Prayerful & Proactive

The preaching of God’s Word is massively significant in the life of the local church.  You cannot have a healthy church without effective biblical preaching.  But a healthy church requires more than just a good diet from the pulpit.  A healthy local church will be characterized by believers “one anothering one another” as some like to say – that mutual ministry that occurs not sat in rows hearing the sermon, but face to face and shoulder to shoulder throughout the week.

Here are two well known verses from Hebrews 10 –

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

Perhaps you’ve heard these verses quoted as a nudge to attend services at church?  While services are the typical format in which believers meet together, this is not really saying that attendance at services is key.  It is what happens in the church fellowship that is being addressed here.  It is possible to attend every service in a church, but never actually engage with the life of that church fellowship.  It is sad that some will have attended services for their whole life, but never actually participated in what these verses are describing.

In the original context, the members of the church community were feeling the pressure of their circumstances and were starting to retreat and pull back from the life of the body of Christ.  The preacher/writer to the Hebrews is urging them not to pull back from Christ, or the body of Christ!

Notice that there are two “one another’s” here.  The first involves stirring up one another to love and good works.  The word translated “stir up” is typically a negative word.  It can refer to a sharp disagreement between people, or a strong response to something that is sour.  And yet here it is used positively.  Like a cattle prod, or a sheep dog, or a whip on a horse – a negative thing used to achieve a good goal.  So believers are to agitate one another toward spiritual health.

I think it is really important to notice that we are not simply commanded to do this, but rather to consider how to do it.  That extra layer of preparation is important.  There are some in the church who feel it is their God-given role to freely administer rebuke and discomfort in the body of Christ.  These people often have too high a view of their own ability to discern and tend to do more damage than good.  No, rather, we are to prayerfully ponder how we can carefully provoke spiritual health in those closest to us in the church.

Then there is the other side of the coin – the more obviously positive side, if you like.  We are to “encourage one another” as we see Christ’s return getting closer.  This seems easier – less planning needed, just go for it.  Be an encourager.  Say thank you.  Write a note.  Affirm people.  Express appreciation.  Cheer people on in their church service, or their family life, or their spiritual growth.

It seems to me that some people get these two “one anothers” reversed in a certain sense.  Some find it too easy to offer criticism widely, but withhold encouragement and only offer it to those closest to them.  We should reverse that.  Offer encouragement to everyone as freely as you can, the church needs lots of that.  And then prayerfully ponder those in your closer circle of friends – those where the relationship exists for you to carefully provoke them to growth and greater spiritual health.

This kind of “one anothering” does not happen as we sit side by side listening to the sermon.  But in a healthy church, it will happen as a result of God’s Word stirring our hearts with love for God and those around us.

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3 Approaches to Preaching

Here is a simplified summary of how preachers engage with the biblical text.  It is not an exhaustive summary, but I hope it will offer some helpful insight.

1. Springboard Preaching

This is where the preacher touches down in a passage only as long as necessary to bounce out of the text and into their own thoughts. A word or phrase may be taken on the journey through the message, but it has long since been ripped out of its passage context.  The preaching may be superficial and heretical, or it may be theologically brilliant, but whatever it is, it is not handling the Scriptures in a helpful or meaningful way.

2. Highlight Bounce Preaching

This is where the preacher is a little more aware of the context of the passage and moves through the passage noting highlights along the way. Typically these highlights will reflect the best bits of Bible study done in preparation, and if the message remains focused on the preaching text then it will tend to be a stronger message (there are exceptions to this, of course).  This approach is better than Springboard Preaching, but it can still feel like a fairly amateur approach to preaching.  That is not to say that there are not proponents of preaching styles that inadvertently advocate this approach, albeit with a greater emphasis on the unity of the message than the more rudimentary “random highlights” approach of an untrained beginner.

3. The Deeper Passage to Life Approach

This is where the preacher has studied the passage in its context and is able to present the message of the passage to some depth.  The depth and focus of the passage engagement also allows for effective targeting and penetration in contemporary life application.  This is not a series of mini-messages on various passage details, nor an oversimplification of the passage that offers a set of parallel preaching points.  Instead, it seeks to allow each detail to work together to convey the single thrust of the passage in a message that really represents the passage in question (rather than forcing the passage to support a standard sermon shape as often happens in the previous approaches).  Obviously the depth of the message and the accuracy in application will vary depending on the skill and maturity of the preacher, the time available for preparation, and the capacity of the listeners.

