A Different Application?

IMG_1756Much e-ink is pixelated over the need for applicational relevance in our preaching. There is good reason for this. Too much preaching is totally disconnected from real life and therefore lacks the relevance that biblical preaching should always feature. But adding applications is not as easy as it sounds.

For instance, simply culling imperatives and encouraging people how to live their lives “more biblically” may in fact be undermining God’s work in peoples’ lives.  How so?  If our applications merely add burdens to their to-do lists, thence may well be adding a new law, rather than pointing people to Christ. In fact, we may be pointing them away from Christ and to themselves – which is by definition a Genesis 3 serpentlike thing to do in our pursuit of supposedly Christlike impact.

So how to effectively apply in our preaching is important, and perhaps it is a subject for another post or two.  But I want to throw an idea into the mix with this post.

What if, instead of focusing on how this message relates to their lives on Monday morning in the office, or Tuesday evening in the family argument, what if we sometimes refocus our timings in application?

Instead of just thinking about relevance of the message to the rest of the week, as important as that is, let’s also be thinking about the applicational force of encounter in the moment of preaching. That is, how can I show God revealed in Christ during this message so that my listeners might encounter him and in so doing, be changed.

  1. In the Gospels, people were changed when they met Christ.  Yes there were those moments where he said, “go and sin no more” of course, but that was not the exclusive applicational thrust of those encounters. People were changed by meeting him.
  2. In our lives we too easily slip into self-directed living and living as if Christ is absent.  The preaching moment is a key moment for encountering God as he is revealed in the Word.  It would be tragic to miss him for the sake of adding to our to-do lists.
  3. By pointing listeners to the person of Christ who reveals the Father to us, we are giving believers and unbelievers exactly what they need. Jesus is good news for us all, and we all need it regularly, because we all need him continuously.
  4. All true application should flow from the inside-out, which requires a heart-changing encounter with God’s love, not just a code-of-living change by encounter with applicational law. That sentence deserves some unpacking, but let’s leave the thought for now – there is a difference between outside to in change (i.e. here is the list, live by it), and inside to out change (i.e. having met Christ, how is his heart-work in you going to work itself out in your life?)

Application deserves a lot more attention in our thinking as preachers.  However we do that, let’s not miss the important applicational force of meeting with the God who reveals himself in the written Word as it is preached.

Michael Ots: What Does It Mean to be Human?

Originally posted on Foundations:

michael2Michael Ots is an evangelist who regularly speaks at events in universities across Europe. His first book, What Kind of God? is translated into Russian, Serbian, Romanian and Spanish.  To find out more, please visit www.motsy.org


‘Man is a crumpled piece of paper in the rain whose only liberation is death’ – this was the conclusion of the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. Most of us would not share his bleak conclusion about humanity. However, his was the logical conclusion to come to if at the end of the day we live in a materialistic universe where there is nothing more than matter. The scientist Francis Crick said ‘You, your joys and sorrows, memories, ambitions, sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the massive assembly of nerve cells… Who you are is noting but a load of neurons.’

The problem with such views…

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Cracks Are Serious

cracks2Recently I was getting my hair cut and the radio was playing in the background. Bizarrely there was a phone-in on the radio with an expert in building cracks. Since I had no option but to listen, I listened in as callers explained the nature of cracks appearing on various walls in buildings that they own and the expert responding with, “that is not serious, ignore it” or, “you need to get that fixed or your building will collapse!”

It made me think about the cracks that we sense in our relationships. It is so easy for a crack to develop between two people. Maybe it is with your spouse or a close friend. Maybe it is with a co-worker in the church, or a fellow church member. Whatever the relationship, cracks are serious.

In Colossians 3, Paul recognizes the challenge of maintaining harmonious relationships in the church and offers the vital recipe for dealing with the cracks that will inevitably form between people. After listing several other Christlike characteristics in verse 12, he comes to patience and pauses to develop the thought. “…bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other, as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”

Most issues between people can be dealt with by Colossians 3:13. Bear with, forgive. But it is important that we do that. Too easily we can leave the cracks to spread and to grow wider.

I really appreciated Andy Stanley’s teaching related to this. He explained how we all have expectations of one another, but what should we do when there is a gap between our experience and our expectation? We expect someone to do A, but they instead do B. There is a gap. Andy Stanley teaches that we are to fill the gap with trust. We can assume that there is something we don’t know and that the person is trustworthy. However, there will be times when we cannot fill the gap with trust. Then what? Simple. Then we need to approach them.

One of two things will happen when we approach someone over a gap between our expectations and experience. When we go and assure them that we want to trust them, but there is this gap… Either they will be able to fill us in with the information we are missing, thus re-establishing the trust in the relationship. Or they will be given the opportunity to own their sin and they will ask us for forgiveness. Either way, the relationship is honoured and Christ is pleased.

