Clarification Not Choir-Celebration

There are lots of things we tend to say when we preach or speak in church-world that could do with clarifying.  I don’t just mean complex terms or obscure references.  In fact, in many cases, we would do well to eliminate many of these rather than simply clarifying them.  What is our real motivation for using technical language anyway?  No, in this post I am focusing on the common Christian words that season our sermons, words that seem to say something to insiders, but probably say very little to those looking in.

Why do I say we should add some clarification?  Because Christians respond to words and it is easy to feel encouraged by a false response.  You could call it “preaching to the choir.”  When you make a reference to salvation, sin, forgiveness, lordship, relationship, prayer or heaven, you will likely get an affirming nod or even a vocal response from some in the church.  If it were appropriate to then question those responders and ask what you specifically meant by what you said, a high ratio of them would struggle to give any meaningful explanation of what you meant.

As well as clarifying what you mean as you preach, also clarify what you mean by applicational statements.  People may nod at vague references to “being more faithful” or “witnessing more boldly,”  but they might still struggle to meaningfully and tangibly explain what you are referring to by vague Christian applications.  Much better to be specific and give them concrete and tangible ways they might implement the truth learned in your message.

This clarification is for both believers and non-believers who are present.  Believers can sit very comfortably nodding at everything but actually being touched by very little.  Non-believers can sit perplexed at why the believers present seem so encouraged by things too vague or superficial to meaningfully engage with real life.

Those who are regularly involved in apologetic and evangelistic conversation with non-believers know that unclear communication is not helpful.  The danger may be greater for those of us who preach in church more often than we debate on the street-corner.

Instead of simply provoking a celebratory nod from “the choir” in your church, why not clarify what you mean in your explanation, and also clarify what you mean by way of application?  Do this for the sake of believers and non-believers present – everyone would be better off understanding what you are actually saying.

(Of course, this supposes that you know what you are actually saying too … how easy it is for us to use words without a clear understanding of what we mean, or without any specificity in application!  Maybe we are all guilty of using words without making sure we really know what we mean.  Perhaps the place to start is by asking God to help us see if we are doing what I have described in this post.)

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10 Ways to Thrive in Christian Gatherings!

Big gatherings of Christians can be really special times.  A conference, a multi-church event, a festival, even a wedding.  But they can also be difficult environments to navigate well as a believer.  Here are ten suggestions to keep in mind as you head into these environments.

1. Allow Christ to minister to you before you focus on others – It is so easy when surrounded by Christians and doing “Christian” things like listening to messages and singing worship songs to somehow lose track of the personal element of your relationship with Christ. Whether you need to get up early for time with God, or go for a walk, or miss a session, make sure you are getting time with the Lord. Remember that He wants to minister to your soul and care for you, and out of that ministry you will be in a better place to interact with others in a life-giving way.

2. Process everything in conversation with God – A lot of Christian gatherings are input overload environments. We can easily go into hyperdrive trying to accumulate notes, speak to everyone and experience everything. But along the way you will need time to process what you are hearing.  Take time to talk with God about it all.  It could be that a particular message has spoken to your heart and you need to share that with your Father, or maybe you’re carrying comments of encouragement or even criticism that you need to hand over to Him.

3. Aim to build up, don’t hype up – it is so easy to get caught up in the hype of Christian gatherings. Perhaps well-known speakers are involved, and it is likely that introductions of speakers will be sometimes be over-the-top. Before you know it, you can be sucked into the false world of praising or criticizing reputations.  Instead of simply adding to the hype, be sure to treat people as real people – both the unknown person you are speaking to and the famous person who just walked past you.

4. Look for Good Samaritan opportunities – Large gatherings of people, such as conferences, are not without their casualties. Be sure to keep your eyes open and your heart ready to care for people along the way. It may not be someone lying at the foot of a staircase.  It might be someone who is feeling overwhelmed, or alone, or who has been hurt by a misunderstanding or unkind comment.  Remember that it may also be the high-profile speaker whose reputation intimidates you – they sometimes take quite an emotional beating in these environments.  You may be enjoying the break from normal life, but there are plenty of people present whose normal life is looming large in their hearts and minds.  Your care for them might be the highlight of their time away.

5. Network by faith – I remind myself of this lesson learned every time I go to a conference. It is so easy to network by stress. That is where I have a mental list of people I want to talk to and I run around frantically trying to find those people in the midst of a busy conference.  I want to navigate this by faith rather than stress.  Trust the Lord to bring you together with the people you need to speak to, even ones you don’t have on your list.  If the need is there, He is more than able to bring you together in the time you have.

