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!

A Fresh Approach

FreshAir2It is very easy to let past sermons influence your next sermon. The way a passage is traditionally handled can easily become the default way we feel it should be handled again.

Now there is a positive side to this. If a passage is traditionally handled accurately and appropriately, then being fresh for the sake of it is not a good idea. Let’s be traditional all day long if that means handling the Word well.

However, sometimes a good traditional approach can overpower an equally appropriate approach to a passage. For instance, recently I preached from Acts 8 and Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch. As I studied the passage I felt some subconscious pressure to do what I have always heard from that narrative – namely, a brief telling of the story and then a lengthy engagement with a longer section of Isaiah 53. After all, it is a great opportunity to make clear to our listeners what was shared with the Ethiopian Eunuch.

But is there another legitimate approach? I felt there was. Specifically, I wanted to engage with what occurred in this particular narrative. By keeping my focus on the passage in Acts 8 more, I was able to look at God’s sovereign initiative in preparing an individual for an encounter with God’s Word, and how that Word may not be immediately clear, but God is able to bring clarity to it, and when He does, that reader discovers that clarity in God’s Word is more about the Who? revealed than some sense of What-To-Do? that we might anticipate.  Furthermore, seeing Christ clearly is what leads to life transformation. This sense of God’s dealing with individuals and leading them into His Word to find Christ was a rich and unique subject to ponder.

When we come to a passage, let’s remember that this particular passage is unique.  Let’s be aware of how we traditionally hear it presented and be sure that this is the way to go before committing ourselves to it. Recognise that while each passage is saying one thing, it is possible to engage each passage in various ways, several of which may be completely legitimate.

A Passion for Books – Jonathan Carswell

10ofthoseHere is one last guest post relating to the launch of Foundations. Jonathan Carswell is a good friend who works with a great team at 10ofthose.com (this includes 10Publishing). They specialise in publishing shorter books and I’m excited to let you know that they have now launched in the USA. If you are in North America, be sure to check out their website and follow on Twitter @10ofthoseUSA – I wholeheartedly recommend them to you! I would suggest that Jonathan’s passion for books is one that every preacher should share . . .

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Being a dyslexic I think it’s funny that God has put me in a job where every day I am recommending people to be reading Christian books! Despite finding reading hard work at best and an uphill slog at worst, books that have pointed me to Jesus have been life-changing in my Christian walk. It’s for that reason that I’m so passionate that other people are reading Christ-centred books too. But with many books being long, expensive and, if we’re honest, sometimes a bit boring, how is it that we can ‘catch the bug’ for reading Christian literature?

While we mustn’t be lazy or try to cut corners I do believe that reading short, accessible books is a great way to start. They may not be the end-word on a topic but they can be a starting point, a starting point that many of us are not even getting to. I fear that sometimes the reason people are not reading is because they feel they don’t have the time or they don’t have the brain capacity to take on some of these tomes that well-meaning Christian publishers are now producing. The majority of people are not in that place. So read short books, many of which are Christian classics. You can finish them in one sitting, in around an hour. Over the course of several weeks or months, you can read across a breadth of topics, which will stand you in great stead as firm foundations for your Christian life. Peter’s books Foundations and Pleased to Dwell are excellent resources that are accessible, short but full of deep Christian truth. Or try Tim Keller’s The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness – it changed my Christian life.

The other thing to consider with shorter books is their ease to give away to people who aren’t yet Christians but are willing to investigate. I’d encourage us all to have a stock of short accessible evangelistic books and tracts that we can give away. There are cost-effective ways of doing this and as the resources point people to Jesus they can totally transform a life. Wouldn’t it be amazing if each of us began passing out short, Jesus-pointing resources to those who are Christians to help them grow in their faith, and to those who aren’t Christians to begin their trust in the Lord Jesus. And as we do it, their life just might be changed!

Meaningless Chatter

blabla2Apologies for a quiet couple of weeks on here . . . have been enjoying our new little girl and the sleepy first weeks with a little one in the house.

