12 Pointers for Effective Epistle Exposition

envelope2Epistles are often seen as the easiest texts to preach.  After all, they tend to be logical, structured and, since they are written to churches, easy to apply.  Here are some reminders that may be helpful for effectively preaching epistles:

1. Grasp the narrative.  Hang on, I thought we were talking about epistles?  Indeed.  By exploring the historical setting, especially by paying close attention to the details in the epistle itself, plus any Acts context, we can start to get a sense of the narrative that lies behind the letter.  The letter itself is one side of a conversation at one moment in time.  “Narratives” can be preached with tension, with feeling, with imagery, etc.

2. Learn the background.  Not just the specific occasion of the epistle, but whatever background understanding would help you.  For instance, how much do you really know about slavery in the Roman Empire?  What about proto-gnostic religions?  And the geography?  Take the chance to learn more, don’t just try to replenish what you once knew.

3. Familiarise like crazy.  Don’t read a letter then preach it.  Read it.  Read it.  Read it again.  Each time through, the flow of thought will become clearer and clearer.

4. Focus on the frame.  The “letter-frames” often get short shrift from expositors.  They shouldn’t.  Look at the beginning and end of the epistle: what is included, how conventions are followed or broken, each and every clue to the situation of author and readers.

Tomorrow I’ll share the next four…

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?

Holy and Blameless Before Him

holy-blameless-300x180We have just refreshed the look of the Cor Deo website.  Please click here and head over for a look around.

I just posted a new piece on sanctification called, “Holy and Blameless Before Him”

“There are lots of debates about how sanctification works. Presumably because the common views don’t work. What are the common views? In simplistic terms there are essentially two: one is that sanctification is by my personal effort, the other is some variation on the notion that it either doesn’t matter or that God will do it.

Typically we think that the solution to two extreme views will be a blending of the two. So in this case, is sanctification best understood as a cooperative effort where God does his bit, and I do my bit? I don’t think that will help us. Our flesh will corrupt that model. Instead, let’s ponder the big biblical framework for sanctification. . . ”

Please click here to go to the post.

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 . . .

Application Is Not Always Engagement

HammerEveryone lauds preaching that connects with the congregation.  Many imply that the key to connecting is giving applications.  But is it possible to be totally applicational in a message, and yet completely unengaging?

I believe it is possible.  If there is no personal warmth between preacher and listener, and if there is no vertical warmth between the preacher and God, then a highly applicational message could easily become an instructional rant based on a text.  Listeners will not feel connected with the preacher or the preaching.  They may just feel got at.

The problem is that if we think being relevant and applicational is all it takes to connect, then we can overlook the fact that communication is best offered in the context of interpersonal warmth.  Our listeners need us to have that reality in both dimensions!

A good friend of mine has a stock of great sayings, one of which goes, when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  This is so true in preaching.  A chilling of the temperature in our personal walk with God will show in our communication with others.  Even the most winsome of texts can become an opportunity to hammer on the duty theme again, for example.

Instead of just plugging in applications, let’s pray about what it really takes to connect with listeners.  This will include our manner and delivery, sermon content and presentation of the Bible, as well as pastoral connection outside of the pulpit.  People need preaching that engages them more than just preaching that gives application.

7 Ways to Guard Hearts at a Christian Conference

Conference2Attending a Christian conference can be an incredible blessing.  The opportunities to learn, to network, to take a break from normal life, to enjoy abundant food and even to sing together with a large crowd of believers, this can all be wonderful.  But there are dangers too, and since I haven’t seen anybody writing about this, here is a set of points to ponder as you head for the next big event:

1. Don’t leave God out of your conversation.  This may seem bizarre when every session, every song, and almost every conversation is probably going to relate to God and ministry.  But I stand by the point – don’t leave God himself out of the conversation.  It is easy to neglect time with Him in order to stay busy talking about His things.  It is easy to stay up late, get up groggy and rush off to breakfast, conversations and plenary sessions.  What about time with God?  What about letting Him have a voice in your day by reading the Bible?  What about pausing to pray since He is important to you?  If your spouse were with you, your frantic intensity and neglect of conversation would do nothing for marital closeness.  So what about Christ?

2. Lean on God to navigate the stresses of networking.  If the conference is a gathering of people involved in ministries like yours, then it is tempting to buzz around like a manic worker bee trying to connect with every significant person in attendance.  In the few days you have, you may not get to everyone you think you should.  Instead of handling that by your own stress, talk to God about it and walk through the days with a reliance on Him.  He can orchestrate the connections that He thinks you need.  I have experienced both the manic version of conference networking, and the trusting God version of it.  The latter version is healthier, more faith-building and more effective.

