Category Archives: Stage 5 – Message Purpose

Preaching Holiness – part 4

Holiness2This week we have been pondering the preacher and the theme of holiness.  There is so much more that could be said about each point, but hopefully we have had something to think and pray about.

15. Every sliver of unholiness will be judged and purged.  We really have no clue of how good that will be!  (That includes the unholiness of “older brother” religiosity . . . which means more of our lives will get there “as through fire” than we probably realize.  Nevertheless, what an utter relief the purging of all sin will bring to ransomed souls.)

16. When we make holiness sound like sour pickled vegetables we don’t motivate anyone to think beyond this life.  The New Creation will be wonderful in many respects, not least because of the total absence of sin and pain and tears, as well as the presence of Christ Himself.  Too many in our churches still have lingering images of sterility and fun-free hymnathons.  The Bible gives a lot of future glimpses to motivate us in the present.

17. Jesus was holy and magnetic, often our version of holiness is anything but.  The truly holy person is fully alive.  At the same time that person will be profoundly attractive and deeply offensive.  (And if the Gospels are an indicator, then such Christlikeness will be attractive to needy people, and offensive to religious people.)

18. The great threat to holiness in the church is not just the worldliness of culture, but also the pseudo-holiness of church culture.  Just as a weekend of binge behavior in a degraded society is horribly empty, so too is a relationally empty performance devoid of meaningful engagement with God and others (sometimes polite conversation can be empty too).

19. Preaching for holiness cannot be restricted to applications of conduct, nor even of conforming the mind…it must seek to engage and stir the heart.  It is not what goes in from the outside that defiles a person (i.e. religious duties and traditions), but what spews forth from the heart.  So preach in such a way as to engage the heart.  Informing the mind and pressuring the conduct will never suffice when the heart of the problem is the, uh, heart.

20. The overwhelming use of the term “Holy” in the New Testament is in reference to the Spirit of God.  Let’s be sure that our preaching is pursued with a thoroughly biblical and growing understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit in respect to our sanctification.  Too much Christianity still ignores the Spirit or turns Him into some sort of battery pack (either highly visible or highly invisible).  It is by the Spirit that we are united to Christ.  True relationally rich holiness is our privilege in the Gospel!

21. If you long for greater holiness in the lives of people in your church, don’t preach for “holiness.”  Instead, pray and preach for spiritual vitality in their relationship with Christ.  If we, and they, will love God, then what we want to do will be profoundly holy.  The Gospel does a work on our wants!
So much more could be said, but let’s pray for the beauty of God’s holiness to pervade our lives, our ministry and our churches . . .

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Preaching Holiness – part 3

Holiness2This week we are chewing on matters of preaching and true godly holiness.  I won’t review where we have been already, but please do go back to the first posts if you missed them.

10. People need instructing in holiness, but never in a sermon severed from the glorious good news of the Gospel.  There are plenty of instructional sections in the New Testament epistles, for example.  Don’t go joyriding in an Imperative Harvester, but instead keep the instructions firmly planted in the rich soil of Gospel content within the context of their own Bible book.  We might take weeks to preach an epistle, but the original hearers heard them in one sitting.  So make sure you aren’t plucking instruction and losing the rich theological setting for them.

11. The preacher’s personal holiness matters beyond words.  This is more than conformity to high standards of integrity.  It also shows in your love, your joy, your peace, your patience, your kindness . . . oh wait, I see what is going on here (it’s back to the tangible reality of the Holy Spirit again!)

12. Holiness is not merely movement away from something, it is movement towards someone.  False holiness will come across as a sour reaction against everything, whereas true holiness involves movement toward God, and out of ourselves toward others.  Christlikeness involves being like Christ, who was no sour hermit.

13. We must think root and not just fruit in respect to holiness.  If we ignore the appetites deep within, then we can give the impression that holiness is something people should pretend to like (while really only obeying through gritted teeth because they would much rather be sinning).  The new inner relish given by the Spirit results in genuine hatred of sin and delight in God’s holiness.

14. The world should not be allowed to define holiness … neither contemporary culture, nor your parents’ culture.  While some let contemporary cultural values shape their own, others let the cultural values of a previous generation do the shaping. Be Bible soaked so that it shows in your life, your personality, your attitude, etc.

