Explain Well – 4 More Thoughts

explain2Yesterday I shared four thoughts on how to explain a biblical text well.  Here are four more.

5. Explain visually, not just conceptually.  When an idea becomes clear to a listener, they don’t say, “Ah, I grasp your conceptual logic!”  No, people say, “Ah, I see what your saying.”  What do they see?  A clear picture of the idea being explained.  We need to engage listeners at the level of imagination.  There is a screen in the hearts of listeners and by fault it begins foggy and confused.  Clear the smoke and form images as you explain the text, or as you describe the application.  If you can see it, they will.  If you are grasping for concepts, they see smoke.

6. Let the structure do its work.  As you help people see the structure in a passage, it will begin to explain itself.  Orient listeners to the “chunks” before diving into the details.  Give a newcomer to town the landmarks before explaining details of smaller side streets.  Highlight connectives or repetition in content so the shape starts to form on the page – “Notice how many verses begin ‘By faith…’ in this section.  As you scan down the page you can see, ‘By faith…’ in verse 3, ‘By faith…’ in verse 4, etc.  Eighteen times the writer does that.  But then in verse 13 that pattern is broken.  This four verse thought in the middle is being marked out as the central pivot of the passage.  Let’s zero in on that pivot…”

7. Take people there, or bring the truth here.  Decide whether you are going to transport listeners to back then and describe things so vividly that they can smell the air, or whether you are going to bring the biblical truth to today with a contemporary simile, “this is like…”  Weak explanation tends to flow from indecision about listener location.  Take them there, or bring the Bible to today.  Actually, do both, but do both deliberately and definitely.

8. Judiciously use explanation from others.  Don’t get me wrong, there are thousands of people who are better at explaining that text than you or me.  We should be ready to take advantage of that.  But they aren’t standing where you are.  They might be Martin Luther, but your listeners may be ready to dismiss him because of some perception they have of him, or they may be hard-pressed to distinguish him from his namesake in the twentieth century.  They might be a great contemporary scholar and commentator, but your listeners may be distracted by their funny sounding name (they don’t know anything else about him/her), or by your superior learning (they don’t have books like that).  When you use someone else’s explanation, start with “one preacher put it like this…” and then add further details judiciously for your particular listeners.

Explain Well – 4 Thoughts

explain2Preaching is a complex ministry, but one of the core ingredients is effective explanation of the biblical text.  If this is removed, then it is difficult to see how what remains can be biblical preaching.

Yet it can be tempting to remove explanation.  Why not simply read a bit of Bible and then say what you want to say, making the odd vague connection?  This passes for preaching in many places.  What’s more, surely that can be more interesting than dull explanation?  Of course it can, but the answer to the problem of a poor version of something good and important is not to replace it, but to do it well.  How?

1. Recalibrate your appreciation of God’s ability as a communicator.  Unless you are gripped by the fact that God is a great communicator, everything else I say here will fail to register.  Know that if your listeners could really see the richness and relevance of what God is saying in any passage, they would be gripped and transformed.  But if you don’t see it, they are going to struggle.  Many Christians trust God to have created everything, to have worked out a redemption plan and to have final justice and a glorious eternity all worked out, but at the same time to be a poor communicator.  This is mystifying.

2. Give appropriate amounts of engaging context.  Too much context will turn the sermon into a historical lecture.  Too little will strip the text of meaning.  The biblical text is not a random set of assertions that have mystical power by virtue of inspiration.  God gave us inspired text that was always set in a historical and situational context.  Rather than being dull background stuff, this is often a key way to forge connections between the text and your listeners.  Get to know the background context and determine where the points of engagement are for your listeners today.

3. Set the scene textually.  Many of the biblical books were written to be digested whole, but we tend to cut and slice.  That doesn’t mean we have to preach a whole book in every sermon (although that is an option to consider sometimes).  It does mean that we can’t just drop people into an alien text without any orientation.  Be sure to orient your listeners to what is going on in the big picture of the book before expecting them to be gripped by the specific text of your sermon.

