Pulpit Humour: Five Pointers

Some churches get very upset if the preacher uses any humour in the pulpit. I suspect heaven will be a shock to their system!  Other churches esteem humour above all else that comes from the pulpit.  This is also a problem position.  But what of the rest of us somewhere in the middle?  We know that humour is neither inherently sinful, nor the point of preaching, but it can be a minefield.

Here are some pointers:

1. Be authentic in your humour.  That is, don’t pretend to be something you are not.  If you are not a joke-teller in conversation, then don’t tell jokes in the pulpit (it won’t work).  As long as it is appropriate, go with your natural style of humour.

2. Be joyful rather than silly.  We have so much to celebrate and should be a people marked by “Easter joy.”  However, the dynamics of a responsive crowd can stir our flesh into looking for laughs.  Don’t make that your pursuit, you will be selling out on the great goals of preaching!

3. Be loving to all.  Don’t use humour that is critical, destructive, racist, sexist, etc.  Don’t use restrictive humour, that is, humour that only those on the “inside” will understand.  It can be okay to say something that some will find amusing, but it is not okay for those who don’t to feel like they are being left out.

4. Be selective.  Don’t always use the same kind of material.  For instance, it may be the cutest thing you ever heard, but not everyone in your congregation wants to hear what your child said this week at bedtime.  For some a continual diet of those comments can be like rubbing salt in an open wound.

5. Be humble. If it goes wrong, don’t hesitate to apologise.  I inadvertently mixed up two brands when giving an illustration and managed to reference something highly inappropriate … it certainly got a laugh, but I needed to both apologise and explain how I ended up saying what I did!

What would you add?  Any pointers you’ve found helpful?

Easter Does Not Fade

Easter has come and gone for another year.  But Easter will never fade for God’s people.  Think about the Apostle Peter, for instance.  He was a rugged fisherman called by Jesus to become one of his core followers.  He watched and experienced all that we read about in the Gospels.  He was at the heart of most of the action.  When it came down to it, he wanted to be there for Jesus.  When it came down to it, he couldn’t make it faithfully through the night.

Then things went from bad to worse.  Jesus was killed.  The disciples were in hiding.  Peter had not been able to say sorry for his denial of the man he so dearly loved.  Saturday passed.  Sunday morning came.  Women came to report that the tomb was empty.  Peter raced John to the tomb and that day he met the risen Christ more than once.  Surely in their private conversation, Peter would have expressed his heart to Jesus over what had happened?  Two weeks later, on a Galilean beach, Peter was given the chance to express publicly his love for Jesus.  He had failed, but he was not finished.

Every encounter with the risen Jesus must have thrilled their hearts, but before too many weeks had passed by Jesus returned to His Father and they waited in Jerusalem.  On Pentecost, it was Peter that boldly stood to declare what was going on.  Peter pronounced persuasively that the pangs of death could not keep hold of Jesus and he had risen from the dead!

Easter was very real for those who saw the real Easter.  And for a few weeks, their enthusiasm is to be expected. But surely the delight must fade?  Every event eventually fades, doesn’t it?  Not for Peter.

Fast forward over three decades and Peter writes a letter to some dispersed and discouraged Christians in Turkey.  As soon as he launches he is gushing about the reality of Easter again!  Thirty-plus years and his passion remains undimmed!  Peter could not help but write about the covenant mercy of God that led Him to cause us “to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead!”

Peter went on to write about that hope: an inheritance kept where it cannot die, be defiled, or disappear.  The heavenly hope was, for Peter, no “pie in the sky when we die” – it was a real and life defining certain expectation.  But the hope Peter spoke of was more than just the heavenly inheritance to come. It was also a present tense living hope.

How does the resurrection of Jesus shape our lives today?  What do we have as well as the hope that lies ahead?  Peter writes that we have perspective in the midst of challenging trials.  The suffering that besets God’s people now has purpose – it proves the miracle of our faith.  The suffering we endure now with faith results in greater glory to the God we look to in the midst of the trials.

As well as perspective, Peter writes that believers have an unexplainable love for Jesus.  Because he rose from the dead, Jesus is not simply the object of our nostalgia, like a spiritual Elvis or JFK.  Jesus is alive and that means that while we do not see him, we do love him.  As hard as it is to explain the hope that characterizes God’s people, it is even more difficult to explain the love that we have for Jesus Christ.  It is a first-rate spiritual miracle for a self-absorbed and incurved human heart to be turned inside-out so that it doesn’t hate Jesus (our natural condition), but loves him from the heart!

