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.

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.

Glen Scrivener: What is the Essence of Sin?

Glen-321AGlen is an evangelist and director of Speak Life. He is the author of 321 – The Story of God, the World and You and blogs at Christ the Truth. He lives in Eastbourne with his wife, Emma, and daughter, Ruby.  At our church we give away copies of 321 to  visitors, it really is a fantastic resource.  I am thankful to Glen as he launches this guest post series for Foundations.  (I will post complete guest posts here for most of the series, but would love for you to check out the book website, and so you will be directed there to finish this post – thanks!)


What is the essence of sin?

Is it “climbing onto the throne of your life”?
Is it “stealing the crown for yourself”?
Is it “shaking your puny fist in the face of God”?
Is it saying “Shove off God, I‘m in charge, No to your rule”

Well, yes. But is it deeper than that? You bet!

You see, if we define sin as “self-rule” what do we say to the Iranian refugee working his fingers to the bone, sending back every penny to the family?

What do we say to the woman serially abused by the terrible men she invites into her life?

What do we say to the drug addict whose only remaining desire is the hell-bent drive to throw his life away?

What do we say to the down-trodden mother who’s completely lost herself in her family?

What do we say to the self-harmer consumed by self-loathing?

All these people are sinners. But is their sin best captured by a definition of “self-rule”? Surely not. And the Bible knows this, which is why its teaching on sin goes far deeper than “self-rule.”

In the Bible we are . . . click here to see the rest of Glen’s post on


Foundations Guest Series Introduction

Foundations CoverWhat do you do when you have one opportunity to communicate the life transforming message of the Bible? Where do you go biblically to address the key issues people really need to hear today?

I had one series of just four sermons and desperately wanted my hearers to hear the critical building blocks of belief. I could have gone to Ephesians or another epistle. I could have gone to the Gospels. I decided to go to Acts.

Preaching from Acts is an exciting challenge because you are entering into other peoples’ sermons as well as their situations. The first apostles were communicating the timeless gospel to the first hearers as the message spread. Perhaps what they preached then would be ideal for expressing the life transforming message today?  It is.

Foundations: Four Big Questions We Should Be Asking But Typically Don’t is forthcoming from Christian Focus Publications. It is a little book that I hope will pack a big punch. In Foundations we see how the Apostles addressed the very questions that we should be asking, but typically we don’t.

Acts contains messages preached under the glare of imminent threat, thus making every word count. Acts contains messages preached to staunch Jews ready to defend the honour of their heritage, a couple of purely pagan crowds who did not know Othniel from Oprah, some brand new believers in Christ, and every other possible combination of listeners. In Foundations we hear Paul addressing the sophisticated philosophers in Athens, over-zealous pagans in Turkey, and some of the judges brought in to put him on trial. We see how the apostles united when the gospel faced its first major attack, and how they made it so clear how the foundational questions must be answered by all.

Underneath our beliefs there is a foundation, and often it sits there unchallenged. The most important issues for life and eternity are regularly engaged in the Bible, but we often ignore this foundation. We too easily think it is all so obvious that we would be wasting our energy to linger longer than it takes to give a momentary tip of the hat to these issues.

Foundations is a fast read, but I hope it will help preachers and listeners, young believers and those established in the faith. It might even be used to clarify the wonder of the gospel to those who are still looking in from the outside. This guest post series is going to run over the next weeks to help mark the launch of Foundations.

Thanks to everyone who will contribute to this guest series. And thank you to everyone who helps spread the word about Foundations – by encouraging others to follow on Twitter (@4BigQs) or Facebook (, pointing people to, or buying several copies to pass on to friends and pastors so that in a small way, the great wonder of the Gospel can grip the hearts of as many as possible.

Sincerely, thank you.

Active Engagement

Active2The Big Idea approach to preaching was birthed out of a clear understanding of the nature of communication.  When persons communicate they don’t simply fire words out into nowhere (I know some blogs may give this impression, but that doesn’t change communication truths!) Rather, communication involves seeking to lead another party to the point of understanding an idea that is being expressed.  Communication is about ideas and we want the other party to say, “I see what you are saying!”