(Probably) the final part of the series will go live tomorrow…

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Preaching Holiness – part 2

Holiness2We are pondering God’s holiness and our preaching.  Let’s continue the list of thoughts:

5. The Gospel is not just a solution for the guilt of our un-holiness, it also includes a recipe to generate true holiness.  Often preachers offer a way to get rid of the guilt, but leave listeners feeling that the pursuit of holiness and their ongoing commitment to Christ’s cause is a burden planted firmly on their shoulders.  The Gospel isn’t simply about forgiveness of sin, it also includes the transformation of the human heart and the wonder of union with Christ by the indwelling Spirit of God (the Holy Spirit).

6. The compulsion stirred in a Gospel-gripped heart is infinitely stronger than our most vehement tirade.  We will always be drawn to the notion that our pressurized guilt trip will bring about change, but only because we don’t fully understand humans or the Gospel.  Peer and preacher-pressure may manufacture diligent religious duties, but a delighted heart will give anything for the One loved.  Preach Him that others might love Him.

7. Show me a heart that truly loves Christ, and I will show you a life that is growing in holiness.  If the people in our churches could just catch a glimpse of the wonder of God’s pure love in Christ then the result would be incredible growth in holiness.  Our privilege is to seek to know Him more and offer Him more effectively.

8. True holiness momentum comes not from the pulpit, but from the stirred heart.  So preach and present the One who stirs hearts.  Our task is not primarily to instruct and constrain.  It is to present and invite.  Offer the most compelling Christ that you can and you will barely scratch the surface of the richness of the One who for all eternity has brought infinite delight to the heart of the Father in heaven.  We could always do better at preaching Christ.  Let’s stop wasting time and energy preaching performance and give ourselves to the Christian minister’s great privilege.

9. What spills from the preacher’s heart on Sunday must first thrill the preacher’s heart during the week.  If our lives are too caught up with the business of the church enterprise instead of prayer and ministering the Word, then we may give leadership speeches, but we won’t be preaching Christ out of the overflow of our own hearts.  In this sense, holiness momentum is generated via the pulpit, but the starting point is private delight in the wonder of Christ.

More tomorrow…

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Prayerfully Pondered Impact

impact2For many years people considered communication to consist merely in the transfer of propositions from one mind to another.  Many preachers still do.  Actually there is a lot more going on.  Without getting too technical, Speech-Act Theory analyses communication using three measures instead of one.  There is quite a bit of scope for this communications theory to help preachers consider their task.  Here are the three measures:

A. There is the actual set of words that comprise the communication, which can be evaluated for meaning, but only incompletely.

B. What the theory underlines is that speech doesn’t just say something, it is always delivered with the intent to do something.  Some acts of speech are typically used as clear examples, such as, “I pronounce you husband and wife” … in the right context, those words actually do something.  In reality every act of speech is given with the intent to do something.  There is the intended impact of the speaker that is communicated with and by the actual words used.  So you might use the same set of words, but with different intent depending on numerous other factors, to communicate the following: a threat, a promise, a flirtatious hint, etc.

C. Once we open up the realm of the intent of the speaker beyond mere analysis of propositions (which we automatically do as listeners), then there is a third measure to bring into the mix . . . the actual effect of the speech-act.  What actually happens may be intended or unintended, and it may be multi-layered.

If you want to chase Speech-Act Theory, by all means search for it, or for the terms locution, illocution and perlocution.  For now I want to probe this final element described in respect to preaching…

Do the actual effects of our preaching match our intended effects?  Obviously we have a significant added dimension as preachers – that God brings conviction, transformation and growth.  Nevertheless, it is definitely worth pondering our impact prayerfully.  Here are some possibilities:

1. Do people take our tone in the way we intend?  You might mean to come across as loving in what you say, but actually be felt to be antagonistic, negative or aggressive.  You might intend to couch certain content in a tone of hope, but come across as uncertain and hesitant.

2. Does the main goal of the message get through?  We do look to God to bring about transformation, but that doesn’t excuse us from prayerfully intending certain impact.  Are we seeing that impact over time?

3. Do secondary but significant goals get achieved in your preaching?  For instance, you might intend for your listeners to be motivated to read their Bibles during the week, but does your preaching bring about that motivation?  Prayerfully pondering actual impact might lead to some tweaks in your preaching that will help your church.

