Illustration Variation

image1Be careful that you don’t get stuck in a rut with your illustration material.  Here are some favourites that preachers sometimes find themselves repeating:

1. Sports – it may be your favourite team, or the sport you played in college, or sport in general, but remember, there are people listening who don’t relate to sport in general, and even more to your sport in particular.  Variation needed.

2. Stats – some preachers love nothing more than a statistic.  Barna surveys get lots of attention.  Again, some people appreciate stats, but others can’t connect with them at all.  Variation needed.

3. Anecdotes/Quotes – you might be one of those preachers that loves nothing more than dipping into your stash of Churchill quotes, or General Lee anecdotes, or Bono lyrics, or whatever.  It can all seem a bit distant.  Variation needed.

4. Movies – some preachers love to tie their message to some scene from the big screen.  I won’t get into the complexity of citing movies here, just to say that some people won’t appreciate a constant flow of movie quotes and references.  Variation needed.

5. Family – your family is a constant source of illustrative material, but it may not be wise to use too much of that great store.  For one thing your family might appreciate not being the focus.  For another, there will be people listening who feel an inner pang at a steady stream of marriage stories or children stories.  Variation needed.

Maybe you have another rut, or maybe you have struggled listening to another rut.  None of these are bad sources of illustrations, just be sure to vary it for the sake of your listeners.

Sermon Planning Strategy

chess2As you plan your message you have some critical strategy decisions to make.  Let’s consider a couple of them:

  1. Where will you make the relevance of the message show?
  2. Where will you reveal the complete idea of the message?

The answer to the first one should be fairly simple.  My suggestion is to demonstrate relevance at every opportunity.  Don’t assume people will listen to 90% of a message before hearing some sense of relevance in the form of application.  You can demonstrate relevance in your introduction, in the wording of your main points, in your “illustrations” (illustrate application when you can), in your transitions, etc.

The answer to the second question is more complex.  Will you reveal the main idea early in the message?  This approach, known as a deductive sermon, has some definite advantages.  It tends to be strong on clarity, it can be strong in respect to simplicity, and it also allows for re-accessibility (i.e. when someone has to go out to the nursery for some reason, they can re-enter the message at the next transition point).

But there are negatives to consider too – the deductive sermon will tend to be predictable and reject-able.  People may fill in the rest of the message as soon as they hear the idea and they might not like what they anticipate is coming.

Another option is to plan an inductive sermon, which is where the question being answered is given at the start, but the idea is not completed until later in the message.  The impact of a well-worked inductive sermon can be immense and long-lasting.  Furthermore it tends to be less offensive at the start if people are not going to agree with the substance of the message.

However, it is difficult to maintain tension for the amount of time necessary.  If listeners have to check out (or if you lose them and they mentally check out), it can be much harder to re-enter the listening experience.  Worst of all, if you promise well, but under-deliver, then the whole experience can be very negative.

As you plan the strategy for your message you will need to take into account the text you are preaching, your strengths as a preacher, and who the listeners are going to be.  Pray about it and make a plan – a meandering message lacking in strategy will tend to be the worst of all worlds!

Cor Deo Intensive – Chippenham, UK

If you are within reach of Chippenham, please take a look and get in touch for more info or to book your place.  If you’ve never heard of Chippenham (England), then there is no need to keep reading.


Cor Deo IntensiveCD Intensive Logo

Tuesday 22nd November – Friday 25th November  
9:30am – 4:30pm

In these days together we will soak in Galatians together, explore the wonder of the New Covenant, and ponder what it looks like to live for and with Jesus today.  Four days together, but a lifetime of implications to explore and enjoy. This week has a suggested donation of £150 (flexible), including lunch each day.  We can help arrange accommodation if you need it.

