Thinking about preaching: What to learn from Jeff Manion

Posted by on Jun 20, 2017 in Blog, Budding Theologians | 0 comments

I’ve recently finished teaching a unit in preaching at Vose Seminary, and one of the assignments was to assess the preaching of a well known pastor whom the student could select, evaluating both the strengths and weaknesses of the approach, and asking what we could learn about preaching from this person. Several excellent essays resulted, but I was especially impressed by this one from Yvette Cherry, a Vose student who also serves on the staff at Riverton Baptist Church. In addition to being an excellent student, she is a gifted preacher and I am grateful for her permission to reproduce her essay, which I think you will enjoy. She explores what we have to learn from American mega church pastor Jeff Manion.

Incidentally Yvette also has her own blog at which you might like to visit. Here is her essay…

The Preaching of Jeff Manion, Ada Bible Church

Jeff Manion is the Senior Pastor of Ada Bible Church, a multi-campus church in Grand Rapids, Michigan with a regular attendance of over 10 000 people. Author of the books, The Land Between, Satisfied, and most recently, Dream Big, Think Small, Manion is a highly gifted communicator who has an obvious concern for the pastoral care and spiritual formation of the people he serves. One of the most impressive features of Manion’s preaching style is his ability to smoothly bridge the gap between the first century biblical text and the twenty first century listener. He weaves narratives and modern illustrations throughout his sermons, giving both faithful exegesis and application throughout the message. Manion presents as an extremely humble and gentle expository preacher who has the ability to connect to an audience, teach, encourage and act as a spiritual guide.

Preaching as Spiritual Formation- Manion’s approach to preparation
Teachers of homiletics, Kay Northcutt , Raewynne Whiteley and Michael Quick all stress the importance of sermon preparation as foundational to the effectiveness of not only the preached event, but to the spiritual formation of the preacher. Gatta says that when preachers prepare conscientiously, they are “led into that holy space where God is likely to act, and we are likely to surrender.” These authors stress the importance of spiritual practices including prayer and lectio divinia and examen ; “listening to the text with the ears of our heart.” In an interview with John Dickson, Jeff Marion shares about how he prepares to preach. In reference to the current teaching he was doing on Colossians he said, “I started memorising Colossians back in March, just to get the concepts really engrained in my spirit. And so, worked all through the summer, just memorising the material and really exploring the world of Colossae.” He went on to explain, “I’m trying to place myself in Colossae. I’m trying to mine as much as I possibly can just by reading it, and reading it and reading it…” After this he explains that he consults just one or two very good commentaries to see what others have written about the text. Manion’s process sounds similar to that of Michael Quick’s who says, of the first stage of sermon preparation, “what mattered most in this process was not me trying to be fresh and original but God drawing me in to discovering more of him and his word, inviting me to live in its power.” Manion’s diligent spiritual preparation and lived experience of the text is evident in his preaching. He is emotional in his expression and visibly moved, with tears and a waver in his voice when he speaks of biblical truths.

Strength: Manion as Spiritual Guide for his Congregation
Kay Northcutt in her book, Kindling Desire for God makes the claim that preachers are spiritual directors for their congregations, and that “sermons do for congregations what spiritual direction does for individuals.” Northcutt argues that the preacher should be preaching around themes that include; a call to see God in the everyday moments of life, a call to “wake up” and consciously co-create life with God, a call to see each moment of ordinary life as sacramental, a call to see as God sees and a call to develop vocational matters. In doing this, the preacher is guiding the spiritual formation of her congregation and calling them to closer relationship with God. We see Manion take on this role of preacher as spiritual director in his sermon series entitled, Dream Big, Think Small. The overarching theme of this series is that truly great lives are built though a persistence and determination to move faithfully in the right direction. In the opening sermon of this series, he showed concern for the whole person and demonstrated that a life lived with God involved all aspect of our being, not just our spiritual health, but our physical, relational and emotional health also. Marion is doing for his congregation, the work that Northcutt feels is so important for a preacher; he is guiding his congregation to a deeper relationship with God.

