Continuing this quick list of ten thoughts on reading . . . since many of us know we should read more and we want to read more:
6. Read selectively. Too many people are in a stalemate with book buying. They won’t buy a wonderful book recommended by people they trust for them at this exact moment in life . . . why? Because they have some half-finished books. Don’t despise the meal cooked for you now because there are leftovers in the fridge that you aren’t enjoying. It makes no sense to be held captive by false guilt over not finishing a book (if it wasn’t good enough to keep you engaged, let it go to your shelf!)
7. Buy chapters. Just to reinforce number 6, think of buying chapters rather than whole books. If you found chapters 2 and 3 were stunning, but you’ve gotten bogged down in chapters 4 and 5, don’t stress about finishing chapters 6-10. You bought 2 and 3. That’s great, they were worth it. Now move on, don’t stop reading! An unfinished book is no shame.
8. Discriminate between recommendations. When certain people tell me a book is good, I will almost certainly buy it. When other people tell me a book is good, I will smile politely and thank them, but tend not to click “buy.”
9. Read with variety. So you’ve read everything from that one author, that’s fine. But have you read anything weightier, or technical, or historical, or from a different tradition, or something by someone not in your camp? Have you read a light paperback on your primary ministry area? What about a heavier textbook on it? How about something non-Christian? And fiction? Mix it up.
10. Give books away. Don’t just celebrate a great book, buy more copies and give them to people who you know will appreciate them. Let your growing love of good books be a ministry, rather than merely a personal development strategy.
There are a lot of people in churches who believe they should be reading more than they are. They know that there is a unique enrichment available from good literature, but struggle to take advantage. Here are 10 quick suggestions that may be helpful:
1. Small blocks of time add up. If you read for twenty minutes per day, then you will start to move through quite a few books a year, even if you are a typical slow reader. If you aim for two hours a day, then you will probably not make through the week!
2. Location! Location! Location! If you try to read at a busy desk with emails and twitter pinging, then you won’t really read. Get that twenty minutes, or whatever, in a place where you can focus.
3. Redeem the time. Be ready to grab more minutes when you are in a waiting room, standing in a line, eating your lunch alone, or wherever. Lots of time can be lost wishing you had a book with you (my kindle app on my phone is for this purpose only).
4. Beware frittered time. Cumulatively it is probably scary how much time is wasted on social media and half reading half decent stuff online. I maintain that even reading good stuff online is not as nourishing as reading the same authors in a book.
5. Read appropriately. Some books are designed to be skimmed. Others require some effort. Preview a chapter, look at the headings and conclusion. Use a highlighter in heavier books. Enjoy skimming light stuff and boring down deep into quality material (and learn to spot the difference!)
We’ll finish the list tomorrow…
Here is the end of the list of ten reasons not to get too excited about the feedback you receive right after preaching. Remember what we saw in part 1. The most valuable affirmation will combine elements of time, thoughtfulness and transformation. When you get those, treasure them. Make a note. Keep a file.
When you get Sunday affirmation, be thankful, but don’t get carried away. One of these ten reasons could be the main reason for it:
8. The “trigger words” mechanism. People like to hear what they value. Let’s say you preach a very poor message – biblically weak, unclear in organisation, unengaging in presentation, irrelevant to those present – but you use an illustration that mentions someone’s pet issue, what will they say? “Preacher, that was a poor sermon, but I loved that your illustration mentioned my pet issue?” Typically not. Once those lights flash in their evaluation grid, you have become a hero! The feedback will be skewed.
9. The “Satanic test” reality. You’ve probably heard the oft-quoted statement from Spurgeon (I think), who was affirmed very favourably after preaching and responded with, “Madam, the enemy has already told me that!” Nice anecdote, but it could be true in our situation too. The enemy is not a fan of being obvious because it doesn’t tend to work so well. Better to build up a preacher so their focus shifts from dependence on Christ . . . so we need to beware on a spiritual level what post-sermon feedback does to our hearts.