Finally, as well as perspective and love, the believer also has inexpressible joy.  When we see Jesus our joy will overflow, of course, but now, even though we do not see him, we rejoice with a joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.  True believers suffer, true believers endure, but true believers are people of joy.  It comes from the perspective we have, it comes from the love that is birthed within us, it comes because Jesus has conquered the greatest enemy – death itself.

Since death is defeated we live, present tense, with a living hope, with victory-shaped perspective, with unexplainable love, and with inexpressible joy.  We live, present tense, because Jesus lives, present tense. Since death is defeated, Easter must not and cannot fade for us.

Preaching and Perspectives

When we preach, we present a perspective.  When we preach, we provoke a perspective.  Here are five perspective prompts to help us consider the perspective we give in our preaching:

1. God spoke vs God speaks

We need both perspectives.  We need to know that God has definitively revealed and communicated his very being through the incarnation and the work of the Holy Spirit in revelation that we can access with confidence in our Bibles.  That canonized revelation is priceless and people need to be confident that we can stake our life and eternity on what it says in The Book.  At the same time we do not have a God who is far away and unengaged.  As we engage with the Bible we are engaging with God in the present.  Some preachers speak only as if God spoke long ago and far away.  Others preach as if God’s voice is heard predominantly today apart from the Bible.  Both extremes are problematic.  God spoke and through that, God still speaks.  Our mission is to offer both to our listeners.

2. My World vs The World

Ever since the Fall we have all fallen inward like human-shaped black holes. We naturally think our world is the whole world, when actually there is a whole lot going on beyond me.  As a preacher you address both.  You speak God’s Word into a personal sphere that God does, in fact, care deeply about.  God’s personal love and concern for each of us is nothing short of astonishing.  At the same time we all need to have our horizon expanded beyond the sphere of self to see there is so much more beyond my life, my issues, my concerns, my comfort. The preacher speaks a message that is intensely personal, yet also expansively global in scope.

3. Past vs Future

People live in the bubble of their present concerns.  Preachers point outside of that bubble.  We point back to the world of the Bible and God’s definitive invasion in the person of His Son.  The incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection and the ascension are all definitive points in past history.  At the same time we point through preaching into the future to the historical moment when Christ will again enter into our world.  Past events, future events, all shaping our present lives.  Preachers point backwards and forwards and listeners need us to do both.
 
4. Under The Sun vs Under The Throne

We live our lives in light of what we can see, but there is more.  The preacher points to both.  As well as offering divine commentary and insight into the visible world around us, the preacher also pulls back the veil and shows the reality above.  Stephen lived, preached and died in a terrifying whir of political tensions and angry voices, but above the sky there was a reality that he got to glimpse before his death – the Son of Man standing at the right hand of the throne on high. Daniel 7 is such an important passage – while we live in the raging foment of kingdoms rising and falling, terrifying the saints and waging war against them, all the while there is a higher throne, God is on it, and judgment is given into the hands of a human who is there at the side of the throne.  We can live our lives and die our deaths in light of that reality … but preachers need to help people to see what is unseen.

5. Me vs Him

This may be the ultimate perspective issue in preaching.  People naturally focus on themselves and yet do not see clearly.  The preacher shines a light on the true self, and yet aims to draw the gaze of listeners away from self and to Christ.

In all of these ways preachers influence perspective through preaching.  Does your preaching lean one way and not the other in any of these categories?  Is there some perspective shift needed in you so that your preaching can bring about that good in others?

Rebuilding the Bridge to Life

bridge3Most of us have seen or used the bridge to life illustration at some point.  Maybe you have even preached your way through it.  On one side there is God and on the other there is humankind, and they are separated by a chasm (sin).  Perhaps God is represented by a throne or a crown. Try as we might we cannot leap across the chasm or build a bridge of good works, so God has to do the bridge-building.  The cross is interposed and we can walk across to God.  Many people have come to faith with this illustration, so please don’t see this post as a criticism of it.

It is good to think through what is being communicated and I do think there are some concerning features of the gospel offered here.  For instance, let’s ponder the assumed motivation.  Are people really trying to leap the chasm to get to God?  Are people longing for closeness with the throne/crown authority figure presented in this illustration?  I don’t remember talking to someone who was desperate to get to God and disappointed that they could not.  Furthermore, the relationship offered seems ambiguous – what sort of connection will we have with this throne/crown if we do choose to walk his way?

I’d like to offer another version.  Why? Because it is good to rethink the gospel presentations we use. Even if we end up rejecting my modification, the exercise will surely be helpful in thinking through how we present the gospel.

