Turning Blah Blah to Wow!

wow2A lot of people in our churches read a lot of the Bible as filler and waffle.  They wouldn’t state that overtly, of course.  After all, it is the word of God!  But actually, in practice, a lot of the Bible is read without real engagement.  Consider the epistles, for instance.  Why does this phenomena occur?

1. Because of complex sentences.  It can be hard for any of us to truly track a sequence of sentences from Paul.

2. Because of unfamiliar words.  Stewardship. Saints. Manifold. Rulers.  Not necessarily unknown words, but not words most people tend to use in normal life.

3. Because it seems to lack direct relevance.  We can’t help but look for what it is saying “to me,” which means the rest can seem distant or theoretical.

4. Because of familiar words.  Hang on, didn’t we say unfamiliar words were the issue?  Actually, Christian terms can grow too familiar – grace, given, revelation, promise, gospel, church, wisdom, boldness, confidence.

I am looking at Ephesians 3:1-13, for an example.  Paul begins a prayer in verse 1 and then gets distracted before returning to the prayer in verse 14.  Why does he get distracted?  Because he mentions his imprisonment for the sake of “you Gentiles.”  This triggers his explanation of why those Gentiles in Ephesus shouldn’t feel the way they probably do feel – i.e. losing heart.  (Actually, it was Trophimus, sent from Ephesus, who indirectly led to Paul’s arrest and imprisonment in Acts 20, so they probably felt an extra burden over Paul’s imprisonment!)

So to lift their hearts regarding his sufferings for them, and therefore to make clear their glory (i.e. their value expressed in his sufferings as part of God’s plan), Paul goes off on a theological digression that should thrill our hearts as well as it did theirs!

But instead most people read it as “blah blah blah…Gentiles…blah blah…grace…blah blah…wisdom…blah blah blah”

Enter the biblical preacher!

The preacher’s role, is, in part, to slow people down in this text and to help them make sense of what Paul is actually saying.  No word is wasted, and no word should be lost under an indiscriminate “blah blah” flyover reading.  So?

1. God gave Paul a key role in unveiling new news – God gave Paul a key role in his forever plan for the sake of the Gentile believers, which was to reveal the momentous new news of the Gentile co-equality in the gospel!

2. God gave Paul grace to preach Christ and explain the news - God gave the ultimate-sinful-nobody, Paul, grace to do two things – first, to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ; and second, to make clear God’s great plan, the new news about the Gentiles.  Why? So that the church can be God’s trophy cabinet to show off his multi-coloured wisdom to the spiritual realms!

3. God’s plan gives us Gentiles stunning boldness! – God’s plan in Christ means that we Gentiles have ridiculous boldness when it comes to entering God’s presence (don’t forget the temple imagery in the previous section)!

So, the Gentiles in Ephesus shouldn’t lose heart, but instead they should be thrilled at their glory/value demonstrated in Paul’s suffering for their sake!

This is true for us too, just as the scars of Christ are beautiful to us because they show God’s love for us.

(I wouldn’t preach these three points as they stand, but I would make it my aim to help listeners hear the content of a section like this, turning the blah blah blah into Wow! after Wow!)

How Do You Pray for Fellow Believers?

PrayingHands2There is a strange phenomena in the church when it comes to praying for people.  Obviously this is a generalisation, but I have observed it enough to suggest that it may be a pattern.

When people become followers of Jesus our prayers for them seem to change.  Before they are saved we pray for God to work in their lives and circumstances, for their hearts to be drawn to Christ, for the spiritual blindness to be taken away, etc.  Once they trust Christ and are in the family, then what do we pray for? Often it seems to shift to the more mundane matters of health and career.

This is not just the case in church prayer meetings, but also among leaders too.  I know that I am tempted to pray more fervently and more “spiritually” for those who are outside God’s family, or for those who are on the fringes.  But for those who seem to be doing well in human terms?  It is tempting to assume all is well.

Take a look at Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians in 1:15-23.  He begins by referencing how thankful he is for their faith in Christ and love for the saints.  These are healthy believers – they have a vertical relationship that is spilling into their horizontal relationships.  These are the kind of people I am tempted to bypass as I pray.  Not so for Paul!

The One Thing – He goes on to make clear the one thing that he prays for them: that the Father might give them the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him!  That is, Paul prays for these believers to know God.  Simple.  Or is it profound?

