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.)

10 Pointers for Evangelistic Preaching

10 targetepThere are far more qualified voices on this subject, but nevertheless, here are 10 pointers to ponder as you anticipate preaching evangelistically.

1. God can work despite your weaknesses as a communicator, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give your best – this is true in an individual message, and in a lifetime of ministry.  So look for ways to improve and grow in what you do as a preacher of the gospel.

2. The Gospel is good news, so proclaim it – somehow it is easier to talk about it, than to actually proclaim it.  We have great news to share, so let’s take the opportunity to get it presented.

3. The Gospel is a proclamation of what God has done in Christ, not what people should do in response to your message – “Repent and believe” is not good news, it is a way of phrasing an appropriate response to the news.  The good news declares what God has done in sending his Son to earth, to us, to the cross, and what that means for people today.

4. You are representing a person, not just a set of truths – Somehow people can become quite aggressive when they declare sets of truth, but they don’t when they speak of someone they love.  Please ponder the love of God for you before you proclaim the message of his love for others.

5. You communicate by more than your words – There is also your attitude, your expression, your demeanour, your tone, your body language and your personal warmth.  Please align all of these with your message.

6. Make people want it to be true before you try to convince them that it is true – There is absolutely a place for declaring the truth and seeking to be convincing about it, but remember that simply proving your point will never usher souls into the kingdom.  We flatter ourselves if we think the world is waiting for us to be clever and convincing enough before they will respond.

7. Don’t let the truth of the truth be foggy – We live in a relativistic age that assumes you don’t even really believe what you are declaring, so be sure to undermine the fairy tale/personal crutch idea and invite them to engage with truth, history, etc.

8. Be biblical in what you say, whether or not you cite your source – Some like to point to Acts 17 and suggest Paul never quoted the Bible in his message to the philosophers in Acts.  This is simplistic and misleading.  Paul’s message was saturated in biblical truth, he just didn’t give the references all the way through.  Please be biblical.  God is a great communicator.  (There is definitely a place for preaching a passage – evangelistic exposition can be incredibly powerful, but when you aren’t “preaching a passage” please be thoroughly biblical anyway.)

9. Pray for wisdom to blend patience with boldness – It is easy to assume this is the only opportunity and present awkwardly.  It is easy to assume this isn’t the key opportunity and present weakly.  Somehow we need wisdom to find the right blend.  Cumulative evangelistic ministry is very powerful, but for some people this may be a unique moment.  We need both boldness and patience.

10. Always remember that it is the Holy Spirit who changes lives – Not your technique, nor your message, nor your learning, nor your cool persona, nor your stunning powerpoint, nor your well-worked structure.  It is a work of God to save a hell-bound sinner and draw them into his family.  Pray passionately.  Proclaim persuasively.  Depend completely.

I can already think of more to add.  What would you add?

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

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.

7 Ministry Diet Tips, From David Murray

71BuO-qnfHLI have been really enjoying reading through The Happy Christian, by David Murray.  When I finish it, I will offer a review, but meanwhile I will post some highlights along the way.  Murray suggests rebalancing the diet we are taking for ourselves, and offering to others, in the following ways:

1. More Salvation than Sin

“…the gospel message must begin with “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  But we don’t want to linger there any longer than we have to.  Some preachers, teachers, and parents love to dwell in the smoke and fire of Mount Sinai more than the love and grace of Mount Calvary.”

2. More Truth than Falsehood

Here Murray suggests we learn from banks who train their workers to spot counterfeits by handling the real thing.  It is easy to give ourselves to critiquing and spotting the errors and heresies around us, but we need to enjoy the truth of what is right and good.

3, More Wooing than Warning

Murray is right to urge us to offer more of Christ than the devil, more of “the attraction of heaven than the fear of hell,” and more of the beauty of holiness than the ugliness of sin.  He urges us to show people “how much Jesus is willing and able to save and how much He desires and delights to save. He does not save because He has to but because He wants to and enjoys to.”

4. More Victory than Struggle

Do our sermons, blog posts, prayers, and songs reflect the biblical emphasis on the power of life in the Spirit, or do we lean more toward a primary focus on the struggle and difficulty?  It is right to highlight the sufferings of persecuted Christians around the world, but let’s also be informed about the number of people coming to faith and the impact of the gospel in the world.

5. More Celebration than Lamentation

Just as there’s a time to mourn, there is also a time to laugh.  “When we consider how many blessings we have compared to so many, we must sometimes sound like spoiled children, whining, whining, and whining for more. . . . Remember the apostles even managed to celebrate that they were counted ‘worthy’ to suffer persecution for Christ’s sake!”