This third approach should honour the text in seeking to communicate what is actually there.  It should stir the preacher who is actually studying a passage rather than simply shaping a message with different material.  It should impact the listeners because the unique message of this passage will be planted in their hearts.

Let’s evaluate our approach to preaching and seek to stay in the text more than the first approach, and then seek to probe the text more than the second approach.  And if we get into the realm of the third approach, then there will always be so much more to learn and improve!

7 Good Reasons to Not Preach

Do you preach every week without fail?  If you do, then this post is for you.  Do you know someone who preaches week after week?  You might want to lovingly share this post with them.

When do you get a break from preaching?  I know that you may love preaching and want to preach every week.  But I think it would be wise to schedule a break here and there.  Why?  Here are seven quick reasons to not preach every now and then:

1. Your spiritual, physical and relational health will all benefit from taking a week or two off.  An unrelenting preaching schedule will take its toll on you, even if you don’t recognize it.

2. Your temperature for preaching will tend to increase when you take a break, so you come back stronger.  John Ortberg put it this way, “If you want to keep the oven hot, don’t open the door too much.”
3. Others will benefit from preaching too.  Maybe you have other preachers who need experience to develop, or a fellow pastor who would be blessed by the encouragement of your congregation and the feeling of being trusted by you.

4. The preaching of others will benefit people in your church.  Which leads me on to the next two…

5. Your church needs to know that you are not irreplaceable in the body of Christ. We may preach the priesthood of all believers, but some pastors undermine that by demonstrating the impregnability of “our” pulpits.

6. You need to know that you are not irreplaceable in the body of Christ.  It might seem strange, but your church will not collapse because you take a week or two off of preaching.  In fact, it will be good for your soul to be reminded that your identity is not anchored in your current ministry role.  You can use it as practice for a later stage in life when you are not being asked to preach at all.

7. You can experience other aspects of church life.  You may be tempted to schedule yourself to preach somewhere else – this is fine, but it is not a break from preaching.  You could serve in the kids ministry, or on the welcome team, or serving refreshments, or whatever.  At the same time, you could also sit in the congregation and benefit from simply participating in the worship and listening to God’s Word.  Either way, it will do you good.

Life-Changing and Applicational Preaching – Same Thing?

Lots of people want to hear applicational preaching.  Is that the same as asking for life-changing preaching?  Surely it must be.  Aren’t these two ways of saying the same thing?  I think there is a difference.

Applicational Preaching typically refers to preaching that spells out practical implications and applications for the listener.  To caricature, people don’t just want to learn about ancient history, they want to know what to do with that information this week in their lives.  Since something that is irrelevant is not as helpful or as motivating as something that is relevant, people therefore ask for preaching with good clear application.  “Just tell me what to do!”

But Houston, we have a problem.  There is confusion in this logic.  This thinking would be true if the only alternative to relevant applicational instruction was antiquated irrelevant facts.  But preaching is not so simple.

In 2 Timothy 3:16 Paul writes that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful.”   Paul obviously didn’t realize that there are many pages of Scripture that do not contain “relevant applicational instruction.”  Or maybe Paul realized that the Scripture does more than simply tell us what to do.

When I teach application in preaching I tend to refer to the ABCs of application.  Yes, there is a C-level of application … and that relates to our conduct: what we ought to do.  But underlying that is a B-level of application which runs deeper … and that relates to our beliefs: what we ought to believe.  And underlying even that is an A-level of application which runs deeper still … and that relates to our affections: what response should be stirred within us.

Application is not just about conduct.  Or perhaps I should say, life-change occurs at a deeper level than just conduct.  When life-change occurs, it tends to change us from the inside-out – from the depths of our hearts, through our thinking, and into our actions.

So “just tell me what to do!” is a very problematic statement.  Are you sure that’s all you want to hear?  Don’t you desire that the preaching bring genuine, profound, heartfelt life-change?  If so, then just telling you what to do would be to seriously sell you short of all that God has for you!

Let me put it another way.  “Just tell me what to do!” would be evidence of a significantly broken marriage.  If one spouse has no interest in hearing the heart of the other, no desire to understand them, no longing to connect at a deeper level, then simply asking for the bottom line action requirement is evidence of significant relational brokenness.

