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!

10 Pointers for Older Preachers

10 targetcI offered 10 pointers to young preachers without being old enough to be a sage. There will certainly be better advice out there, but I am going to take the risk of offering some thoughts to older preachers before I fully arrive in that category:

1.    Keep getting to know God. You may know more than others, but you never know God enough. Keep your life ambition to really know and love Him, and the impact of your life and ministry will keep growing!

2.    Doggedly maintain a teachable spirit.  This will allow you to keep teaching others.  If you stop learning and growing we can tell, but we can’t tell you.

3.    Never trade a goal of gospel transformation for behavioral conformity. As energy for leadership and ministry wane, so pushing for conformity in others will become more attractive.  Hold out the gospel always!

4.    Embrace the transition from king to sage.  Too many leaders have undone their good work by resisting this transition and clinging to power. As we age, “strategic ministry” shifts from a position and office to an attitude and role. We need sages freed from leadership responsibilities, who have a fresh passion for the gospel, and enthusiasm for the next generation of leaders!

5.    Become a champion, not a liability. You have seen older folks become crotchety/awkward/negative and others age with dignity/delight/enthusiasm. You already know what I’m asking.

6.    Always be a Bible person, not an issue person. It is tempting to let issues define your ministry, and these will shift over the years. Instead of heralding a personal pet peeve, keep growing an infectious passion for the Bible.

7.    Please stay humble. Even with all your experience and insight, God still doesn’t need you.  But He really loves you.  The kingdom of self is ugly at any age. Those of us who are younger need the humble you.  Your experience and insight, salted with humility, is priceless to us.

8.    Don’t try to be cool, but do stay up-to-date. This applies both to wider culture and to theological content. The greatest examples of older preachers have always been refreshingly aware, rather than defensively resistant, to a changing context.

9.    Discriminate feedback. People will praise any public speaker. Just as people automatically encourage a young preacher, so the polite thing to do is thank an older preacher. Don’t maintain a ministry on a diet of ambiguous politeness.  Get genuine and honest feedback.

10.    Past ministry glories don’t shine from your face, but a close walk with Jesus does.  There are lots of older preachers feeling frustrated as their energy and opportunities for ministry fade.  The few who love Jesus more than ever are one of God’s greatest gifts to the church.

Biggest Mistakes Preachers Make – pt 4

Slip2This is a series of big adjustments rather than fine tweaks.  We’ve thought about content and audience, but here is another big issue:

Mistake 4 – Starting Too Late

There is all sorts of mythology around about the hundreds of hours some preachers invest into a single sermon, and even about some who only prepare minimally.  Perhaps the bigger issue is not simply the total time invested, but the spread of the time invested.  Here is a simple and healthy guideline:

Before God, give as many hours as you can, over as long a period as you can, to prepare the best sermon you can.

1. Before God … that is, you answer to Him.  Don’t make decisions based on what others think (although people telling you your sermon seemed unprepared is a red flag to take onboard!)  Our ministry is ultimately a stewardship and God knows the balance that makes sense for us.  I could sacrifice the health of my marriage, my family, and other aspects of church life, as well as personal health and hygiene in order to give every conceivable moment to preparing a sermon.  I doubt God would be impressed.  It is before God that we make the value judgments on time.  Equally, if emergencies crowd lots of allotted preparation time, or if we step in at the last minute, then God knows that.  So before God…

2. Give as many hours as you can … that is, it takes time to do the work of preparing to preach.  It takes time to study a passage.  It takes time to properly pray for the people.  It takes time to wrestle with the wording of the main idea.  It takes time to thrash out the best sermon strategy.  It takes time to work out the best support material.  It takes time to get past logjams in our preparation.  It takes time to preach a message through out loud and make adjustments.  It takes time.  Wider reading, targeted reading, related research.  It takes time.  Don’t try to impress people by minimalist preparation.  And don’t appease your own conscience in some twisted way by giving minimal time and then saying you did the best you could.

3. Over as long a period as you can … here is the crux of the matter for this post.  If you start on Friday or Saturday, you might be able to technically do what is necessary, but only just, and probably not at all.  That is, only just in terms of reading, study and research.  Having longer allows you to stew on research, ask others and develop ideas in conversation, read commentaries and articles in a more considered way.  And secondly, you probably can’t do what is necessary at all in the sense of letting the passage do its work in your heart and life.  Deep appreciation of a biblical passage on a Saturday night may lead to a special moment of worship, but it doesn’t forge true conviction in the inner matrix of your heart and soul.