To find out more about the Intensive, or to book your place, please email us through info (at)

Flock Feeding

sheepeating2One of the primary responsibilities of pastoral ministry is the feeding of the flock.  Here are a few quick thoughts to keep in mind:

  1. Seek to give a consistent diet – it is not good to vary meals between a few scraps one time and gorging on overly rich fare another.  Seek to preach so that listeners have a consistency in their diet.
  2. Seek to give a cumulative diet – it is not possible to give everything that is needed in every meal, or in every message.  Seek to preach so that listeners experience a cumulative growth in their biblical awareness and their relational knowledge of God.
  3. Seek to give a healthy diet – no normal parent balances vegetables with poison.  Do not accept heretical content, even if it is wrapped up in the salad leaves of Gospel truth.  Don’t blend curving your listeners inward with drawing them out to Christ.  Preach Christ and him crucified.  Don’t preach Christ and effort intensified.
  4. Seek to give a timely diet – some fare fits in certain seasons and when it is missing something does not seem right.  In my culture we tend to expect Turkey and mince pies in December, and more salads in the summer.  Whether or not your church follows the church calendar, at least in some basic points, your listeners do.  Christmas and Easter at least deserve some appropriate messages, perhaps harvest or mother’s day is a must too?  Don’t disappoint, there’s nothing to be gained.

Journey in the Dark

darkness2God delights to transform lives.  There are many ways to depict this journey of transformation, but let’s focus on one example from the Old Testament.  In Psalms 130 and 131 we have a three-picture portrayal of a life transformed by God’s goodness.  In this progression of pictures we can find a helpful perspective as we care for the souls of others, and as we take stock of our own spiritual state too.

These Psalms come in the collection known as the Psalms of Ascent (120-134). These were probably a collection of songs used by the Israelites as they journeyed up to Jerusalem three times each year for the pilgrim feasts.  When we think of pilgrimage we tend to think of a difficult journey with a spiritual goal – typically the idea that there is some merit in taking the journey and therefore some benefit. However, the Jewish feasts were actually celebrations of a salvation to which they had contributed nothing.  It was not about earning anything, but about celebrating God’s goodness.

When we focus in on Psalms 130 and 131 we can notice a repeated phrase introducing the conclusion in each Psalm, “O Israel, hope in the LORD!”  Intriguingly this phrase is only found here in the whole book of Psalms.  This at least opens up the possibility that these two Psalms work together in some way.  Then recognition of the progression of imagery underlines the idea that thesecan be read together.  So let’s look at these three images and what they show us:

1. Our desperation for the forgiveness God gives.  In Psalm 130 the writer begins with the terrifying image of being swallowed up by the sea.  He describes the cry of desperation from someone as they sink below the waves of the sea into the darkness of the depths below.  This isn’t a literal situation (unless you are Jonah, of course), but it is a description of what it feels like to realize your guilt before God.  It is a cry for mercy that reaches upwards.

Most people don’t live constantly aware of the gravity of their situation.  Nonetheless, without God’s mercy, all are sinners living in anticipation of horrifying judgment.  Sometimes a glimpse will peak through and the fear will grip them before they distract themselves again.  Without God’s mercy things may not feel bad, but the reality is there nevertheless.  If God were to watch out for our sins in order to keep track of them, if He marked iniquities, then nobody could stand before Him.  But there is great news for the sinner – God forgives.

God forgives sinners, the first step in bringing great peace to the guilty.  He forgives fully, finally, freely and forever.  And when the wonder of God’s forgiveness grips us, we live wide-eyed in awe of God’s remarkable kindness toward the undeserving.  Fully forgiven, forever, really?

2. Our hope is in God himself.  The second half of Psalm 130, from verse 5 onwards paints a second picture.  No longer is it the overwhelming darkness and terror of judgment, but it is the darkness of night that is portrayed.  Having been gripped by God’s forgiveness, the next stage in the transformation of the believer is to discover that we are given so much more than an offer of forgiveness (amazing as that would be).  God gives us His Word (v5), He is a God who makes promises and keeps them.  God gives us Himself (v6).  And with God comes not only forgiveness (v4), but also steadfast love (v7) – the committed self-giving love of God that is ever and always loyal to the undeserving.  He loves us for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, etc.  And with God comes plentiful redemption (v7).  This is forgiveness-plus!

As we grow in relationship with God we discover that He forgives, and He gives so much more – ultimately He gives us Himself.  So we still live in a dark world, but we are like watchmen who have learned over the years to watch for the light of dawn.  Morning always comes.  We live in darkness, but we live with hope.  And our hope is God Himself.

3. Our growth to find peace in the presence of God now.  As the believer matures in the transformation that God’s love brings, we come to the final picture in Psalm 131.  The mature believer is not caught up in their own significance, or in their own ability to make sense of everything.  Almost strangely the image pictures the believer as a child.  How can this be the picture of greatest maturity?