Clearly he doesn’t mean that he wants them to “come to know” God, but to grow in their knowing Him.  He wants their relationship with God to go deeper, that the union they have with Christ should become more vibrant and developed.  (Remember that “in Christ” occurs almost forty times in Ephesians – union with Christ is a massive theme in the letter.)

I suspect many of us who have a passion to see the lost brought to salvation may fall into the trap of then missing the growth potential that exists for a believer.  There is so much more than just getting saved and then telling others, there is massive potential for spiritual growth and maturity.

The Three Things – Paul spells out this one prayer request with three specifics.  He wants God to enlighten the eyes of their hearts to know three things.

First, he wants them to know the absolute certainty of their calling in Christ.  We have churches filled with people who carry the label of Christian, and yet have all manner of uncertainty and confusion over God’s calling on their lives.

Second, he wants them to know that they are God’s inheritance – an inheritance He considers to be gloriously rich!  This is not something new believers readily grasp.  Just as it takes a wife many years to truly believe that her husband really loves her, so it is with God’s people.

Third, he wants them to know how much power there is toward them as they trust God for it.  That is, is there enough power for a life like mine to be truly transformed by the gospel?  Is there enough power for me to be raised from my sinful state of death to do the works God has prepared for me to do?  There is if that power is the same power that raised Christ from the dead, seated him in glory, put all enemies under his feet and made him head over the church!

Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians is incredibly encouraging for us to read.  More than that, it is deeply challenging to recognize that this prayer was prayed for those who were already faithful and loving.  Let’s not bypass those that seem healthy and established in our churches and in our ministry spheres.  Let’s pray for them, and for ourselves too, to be growing in our relationship with God, knowing more profoundly the reality of our hope, his inheritance and the abundance of power available!

Genre Shock

Shock2Can a church experience genre shock?  Maybe.

Let’s say you have been preaching through a narrative series – perhaps a gospel or the life of Abraham or David.  Then you start a series in Romans.  This could be a shock.  From flowing plots and character development to tight and complex logical sentences, abstract theological explanations and loaded terminology.

Is there a way to ease the transition?  And if there is, is it necessary?  I would say probably not in most cases, unless the last series has been a long one and the shift in genre is stark.

Here’s how not to avoid genre shock – preach every text as if it is an epistle.  This is certainly a popular approach for some, but it has real weaknesses.  For instance, narratives get choked by multiplied principles and preaching points.  Poetry gets dissected so that the emotive force of the imagery is lost in a torrent of triple-pointed outlines.  And epistles feel like more of the same, when they should be like theological dynamite for the life of the church.  Let’s not go with this “every-text-an-epistle” approach.

Here are a couple of ways to transition from one series to another of a vastly different genre.  I am certainly not saying these ideas are necessary, but they certainly are ideas:

1. A genre intro message – Let’s say you are going from a gospel to a prophet.  Instead of diving into the complexity of apparently disordered prophetic burdens about places we’ve never heard of, why not preach a message that introduces people to the blessings of being in the prophets . . . and then start into the specific book the week after.  This might allow time in a more familiar passage by way of transition and preparation.

2. A new series intro message – Let’s say you are going from the Life of David to an epistle.  Instead of getting bogged down in the opening verses and complex sentences, why not introduce the series with the story of the letter.  If it’s history is rooted in Acts, then you have the chance to give the setting in a narrative fashion.  Tell the story, set the scene, taste the epistle by previewing the series and maybe put the main idea of the book up front so it doesn’t get lost in the progression of passage after passage.

3. A big story bridge message – Let’s say you are going from Genesis to John or Philippians.  Instead of forgetting Genesis like yesterday’s newspaper, why not take a message to trace the story you saw in Genesis through the canon to set up the next book?  Most people in our churches do not know the big biblical story as they could.  Why not use a message to trace the story forwards and set up the next series?

Whatever you do, make sure the transition message actually has a main idea and is not mere buffering.  You may be preaching something creative, but be sure you are preaching something.

6 Ways To Be a Whole Bible Preacher

OpenBible3Some preachers have their pet books and topics, but how can I be a whole Bible preacher?  Here are six suggestions to get us started:

1. Read the whole Bible.  Seems obvious, but if you only read certain bits, then you will probably only preach from certain bits.  Read the whole thing as if God wrote it and reveals Himself there (which He does).  Remember, reading for 10 minutes a day will get you through in a year, but you will be reading with a noisy mind and heart.  It is easier to read for 30+ minutes a day and enjoy the clear heart and mind that comes beyond about 10 minutes.  Easier to read more?  Yep.