So what do we do when we sense a crack developing in a relationship? We are to forgive first, then either we can bear with, or we need to approach and proactively address the situation. Notice that forgiveness is not dependent on the other person apologizing to us. Forgiveness takes only one person. If there is a breakdown in the relationship then it will take two people to reconcile, but we should forgive before we ever approach the other person. It is vital to do this so that our manner and tone can be genuinely humble and loving, rather than confrontational and touchy.

So this leaves some non-options. There are several things we must not do when cracks appear in a relationship. We may be tempted to do all four of these, but we must not, or the cracks will only spread further or grow wider.

1. Leave it. We cannot simply leave it. Ignoring cracks in relationships will not cause them to go away. These things do not self-heal. Some cultures are very committed to avoiding any conflict, but this can simply compound the problem and create a bigger mess once addressing the issues becomes unavoidable.

2. Label them. It is always tempting to label other people. “He is touchy. She is weird. They are sensitive.” But if the crack in the relationship has not been addressed, then this is a label based on incomplete information. We like to think we know enough to make such judgments, but we don’t, and we are usurping God’s role as the all-knowing One!

3. Retreat. Not only is it tempting to leave the issue alone, it is also tempting to retreat from the other person. We can avoid people without even consciously planning to do so. Our self-protection radar beeps quietly and we can navigate life without meaningful or awkward contact, but it is awkward, because the relationship is cracked.

4. Report. How very easy it is to spread the label we’ve applied to others. Gossip occurs when our communication about someone reduces the esteem others have for that person. Do not go there. Learn to sense gossip and stop it in its tracks. When someone starts to cross the line with you, you can ask them, “have you spoken with them about this?” or “do they know you are sharing this with me?” Gossip is aggressive crack multiplication in the local church.

So how is it possible to proactively address cracks and pursue harmony in the body of Christ? Colossians 3:12-17 gives several critical pointers for us.

First, we won’t achieve this by looking to ourselves and determining to do better in this. We must first look to Christ. The whole letter points us in Christ’s direction, see 1:15-23, or 3:1-4. In fact, look at how verse 12 begins: we are God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved – our gaze needs to be on Christ and our union with Him, not on ourselves and our determination to do good.

Second, we have the peace of Christ at work in our midst like a referee with a whistle. Verse 15 in its context is not about a private guidance mechanism. It is all about how the Spirit works to promote unity amongst believers. When we say something unhelpful, or when a crack develops, God is at work with a gentle whistle to highlight the issue to us. Let’s pray for a growing sensitivity to that refereeing of our relationships.

Third, the word of Christ dwelling in us will feed our healthy mutual interactions – verse 16 underlines our need for this.

Fourth, gratitude will be a wonderful gel in group dynamics. Three times Paul points to the need for gratitude amongst the believers.

So keeping our gaze fixed on Christ, with His Word very much at home in our hearts, with the Spirit’s whistle gently nudging us when cracks develop, we can gratefully pursue a proactive unity and harmony. Always forgiving, usually bearing with, and sometimes approaching when necessary, we can be part of a harmonious group of believers whose Christlike corporate culture create a Christlike impact in a world desperate for authentic and loving community.

The Power of Telling the Story

ourstory2There is more narrative in the Bible than any other type of Scripture.  People are surrounded by the power of narrative every day.  And yet preachers are often tempted to skimp on telling the story.  Why?

Life is lived in multi-layered narratives.  People engage with narratives all week: every film, TV show, sports commentary, most commercials, interactions at the coffee machine at work, catching up with spouse and children at home, chatting with neighbours over the fence – it is one mini-narrative after another.  Then they come to church and we too often leave the stories for children and preach a more “sophisticated” message.  Oops.

God gave us so much narrative in the Bible because of its power in engaging us with the wonder of his self-revelation.

So when you preach a narrative, tell the story.  It will be more effective than offering lists of instructions and points from the same passage (not to say that you shouldn’t clarify the main point and seek to demonstrate the relevance by means of possible applications).

How does telling the story work?

1. Listeners will identify with characters – if a story is told even relatively well, listeners will either be drawn toward a character, or repelled by a character.  We humans are wired to connect or pull back.  Neutrality to people is not a natural reaction (although in a fallen world we will be more neutral than we were intended to be).

2. Listeners will feel the tension of the plot – once the story moves from mere setting to some disequilibrium, listeners will typically feel compelled to listen for resolution.  We can’t help it.

3. Listeners will be marked by the resolution of that tension – that resolution, if the story has been told effectively, will register a mark in our hearts because we have been feeling emotionally engaged by the characters in their situation.