Well this is a weaned child (v2).  That is, a child that no longer screams and grabs for the sustenance they need.  Rather, it is a child that is at peace in the arms of their mother.  We’ve all seen a child who leaves the pile of toys to go and peak in the other room to make sure mother is still there.  We’ve seen a child who wants a story read not so much for the thrill of the tale, but for the security of the embrace.  A weaned child can be in the dark, but all is well, because the mother is there holding them.

A mature believer grows to not only hope for deliverance in the future, but also to enjoy the peace that is found in God’s presence now.  Not self-focused and grasping for things, but content to know that they are safe in God’s embrace.

From the terrifying darkness of despair, to the hope-filled darkness of anticipation, to the contented peace in the midst of darkness – this is the progress of God’s transformation work in our hearts.  God gives great peace to the guilty, because God gives Himself to us!

Uncorrupted Crowns

wreath2Many Christians feel slightly awkward about the idea of receiving a crown or reward from God.  For a quick check, take a look at James 1:12, 2 Timothy 4:8, 1 Peter 5:4, and Revelation 2:10.  Crowns for loving God, for loving the appearing of Christ, for serving as an elder, for remaining faithful to the point of death . . . crowns, for people.  Awkward.  Surely crowns should only go to God?

One of the great challenges we all face is extricating ourselves from the brine in which we are pickled in this world.  Actually, we can’t do it.  We are so immersed in the glory grabbing ethos in which we live that we can’t see any other way.  This world has become our home and we need someone from outside to come in and rescue us.  God has done that in Christ.  Without that rescue we have no hope of understanding how heavenly crowns work.

So we are here, in a fallen world where power is corrupted, where power is abusive, and where power is always linked to clambering over and suppressing others.  If someone is at the top of the pyramid, then they must have stood on others to get there.  In this world it is hard to see how power can ever not go hand in glove with corruption and selfishness.  That’s this world.  What about in another and better world?

We should take the angst we feel about crowns and rewards and then let that energy drive us into the Bible to explore what God is like.  How does God wear His crowns?  Why would He ever give any away?

The Bible’s presentation of God gives to us the fact of three persons within the one God.  The Father is ever the initiator.  Surely He has the right to demand His position, the worship of everyone else and an exclusive right to eternal preeminence.  Indeed He has every right, but what does He do?  He elevates, honours and glorifies the Son.  He gives everything to the Son.  He puts all things under His feet.  He gives Him the name above every name.

Alright, so the Son is the ultimate pinnacle of the heavenly pyramid.  Fine, all crowns to Him then.  But what does the Son do?  Ultimately the Son will subject everything, and be subject, to the Father.  In the most humbly glorious way imaginable we find the heavenly interchange to be “to me, to you” as the Son receives and reciprocates the totally giving and selfless nature of the Father.

Fine, but what about the Spirit?  Is there not tension within the Trinity because the Spirit is never crowned or elevated like the Son is?  There would be if the Spirit was from us.  But the Spirit is also forever proceeding from both the Father and the Son, so His nature is like theirs, so He too is humbly preferring the other – the Holy Spirit is the humble Spirit because that is a key feature of the holiness that is uniquely God’s.  No clamour.  No grabbing.  No “me first.”  Glorious divine humility.

So, what about us then?  Surely we can’t come into that world and do anything but corrupt it, can we?  We certainly would if we entered unchanged from this world.  If God gave me a crown right now I know I would make a mess by immediately feeling the powerful impulse of my rebellious flesh to honour myself.  God is wise enough not to give us crowns too soon.  Once the transformation of our life, in full heavenly sanctification is complete, then we can receive crowns and rewards.

In that day we won’t consider elevating ourselves.  Neither will we bring with us a false humility that rejects the crown.  Instead we will handle crowns and rewards in a way that befits the heavenly world of God’s love that we have entered.

Crowns, for people.  Awkward.  Surely crowns should only go to God?  Ultimately they will.  Surely the heavenly way is to take off the crown and give it away as we see in Revelation 4:10.  And in casting our crowns at His feet we will have joined in the love-driven glory-giving life of the Trinity.

Preacher What Are You Doing?