2. Preach from the whole Bible.  Don’t go at it a chapter at a time.  Instead, keep track of where in the Bible you are preaching.  When you need to pick a new series or a standalone message, take a look at where you haven’t been for a while…prophets, OT history, wisdom literature, Revelation?

3. Preach with whole Bible awareness.  When you preach a passage, preach that passage.  Don’t go crazy trying to quote the rest of the Bible in that message (many seem to have this as their great goal, bizarrely).  However, preach that passage with an awareness of the whole Bible.  Your awareness of the whole will gradually help others to see how the different parts work together.

4. Preach a whole Bible series.  I have a good friend who picked the ten key passages to tell the big picture story – the Bible in Ten.  Could you tell the big story over 6 weeks, how about 4, or maybe go big and do a whole year / whole Bible series? Any whole Bible series will be good for you, and I can almost guarantee there will be people in your church who will be helped by getting out of the details to see the bigger picture unfold.

5. Preach a whole Bible message.  Can it be done in a single message?  Why not?  Actually, I’ve never done this, but how about a series of whole Bible messages?  One week trace the fall and redemption from beginning to end.  Another week follow the seed promise from Genesis to Galatians.  Another week trace the biblical covenants.  Another one on God’s presence.  Another on five key characters (Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus – you pick the number).  Another from the perspective of heaven and spiritual warfare.  Creation to new creation.  I could go on, but that big picture overview multiple times, if done well, could set some folks on fire for the Bible!

6. Offer a whole Bible seminar.  Why not break people out of their passive pew position?  Interactively trace the story of the Bible on a white board for a couple of hours (this has been an amazing experience for many in our context).  One I’d love to try is to take a group on a journey through the Bible using a large hall and a rough map (tape on the floor). Be creative – outside of a formal church service there is all sorts of freedom!

Challenge Without Condemnation

GavelxGood preaching should be challenging, without feeling condemning.

No challenge, no condemnation – this is entertainment preaching.  Actually, it could be tedious waffle, but essentially this will tend to be entertainment, ear scratching type of stuff.

Challenging by condemnation – this is burdensome preaching.  People feel the challenge of God’s Word on their lives, but the weight of condemnation is a pressure we aren’t intended to carry.

Condemnation by challenging – this is shortcut preaching.  The shortcut is the assumption that just pressuring people will lead to conformity in behaviour.  It might.  But it will be forced.  And the fruit will ultimately be minimal.

Challenge without condemnation – this is healthy preaching.  The Word of God is making a call on the lives present, it is engaging them and inviting them forward, but the mechanism of change is not pressure, but engagement with the gospel, and ultimately, with a person.

Biggest Mistakes Preachers Make – pt 3

Slip2In this series we aren’t looking to tweak at the fringes of preaching, but rather to get a big wrench to the major parts of the ministry.  We’ve thought about “harvesting imperatives” and “not preaching the passage.”  Here’s another:

Mistake 3 – Not Preaching to the People Present

Preaching is a pastoral role.  We are not being called to perform, but to shepherd.  We can, and must, do the role of a shepherd as we preach.  A shepherd feeds, leads, cares and protects his sheep.  In order to pastor through preaching, we need to know and love the people we are preaching to each Sunday.

Obviously if you are visiting a church, or speaking at a special event, then you may only have half an hour to get to know the specific group of people present.  Do what you can.  It is also important to know people in general, so that you can preach to people in particular, but always seek to preach to those who are present.

Here are some alternative listener profiles to root out of our preaching.

Don’t preach to people who are missing.  Some preachers seem to have allowed the richness of the gospel to evaporate into a duty of church attendance. These preachers are then liable to preach frustration toward those who “should” be present, but aren’t.

Don’t preach to an audience your favourite preacher attracts.  You might have a favourite preacher who preaches to a cool crowd in some other city in America or somewhere, but if your listeners are from rural Somerset, they aren’t a “Seattle” crowd.

Don’t preach to a culture that isn’t in your church.  The culture may be increasingly postmodern, but lots of church congregations aren’t.  Don’t seek to overcome issues that your listeners aren’t facing in any meaningful way.

Don’t preach to land another job.  I hate to say it, but there are some preachers who are preaching so that their sermon is attractive to a “better” church they’d like to get a call from.  Be faithful to your congregation and God will help you adapt if you need to move church for some reason.