Instead of having the human figure facing towards God and apparently motivated to move towards God throughout the illustration, let’s draw him or her facing away from God.  We were created for relationship with God but we have turned away.  Introduce the chasm (sin is our rebellion against both God and the love he has for us).  Now the illustration is ready to fill in.

A. On the God side, why don’t we represent God in a more Trinitarian way?  After all, the authority imagery is obviously incomplete, so let’s play with an alternative.  How about a house?  Verbally explain the context of the relationship of the Father and the Son by the Spirit – three persons united in love.  This relationship was the home, the family, the belonging that we were made for.  If it is explained well then the authority of God as creator and ruler can still be established fairly easily.  However this is not a God of conflicting realities. He is not “loving, but also just.”  Because of the perfect love within the Trinity, therefore God is just, etc.

B. In the chasm let’s draw a manger.  Why a manger?  Because God’s goal for us is not merely to change our location from the realm of sin to the realm of heaven.  God’s goal is union with us, which is why God the Son became one of us – the incarnation matters to the gospel!  He had to become one of us so that he could be one with us in marriage, which leads us to …

C. Behind the turned away person let’s draw the cross.  Why here? Because ultimately that is how far Jesus travelled for us.  It was the price that had to be paid, it was the revelation of what God is like that had to be made, and it was the proposal to win our hearts to entrust ourselves to God.  God’s proposal was not in nervousness on one-knee, but in agony with outstretched arms.

Why do I like this adaptation of the classic illustration?

  1. Because it speaks of the three great unions of Christianity – the union of God with God (Trinity), the union of God and man in Christ (incarnation), and the union of Christ with humanity (union with Christ).
  2. Because God is presented more relationally.
  3. Because mankind is not presented as motivated to seek and reach God.
  4. Because God, in Christ, came all the way to us.  (You could also explain that the Spirit points our hearts to the cross and invites us to be united to Christ.)
  5. Because it presents a loving God doing everything for a rebellious and dead-to-God creature like me.
  6. Because the gospel is about trusting in that love, rather than about making a personal commitment to travel to God.
  7. Because in the gospel we are brought back home by a loving spouse – it is not our solo trek on a God-made bridge to a nice place, in a very real sense he carries his bride over the threshold!

My goal is not to convince you of this illustration.  Perhaps you have another classic gospel explanation you have used – why not think through its weaknesses and modify it to better offer the richness of the good news?  (For example, the judge doesn’t simply pay our fine, he also approaches the stand and proposes…)

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This post was originally published on www.cordeo.org.uk

Diagnosing Sheep

sicksheep2In pastoral ministry, there is a great need for the right diagnosis of sheep. Just as a medical doctor cannot ignore the person in front of them and assume the same treatment will be equally effective for all, so the pastoral worker cannot assume all need the same type of care.

In John 11 Jesus arrived at Bethany after Lazarus had died.  Martha and Mary both approached Jesus with exactly the same words, “If you had been here my brother would not have died.”  Jesus did not reply with identical statements. He gave Martha practical hope, but Mary emotional empathy. Jesus knew the people he was caring for and treated them as individuals.

In 1Thessalonians 5:12-14, Paul gives instructions to the church, that they should respect and esteem the leadership. And he gives instructions to the leadership.  There are people who are idle – they need admonishing or exhorting.  There are those who are fainthearted and discouraged – they need encouraging and comforting.  There are those who are weak – they will need your devotion and help.  And every one of them will need patience.

It would be profoundly ineffective to admonish the fainthearted, help the idle, or to encourage the weak.  The fainthearted need care not rebuke. The idle need a change of perspective, not help to carry on as they are.  The weak need practical help, not words.

This is one of the great challenges of pastoral ministry, and therefore, of preaching too.  We need to grow in sensitivity to the people we care for, and we need to grow in discernment too.  Some of us will tend toward a harshness with others that will bruise and harm many of the sheep.  Some of us will tend toward a tenderness toward everyone that will actually be unhelpful to some.

We need to listen well, watch carefully, pray diligently, and keep in mind that in pastoral care situations there will be multiplied factors at play – the circumstances of the person, their relational dynamics, their own sinful responses, their triggered responses from previous hurts, their understanding and ability to think through life clearly, their underlying health issues or hidden fears, insecurities, etc.

The truth is that there is not one of us who can see even themselves clearly and fully, let alone others.  We are severely restricted in our ability to really understand others. Make sure that pastoral ministry drives you to your knees.  Any other position is too elevated.

