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…

Christlike versus Like Christ

Like2If the goal of sanctification is for people to become more like Christ, what is the best way for our preaching to help people get there?  Perhaps the obvious way is not the most effective way . . .

The obvious way to nudge people toward Christlikeness is to preach about Christlikeness.  You take a passage and then what do you look for?  You might look to find any instructions, derive some applicational points, determine how Christ’s character is presented, identify some kind of divine demand, etc.  Essentially, the obvious way to promote Christlikeness is to present Christlikeness and encourage Christlikeness in your listeners.  Focus on character, focus on us.  Apply, exhort, encourage.

There is a better way.

Turn the words around.  Do your listeners like Christ?  Do you?  Christ did not come to the world merely to show us a new way to live.  He came to give us life in union with Him.  The life of the Trinity is given to us in Christ.  This means that Christlikeness will not flow primarily from Christlikeness explained and demanded.  Christlikeness will come  from liking Christ, from loving Him, from knowing and worshipping Him.

Preach so as to present Christ.  Offer the person of Christ rather than a programme for self-improvement.  Invite people to know Him and to love Him.  As the Spirit draws people to Christ, they will grow to like Him and to live like Him.  As the text you are preaching presents instruction, then offer that faithfully in the context of relationship with Christ.

Christlikeness isn’t the goal of preaching for sanctification, it is the fruit.  The goal must be to stir greater love for God that results in greater love for others, and love will be stirred not by demand, but by presentation of God’s love revealed in Christ.  Inasmuch as we like Christ, we will grow to live Christ-like lives.

Tightly Woven? On Being Biblical

wovenfabric2Being biblical is like being a woven fabric.  Woven fabric can be very strong, or it can be flimsy.  Two sets of threads are woven together at right angles.  When the warp and the weft threads are both numerous and tight, then the fabric will have real strength.

Warp – imagine this to be your understanding of the Bible, book by book.  Each book is like a thread, and the more you know it the stronger the thread.  Know the structure, the flow, the situation, the purpose, the details that make it what it is.  To be biblical we need to be people who get to know Bible books.  (In fact, each Bible book turns out to be like woven fabric too, but pushing the analogy to woven fabric made up of the threads of woven fabric might become too complex for non-weavers like me!)

Weft – imagine this to be your understanding of the Bible, theme by theme.  Great themes are like a thread, and the more you know them, them the stronger the thread.  Know the themes and where they touch down in the flow of the canon.  Some touch down only periodically (think Melchizedek – Gen.14, Psa.110, Hebrews 7), while others are woven throughout almost every page (think sin and its effects, for instance).

Too many people in our churches have great gaps in the fabric of their biblical awareness.  Great blocks of books are untouched.  Thematic threads are unknown.  Sadly, too many preachers have bare patches and weak weaving in their biblical knowledge.  A collection of proof texts and favourite passages, combined with one or two key themes, will not make for biblical preaching, or even biblical living.

Three quick suggestions:

1. Be sure to be reading the whole Bible – sweep through it to get the big picture.  You will find that reading good chunks will captivate in a way that close study alone never can.  You will start to see how the books flow and how they flow together.  You will start to become familiar with themes that may have remained hidden in close study alone.

2. Be sure to study the Bible book by book – take a book and let it get to grips with you.  The building blocks, or perhaps, the warp threads of our biblical understanding has to be book by book for there to be any substance and strength to our being biblical as believers and then as preachers.  Get to know the fabric of each book: the sections as they build, the themes as they weave through.

3. Be sure to enjoy the biblical themes – start to identify and follow the themes of Scripture.  Some have done this exclusively, following threads without awareness of context.  This is a weak approach.  Others have ignored the themes and only focused on one passage at a time.  This also is weak.  We need both.  Start to enjoy the promise theme starting in Genesis 3:15 – I loved tracing the theme of both the promise and the presence of the Promiser in Pleased to Dwell.  What about holiness, or God’s heart, or themes of sonship, of marriage, of divine surprise, etc.?

Pray and ask God to show you where the fabric of your biblical awareness is threadbare.  Read and weave and enjoy.