Our relationship to the God of the Bible should be closer to a healthy marriage than to a pragmatic subservient slave anxious to get on with their duties for the week.

Preaching that only offers irrelevant historical information is not really preaching at all.  But true biblical preaching should always be potentially life-changing – and not at just the superficial level of traditional “to-do list” applications!

Spot the Moment for Momentum

A lot of good messages struggle through a lack of momentum in a certain phase of delivery.  Here are two skills to prayerfully develop:

1. Learn to anticipate that momentum moment – As you look at your sermon in outline form, or the manuscript, whichever approach you take, you should be able to spot where the sermon could start to feel sluggish.  It could be a heavy section of explanation, or a sequence of interconnected thoughts, or the second of two similar points.  Or it could be that you tend to lose momentum as you move through your last point toward the conclusion.  Knowing yourself and knowing your preaching will increasingly help you to anticipate where a sermon may start to drag.

2. Learn to listen as you are preaching – As you are delivering your message, learn to listen to yourself and your listeners.  Are you starting to bore yourself?  Do something about it.  Are they starting to shuffle around, glaze over, look at their watches, or cough?  Do something about it.  New preachers may deliver in a state of panic and sheer focus, but if you have experience with public speaking you should be able to prayerfully be aware of yourself and your listeners.

Don’t just trudge on through a dull phase of a message.  Add some energy, break the moment with an illustration, make a humorous (but appropriate) aside, review and build momentum at the next transition … do something that will help.

The Art of the Sermon Introduction

Business Phases Lifecycle Expansion Contraction Signs 3d Illustration

There are lots of ways to introduce a sermon.  Here are a few common approaches:

1. The Bible reading – Some like to announce the text and read the text before saying anything about the text.  I understand the desire to put the Word of God in a pre-eminent position, but there is a downside.  With this approach people may or may not, in fact, probably won’t be ready for the text.  If you have had a genuinely stirring time of worship and the mood is absolutely focused, then maybe it might work for some.  Generally, although well-intentioned, this is not an ideal launch to a sermon.

2. The interesting or amusing anecdote – Some view the first couple of minutes of a sermon as the opportunity to tell a great story, after which there is a crunching of the gears as the preacher jerks the steering wheel and changes course to start the message proper.  This time could be used so much more effectively, so generally let’s not see this as a good approach.

3. The context of the passage – Perfect if your congregation have been pestering you all week to tell them about the reign of Zedekiah or the troublesome deceivers on Crete. Not so many phone calls about that?  Probably shouldn’t start there then.

4. The hesitant run-up – Like a child preparing to do a daring leap, the preacher seems to try and get going several times before daring to actually do it.  It’s exciting for the preacher.

5. The meandering round about approach – Like a hesitant tour guide going around the houses before eventually starting into the house you came to see. It may be reassuring for the preacher, but it will be tedious for the listeners.

None of these approaches are very effective.  Here are three things to keep in mind when planning a sermon introduction:

A. Make it as long as necessary and as short as possible – A great introduction does its job, no less and no more.

B. Stir motivation in the listener to hear you preach this message from this passage Ask yourself, does this introduction motivate the listener to hear me, this message and this passage?

C. Make sure they want you to continue – Once you are done, they should want you to continue.

There is no one-size fits all introduction.  Sometimes a story is perfect, sometimes you need to ask a question, or describe a problem, or engage the imagination, or read a headline, or share a struggle.  Whatever you do, keep these three guidelines at the forefront of your preparation.

Please, No Hooks!

I have heard the word “hook” refer to two aspects of a sermon: the introduction and the main points.

The introduction is sometimes called the hook because it is supposed to grab the attention of the listener.  The main points are sometimes referred to as hooks because they are supposed to serve as suitable hardware for hanging the preacher’s thoughts on.

I don’t use the word hook for either.  Please don’t think I am being petty.  I just think there are better things to aim for in both areas:

1. Introduction.  The introduction to a sermon should grab the attention of the listener, but there is so much more to be achieved here.  The introduction should stir motivation in the listener for listening to the preacher, for reading the passage, and for listening to the message.  Simply arresting attention is a very inadequate introduction.  I keep hearing messages that start with an engaging or humorous story (great! Attention grabbed!) and then an awkward transition to the message.  Don’t be satisfied with just getting their attention, aim to stir their motivation.