Strength: Excellent Expository Preaching
The sermon series Dream Big, Think Small is a topical series about life change. The opening message only made brief reference to biblical texts, and that was to use two Proverbs about ants. But Manion’s usual style of preaching is expository teaching and it is a style at which he excels. Calling him an “extraordinary preacher” and “one of the best I’ve ever heard,” John Dickson says that Manion “has an astonishing twofold ability to exegete the original text in context AND show how it challenges and inspires our daily lives.” As explained by Haddon Robinson, this is an essential part of effective expository preaching;
expository sermons consist of ideas drawn from the Scriptures, but the ideas of Scripture must be related to life. To preach effectively therefore, expositors must be involved in three different worlds; the world of the bible, the modern world and the particular world in which we are called to preach.

Manion explains that his priority in expository preaching is building two bridges; one to the land and culture of the bible, and one back to us. He explains that he likes to do that throughout the message saying, “I don’t want to preach an entire section of scripture and then get to the end and say, “oh by the way, this is how that applies.”” Manion says he likes to begin with a problem, or challenge that modern people, and specifically his congregation face, and show that it is also a problem faced by the first century Christians. Manion’s approach to a passage of scripture is to ask, “why should this matter to me and why should this matter to the congregation?” and then also, “why is this so critical in the first century?” Manion states that his assumption is that every person (in the biblical text) is speaking or writing into a challenge that was location specific, or error specific, and it is his task to figure out what that was about, where our modern similarities are, and to connect the two.

In his book, Preaching to a Postmodern World, Graham Johnston claims that, ‘What preachers perceive to be an issue of belief may well end up being an issue of trust. Before people ask, “What have you to say?” they may ask, “Why should I even listen to you?”’ Manion appears to really understand this. It is a characteristic of his preaching that he works very hard in the beginning of the service to link the biblical text to the life of the modern listener, and help them see why they need to hear what Manion has to say. He does this by surfacing a problem in the passage that the congregation also feel in their own lives, and using many stories from contemporary life to make his point.

In October and November of 2016, Manion preached a series entitled “The New You”, which was based on the book of Colossians. As part of the series, Manion filmed segments on location in Laodicea and these were shown at the beginning of the sermon. In Week Eight of the series, Manion focused on Colossians 3:20-21, verses which speak about family life. In the filmed segment, he stood in the ruins of a family home in Laodicea and asked the congregation to consider how the first century family changed after they came to know Jesus. It was quite clear that even though Manion was standing in a first century ruins, the exact same question can be asked of us today; how does Jesus transform our home life? The sermon was powerful as Manion used many personal stories, and the stories of others to demonstrate the teaching that children should obey their parents, and fathers should not discourage their children. Manion tied it all together by speaking of the love and acceptance of our heavenly father.

The previous week, in a sermon entitled ‘The Art of Getting Along” Manion stood in the ruins of a fourth century Christian church, which was built right alongside a pagan temple. He asked the congregation to consider how the people were transformed as they moved from a life of paganism to a life inside the Jesus community. Manion suggested that as they grew in faith, not only were they transformed on the inside, but that transformation also occurred between the people of the new community of believers. The main idea springs from the teaching of Colossians 3:12, and Manion speaks about how the Christian community ought to love each other. He opens with a very humorous story about a couple who join a small group where they don’t feel they fit in. Here Manion is establishing a problem; that it isn’t always easy to find things in common with others in the church and that “relationships in the church can be a source of irritation, frustration and unmet expectation.” Manion has surfaced a tension that existed in the lives of the people of Colossae and also in our lives today, and he is then able to point his listener toward the central teaching of Colossians 3:12 . Manion is very skilled at finding one big idea in the text and showing how it was important to the lives of the first century believers, and important in our lives today.

Strength: Manion’s Brilliant Delivery
Manion is able to preach his entire forty to fifty-minute sermon without the use of any notes. Manion says that while it is time intensive, he feels much more free in his communication if he does not use notes. His technique involves memorising a lot of scripture, but also trying to internalise the message thought by thought, remembering the flow and order of the ideas rather than the specific sentences. The platform on which Manion preaches, therefore, has no need for a lectern. He has a small screen and often preaches with a lot of props. He moves around the stage a lot, making great use of space to illustrate his points. He is easy to watch, he maintains eye contact appropriately and his message flows out of him in an uninterrupted fashion.