12 Pointers for Effective Epistle Exposition (pt.3)

envelope2And to finish off this series of pointers on preaching epistles, here are the final four:

9. Root imperatives in their own soil.  It is tempting to simply harvest imperatives and preach a to-do list.  Don’t.  Instead let each imperative be felt in its own context, including the earlier sections of the epistle where our gaze was pointed to Christ.  Don’t let application sections become self-focused when they actually are intended to present guidance for what flows from the doctrinal sections.

10. Be clear.  You can never be too clear in the way you structure the message and present the content.  Look for ways to help your listeners follow you, and also follow the author in his thought.

11. Preach the text.  The church has a full history of preaching messages from texts, but instead preach the message of the text.  There is a world of difference.  God inspired the Bible as it stands, He doesn’t promise to inspire every thought that is provoked in our minds as we read the text.

12. Engage in conversation.  Don’t just sit alone with your preaching notes.  Get into conversation.  First, with God.  Second, with others – commentaries and co-preachers, as well as listeners, etc.  Conversation about your sermon will almost always improve your sermon!

12 Pointers for Effective Epistle Exposition (pt.2)

envelope2Continuing the brief list of a dozen pointers from yesterday…here are four more:

5. Master the whole.  Don’t just preach chunk by chunk through the epistle without getting to grips with the flow of the whole.  You cannot accurately preach a portion of an epistle without a good grasp of how the whole is working together.

6. Get the author’s logic.  Don’t read a section and look for three preachable parallel points.  Instead wrestle with what the author is trying to do in this particular section.  Sermon outlines can always adjust to fit the text, and they should do so.  Don’t adjust the text to fit your outline.

7. Preach to today.  Don’t just present a set of commentary labels and then try to apply “back then” truths to today.  Instead, preach the text to today, and go “back then” to substantiate what you are saying.  Wrestle with how that audience is similar to, and different from, your audience today.

8. Let truth be felt.  Epistles can lull us into a false sense of abstraction.  Don’t give theological theory, preach the gospel applied to real life (both then and now).  Preach tangibly, use implicit imagery, be vivid, help images to form on the heart-screens of your listeners.

The final four tomorrow.

4 Common Ways to Mis-Distill a Passage

distill2The process of moving from passage to message involves distilling the passage text down to the passage idea.  The goal is a single sentence summary of the passage – a more concentrated representation of the whole.  I find the image of distilling the text helpful because it suggests that the details, the character, the tone and the balance of the passage should all influence the final statement of the passage idea.

But we humans love to short-cut.

When we short-cut this process we can seriously mis-distill what is there, with the end result that the passage idea does not carry the true content, nor the character, of the passage we claim to be preaching.

Here are 4 ways to mis-distill in preaching prep:

1. Seek out the best verse. Occasionally a passage conveys its main idea in a single verse (and everything else in the passage is related to that verse).  Typically this is not so.  Don’t pick a punchy verse and primarily preach just that.  Your goal is to summarise the whole text, so that the whole text is influencing the single sentence summary.

2. Seek out a meaty truth. Always a lively temptation, we must resist this. If your goal is to be a biblical preacher, then don’t abuse the Bible by using it to preach your weighty doctrines of choice.  Preach the Bible text itself.  The passage you are studying may beep on your theological radar and cause you to ponder its broader implications (hopefully challenging and changing your theology, rather than the influence going the other way).  It takes prayerful care to make sure a minor point in a section does not take over because it happens to be a major theological issue for you.

3. Seek out imperatives. Speaking of your theology . . . if your theology says that people are essentially self-moved and need to be both informed and exhorted to action, then you will probably get over-excited when you spot imperatives of any sort.  “Aha!  Action points!  I sense a sermon!”  Take a deep breath and look carefully.  The process that takes you from passage to passage idea is one of distilling the weight of the whole into a single sentence.  It is not an imperatival mood filter that strains out all content to leave a me-focused to-do list.  What is the passage doing in its context?  What is going on in the passage?  What is the nature and function of the imperative details in the passage?  Seek to preach the passage, not to be a purveyor of preachy points.

