4 Reasons to Handle the Bible Well

designAny Christian leader will have opportunity to communicate biblical truth to others. It may be a sermon, or it may be in conversation; it may be to a group of Christians, or it may be an evangelistic setting, but we will all communicate the Bible to others. Let’s be sure to handle the Bible well.

What do I mean by that? I mean good basic biblical interpretation. Understand meaning in its immediate context, as the author intended, following the grammar of the text, making sure we see what it actually says, recognizing something of the historical and cultural setting, etc. I mean not imposing fanciful interpretations that make you appear either extra clever, or excessively creative or even downright oblivious to the plain meaning of the text itself. I am not saying we all have to have high level degrees in biblical exegesis before we can speak to others. I am saying we can all do our best to handle the Bible well.

So why is it important to pay attention to how we handle the Bible, whether in preaching or conversation? Here are four reasons:

1. Because of God. A basic assumption that would help all of us is to trust that God is a good communicator. That means that if God chose to inspire a collection of documents, then He would do a very good job. He did. So a personal commitment to handling the Bible as well as possible is an expression of my trust in God’s ability to communicate well. He did not inspire a poor Bible that needs our cleverness, our fanciful ideas, or our creative shortcuts. When we try to improve God’s communication by our own sophistication we insult our God. When we handle the Bible carelessly we demonstrate a lack of value for our God’s communicative nature. Let’s handle the Bible well because of God.

2. Because of the unsaved. Another important point to remember is that people who do not yet know Christ will come to know Christ because of the Spirit drawing them to Him, not because of our brilliant presentations. However, they are evaluating our presentations. If we claim that the Bible was given by inspiration of God, but then proceed to read it carelessly, or elevate our own “codebreaking genius” above a text we claim was given to us by God, then we should not be surprised if some do not take the gospel seriously and view us as being duped by an unthinking religion. When the Bible plays a secondary role to our communicative sophistication (or our sloppiness), those who are trying to evaluate the claims of Christ may be led to feel that it can’t be worth much if we appear to not take God’s revelation seriously. Let’s handle the Bible well because those who don’t know Christ are watching us.

3. Because of believers. Periodically I get to go to the doctor’s office and see the medical expert in action. I might get seven minutes, and I cannot see the screen they spend so much time looking at. I don’t learn much. Periodically I take my car to the mechanic and I might stick around and watch an expert in action. I might get to spend a little time, but I typically won’t see much. I don’t learn much. But every week I sit in a church and watch a Bible expert in action. I might get half an hour, or even more. Sadly, in many cases I would not learn much that would help me handle the Bible well. When we handle the Bible before people, they are looking to our example as well as our message. How we handle the Bible will make a mark on them. Are we setting a good example of observing the passage closely, interpreting accurately, and applying appropriately? Are we demonstrating an attitude to the Bible, and an approach to handling the Bible, that we are happy for our listeners to copy all week long? Let’s handle the Bible well because those who think we know what we are doing are watching us.

4. Because of me. I want to handle the Bible well for my own sake too. I want you to handle the Bible well for your own sake. How silly we must seem when we treat the Bible as if it has limited value, but believe that our clever communication is what people need. The truth is, when we short circuit the process and offer personal proof texts and hobby horses, we steal from ourselves the riches that come from having our nose in the text and our hearts open to the God who wants to meet us there. Maybe my message to others will be limited in value for some reason, but my own time in the Bible seeking to understand it and respond to God will be invaluable for me. Let’s handle the Bible well because even if our communication were to fail, our own time with God in His Word is eternally priceless.

Prayerfully ask God to search you and try you in this area. How are you handling the Bible when you preach? What about in conversation? Attention given in this area will never be wasted effort for those that love God!

Warning: Over Hyped Intros

Hype2The first moments of a message make a massive difference. Just jumping into the message without any real introduction is a wasted opportunity. But there is the other extreme to beware of too: the overly hyped intro.

Yesterday I sat down to watch a DVD set that I thought might work for the small groups in our church. They won’t work.  The speaker, who I have enjoyed in the past, turned the introduction to a short series of messages into an infomercial of hype. The first ten minutes of the first message, and then the first five minutes of the second, were taken up with what felt like sales hype.

“I was speaking at a conference, but my message wasn’t working, so I turned to such and such a passage, and I didn’t know what I was going to say next, and then out came this message that I am going to share with you…” Which was followed by a bigger conference, tens of thousands, repeat of the message, lives transformed forever, etc., etc.

Maybe I am just too cynical. I know many Christians would love that and talk in eager tones about how amazing that experience was and how faithful God was, etc. But for me, this kind of “God gave me this miraculous and direct” type of introduction left an empty feeling. I also wonder how it would sound to someone on the fringes of the church.