JobDesc2What are we doing when we preach?  What are we aiming for?  I suspect most preachers would say we preach to see lives changed for the glory of God, or something similar.  I agree.  But what are we doing?

Some preachers see themselves essentially as life trainers.  They know Christianity brings transformation, they long for their listeners to be changed and they know they have a key role to play.  Consequently it is always tempting to take on the responsibility for life change through direct and clear instruction, moral pressure and vocal encouragement, along with the necessary warnings about the dangers of living in other ways.  Is this your model of preaching?  Are you conformity coaching?  If this paragraph describes your ministry then it is time to prayerfully take stock and investigate more intently how Christ changes lives.

Some preachers see themselves essentially as teachers.  They believe in a God who has spoken and whose Word is the treasure they share from the pulpit.  They know that a life is transformed as the truths of Scripture take root and weed out the rubbish of life lived according to the many words of the world, the flesh and the devil.  Are we information investing?  We should be, but it should be more than that.

Some preachers know their role is primarily introductory.  That is, they know that what brings change is not merely Christianity, nor even Christian teaching, but rather Christ Himself.  It is as we look on His glory that we are being transformed.  Thus the preacher’s role is more humble than conformity coaching since what is needed is transformation at a far deeper level – something we know we cannot achieve by our instruction, pressure and exhortation.  The preacher’s role goes beyond information investing to something much more personal.  The preacher’s role is primarily that of match-making . . . let me point you to Jesus and how wonderful He is.

Whatever label you want to use, make sure you understand the difference between conformity coaching, information investing and match-making.  The difference can make all the difference in the world.

5 Ways to be a Good Bible City Tour Guide

TourGuide2When you move to a new city it can be very overwhelming.  I remember moving to South London back in the days before my phone knew how to get me to my destination.  I had a huge book of street maps on the passenger seat and I gradually learned to navigate between key landmarks.  I would have loved a tour guide sitting there instead – as long as it was a good tour guide.

I would not have appreciated hearing meticulous details about the front of several houses in an obscure cul-de-sac.  “Turn right into Downing Close.  Pull over behind the white care.  Notice how houses 3, 5, and 7 all have a black gate, but different colour front doors?  Isn’t it intriguing to note how number 5 in particular does a good job keeping the side hedge trimmed and the roses look pretty good too?”

That kind of detail, presented with a dull lack of enthusiasm, would have quickly pushed me back to trusting in my book of maps.

What makes a good tour guide?  And what has this got to do with preaching?

We live in a time when very few people grow up with a good level of biblical awareness. Consequently our churches have a growing population of people who find themselves lost when they open the pages of the Bible.  They need help, and the preacher might be their main “tour guide” to help them get around.

Here are some thoughts to ponder:

1. Preacher Bible Guides should believe that their listeners need to journey in the Bible for themselves during the week – a sermon on a Sunday is not enough Bible for anyone.  We must realize how much people need to be in the Word when we aren’t there to preach it to them.

2. A good tour guide knows the big picture and the key landmarks.  It is not enough to know your way around a few key streets, you need to know how the whole fits together and what the significant landmarks are.  In Bible terms this means you need to know the big story, and understand the key landmarks: can you tell the Bible story by key characters (Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, Paul), or by key covenants (Abrahamic, Palestinian, Davidic, New), or by key events (creation, exodus, exile, cross, second coming), etc?

3. A good tour guide knows fascinating details that help to make sense of, and add colour to, the big picture.  It is important to be able to slow down and help someone see the significance of what is happening in a particular passage of Scripture, but not as a cul-de-sac in isolation.  The best tour guides can point to a detail, tell the story, and make the big picture make more sense.

4. A good tour guide knows when to go to a big landmark and when to go to a little detail.  The same is true for the preacher.  Learn how and when to give a sense of the whole, as well as how and when to make much of a detail.  You need to be able to do both, and you need to learn when to do each one.

5. A good tour guide genuinely loves the city.  Nothing worse than good knowledge offered dispassionately as if it actually doesn’t matter.  A good tour guide will help you fall more and more in love with the city and its story and its people and its charms.  How much more is this true for a Bible City Tour Guide?