4. Seek out triggers for your pet points.  This could be theological pet points or imperatival pet points.  It could also be cross-referencing pet points (“Cool, I can preach Romans 3 under the guise of this passage too!”), or historical background pet points (“Great, this reference to the circumcision party will allow me to explain first century Israeli politics, my favourite subject!”), or church/cultural commentary pet points (“Jesus tells him to go to the priest, which is good because I want to critique our contemporary church culture on slack church attendance!”)  Find a better venue for sharing your pet points, but don’t sabotage any biblical preaching opportunity to do so.

When you are wrestling with a passage, be sure to distill the whole passage down into the passage idea.  Any other approach and you won’t be preaching the whole passage.

Explain Well – 4 More Thoughts

explain2Yesterday I shared four thoughts on how to explain a biblical text well.  Here are four more.

5. Explain visually, not just conceptually.  When an idea becomes clear to a listener, they don’t say, “Ah, I grasp your conceptual logic!”  No, people say, “Ah, I see what your saying.”  What do they see?  A clear picture of the idea being explained.  We need to engage listeners at the level of imagination.  There is a screen in the hearts of listeners and by fault it begins foggy and confused.  Clear the smoke and form images as you explain the text, or as you describe the application.  If you can see it, they will.  If you are grasping for concepts, they see smoke.

6. Let the structure do its work.  As you help people see the structure in a passage, it will begin to explain itself.  Orient listeners to the “chunks” before diving into the details.  Give a newcomer to town the landmarks before explaining details of smaller side streets.  Highlight connectives or repetition in content so the shape starts to form on the page – “Notice how many verses begin ‘By faith…’ in this section.  As you scan down the page you can see, ‘By faith…’ in verse 3, ‘By faith…’ in verse 4, etc.  Eighteen times the writer does that.  But then in verse 13 that pattern is broken.  This four verse thought in the middle is being marked out as the central pivot of the passage.  Let’s zero in on that pivot…”

7. Take people there, or bring the truth here.  Decide whether you are going to transport listeners to back then and describe things so vividly that they can smell the air, or whether you are going to bring the biblical truth to today with a contemporary simile, “this is like…”  Weak explanation tends to flow from indecision about listener location.  Take them there, or bring the Bible to today.  Actually, do both, but do both deliberately and definitely.

8. Judiciously use explanation from others.  Don’t get me wrong, there are thousands of people who are better at explaining that text than you or me.  We should be ready to take advantage of that.  But they aren’t standing where you are.  They might be Martin Luther, but your listeners may be ready to dismiss him because of some perception they have of him, or they may be hard-pressed to distinguish him from his namesake in the twentieth century.  They might be a great contemporary scholar and commentator, but your listeners may be distracted by their funny sounding name (they don’t know anything else about him/her), or by your superior learning (they don’t have books like that).  When you use someone else’s explanation, start with “one preacher put it like this…” and then add further details judiciously for your particular listeners.

Explain Well – 4 Thoughts

explain2Preaching is a complex ministry, but one of the core ingredients is effective explanation of the biblical text.  If this is removed, then it is difficult to see how what remains can be biblical preaching.

Yet it can be tempting to remove explanation.  Why not simply read a bit of Bible and then say what you want to say, making the odd vague connection?  This passes for preaching in many places.  What’s more, surely that can be more interesting than dull explanation?  Of course it can, but the answer to the problem of a poor version of something good and important is not to replace it, but to do it well.  How?

1. Recalibrate your appreciation of God’s ability as a communicator.  Unless you are gripped by the fact that God is a great communicator, everything else I say here will fail to register.  Know that if your listeners could really see the richness and relevance of what God is saying in any passage, they would be gripped and transformed.  But if you don’t see it, they are going to struggle.  Many Christians trust God to have created everything, to have worked out a redemption plan and to have final justice and a glorious eternity all worked out, but at the same time to be a poor communicator.  This is mystifying.

2. Give appropriate amounts of engaging context.  Too much context will turn the sermon into a historical lecture.  Too little will strip the text of meaning.  The biblical text is not a random set of assertions that have mystical power by virtue of inspiration.  God gave us inspired text that was always set in a historical and situational context.  Rather than being dull background stuff, this is often a key way to forge connections between the text and your listeners.  Get to know the background context and determine where the points of engagement are for your listeners today.