An introduction to a message is not the place to tell your audience the global impact this one message (via this one messenger) is going to have, or even has had. By pointing listeners to other, bigger, international, church leader audiences, there is a sense in which the introduction is crossing some line we shouldn’t cross. Are these listeners now obligated to speak in exaggerated terms about the message? If the message is so powerful, wouldn’t that power hit home even without the opening sales pitch?

Don’t get me wrong, the opposite extreme can be really unhelpful. That is, “turn with me to this passage…” and no attempt at forging a connection.

The introduction is the time to connect with your listeners, to connect them with their need for the message, and connect them with the passage with an engaged sense of anticipation.

But when the intro becomes sales hype, these connections become tenuous at best. They could feel disconnected from you, the speaker, because you are such an out-of-their-league big shot. They could feel disconnected from the message because God gave it somewhere else for other folks. They could feel disconnected from the passage, because the implication of your introduction is that direct revelation is what makes this message special. And they could feel a general distance from the whole scenario if they suspect any stretching of the truth in what you say.

Even if the hype is true, just introduce the message in a way that is relevant for this group of people and let God’s Word and God’s Spirit do his work. Introduce effectively, but hype and sales pitches aren’t necessary.

The Fig-Arm Journey To Simplicity

Forest2Oliver Wendell Holmes is credited with this great quote – “I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity this side of complexity, but I’d give my right arm for simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

I remember Haddon Robinson using this quote to distinguish two types of simplicity in preaching.  This side of complexity the simplicity isn’t worth much.  Often very young preachers offer this because it is all they have to give.  Listeners will resonate at a certain level, appreciating the simplicity combined with a young preacher getting launched into ministry.  But there will also be a lack of depth, of experience, of insight, of nuance, and of genuine impact.  This less-than-a-fig’s worth of simple preaching will hopefully yield to a pursuit of something more valuable.

The goal is arms’-worth simplicity.  This is the kind of simplicity that great preachers offer. They have a much greater and more personal understanding of the Bible, of life, of their listeners, and of themselves.  This kind of preacher knows how to plumb the depths of Scripture and serve up a simple message that is not paper thin and feather light, but life impacting and pregnant with deep truth, resonating with listeners as true. To hear a great preacher preach simply is heart warming, life changing and profoundly satisfying.

But there is a journey from less-than-fig simplicity to arms’-worth simplicity.  It is a journey through complexity.  Here are five quick thoughts on the journey:

1. It is a necessary journey.  It may be tempting to stay this side of complexity and try to fake depth by copying preachers that have made the journey.  This cannot be effectively faked.  Knowing comments, beard stroking, profound stares and implying you are a deep well simply won’t convince the more mature listeners.  Determine to prayerfully make the journey over the next years to that far side of complexity.

2. It is a multi-faceted journey. It is tempting to assume that the journey simply involves learning a lot.  It includes that, but also much more.  By all means go to seminary, read lots, learn loads, but know that merely filling your head with knowledge will not get you through the dark forest of complexity – it will probably plant you right in the middle!  There will also be life experience needed, and only God can orchestrate that.  There may well be suffering – sometimes “low level” and sometimes a horrendous “crucible experience.”  There will need to be painful feedback pursued and taken to heart.  This journey is not easy, neither is it quick:

3. It can be a slow journey.  Know that it can take years to successfully get through the forest.  Many preachers play around the edges of the forest, but never plunge in and come through to the other side.  They read a bit, study a bit (even getting a degree can be just studying a bit), and try to act like the three bushes they have hung out with constitute a forest!  It is hard to spot shallowness and ignorance in the mirror, but pray for a clear view of yourself, and pray for honest insight from others.

4. The preacher should determine to make this journey.  Only God knows the journey through the forest, but pray for Him to lead you and start taking steps.  And remember your goal is simplicity.  Know that your listeners won’t love the complexity as much as you do, so always look to grow in simplicity in your preaching, wherever you are in the journey.  Often you will fail, but always aim to communicate as clearly as you can.

5. The listeners will need to have patience with the preacher.  If you know someone on this journey, then please support them, cheer them on, encourage them.  Give them feedback that will help them grow.  Give them grace and space to make mistakes and to make progress.  Don’t chase them back to cheap simplicity, and don’t chase them out of your church because they are trying to grow.  You will be glad when they make it through, and they will make it through, in part, because of your help!

