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Overcoming Preacher’s Block – III

Block2We are coming to the end of a list of suggestions for overcoming preacher’s block . . . how about:

7. Sleep.  Sometimes when you are stuck, you can be tempted to work late and miss sleep.  Don’t.  Get good sleep and then work productively tomorrow.  We are designed to need sleep.  It can be a real step of faith to leave an issue like this with God and curl up in His arms for the night.  Sadly, too many preachers seem to think God is impressed by sugar and caffeine fueled fatigue that results in a vicious cycle of tiredness and inability to concentrate.  We don’t get medals for staying up late and preaching poorly as a result.  Don’t turn the chance to preach into an opportunity to play a mini-martyr.

8. Confess.  Sometimes preacher’s block is really the fruit of indiscipline, inappropriate distraction, laziness, or some other sin.  I don’t want to come up with a pseudo-solution to avoid facing that.  If you have sinned and become aware of it, then deal with it.  Confess it to God, come back to the cross, repent and lean into His care for you again.  This isn’t some sort of mystical purging ritual.  It is healthy relationship.  You need to walk through the preparation and preaching with God close, so if you don’t feel close due to sin, then get it sorted.  Any short-cut or detour that tries to hide distance in this sense will be an unwise path to take.

What would you add to the list?  What do you do when you get stuck?

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Overcoming Preacher’s Block – II

Block2Continuing our list of suggestions for breaking out of preacher’s block.  Yesterday we thought about Pray, Break and Talk.  Here are some more ideas:

4. Read.  Sometimes it is time for a fresh perspective.  Maybe another commentary on a key section.  Perhaps check some biblical studies books to see if the text appears in the scripture index.  Maybe try a lighter commentary for how they handle this section.  But beware, sometimes the last thing you need is more information in.  This is an option, but it may be the wrong option.  If your block is from a massive input of data and no clarity on how to let the right stuff out, then maybe steer clear of the books at this stage.

5. Write.  Sometimes I get stuck on an outline, or a certain part of a message.  Switching to writing may be helpful.  Perhaps you are struggling with the big picture of the message and need to switch to working out wording.  This may free you up to keep making progress on the message rather than staying stuck on an aspect of the message.

6. Preach.  We are a bit obsessed with “writing” our messages.  Whether it is outlines or manuscripts, we can easily lose sight of the orality of preaching.  The goal is not to write a sermon, but to preach one.  So sometimes the best thing to do is to step away from the keyboard or pen and start talking out loud.  If you were up now, what would you say?  Things that seem so clear on paper sometimes can’t come out of your mouth.  Paper is only one step better than in your head (who hasn’t had clarity in their minds that simply won’t get onto the page?  Well, spoken communication is a step beyond that.  You can feel clear on paper, but still not be able to express what you intend.  Once you hear yourself getting stuck, you know you have issues on paper.  And once you are trying to say it, sometimes you can find a quick detour that makes for an effective message! (Then go write it down.)

We’ll finish the list tomorrow.

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Overcoming Preacher’s Block

Block2Writer’s block is a famous challenge, but I suspect preacher’s block is an equally frequent occurrence.  The time ticks by and Sunday’s deadline keeps approaching.  What should you do if you feel stuck?  Here are eight suggestions.

1. Pray.  Seems obvious, but I need to make this overt.  Pray.  And pray honestly.  Stop praying nice little “Lord I commit this process to you for your blessing and glory” prayers.  Start praying really honestly.  “God, I am really struggling here!  I don’t know what the problem is and I am scared that I won’t be ready in time . . .” – or whatever is on your heart.  Sometimes praying something through out loud means that it is not only God hearing your heart, but you hearing your heart.  Maybe you’ll end up praying about some sin struggle, or about some fear, or a false motivation driving you, or whatever.  Pray as if God is able to take an honest statement or two – the Psalms and Job and Jeremiah suggest that He is.

2. Break.  Sometimes the best thing to do when stuck is to stop trying to move forwards.  Go for a walk, run an errand, read a book unrelated to the message, do some mindless sorting of the admin that has been piling up.  You could say that any break is worth it, but maybe not.  Five minutes on social media could expand to fill the next hour, watching a Youtube clip can be dangerous to your ability to focus, and beware that there is a difference between taking a break and becoming distracted in aimless, or purposeful, procrastination.  A genuine break can really help.