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Our culture seems to be an effective generator of meaningless chatter. I am not referring to relaxed conversation.  I am think more specifically of the excessive use of clichés and standard phrases that mean very little.

Listen in to folks chatting with each other and you will often hear a back and forth of relative nothingness.  One person will express an opinion. The other will counter with “we’ll just have to agree to disagree,” which stirs a swift, “you’re entitled to your opinion,” countered with a, “fair enough, free country,” or a reference to “freedom of speech,” a reference to “a bit of give and take,” and so on.  Before you know it, such free speech has moved a conversation nowhere over the course of many minutes.

Turn on the TV and listen to a footballer being interviewed and typically you can play cliché bingo with a line completed every 30 seconds.  A game of two halves, play until the whistle, a striker’s finish, he’s got a great engine, a game of cat and mouse, a bit cagey, etc.  (This list would be different in the USA, for instance, but probably similar in effect.) Every phrase is actually saying something, but it can all feel very predictable and slightly like rote behavior.  To someone not used to listening to British footballers it can seem like another language.

What about your preaching?  Do you have any stock phrases that come out too easily?  Do you preach in Christianese so that visitors don’t actually know what you are talking about?

Here are some categories of phrases that could very well be true, and yet still be classified by some as potentially meaningless chatter.  Since I am slightly sleep deprived, I won’t list the dozens of examples, but by all means feel free to list ones that come to mind in a comment!

1. Churchy language – gathering under the sound of the gospel, where two or three are gathered, the church is not the building, Sunday morning is like a mountaintop, let’s approach the throne of mercy, bring our prayers to a close, etc.

2. Preacher language – turn with me to . . . , by way of application, finally (this one is often confusing when 15 more minutes of sermon follows it!), as we all know (dangerous and pointless phrase, unless we like to alienate people), etc.

Remember, some of these phrases are profoundly true, but still might require some explanation so that they don’t sound like a pastor being interviewed on TV about the service and his message.

3. Theology language – its all about Jesus, Jesus is the answer, let go and let God, our problem is that we just don’t believe enough, its not about us, etc.

I am sure you could add to these lists.  By all means do.  And let’s prayerfully consider whether our language each Sunday actually communicates.  Maybe some of us will dare to ask some newer people in our churches to write a list from their perspective!

Fighting Gravity – Part 1

Gravity2One of the great challenges in preaching is that everyone tends to be unaware of a massive force of resistance against the truth of the Bible. Our listeners sit contentedly unaware that they are not neutral recipients of our preaching, but oblivious subjects to such an overwhelming force. Worse, too many of us as preachers stand to preach unaware that we are also pressed incessantly by this force.

The force working against us all is as pervasive as gravity. We cannot see it. When it is explained we don’t easily grasp its meaning. And even once we’ve been alerted to it, we quickly forget it is there working continually on us. We can all live oblivious. But we cannot live impervious. This is not natural gravity, but what I will call Fallen World Gravity (FWG).

FWG influences the way we love, the way we think, the way we function. This continues to be the case even after we come to faith in Christ. Too easily we can assume that since our sin is no longer in our column in the heavenly accounts, since there is no longer any condemnation for us who are in Christ, then the gravitational pull of the Fall no longer fully applies to us. But as believers in Jesus we are still in a world, and in a body, that feels the full force of this unseen foe. Fallen World Gravity still pulls on every listener, and every preacher. All the time.

When Adam and Eve ate the fruit and fell into sin the impact was immediate and catastrophic.  They died spiritually, death entered their experience physically and the creation itself became a stage of death.  With this catastrophic change came a profound twisting of perspective.  They could not see straight when it came to understanding God or the world He had made.  It was as if a new ‘theological gravity’ came into force, a gravity that would silently pull every one of us away from seeing clearly.

The problem is really double layered. First, FWG corrupts our understanding of God and His world (including ourselves).  Second, FWG is so silent and subtle that we are generally unaware of its effect on us. This is why it is so dangerous.

Let’s begin the list and start to ponder the pulls of FWG on our listeners, and on us as preachers, too!