4. Don’t explain every word with equal effort.  Recognise that in any passage there will be a gravity centre.  Take people there and help them see why that is the case.  Explaining seven introductory clauses to get there will numb your listeners and they will lose track of the point of the passage.

Tomorrow I will add some more thoughts to this list.

7 Ways to Guard Hearts at Church

Worshippers2We have thought about guarding hearts at a conference/ministers gathering, and at Bible school.  But what about the local church?

The church is a mixed group of people, and there will always be some who are feeling very fragile or weak.  They may not show it.  Nevertheless, we need to be people who guard hearts in the church environment.  Good music and good preaching is not enough.  Many a great church service was undermined by thoughtless comments in times of fellowship.  So, here are 7 ways to guard hearts at church.  You can certainly add more, and I might too!

1. Pray biblically for the church people.  Take a look at the prayers in Paul’s epistles, they are not full of “be with” and “just really bless” prayers.  Pray for people in your church to have the eyes of their hearts enlightened to know God more profoundly, to grow in their relationship with Christ, to grasp the richness of union with Christ, to be gripped by the hope to which God has called them, etc.  Bring people to God’s throne and you will find yourself caring for them more carefully at church.

2. Look for ways to serve, don’t just be a consumer.  The church is not a social club paid for by others and provided for your consumption.  The church is a gathering of Christ’s people who worship together, learn together, serve together, and grow together.  Consumers drain, but you can serve.  There are probably several ministries in your church that feel stretched for people, ask and you will find opportunities to serve.

3. Build others up in every conversation.  In one visit to church, or to home group, you might interact with 10 or 20 people.  Can you imagine the impact if you built up every one you spoke to?  Encourage.  Thank.  Smile.  Ask questions.  Show interest.  Share resources.  Share Bible highlights.  Celebrate people.  Value.  Well-handled conversations are priceless ministry in the life of a local church.

4. Be a dead end for gossip.  “Does he know you are telling me about this?”  That question tends to stop an evil report in its tracks.  Someone has to.  Gossip is like a cancer that can ravage a church.  “Please don’t talk to anyone else about this, please go to him.”  This is the best follow up with someone talking about a situation rather than doing the right thing. People should forgive and bear with, or forgive and lovingly confront.  Don’t let gossip be an option.

5. Trust people.  Many of us are great at assuming the worst and speculating about other people.  Andy Stanley nailed this issue when he preached a message about filling the gap between expectations and experience with trust.  When there is a gap between expectation and experience, fill the gap with trust.  If you can’t do that, then go to the person and ask them to help you fill the gap with trust.  Settling on distrust is not loving for them because either you are wrong (it does happen), or they need the opportunity to grow.  Settling on distrust is not healthy for you or the church, either.

6. Be sensitive to the Holy Spirit.  He is very alert to interpersonal relationships and wants them to be truly united.  Be sensitive to any comment that causes someone to pull back.  It could be humour, or criticism, or even a misunderstanding, but handle relationships and feelings with tenderness and care.  Ask God to help you love others well – the Spirit is very motivated to coach you in that.

7. Be thankful for leaders, and others, and tell them.  It doesn’t take any spiritual maturity, or personal skill, to be destructively critical.  You can do massive damage to your church.  Since God loves the church so much, being destructive seems inherently foolish.  Support and encourage leaders at every level.  Be a person who communicates gratitude to leaders, and to Sunday School teachers, and to children’s workers, and to people working the sound desk, and to the setup team, etc.

This is only a start, what would you add?

Holy and Blameless Before Him

holy-blameless-300x180We have just refreshed the look of the Cor Deo website.  Please click here and head over for a look around.

I just posted a new piece on sanctification called, “Holy and Blameless Before Him”

“There are lots of debates about how sanctification works. Presumably because the common views don’t work. What are the common views? In simplistic terms there are essentially two: one is that sanctification is by my personal effort, the other is some variation on the notion that it either doesn’t matter or that God will do it.

Typically we think that the solution to two extreme views will be a blending of the two. So in this case, is sanctification best understood as a cooperative effort where God does his bit, and I do my bit? I don’t think that will help us. Our flesh will corrupt that model. Instead, let’s ponder the big biblical framework for sanctification. . . ”

Please click here to go to the post.