4. Listeners will find their lives superimposing on the image of the story – humans naturally overlay their own situations, struggles, feelings, doubts, hopes, etc., onto the stories of others.  This could be our empathetic relational wiring, or it could be self-absorption, but either way, we tend to be marked by stories not involving us because we connect somehow.

Preaching that tells the story is better than preaching that ignores the story and goes after just presenting propositions.

Viv Thomas: Paths & Connections

Originally posted on Foundations:

ERT4EdXbViv Thomas is the Associate International Director of OM International, and Hon. Teaching Pastor at St Paul’s Hammersmith. He has authored Future Leader, Second Choice, Paper Boys, The Spectacular Ordinary Life and The Spectacular Ordinary Organisation. His next book, Wisdom Road, will be published in December 2015.  For more information on Viv’s ministry click here, or for OM, click here. I have known and worked with Viv for many years and have appreciated his heart and his input.  In this post Viv offer three foundational questions we should be pondering.


Phileena Heuertz suggests some questions that help us get to the core of what is going on in our lives. I suggest that we let them rumble through our minds and conversations listening to the voice of the Spirit as we go.

Who are you?

This is the identity question. It is not always easy to answer…

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Dave Bish: Where Are the Depths Found?

Originally posted on Foundations:

BishDave currently serves on the staff team for Grace Church Exeter, but is pursuing a next step into pastoral ministry elsewhere in 2016. He’s married with three young sons. He previously spent 11 years on the staff team of the UCCF, as a Christian Union Staff Worker and then as Team Leader for the South West. He’s edited three volumes of sermons by puritans Richard Sibbes and Jeremiah Burroughs in addition to many years of blogging at thebluefish.org.  As Foundations is being released, I am thankful to Dave for this guest post on what it means to be human.


“The depths which were previously located in the cosmos, the enchanted world, are now more readily placed within.” Taylor, p540.

In his enormous book A Secular Age Charles Taylor is examining the shift that has occured over the past 500 years from a world in which it was…

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Dan Hames: What is Grace?

Daniel HamesDan Hames is a curate at St Aldates, Oxford, as well as a PhD student at VU Amsterdam.  He also helps look after articles, talks, and a podcast at UnionTheology.org.  If you haven’t spent some time on the Union Theology site, you are missing a treat.  I am thankful to Dan for this guest post on the subject of God’s grace.


Grace. It’s what your grandma says before dinner. It’s the way a ballet dancer floats across the stage. It’s a polite person reacting coolly to criticism. It’s also one of those theology words that we don’t often explain.

When I was naughty as a boy, I used to think that God could show me mercy, which simply meant he wouldn’t strike me with a bolt of lightning. Or he could show me grace, which was that, on top of sparing me, he would actually be nice to me. As I grew as a Christian, I began to see that grace was something more fundamental in God. God loves to give his grace. His undeserved kindness to us is the whole shape and flavour of the gospel. I was encouraged to ‘trust grace’, ‘love grace’, and ‘preach grace’. God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense. Unmerited favour. A gift we don’t deserve.

So is that grace? I’ve come to believe it’s even better than that. In John 14:23, Jesus says something quite remarkable, ‘My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.’ In the gospel, God isn’t kind to us by just giving us forgiveness, a sense of purpose in life, a family in the Church, and the hope of heaven. He gives us himself through Jesus.

Grace isn’t a thing God ladles out like a dinner lady with custard; it’s not even the generous frame of mind he’s in when he hands out blessings to us like a supermarket Santa. God’s grace is that he loves you and has made his home with you by the presence of the Holy Spirit. It’s not God’s riches, but God. From the moment of your salvation, the living God moved in with you and will stay with you through your whole life, and beyond your death into eternal glory.

Let’s encourage our hearts by thinking less about the word ‘grace’ in the abstract and more about the gracious God who shows mercy, blesses, and loves the undeserving – but who most of all gives them himself.

John Hindley: What Does It Mean To Be Human?

John HindleyJohn is pastor of BroadGrace Church in rural Norfolk (England).  John authored Serving Without Sinking and You Can Really Grow  (Good Book Company), as well as Suffering and Singing (10ofThose).  John is married to Flick and has three little ones. In his own words, “John Hindley is a wicked and filthy wretch made beautiful by Christ alone.”  I am thankful to John for offering this guest post as we head into the release month for Foundations.


To be human is to dig. At least, that is what it is after the fall. To be human outside the garden, East of Eden, is to heft your shovel and dig again. It is to hope (if there can be a hope beyond hope) that this time the guy who sold you the map was honest, despite the way his parrot kept laughing at you.