Believe that your listeners should be discovering more for themselves all week long in Bible city.  Know the big picture and key landmarks, as well as the fascinating details that bring the big story to life, and know when to offer big picture or little detail.  Love the Bible city and the God revealed there.  Put that all together and you are the kind of Bible City Tour Guide that people in our churches are crying out for…

Communion Cups and Oceans

ocean2Almost twenty years ago I was serving on one of the Operation Mobilisation missionary ships.  During one month-long visit to a port I met a volunteer who later became my wife.  We had a few conversations and it was obvious that there was a genuine and mutual interest.  When I flew home from the ship my family wanted to know all about her.  I told them what I could, of course, but actually I didn’t know that much.

If we fast forward two decades the story is different.  After 17 years of marriage, 6 children, 5 homes, and lots of different shared experiences, I have more to say about her.  If someone genuinely wants to hear about my wife now, I can share a lot.  I can share facts, but I can also share what I appreciate about her character based on these years together.  And I imagine that if God gives us another few decades together then I will have even more to spill should anyone ever ask.

That’s the reality of close relationship. Over time the amount we have to say multiplies.

Lately I have been pondering this on the spiritual level too.  When we first respond to the Gospel we probably don’t know too much about Jesus.  Maybe as a young Christian we know a few facts that form the skeleton of Jesus’ story: He is the Son of God who came to Earth; He taught, healed, died, rose and returned to His Father in heaven; He is there now and will come back again.

Essentially this basic skeleton of the Jesus story, with some variation, will be the basics known by beginners in the faith.  These facts could be written on a piece of paper and stored in one of those tiny communion cups that some churches use.  These facts are amazing, and for many of us our lives and our eternities were transformed by trusting Christ based on this level of knowledge, so we should absolutely worship God in light of this.  Nevertheless, this is a very limited awareness of Christ the person.

Here is my point in this article, and one of my greatest concerns in life: I have sat through too many sermons and presentations where it feels like the preacher is drawing from not much more than a communion cup full of information about Christ.  Sometimes it has been preachers who have preached for decades, but still seem to have very little to say about Christ Himself.  Sometimes it has been ministry leaders who are significant in their own area of expertise, but still seem to have very little to say about Christ.  This concerns me for them, and it concerns me for me.

If Christianity is about having a relationship with Christ, then it seems reasonable to expect that over time that relationship will result in an increased reservoir to draw from as we speak of the person we love.  Years of communication and of shared experiences should significantly increase what we have to say about our spouse – both in a human marriage, and in our relationship with Christ.

A while ago I was reading one of the Puritans and I was struck by how he could go on for page after page about the character of Christ.  He was prompted by some detail in John 14-16 as Jesus cared for his disciples, but he obviously had pondered long over the character of Christ as revealed in the Gospel stories.  Suddenly I was struck by how little so many preachers actually have to say about Christ the person.  Surely as life progresses we should have more and more to share about Him?

Was it Spurgeon who asked, “Where are all the divines?”  That is, where are the men and women who are so close to God that it really shows?  If that was a concern in the 19th century, are things any better in the 21st century?

Here are a few quick thoughts that may provoke some prayerful pondering on this issue:

1. It is possible to take the benefits Christ offers us, but not realize that He genuinely wants a two-way relationship with us.

2. If we can talk long about a dear friend or spouse we have known for years, how much should this be true of us when we have walked with Christ for years?

3. Christian ministry will always be limited when our relationship with Christ is limited.

4. We will grow in our knowledge of Him as we communicate with Him over the years – years of reading the Bible, years of prayer.

5. We will grow in our knowledge of Him as we share life’s experiences together – praying our way through the exciting, the exhausting, the painful, and even the boring bits of life.

6. There is more to Jesus than just a set of facts: born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth, “son” of a carpenter, etc.  We can know Him personally: His character, His values, His heart.

For me, one last thought reveals both a great fear, and a great thrill as I move forward in life:

7. Christ has, for all eternity, thrilled the infinite heart of His Father.  What we can say about Christ should not be limited to what can fit in a communion cup.  By the time the years have passed, surely we should have much much more to say of Him who is really more than an ocean full of wonder?  My prayer is that we all will.


Could we with ink, the ocean fill,

And were the skies of parchment made,

Were every stalk on earth a quill,

And every man a scribe by trade,

To write the love of God above,

Would drain the oceans dry,

Nor could the scroll contain the whole,

Though stretched from sky to sky.

(The Love of God, by Frederick Lehmen)