7 Ways to Guard Hearts at Bible School

Classroom2After the post on guarding hearts at a Christian conference (or ministers gathering), I was asked about Bible School.  Here we go…

The opportunity to study in a Bible School (college, seminary, divinity school, etc.) is a real privilege.  I thoroughly loved my experience at two great seminaries.  To spend your best hours receiving instruction in the Bible, maybe in the original languages, in theology and church history, in personal spirituality and in pastoral equipping to better serve God in the church and in His world, this is a wonderful privilege.  Add in new and sometimes lifelong friendships, numerous answered prayers, extended conversations and seeing growth in yourself and others, and it can sound like a glorious utopian experience for the man or woman who loves Christ and wants to love him even more.

Solomon was given great wisdom, and what did he say?  Above everything, guard your hearts . . .

How?

1. Walking with Christ is not the same thing as academic exercise.  You will be hearing and reading wonderful material.  You will hopefully be expected to read your Bible and other good books.  You will be required to research, read, think and write about God.  You will also enjoy spiritual conversations with faculty and fellow students.  And you will be tempted to let all this be your devotional life. But walking with Christ is “with Christ,” not just “about Christ.”  Be sure to keep the conversation going with God in the midst of your studies.  Why not talk to Him about this question: “Father, why is it that so many passionate Christians grow dry and cold in Bible School?”

2. Human glory is toxic.  The academic environment is not positive, or even neutral, for maintaining devotion to God.  I certainly loved being on campus and enjoyed some great times with God there.  But don’t let a beautiful campus or warm atmosphere distract you from the dangers inherent in the system.  Receiving grades for your work will feed the competitiveness of your flesh.  Receiving speedy feedback and affirmation will feed your flesh’s desire to build its identity in itself and its own achievements.  The comparative environment means that you may stand out in some class or other, and thus feed the autonomy impulse of your sinful flesh.  Glory from other humans (students, teachers, and outside friends) is both toxic and addictive.  Beware.

3. Pride is profoundly destructive.  Jesus warned the scholars of his day that seeking glory from humans is mutually exclusive to a healthy relationship with God.  (See John 5:38ff) Why?  In part it is because glory feeds the prideful tendency of my flesh which thinks I am a god, and as a result push God away.  God opposes the proud, even in Bible school.  Beware of reinforcing the glory/pride system.  Seek to pray and guard the hearts of fellow students and faculty as well as your own.

4. Keep relationally Bible saturated.  Never settle for required Bible reading assignments.  Make sure that you are soaking your soul in the fresh water of the Word and maintaining that conversation with Christ throughout your studies.  Do a fast-paced Bible read through.    Keep talking with Christ about the lure of sophisticated speculation (arms length playing with ideas that no longer stir your heart).  What you need most is not successful education, or sophisticated knowledge, or academic awards.  What you need most is Christ.  Share your Bible highlights with others, other people will need to be re-infected with a simple love for Christ too.

5. Christ loves the church, stay connected.  The people at church may not know about the things you are learning.  The leaders at church may not do things the way you’ve been taught to do them.  The sermons at church may feel lightweight compared to your lectures.  Nevertheless, you need to stay connected at a local church.  Serve where you can.  Don’t be an annoying critic.  Do look to love others whenever you can.  (Incidentally, pursue learning from faculty who are actively loving the church, not distant destroyer-critics.)

6. Let the stresses push you up against God.  There will be stress at Bible School.  Deadlines.  Financial strain.  Impossible verb paradigms.  Schedule overload.  Pressure on your family. You will be tempted to grow your independence and determination muscles, as well as your ability to function on little sleep.  Instead, let the pressure push you up against God.  And by faith get some sleep!  Remember that your stress impacts your spouse, your children, your room-mate in the dorm, your church, etc.