3. Talk.  Who turned preaching into such a solitary pursuit?  Sometimes the very best thing to do is talk to someone about your message.  Either what they say or what you say will be helpful to regenerate momentum.  It could be your spouse, a friend, another preacher, a mentor.  Sometimes talking about the message, the challenge you feel and what still needs to come together, will break open the logjam and help you start moving forwards again.

Tomorrow I will add some more suggestions . . .

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Multiply Ministry Beyond the Pulpit 2

Multiply2Some years ago I had the privilege of living next door to a well known Christian leader and communicator.  Watching him close up made clear to me how he had had such a significant impact on the world.  It was not just his preaching (although he did lots of that).  There were five noticeable areas of complementary ministry that are open to all of us.  If only more of us would invest our energies in these five areas, it is hard to imagine what could be achieved:

1. Intercessory Prayer – I would hope we all pray for those we minister to, but what about others who God brings across our paths?  We could quickly compile a large connection collection – people we can bring to God in prayer on a regular basis.  My friend is highly purposeful in this ministry . . . photos on the phone for when he loses a signal on the train (allowing him to pray for people), photo albums, lists.  How can the impact of this loving ministry be measured?

2. Deliberate Networking – You may have the same reaction to “professional networkers” that I do, but “humble Kingdom building networkers” . . . that is altogether different.  Person X has a passion for a certain area of ministry.  Person Y might be the ideal resource person or connection for person X.  If you know both, shouldn’t you be introducing them?  Like the ingredients of fireworks, sometimes it is about bring certain folks together for explosive impact.  I suspect a lot of us preachers have largely untapped networks.  Maybe we are not imagining the possibilities?  Maybe we want everything to revolve around us?  Maybe the greatest ministry impact you will have this year will come from introducing X to Y, or Saul to the believers . . .

3. Funding Conduit – We easily get caught up in the financial needs of our own family and our own church.  But there is so much that could happen if funds were released.  What if we all wanted to be used in this area?  Choose to live on so much, and be diligent in recycling everything else.  Hard to imagine how much could be moved on with this approach!

Two more to finish my list next time.  Maybe you have more ideas to add . . .

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Multiply Ministry Beyond the Pulpit

Multiply2I was just pondering the extensive opportunities for ministry beyond the pulpit.  This may not seem relevant to a preaching blog, but I think it is.  As a preacher, you have many opportunities to serve God and others beyond the ministry that you give in preaching.  Let’s chase some ideas together and maybe one or two will spark something for you.

First, what about ministry directly linked to your preaching:

1. Written – The days of simply transcribing and publishing sermons are probably long gone for most, and yet there could be some scope for producing written materials that flow out of our preaching ministry.  Getting published is not the easiest challenge, but perhaps there is a venue for carefully written synopses.  (And I would imagine that if you have a good editing PA you might be able to churn out as many books as your favourite preacher/writer . . . but you need to think about what your theological message is.)

2. Online – Full sermon manuscripts will get very little traffic, since sermons are not written to be read.  Perhaps blog length summaries could serve a purpose?  Perhaps tweet length big ideas would be of benefit to others?

3. Recorded – It is easier than ever to record, lightly edit and upload your messages to the internet.  Don’t do it just because you can, but if there are people that want to hear them, why not let the same sermon do its work again?

4. Taught – Why not gather one or two interested parties to talk through your message and make it into a training exercise?  Could be potential preachers.  Could be people learning to handle the Bible for themselves?  In fact, get some feedback and you will benefit too.

5. Further Preached – Sometimes we leave a set of exegetical notes too soon.  Maybe a further sermon building on the message and developing the application, or maybe a discussion, a Q&A, or a small group Bible study?  There are no medals to be won for multiplying work unnecessarily.  If you put hours into a message, it may well have further work to do before you lay it to rest.

Next time, I want to ponder five ministry multiplication options that complement a preaching ministry . . .

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The Missing Dimension in Biblical Interpretation

hermeneutics2Interpreting a biblical passage is a critical element of the preacher’s task.  Principles of hermeneutics should be readily accessible to the good preacher, second nature really.

Numerous hermeneutics textbooks list the principles – awareness of literary form and the influence of genre; concern for the grammatical choices made the author in his efforts to be understood; the significance of authorial intent; knowledge of the relevant historical background factors influencing the meaning of the text – such as geography, religio-politics, culture, etc.; deep sensitivity to the written context, both immediate and within the flow of the book as a whole; recognition that scripture does not contradict scripture, but does interpret scripture, yet the importance of remaining focused on the particular text, and so on.