6. Give life, don’t suck life – There are basically two kinds of people in large gatherings. There are those that suck life out of the group, and people that add life to the group. Be someone who asks questions when you have opportunity for conversation (it doesn’t have to be all about you).  Be someone who affirms and encourages, rather than picking holes in everything that is happening.  Real life can become like Twitter, where somehow it seems easier for many people to say things about people that they would never say to people.  Don’t let the false environment of a big gathering fool you – what you say matters, speak life-giving words.

7. Express appreciation and gratitude to all – This follows on from the last one, but let me specify my point slightly. Yes, it is important to speak encouraging words in your conversations. And it is certainly good to express gratitude to those who minister to you if you have the opportunity to do so.  But that is not just the speakers in the sessions.  What about volunteers working behind the scenes to make the event work?  What about kitchen staff in the venue?  If you see them, they see you, and if you express gratitude then you are doing a good thing.

8. Watch your witness to watching witnesses – This follows on from the last one, but let me specify my point again. Yes, your gratitude will be appreciated by venue staff and others. But more than that, anyone who is not in your group will be watching your group.  Other guests in the venue, local residents near the festival, etc.  Just because your small group are having the greatest celebration of friendship ever does not mean that others will appreciate your high volume late at night.  Be sensitive to others.  They are watching and they may well associate your insensitivity with the God under whose banner your gathering is taking place.

9. You are not on holiday from family roles – It is so easy to get caught up in the event that you are attending and to then neglect your spouse and children (whether they are with you or not). You are still a spouse, even if you have travelled alone. You are still a parent, even if they are being cared for by someone else.  Be sure to make the phone calls, send the messages, express appreciation, be involved.

10. Be healthy – Conferences, festivals and large gatherings can be so unhealthy. It doesn’t help your experience, or your life after you return home, if you neglect your health for several days. Be sure to sleep as best you can on an unfamiliar bed (maybe bring your own pillow?), just because the food is available does not mean you need to eat all of it, get some exercise, enjoy the good gifts of God including creation, laughter, recreation, etc.

These ten suggestions may help next time you have the privilege of attending a Christian gathering – feel free to add more in the comments below!

 

 

Appetise Don’t Just Expect

It is so easy to communicate expectation.  For instance, “Christians should desire heaven.”  That is a statement of expectation and potentially a statement of pressure.  Preaching in churches all over the world is full of such statements.  Churches easily become sanctified gyms where the preachers function as the personal trainers conveying expectation and pressure to the struggling masses.

Now I am not saying that we should fail to communicate expectation when the biblical text does so.  However, it probably offers less context-less pressure than we tend to think.  Always take a look and see what the context is offering by way of motivation.  If it is about conviction pure and simple, then by all means, communicate that.  But so often there is a rich bed of gospel motivation underlying statements we can so easily pluck and apply.

Instead of defaulting to mere expectation (with its twin sibling pressure), why not look for ways to stir the appetites of your listeners.  It takes far more skill to describe fine food so that your listeners salivate than it does to tell them they should eat a balanced diet.

Every **ssage is Unique

A lot of preachers seem to scan their preaching passage for gospel words and then essentially preach the same message every week.  Their messages may be doctrinally sound and evangelistically clear, but they and their listeners are impoverished by this approach.

Every passage is unique.  Instead of scanning the passage for gospel words or harvesting imperatives for applicational teaching, my advice would be as follows:

Study the passage and seek to really understand it.  Don’t jump off that pursuit just because sermon material shows up in the text.  Keep studying and really seek to understand the passage.  Then prepare and preach a sermon that has a fingerprint as unique as the passage it is based on – so that every message is unique!

This approach will bless the preacher because you will enjoy the richness of God’s Word far more and find that God stirs your heart with layer upon layer of biblical truth.  This approach will bless the listener because they will not grow tired of hearing the same sermon dressed up in different clothes every week.  Instead they will start to appreciate the uniqueness of each passage, the beautiful diversity of Scripture, and the multi-faceted and highly relevant wonder of God’s character.

Feedback: Best Friend or Worst Enemy?

Receiving feedback on your ministry is so important.  Anyone unwilling to receive feedback is self-identifying as proud and out of their depth.  However, not all feedback is created equal.  Let us learn to discern the difference between feedback that is low value, and feedback that is high value.

Before we get to three ingredients of high value feedback, let’s first consider four types of low value feedback.  When I call it low value, I don’t mean to suggest it has no value.  Everything anyone says to us has value because they do, but we need to be discerning.  In fact, here are four types of low value feedback followed by one guiding principle to help us be good stewards of that feedback.

