10 Pointers for Special Occasion Preaching

10 targetsoPreaching at a wedding, a funeral, a baptism, a baby dedication, or some other special occasion is a great opportunity to preach to people who would normally not be sitting in the church.  Here are 10 pointers to ponder.

1. It isn’t about you – Don’t try to draw attention to yourself.  At a wedding, people are there for the couple.  At a funeral it is about the deceased and their family. It isn’t about you.  Don’t try to draw attention your way.  Gracious service to others goes a long way.

2. It isn’t the time to be clever – Don’t preach in character with a costume at a funeral.  Don’t attempt a complex science demonstration for an illustration in a wedding sermon.  There are times to preach with creativity and originality, but the special occasion is not one of those times.

3. It is a good time to communicate the gospel, gently – Unless strongly invited to go strong, the best approach is prayerful gracious gospel presentation.  People typically need more than one exposure, so it probably isn’t the moment for an altar call, but it is a key moment for those who are present.  Remember that pushing too hard does not increase the effectiveness of the gospel, but it might increase the negative impact for those who do not respond.

4. Your regulars don’t need originality – If you need to say things that are familiar to regulars, so be it, they will know what you are doing.

5. Don’t come across as a sales pitch – We meet at this time, we have good snacks, we’d love to see you next Sunday, etc.  Cringe.  Serve the people getting married, burying a loved one, getting baptised, or whatever, don’t look like you are taking advantage for the sake of the church.

6. Graciously demonstrate that this is not a service for hire – Visitors may assume that you are speaking because they paid a fee and therefore you showed up.  If you know the people involved, by all means let some humanness come through so visitors know that you know the people involved.

7. Personalise where you can – Was there a favourite passage or hymn for the deceased?  Does the person getting baptized have a favourite passage (less likely with infant baptism!)  I spoke at a baptism for a lady and asked about this – she loved James.  So I gulped, and preached the gospel from James.  It set her up for conversations on familiar territory with the multiple guests coming to see her baptism.

8. Recognise the uniqueness of the occasion – You may do a lot of weddings, funerals, baptisms, etc., but this is a genuinely special occasion for all involved.  Pray accordingly.  Preach accordingly.  Do not have one funeral sermon to squeeze into any funeral.  Don’t speak as if a known sinner was a secret saint.  Don’t preach about marriage to a “golden years” couple as if they are in their twenties.

9. Watch the length of the sermon – It is generally wise to be shorter than you would be on a normal Sunday, but it is not as simple as “be shorter than visitors expect.”  If they have limited exposure to some church backgrounds then anything over 6 minutes is too long.  But recognising that caveat, generally it is better to preach for 15-20 minutes than 35-45 on a special occasion.

10. Undermine expectations wisely – They may expect formal, this doesn’t mean you should try to shock with your attire or vocabulary.  However, a genuinely heartfelt message with warmth and sincerity may rock their world.  Do it.

There is much more that could be said here . . . feel free to add your experience, observations and thoughts in the comments below.

Previously in this series we have had 10 pointers for younger preachers, older preachers, trained preachers, untrained preachers, preaching Easter and team preaching.

7 Thoughts on Relevance in Preaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

F. Conclusion – see point #1, above.

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

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

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

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

Turning Blah Blah to Wow!

wow2A lot of people in our churches read a lot of the Bible as filler and waffle.  They wouldn’t state that overtly, of course.  After all, it is the word of God!  But actually, in practice, a lot of the Bible is read without real engagement.  Consider the epistles, for instance.  Why does this phenomena occur?

1. Because of complex sentences.  It can be hard for any of us to truly track a sequence of sentences from Paul.

2. Because of unfamiliar words.  Stewardship. Saints. Manifold. Rulers.  Not necessarily unknown words, but not words most people tend to use in normal life.

3. Because it seems to lack direct relevance.  We can’t help but look for what it is saying “to me,” which means the rest can seem distant or theoretical.

4. Because of familiar words.  Hang on, didn’t we say unfamiliar words were the issue?  Actually, Christian terms can grow too familiar – grace, given, revelation, promise, gospel, church, wisdom, boldness, confidence.