Don’t preach to spar with foes.  It is very possible to preach targeted comments toward people acting likes foes in your congregation, so technically they are present, but still this isn’t wise.  But don’t waste energy preaching to foes not present.  Having a go at a high profile atheist doesn’t achieve much.  By all means equip your listeners to handle what they are hearing in the media, but that would mean preaching to them.  Taking pot shots at people not present isn’t impressive.

Get to know and pray for the people you are preaching to each Sunday. Then your preaching can pastor their souls. If you don’t care about them, don’t preach to them.

 

Help! My Listeners Aren’t Satisfied! #4

NegativeFeedback2So we are coming to the end of this series on processing listener dissatisfaction.  It is not an easy subject, but so important.  Here’s a thought that needs to be thrown into the mix:

7. Know there is more than one way to serve!  I have written this series of thoughts from the perspective that you should be preaching.  Maybe you shouldn’t.  There is no shame in that.  Perhaps the hassle of critique undermines too much and indicates a lack of gifting.  We have made this option very difficult by uniting vocational ministry with Sunday preaching and salaries, resulting in people feeling like there is no way out, no way to stop preaching without resigning from church leadership.  Recognizing the complexity of that, the truth still remains, there are other ministries to serve in apart from preaching.  I have known some wonderful church leaders who had lifelong effective ministry, but weren’t preachers.

If, in your honest moments, you recognize that repeated critique is lovingly offered and actually on target, then prayerfully consider swallowing your pride and serving in an area of strength.  You will be a better steward of your life, God will be pleased, and the church will be strengthened.  Maybe cut and paste this point to start the conversation with a trusted friend in your church.

8. Know your own inner landscape.  We all have emotional baggage buried inside us.  Criticism has a unique ability to slip through, stir up a deep wound and create inner turmoil.  It is good to prayerfully ask God to help you evaluate and understand your own inner workings so that you don’t face a never ending attack from external and internal foes.  What does criticism do inside you?  Why?

9. Pursue helpful feedback and support.  We cannot have a growing and effective preaching ministry alone.  We need to find those who will give honest, gracious, constructive input, and who will encourage us when we feel discouraged in our ministry.  This may be a friend or two within the church.  It may be a fellow leader from another church.  It may also be (although not exclusively) a hero from the past – biblical heroes and church history heroes typically all endured incredible misunderstanding, devastating personal circumstances, a torrent of abuse and even martyrdom as they served God.  Spending time with the Apostle Paul or Martin Luther or Jonathan Edwards or whoever will be a real help.

10. Whatever the justification for criticism, be sure it improves your preaching!  While it may not have been stated well, or perhaps it was more of an attack on you than a piece of constructive criticism, there may well be a kernel of truth in there that can help you!  If you shrug off all criticism then your imperviousness will undermine your ability to minister with any sensitivity.  A cast iron shell is not what you need for ministry.  What you need is a tender heart, but with a life-giving God who can pick you up and keep you pressing on to growth and effectiveness.  By all means think through how to protect yourself from an enemy that will work through people in your church to wipe you out, but know that God doesn’t typically call us to be the reverend Rambo.

That’s it for this series, but please comment freely and add your thoughts (here or on Twitter – @PeterMead, #ListenerSatisfaction)

Help! My Listeners Aren’t Satisfied! #3

NegativeFeedback2There is “over-blurt” and “misdirected fire,” and we need to bring God right into the centre of this whole discussion.  But there is more to consider.  What if we see listener satisfaction incorrectly, or make mistakes in how we receive it?

5. Remember that the “Happy Test” is flawed.  Happy listeners may make your Sunday afternoon easier, but it may not be the best indicator of church health.  Our goal is not to make listeners happy with us.  Our goal is to faithfully introduce the heart of God through careful, engaging and relevant presentation of the biblical text and its implication for their lives.

What if the text convicts, prods, pokes, and makes them uncomfortable?  What if encountering God shines a light in protected dark places and they don’t like what shows up?  What if their dissatisfaction toward you and your preaching is a sign that the Word of God is getting through?  (Please be careful here, your flesh will want this to be true in every case and it may not be!)

Churches often create an atmosphere where the preacher feels like they are supposed to be popular (this is true with potential pastor dating – “preaching with a view,” but it also continues since many churches tend to dismiss the unpopular pastors too . . . does this reflect the dating and divorce culture we now live in? Maybe just a bit?)