1. FWG results in an incessant pull toward a new centre of the cosmos. Our view of reality is now distorted. God is the centre of everything, and yet we generally live convinced that we are. As fallen creatures we walk around believing the Lie that the king on the throne is Sir Self. Is this problem fixed by bowing the knee to King Jesus? Not necessarily. Very easily FWG will pull us into a Christian version of self-service where God becomes the greatest resource for us. In other words, outwardly we can tip the hat to God’s greater kingdom but, in reality, we can continue to live for the ‘kingdom of me.’

Does this influence how we view preaching? Does it influence how our listeners will hear what we say?  There is no question about that. The question is, how aware are we of FWG as we pray, prepare, personalize and preach each message?

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.

10 Pointers for Planning Preaching Series

10 target seriesEarlier this year we looked at 10 pointers for planning a preaching calendar.  Let’s zero in and think about planning a series.

1. Keep track of your series. Having a record of what you have preached through as a church in the last years is very helpful in determining what to preach in the coming year.  If you have a record then you can see parts of the Bible that have lacked attention, for instance.

2. Make Bible books your default go to for a series.  There will be reasons to go to something different than a Bible book, but defaulting to a book is good practice for generating a healthy diet.  When I say book, I don’t mean necessarily exhausting a book – you could take a chunk in one series, and then return for another series at another time.

3. Be aware of the church calendar. A great series in Ezekiel will not feel so great the week before Christmas.  Be aware of Christmas and Easter, as well as other significant seasons in your context.  Plan series accordingly.

4. Seek to offer variety in biblical genre. A series in a Gospel will feel different than a series in an Epistle.  Old Testament history will be different again, as would a series in the Psalms or a Prophet. Try to vary the genre throughout the year so that you are not overloading the diet with one part of the Scriptures only.

5. Plan values-based series periodically. With a steady diet of Bible book exposition, you then have the luxury of sometimes taking two or three weeks to zero in on a specific value the church has, or to address a specific need in the church.  This series may be topically selected, as in, pick the best passages to achieve your goal (but then be sure to actually preach those passages!)

6. Schedule buffer weeks. When one series is followed immediately by another, there is no margin in the church calendar. Plan a spare week between series because things will come up.  Sometimes you will have to shift the series back a week, or maybe extend it to adjust from your original plans.  Buffers reduce stress in preaching schedules.

7. Plan your series with sensitivity to evangelistic events or guest Sundays.  If you know you will get guests at Easter, make the new series that starts the next week an attractive one to draw them back to church. That is much better than continuing an interrupted series that doesn’t sound appealing to newcomers.

8. Vary the length of your series. Make some of them 4-6 weeks, and maybe some 8-10 weeks.  Typically don’t go longer than that as they will inevitably get interrupted and start to feel protracted.  It does not matter how long Lloyd-Jones took to preach through Romans – it is not a competition and you are not him.

9. Vary the length of chunks within a series.  Don’t make a series monotonous by making every chunk the same length. Why not include an overview at the mid-point, the beginning and/or at the end?  Why not sometimes cover a larger section and sometime dwell longer in a couple of verses?  Andy Stanley rightly says that a lot of sermons would make a great series.  Don’t rush, but instead plan with enough room to linger in passages and benefit.

10. Be creative. As well as mixing the genre, varying the length of series and chunks within a series, you can also be creative on type of series: sometimes track a character (eg. Abraham’s faith journey in Genesis), or a theme (eg. the glory theme in John). Be creative in presentation – think about visual “theme branding” to give a sense of cohesion to the series. Be creative in what goes on around the series – perhaps a Q&A session would be helpful, or maybe an associated small group study, or maybe watching a movie based on that Bible book, or whatever.  Build a great series, and build great things around the series.

Well planned and well preached series can drive the life-changing impact of Bible books deep into the DNA of a local church!

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Other 10 Pointers posts to check out: Evangelistic Preaching, Special Occasion Preaching, Preaching Easter, Untrained Preachers, Seminary Trained Preachers, Preaching Teams, Older Preachers and Younger Preachers.

A Different Application?