10. The “exit gauntlet” logistics issue. If you are at a church where the preacher stands at the back and shakes everyone’s hand, then you have a couple of issues to face, actually, three. One, most people will feel obligated to mutter some pleasantry to get past you. Two, some people who actually want to talk to you won’t be able to because others are lining up to leave. Three, because people don’t want to hold you up, they may feel obligated to step out into a rainy car park and thus end the time of valuable fellowship in the church. Standing at the door may not be the best idea!
And there are probably some more . . . what would you add?
Continuing the list of ten reasons not to get too excited about the feedback you get right after preaching . . .
4. The “church culture” mechanism. Different churches have different cultures. Some will automatically affirm and honour the preacher in a laudatory manner. Other churches will engage the preacher about life and family with barely a mention of the message. Try to discern a local church pattern before getting excited or devastated by what you hear.
5. The “surrogate leader” reality. Sometimes a person will gravitate toward a preacher because they yearn for the spiritual leadership and sensitivity they perceive in that preacher. Perhaps their own husband is very weak, or perhaps their Dad is absent . . . it could be a middle-aged wife or a teenage boy, but sometimes the praise and feedback is more about what they don’t have in their life than about what you brought in your sermon.
6. The “single preacher” reality. I’ve been married for fifteen years, so I feel out of touch on this one, but . . . if people respond to perceived spirituality when they know you are married, and if there is a lack of spiritual, godly, single men in the church (which there is), then I suspect preaching as a single man will get some feedback from the odd one or two that is more fishing than genuine feedback. Just saying.
7. The “life appreciation” reality. This is more likely in your own church than in one you visit. It is where a church member really values who you are as a person – you love their family, show interest in their teenage son, buried their grandmother, or whatever. They appreciate you. Your preaching may be dire, but they want to love you and so affirm your sermon because that is easier than explaining what your presence and love means to them.
We’ll finish the list next time.
Feedback is not created equal. Wise preachers learn to tell the difference. I suspect more than a few ministries are launched and sustained on the empty energy of post-sermon politeness. On the other hand, genuine and helpful feedback can strengthen your ministry for years.
Typically my approach is to say thank you for any feedback, then prayerfully evaluate what I am supposed to make of it. Usually I find that meaningful feedback and compliments will come with a combination of factors – (A) Time – a week or a year later usually means more than five minutes later, (B) Thought – when people are really thinking about what was said, it will typically show, (C) Transformation – the best encouragements are not mere words, but supported by reality. If all three are missing, then we may be dealing with empty feedback that has the nourishment value of a boiled sweet.
Here are ten reasons why I think it wise not to get too excited by feedback right after you preach.
1. The “competition” reality. Sometimes people will heap on the praise because they have no real point of comparison. Don’t assume they are thinking about your favourite preachers when someone tells you that haven’t heard any better. It may simply be the case that they have a very limited experience of other preachers (sadly true in some churches you might visit), or perhaps…
2. The “memory” reality. Perhaps positive feedback is skewed by a very limited memory. What they just heard is the only sermon in their short-term memory, and so it stands out. Don’t test a “best I’ve heard in months” comment with a “can you tell me the main idea and take home gems from last week’s message?” Chances are, your message may be equally misty come next Sunday!
3. The “polite override” mechanism. Some people in churches have a politeness override mechanism that makes them say things to be polite that they don’t really mean. It happens at dinner tables when a dish has been obliterated, but to be polite, they will maintain it is “really good!” Call it dishonest, or call it polite, but remember it may happen after you preach.
We’ll continue the list next time!
We are coming to the end of a list of suggestions for overcoming preacher’s block . . . how about:
7. Sleep. Sometimes when you are stuck, you can be tempted to work late and miss sleep. Don’t. Get good sleep and then work productively tomorrow. We are designed to need sleep. It can be a real step of faith to leave an issue like this with God and curl up in His arms for the night. Sadly, too many preachers seem to think God is impressed by sugar and caffeine fueled fatigue that results in a vicious cycle of tiredness and inability to concentrate. We don’t get medals for staying up late and preaching poorly as a result. Don’t turn the chance to preach into an opportunity to play a mini-martyr.