Ideas change lives.  People give themselves to ideas.  And Christianity is a content-based faith – i.e. it can be communicated, it consists in ideas.  This is why a very high view of Scripture resonates with a commitment to expository preaching.  Bringing out from the text the meaning that is there and seeking to effectively communicate that truth to others with an emphasis on why it matters to them is a driving force in our lives as expository preachers.

But don’t miss a critical factor in all of this.  Too easily we fall out of true expository preaching and into historical lecturing.  This occurs when our focus becomes primarily zeroed on the historical event of the communication – i.e. Paul to the Colossians.  It is vital that we spend some time there since the original intent of the author is critical, but we cannot remain there.

The Bible is God’s communication to humanity, which includes my hearers this Sunday. What is it that God is intending to communicate and desiring them to see for themselves? That is not to say that there is a hidden message that we have to mine and offer this week.  We will be rooted in Paul’s meaning to the Colossians, but always with a profound awareness of the unique and fresh engagement that God desires with our hearers on this occasion.

Biblical preaching is not really about informing motivated folks from a trustworthy ancient text.  It is much more than that.  Biblical preaching is about God’s active engagement with His people right now.

Topical Sermon vs Topical Series

OpenBibleA1Topical sermons and topical series are not the same thing.  A topical sermon typically uses multiple texts to make the overall point intended by the preacher.  This is not wrong and can be very effective.  A topical series could use a single text each week, but not sequentially through a book.  This is not wrong and can be very effective.

I am much more wary of topical sermons, however.  Why?  Because it is much easier to abuse texts when you need to get through three or more of them in the same sermon.  You don’t have the time to explain context, develop content, linger over the passage and its impact, etc.  The danger is that the text becomes a proof text and a servant to the preacher.

It is possible to preach an expository-topical sermon.  This takes significant time to work with each passage and let it be the boss of that section of the message.

It is easier to preach an expository-topical series.  It still takes more time than preaching through a book, but working with a focus text each week will allow you to let the text be the boss more easily than when you have multiple texts.

Some readers are in churches where expository-topical series would be a dream (because as things stand every message is non-expository).  Other readers are in churches where it takes the annual Nativity season to break the pattern of preaching through books.  Here are a couple of nudges for both:

Preach Through A Book: This is how God gave us the Bible – in books.  People in our churches need to be people of the books in order to be people of The Book.  Working through books means that we will not bypass the awkward or challenging sections.  Preachers (and listeners) will benefit from time in a single book as they will hopefully get to know it as a whole and the impact can be reinforced.

Preach Expository-Topical Series (where each message is an exposition of a key text): People in our churches need to grasp the key texts and see how the Bible addresses key issues, or how the values of the church are biblically rooted.  Working some series this way means that we will help people see what the Bible is saying without having to remember multiple threads over multiple months.  Preachers (and listeners) will benefit from multiple genres and key texts from multiple books that will hopefully motivate them to pursue more for themselves in those places.  It may be that a good single message from Jeremiah will motivate people to get into the book, whereas a long series in Jeremiah may put people off returning to it for a while (obviously this works both ways and depends on both the preacher and the listeners!)

I think preaching through books or sections of books is the best staple for a church diet.  But I am not convinced we should avoid expository-topical series – judicious use of this approach can be highly effective if used appropriately.  Whatever we do, let’s avoid non-expository preaching where the text is not the boss of what is said.  That is a move we can’t afford to make.


A Quick 9-Point Illustration Checklist

Lamp2A lot is said about the importance of illustrations in preaching. Some of it is true. Hopefully this quick checklist will be helpful as you plan your next message:

1. People need to see what you are saying, which means preaching an image and not just a concept.

2. What images are right there in the preaching text for you?  Poetry, wisdom, and prophecy are packed with visual imagery.  Narrative is imagery.  Epistles can give less images to use, but check the context and remember the setting (that is a narrative).

3. Before you jump to adding other illustrations, could you do a better job of describing what is in the text more effectively?

