Perspective on Sermon Response

Howard Hendricks wrote The Seven Laws of the Teacher, in which he refers to an English bishop who said, “You know, wherever the apostle Paul went, they had a riot or a revival. Wherever I go, they serve tea.” (p165.)

I am sure all of us have experienced the soaring anticipation of a sermon, as well as the crashing experience of being crushed by non-response on the day.  Someone famous (probably Spurgeon, but I can’t remember), said that we should not over-estimate what can be achieved in a single sermon, but also never under-estimate what will happen through several years of faithful biblical preaching.

Somehow we have to hold two tensions together.  On the one hand, we know that God can and does work in a single sermon to bring about radical life change.  On the other hand, we know that often the change God is working into the lives of a congregation are imperceptible and we will regularly be tempted to despair.

When you see genuine response and transformation, document it.  Keep that document somewhere safe, but easily accessible.  There will be lots of weeks where you will value the reminder.

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The Power of Testimony – Part 2

Hearing the story of God at work in a life can be so life changing for a church, but nerves, timekeeping, and a drift into instruction can undermine a good testimony and bring about a cold sweat for those planning a church service.  Let me explain how we do testimonies in our church and why we do it this way.  It may not be appropriate in your setting, but it may be helpful in some way.

The Testimony Panel – Roughly every six months we dedicate a Sunday to having a “testimony panel.”  The sermon is reduced to a very brief message of a few minutes, leaving 30-40 minutes for the testimonies.  We also keep the rest of the service as free as possible to guard the time.  For the panel, we will typically have two people giving their testimonies, along with an interviewer whose job is to ask questions and weave the two stories together.

What are the advantages of this approach?

1. It is an event.  By so drastically reducing sermon time it communicates to the church that testimonies are important, and these two people are important to us.  We want to hear their stories. Instead of a rushed testimony squeezed into the early part of the service, this is an event where we get to hear more fully from them both.  It says to the church that we value people and we expect God to be at work in people’s lives.  It underlines several values of the church indirectly, but powerfully.

2. A non-nervous person is in charge.  The interviewer is always someone who is comfortable in front of the church and will, therefore, be able to shield the two participants from their own nerves.  It is the interviewer’s problem to watch the clock, to ask the right questions, to bring the panel to an end, etc.  And the interviewer will always have a microphone (no leaving a nervous talker with a microphone alone in front of the church!)

3. It requires preparation without being awkward.  If someone is given ten minutes to give their own testimony it can be difficult to prep them.  They may not realise how a testimony can misfire and therefore resent being asked what they are going to say.  Also, they might be inclined to write a script so it can be checked ahead of time.  This just feels awkward, as does the church leader who is wondering how clear the conversion will sound, how appropriate the pre-conversion stories will be for the listeners, how much tendency there will be to drift into teaching, etc.  A testimony panel requires the interviewer to meet with both people and hear both stories – no script necessary, just an informed interviewer who knows how to direct the conversation on the day.

We have tried interviewing three people and it really needed more time.  Thirty to forty minutes works for us to have two people interviewed.  We did have three elders in one panel, but they interviewed each other, which was different again but worked well.  What have you found helpful when it comes to testimonies in your church?  Feel free to comment below.

One more resource on Testimonies, click here for 10 Top Testimony Tips 

The Power of Testimony

Hearing how God has worked in a life can be very powerful.  Having someone “give their testimony” can also backfire.  Before I explain how we do testimonies in our church, here are a few of the problems that can create the tension:

1. Nerves.  Public speaking is a frightening prospect for most people.  Talking about self so overtly should be a challenge for believers.  Therefore nerves are normal.  While everyone in the audience will understand that the person feels nervous, this doesn’t change the fact that nerves can lead to losing track of the story, or saying something that is not intended, or to shifting into teaching rather than giving testimony, or to losing all awareness of time.  To stand and give a crafted testimony in a set time without reading a script takes the skill of a preacher.

2. Timekeeping.  Some will rattle through their story and be done in a fraction of the time available.  Others will barely be out of their childhood before the time is done and threaten to drift into the work week unless someone steps in.  Keeping to time is a real challenge (even preachers can struggle with this!)

3. Instructing.  So many good testimonies become awkward because the person feels some compulsion to instruct the listeners.  Where the story of God at work is so powerful, the pointed finger and some generalized imperatives are awkwardly blunt.  Once someone drifts into unplanned teaching they can make theological errors, assume something they don’t understand yet is unexplainable, make promises that their experience is how God always works, or whatever.  It can be a minefield.

And yet, despite all that can go wrong, testimonies can be so powerful.  Why?