I am looking at Ephesians 3:1-13, for an example.  Paul begins a prayer in verse 1 and then gets distracted before returning to the prayer in verse 14.  Why does he get distracted?  Because he mentions his imprisonment for the sake of “you Gentiles.”  This triggers his explanation of why those Gentiles in Ephesus shouldn’t feel the way they probably do feel – i.e. losing heart.  (Actually, it was Trophimus, sent from Ephesus, who indirectly led to Paul’s arrest and imprisonment in Acts 20, so they probably felt an extra burden over Paul’s imprisonment!)

So to lift their hearts regarding his sufferings for them, and therefore to make clear their glory (i.e. their value expressed in his sufferings as part of God’s plan), Paul goes off on a theological digression that should thrill our hearts as well as it did theirs!

But instead most people read it as “blah blah blah…Gentiles…blah blah…grace…blah blah…wisdom…blah blah blah”

Enter the biblical preacher!

The preacher’s role, is, in part, to slow people down in this text and to help them make sense of what Paul is actually saying.  No word is wasted, and no word should be lost under an indiscriminate “blah blah” flyover reading.  So?

1. God gave Paul a key role in unveiling new news – God gave Paul a key role in his forever plan for the sake of the Gentile believers, which was to reveal the momentous new news of the Gentile co-equality in the gospel!

2. God gave Paul grace to preach Christ and explain the news – God gave the ultimate-sinful-nobody, Paul, grace to do two things – first, to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ; and second, to make clear God’s great plan, the new news about the Gentiles.  Why? So that the church can be God’s trophy cabinet to show off his multi-coloured wisdom to the spiritual realms!

3. God’s plan gives us Gentiles stunning boldness! – God’s plan in Christ means that we Gentiles have ridiculous boldness when it comes to entering God’s presence (don’t forget the temple imagery in the previous section)!

So, the Gentiles in Ephesus shouldn’t lose heart, but instead they should be thrilled at their glory/value demonstrated in Paul’s suffering for their sake!

This is true for us too, just as the scars of Christ are beautiful to us because they show God’s love for us.

(I wouldn’t preach these three points as they stand, but I would make it my aim to help listeners hear the content of a section like this, turning the blah blah blah into Wow! after Wow!)

How Do You Pray for Fellow Believers?

PrayingHands2There is a strange phenomena in the church when it comes to praying for people.  Obviously this is a generalisation, but I have observed it enough to suggest that it may be a pattern.

When people become followers of Jesus our prayers for them seem to change.  Before they are saved we pray for God to work in their lives and circumstances, for their hearts to be drawn to Christ, for the spiritual blindness to be taken away, etc.  Once they trust Christ and are in the family, then what do we pray for? Often it seems to shift to the more mundane matters of health and career.

This is not just the case in church prayer meetings, but also among leaders too.  I know that I am tempted to pray more fervently and more “spiritually” for those who are outside God’s family, or for those who are on the fringes.  But for those who seem to be doing well in human terms?  It is tempting to assume all is well.

Take a look at Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians in 1:15-23.  He begins by referencing how thankful he is for their faith in Christ and love for the saints.  These are healthy believers – they have a vertical relationship that is spilling into their horizontal relationships.  These are the kind of people I am tempted to bypass as I pray.  Not so for Paul!

The One Thing – He goes on to make clear the one thing that he prays for them: that the Father might give them the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him!  That is, Paul prays for these believers to know God.  Simple.  Or is it profound?

Clearly he doesn’t mean that he wants them to “come to know” God, but to grow in their knowing Him.  He wants their relationship with God to go deeper, that the union they have with Christ should become more vibrant and developed.  (Remember that “in Christ” occurs almost forty times in Ephesians – union with Christ is a massive theme in the letter.)

I suspect many of us who have a passion to see the lost brought to salvation may fall into the trap of then missing the growth potential that exists for a believer.  There is so much more than just getting saved and then telling others, there is massive potential for spiritual growth and maturity.

The Three Things – Paul spells out this one prayer request with three specifics.  He wants God to enlighten the eyes of their hearts to know three things.