6. Know that “anonymous” feedback is often useless. People in churches like to blast away from under the cover of anonymity.  This may come from a feedback collection survey (these do have value and I am not dismissing the possibility of doing these anonymously, but be prepared to filter overt attacks from under the cover this generates – perhaps have a couple of mature co-leaders filter out anything that smells of vendetta rather than constructive input?)

The more dangerous mortar attacks tend to come through, “I know someone who said…”, or worse, “a lot of people are saying…”  Again, there may be a place for this if a co-leader is guarding your heart by filtering slightly.  However, as a general rule, anonymous critique should be resisted.  People should be able to express critique and have follow up conversation.  If they are scared of you, then you shouldn’t be in ministry.  If they are scared of being identified, maybe their critique is illegitimately motivated?

More to come, but comment freely (here or on Twitter – @PeterMead, #ListenerSatisfaction)

Help! My Listeners Aren’t Satisfied! #2

NegativeFeedback2We need to recognize “over-blurt” and “misdirected fire,” but what else can we do when we have dissatisfied listeners?

3. Remember Your Audience of One.  The fact that we answer to God in no way excuses bad preaching, or remaining oblivious to helpful critique, but it may protect us from more sinister attacks.  Remember that every sermon you ever preach could have been better, and that God is both understanding and forgiving of human weakness and frailty.

With that critical caveat in place, then we need to ask whether we could stand before God and give an account for the way we prepared, the way we processed earlier input/feedback, etc?  Did you walk through the preparation by faith and do your best as a steward of the ministry opportunity?  His is the evaluation that we value the most. While we listen to those we serve, we mustn’t live in fear of displeasing unspiritual nitpickers in the pew.  Even if they can drive you from “their” church, we must minister ultimately for the evaluation of our Audience of One.

4. Remember to Prayerfully Process.  Whether you receive praise or criticism, be sure to process it prayerfully.  Our fleshly egos are very powerful perverters of personal processing.  Our tendency to self-love and self-concern can elevate praise from others into worship of us, and at the same time turn gentle and helpful critique into a savage personal attack.  I don’t trust me with me.  You shouldn’t trust you with you.

Independent introspective processing is one of the most dangerous things a Christian can participate in, because it is so close to the fallen realm we were rescued from.  So how should we process things?  Prayerfully.  That is, in conversation with the God who can faithfully and tenderly sift and sort through our motives and affections.  Search me and try me, O God!  He can be trusted and must always be the lead partner in such an exercise!

More thoughts tomorrow, but please don’t hesitate to comment on here, or on Twitter @petermead (#ListenerSatisfaction).

Help! My Listeners Aren’t Satisfied!

NegativeFeedback2Preaching is a complex ministry. Consider the issue of listener satisfaction. If listeners aren’t satisfied, it could be a good sign, or it could be a bad sign.  In the same way, happy listeners may mean something is wrong.

So what to do?  How can we navigate the issue of listener satisfaction?  What should it mean for our preaching?  What should it mean for our hearts?

Here are 10 thoughts to ponder:

1. Recognize “over-blurt” – Many folks in churches struggle to express negative thoughts effectively.  Perhaps it is because they never do it (unlikely), or perhaps it is because they feel guilty doing it (at least to a preacher).  Consequently many will hold back unsuccessfully and then over-blurt what they are trying to say.  A gentle critique then comes across as a cataclysmic slap to the face of the preacher (hopefully metaphorically speaking).

Instead of saying “I struggle with his style of delivery,” or “it is difficult to relate to sporting illustrations all the time,” they end up saying things like, “he should never again speak to more than two people at once!,” or “his message was filled with damnable heresy!”  Oops.  Over-blurt.

It is possible to get microphones that condense sound into a middle range – i.e. toning down the shout and strengthening the whisper.  We need to learn this skill as preachers.  Over-blurt attacks need to be toned down before they are processed.  (But be careful your ego doesn’t remove or ignore any negative elements whatsoever!)

Remember that toning down excessive praise can also be very important too.  (“That was the best sermon I ever heard!!!” probably wasn’t.)

2. Recognize “misdirected fire” – that is to say, tension fired your way will often have very little to do with you or your preaching. People will react to the innocent provocation of their pet peeves, or the poking of raw nerves of various kinds. They may also be having a bad week with issues at home, at work, in their personal lives, etc.  You may become the focus of the critique, but don’t take all critique at face value.  Sadly, being willing to be a leader in the church means choosing to be shot at, primarily by Christians.

There’s more to come, but please comment from your perspective, are these points on target?  (Feel free to comment on Twitter, @PeterMead #ListenerSatisfaction)