To be human, for some, is to sail against the storm, hack your way through the undergrowth and then force your spade into the earth. For other the dig comes after a lie-in and pleasure cruise. But we are all digging, where X marks the spot, because there must be treasure somewhere. One of the maps has to be right, and there has to be a chest filled with pieces of eight. Or with peace, with hope, with love, with joy, with meaning, with forgiveness, with a future, with life.

Maybe we know what we are searching for, or maybe we dig with the desperation of not even remembering what we are digging for. We dig the sands of career, health, family, hobbies, holidays, wealth, stories. We dig and dig until one day we hear the sound of a spade against a chest. Carefully the chest is unearthed, and then gently prised open.

When we look back on that day, it still makes us smile to realise how wrong we had got it. We thought we had to dig. It never occurred to us that we were the treasure.

To be human, truly human, is to be the treasure that Christ paid the highest price to win. It is to be the delight of his eyes despite our running, our striving to find treasure far from him. It is to be the blood-bought forgiven who will always be treasured by their Captain until he comes back for us. We are safe, hidden in Christ.

And now, when we dig, we find treasure everywhere.

The Why Behind Preaching

UnionWhyMost of the time we tend to focus on what we are doing.  Sometimes we ponder how we could do it better.  Too rarely we ponder the motivation behind our ministry.  Why do we preach?

Let’s ponder two simple reasons (loaded with multiplied motivations in pregnant-with-meaning summaries):

1. Because we love God.  The God we love is the God who loved us first – who loves, who speaks, who gives of his riches, who gives himself.  This captures our hearts and gives us something to say.  We love God because he is the best news we have ever received, and so we want to spill that thrillingly good news to others.  We want to see God’s work built up, and it is a work done not by force, but by proclamation, presentation and appeal.  We are not mere recipients of a good message, but we are drawn into the eternal conversation out of which that message has come – the Spirit of God is at work in us pointing our hearts to Christ in whom we see the heart of the Father.  God is at work in hearts and we get to participate in that.

Preaching as an act of devotion, an act of worship, and even preaching as obedience to God’s Word and as obedience to his calling on our lives – these could all be added.  But the bottom line surely is this: as we take stock of our own motivation in preaching, are we still gripped and driven by a vertical responsiveness?  This can so easily grow dull or become corrupted by a self-elevation and self-worship. Surely the best thing to do here is to spend time on our face before God and ask Him what our motivations are (ask yourself and you may respond with a lie!)

2. Because we love others.  Loving God shapes our loves to conform to his.  He deeply loves the people who will sit in the church on Sunday, or who will visit for the guest event, and so gradually our love for these people grows too.  We want to serve them by offering the very best news there is.  We want to preach because people need to hear the good news – both those who still live as dead in the realm of darkness, and those who are in the family, but feel the constant pull of the flesh toward self-reliance.  We preach because we want others to have the joy that comes from not only receiving, but also spilling to others according to the way God made and wired them.

Love the Lord, love your neighbour . . . simple.

Hershael York: The Book of Acts and Us

HYorkDr Hershael York is the Senior Pastor at Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky.  He is also the Victor and Louise Lester Professor of Christian Preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.  I really appreciated his books Speaking with Bold Assurance (2001), that Hershael co-wrote with Bert Decker, and Preaching with Bold Assurance (2003).  I am really thankful for this post on the enduring relevance of Acts for us as preachers in today’s world – a reality I hope is demonstrated in Foundations (forthcoming from Christian Focus).  Over to Hershael:


The New Testament epistles would leave us puzzled and perplexed if we only had the gospels without the book of Acts. We would not know how the gospel advanced to the Gentiles, who Paul is, when Christianity spread from Jerusalem to the world, or even why the church took shape and functioned as it did. Perhaps most significantly, we would not know the components and contours of apostolic preaching.

About half of the Book of Acts consists of speeches, discourses, and letters. In fact, like the Greek historian Thucydides, Luke actually moves the narrative forward through careful reconstruction of speeches by followers of Christ and their opponents. He records eight addresses delivered by Peter, Stephen’s lengthy sermon that enraged the Sanhedrin, Cornelius’s brief explanation, a short authoritative address by James at the Jerusalem Council, the advice of James and the elders in Jerusalem to Paul, and nine sermons and speeches by Paul. Clearly Luke believes that what the church said impacted what they did.

But Luke is more than a historian. He is also a theologian. He is not merely recording the words spoken, but the heart of the Christian message, the kerygma, that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation, Lord of Heaven and Earth, and that his crucifixion and resurrection provides redemption from sin for all who will repent and believe.

While manners and modes of communication change through time and across cultures, that core message of the gospel is the unshakeable and irreducible axis of Christian proclamation on which faith rests. The message of what God has done through the person and work of Christ is not merely a historical chapter that we have advanced beyond. Now as much as in Acts, the preaching of Christ is what God uses to move the narrative forward until Christ returns.