3. Set the scene textually.  Many of the biblical books were written to be digested whole, but we tend to cut and slice.  That doesn’t mean we have to preach a whole book in every sermon (although that is an option to consider sometimes).  It does mean that we can’t just drop people into an alien text without any orientation.  Be sure to orient your listeners to what is going on in the big picture of the book before expecting them to be gripped by the specific text of your sermon.

4. Don’t explain every word with equal effort.  Recognise that in any passage there will be a gravity centre.  Take people there and help them see why that is the case.  Explaining seven introductory clauses to get there will numb your listeners and they will lose track of the point of the passage.

Tomorrow I will add some more thoughts to this list.

7 Ways to Guard Hearts at Church

Worshippers2We have thought about guarding hearts at a conference/ministers gathering, and at Bible school.  But what about the local church?

The church is a mixed group of people, and there will always be some who are feeling very fragile or weak.  They may not show it.  Nevertheless, we need to be people who guard hearts in the church environment.  Good music and good preaching is not enough.  Many a great church service was undermined by thoughtless comments in times of fellowship.  So, here are 7 ways to guard hearts at church.  You can certainly add more, and I might too!

1. Pray biblically for the church people.  Take a look at the prayers in Paul’s epistles, they are not full of “be with” and “just really bless” prayers.  Pray for people in your church to have the eyes of their hearts enlightened to know God more profoundly, to grow in their relationship with Christ, to grasp the richness of union with Christ, to be gripped by the hope to which God has called them, etc.  Bring people to God’s throne and you will find yourself caring for them more carefully at church.

2. Look for ways to serve, don’t just be a consumer.  The church is not a social club paid for by others and provided for your consumption.  The church is a gathering of Christ’s people who worship together, learn together, serve together, and grow together.  Consumers drain, but you can serve.  There are probably several ministries in your church that feel stretched for people, ask and you will find opportunities to serve.

3. Build others up in every conversation.  In one visit to church, or to home group, you might interact with 10 or 20 people.  Can you imagine the impact if you built up every one you spoke to?  Encourage.  Thank.  Smile.  Ask questions.  Show interest.  Share resources.  Share Bible highlights.  Celebrate people.  Value.  Well-handled conversations are priceless ministry in the life of a local church.

4. Be a dead end for gossip.  “Does he know you are telling me about this?”  That question tends to stop an evil report in its tracks.  Someone has to.  Gossip is like a cancer that can ravage a church.  “Please don’t talk to anyone else about this, please go to him.”  This is the best follow up with someone talking about a situation rather than doing the right thing. People should forgive and bear with, or forgive and lovingly confront.  Don’t let gossip be an option.

5. Trust people.  Many of us are great at assuming the worst and speculating about other people.  Andy Stanley nailed this issue when he preached a message about filling the gap between expectations and experience with trust.  When there is a gap between expectation and experience, fill the gap with trust.  If you can’t do that, then go to the person and ask them to help you fill the gap with trust.  Settling on distrust is not loving for them because either you are wrong (it does happen), or they need the opportunity to grow.  Settling on distrust is not healthy for you or the church, either.

6. Be sensitive to the Holy Spirit.  He is very alert to interpersonal relationships and wants them to be truly united.  Be sensitive to any comment that causes someone to pull back.  It could be humour, or criticism, or even a misunderstanding, but handle relationships and feelings with tenderness and care.  Ask God to help you love others well – the Spirit is very motivated to coach you in that.

7. Be thankful for leaders, and others, and tell them.  It doesn’t take any spiritual maturity, or personal skill, to be destructively critical.  You can do massive damage to your church.  Since God loves the church so much, being destructive seems inherently foolish.  Support and encourage leaders at every level.  Be a person who communicates gratitude to leaders, and to Sunday School teachers, and to children’s workers, and to people working the sound desk, and to the setup team, etc.

This is only a start, what would you add?