6. More Life than Death

Murray points to the missionary death and martyr story emphasis in books, rather than the inspiring stories of lives being changed.  We need more life narratives than death narratives since most people will live ordinary everyday lives for the vast majority of their lives!

7. More Strengths than Weaknesses

It is easy to focusing on fixing weaknesses, but why not give more energy to cultivating and developing what is working well already?  Murray doesn’t deny the call to complete transformation, but he has a point in respect to where we put our energies.

While our ministry needs to include a certain amount of deconstruction and helpful critique, let’s make sure that the balance leans more toward offering the Good News of Jesus in all its richness.  Less of me and more of Him.  I imagine Murray’s list might feel quite convicting for some of us.  Let’s pray through this and be thankful that we have something infinitely constructive and helpful to meditate on ourselves and offer to others!

7 Thoughts on Relevance in Preaching

7890bWhen you are planning your message, consider your relevancy strategy.  When and how will you demonstrate the relevance of your message?

The Bible is relevant.  We don’t need to “make it relevant,” but we do need to demonstrate how it is relevant.  Here are seven quick points to consider:

1. There is a logic to the traditional Application-at-the-End strategy.  Logically we do explain the text before we can apply the text.  This means that the traditional idea of taking the final few minutes to offer some applications makes sense.  However . . .

2. There is a flaw in the traditional Application-at-the-End strategy.  If people don’t feel that the message is relevant to life, then they are unlikely to listen through half an hour of distant and theoretical material in order to still be listening by the time the relevancy is demonstrated.

3. Generally look to demonstrate relevance throughout the message.  As a general rule, seek to demonstrate relevance throughout the message.  This would include:

A. Introduction – take the opportunity to show that you are not a Bible history lecturer, but someone who is aware of real life.  Show that the message will be relevant to listeners’ lives.  Point out that the passage itself is relevant.  Three hits before the message has even begun!

B. Message Idea – make sure the wording of your main idea is contemporary.  You can support it biblically, but word it for us, today.

C. The wording of every point – word the points “us” and “we” rather than historical labels for Biblical content.

D. Explanations, Proofs and Applications throughout – traditionally called “illustrations,” make good use of contemporary experience and applicational description rather than offering lots of historical (and therefore distant) anecdotes and quotes.

E. Transitions – between each point you can offer a glimpse of the relevance of the message again.

F. Conclusion – see point #1, above.

4. Recognise that there are exceptions to #3.  If you are telling a biblical story with tension, then you probably don’t want to break that tension for an overt contemporary illustration.  Know that the story will grip people if told well.  And know that little asides can keep listeners subconsciously aware of the relevance of the message even as you tell the story.  (For instance, a passing comment that the woman who found her lost coin texted her friends to invite them to celebrate with her won’t break the story, but will show you aren’t stuck in another world.)

5. Know there are many ways to demonstrate relevance in preaching.  Forget the simplistic idea that relevance comes from exhortations to behave a certain way.  There is more to relevance than to-do lists.  It includes your attitude and manner as a preacher, perhaps even your dress sense.  It includes vocabulary.  It includes delivery style.  And then there are numerous potential approaches to explaining the text, proving the truth, and applying the message.

6. Prayerfully pursue the motivation for relevance.  That is, pray for God’s heart for the people who will be listening to your message.  If you love them, you won’t be aloof, distant and irrelevant.

7. Never dismiss the importance of this issue.  In some circles it is fashionable to abdicate this aspect of preaching with a super-spiritual idea that it is God who makes the message relevant to listeners.  You can’t change lives, God does that.  But preaching is communication of Biblical truth that is intended to change lives.  Fully preach in line with the goal, and fully rely on God to be at work in listeners.  It is thoroughly biblical to preach relevantly . . . watch the prophets, Jesus and the apostles.  Most of them were spiritual in their approach.

10 Pointers for Preaching Easter

10 targetfEaster is a critical season in church ministry.  There may be people in church who would normally not be in church. There will be regulars who need to be captured by the Easter story afresh.  Here are 10 pointers for preaching Easter:

1. Tell the story – whether people are first-timers, once a year attenders, or regulars, they need to hear the basic Easter story.  Jesus told his followers to have a regular reminder in the form of communion, so we can be sure that Easter itself should include a clear presentation of what actually happened.

2. Pick a passage – while you can preach a blended harmony of accounts, why not pick a specific passage and preach it properly?  At the very least, it will be a blessing for your own soul.  For instance, Luke’s account of the trials, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is marked by his distinctive “two witnesses” motif . . . underlining the certainty of what took place.  His use of the term “it is necessary” underlines the ‘must-ness’ of God’s plan.