But there is one key dimension that tends to be overlooked in hermeneutics texts and yet should be front and centre in our concern as preachers.  Perhaps we should call it the moral blindness principle, or the interpreter’s heart principle.

Jesus put his finger on the issue in John 5.  As he spoke to the trained religious elite of his day, he turned defense into attack.  He had been accused of breaking the Sabbath, to which he made sure they accused him of something more substantial (see v18).  Then he laid out some key truths in respect to the Father and Son, around issues of life-giving and judgment (see vv19-29).

From verse 30 he started pointing directly at his accusers and speaking in the first and second person.  He called his witness in support of his claim, (acknowledging John the Baptist in passing), who was first and foremost his own Father.  Yes, there were the works he did, but the focus is really his Father.  But then he made it very personal.  He told the Jewish leadership that they had never seen him, didn’t know him and didn’t have his word in them.  That is strange, these were the Bible quoting leadership fraternity of Jerusalem.  How could they be accused of not having the Bible down?

Jesus threw a hermeneutical failure at them.  They were certainly diligent, searching the Scriptures for top life tips, but they missed the person revealed there.  How?  Because they did not have the love of God in them.  How could that be?  Because of a mutually exclusive issue that might be one of the greatest dangers we face as preachers . . .

They were concerned about the horizontal reality of what people thought of them, which meant they were not concerned about the vertical reality of what God thought.  They loved getting glory from each other, rather than the glory that comes from God.

That is moral blindness.  That is the principle of the interpreter’s heart.  If my heart is concerned about what people think of me, I may well be blind to the truth of the text I claim to understand and then proclaim to others.  If you preach, ponder this principle prayerfully – it is one we cannot afford to miss.

 

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97 Luther Thoughts for Preachers – Part 8

97LutherContinuing my preacher’s journey through Luther’s lesser known 97 theses:

68. Therefore it is impossible to fulfill the law in any way without the grace of God.

The gravitational pull of a post Genesis 3 world will always pull us toward a morality that is bereft of the presence of God. This is the tendency we have: to try to be like God, apart from God. Let’s never settle for obedient compliance over genuine relationship with God by His Spirit.

69. As a matter of fact, it is more accurate to say that the law is destroyed by nature without the grace of God.
70. A good law will of necessity be bad for the natural will.
71. Law and will are two implacable foes without the grace of God.

I want to leave these theses rather than summarizing them. As a human being I am naturally in total opposition to God being God. Telling me to behave by his rules will only incite rebellion, or . . .

72. What the law wants, the will never wants, unless it pretends to want it out of fear or love.

Unless the person is fearfully self-protective, or loving self in some way. Thus the written code will gain a variety of responses, from younger brother rebellion to older brother self-righteousness, but nothing on this continuum is actually a good result. Seems hopeless?

73. The law, as taskmaster of the will, will not be overcome except by the “child, who has been born to us” [Isa. 9:6].

Our only hope is Christ himself. Apart from him we are deeply in trouble with a terrible foe. So as a preacher? I must, must, must preach Christ – the only hope. But if I reduce Christ and start to preach law in some way, the result will not be greater godliness.

74. The law makes sin abound because it irritates and repels the will [Rom. 7:13].
75. The grace of God, however, makes justice abound through Jesus Christ because it causes one to be pleased with the law.

Only the grace of God can create a new taste, a new inner relish…hang on, I am drifting into Jonathan Edwards now. God can do what the law never could, stirring the heart with a new appetite for good.

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Preaching and the Tone of the Message

ToneHead2So assuming we agree that the tone matters, how are we to arrive at the tone of a message?  Three steps are needed here:

1. Consider the tone of the text.

As we develop sensitivity to the text and the setting of the text, we should be increasingly effective at grasping the tone of the author.  We need to go for a humble confidence rather than a brash confidence in this.  We are looking at lots of factors and weighing them up.

2. Consider the listeners to the message.

Who are you preaching to, and what is the occasion of the sermon?  Sometimes the occasion will influence the tone significantly (i.e. a funeral), sometimes it will be less significant.  It is not enough, though, to figure out the tone of the text and replicate that.  That text needs to be preached with sensitivity to these listeners.