Manion’s obvious preparedness is another factor that takes his preaching to a level that is well above average. In his opening message for Dream Big, Think Small he used the image of a link of chains to show how through diligent perseverance, once can achieve their goals. The length of the chain, with each link representing a small faithful action in a positive direction, was very long at the end. This provided a fantastic visual illustration. In closing, Manion had ushers hand out to everyone in the congregation, three small links as a reminder of the big idea of the message; to encourage his congregation to be faithful in the small, everyday positive actions. This level of creativity and thoughtfulness contribute to his sermons being extremely powerful.

It is difficult to find any weakness in Manion’s style, content or delivery and I feel that I am splitting at hairs. One minor thing that I noticed is that when Manion focuses in on an important point that he wants to emphasise, he stops moving around and stands in one place. But he does not stand still. He shifts his weight from leg to leg and it is slightly distracting. I just want him to be still for a moment. I also still feel slightly uncomfortable with the idea of satellite teaching; can the church not identify enough gifted teachers to do the preaching? I can see the benefits however, to having the preaching component of the service delivered by one preacher to all campuses. Finally, I debated whether his messages were simply too long. Forty to fifty minutes is a long time to listen, especially in this post-modern world of the eighteen-minute TED talk. I came to same conclusion as John Stott when he said, “basically, it’s not the length of the sermon that makes the congregation impatient for it to stop, it’s the tedium of a sermon in which even the preacher himself seems to be taking very little interest.” Manion clearly cares about what he is saying, and the people he is saying it to, and I have not found his sermons to be too long.

Manion is very relatable. As Brian Harris notes in his article, Does Preaching have a Future? much of the reason we respond well to a preacher is intuitive; we like them, we trust them, we view them as authentic and caring. Manion is all of these things. Can Manion’s successful style be generalised, and therefore replicated? The answer is most definitely yes. Manion’s style is classic expository preaching, and many preachers do it well. Warmth and spiritual maturity like Manion’s can come to all believers as we commit to spiritual disciples. One thing I see in Manion, however, is a dedication to learning and preparing that some may not be in the position to give. Manion preaches to 10 000 people every week therefore he must take the task very seriously. Being the Senior Pastor of a mega church, Manion has access to resources that might be beyond many preachers. Not everyone can fly to Laodicea to film segments for their upcoming series on Colossians! The most attractive features of Manion’s preaching; his engagement, his preparedness, his excellent understanding of scripture and application of truth, his warmth and humour are both the result of giftedness, hard work and God’s spirit working in Manion’s life.

To view the sermons used as illustrations in this essay:

Gatta, Julia. The Nearness of God: Parish Ministry as Spiritual Practice. New York: Church Publishing, 2010.

Harris, Brian. “Does Preaching Have a Future?” in Vose Seminary at Fifty: From ‘Preach the Word’ to ‘Come, Grow’. Preston, Victoria: Mosaic Press, 2013.

Johnson, Darrell W. The Glory of Preaching: Participating in God’s Transformation of the World. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2009.

Johnston, Graham. Preaching to a Postmodern World: A Guide to Reaching Twenty-First Century Listeners Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001.

Manion, Jeff, “How A Remarkable Life Equals a Thousand Unremarkable Steps”. (Accessed 5 April 2017)

Manion, Jeff. Interview by John Dickson, 12 November 2016, Ada Bible Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan (First accessed on 17 November 2016)

Nothcutt, Kay L. Kindling Desire for God: Preaching as Spiritual Direction. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009.

Quicke, Michael J. 360 Degree Preaching: Hearing, Speaking and Living the Word. Carlisle: Paternoster, 2003.

Robinson, Haddon W. Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001.

Stanley, Andy, and Lane Jones. Communicating for a Change. Colorado Springs:
Multnomah, 2006.

Whiteley, Raywynne J. Steeped in the Holy: Preaching as Spiritual Direction. Boston: Cowley Publications, 2007.

Winner, Laren F “Preaching as Spiritual Discipline” in Sewanaa Theological Review, 51 Michaelmas 2014, 517-526.

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