3. Don’t feed the hype of a glory festival.  Probably the worst part of some Christian events is that they feed the hype of mutual glory hunting.  Jesus warned the religious leaders of his day very strongly about the danger of receiving glory from one another (see John 5:38ff) and yet we still fall into that trap so easily.  Christian events where leaders are gathered are often rife with the stench of human glory.  Determine not to feed it.  Don’t leave a conversation mid-sentence because your favourite author just entered the room.  Don’t ask for autographs (what is the point?)

4. Value every brother and sister in Christ.  Following on from the previous point, it is tempting to have your radar beeping for the famous or high profile people that may be at the conference.  But if you are trusting God to orchestrate your informal connections, then remember that He may be more excited about you loving an “insignificant” brother or sister than your need to shake hands with someone who is in demand.  The “least of these” applies at the conference, and it applies when Big Name is standing right next to you too.

5. Care for the “profile people” as people.  It is easy to elevate well-known speakers and authors as if they are super-Christians.  They are brothers and sisters in Christ.  If you have opportunity to interact, do so lovingly and with sensitivity to them as people.  Express gratitude for their ministry, but get beyond that too.  Show interest in them as people, not just as fonts of knowledge about your pet subjects.  If they have just spoken, recognize that they may be feeling discouraged or drained.  I stood by as one “fan” missed every cue from a “profile person” who was obviously drained and heading for his room.  After a while I was tempted to step in and rescue the speaker from the onslaught of questions and lack of sensitivity.

6. Don’t forget your family role too.  If you are married, but attending the conference alone, then be sure not to abdicate your responsibilities at home.  My wife does an amazing job at home when I am away for a few days, but it is a thankless task.  That is, unless I thank her.  Phone calls, texts, and notes, all show that you appreciate them.  Sometimes your spouse will just need to talk.  Sometimes you may need to comfort or discipline a child over the phone.  It may not feel as exciting as the opportunities in front of you, but it may be the most important ministry you do all week.

7. Be a builder, not a destroyer.  If you put leaders together, inevitably you are creating opportunity for constructive evaluation of everything about the conference.  What did you think of his third point?  Do you like the music?  What was going on with the stewards for the main meeting?  Ministry leaders can’t help evaluating ministry when we are participating in an event, but we can help the tone of our evaluation.  The insecure will criticize and tear down.  The mature in Christ will be careful to build up others in every circumstance.  There will be avenues for constructive criticism – use them to help things improve.  But don’t use conversation to elevate yourself and tear down beloved brothers and sisters in Christ.

Attending a Christian conference is an incredible privilege.  Next time you get that opportunity, why not prayerfully go through these points before you dive in to the crazy schedule?

5 Hindrances to Believing the Gospel of Done

71BuO-qnfHLI am enjoying reading David Murray’s The Happy Christian.  I blogged from an early section here, but let me ponder another of David’s very helpful lists.  What are the hindrances that prevent people in our churches from enjoying the fullness of “the Gospel of done”?  These five hindrances get in the way of people in your church, and they probably get in your way too.  Let’s pray about them for ourselves and preach to help people become aware of them too.

1. Accusing Conscience – The inner prosecutor can be most vehement!  If we don’t confront this with the gospel, then we will be forever bound in a cycle of new resolutions and personal determinations.  And guilt.  Shame.  Remorse.  But the good news is that it is finished!  And this is a cry our souls need to hear, and our churches need to ring with it lest the inner prosecutor crush the life of the Gospel.

2. A Demanding Church – This is one we definitely can influence through our preaching – but it won’t be easy.  Traditionally people have heard “Duty, duty, duty,” as the main message, or perhaps “Disobedience, disobedience, disobedience.”  Preaching in many churches is a never ending to do list.  There is a place for clarification of what it will look like to have the Gospel working in a life, but let’s make sure we preach the Gospel so that it can work in lives!

3. Work-for-Wages Culture – We live in a culture that promotes a simply concept: work leads to reward.  There is a strong case for a Christian work ethic in the Bible and we can make a case for its historical influence.  But there is also a strong case for the Gospel to be a radically counter-cultural message, a counter-fallenness message that goes against the notion that we can make a name for ourselves and be somebody by our own efforts.

4. Unbelief – Murray points his reader to the ten most disbelieved letters in the Bible.  What are they?  N . . . O . . . T . . . O . . . F . . . W . . . O . . . R . . . K . . . S  Our churches are full of people who still assume that we have to do our best and live like it.  Read the Bible until you purge your own soul of this disease and then preach the truth loud and clear!

5. Christian Failure – Some of us are convinced that God let’s us in based on His Done, but we don’t believe we stay in by His Done.  Too many churches preach the Gospel to unbelievers and an anti-Gospel to believers.

If you have read, or are reading The Happy Christian, what are you finding most helpful?