1. They can stir worship.  Isn’t God amazing?  What a wonderful story of His faithfulness and persistent love!

2. They can generate hope.  I am not the only one who struggles like that, and they have seen God bring change, maybe there is hope for me?

3. They can foster understanding.  I had no idea they had gone through all that.  I am so glad they are now part of the family and God is still at work.

4. They can unite the church family.  I used to struggle with that person, but now I know their story I can actually celebrate God’s goodness instead of feeling so bothered by their quirks.

5. They can convict unbelievers.  Where you were, that is where I am … I need to respond to God’s convicting work in my life.

And so much more.  Testimonies can have such impact, either positively, or negatively!  Next time I will explain how we incorporate testimonies in our church – it might be helpful.

God’s Great Evangelistic Plan

God’s plan to reach people with the gospel is not primarily evangelists or apologists, although both are vitally important.  God’s plan to reach people with the gospel is the church.  We can make no greater investment of our resources than to help churches become infectious communities of gospel-gripped people motivated and equipped to bring others into God’s family.

So what does a church need in order to be this kind of evangelistic tool in God’s hands?  It seems like there are three vital ingredients in the mix.  These could be seen as three legs on a stool, and the stool needs all three legs to be used as it was intended

1. People need to ENJOY God and the gospel.

It is easy to encourage or pressure believers to share their faith with others.  Many Sunday sermons end with the call to read our Bibles every day and witness to somebody this week.  The problem is that pressure without motivation will produce poor results.  Many will simply default to doing nothing.  Those that try to do as they have been instructed will often give a clear sense of their own obligation and reticence.  The best witnesses and evangelists will always be those that are truly gripped with the goodness of the good news of who God is and what God has done for us in Christ.

We do not want a church full of reticent and obligated witnesses.  We do want as many as possible to be so enjoying God and the gospel that they can’t help but spill that good news out to others.  This is why simply telling Christians to evangelise is never very effective.  We would achieve much more evangelistically if we invest more time in showing them Christ that their hearts become enflamed with love for him.  When someone gets engaged they can’t help but smile big and show off the ring to anyone around them.  O for churches full of people thrilled that they are more than engaged to Christ!!

2. People need to CONNECT with people outside the church.

A highly motivated community of Christians will not have much impact on their local culture if they live in isolation from it.  The New Testament does not instruct us to purposefully make connections with the people around us because it was automatically happening.  Not only is the church in the book of Acts an example to us, so is Jesus himself.  He was known as a friend of sinners.  Sadly too many churches are full of people that feel their main job is to find ways to avoid contact with non-Christians.

As leaders of churches let us lead by example and let us encourage through our teaching.  God is relational and outwardly focused to the core of his being.  Christianity has a missionary and evangelistic inclination in its very DNA.  Many Christian leaders can easily spend all their time with Christians.  Set an example by joining a club or taking a class, finding some way to connect with people that may have no other contact with true Christians.  If you are working alongside not-yet-Christians, set an example to your church by guarding time to invest in those relationships.  Invite a colleague to your home for a meal, socialize together, move the conversation beyond the superficial.  Many Christians seem to have lost the art of conversation, and asking questions seems to be a dying art.  Set an example and even teach believers how to ask questions and care about the answers.  Our local churches need to be communities that connect with those around.

3. People need to be able to COMMUNICATE the gospel when they have opportunity.

We may have motivated and connected believers in our churches that are unclear on how to present the core gospel message.  We can be overt here – tell them the value of a personal testimony that includes the three elements of before conversion, how I became a Christian, and the difference it has made since.  The power of the personal testimony is massively under-utilized by many Christians.

And why not instruct our churches with a simple gospel presentation.  I heard a famous preacher suggest the simple use of John 3:16 with four key points some years ago.  It is still my go-to explanation if the opportunity suddenly crops up.  Obviously I will adjust the explanation in light of what I know about the person I am speaking to, but still it is a useful presentation.  1. God loved so (2) God gave.  3. If we believe, then (4) we have eternal life.  It starts with the kind of God we are presenting, moves naturally into what God did for us in sending Christ to go to the cross.  It keeps the invitation unencumbered with unhelpful baggage by calling us to believe in – that is, not just believe that, but believe in … to entrust the full weight of our lives onto the person and work of Christ, with no backup plan!  And it allows us to define the Christian offer not as a free pass or a ticket to heaven, but rather as coming into the forever relationship that we were designed to enjoy.