2. Points.  The points of a message are the skeleton of the strategy that you use to deliver your main idea and its relevance to your listeners.  The goal is for them to encounter God as they have an encounter with God’s Word.  But what happens when we start to think in terms of “hooks to hang thoughts on” … ?  Well, listeners start to assume their task is to remember the outline of your message.  In the same way as a handout tends to turn the preaching moment into a classroom lesson, so memorable hooks tend to make the listeners into learners.  As Haddon Robinson used to say, your outline is for you, not for them.  Make your points complete thoughts, full ideas, that develop and progress the communication of the main idea of the message.  Maybe you need a memory aid to simplify your task as a preacher, then have simplified bullet points, but don’t make memorizing those points the point of listening to your sermon.

You can hook your listeners and then give them nice hooks to hang thoughts on if you like, but I wonder if the terminology might inadvertently (or even, advertently – what is the opposite?) lead to preaching that arrests attention but fails to stir motivation, and then offers memorable outlines for future reflection, while wasting golden opportunty for meaningful encounter in the present.

Home for Christmas!

Christmas is a time when many people head home, or think of home, or long for home. For some it is a special time of great joy and satisfaction. For others it is a painfully empty season when memories of a home now broken by death or divorce come flooding back.

The Christmas story as it is told each year tends to include some reference to the wonder of God the Son leaving his heavenly home to come down to earth. His welcome? Humble shepherds. Animals by their trough. Not even any place in the inn, but just a lowly stable.

I am not wanting to tread on anyone’s nativity set, but things were slightly different than we tend to think. Luke 2 tells us that Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

What was it really like? The “inn” was not a reference to a public inn as in the story of the Good Samaritan, an ancient motel of questionable standards. Rather the word used by Luke refers to the guest room attached to the back or the top of a single room family home. Joseph, with his heritage would have received a welcome in the city of David, not to mention his pregnant Jewish young lady (and if they hadn’t, then Mary’s relatives not too far away would have been offended that they didn’t head there).

They didn’t get the guest room, because other visitors were already there. Instead they were probably brought into the single room residence of this humble family in Bethlehem. At the front end of the room there would have been a drop down to the area where the animals would be kept at night (for their security and for central heating). The sheep would have a wooden or stone manger, the family cow and the donkey would eat from the trough cut into the floor at the end of the human living space.

This was typical of the homes then, and culturally this would have been the situation. Perhaps not quite the quaint stable, but what a startling image nonetheless! The Messiah wasn’t born in a palace, but in a humble home. (This, incidentally, would have been important information in the message of the angels to motivate the shepherds to come for their visit. Furthermore, if he were born in a stable, the shepherds would have insisted on a transfer to their humble homes.) The young family didn’t even get the guest room, but the special little one came in the family home, with the women of the home helping Mary, then the men coming in to gaze in wonder at the new boy.

When we study the details of the first Christmas we may find ourselves correcting a few of the Christmas card images.  But far more importantly, we should find ourselves stirred to worship God more than ever.  The real first Christmas is not a fairytale or a myth, it is the remarkable launch of a rescue mission that changes human history.  We may be emotionally attached to the stable story, but let’s allow our hearts to be gripped by Christ’s move from heaven’s throne to a humble human home.  What a guest!

Let’s sing with renewed passion this Christmas:

Christ by highest heav’n adored, Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come, Offspring of a Virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

Christmas is a time when our thoughts turn toward home. What a truly glorious thought, that Christ left his home to come and be born in a humble human home. Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel. He is our God, with us!

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For more on the wonder of the Incarnation, please check out Pleased to Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation (Christian Focus, 2014).

Unique Passage

In the normal flow of church life, the passage you preach on Sunday will not be preached again for quite a while.  If it is in a series on a specific Bible book, how many years until you plan to preach from that book again?  If it is a seasonal text, like an advent passage, there is a chance you will preach it next year, but probably it will be a couple of years at least.

So, the passage you preach on Sunday will not be preached again for quite a while.  Here is something to ponder:

Will your preaching of that text really bring out the uniqueness of the passage for your listeners?  Will the message be text specific?  Will it make clear that passage’s main idea?  Will it draw out that passage’s implications?

It is so easy to start in a passage and end up preaching a generic message.  The problem with that is that you could preach a generic message from any passage, or from none.  Even if the truth you share is stunningly rich and wonderful, what about that passage?