10 Listener Fatigues – part 2

yawningman2Continuing our list of potential preaching fatigue that we might be able to avoid for our listeners…

(Yesterday we thought about genre, key text and main point fatigue)

4. Preacher Fatigue.  After a while your listeners might just get tired of hearing you.  You may try to vary what you do, but you will always be you and that creates some limitations for your preaching.  Don’t be afraid to share your pulpit. Develop other preachers, invite other local pastors, give yourself a break and your listeners too.

5. Illustration Fatigue.  One way we can be predictable is in the use of illustrations.  Do you often reference certain sports, or your own family, or the Napoleonic Wars?  Beware of tiring listeners with something that doesn’t mean as much to them as it does to you.  Some preachers default to the same category of illustration.  Others default to a collection of specific illustrations.  I’m feeling drained just describing it!

6. Vulnerability Fatigue.  Some of us don’t share enough vulnerability in our preaching.  But some of us share too much and too often.  When listeners start to feel like they are the counsellors for your self-disclosure, they will grow tired of hearing about your constant struggles.  Do be vulnerable.  Don’t be constantly sharing your struggles.  Remember that the spotlight in your preaching is not on you.

7. Contagious Fatigue.  If you are preaching fatigued, then it will be infectious.  Sometimes you can’t avoid being up all night with a child or a church member in crisis.  Be careful that you don’t get into a rhythm of preaching fatigued.  If your preparations are draining you, maybe you need to revisit your preparation schedule.  Perhaps you don’t get enough sleep, or exercise, or your sugary snacks while you work on the sermon mean you preach in a weekly sugar low?  Be careful that you don’t simply preach tired.  Listeners will pick up on your lack of energy, or your extra edginess.

Tomorrow we’ll finish the list, but feel free to add any more at any time!

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.

3 Ways Preachers Fear Listeners

Fear2Preachers can fear listeners.  When they do, the ministry suffers.  Here are three ways preachers fear listeners:

1. I am scared because you are there!  This “deer in the headlights fear” is typically an issue for the beginner preacher.  Actually, the fear is usually of public speaking.  Seeing all the faces looking toward them, the preacher freezes and goes into a restricted function coping mechanism.  Vocal range becomes limited, pauses disappear, body language gets stuck, the mind struggles to think clearly.  This can occur for more experienced preachers under specific circumstances (perhaps a special event, preaching in a new venue, preaching after illness), but typically preachers who have moved past the deer in the headlights fear will be able to adjust fairly easily to new circumstances.

2. I am scared of what you might do!  The itchy-ear-scratching fear can occur for a variety of reasons.  Perhaps the preacher wants to keep listeners happy rather than stirring any controversy.  Maybe the preacher feels their position or even salary is being threatened (after all, churches can become hideously political environments).  The result of getting the gaze fixed on the listeners evaluations will be preaching that is stripped of its potential.  Sometimes God wants to stir up listeners, or challenge them, or change them.  Itchy-ear-scratching preachers are dull tools for divine purposes.

3. I am scared of what you will think!  This need to impress is closely related to the itchy-ear-scratching fear.  The preacher’s insecurity is more about self than about what the listeners want.  This is about what the listeners think.  Are they impressed?  Do they think I am clever?  Spiritual?  A good leader?  Because if they think that, then maybe I am.  All fears are forms of insecurity, and this one is certainly a matter of insecurity.  This is a preacher whose identity is found in what others think rather than in what God says to be true.

There are other fears too.  The fear of consequences if we preach certain things will probably only grow as culture “progresses.”  What fears would you add to the list?  What fears do you sense in your own heart when you preach?

Biggest Mistakes Preachers Make – pt 5

Slip2Big adjustments can lead to big benefits for your preaching.  We have considered content, audience, and timing of preparation.  Here’s another:

Mistake 5 – Assuming anything about your delivery

Don’t assume.  Find out.

You may be more monotonous than you think.  We all tend to think our vocal variation is good . . . range of voice, diversity of volume, length and frequency of pauses, etc.  The truth is you probably come across as more monotonous than you think you do.  There is a lot that goes into the use of voice in preaching.  Don’t assume anything.  Find out.

You probably smile less than you think.  We all tend to assume our facial expressions are more expressive than they actually are.  Most people freeze slightly in front of a crowd.  As humans, we are all wired to connect on multiple levels at once.  People connect or pull back from each other based on a host of factors, but expression, body language and personal warmth are very significant.  Don’t assume anything.  Find out.

You might have a distracting mannerism only you don’t know about.  Perhaps you rock on your heels, maintain a frozen arm, point awkwardly, do an involuntary impersonation of a werewolf, or a T-Rex, or a traffic police officer.  Maybe you wave an imaginary pen around, or scratch your ear, or shrug, or whatever.  None of these (or the hundreds of other common mannerisms), are a problem in themselves.  But they are distracted when repeated.  Don’t assume anything.  Find out.