7 Ways to Guard Hearts at Bible School

Classroom2After the post on guarding hearts at a Christian conference (or ministers gathering), I was asked about Bible School.  Here we go…

The opportunity to study in a Bible School (college, seminary, divinity school, etc.) is a real privilege.  I thoroughly loved my experience at two great seminaries.  To spend your best hours receiving instruction in the Bible, maybe in the original languages, in theology and church history, in personal spirituality and in pastoral equipping to better serve God in the church and in His world, this is a wonderful privilege.  Add in new and sometimes lifelong friendships, numerous answered prayers, extended conversations and seeing growth in yourself and others, and it can sound like a glorious utopian experience for the man or woman who loves Christ and wants to love him even more.

Solomon was given great wisdom, and what did he say?  Above everything, guard your hearts . . .

How?

1. Walking with Christ is not the same thing as academic exercise.  You will be hearing and reading wonderful material.  You will hopefully be expected to read your Bible and other good books.  You will be required to research, read, think and write about God.  You will also enjoy spiritual conversations with faculty and fellow students.  And you will be tempted to let all this be your devotional life. But walking with Christ is “with Christ,” not just “about Christ.”  Be sure to keep the conversation going with God in the midst of your studies.  Why not talk to Him about this question: “Father, why is it that so many passionate Christians grow dry and cold in Bible School?”

2. Human glory is toxic.  The academic environment is not positive, or even neutral, for maintaining devotion to God.  I certainly loved being on campus and enjoyed some great times with God there.  But don’t let a beautiful campus or warm atmosphere distract you from the dangers inherent in the system.  Receiving grades for your work will feed the competitiveness of your flesh.  Receiving speedy feedback and affirmation will feed your flesh’s desire to build its identity in itself and its own achievements.  The comparative environment means that you may stand out in some class or other, and thus feed the autonomy impulse of your sinful flesh.  Glory from other humans (students, teachers, and outside friends) is both toxic and addictive.  Beware.

3. Pride is profoundly destructive.  Jesus warned the scholars of his day that seeking glory from humans is mutually exclusive to a healthy relationship with God.  (See John 5:38ff) Why?  In part it is because glory feeds the prideful tendency of my flesh which thinks I am a god, and as a result push God away.  God opposes the proud, even in Bible school.  Beware of reinforcing the glory/pride system.  Seek to pray and guard the hearts of fellow students and faculty as well as your own.

4. Keep relationally Bible saturated.  Never settle for required Bible reading assignments.  Make sure that you are soaking your soul in the fresh water of the Word and maintaining that conversation with Christ throughout your studies.  Do a fast-paced Bible read through.    Keep talking with Christ about the lure of sophisticated speculation (arms length playing with ideas that no longer stir your heart).  What you need most is not successful education, or sophisticated knowledge, or academic awards.  What you need most is Christ.  Share your Bible highlights with others, other people will need to be re-infected with a simple love for Christ too.

5. Christ loves the church, stay connected.  The people at church may not know about the things you are learning.  The leaders at church may not do things the way you’ve been taught to do them.  The sermons at church may feel lightweight compared to your lectures.  Nevertheless, you need to stay connected at a local church.  Serve where you can.  Don’t be an annoying critic.  Do look to love others whenever you can.  (Incidentally, pursue learning from faculty who are actively loving the church, not distant destroyer-critics.)

6. Let the stresses push you up against God.  There will be stress at Bible School.  Deadlines.  Financial strain.  Impossible verb paradigms.  Schedule overload.  Pressure on your family. You will be tempted to grow your independence and determination muscles, as well as your ability to function on little sleep.  Instead, let the pressure push you up against God.  And by faith get some sleep!  Remember that your stress impacts your spouse, your children, your room-mate in the dorm, your church, etc.

7. Value relationships carefully. You may think it is really just about you and God.  But human relationships matter.  Value every student, not just the impressive (or attractive) ones.  Speaking of attractive, beware of the extra emotional electricity in a high spirituality environment – it is a great place to meet a spouse, but guard hearts, don’t damage them.  Value faculty and care for them, they are real people too.  And finally, know that there will be attacks from the enemy – yet another reason to stick close to Christ and draw others with you.

What would you add to this list?  I know there’s plenty more . . .