3. Undermine familiarity – the frequency of reference to the death of Christ, combined with serene artistic impressions and popular jewellery, has made most people unaware of the reality of that first Easter.  Carefully pick a fact or two to help bring it home: Jesus was probably crucified at eye-level; the condemned had to lift his body weight to take a full breath.

4. Beware of shock and awe – people won’t be drawn by your graphic description of gory medical detail.  Rather, they will be won by the Spirit.  Be sure to preach Christ and him crucified, don’t try to shock people into a response.  Some may be hardened by exposure to Hollywood special effects, but others may grow faint at the mention of blood.

5. Recognize there is emotion in Easter – we certainly don’t want to manipulate emotions, but neither should we deny them.  Easter stirs emotions.  There will be sadness at what Jesus went through and why it was necessary (my sin). Yet also the joy and celebration of the resurrection – Easter mixes and stirs the emotions.   Preach in such a way as to make evident the emotion within the text you are preaching, while engaging with the mixture of response from those listening.

6. Make clear the truth of Easter – it is hard to think of a good excuse for not making clear the truth of Easter, including the fact of the Resurrection.  Apologetically this is ground zero for our presentation of the Gospel and Christianity.  Don’t miss the opportunity.

7. The Resurrection is more than proof – be careful that the Resurrection does not become simply the proof that theologically Christ’s sacrifice was accepted, or apologetically that Christianity is true.  Yes and yes, the Bible presents this truth and offers unparalleled historicity, but there is more.  The Resurrection introduces the wonder of New Covenant spiritual life now, and hope for the fulfillment of God’s plans in the future, and so much more.

8. The Crucifixion is more than payment – just as the Resurrection can get reduced to a source of proof, so the Crucifixion can be reduced.  Some will make it just an example for us.  That is very weak.  Some will present it purely as the payment for the penalty of our sin.  This is stronger, but still incomplete. Consider John’s Gospel emphasis on the cross as the revelation of the glory of God’s character, or as the means by which people are drawn to Christ.  (Obviously, if your passage is focused on satisfying the wrath of God against sin, then don’t fail to make that your emphasis!)

9. Clarify the ultimate identification – preaching any narrative will naturally lead to listeners identifying with characters in the story.  The Easter story is full of potential points of identification: deserting disciples, denying Peter, doubting Thomas, betraying Judas, power-hungry Caiaphas, self-protective Pilate, hurting Mary, mocking soldiers, shouting crowds, repentant thief, etc.  But don’t miss the central character: Jesus Christ came to identify with us, to bear our sin, to take our place, and to invite our trusting and adoring gaze in his direction.

10. Never lose the wonder – be sure that if you are preaching Easter to others, that it has first refreshed and thrilled your own soul.

Helmut Thielicke described Spurgeon’s humour as “Easter laughter,” that which comes as a “mode of redemption because it is sanctified – because it grows out of an overcoming of the world.”  May Easter so grip our hearts this year that our preaching points others to the wonder of the cross and the empty tomb, and so that our own souls burst out in praise to the God who would make such an event the centerpiece of His glorious redemptive plan!

Last 5 Itchy Ear Preachers

Presenter4People are prone to collect preachers to suit what they want to hear.  Paul warned Timothy about this.  We’ve seen a first set of five, followed by a second.  Here’s the last:

11. Preacher Passion – it doesn’t matter what this preacher says, the listeners just love the passion. The preacher could present the telephone directory, just as long as it is done in his passionate style.  Why?  Perhaps the listeners live in a blah world of the daily mundane so much that this provides welcome relief.

12. Preacher Now – this preacher can say whatever he wants biblically, just as long as he is sure to mention the latest movie that was released yesterday.  These listeners get a sense of tribal identity from listening to a cutting edge preacher-ista who has his finger on the required sub-cultural pulse.

13. Preacher Nationalist – this preacher would fit on a soapbox in the town square and treats the church as a safe alternative.  Ears are scratched as the preacher rages against the oppressive enemies and foams in zeal for their particular political ideology.  It doesn’t take much to tie this to the Bible and therefore call it preaching.

14. Preacher Self-Esteem – this preacher has a life mission to make you feel better about yourself.  Never mind that the Fall in Genesis 3 curved people inwards and made our sinful default a me-centred universe, this preacher reinforces your me-centredness with liberal amounts of biblical misquotes to stroke your ego and build your self-esteem.  The crowds will flock to hear this.