Dig Deeper

digdeeper2Perhaps the hardest thing to know is what you don’t know. One of the huge benefits of formal education is that it tends to open your eyes to what you don’t know. However, most of the time most of us remain blissfully unaware of riches with which we have not yet engaged. This post may be attempting the impossible, but I want to suggest some areas for further study that might be just what your ministry needs to develop to another level. I will not spell out everything, but rather offer some signposts that may nudge you in a healthy direction. Obviously, you may already know more than me about some of these, but that is beside the point. I believe these are fruitful avenues for prayerful study for any of us:

  1. The Fall.  I believe the Fall in Genesis 3 had a far more profound effect on us than we have ever realized. Too many Christians think of sin as being a list of sins. But what about the “non-sin” sins such as self-righteousness and autonomy? Too many Christians think of sin as something they did before salvation with the odd slip up now and again since. But the gravitational pull of fallenness is exerting a huge effect on us all the time.  I believe we would benefit as preachers to prayerfully pursue a full biblical answer to the question, “what is sin?”
  2. “In Christ.”  Far too many Christians, and dare I say it, preachers, see salvation as being essentially only about guilt and forgiveness.  The good news that is offered in too many pulpits is entirely too thin in comparison with the richness of what is actually offered in the New Testament – that is, in the New Covenant.  The context in which our sins are forgiven, and our shame is removed, and our deadness is transformed, and our enmity is reconciled, and so on, is the context of our union with Christ. Lloyd-Jones referred to this as the “ultimate doctrine” and I suspect none of us have been able to exhaust the richness of what it means to be “in Christ” – many perhaps have barely begun!
  3. The Spirit.  Many churches fall into one extreme or another on the Holy Spirit. For some, He is an end in himself, a source of power and a sensational goal to pursue.  For others, He is a reality that deserves a tip of the hat and then is generally ignored (all the while affirming his existence and importance).  Have we really grasped why and how the Spirit is so Christ-focused?  Have we really grasped why and how the Spirit is so concerned with communication and relationship?  Have we wrestled with the Spirit’s role in the Trinity?  Is he just another member of a divine committee of three, or is he uniquely involved in the union of the Father and Son? And what is that to us?

And since my self-imposed word count is more than used up, here is just one more bonus:

Covenant.  What kind of covenants does the Bible describe God to establish with us?  Are they the same as contracts, really?

Feel free to let any of these stir a chase in the Bible and in your study. I suspect any chasing you might do on these subjects will not be wasted, but will only enrich and deepen your preaching ministry!

Building Preacher-Listener Connection – Part 5

connections2So we have thought about the personal life of the preacher, the pastoral ministry of the preacher, the preacher’s content and the preacher’s delivery. There is another important side to this subject. The listener. Are they responsive to both the message and the messenger? What can you do about it? Actually, you can implement everything we have suggested in the last four posts and still find some people to be unresponsive.

18.    Some sheep are dead. I don’t mean to be unhelpfully blunt, but there are people in our churches who are not spiritually alive. They do not have the Spirit. It is not our place to judge whether someone is genuinely saved or not, but when we have concerns about the lack of the fruit of the Spirit, then we should be both evangelistic in our content and prayerful in our approach. We should not expect those who are still spiritually dead to respond and function like believers.  And yet we so easily do.

19.    Some sheep may determine not to connect with you.  Every human is complex,  believers included. A thousand factors are at play in any life at any time. Just as you find yourself drawn to or negative toward others, so others will differ in their response to you. You might do everything you can to connect with your listeners, but there may well be some that simply refuse to connect. Perhaps they have personal issues they are working through and you are an easy target.  Perhaps you have unintentionally touched a nerve with something you have said or done that has grown into a big thing in their minds. Perhaps an unhelpful “mutual friend” has a deliberate or unintended ministry of spreading negativity and poisoning relationships. It takes far less effort to do damage to relationships than to build them up and perhaps others have been at work to undermine your connection with this particular individual.

Even if others in the church have not been at work, the enemy has. He loves nothing more than to turn believers against each other.  And there are some people that are personally wounded or carrying enough baggage to be an easy target for his machinations.

How can this reality not cripple your ministry? That could be a series in its own right, but Romans 12:18 has to be in the mix – inasmuch as it depends on you, live at peace with everybody. Sometimes peace is not possible and the issue lies beyond your reach. Pray for God to show you what is going on in you, and pray for God to change hearts as necessary – both yours and theirs.  And press on in your ministry.