8. Confess. Sometimes preacher’s block is really the fruit of indiscipline, inappropriate distraction, laziness, or some other sin. I don’t want to come up with a pseudo-solution to avoid facing that. If you have sinned and become aware of it, then deal with it. Confess it to God, come back to the cross, repent and lean into His care for you again. This isn’t some sort of mystical purging ritual. It is healthy relationship. You need to walk through the preparation and preaching with God close, so if you don’t feel close due to sin, then get it sorted. Any short-cut or detour that tries to hide distance in this sense will be an unwise path to take.
What would you add to the list? What do you do when you get stuck?
Continuing our list of suggestions for breaking out of preacher’s block. Yesterday we thought about Pray, Break and Talk. Here are some more ideas:
4. Read. Sometimes it is time for a fresh perspective. Maybe another commentary on a key section. Perhaps check some biblical studies books to see if the text appears in the scripture index. Maybe try a lighter commentary for how they handle this section. But beware, sometimes the last thing you need is more information in. This is an option, but it may be the wrong option. If your block is from a massive input of data and no clarity on how to let the right stuff out, then maybe steer clear of the books at this stage.
5. Write. Sometimes I get stuck on an outline, or a certain part of a message. Switching to writing may be helpful. Perhaps you are struggling with the big picture of the message and need to switch to working out wording. This may free you up to keep making progress on the message rather than staying stuck on an aspect of the message.
6. Preach. We are a bit obsessed with “writing” our messages. Whether it is outlines or manuscripts, we can easily lose sight of the orality of preaching. The goal is not to write a sermon, but to preach one. So sometimes the best thing to do is to step away from the keyboard or pen and start talking out loud. If you were up now, what would you say? Things that seem so clear on paper sometimes can’t come out of your mouth. Paper is only one step better than in your head (who hasn’t had clarity in their minds that simply won’t get onto the page? Well, spoken communication is a step beyond that. You can feel clear on paper, but still not be able to express what you intend. Once you hear yourself getting stuck, you know you have issues on paper. And once you are trying to say it, sometimes you can find a quick detour that makes for an effective message! (Then go write it down.)
We’ll finish the list tomorrow.
Writer’s block is a famous challenge, but I suspect preacher’s block is an equally frequent occurrence. The time ticks by and Sunday’s deadline keeps approaching. What should you do if you feel stuck? Here are eight suggestions.
1. Pray. Seems obvious, but I need to make this overt. Pray. And pray honestly. Stop praying nice little “Lord I commit this process to you for your blessing and glory” prayers. Start praying really honestly. “God, I am really struggling here! I don’t know what the problem is and I am scared that I won’t be ready in time . . .” – or whatever is on your heart. Sometimes praying something through out loud means that it is not only God hearing your heart, but you hearing your heart. Maybe you’ll end up praying about some sin struggle, or about some fear, or a false motivation driving you, or whatever. Pray as if God is able to take an honest statement or two – the Psalms and Job and Jeremiah suggest that He is.
2. Break. Sometimes the best thing to do when stuck is to stop trying to move forwards. Go for a walk, run an errand, read a book unrelated to the message, do some mindless sorting of the admin that has been piling up. You could say that any break is worth it, but maybe not. Five minutes on social media could expand to fill the next hour, watching a Youtube clip can be dangerous to your ability to focus, and beware that there is a difference between taking a break and becoming distracted in aimless, or purposeful, procrastination. A genuine break can really help.
3. Talk. Who turned preaching into such a solitary pursuit? Sometimes the very best thing to do is talk to someone about your message. Either what they say or what you say will be helpful to regenerate momentum. It could be your spouse, a friend, another preacher, a mentor. Sometimes talking about the message, the challenge you feel and what still needs to come together, will break open the logjam and help you start moving forwards again.
