young leaders they should expect to serve in ministry for a decade before they’re ready to plant a church. Data from Fellowship Associates reveals that the best church planters are in their early 30s, with 7-10 years of ministry experience and some type of theological training (seminary or equivalent). There’s a reason for that.

Local churches need to adapt as well. Most of our church-planting residency programs within Acts 29 have been designed as one- or two-year “finishing schools.” Which is to say: they’re still designed for the kind of leaders we were attracting in the mid-2000s. They are built for leaders who are theologically mature, missionally fruitful, self-aware, and ministry-experienced, and who require only some final preparation in order to plant a church. In addition to these sorts of residencies, we need diverse theological and leadership training initiatives within the local church to equip leaders at all stages of maturity. We can’t expect ready-made church-planters; we need to pray, work, and labor to move people from pagan to planter.

How do I get from text to sermon? This is the question in sermon preparation. After preaching for 15 years, I’ve developed a basic pattern that might serve as a helpful resource to others. Call it “Thune’s Template for Sermon Prep.”

In building this template I’ve unapologetically applied the insights of some of my best teachers: Chapell, Keller, Robinson, Eswine, and others. These men have taught me wonderful things about preaching, but none of them have summarized their insights in 2 pages or less. That’s my unique contribution. (See the end of this post for a downloadable PDF). I’ve also included the insights of some of my peers and “preaching friends” who have made valuable contributions to my own ministry.

All the great teachers of preaching focus on two basic disciplines: exegesis and homiletics. EXEGESIS seeks an accurate understanding and interpretation of the biblical text as received by the original audience; HOMILETICS seeks to craft an orderly, coherent, and compelling sermon for delivery.

In order to ensure Christ-centered preaching, I suggest adding gospel-centrality as a third and distinct discipline. GOSPEL-CENTRALITY seeks to anchor the text within the broader canon of Scripture, connect the sermon to God’s redeeming grace, and ensure faith in the good news as the means of transformation.


Commune with God. Enjoy personal communion with God through Bible reading and prayer. Otherwise, preaching prep becomes toilsome instead of worshipful.

Identify the Genre. Prophecy is not the same as poetry. “Every novel is a book – but not every book is a novel.” Know the genre, and know the rules for reading each biblical genre well.

Break Down the Text. Study it. Analyze its structure. Get down into its words and phrases. Identify its key sections and themes. Outline the text to ensure that your sermon is faithful to the intent of the original author.

Summarize the Big Idea. Ask: what is this passage about? Then ask: what is it saying about that topic? Bring these 2 answers together to summarize the exegetical main point or big idea of the text in one sentence.

Identify the Redemptive Need (FCF). Ask: what condition do modern hearers share with the original audience that requires the grace of this passage? How, in this text, is God addressing our:

  • Fallen Condition (our inner tendency toward temptation & evil)
  • Finite Condition (the limits of our knowledge, emotional capacity, & physical ability)
  • Fragile Condition (the effects of living in a fallen world)
  • Faltering Condition (the inconsistency between what I profess & what I embody)

Identify the Worship Themes. The goal of preaching is worship. So, how is God after our glad-hearted worship in this text? What does he reveal about himself, about us, or about redemption that should move us to worship and adoration?


What does it mean to preach a “gospel-centered” sermon? It means to relate every text to 1) our human need for redemption and 2) God’s provision of redemption through Jesus.

Here are some ways of doing this:

  • God as a Redeeming God: In texts that don’t explicitly mention Jesus, how is God revealing his plan, his purposes, and/or his reasons for redemption? How is God the hero of the story?
  • Ministry of Jesus: How does this text predict, prepare for, reflect, or result from the ministry of Jesus? Is there an obvious connection to Jesus’ person and work in the text?
  • Indicative/Imperative: What commands (imperatives) are given in the text? What keeps us from obeying those commands (be specific and nuanced here, not general)? How has Jesus obeyed in our place AND set us free from our sin & disobedience? How does resting in his work (indicative) & walking in the Holy Spirit enable us now to obey these commands with joy?
  • Resurrection Joy & Power: The gospel includes not only the crucifixion, but the resurrection & ascension. How does Jesus’ victory over Satan, sin, and death – and his sending of the Holy Spirit – bring the joy and power we need to live as his faithful people?
  • Jesus as Satisfaction: What core human need does the text raise? How can I get the audience to FEEL that need, and then show how Jesus satisfies it?
  • Greatness of Christ: How does this text reveal the wonder & excellence of Jesus? How can I help my hearers experience the greatness of Christ so that they are changed on the spot and moved to worship?
  • A gospel-centered sermon should expound Christ (tell about him), adore Christ (show why he is worthy of love, allegiance, worship), and apply Christ (show people how their problems result from idolatry and unbelief, and how worship is the answer).

The biggest mistake novice preachers make is to reduce the gospel to “justification by grace through faith.” The gospel is not less than that; but it is much more than that. Bryan Chapell is helpful: “So long as the preacher explains ways in which God uses a text to reveal his own plan, purposes, and/or reasons for redemption, the sermon leads listeners away from human-centered religiosity… God [must be] the hero of every text.”


Answer the “So What?” Question. Imagine a skeptic sitting in the audience and asking, “So what? What difference does this make?” A clear answer to that question is the key to a powerful sermon.

Establish a Thesis for the Sermon. There are two ways to go about this.

  1. State the thesis as a proposition, containing a subject and a predicate. The best propositions “implicate the hearer” (that is, they demand a response): “Here’s what is true; therefore, here’s what we must do.” For example: “Because Jesus is Lord, we must obey him.”
  2. State the thesis as a memorable catch-phrase that has “sticking power.” For example: “Dead people don’t choose.”

Identify Defeater Beliefs. What might keep people from embracing this biblical truth? Are there cultural assumptions I need to confront? Are there existential questions I need to address? Are there confusing statements in the passage that I need to unpack?

Create a Preaching Outline. Start with a broad skeleton: an introduction that states the thesis, 2 or 3 main points that support the thesis, and a conclusion. Then add content under each point to fill out the outline. Always keep your audience in mind here. What will help them most? What do they need in order to be convinced of your thesis? What needs to be left out?

Add Color. What illustrations, stories, or personal self-disclosure would make each point more memorable? How could I use humor to further the goal of this sermon?

Rethink Your Application. Go back to the “so what” question. Why are you preaching this? What does the Holy Spirit want us to think/feel/do as a result? Application is not a part of your sermon; it is your sermon. So: Does your sermon challenge the mind (lie vs. truth)? Does it provoke the heart (unbelief vs. belief)? Does it move hands to action (disobedience vs. faithful obedience)? (Some sermons tap all 3 of these categories; others focus primarily on one).

Cut Some Stuff. Less is more. Dr. Richard Pratt says: “You can’t say everything every time you say something, or you’ll say nothing anytime you say anything.”

Signpost. As you transition from one point to the next, make clear statements of transition. These can be as obvious as: “That’s point one; moving on now to point 2…” The listening ear needs to know when to mentally shift from one part of the sermon to the next.

Remember the Three Keys to a Good Sermon. Will Walker suggests that every memorable sermon leverages three key elements:

  • Tension (you pulled me in and kept my interest); this generally belongs in the introduction, because tension seeks resolution and therefore creates anticipation.
  • Insight (you helped me see something I hadn’t seen before); this generally belongs in the body of the sermon, showing how the text helps explain or resolve the tension.
  • Emotion (you made me feel something); this generally belongs in the illustrations & application within each main point, causing the audience to think/feel/do something in the moment.

Here’s a 2-page downloadable PDF of this template which you’ll find more visually appealing and compact than a blog post.