So that is the three-part recipe for helping a church to be more effective in its evangelism.  There are other things that could be added.  For instance, it is important for a local church to establish an evangelistic baseline (for our church it is about making every Sunday accessible to guests, and running a regular evangelistic course – we use Glen Scrivener’s 321).  Then there are special events that can be highly effective.  But first and foremost, the church is not the program, it is the people, and if we can help the people in our churches to enjoy God more, be intentionally connected, and be able to communicate the gospel, then we are unleashing God’s great evangelistic strategy on the world: the local church!

The Reformation and Preaching

I invited my good friend Dr Mike Reeves, president of Union School of Theology, to speak in the Bible Teachers Network at the European Leadership Forum back in May.  Here are some nuggets on preaching and the Reformation for us.

What did the Reformers believe about the power of preaching?

How did the Reformation change our view of the content of preaching?

What can we learn from the Reformers about the goal of preaching?

(The videos are courtesy of foclonline.org, Mike is President of Union School of Theology)

Healthy Revival – 7 Thoughts

You cannot go far in church world before you hear people longing for revival. It gets mentioned in prayer meetings. It gets mentioned in outreach planning. Preachers long to experience it through each new sermon. Reports on social media stir our longings. I want to share some thoughts on the subject.

This is not a technical introduction to the subject. When I refer to revival I am referring to those unusual seasons of heightened responsiveness to the working of God’s Spirit among and through God’s people so that the church is renewed, reinvigorated and revived, resulting in an unusually high harvest of souls.

Seven thoughts for us to prayerfully consider:

1. The Bible does not invite us to live a life of frustration. It is totally understandable that people pray for revival. The state of our church and the state of our world mean that we long for a season of real spiritual breakthrough in our ministry. However, it is important to recognize that the Bible does not anticipate that God’s people will always live in a state of perpetual frustration. As George Verwer, founder of OM International has said, “Personal revival is our daily privilege in Christ Jesus!” By all means, let’s look to God like never before, but let’s not fall into the trap of living life as if we are missing out on something until a bona fide revival breaks out.

2. The Bible does include descriptions of specific seasons of unusual responsiveness. To put it another way, it is not wrong to long. The drift in society, the apathy in the church, and even the coldness of our own hearts should cause us to grieve and to yearn for something more. Paul anticipated the drift when he told Timothy that in the last days people would be lovers of self, of money, of pleasure, rather than lovers of good, or of God. If this does not bother us then we are not reflecting the passionate heart of God. There will always be a longing for revival in any healthy believer.

3. It is healthy to ask if we can be trusted with a season of evangelistic fruitfulness? While “revival” may be primarily about renewing the life of the church, it is often associated with heightened fruitfulness in evangelism. This is wonderful and something we should all long for, but it is healthy to ask whether God would entrust an unusually ripe harvest to our church? Are we committed to the spread of the Gospel, or to defending a Christian sub-culture? Are we offering Christ, or just some type of Christianity? Is our gospel offensively grace-focused, or is it just another version of self-help, law-based religiosity?

4. Part of being prepared is anticipating the aftermath. Jonathan Edwards wrote a book describing the unusual work of God in his town that continued to spark revival across the world even after his own town had slumped into a deeply troubling malaise. How often do we hear of amazing revivals followed by extended periods of spiritual depression? It must be so hard to invest energy into discipleship and training when the evangelistic fruit seems to keep falling off the trees whenever we hint at doing more outreach. Nevertheless, we must learn from history and anticipate the struggles that can follow. How can we make sure people get established in a healthy relationship with Christ, rather than building everything on a foundation that cannot last – namely, faith in the experience of revival rather than in Christ and His Word?

5. Ask God to search your motives. Of course, your motives when praying for revival are pure and perfect, so are mine. But since we are all flesh-naturals at self-justification let us instead ask God to search our motives. Augustine identified the first, second and third precepts of Christianity to be humility. Pride is an insidious destroyer. Indeed, God does not want to fan into flame any hint of pride in you, so if pride were to feature in your prayer for revival, then it is fair to assume that not only would the devil oppose you, so would God (see 1Peter.5:5-7). So does it need to be in your region and not another? Does it need to be your denomination and not another? Does it have to be your church and not the other one down the road?

6. If revival includes an intensification of normal things, what are we waiting for? That is to say, if you dream of a season of revival when you would want to just read the Bible and not be endlessly entertained, if you dream of praying with a persevering intensity, and caring for others more passionately, and loving God more intently, and giving yourself to church ministry more wholeheartedly, then the question could be asked … why wait for revival? God is not excited by your hypothetical and conditional devotion (send revival, Lord, and watch me soar!) – life to the full is on offer now. Maybe your moments of longing are invitations to lean in to what God wants to do in your life.