Tomorrow I will add some more suggestions . . .
Life transformation is typically a gradual process. We tend to focus on the sudden change stories, but even there, when we dig deeper, we tend to find a process that was ongoing for a while. We can pray for and celebrate the big breakthrough moments, but let’s not forget that God is patiently building the church at all times.
Be patient with the church – By all means preach with expectancy and pray for monumental change, but remember that God has his plans and purposes at work constantly in all the lives that make up your church. This Sunday’s message is part of that, but God isn’t building his lifetime transformation plan around one sermon.
Be patient with key people in the church – Everyone matters, but sometimes there is one person who dominates your thoughts and prayers for a season. It could be a so-called “well-intentioned dragon” – a sometimes constructive critic whose stings have gotten your attention. It could be a person of political influence with their complex motive-set. It could be an energy-draining individual who needs us to give (and forgive) more than we feel able. Pray for wisdom, strength, and patience. God is at work, but rash moves tend to backfire.
Be patient with yourself – Sometimes it only takes one negative comment, or a feeling of failure, and suddenly the personal weakness list can seem overwhelming. Before we know it, we have determined, in our self-god sovereignty, that this week is the deadline for definite transformation. Slow down. By all means do look to God and lean into the changes he wants to bring in your life. But don’t determine that its now or never and then exasperate yourself with an ungodly panic. He is at work and we need to be patient with ourselves as well as others.
I am not saying we should weaken our ministry with low expectations, excuse a lack of God-stirred effort as patience or settle for the sometimes easier option of not addressing a difficult situation. I am simply remembering that God is able to walk at 3mph, yet while we fuss and moan about the lack of transformation, he takes us incredible distances.
Last time we considered the warning sign of preaching “flat.” Let’s come at this from a different angle. Does you sermon preparation cause you to:
1. Pray – I don’t mean the diligent prayer that should be part of every ministry preparation. Apart from Him we can do nothing. If we are tempted to preach in a prayerless state then there should be warning lights flashing all over our spiritual dashboard. What I mean here is when the sermon preparation so stirs you that you have to stop and pray. All our prayer is technically a response to God’s glorious loving initiative, but I am referring to a soul-stirred immediacy of response. The wonder of the revelation of God’s character in the text; the relevance of the passage to your own heartfelt fears, doubts, concerns or hopes; the privilege of participation in the ministry that overflows from the dynamic unity of the Trinity . . . how often does this stir you to stop and pray?
2. Worship – How easily we can get into the “professional” position of minister seeking to stir worship in the listeners. But we are not in a separate category. The only thing that separates us from our listeners is the extended exposure to the same biblical text. So if we anticipate their response of worship, surely we should take the absence of our response to be concerning. It is a glorious privilege to stop mid-preparation and pour out your praise to God. Pause the prep, not for an incoming email, but to put on the song stirred in your heart and sing it out to God. I think He likes that kind of worship service! With this response comes…
3. Dream – The realities of weekly or regular ministry can wear us all down. The lack of response. The sense that eternity changing pearls from God’s Word have been trampled as fodder for a consumeristic evaluation of the church and pastor’s “performance” – this hurts. But God is able to lift our hearts and invite us to dream of what could be and should be in the lives of those exposed to God’s Word this coming Sunday.
4. Give Thanks – How often do we pray for relief from the stresses and frustrations that come in a preaching ministry, but fail to thank God for the immense privilege of participating in His great work of building the church. Time with God? Give thanks. Joining Jesus in His ministry? Give thanks. Receiving God’s gracious work in your own heart? Give thanks.
5. Weep – I suspect that the most powerful preaching on a Sunday comes out of the study where exegetical notes and the open Bible have been anointed with tears. I don’t weep enough.
And if, like me, this post doesn’t resonate with the reality week by week anywhere near as much as it should, what to do? Back to #1. Pray.