15. Preacher Nice – this preacher thrills people by a gracious demeanour, good looks, attractive accent or some combination of these.  The perfect hair and rich Scottish accent makes the ladies swoon.  Doesn’t matter what he says, they love to listen.  Or maybe he is a surrogate spiritual leader (unlike the weaker man they married).  Or maybe he is the cool friend people want to have on Facebook and count as their’s.  This preacher is the local touch of Hollywood glitz and itchy ears love to have him around.

As before, take stock, and take any nagging similarities very seriously.  These alternatives to genuine biblical preachers can do inestimable damage to the church.  Have I missed any?  Which do you think are more prolific in our generation?

5 More Itchy Ear Preachers

Presenter3Paul warned Timothy about the time when people would gather teachers to suit their own passions and preach to itchy ears.  We already considered five last time.  Here are five more:

6. Preacher Worm – this is a variation on Preacher Hard.  Unlike the spiritual personal trainer, this preacher meets people needs simply by making them feel bad.  Woe is me!  I am a worm.  Bizarrely, this can be attractive to human flesh (sort of spiritual masochism)

7. Preacher Prof – some people love listening to an apparently intelligent and well-informed preacher.  I say apparently because they don’t necessarily need to be able to understand, but it does something for them to watch a scholar in action.  Strangely, this kind of intellectual curiosity, even when bereft of life and relevance, can scratch some ears.

8. Preacher Cliché – this preacher is neither intellectually rigorous, nor homiletically purposeful.  Rather than seeking to preach meaningfully, this preacher satisfies listeners by parroting clichés and stock phrases in Christianese.  What they say may amount to nothing, but they may thrive on the praise that comes their way after they finish.  Some listeners love a good dose of clichés.

9. Preacher Deep – this preacher may or may not say things that are deep and spiritual, but this preacher sounds deep and spiritual.  Their poetry helps.  And their frequent references to their own amazing times with God.   Listeners feel the inadequacy of their own spirituality and so love to be in the presence of one so deep and spiritual.  The anointing is tangible.  The preaching is almost irrelevant.

10. Preacher Bash – all this preacher needs is a target that is acceptable to the listeners. It could be the enemy atheists, or the pagan culture, or people of a specific race, or another denomination . . . as long as the listeners appreciate hearing a good bashing of absent enemies, the preacher will scratch itchy ears time and again.

Just like before, if any cap fits, quit the ministry for a while and get sorted.  Next time, another five . . .

5 Itchy Ear Preachers

Presenter2Paul urged Timothy to preach the word in his final letter.  One of the reasons he gave was that the time would come when people would not endure sound teaching, but instead would accumulate teachers to suit their own passions.  Itchy ear preachers.  Here are some possible itchy ear preachers:

1. Preacher Myth – this is one Paul referenced, preaching that strays into the realm of speculative mythology.  We have our own versions of this today.  Sensational, conspiratorial, and often offering insight that nobody else can offer.

2. Preacher Fun – this is always going to be attractive to people, the preacher who is just plain fun to listen to.  There is nothing wrong with your humour coming through as you preach, but if that is your defining quality, perhaps something is broken?

3. Preacher Easy – this is the preacher who makes the listener feel like life and Christianity is without cost, an easy road.  The Gospel is a message of cheap grace that does nothing to a life except take away consequences.  The listener can be what they like and do what they like, because it doesn’t matter anyway.  In reality the Gospel transforms lives and following Christ can be extremely painful at times, but this preacher seems oblivious to that.  (Please note that I wrote the Gospel transforms lives.  It is not up to the preacher to twist arms and achieve conformity, although that is an itchy-ear option…)

4. Preacher Hard – hang on, isn’t this contradicting number 3?  In reality, no.  Preacher hard is like an old school personal trainer at the gym.  This preacher piles on the pressure and appeals to the religious fleshliness of the listeners.  They will typically walk out after being burdened with duty and responsibility, stretch their arms and grimace, “Wow, I needed that!”  Our flesh loves the idea of our autonomy, which means we love the idea of being pressured to be better people.

(Both Preacher Easy and Preacher Hard are essentially appealing to the flesh of the their listeners, speaking of which…)

5. Preacher Rich – this is the preacher who loves to highlight out of context promises of blessing for the nation of Israel under the Palestinian Covenant and promise the listeners that God wants nothing more than for them to be ridiculously wealthy and perfectly healthy.  (The pressure is on them to believe enough though, so it ends being combining both types of worldly fleshliness – both the desire for pleasure/possession and the desire to self-strive and be independently religious).

Do you see yourself in any of these categories?  If you do, please take a serious time out from ministry, soak in the Bible and get together with God . . . you don’t want to be the kind of preacher Paul was warning Timothy about!  Next time we’ll consider a further five . . .