If we have a high view of Scripture then surely we also need to have a high level of confidence that if you have selected a passage to preach, then the listeners should get that passage.  Just as every fingerprint, snowflake, dog’s nose is unique, so is every passage in the Bible.  Every passage is saying something about something in a unique way.  Will your listeners get that passage’s unique something this Sunday?

If not, if you just slide into a generic message, then it will be years before that passage has a chance to be preached into their hearts and lives again.  Don’t miss the opportunity!

Humility Optional?

If you look around Christianity you will find humility is a fairly common thread, at least in theory.  Humility is in the DNA of salvation, for we cannot be saved unless we humble ourselves before God’s loving provision in Jesus’ death on the cross.  Humility is a staple ingredient in spiritual growth, for we cannot stand proud and still find the growth that is needed in the spiritual life.  Humility is a requirement in leadership, for we cannot successfully replace the servant leader model so central to Christian ministry.

And yet this thread which weaves through all theoretical Christianity is often more sparse in the real Christianity we observe.  There are always gospel presentations that appeal to self-interest and doing what is best for yourself.  There seems to be a never-ending stream of spiritual growth models that focus on our success oriented efforts to sort out our weaknesses and try harder to be good.  And for every humble leader in the church, we tend to find another that reeks of arrogance and pride.

It is clear that humility is woven through the fabric of our faith, but there is also a strong tendency toward pride that saturates our fallen flesh and inclines us to find ways around humility in the Christian life.

Is humility optional?

Humility is not just a preference.  It would be possible to view humility as a divine preference, one item on God’s wishlist for his people.  I like potatoes, but if someone in my family wants to cook a meal for me, they know that they can cook a meal without potatoes and I will still enjoy it.  Potatoes are a preference, but not really a requirement.  Is this how God feels about humility?  Is it a nice touch when he sees it, but not really a problem if it happens to be omitted?  No, humility is not just a preference.

Humility is not an arbitrary demand.  It would be possible to view humility as something God requires, one item on a harsh list of demands for his people.  If I were a tyrant in my home, then I could make a list of demands on my family members.  They might be able to satisfy my demands in some respects, but they might recognize that they could never do everything on my impossible list.  They might hope that I would not pay attention to the missed demands if enough of the others were satisfied.  Is this how it is with God?  No, humility is not an arbitrary demand.

Humility is not a contrast.  It would be possible to view humility as something God requires because it is the complement to his personality.  Again, if I insisted on being the focus of all attention in my home, then I might require humility of everyone else so that nobody else would ever threaten the spotlight in which I insisted that I live.  Is this how it is with God?  No, humility is not a contrast to God’s character.

Humility is not just a preference, an arbitrary demand, nor a contrasting quality to God.  Humility is in the DNA of Christianity because it is a distinctive feature of God’s character.  We were created in God’s image, made for profoundly other-centered relationship, but when we fell into sin something profoundly corrupt perverted our core inclinations.  As fallen humans we are turned in on ourselves, we are proud.  We believe that we don’t need God or other people and we default to trying to be independent in any way that we can.  The pull of that fallen tendency continues to exert force on every one of us.

Yes, Jesus entered our world and rocked our world with a profound contrast – willingly humbling himself not only to wash feet, but even to die a humiliating death in our place.  God is nothing like the pride in you, or me.  So we are invited to humble ourselves before the cross and find true life, not by our own achievement, but by the gift of God’s grace.  We know that, and yet even as Christians, we still feel the tug toward prideful independence.  Subconsciously we will drift toward self-effort and self-elevation.  Our view of spiritual growth will tend to have the aroma of arrogance, and if we are not careful, then our efforts at Christian leadership will often be tainted by the stench of self-promotion.

Humility is not just something God prefers, as I like potatoes, but am fine without them.  Humility is not an arbitrary demand we can hope to bypass.  Nor is humility a contrast to God’s supposed demand for the spotlight.  Humility makes sense in every corner of our Christianity.  It makes sense because it is a key aspect of God’s character.  It makes sense because he has rescued us, and is rescuing us, from our fall into pride.  Humility is always a heaven-ward step.

What role does humility play in your spiritual life?  What role does it play in your ministry and leadership?  And I don’t just mean in theory.  I mean in actual practice…