First, he wants them to know the absolute certainty of their calling in Christ.  We have churches filled with people who carry the label of Christian, and yet have all manner of uncertainty and confusion over God’s calling on their lives.

Second, he wants them to know that they are God’s inheritance – an inheritance He considers to be gloriously rich!  This is not something new believers readily grasp.  Just as it takes a wife many years to truly believe that her husband really loves her, so it is with God’s people.

Third, he wants them to know how much power there is toward them as they trust God for it.  That is, is there enough power for a life like mine to be truly transformed by the gospel?  Is there enough power for me to be raised from my sinful state of death to do the works God has prepared for me to do?  There is if that power is the same power that raised Christ from the dead, seated him in glory, put all enemies under his feet and made him head over the church!

Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians is incredibly encouraging for us to read.  More than that, it is deeply challenging to recognize that this prayer was prayed for those who were already faithful and loving.  Let’s not bypass those that seem healthy and established in our churches and in our ministry spheres.  Let’s pray for them, and for ourselves too, to be growing in our relationship with God, knowing more profoundly the reality of our hope, his inheritance and the abundance of power available!

Genre Shock

Shock2Can a church experience genre shock?  Maybe.

Let’s say you have been preaching through a narrative series – perhaps a gospel or the life of Abraham or David.  Then you start a series in Romans.  This could be a shock.  From flowing plots and character development to tight and complex logical sentences, abstract theological explanations and loaded terminology.

Is there a way to ease the transition?  And if there is, is it necessary?  I would say probably not in most cases, unless the last series has been a long one and the shift in genre is stark.

Here’s how not to avoid genre shock – preach every text as if it is an epistle.  This is certainly a popular approach for some, but it has real weaknesses.  For instance, narratives get choked by multiplied principles and preaching points.  Poetry gets dissected so that the emotive force of the imagery is lost in a torrent of triple-pointed outlines.  And epistles feel like more of the same, when they should be like theological dynamite for the life of the church.  Let’s not go with this “every-text-an-epistle” approach.

Here are a couple of ways to transition from one series to another of a vastly different genre.  I am certainly not saying these ideas are necessary, but they certainly are ideas:

1. A genre intro message – Let’s say you are going from a gospel to a prophet.  Instead of diving into the complexity of apparently disordered prophetic burdens about places we’ve never heard of, why not preach a message that introduces people to the blessings of being in the prophets . . . and then start into the specific book the week after.  This might allow time in a more familiar passage by way of transition and preparation.

2. A new series intro message – Let’s say you are going from the Life of David to an epistle.  Instead of getting bogged down in the opening verses and complex sentences, why not introduce the series with the story of the letter.  If it’s history is rooted in Acts, then you have the chance to give the setting in a narrative fashion.  Tell the story, set the scene, taste the epistle by previewing the series and maybe put the main idea of the book up front so it doesn’t get lost in the progression of passage after passage.

3. A big story bridge message – Let’s say you are going from Genesis to John or Philippians.  Instead of forgetting Genesis like yesterday’s newspaper, why not take a message to trace the story you saw in Genesis through the canon to set up the next book?  Most people in our churches do not know the big biblical story as they could.  Why not use a message to trace the story forwards and set up the next series?

Whatever you do, make sure the transition message actually has a main idea and is not mere buffering.  You may be preaching something creative, but be sure you are preaching something.

6 Ways To Be a Whole Bible Preacher

OpenBible3Some preachers have their pet books and topics, but how can I be a whole Bible preacher?  Here are six suggestions to get us started:

1. Read the whole Bible.  Seems obvious, but if you only read certain bits, then you will probably only preach from certain bits.  Read the whole thing as if God wrote it and reveals Himself there (which He does).  Remember, reading for 10 minutes a day will get you through in a year, but you will be reading with a noisy mind and heart.  It is easier to read for 30+ minutes a day and enjoy the clear heart and mind that comes beyond about 10 minutes.  Easier to read more?  Yep.

2. Preach from the whole Bible.  Don’t go at it a chapter at a time.  Instead, keep track of where in the Bible you are preaching.  When you need to pick a new series or a standalone message, take a look at where you haven’t been for a while…prophets, OT history, wisdom literature, Revelation?