4. Don’t add illustrations.  Be more purposeful than that.  Add explanations where necessary.  Add proofs where needed.  Add applications where you can.  Remember, an “illustration” is a vague entity often used without good purpose.  Much better to purposefully add exactly what is needed at any given point in a message.

5. Are you adding material to add interest?  Slow down, what are you saying?  Is the text boring?  Are you boring?  You might be, but the text shouldn’t be.  Consider whether you are underlining the relevance of the text by what you add, or are you underlining the assumption that the text is irrelevant?  If you aren’t convinced the text is incredibly relevant, please spend time in prayer and personal study, not in searching for illustrative material.

6. Explanations should add light to your presentation of the text.  Proofs should add weight to your preaching of the text.  Applications should add relevance to your explanation of the text.  Whatever you are adding, is it distracting focus from the text and from the God revealed in the text?  If so, think twice.

7. How long does that added material need to be?  Sometimes we can get so caught up in the “illustration” that we take an age to emerge the other end.  That is unfortunate and will mean that the weight of presentation is imbalanced.  Sometimes we offer added material too quickly and don’t allow time for the necessary clarity to emerge.  This is unfortunate because such material would then qualify as “distractions” rather than “illustrations.”  Actually, if we take too long or are too brief, either way we distract and the time is wasted.

8. How relevant is your added material? If you are taking listeners to a whole new realm (i.e. the civil war or feudal Japan), then you are going to have to paint a whole new picture with lots of detail.  Is it worth it?  Try to add material that is both relevant to them and helps with a sense of the relevance of the text.  (Incidentally, this means that illustrating with other Bible passages may not be as helpful as you were trained to believe!)

9. Preach so that the main idea is communicated clearly and relevantly, so that listeners encounter the God revealed in the text and are invited to respond to Him.  Where necessary and helpful, “illustrate.”  And when you do, make sure listeners are still pointed toward God and not distracted by gazing at themselves.

What would you add to this list?

New Covenant Ministry – Part 6

NEW2And the final post in this series.  Looking at the last paragraph of 2 Corinthians 5 –

17. Too many will boast about outward issues in ministry, but God evaluates the heart (2.Cor.5:11-12) God knows what is going on inside the minister of the Gospel.  Others will only ever evaluate based on externals since that is what they see.  Don’t evaluate your own ministry based on what “fans” say who only watch the outside stuff.  They may be impressed, but prayerfully ask God what is going on inside you and you will probably get a clearer glimpse in a few seconds than others see in many months.  We must not rely on handshakes, compliments and twitter comments to overshadow the reality of our own hearts.

18. The New Covenant minister is constrained and controlled by the love of Christ (2.Cor.5:13-15) While we may be considered out of our minds for not going the way all others go, it is not our thoughtful strategies that drive us, it is the love of Christ.  The New Covenant means that we are so gripped by the death of Christ that we live each moment in light of that love.  It is only in the death of Christ that we can know the cure to the self-obsession of the human heart.  So because he died, we don’t live for ourselves.

19. We must stop evaluating people according to worldly measures (2.Cor.5:16-17) We humans once evaluated Christ by worldly measures and he was found wanting.  But he lacked nothing.  How wrong we were.  Now anyone who is in Christ is a whole new person.  So we must stop judging each other the way the world does.  How impressive is he? How outwardly pretty is she? What are they wearing? How powerful is their ministry? How knowledgable are they?  How will I benefit if I connect with them?  STOP!  If anyone is in Christ then they are a new creation . . . and if we are spiritual, then we will find them to be fascinating and infinitely more valuable than what this world offers.

20. God has given us a ministry of reconciliation as ambassadors in a fallen world (2.Cor.5:18-21) God is appealing to a world of self-absorbed fleshists through us to be reconciled to him.  What can overcome the total corruption of human rebellion?  God made the perfect Christ to be sin, so that in Christ we might become the righteousness of God.  This message is no legal fiction or contractual loophole, this is the glory of the New Covenant gospel – sins forgiven: fully, finally, freely, forever!; new hearts given; and the Spirit dwelling within us that we might be reconciled to full relationship with God in Christ!

Let me encourage you to chase the theme of the New Covenant throughout the Scriptures – there is more there than we tend to realise!