7. Value relationships carefully. You may think it is really just about you and God.  But human relationships matter.  Value every student, not just the impressive (or attractive) ones.  Speaking of attractive, beware of the extra emotional electricity in a high spirituality environment – it is a great place to meet a spouse, but guard hearts, don’t damage them.  Value faculty and care for them, they are real people too.  And finally, know that there will be attacks from the enemy – yet another reason to stick close to Christ and draw others with you.

What would you add to this list?  I know there’s plenty more . . .

Application Is Not Always Engagement

HammerEveryone lauds preaching that connects with the congregation.  Many imply that the key to connecting is giving applications.  But is it possible to be totally applicational in a message, and yet completely unengaging?

I believe it is possible.  If there is no personal warmth between preacher and listener, and if there is no vertical warmth between the preacher and God, then a highly applicational message could easily become an instructional rant based on a text.  Listeners will not feel connected with the preacher or the preaching.  They may just feel got at.

The problem is that if we think being relevant and applicational is all it takes to connect, then we can overlook the fact that communication is best offered in the context of interpersonal warmth.  Our listeners need us to have that reality in both dimensions!

A good friend of mine has a stock of great sayings, one of which goes, when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  This is so true in preaching.  A chilling of the temperature in our personal walk with God will show in our communication with others.  Even the most winsome of texts can become an opportunity to hammer on the duty theme again, for example.

Instead of just plugging in applications, let’s pray about what it really takes to connect with listeners.  This will include our manner and delivery, sermon content and presentation of the Bible, as well as pastoral connection outside of the pulpit.  People need preaching that engages them more than just preaching that gives application.

5 Hindrances to Believing the Gospel of Done

71BuO-qnfHLI am enjoying reading David Murray’s The Happy Christian.  I blogged from an early section here, but let me ponder another of David’s very helpful lists.  What are the hindrances that prevent people in our churches from enjoying the fullness of “the Gospel of done”?  These five hindrances get in the way of people in your church, and they probably get in your way too.  Let’s pray about them for ourselves and preach to help people become aware of them too.

1. Accusing Conscience – The inner prosecutor can be most vehement!  If we don’t confront this with the gospel, then we will be forever bound in a cycle of new resolutions and personal determinations.  And guilt.  Shame.  Remorse.  But the good news is that it is finished!  And this is a cry our souls need to hear, and our churches need to ring with it lest the inner prosecutor crush the life of the Gospel.

2. A Demanding Church – This is one we definitely can influence through our preaching – but it won’t be easy.  Traditionally people have heard “Duty, duty, duty,” as the main message, or perhaps “Disobedience, disobedience, disobedience.”  Preaching in many churches is a never ending to do list.  There is a place for clarification of what it will look like to have the Gospel working in a life, but let’s make sure we preach the Gospel so that it can work in lives!

3. Work-for-Wages Culture – We live in a culture that promotes a simply concept: work leads to reward.  There is a strong case for a Christian work ethic in the Bible and we can make a case for its historical influence.  But there is also a strong case for the Gospel to be a radically counter-cultural message, a counter-fallenness message that goes against the notion that we can make a name for ourselves and be somebody by our own efforts.

4. Unbelief – Murray points his reader to the ten most disbelieved letters in the Bible.  What are they?  N . . . O . . . T . . . O . . . F . . . W . . . O . . . R . . . K . . . S  Our churches are full of people who still assume that we have to do our best and live like it.  Read the Bible until you purge your own soul of this disease and then preach the truth loud and clear!

5. Christian Failure – Some of us are convinced that God let’s us in based on His Done, but we don’t believe we stay in by His Done.  Too many churches preach the Gospel to unbelievers and an anti-Gospel to believers.

If you have read, or are reading The Happy Christian, what are you finding most helpful?

10 Pointers for Planning a Preaching Calendar

10 targetpcHere is another little list of 10 pointers, this time on planning your preaching calendar.  (I understand that some churches are tied into a lectionary, which will restrict the value of this list, but for the rest of us…)

1. Pray and ask what the congregation needs to hear in the coming months – We are under-shepherds, but the Good Shepherd has the best perspective on how to care for the sheep.  It is no more spiritual to plan at the last moment.  In fact, it may be less spiritual to work that way.  Pray and plan.