Here are four types of feedback that allow us to value the giver of the feedback, but perhaps we should be careful not to over-treasure the comments themselves:

1. The polite comment – when you preach to a group of people and then stand at the door to shake hands as they leave (a common custom in many churches), then people feel somewhat obligated to express something to you as they pass.  For some a smile and friendly greeting will feel natural, while for others they will feel obligated to offer a polite expression of gratitude.  This is kind and should be appreciated for the loving gesture it is, but it is rarely feedback that should mark the future of your ministry!

2. The extreme comment – while the majority are adept at the polite non-comment, some people have a tendency to drift to one extreme or another.  One may tell you that your message was the best message ever preached in your language, while another may be happy to label you a heretic worthy of stoning to death.  There may be some truth in either extreme, but probably without the extreme intensity of the comment.  Again, appreciate the person, but be careful with the comment.

3. The no comment – after preaching, teaching, leading, or serving in whatever way, we tend to feel somewhat drained.  Sometimes the feedback that screams loudest is the silence in the aftermath.  Some will chat about anything but what you have done and said, while it may feel that others are apparently avoiding interaction.  You can go home feeling very discouraged.  This may not be an accurate reading of the situation.  I recently preached a sermon and received essentially a friendly silence on the day.  Two days later several positive comments came during home group.  I would have been wrong to assume that the silence on the day was an indictment from all who heard, but it is so easy to feel that way.

4. The misunderstandable comment – when people have to say something, they sometimes veil their comments.  I have watched preachers get excited by feedback that was actually not positive.  For example, “that was so deep” often means that you went over their heads.  Or “thanks for your hard work preparing” may be avoiding a reference to the fruit of that preparation.  Maybe a “you certainly put a new spin on things!” might be pointing out borderline heresy.  And “what a feast of Scripture” may well mean you cross-referenced your audience into submission.  Don’t look for a hidden meaning in everything that you hear, but equally don’t build a ministry on a collection of ambiguous feedback.

So what is the guiding principle I mentioned above?  How should we handle these kinds of feedback that we may suspect are not that valuable in respect to shaping our future ministry?  When you receive feedback make sure that instead of letting praise go to your head or criticism to your heart, first take it all to the throne.  You can express gratitude and care for anyone that expresses anything to you about your ministry.  But then take it to God.  He is able to protect you from pride, and to guard you from despair.  He is able to filter what you have heard and, by His Spirit, hand back that which should make a difference to your ministry.  There is always something to learn, but there is also always a need for God’s help in handling all that comes (or doesn’t come) your way.

This may sound like a criticism of all comments people might make.  I do not mean it to be that.  I thank God for the kindness of people to offer gratitude, and to offer constructive feedback (and I can even thank God for his kindness when some have been brutal in their assessments, even if I didn’t feel it at the time!)

Here are three ingredients that tend to flag up more valuable feedback.  When one or more of these ingredients is present, then you can be confident that what you have heard is going to be useful (still take it to the throne first, of course!)

1. Time.  When someone comes to you with a comment or with gratitude and some time has passed, this is a flag that you are hearing something that should register.  Perhaps it is a few days, or a week or two.  Maybe someone tells you about something you said or did over a decade ago.  When time is an ingredient, then the feedback has a special value and should not be ignored or brushed off.

2. Thought.  When someone puts thought into offering gratitude, feedback or even constructive criticism, then recognize that you are likely to have something to treasure here.  Maybe they took the time to write a note, or maybe they have obviously thought ahead about what they want to say to you. This is not off-the-cuff comment, but thought through and careful communication.  Don’t miss it, it is probably worth your time to ponder it before God.

3. Insight.  When someone has not just thought about what they want to say, but show an insight into what you said or did, then you have valuable feedback.  Sometimes people are quick to appreciate an illustration that made them laugh – great, be thankful for positive response, but when someone sees what you were saying and takes it forward an extra step, or applies it in an appropriate direction you hadn’t considered, then you have something to be valued.

When we stand in front of people to preach, to teach, or to lead, then comments will come our way.  Let’s pray for grace to always value the person more than the comment, discernment in evaluating how much that comment should mark our ministry, humility to guard against sabotage by praise, and resilience to withstand attacks not designed to help us, but rather to do damage.  Words can do so much, but let’s ask God to help us distinguish what is truly helpful in the midst of so much talk.

Expectation and Preaching

Somebody has said that we tend to over-estimate what can be achieved by our next sermon, but we under-estimate what can be achieved through the next five years of faithful preaching.