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Pondering Passage Purpose

arrow target2As a preacher studying a passage it is tempting to be purposeful in pursuing your own message, but to ignore the purpose of the passage. Maybe you are intrigued by the passage, or perhaps wondering how it could be preached.  Yet somehow, in the mix, we seem to lose sight of looking for why the writer wrote the text.  That is, rather than simply looking for what the writer wrote, we also need to ponder why the writer wrote it.

1. Look at the context – It is vital to look at any passage in its context.  What is going on around the text you are focused on?  What is the flow of thought or logical progression in the book?  What does the book generally say about its purpose (perhaps in the introduction, conclusion or “letter-frame”)?  If you have ever studied hermeneutics at all, you should be committed to the importance of context – not just for words, but also for sections.

2. Look at the content – This tends to bear the weight of our study efforts.  What words are used?  What are those words referring to?  How are sentences structured?  And so on.  Content is very important, especially when it is understood in context.  But combining contextual study with analysis of content is not the whole process.  Don’t miss the next one for a fuller grasp of the meaning of any text:

3. Don’t forget to consider the intent! – Content in context will do a lot to explain the “what” of a passage.  But unless we are deliberate, we can fail to recognize the “why” of a passage.  This may seem circular, but unless we are alert to the “why,” then we can’t fully grasp the “what.”  Look for clues in context, in content, in tone, in attitude, in the presence of imperatives, etc.  Some of this is hard objective analysis, some of it requires more of a subjective feel . . . which is not license to impose intent, but recognition that we must really listen to a text and be gripped by it, rather than merely passing it under the microscope of our preconceived expectations.

Passage purpose is easily neglected, but if it is, our preaching may feel like analysis . . . without vitality.  If we start to prayerfully get to grips with the intent of the original author, then we will tend to find the Divine Author getting to grips with our hearts through the passage.  Once we find some clarity on the purpose of the passage, then we also have a great starting point to consider the purpose of our message.  Pursuing the author’s purpose tends to fit with God’s purpose in my heart, and then helps with clarity on His purpose in my preaching that passage to others.

 

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Identifying with Bible Characters

film3The Bible is full of stories.  Stories are very effective ways to communicate.  When a story begins, people tend to do two things – first, they identify with (or disassociate from) characters, and second, they feel the tension in the story, anticipating the resolution.  So when we preach Bible stories, let’s be sure to help listeners connect with what is going on.

1. Don’t give a history lecture, preach the story to today.  It is easier, perhaps, to dispassionately tell what happened back then.  But it is not easier to listen to that.  It is, typically, dull.  However you may choose to do it, please make it clear to your listeners how the ancient story impacts contemporary life.  That doesn’t mean you have to constantly make up-to-date references (sometimes telling a story takes time and making lots of links to today can become distracting), but do frame the sermon with relevance so people know there is value in engaging the story fully.

2. Don’t caricature the characters, encourage identification with their fallen and frail human-ness.  It is easy to pick on one solitary feature of a character in a story, but fail to give a fair representation of them.  Peter puts his foot in his mouth, but he also has the guts to get out of the boat.  Zechariah doubted the angel, but was also a faithful pray-er over many decades.  Don’t simply beat up listeners with a quick connection to the failure of a character.  Stories work slowly as the listener engages with a character all the way to the point of resolution in the story.  Simply pointing out a flaw and applying it carries all the sermonic tension of a limp rope.  Try to reflect the fullness of the character portrayal offered in the biblical narrative and its context.

3. Don’t identify without theocentrizing.  It is also possible to present the characters effectively so that listeners can identify with them, but miss the point that God is at the center of biblical narrative.  It’s not just Joseph’s kindness and personal character quality that is significant in Matthew 1, it is also very much focused on God’s revelation of His plan to both save His people from their sins and His presence with His people.  Joseph is a great example of a “fine, young man.”  But the passage presents this fine, young man responding to the revelation of God’s purposes.  Jesus, Immanuel.  That is the information that Joseph acted upon.  The amazing thing about Christmas narratives is that the theocentric truth is bundled up in a tiny human infant.  (And we get to preach the amazing truth of the Incarnation soon!)

Christmas preached as just peace and happiness and quaint idyllic scenes is a travesty – Christmas is also a set up for theocentric preaching (but don’t lose the humanness of the other characters too).