There are benefits to planning series months ahead to allow for drip feed study, prayer and research.  There are benefits to starting 10 days before a Sunday, rather than 5 days before on the Tuesday.  Starting unnecessarily late may be undermining the potential for God to work in you, and through you.

Overflow Leadership: 2 Vital Ingredients

coffeecup2The great temptation in any leadership is to think that my leadership is about me.  It isn’t.  True leadership will be more concerned with those that I lead than me as the leader.  And true leadership will always recognize that I can only give what I have first received.

As I write this we are about to start into the fifth year of the Cor Deo full-time training program here in England.  It is a small ministry focused on mentoring and training participants to multiply ministry that will make a profound impact.  What can we give to these participants that we did not first receive?  Nothing.

The best leadership, the best mentoring, and the best teaching, will always be overflow leadership, overflow mentoring, overflow teaching.  That is, as I have received, so I can overflow to others.  The great danger for any leader, mentor, or teacher, is to start to think that our ministry comes from our own capacity, our own ability, or our own accumulated knowledge.

How can we avoid the subtle shift from overflow ministry to stagnant self-absorbed ministry? Here are two vital ingredients to protect us from this dangerous (and natural) shift:

1. Personal Gratitude. It is not enough to be grateful when nudged to be grateful.  We need to continually return to a place of gratitude as we give ourselves away in ministry.  Let’s be thankful for all the training we have received, conferences we have attended, books we have read, and mentors we have been blessed to spend time with.  Thankfulness reorients our hearts to God’s kindness toward us.

Actually, it is not just the obviously good gifts that have brought us to this place in our ministry.  Great ministry is typically forged in the crucible of significant challenges.  But without thankfulness, challenges typically bring only bitterness.  Let’s be thankful for all the difficult situations, setbacks, apparently unanswered prayers, opposition and disappointments.

Good ministry comes from overflow, not personal capacity (where I have learned, and I have accumulated, and I have become . . . the gravitational pull of our flesh will always reorient our hearts to self-praise).  Gratitude is a vital ingredient to maintaining healthy overflow ministry.

2. Spiritual Integrity. God has invested a lot into each one of us over the past years.  The obvious blessings, the careful character sculpting, etc.  Gratitude protects us from believing that we have made ourselves somebody significant.  But there is another issue that I hinted at already – the danger of stagnancy.  Past blessings can quickly grow stagnant if there is not a present reality to my spiritual walk.

I cannot dispense teaching or leadership from a reservoir that was filled twenty years ago, or even last month.  For all of that to be fresh today, it must be stirred by the present reality of a personal walk with Christ.  The Bible uses language of God pouring out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom.5:5).  Elsewhere Paul uses the present tense to speak of being filled with the Spirit (Eph.5:18).

God pours out His love into my heart and consequently I can love in leadership, in mentoring, in teaching . . . but if the gaze of my heart shifts from Him to myself, then my reservoir starts to drain down and grow stagnant.  Without the present reality, all the past investment loses its present value.

As I head into another season of ministry, I want to be grateful for all I have received, and make sure there is a present dynamic reality of abiding in Christ’s love so that I can overflow to others.  We cannot give anything of value that we did not first receive.  Not just what we received in the past, but also what God wants to give us today.

Help! My Listeners Aren’t Satisfied! #4

NegativeFeedback2So we are coming to the end of this series on processing listener dissatisfaction.  It is not an easy subject, but so important.  Here’s a thought that needs to be thrown into the mix:

7. Know there is more than one way to serve!  I have written this series of thoughts from the perspective that you should be preaching.  Maybe you shouldn’t.  There is no shame in that.  Perhaps the hassle of critique undermines too much and indicates a lack of gifting.  We have made this option very difficult by uniting vocational ministry with Sunday preaching and salaries, resulting in people feeling like there is no way out, no way to stop preaching without resigning from church leadership.  Recognizing the complexity of that, the truth still remains, there are other ministries to serve in apart from preaching.  I have known some wonderful church leaders who had lifelong effective ministry, but weren’t preachers.

