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!

Challenge Without Condemnation

GavelxGood preaching should be challenging, without feeling condemning.

No challenge, no condemnation – this is entertainment preaching.  Actually, it could be tedious waffle, but essentially this will tend to be entertainment, ear scratching type of stuff.

Challenging by condemnation – this is burdensome preaching.  People feel the challenge of God’s Word on their lives, but the weight of condemnation is a pressure we aren’t intended to carry.

Condemnation by challenging – this is shortcut preaching.  The shortcut is the assumption that just pressuring people will lead to conformity in behaviour.  It might.  But it will be forced.  And the fruit will ultimately be minimal.

Challenge without condemnation – this is healthy preaching.  The Word of God is making a call on the lives present, it is engaging them and inviting them forward, but the mechanism of change is not pressure, but engagement with the gospel, and ultimately, with a person.

Biggest Mistakes Preachers Make – pt 5

Slip2Big adjustments can lead to big benefits for your preaching.  We have considered content, audience, and timing of preparation.  Here’s another:

Mistake 5 – Assuming anything about your delivery

Don’t assume.  Find out.

You may be more monotonous than you think.  We all tend to think our vocal variation is good . . . range of voice, diversity of volume, length and frequency of pauses, etc.  The truth is you probably come across as more monotonous than you think you do.  There is a lot that goes into the use of voice in preaching.  Don’t assume anything.  Find out.

You probably smile less than you think.  We all tend to assume our facial expressions are more expressive than they actually are.  Most people freeze slightly in front of a crowd.  As humans, we are all wired to connect on multiple levels at once.  People connect or pull back from each other based on a host of factors, but expression, body language and personal warmth are very significant.  Don’t assume anything.  Find out.

You might have a distracting mannerism only you don’t know about.  Perhaps you rock on your heels, maintain a frozen arm, point awkwardly, do an involuntary impersonation of a werewolf, or a T-Rex, or a traffic police officer.  Maybe you wave an imaginary pen around, or scratch your ear, or shrug, or whatever.  None of these (or the hundreds of other common mannerisms), are a problem in themselves.  But they are distracted when repeated.  Don’t assume anything.  Find out.

You might have verbal pauses only you can’t hear.  You know, like, umm, kinda, know what I mean? You can hear other people with verbal pauses (unnecessary filler words), and vocal pauses (unnecessary filler noises).  But you probably tune out most of your own.  Don’t assume anything.  Find out.

How do we find out?  Actually, it is quite easy:

1. Listen to yourself preach.

2. Watch yourself preach.

3. Invite honest feedback from trusted listeners, specifically about delivery.

 

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.

Biggest Mistakes Preachers Make – pt 3

Slip2In this series we aren’t looking to tweak at the fringes of preaching, but rather to get a big wrench to the major parts of the ministry.  We’ve thought about “harvesting imperatives” and “not preaching the passage.”  Here’s another:

Mistake 3 – Not Preaching to the People Present

Preaching is a pastoral role.  We are not being called to perform, but to shepherd.  We can, and must, do the role of a shepherd as we preach.  A shepherd feeds, leads, cares and protects his sheep.  In order to pastor through preaching, we need to know and love the people we are preaching to each Sunday.

Obviously if you are visiting a church, or speaking at a special event, then you may only have half an hour to get to know the specific group of people present.  Do what you can.  It is also important to know people in general, so that you can preach to people in particular, but always seek to preach to those who are present.

Here are some alternative listener profiles to root out of our preaching.

Don’t preach to people who are missing.  Some preachers seem to have allowed the richness of the gospel to evaporate into a duty of church attendance. These preachers are then liable to preach frustration toward those who “should” be present, but aren’t.

Don’t preach to an audience your favourite preacher attracts.  You might have a favourite preacher who preaches to a cool crowd in some other city in America or somewhere, but if your listeners are from rural Somerset, they aren’t a “Seattle” crowd.

Don’t preach to a culture that isn’t in your church.  The culture may be increasingly postmodern, but lots of church congregations aren’t.  Don’t seek to overcome issues that your listeners aren’t facing in any meaningful way.

Don’t preach to land another job.  I hate to say it, but there are some preachers who are preaching so that their sermon is attractive to a “better” church they’d like to get a call from.  Be faithful to your congregation and God will help you adapt if you need to move church for some reason.

Don’t preach to spar with foes.  It is very possible to preach targeted comments toward people acting likes foes in your congregation, so technically they are present, but still this isn’t wise.  But don’t waste energy preaching to foes not present.  Having a go at a high profile atheist doesn’t achieve much.  By all means equip your listeners to handle what they are hearing in the media, but that would mean preaching to them.  Taking pot shots at people not present isn’t impressive.

Get to know and pray for the people you are preaching to each Sunday. Then your preaching can pastor their souls. If you don’t care about them, don’t preach to them.

 

Biggest Mistakes Preachers Make – pt.2

Slip2It is easy to focus in on little details, but this series is about the big things that we need to be clear on for healthy biblical preaching.  Often we won’t see these mistakes in ourselves, but let’s pray for God to show where some of them might be true of us:

Mistake 2 – Not Preaching the Passage

There are many directions we can head after we finish reading a text (whenever that occurs in the message).  Here are some options that fail to preach the passage, and then I’ll share some reasons why this happens:

A. We can head off into our own ideas – whether they are self-help tips for living, self-absorbed personal anecdote sharing, personal soapboxes or targeted rants . . . the passage is not doing the work here.

B. We can head off on a biblical safari – it is easy to fill time with multiplied cross-references.  It is also easy to get positive feedback, but this may be for superficially impressing people rather than for saying anything meaningful.

C .We can head to the passage we wish we were preaching – maybe everything is Romans 3 for you, or perhaps Philippians 4, or whatever.  But what about this preaching passage, when will this get any coverage again?

D. We can linger in, but not preach the passage – dwelling on minor details or offering pleasant platitudes, even if we stay superficially in the passage, but don’t really preach it, then we are still digressing.

E. We can dive into our theological prof persona – do you wish you were teaching theology in a classroom?  Don’t work out that issue in the pulpit.

F. We can head for the newspapers – in our quest for relevance or to be a political voice, we can abdicate our role as preachers of the Bible.  By all means be relevant, but not at the expense of the text.

Why does this happen?  Some people know no better.  Some preachers were trained poorly.  Some churches push the preacher toward an unhealthy approach to the text.  But ultimately, the biggest reason that we have to face is this: not preaching the text is an evaluation of God’s ability as a communicator.

If God inspired the text, and if he did a good job, do we think that we can improve on that communication by our alternative methods of preaching?  Give everything you can to actually understanding and presenting the text so that its message is communicated, its revelation of the character of God is revealed and so that your listeners are able to experience exposure to this unique and wonderful passage!