7. Be a steward of the remarkable present. Maybe this is saying number 6 in a different way, but it is worth saying. Experiencing revival or renewal is a privilege, but also the Christian life is a privilege! Even if you are in a season of sowing, or growing, or preparing, or living by faith with nothing to see, whatever your situation, the normal Christian life is an incredible privilege! We can live today in fellowship with God our Father, in Christ, by the Spirit! We have God’s Word, we have immediate access to the throne room of heaven, we have the indwelling presence of the Spirit. Our salvation is secure whether we are in a time of revival or not, because the greatest revival of all is the new life that God has breathed into us.

May we live as the most grateful people of all, irrespective of whether we experience a heaven-sent revival during our years on earth or not.

Preaching Bigger Books in Shorter Series

Let’s say you want to preach from a bigger book, but you like the idea of shorter series – is that possible?  Here are a few suggestions:

1. Preach a shorter section – instead of feeling obligated to preach a whole book every time, why not preach a contained unit from a book for a series.  You don’t have to give equal coverage to the whole book in this particular series, you can always come back for another section another time.

2. Have a Gospel/book of the year – we had a season in our church (over a year) where we were in Mark’s Gospel, but we didn’t want to be preaching it for months on end.  We planned so that we had the Easter section at the right time of the year, but in the months before that we had covered some sections in midweek groups instead of on Sundays.  This meant that our shorter series on Sundays were more focused and could be “branded” separately to allow for renewed energy in each mini-series.  We also had breaks from Mark to spend time in other types of series and other types of biblical literature.

3. Preach a landmark tour – this is a way to preach a book without giving every verse equal attention.  You can preach the landmarks of a Bible book over the course of a few Sundays.  For example, you might preach Romans by starting in 1:16-17 to launch, and then touching down in other keys texts like 3:21-25; 5:1-8; 8:1; 12:1-2, etc.  Obviously, you will need to give some overview of the flow for this approach to work, but it allows you to zero in on the golden passages. If done well then the church will be motivated to read the whole book.  You can also supplement with midweek discussions that cover more ground, although that is only one approach to take.

4. Preach different sized chunks – this is similar to number 3, but is more intentional about covering the whole book.  You could launch a Romans series with 1:1-17, but then cover greater ground with a couple of the messages in a series covering several chapters.  For instance, you might have a message covering 1:18-3:20, then maybe one covering 3:21-5:21, etc.  You could preach an 8-week series with three or four of the messages covering three chapters and then the other four focusing in a bit more – i.e. chapter 8 on its own, or chapter 12.

Have you found other ways to run shorter series on longer books?

The Big Advantage of Shorter Series

I have friends that preach through a Bible book over the course of many months. It seems to work for their churches. I tend to think that there are advantages to shorter series.  Here’s why:

1. Shorter series mean more launch points – if you only start a new series every six months then you only get that launch point twice each year.  If you start a new series every 4-8 weeks then you might have 6-8 launch points per year.  Launching a series is an opportunity to invite people in and to invite people back in who might have drifted from regular attendance.

2. Shorter series naturally allow more schedule flexibility – that is, you can juggle the series to fit the calendar.  So you can do a year-starter leadership series, and then something else before a pre-Easter series.  Shorter series’ also means potentially more “buffer weeks” where there is some wiggle room for when you need to make changes to the schedule.

3. Shorter series avoid monotony – you have to be an amazing preacher to keep people engaged in a six month series in Jeremiah.  You are not Martyn Lloyd-Jones and nor am I.  Both preacher and listener benefit from not getting to the point where a series starts to drag.

4. Shorter series avoid genre overload – some people love Proverbs, others thrive on Psalms, some respond well to historical narratives, others eat up the epistles.  Multiple shorter series allow for a schedule that resonates with more people.  Even the most ardent prophecy fan will appreciate some weeks in another part of the Bible.

Next time I will share some thoughts on how to do bigger books in shorter series.

Remembering Haddon Robinson (1931-2017)

Dr Haddon Robinson went home to be with his God on Saturday 22nd July, 2017.  He was 86 years old.  His legacy is incredible.  Haddon started teaching preaching at Dallas Theological Seminary while still a student.  He went on to teach there for 19 years.  He was president at Denver Seminary where he served for 12 years.  He finished his seminary career at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary where he led the Doctor of Ministry program and served as Interim President during a difficult season at the school.  He wrote many books and articles, including his classic textbook Biblical Preaching, and he also served with other ministries including Discover the Word, Our Daily Bread, and the Christian Medical and Dental Society.