2. Be alert to the church calendar (within reason) – If people come to church just before Christmas and you are preaching part 34 in your Ezekiel series they will find that strange.  They would be right. Preach Christmas leading up to Christmas, Easter leading up to Easter, etc. Beyond those two seasons, select appropriately for your context.  A rural setting may make a big thing out of harvest time, while an urban setting probably won’t.  Some events can be marked without a full sermon (perhaps Mother’s Day?)

3. Recognize key seasons for the church – While Christmas and Easter may be prime time for visitors, other seasons are key for church life.  September and January are two key months for leadership and vision casting.  August may be the time people are away and you need to plan a series of stand-alone messages instead of a tight series.

4. Beware of extended series – Lloyd-Jones preached through Romans for many many years.  You are not Lloyd-Jones.  4-8 weeks seems to be ideal these days, with a little bit of flexibility at either end.  A new series creates energy and opportunity to invite folks (so don’t make the next new series too far off).

5. Plan buffer weeks – Having a flexible week or two between series will be useful.  It is easier to fill a week than to find a week when you need it.

6. Be aware of canonical balance over time – Different cultures, church cultures and preachers will tend toward a certain part of the Bible.  Don’t always preach Gospels, or Epistles, or 2 Chronicles.  Mix it up over time and seek to offer a balanced diet over the course of a few years.

7. Every series does not have to be the same – It is great to go through a book, or a section of a book, but it is also helpful to mix in an expository-topical series now and then (that is, a selected set of passages that are still preached carefully according to their intended meaning), or a character study, or a few key values of the church.

8. Avoid predictability within each series – Galatians in six weeks does not have to be one chapter each week.  Consider a whole book introduction or review at the end.  Preach longer chunks and shorter sections.  Preach thematically through a book.

9. Strengthen the series beyond the preaching itself – See if the music team can mark a series with a fitting song.  Tie the series together with careful branding and imagery.  Get input into the series from people in the church, or even people in the community (what would you ask God if you could?) . . . those who input tend to come and listen more attentively!

10. Plan, but be prepared to change – A national or local disaster may require sensitive reshaping of a series or preaching calendar.  Prayerfully and carefully plan, and where necessary, prayerfully and carefully adjust those plans.  The calendar is for the church, not the church for the calendar.

(Previously in this series we have had 10 pointers for younger preachers, older preacherstrained preachersuntrained preacherspreaching Easterteam preachingspecial occasion preaching and evangelistic preaching.)

3 Weird Things To Avoid Doing on Social Media

SocialMedia2It is easy to live in the moment and lose perspective.  For instance, let’s think about social media.  As a preacher or church leader, just press rewind and imagine doing the following things back in the old days (i.e. even the 1980’s or 1990’s).  What would it look like if we went back in time by a generation, thus removing social media, but still acted the same way?  Would we really do the following?

1. Mundane Info Sharing.  It’s Monday morning.  You had a busy Sunday and are not feeling too motivated to dive into another week.  So you are running a few errands for the family and decide to sit down at a cafe for a cup of (in those days) regular coffee.  Before you do, you take out your church phone list and drop a load of coins into the public phone just outside the cafe.  “Hey, Roger!  I am just going to sit down for a coffee and unwind for a few minutes.  I might look at a newspaper.  I’m just a normal person!  Thought you’d like to know!”  Several hundred calls later, you get your coffee.  Weird.  Sharing mundane info should have died out after the first six months of Twitter.  It mostly did.  Facebook is another story . . .

2. Retweeting Praise of Your Preaching.  Just as the crowded church is starting to head for the door, would you rush back up to the podium, tap awkwardly on the microphone and get everybody’s attention . . . “Hey folks!?  Before you all head for home, I just wanted to share with you what I heard Tom saying in the lobby.  He told a couple of his friends that my sermon was the best he’d ever heard!”  And would you stop on the way, get the sound guy to press the record button on the cassette, then make copies of it and send it to everyone you know?  Probably not.  It is weird. Social media doesn’t make this kind of self-promotion any more appropriate today than thirty years ago.  If other people praise you, be thankful.  But a retweet smells a lot like self-praise.