If, in your honest moments, you recognize that repeated critique is lovingly offered and actually on target, then prayerfully consider swallowing your pride and serving in an area of strength.  You will be a better steward of your life, God will be pleased, and the church will be strengthened.  Maybe cut and paste this point to start the conversation with a trusted friend in your church.

8. Know your own inner landscape.  We all have emotional baggage buried inside us.  Criticism has a unique ability to slip through, stir up a deep wound and create inner turmoil.  It is good to prayerfully ask God to help you evaluate and understand your own inner workings so that you don’t face a never ending attack from external and internal foes.  What does criticism do inside you?  Why?

9. Pursue helpful feedback and support.  We cannot have a growing and effective preaching ministry alone.  We need to find those who will give honest, gracious, constructive input, and who will encourage us when we feel discouraged in our ministry.  This may be a friend or two within the church.  It may be a fellow leader from another church.  It may also be (although not exclusively) a hero from the past – biblical heroes and church history heroes typically all endured incredible misunderstanding, devastating personal circumstances, a torrent of abuse and even martyrdom as they served God.  Spending time with the Apostle Paul or Martin Luther or Jonathan Edwards or whoever will be a real help.

10. Whatever the justification for criticism, be sure it improves your preaching!  While it may not have been stated well, or perhaps it was more of an attack on you than a piece of constructive criticism, there may well be a kernel of truth in there that can help you!  If you shrug off all criticism then your imperviousness will undermine your ability to minister with any sensitivity.  A cast iron shell is not what you need for ministry.  What you need is a tender heart, but with a life-giving God who can pick you up and keep you pressing on to growth and effectiveness.  By all means think through how to protect yourself from an enemy that will work through people in your church to wipe you out, but know that God doesn’t typically call us to be the reverend Rambo.

That’s it for this series, but please comment freely and add your thoughts (here or on Twitter – @PeterMead, #ListenerSatisfaction)

Help! My Listeners Aren’t Satisfied! #3

NegativeFeedback2There is “over-blurt” and “misdirected fire,” and we need to bring God right into the centre of this whole discussion.  But there is more to consider.  What if we see listener satisfaction incorrectly, or make mistakes in how we receive it?

5. Remember that the “Happy Test” is flawed.  Happy listeners may make your Sunday afternoon easier, but it may not be the best indicator of church health.  Our goal is not to make listeners happy with us.  Our goal is to faithfully introduce the heart of God through careful, engaging and relevant presentation of the biblical text and its implication for their lives.

What if the text convicts, prods, pokes, and makes them uncomfortable?  What if encountering God shines a light in protected dark places and they don’t like what shows up?  What if their dissatisfaction toward you and your preaching is a sign that the Word of God is getting through?  (Please be careful here, your flesh will want this to be true in every case and it may not be!)

Churches often create an atmosphere where the preacher feels like they are supposed to be popular (this is true with potential pastor dating – “preaching with a view,” but it also continues since many churches tend to dismiss the unpopular pastors too . . . does this reflect the dating and divorce culture we now live in? Maybe just a bit?)

6. Know that “anonymous” feedback is often useless. People in churches like to blast away from under the cover of anonymity.  This may come from a feedback collection survey (these do have value and I am not dismissing the possibility of doing these anonymously, but be prepared to filter overt attacks from under the cover this generates – perhaps have a couple of mature co-leaders filter out anything that smells of vendetta rather than constructive input?)

The more dangerous mortar attacks tend to come through, “I know someone who said…”, or worse, “a lot of people are saying…”  Again, there may be a place for this if a co-leader is guarding your heart by filtering slightly.  However, as a general rule, anonymous critique should be resisted.  People should be able to express critique and have follow up conversation.  If they are scared of you, then you shouldn’t be in ministry.  If they are scared of being identified, maybe their critique is illegitimately motivated?

More to come, but comment freely (here or on Twitter – @PeterMead, #ListenerSatisfaction)

Help! My Listeners Aren’t Satisfied! #2

NegativeFeedback2We need to recognize “over-blurt” and “misdirected fire,” but what else can we do when we have dissatisfied listeners?

3. Remember Your Audience of One.  The fact that we answer to God in no way excuses bad preaching, or remaining oblivious to helpful critique, but it may protect us from more sinister attacks.  Remember that every sermon you ever preach could have been better, and that God is both understanding and forgiving of human weakness and frailty.