IMG_1756Much e-ink is pixelated over the need for applicational relevance in our preaching. There is good reason for this. Too much preaching is totally disconnected from real life and therefore lacks the relevance that biblical preaching should always feature. But adding applications is not as easy as it sounds.

For instance, simply culling imperatives and encouraging people how to live their lives “more biblically” may in fact be undermining God’s work in peoples’ lives.  How so?  If our applications merely add burdens to their to-do lists, thence may well be adding a new law, rather than pointing people to Christ. In fact, we may be pointing them away from Christ and to themselves – which is by definition a Genesis 3 serpentlike thing to do in our pursuit of supposedly Christlike impact.

So how to effectively apply in our preaching is important, and perhaps it is a subject for another post or two.  But I want to throw an idea into the mix with this post.

What if, instead of focusing on how this message relates to their lives on Monday morning in the office, or Tuesday evening in the family argument, what if we sometimes refocus our timings in application?

Instead of just thinking about relevance of the message to the rest of the week, as important as that is, let’s also be thinking about the applicational force of encounter in the moment of preaching. That is, how can I show God revealed in Christ during this message so that my listeners might encounter him and in so doing, be changed.

  1. In the Gospels, people were changed when they met Christ.  Yes there were those moments where he said, “go and sin no more” of course, but that was not the exclusive applicational thrust of those encounters. People were changed by meeting him.
  2. In our lives we too easily slip into self-directed living and living as if Christ is absent.  The preaching moment is a key moment for encountering God as he is revealed in the Word.  It would be tragic to miss him for the sake of adding to our to-do lists.
  3. By pointing listeners to the person of Christ who reveals the Father to us, we are giving believers and unbelievers exactly what they need. Jesus is good news for us all, and we all need it regularly, because we all need him continuously.
  4. All true application should flow from the inside-out, which requires a heart-changing encounter with God’s love, not just a code-of-living change by encounter with applicational law. That sentence deserves some unpacking, but let’s leave the thought for now – there is a difference between outside to in change (i.e. here is the list, live by it), and inside to out change (i.e. having met Christ, how is his heart-work in you going to work itself out in your life?)

Application deserves a lot more attention in our thinking as preachers.  However we do that, let’s not miss the important applicational force of meeting with the God who reveals himself in the written Word as it is preached.

The Power of Telling the Story

ourstory2There is more narrative in the Bible than any other type of Scripture.  People are surrounded by the power of narrative every day.  And yet preachers are often tempted to skimp on telling the story.  Why?

Life is lived in multi-layered narratives.  People engage with narratives all week: every film, TV show, sports commentary, most commercials, interactions at the coffee machine at work, catching up with spouse and children at home, chatting with neighbours over the fence – it is one mini-narrative after another.  Then they come to church and we too often leave the stories for children and preach a more “sophisticated” message.  Oops.

God gave us so much narrative in the Bible because of its power in engaging us with the wonder of his self-revelation.

So when you preach a narrative, tell the story.  It will be more effective than offering lists of instructions and points from the same passage (not to say that you shouldn’t clarify the main point and seek to demonstrate the relevance by means of possible applications).

How does telling the story work?

1. Listeners will identify with characters – if a story is told even relatively well, listeners will either be drawn toward a character, or repelled by a character.  We humans are wired to connect or pull back.  Neutrality to people is not a natural reaction (although in a fallen world we will be more neutral than we were intended to be).

2. Listeners will feel the tension of the plot – once the story moves from mere setting to some disequilibrium, listeners will typically feel compelled to listen for resolution.  We can’t help it.

3. Listeners will be marked by the resolution of that tension – that resolution, if the story has been told effectively, will register a mark in our hearts because we have been feeling emotionally engaged by the characters in their situation.

4. Listeners will find their lives superimposing on the image of the story – humans naturally overlay their own situations, struggles, feelings, doubts, hopes, etc., onto the stories of others.  This could be our empathetic relational wiring, or it could be self-absorption, but either way, we tend to be marked by stories not involving us because we connect somehow.

Preaching that tells the story is better than preaching that ignores the story and goes after just presenting propositions.