 

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The JtB Principle

ForkSignYears ago I experienced a weekend of preaching that marked my own ministry for life.  Our church had managed to book a very well known speaker for its annual retreat.  That weekend, his preaching was a disaster.  As my wife and I drove home we reflected on the weekend of ministry and I knew this was a key moment in my life and ministry.  Reflecting on how he had ended up preaching like that stirred me to choose a different path.

I am convinced we all need to settle this core issue now, whatever stage of life and ministry we are at:

The John the Baptist Principle: Jesus must become greater, I must become less.

There is a fork in the road before us all.  One pathway is signposted “Jesus” and the other one is signposted “me.”  For all his good ministry over the years, this particular preacher seemed to have been okay with promoting himself through his preaching.  It felt so uncomfortable for us who were listening.  I decided that I wanted to choose the other option.  What does that involve?

Instead of seeking to impress listeners, let us seek to communicate - Our flesh and ego will be tempted to bust out our lofty learned vocabulary and heavy-duty theological terminology.  But if we are on the “Preach Jesus” pathway, then we will seek to be as clear and simple as possible.  We will be more satisfied to hear that a twelve year old listened attentively, than we will be to be told our preaching was “deep” (i.e. over the head of the person seeking to give polite feedback).

Instead of seeking to impress listeners, let us seek to equip – Again, our fleshly tendency toward pride will naturally want to make folks want to hear us again.  It is nice to think that people are dependent on you for their weekly dose of truth.  But if we are on the “Preach Jesus” pathway, then that will include a desire to equip them to read the Bible for themselves, meet Jesus for themselves, feed themselves, etc.  If every sermon is primarily about presenting God through an accurate, clear, engaging and relevant presentation of that text, may every sermon have a secondary goal of motivating listeners to want to engage with God in His Word during the rest of the week.

Instead of seeking to impress listeners, let us seek to introduce – Our fleshly inclination to present ourselves as the centre of the universe will nudge us toward assuming personal introductions are over as our sermon introduction begins.  That is, “I am here now, and I am preaching.”  This will typically be followed by an attempt to impress people with my knowledge, or my wisdom, or my suggestion for their betterment, etc.  But if we are on the “Preach Jesus” pathway, then we will feel compelled to introduce the person of our God, typically by pointing to His Son, throughout the message.  The personal introduction is the core of the message and the person being introduced isn’t ultimately us, but Him.  And when lives aren’t transformed as we prayed they would be, then our prayer will tend to be, “Lord, please help me do a better job of introducing you . . . because I know that if they could just catch a glimpse of you, change would follow.  PS Please let me know you more before next Sunday too!”

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What Does Transformational Preaching Transform?

Ripped2Almost everyone agrees that preaching should be transformational.  But we need to define what it is that we are seeking to see transformed?

1. Conduct – This is the most obvious area of transformation.  We all love to see a life transformed from worldly conduct to “christian” conduct.  But we also need to be wary.  Consider Frank.  Frank was a drinking champion.  He could drink more than anyone else and still be standing – that is how he got respect in the pub.  Then Frank saw a beautiful young lady going into the church next door.  He started attending.  He quickly realised he got no respect for his drinking abilities, but would get respect for church attendance.  Everyone in the church celebrated the transformation of Frank – “look at what the gospel can do!”  Really?  Self-concerned glory hunting gave way to self-concerned glory hunting in a new context (worldly Frank in the pub became worldly Frank in the church).  Not exactly gospel transformation.  That’s the problem with conduct.  It can be faked.  It can also be manipulated from the outside.  Peer pressure and cultural conformity can bring about impressive results.  But God’s involvement is not required.  A Christ-gripped life will manifest transformed conduct, but it also goes much deeper.

2. Character – Again, let’s both affirm this and be wary of it.  Character tends to be measured as the sum of the parts of conduct.  Consistency in multiple areas of conduct looks like character.  But if one area of conduct can be faked (for Sunday morning), then multiple areas can also be faked for each time someone is watching.  The Gospel will change a character both profoundly and gradually, but if we aim to change character in people, we are still liable to apply pressure and treat them as self-moved autonomous beings (wasn’t that part of the lie in Genesis 3?)

3. Belief – Unless people are transformed in what they believe, any change in character and conduct will remain superficial.  Belief is more than knowledge.  I can inform people with knowledge, but how do I influence what they actually believe and trust in from the heart?  That seems to go beyond what I can achieve.