3. Name Dropping.  As you walk into the dining hall at the conference venue, you spot a “celebrity” Christian.  So you squat down next to their seat and have your friend snap a picture.  Immediately you rush to the nearest one-hour photo place and have a few hundred copies made, before posting them to everyone you know with the note, “Guess who I just met?”  Would you have done this back in the day?  Probably not.  This is also weird behaviour.  There is certainly a place for public acknowledgement of people you appreciate, but sometimes it can feel like the smiling you is the real centrepiece of the picture.

Bonus – Time Wasting.  You have two hours before your next appointment.  So you sit down to read a book.  You never get to it.  This may have happened back then, but maybe less than today?

I am sure all of us fall foul to this list now and then, but are any of these things your standard way of functioning? Social media is an amazing resource, but as preachers and church leaders, let’s be sure to use it well!

Any other weird behaviours you would add to the list?

10 Pointers for Special Occasion Preaching

10 targetsoPreaching at a wedding, a funeral, a baptism, a baby dedication, or some other special occasion is a great opportunity to preach to people who would normally not be sitting in the church.  Here are 10 pointers to ponder.

1. It isn’t about you – Don’t try to draw attention to yourself.  At a wedding, people are there for the couple.  At a funeral it is about the deceased and their family. It isn’t about you.  Don’t try to draw attention your way.  Gracious service to others goes a long way.

2. It isn’t the time to be clever – Don’t preach in character with a costume at a funeral.  Don’t attempt a complex science demonstration for an illustration in a wedding sermon.  There are times to preach with creativity and originality, but the special occasion is not one of those times.

3. It is a good time to communicate the gospel, gently – Unless strongly invited to go strong, the best approach is prayerful gracious gospel presentation.  People typically need more than one exposure, so it probably isn’t the moment for an altar call, but it is a key moment for those who are present.  Remember that pushing too hard does not increase the effectiveness of the gospel, but it might increase the negative impact for those who do not respond.

4. Your regulars don’t need originality – If you need to say things that are familiar to regulars, so be it, they will know what you are doing.

5. Don’t come across as a sales pitch – We meet at this time, we have good snacks, we’d love to see you next Sunday, etc.  Cringe.  Serve the people getting married, burying a loved one, getting baptised, or whatever, don’t look like you are taking advantage for the sake of the church.

6. Graciously demonstrate that this is not a service for hire – Visitors may assume that you are speaking because they paid a fee and therefore you showed up.  If you know the people involved, by all means let some humanness come through so visitors know that you know the people involved.

7. Personalise where you can – Was there a favourite passage or hymn for the deceased?  Does the person getting baptized have a favourite passage (less likely with infant baptism!)  I spoke at a baptism for a lady and asked about this – she loved James.  So I gulped, and preached the gospel from James.  It set her up for conversations on familiar territory with the multiple guests coming to see her baptism.

8. Recognise the uniqueness of the occasion – You may do a lot of weddings, funerals, baptisms, etc., but this is a genuinely special occasion for all involved.  Pray accordingly.  Preach accordingly.  Do not have one funeral sermon to squeeze into any funeral.  Don’t speak as if a known sinner was a secret saint.  Don’t preach about marriage to a “golden years” couple as if they are in their twenties.

9. Watch the length of the sermon – It is generally wise to be shorter than you would be on a normal Sunday, but it is not as simple as “be shorter than visitors expect.”  If they have limited exposure to some church backgrounds then anything over 6 minutes is too long.  But recognising that caveat, generally it is better to preach for 15-20 minutes than 35-45 on a special occasion.

10. Undermine expectations wisely – They may expect formal, this doesn’t mean you should try to shock with your attire or vocabulary.  However, a genuinely heartfelt message with warmth and sincerity may rock their world.  Do it.

There is much more that could be said here . . . feel free to add your experience, observations and thoughts in the comments below.

Previously in this series we have had 10 pointers for younger preachers, older preachers, trained preachers, untrained preachers, preaching Easter and team preaching.