3. Preach with whole Bible awareness.  When you preach a passage, preach that passage.  Don’t go crazy trying to quote the rest of the Bible in that message (many seem to have this as their great goal, bizarrely).  However, preach that passage with an awareness of the whole Bible.  Your awareness of the whole will gradually help others to see how the different parts work together.

4. Preach a whole Bible series.  I have a good friend who picked the ten key passages to tell the big picture story – the Bible in Ten.  Could you tell the big story over 6 weeks, how about 4, or maybe go big and do a whole year / whole Bible series? Any whole Bible series will be good for you, and I can almost guarantee there will be people in your church who will be helped by getting out of the details to see the bigger picture unfold.

5. Preach a whole Bible message.  Can it be done in a single message?  Why not?  Actually, I’ve never done this, but how about a series of whole Bible messages?  One week trace the fall and redemption from beginning to end.  Another week follow the seed promise from Genesis to Galatians.  Another week trace the biblical covenants.  Another one on God’s presence.  Another on five key characters (Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus – you pick the number).  Another from the perspective of heaven and spiritual warfare.  Creation to new creation.  I could go on, but that big picture overview multiple times, if done well, could set some folks on fire for the Bible!

6. Offer a whole Bible seminar.  Why not break people out of their passive pew position?  Interactively trace the story of the Bible on a white board for a couple of hours (this has been an amazing experience for many in our context).  One I’d love to try is to take a group on a journey through the Bible using a large hall and a rough map (tape on the floor). Be creative – outside of a formal church service there is all sorts of freedom!

Biggest Mistakes Preachers Make

Slip2This week I want to share some of the biggest mistakes preachers make.  Actually, these are the biggest mistakes I have probably made.  Perhaps this can help others pondering the wonderful privilege of preaching the Bible!
Mistake 1 – Simply Harvesting Imperatives
It feels easy, and it feels right, to turn proclamation into imperative presentation.  All you have to do is present the text and then make sure people know the imperatives: the “must do” or “should do” or “best do” of the passage.  Whether or not there is technically an imperative in the text, we so easily turn a passage into mere instruction and press for change as we preach.
Sidebar: Introducing the Imperative
The mood is one of several features of a verb.  In Greek, for instance, there are four moods: indicative, subjunctive, optative and imperative.  The mood presents the verbal action or state with regards to the verb’s actuality or potentiality.  The imperative mood is concerned with intention.  Thus the most common use of the imperative is to express a command.  However, it would be wrong to collapse imperative into commands (or assume all commands are imperative).  An imperative can be used to forbid an action (prohibition), to express a request (such as in prayer), a sense of resignation, a pronouncement, a condition, or even just a greeting.  So? Simply identifying and harvesting imperatives is not a shortcut to an instructional/applied sermon!

Remember the Context – Typically the epistles will offer lists of instructions, but never in isolation.  The chapter breaks and section headings may segregate a set of instructions or commands, but the letters were written as a coherent whole.  We are to present our bodies as living sacrifices . . . in view of God’s mercies.  We are to walk in a manner worthy . . . of the calling we have received.  We are to set our hearts on things above, where Christ is . . . the Christ presented in the first half of Colossians!

Remember the Mechanism – As long as we think lives are transformed by the pressure we can apply in our preaching, our ministry will be desperately restricted.  Lives are transformed by pointing the gaze of listeners’ hearts toward Christ.  In Christ, in Christ, in Christ . . . so walk worthy.  The captivating truth of what God has done in Christ is preached, the Spirit works in the heart, an appetite to please God comes forth like sap in a fruit tree, and the instructions are there to guide the growth.

Forget the Short-Cut – It feels like a short-cut: just find imperatives, or turn some content into imperative, and then pressure people.  You will even get encouraging feedback (the flesh loves this stuff!)  But you won’t see much true, genuine, abundant growth.  Forget the short-cut and preach the text, in context, pointing to the God it reveals, and the growth may be imperceptible (good fruit growth isn’t instant), but it will be definite, genuine, multiplying, healthy, Christ-honoring, loving, joyful, peaceful, etc., fruitful growth!