3. Consider yourself as a preacher.

What is your natural or default tone?  Do you have a theological bias?  For instance, do you see everything as duty and expectation?  Do you see everything as gentle and joyful?  Do you turn any passage into a guilt trip?  The better you know yourself, the better you will be at selecting tone on purpose rather than defaulting into a tone that is less than helpful.

When you have evaluated all these factors, then there is still a bit more to consider.  Next time I’ll blog about the dangers and the needs as we think about preaching tone.

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Your Default Preaching Tone

ToneHead2When you preach, you probably have a default tone.  Most of us do.  If we are going to preach the Bible effectively, we need to get to know the tone of the text and the tone that we will default to using.  Only then can we think through effective communication in respect to the tone of the sermon.

So what is your default tone?  Here are a few possibilities to get us started.  You should certainly listen to yourself on a recording, and you would be wise to ask some listeners how they would describe it!

A. Dull Deliverer - This preacher is generally flat in tone.  Not much variation, not much energy, not much life.  This is a hard one to spot in the mirror as we tend to find ourselves more compelling than others do.

B. Energizer Engager - This is the opposite: pure energy and continual variation in tone (albeit mostly enthusiasm).  Massive energy, excessive movement, a tiring experience for most listeners, unless they are so relieved by the contrast it provides to a diet of dull deliverers, then they will be complimentary for a while.

C. Critical Cleric - This preacher is generally judgmental in tone.  Whatever the text, whatever the situation, whatever the opportunity for leadership and encouragement, the message will probably come across as a finger wagging critique of the listeners or the culture.  As with every default, this will get some affirmation. You can critique culture mercilessly in a way that would unhelpfully offend any visitor, but some in the congregation will celebrate you “saying it like it is” or something similar.  Don’t evaluate tone on feedback, but do get feedback to evaluate the tone!

D. Gym General - This preacher is similar to the Critical Cleric, but the emphasis is on pressurizing the listeners.  Instead of just critiquing, there is a continual arm twisting going on.  No amount of application is ever enough, so do more, more, more.  Again, some people are attracted by fleshly ascetic religiosity, so this approach will be affirmed.  That doesn’t make it healthy though.

E. Cheery Chatterer - This preacher looks like he thinks he is in a wedding photo shoot.  Upbeat, smiling incessantly, nice and happy, perhaps even plastic in tone.  It is good to smile and be warm.  It is good to connect with your listeners.  It is good to remember that the God we represent should be evident in our manner and demeanor.  Consequently, let’s be careful not to come across as simply cheery all the time.  God is good, but He is not an unauthentic salesperson.

F. Rushed Reteller - This preacher has more to say than time to say it.  Consequently everything has to go at a clip in order to fit.  Information transfer gives way to information statement and all aspects of effective delivery give way to the one over-riding goal of saying the message.

What would you add to this list of default preaching tones?  There are many more out there.

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Preaching The Tone

ToneHead2I’d like to point our thoughts to the issue of tone in preaching.  Not just our tone, but also the tone of the text.  Let’s start there.

Good Bible Study – Good Bible study methodology has to include awareness of context, both written and historical, as well as content, both details and flow of thought.  In fact, that is a fairly good summary of good inductive Bible study.  Looking at both context and content, we try to make sense of a passage.  If we lose any of those four elements, we won’t understand it properly.

Without historical context/setting, we will import our own culture into the meaning of the text.  Without written context we will pluck passages from the larger flow of thought in their particular book.  Without attention to flow of thought we will be explaining apparently random details and probably using them to springboard to our own systematic theology categories.  Without attention to details we will make errors in grasping the meaning.

Better Bible Study – As good as context and content are, without looking at the author’s intent we will not really grasp the meaning of a passage.  Again, there are at least two broad indicators of intent:

1. Stated intent – if the writer tells us why he is writing and what he is trying to achieve, that is great.

2. Tone of text – this is more subjective, but there will be plenty of clues in the text.  Unless we ponder the tone of the text, I would argue that we are not in a position to claim understanding or to write down the main idea of the passage.

Tone Matters – In any communication tone matters.  Every spouse knows this.  Every child knows this.  Every friend knows this.  And in written communication, tone is not always easy to spot.  How many times have people misunderstood your emails or text (do you even know?)  I can’t imagine that the Bible writers were oblivious to tone in their writing, and they probably gave attention to the tone that they intended to communicate.

Before we can preach a passage effectively, we need to understand it.  Before we can understand it, we need to pay attention to the tone.

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