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.


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!


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.

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!

A Quick 9-Point Illustration Checklist

Lamp2A lot is said about the importance of illustrations in preaching. Some of it is true. Hopefully this quick checklist will be helpful as you plan your next message:

1. People need to see what you are saying, which means preaching an image and not just a concept.

2. What images are right there in the preaching text for you?  Poetry, wisdom, and prophecy are packed with visual imagery.  Narrative is imagery.  Epistles can give less images to use, but check the context and remember the setting (that is a narrative).

3. Before you jump to adding other illustrations, could you do a better job of describing what is in the text more effectively?

4. Don’t add illustrations.  Be more purposeful than that.  Add explanations where necessary.  Add proofs where needed.  Add applications where you can.  Remember, an “illustration” is a vague entity often used without good purpose.  Much better to purposefully add exactly what is needed at any given point in a message.

5. Are you adding material to add interest?  Slow down, what are you saying?  Is the text boring?  Are you boring?  You might be, but the text shouldn’t be.  Consider whether you are underlining the relevance of the text by what you add, or are you underlining the assumption that the text is irrelevant?  If you aren’t convinced the text is incredibly relevant, please spend time in prayer and personal study, not in searching for illustrative material.

6. Explanations should add light to your presentation of the text.  Proofs should add weight to your preaching of the text.  Applications should add relevance to your explanation of the text.  Whatever you are adding, is it distracting focus from the text and from the God revealed in the text?  If so, think twice.

7. How long does that added material need to be?  Sometimes we can get so caught up in the “illustration” that we take an age to emerge the other end.  That is unfortunate and will mean that the weight of presentation is imbalanced.  Sometimes we offer added material too quickly and don’t allow time for the necessary clarity to emerge.  This is unfortunate because such material would then qualify as “distractions” rather than “illustrations.”  Actually, if we take too long or are too brief, either way we distract and the time is wasted.

8. How relevant is your added material? If you are taking listeners to a whole new realm (i.e. the civil war or feudal Japan), then you are going to have to paint a whole new picture with lots of detail.  Is it worth it?  Try to add material that is both relevant to them and helps with a sense of the relevance of the text.  (Incidentally, this means that illustrating with other Bible passages may not be as helpful as you were trained to believe!)

9. Preach so that the main idea is communicated clearly and relevantly, so that listeners encounter the God revealed in the text and are invited to respond to Him.  Where necessary and helpful, “illustrate.”  And when you do, make sure listeners are still pointed toward God and not distracted by gazing at themselves.

What would you add to this list?

10 Listener Fatigues

yawningman2When listeners listen to preaching there are many different fatigues that can undermine the effectiveness of our preaching.  If we are aware of these fatigues, then maybe we can craft our preaching with sensitivity to the listeners.  Let’s jump into the list:

1. Genre Fatigue.  Each genre will tend to create a sense of same-ness in a series.  Let’s say you are preaching through an epistle for weeks and weeks.  Eventually, if we are not careful, the default patterns will prove tiring to listeners.  For instance, the description of historical background, the complex sentences in the text, the pattern of explanation and application, etc. can all become a bit too similar week after week.  Look for ways to be creative in such a series so that there is variation.  (Many of the following “fatigues” will help to see how this variation can be found.)

2. Key Text Fatigue.  Many Bible books contain a key text that will tend to be repeatedly referenced throughout the series.  For instance, any series in Colossians should probably reference 1:15-20, and maybe 3:1-4, to make sense of the subsequent sections.  This can get tiring for listeners, especially if the vocabulary of Colossians 1:15-20 is not really understood by the listeners.  Look for ways to reference the key text with variety – simple summaries, variations in wording, different styles of phraseology, but without losing recognition of what is being referenced.  Reference it without the reference.  Don’t always be overt, but let subtlety in reference to the key text be part of the series too.

3. Main Point Fatigue.  A true series of sermons through a book should be reinforcing the main point of the book, not just providing the launch texts for entirely disconnected messages.  But beware that listeners don’t get bored or annoyed by the repetition of the main point.  Keeping with Colossians, it is true that Paul could hardly do more to point us to Christ as the all sufficient one for salvation and growth, but figure out ways to preach the series so that listeners don’t start getting annoyed at hearing that we need to look to Christ in everything.

We’ll continue the list tomorrow…