20.    Only one person can change hearts. Whether we are talking about unsaved individuals who are not yet transformed, or whether we are talking about believers functioning in a fleshly and immature way – the only person who can change hearts is God.  Therefore our ministry can never be just Word.  We must be people of the Word and prayer.  If you are like me this might be a helpful reminder. It is so easy to forget to pray for specific people while focusing all my attention on preaching what they need to hear.  For effective preacher-listener connection there are many factors as we have seen. None is more important than prayer.

That is the end of the series, but we have really just scratched the surface. What would you add? What has helped you connect?

Building Preacher-Listener Connection – Part 4

connections2The connection between preacher and listener is a multi-faceted and complex thing. We’ve scratched the surface of the preacher’s personal life, their pastoral ministry and their content. Now let’s ponder some suggestions for improving your delivery to increase the preacher-listener connection.

14.    Manuscript in preparation but use less notes when preaching. To put it simply every moment you are looking at your notes you are not connecting with your listeners.  In an ideal world I would like to fully manuscript each message and always preach without notes. The manuscripting allows for careful and prayerful consideration of exact wording. Preaching without notes increases connection exponentially. I do not always follow this ideal, but I know that as much as I move away from that, I move away from connection.

15.    Watch yourself on video to check your visual presentation. Watching yourself on video will help you see what others see. Do you convey warmth? Is your energy contagious? Do you smile? Are your gestures appropriate? That is, are they big enough for the audience and venue? Are references to time or progression moving from left to right from the perspective of the listener? Do the gestures appear natural or forced? Do you seem comfortable?

16.    Listen to yourself on audio to check your voice.  Does your voice convey enthusiasm and warmth, or nervousness and tension? Do you sound natural or, to be blunt, do you sound weird? People are experts in reading both visual and vocal signals, and they do so to determine whether there is a connection or not. They do it all day every day. So they are still doing it when you preach.

17.    Interpersonal connection’s golden ticket? Make eye contact!  Whatever you can do to increase eye contact is worth doing. Less notes, change of position, adjustment of lighting, more run throughs, better sleep . . . pray about what you can do to improve meaningful eye contact with your listeners.

Lots more could be said about delivery, but it does matter. Tomorrow we will finish the series with one more important category.

Building Preacher-Listener Connection – Part 3

connections2We have thought about the personal life of the preacher and the pastoral ministry of the preacher. Let’s think about the actual content of the message.  Is it designed to connect?

9.    Really get to know the Bible and your text better. Preaching is not like a relaxed conversation between friends. It is a presentation. One person is presenting both truth and application to others. In every situation where one person is expected to speak with authority, they need to convey credibility. It is true in a sales transaction, in a doctor explaining a treatment plan to a patient, in an educational setting, and it is no less true in preaching. Not only do you need to know what you are talking about, but your listeners need to be able to sense that you know what you are talking about. As Bert Decker’s book title put it, you need to be believed to be heard. Do not try to shortcut to this by showing off knowledge. You need to carry knowledge with humility. The only way to achieve this is to genuinely know the Bible and your text as well as possible.

10.    Internalize your message. If you met someone for the first time and were making conversation, you would feel nervous if they had to check their notes for what their job was, or where they met their spouse. It is hard to trust truth that is not fully owned. So in preaching you need to get the content of your message into you before it can convincingly come out. We will come back to this one tomorrow.

11.    Reflect on personal response and application before preaching. It is not enough to know the content of your message. That content needs to have been filtered through your own life in some way so that you speak not only the truth, but you also speak from the impact of that truth.  This means we would do well to …

12.    Extend lead time before preaching a message. It is difficult if you are preaching at least once per week to have anything more than five days of lead time before preaching a message. Some of us end up with just a couple of days to prepare messages, which is far from ideal. The ideal plan would be to extend the lead time by bringing preliminary study forward before your previous message. If you cannot do a good chunk of initial study well ahead of time, then at least try to give some thought and prayer to forthcoming messages in advance so they can percolate in the background. Unless the speaker has fallen ill and you are stepping in at the last minute, it is not good to start from scratch the day before you preach.

13.    Connection between humans is a heart to heart phenomena. It is easy to present information to inform. It can also be easy to pressure your listeners to perform. But good preaching will always present Christ in such a way that listeners might be drawn to him, stirred by him, motivated to love and trust him. Preaching to the heart is primarily about content, not manner. Evaluate whether your content is offering a God that listeners may find delightful, and whether it is proclaiming a present tense invitation to that God rather than merely giving a historical lecture.

We need listeners to connect with the message, not just the messenger. That is why the content is important. Tomorrow we will think about the delivery.