You might have verbal pauses only you can’t hear.  You know, like, umm, kinda, know what I mean? You can hear other people with verbal pauses (unnecessary filler words), and vocal pauses (unnecessary filler noises).  But you probably tune out most of your own.  Don’t assume anything.  Find out.

How do we find out?  Actually, it is quite easy:

1. Listen to yourself preach.

2. Watch yourself preach.

3. Invite honest feedback from trusted listeners, specifically about delivery.

 

5 Radars Every Preacher Needs – #5

RadarScreen2This is the last of our five radars we should be prayerfully collecting as preachers.  They are early warning systems that will make us better preachers.  There are probably many more, but hopefully these five will prompt us to pray and help us to grow.   So far we’ve thought about an OT radar, a hissing radar, a resistance radar, and an obfuscation radar.  How about one more where we are likely to have blind spots?

Radar 5. Rationalizing Radar (in your personal application)

Before we preach to others, we must first be on the receiving end of God’s transformative work ourselves.  Starting a sermon on Saturday night does not allow time for personal application, hence we should start sooner. However, we can be preparing a sermon for weeks and still fail to hear the message ourselves.  Why?  Not because of a lack of time, but because of our fleshly capacity to rationalize our own lack of application.  What we might see clearly in others, we often see in a rose-tinted mirror in regards to ourselves.  The solution to this is not to try harder, but to engage more with God in the conversation.  What I am calling a rationalizing radar is really a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit as He searches and tries our hearts, gently convicting us so that we can first hear, before we also speak.

5 Radars Every Preacher Needs – #4

RadarScreen2This week we are collecting radar equipment.  Better, we are compiling a wishlist to bring before God and ask Him to develop in us as we grow as preachers.  Early warning systems that will make us better preachers.  So far we’ve thought about an OT radar, a hissing radar, and a resistance radar.  How about one regarding our own delivery?

Radar 4. Obfuscation Radar (in your delivery)

def. to make something confusing or difficult to understand.”  Most preachers don’t do this on purpose.  In fact, most preachers’ sermons make good sense to the preacher.  But good preachers’ sermons make sense to the listeners too.

How can we grow in this area?  Chase helpful and specific feedback, listen to the audio of your message, watch a video of your preaching, do whatever you can to develop discernment as to your own obfuscation tendencies.  Do you speak too fast?  Do you pause too little?  Is your energy incessant?  Are your transitions too brief?  Are your gestures distracting?  Is your sermon structure complex?  Is your vocabulary too lofty?

Prayerfully and conversationally (i.e. with friends) develop a radar that will beep when your delivery is, in reality, not as clear as your pride tells you it is.

88 Questions Because Delivery Makes a Difference – III

Questions2Let’s conclude the list of questions to ponder about effective delivery:

14. Are your word choices appropriate for subject and audience?  Is there an appropriate combination of dignity and authenticity?  Do you sound like an academic?  Do you sound like a stereotypical preacher (whichever stereotype comes to mind)?  Are your words understandable, condescending, flippant, crass, attention-seeking, natural, coherent?

15. Do you actually make sense when you speak?  Are your sentences fully there?  Do you rely too much on people to get what you mean, or can you consistently say what you mean?  Do you lose volume or change pace at the end of your sentences?  Do you garble words, or skip them entirely?  Do you rely on awkward filler terms like, well, you know, so, umm, like those?

16. Is what you wear appropriate for your listeners or distracting?  Do you fit with the culture of your church?  What message does your attire give off?  Are listeners thinking about your excessive formality, your unkempt appearance, your distracting clothing choices?

17. Do you have any idiosyncratic quirks that should be eliminated?  It could be in your voice, vocabulary, expression, gesture or movement, but if people have heard you a couple of times, could they name something distracting about your delivery?

18. Is the combination of everything we’ve seen already coming across as genuine?  Do listeners meet the same you when they talk to you afterwards?  Does your spouse or child recognize the person preaching in the pulpit?

19. How goes your prayer about delivery?  Do you pray out of love for self and your reputation?  Do you pray with a heartfelt concern for your listeners?  Do you pray for your fame, or God’s?  Do you pray about delivery at all?

20. What is your strategy for developing as a public speaker?  Do you seek feedback from helpful people?  Do you give them permission to be honest about delivery issues with you?  How often do you listen to yourself preach?  When do you plan to get videotaped and see yourself?  Do you have one or two things that you are consciously working on and praying about at the moment?