 

Help! My Listeners Aren’t Satisfied!

NegativeFeedback2Preaching is a complex ministry. Consider the issue of listener satisfaction. If listeners aren’t satisfied, it could be a good sign, or it could be a bad sign.  In the same way, happy listeners may mean something is wrong.

So what to do?  How can we navigate the issue of listener satisfaction?  What should it mean for our preaching?  What should it mean for our hearts?

Here are 10 thoughts to ponder:

1. Recognize “over-blurt” – Many folks in churches struggle to express negative thoughts effectively.  Perhaps it is because they never do it (unlikely), or perhaps it is because they feel guilty doing it (at least to a preacher).  Consequently many will hold back unsuccessfully and then over-blurt what they are trying to say.  A gentle critique then comes across as a cataclysmic slap to the face of the preacher (hopefully metaphorically speaking).

Instead of saying “I struggle with his style of delivery,” or “it is difficult to relate to sporting illustrations all the time,” they end up saying things like, “he should never again speak to more than two people at once!,” or “his message was filled with damnable heresy!”  Oops.  Over-blurt.

It is possible to get microphones that condense sound into a middle range – i.e. toning down the shout and strengthening the whisper.  We need to learn this skill as preachers.  Over-blurt attacks need to be toned down before they are processed.  (But be careful your ego doesn’t remove or ignore any negative elements whatsoever!)

Remember that toning down excessive praise can also be very important too.  (“That was the best sermon I ever heard!!!” probably wasn’t.)

2. Recognize “misdirected fire” – that is to say, tension fired your way will often have very little to do with you or your preaching. People will react to the innocent provocation of their pet peeves, or the poking of raw nerves of various kinds. They may also be having a bad week with issues at home, at work, in their personal lives, etc.  You may become the focus of the critique, but don’t take all critique at face value.  Sadly, being willing to be a leader in the church means choosing to be shot at, primarily by Christians.

There’s more to come, but please comment from your perspective, are these points on target?  (Feel free to comment on Twitter, @PeterMead #ListenerSatisfaction)

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.

5 Radars Every Preacher Needs – #3

RadarScreen2So far we’ve pondered a radar needed in textual study, and another needed in considering our own theological assumptions.  As preachers we mustn’t go too far without thinking of the listeners, so here’s another early warning system to ask God to develop in you for your growth as a preacher:

Radar 3. Resistance Radar (in your listeners)

It is naïve to think that clearly explained and relevantly applied Bible passages will automatically result in changed lives.  More mature preachers prayerfully ponder where their listeners will resist what the biblical text is presenting.  This radar can only be fully developed by knowing the people you are preaching to each week.  Perhaps this radar has two tones of beep.

A. The first is a human nature beep (i.e. people everywhere tend to resist in this regard).  It doesn’t matter what the culture, or the education levels, or the demographics of the community, or the age of the listeners . . . some truths are universally resisted or twisted.  Grace is a prime example.  It is not a lack of understanding that makes us resist God’s grace, it is our fallenness.  We don’t want God to be God, and we want to be God.  But to receive God’s grace without some effort at payment or cooperation, that is to admit that I am not God and I need God.  We must not think that this does not apply to those who have received Christ and joined God’s family . . . our flesh still rebels and seeks to corrupt God’s grace into an exercise in shared effort.  It may be as illogical as a starving person turning down food, but in a post Genesis 3 world, it makes perfect sense for us to resist or twist grace.

B. The second is a specific humans beep (i.e. this congregation, or this individual, will resist this message because of such and such). When you know the people in your church, then you can better spot where the resistance will come.  Maybe it is not grace, the example I gave above, that is the point of resistance for some in your church.  Maybe it is the notion of close relationship with God.  Perhaps the notion of a loving father is frightening to some.  Maybe holiness has been perilously pickled in the perspective of some.  Perhaps legalism has turned some listeners into collectors of instruction, rather than seekers of wisdom.

Grow in understanding of humans in general, and people in your church in particular, so that this radar becomes well tuned and messages can more effectively hit home.