With that critical caveat in place, then we need to ask whether we could stand before God and give an account for the way we prepared, the way we processed earlier input/feedback, etc?  Did you walk through the preparation by faith and do your best as a steward of the ministry opportunity?  His is the evaluation that we value the most. While we listen to those we serve, we mustn’t live in fear of displeasing unspiritual nitpickers in the pew.  Even if they can drive you from “their” church, we must minister ultimately for the evaluation of our Audience of One.

4. Remember to Prayerfully Process.  Whether you receive praise or criticism, be sure to process it prayerfully.  Our fleshly egos are very powerful perverters of personal processing.  Our tendency to self-love and self-concern can elevate praise from others into worship of us, and at the same time turn gentle and helpful critique into a savage personal attack.  I don’t trust me with me.  You shouldn’t trust you with you.

Independent introspective processing is one of the most dangerous things a Christian can participate in, because it is so close to the fallen realm we were rescued from.  So how should we process things?  Prayerfully.  That is, in conversation with the God who can faithfully and tenderly sift and sort through our motives and affections.  Search me and try me, O God!  He can be trusted and must always be the lead partner in such an exercise!

More thoughts tomorrow, but please don’t hesitate to comment on here, or on Twitter @petermead (#ListenerSatisfaction).

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)

10 Pointers for Young Preachers

10 target2This post was offered last week as a guest post on Randal Pelton’s site, www.peltononpreaching.com

I am way too young to be called a sage, but I don’t get called young any more either. So while there is better advice to be found, here are some pointers from me for young preachers:

  1. Get to know God. Never settle for knowing about God. Make it your life’s greatest ambition to really know and love the God who loves you.
  1. Be a Bible person, not an issue person. It is tempting to let certain issues define your ministry, but these will shift over the years. Instead of choosing a pet issue, develop an infectious passion for the Bible.
  1. Determine never to be a glory thief. Decide now that showing-off has no place in your preaching. Always point listeners to Christ and not to yourself. God delights to lovingly give glory, but never steal it.
  1. Learn to discriminate feedback. People will praise a public speaker. You are more likely to lose your way through hyped up praise than through nasty criticism. Learn to pursue and process genuinely helpful feedback.
  1. Don’t let your homiletical skill get ahead of biblical and theological awareness.People will praise a public speaker, but they need a preacher who is biblically and theologically healthy.
  1. Don’t let your ministry profile get ahead of your character. Let your ministry move forward at God’s pace, otherwise you may get a profile too heavy for your character to bear.
  1. Be proactive, but not self-promotional. Look for opportunities to serve, to learn, and to grow, but be wary of leaving God behind as you chase “more strategic ministry.”
  1. Learn to read wisely. Invest time in reading quality rather than quantity, widely rather than just your favorite author, and selectively rather than getting stuck in books you no longer want to finish. Prioritize books over blogs!
  1. Do not journey alone. Preaching is often a lonely ministry. Prayerfully pursue mentors and prayer partners who can speak into your life. Find a string of Bible read-through partners and chase God together in His Word.
  1. Have a lifelong conversation with God. There are too many technically capable and theologically informed preachers that have no meaningful relationship with God.

 

5 Radars Every Preacher Needs – #5

RadarScreen2This is the last of our five radars we should be prayerfully collecting as preachers.  They are early warning systems that will make us better preachers.  There are probably many more, but hopefully these five will prompt us to pray and help us to grow.   So far we’ve thought about an OT radar, a hissing radar, a resistance radar, and an obfuscation radar.  How about one more where we are likely to have blind spots?

Radar 5. Rationalizing Radar (in your personal application)

Before we preach to others, we must first be on the receiving end of God’s transformative work ourselves.  Starting a sermon on Saturday night does not allow time for personal application, hence we should start sooner. However, we can be preparing a sermon for weeks and still fail to hear the message ourselves.  Why?  Not because of a lack of time, but because of our fleshly capacity to rationalize our own lack of application.  What we might see clearly in others, we often see in a rose-tinted mirror in regards to ourselves.  The solution to this is not to try harder, but to engage more with God in the conversation.  What I am calling a rationalizing radar is really a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit as He searches and tries our hearts, gently convicting us so that we can first hear, before we also speak.