Haddon was passionate about preaching, of course, but also about education.  Consequently, it is fitting that the final decades of his ministry were spent at Gordon-Conwell equipping people to teach preaching across the world.  I am so thankful that I got to be one Haddon’s students during those years.  My seminary preaching profs had spoken so highly of Haddon that I was thrilled to get the chance to study at Gordon-Conwell from 2005-2007 in the Doctor of Ministry program.

I remember the first Monday morning our cohort were together.  Haddon took three hours to go around the room and hear from all 25 of us.  Men and women from various backgrounds and denominations, but across the board, we all answered one question in the same way.  “Why did you choose to come here?”  To put it simply, we all said, “I want to learn from you, Dr Robinson.”  He probably got that from every group, but there was never a hint that his ego was stroked.  For Haddon “there are no great preachers, only a great Christ.”

On the final day of our last cohort together Haddon went around the room again.  Time and again we all said something like, “Haddon, I came here to learn from you and I leave here counting you as a friend.”  Haddon was humble, he cared, he showed interest, he cheered us on, and throughout the program he educated.

Each year Haddon would bring in a friend to co-teach the cohort. These were men who had learned from him and were now at the top of their field.  They were wonderful teachers and we learned so much from each of them.  However, whenever Haddon spoke, we all grabbed for our pens.  Actually, it was tempting to grab for a pen even when he prayed.  Haddon was a wordsmith.  He could put things into words so effectively, whether he was teaching a class, preaching a sermon, or chatting over coffee and a donut.

Haddon Robinson did not believe there are great preachers, but nevertheless, he was one.  Many times I have marveled at Haddon’s ability to say so much in a way that feels so unhurried to the listener.  I don’t recall hearing a Haddon sermon where the big idea was not clear, concise and accurate.  I never heard him fail to nail a landing – his final sentences crafted like a runway that he would always touchdown on a couple of sentences earlier than you expected.  Listening to a sermon from Haddon felt like going for a walk through a Biblical text with a wise uncle.  I remember finding a sermon on video where Haddon took his glasses out of his shirt pocket and then struggled to put them on one-handed (his other hand held his Bible and he had no lectern to put it down).  His struggle comforted me because it was good to see that even he could get a bit stuck, but his calmness in the situation was still a delight to watch as he dropped in a hilarious comment about having just had his one-a-day cup of coffee … and that cup was for March 14th 2035.

Haddon Robinson was a great preacher because he so understood the world of the Bible and because he thought deeply about his listeners.  More than that, he understood communication profoundly.  And then, on top of that, he was a master educator.  Haddon said, “Education isn’t filling a pail with information; it’s lighting a fire in the spirit of a learner.”  I remember defending my thesis and having Haddon throw questions at me out of left field with a glint in his eye. He was a wonderful teacher of preachers, although he knew he couldn’t get everyone to the same level.  Some struggled to grasp the freedom Haddon espoused in preaching.  They might read his book or hear him lecture and think it was a complex formula to be meticulously followed.  In reality, Haddon wanted to train preachers who were biblically constrained to say what the text said, who were homiletically free to communicate as effectively as possible, and who were spiritually responsive to the God who so masterfully crafted His communication.  I am sure all of us who learned from Haddon are not as effective as we could be inasmuch as we haven’t grasped or consistently implemented all that he offered us.  At the same time, Haddon was so effective as a teacher that I am confident there are hundreds of preachers and teachers of preaching that are making a massive difference because of Haddon’s input in our lives and ministries.

Haddon grew up surrounded by the gangs of Harlem.  There was always a steely determination and a look in his eyes that showed he knew exactly what was going on around him. Sometimes people who do great things in ministry seem to get a pass from those around them for where their character fails to show the fruit of the Spirit.  In my experience and observation, this is not so much the case with Haddon.  He was gracious, humble, caring and godly.  To use words from his definition of preaching, it was my experience that the Holy Spirit had first applied biblical truth to the personality and experience of Haddon, then through Haddon, he also applied the Bible to the hearers.

Haddon was great fun to be around.  He took the Bible seriously, he took preaching seriously, and he took education seriously.  But he didn’t take himself too seriously.  He was alive in coffee breaks, laughing and probing with a big smile and bright eyes.  He was alive when he would gather the cohort in the center of the classroom to sing some hymns together.  He was alive when Bonnie, his wife, was able to join us for a meal or another sing-along at a piano.  And now he is alive in the presence of the God that he served so faithfully throughout his life.

I thank God for the life and ministry of Haddon Robinson.  I am just one of many who learned from him as a preacher, an educator, a writer, a mentor, and even as a friend.  Haddon loved the Bible, the God of the Bible, preaching, his wife Bonnie, his children … he seemed to love life.  May that legacy be multiplied in the years to come.