All of these things are good and all will be transformed by biblical preaching in one way or another.  Ultimately though, if we are talking transformation, we have to go to the next level:

4. Affections – Call it heart, call it values, call it appetites, whatever.  The gospel transforms a life from the inside-out, from the heart outwards.  It takes the Spirit to plant an appetite (a relish) for Christ in the affections of someone.  This is where I feel relieved of the pressure to bring about transformation, but also the incredible privilege of my position as preacher.  I don’t twist arms to conform to behavioural standards for the sake of church conformity.  I do present Christ and the Gospel in all its wonder and majesty and sweetness, and I do so absolutely dependent on God to bring about transformation.

Biblical preaching transforms lives, but it occurs from the inside-out.  Anything more superficial will tempt me into acting like a mini-god pressuring mini-gods into self-moved determination and that just smacks of a fallen world perspective on the whole thing.  God’s Word invites us to trust Him, we should do the same.

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Preaching and Paradigms

PAradigmWhen we preach, we don’t simply present a truth, make an offer, or demonstrate the relevance of an ancient text.  Every biblical passage is a heavenly assault on the unquestioned assumptions of a fallen world.  That is to say, we don’t really live in a neutral world with some evil “out there” and some good information in the Bible.

The truth is that our entire world is upside-down.  Every cell in this universe is corrupted by the fall.  Yet we love to live in the myth that we are objectively evaluating a normal reality.  Then when extremes come before us, we are the arbiters who can discern what is extreme and what is not.  This results in people listening to the Bible and trying to find something relevant, rather than hearing the absolute revolution it speaks into our fallen, me-first, self-loving, circumstances-determine-mood, world.

So when we preach, what are we doing?  Sure, we are presenting the truth of the passage.  We are inviting people to meet the God who reveals Himself in His Word.  We are showing that the ancient text is more relevant than anything we hold to be truly contemporary.  But we are also bringing a heavenly critique of all that we believe to be normal.

Tomorrow I am preaching Psalm 46.  It is a wonderful Psalm of comfort for people fearing the destabilization brought by human enemies.  The LORD of hosts is with us, He is our fortress.  That changes everything.  He will utter and war will be defeated forever.  Here we are, understandably concerned by what we see going on in the world, perhaps even fearing for our future and our children’s future.  But the Bible challenges assumptions we don’t even recognize, and as we encounter the message of a passage like this one, we find our whole paradigms recalibrated to the reality we can’t see.

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Guest Series: Preaching Wisdom – Part 6

wisdom1Guest blog: My good friend, Huw Williams, has offered this series on preaching wisdom literature.  Huw is the pastor of the International Church in Torino, Italy, where he lives with his wife and daughter.  Here is his personal blog.  Thanks Huw!

_________________________

And to finish off the list . . .

6. Be aware of who is truly wise. Step back and think of wisdom literature as a whole genre for a moment, consider the dynamic that is going on. In it’s simplest form it is this – a wise person is offering his wisdom to someone who is less wise. Remember this is not the same as knowledge or information, it is personal not abstract, it is applied in the complex situations of life, and we all stand alongside Rehoboam while the offer is made – who will we listen to – wisdom or folly?

The wise person comes to us in the written word, as a person of authority, of greater wisdom, or greater experience of what it means to live in God’s world, and in God’s way. That wisdom runs right through Proverbs, it is what is being searched for in books like Ecclesiastes. Think of the massive climax towards the end of Job when God breaks into the discussion with His wisdom – it’s huge, isn’t it? In wisdom literature, the wise person offers their wisdom for us to benefit from, freely. Can you see where this is going? Wisdom finds its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Listen to what Paul says in 1 Cor 1:26-31:-

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

That’s why I said earlier in the week that when we get into wisdom literature, it can seem as though those big themes of the Bible have been laid aside for a while. They haven’t been, but we might need to work a little harder to see them and we need to need to be very wary of preaching wisdom in a way which is purely focused on temporary benefit for us. Proverbs are too often preached as “super-tips” for a better life now only. Be wary of approaching Song of Solomon in a way which only celebrates human sexuality in this life. Watch out for an understanding of Job that gives answers to suffering in this life without lifting our eyes to eternity. Let’s not preach wisdom in a way which only celebrates His gifts without lifting the eyes of our listeners to the wonder of the giver.

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