Here are some thoughts on expectation and preaching:

1. If our confidence is in anything other than Jesus, then our expectations are too high.  It doesn’t matter how well you have prepared, how well you know the passage, how on target the message feels for people in the congregation, etc.  We all have to fight the perennial temptation to trust in something other than Christ for the fruit in our ministry.

2. High expectation tends to lead to disappointment, but maybe it is better to have high expectations anyway. There are nuances to these things, but generally speaking it seems to take a toll to preach with high expectations.  Gradually preachers settle into a safer zone of not expecting too much so that they don’t feel too drained by regular disappointment.  But if having high expectation comes from, or leads to, more prayer for the people and for the occasion, then maybe it is worth the negative cost involved.  Maybe climbing back up again each week and choosing to trust Christ and preach again is worth it.

3. Other factors will influence your internal levels of expectation.  You may be drained from interrupted nights, or pastoral crises, or criticsm, or spiritual warfare, etc.  And there will be seasons where you struggle to expect much at all.  At these times it may be the best you can offer to simply keep going by faith.  (Of course, there may also be a need to seek help, be vulnerable, take a sabbatical, adjust your diet, start exercising or whatever might be needed – simply plodding on is not always the faithful next step – ask God and others for wisdom.)

4. Praise God that it is his ministry and not yours.  There will be times when you are fired up to launch a revival and instead your sermon falls as flat as a paper plane in torrential rain.  God knows what he is doing when he humbles us.  There will also be times when we feel like we have nothing to give and are shocked to find out that God uses us mightily in those meager moments.  God is God and we are not, let’s be sure to be good with that!

What do you experience when it comes to levels of expectation relating to your preaching ministry?

5 Aspects of Feeding the Flock

One of the main responsibilities of the shepherds of a local church is to feed the flock.  What does this involve?

1. A biblical diet, not a provision of pastoral personality – Some pulpits have degenerated into a weekly opportunity for the flock to enjoy the pastor’s eloquence or humour.  He may be a godly man, an inspiring man, a kind man, or whatever, but his job is to point the flock to the Word of God, not his own brand of pious oratory.

2. A consistent diet, not a sporadic scattering of random teaching – Some churches receive an incredibly inconsistent diet – some from the same preacher who shifts and changes with the wind, others from multiple speakers who visit to preach but can never lead.  It is good for a preacher to include variety and to keep learning.  It is good for guest speakers to be used judiciously by a church leadership.  But if the net effect of either approach is an inconsistent diet, then the flock will not be properly fed (and the flock will also not trust the church to be a safe place for bringing guests – an important side effect of inconsistency!)

3. A cumulative diet, not a hodge-podge of unordered repetition – Some churches get to digest a diet that has no cumulative structure.  That is, each Sunday the pastor or varied speakers offer whatever they feel led to bring on that Sunday.  Again, there is place for space in the schedule – buffer weeks to allow for teaching that was unplanned months before but is on target in the moment.  However, when churches lean too much into this approach what they end up getting is not a balanced diet, but an overload of certain favourite subjects and passages.  Repetition can become the name of the game.

4. A healthy diet, not a toxic overload of fast food entertainment – Listeners love to have itching ears scratched with entertainment, experience and surface level applicational teaching.  The shepherds of a church need to recognize that the sheep may not know what is best for their diet.  Too much sugar will poison a person, and too little healthy teaching will do profound damage to a church.

5. A Christ-focused diet, not a pseudo-Christian selection of self-help nibbles – Building on the previous point, people love to nibble on self-help top-tips wrapped in Bible stories and garnished with proof texts.  However, if the preacher is pointing listeners to themselves, to their efforts, to their application, to their discipline, then that preacher is not primarily pointing people to Christ.  The preaching may feel very churchy, but is it actually Christian?

Feeding the flock is an important responsibility.  Let’s look at our own preaching, as well as the preaching plan for our churches.  Let’s prayerfully consider whether we are offering health to our listeners.  Like a good parent you won’t be able to serve up a feast at every meal, but you will look to offer health at every opportunity.

One Improvement

Whatever ministry we are involved in, there are numerous ways we could pursue improvement.  Preaching, for example, is a combination of dozens of factors working together each time we preach.  Evangelism, likewise, is a combination of many many factors at work in each encounter.  Whatever our ministry, potential areas for improvement are manifold.

I want to suggest one improvement that should be right near the top of our list.  This will help if we preach, if we are an evangelist, an apologist, a parent, a teacher, a children’s worker, etc.

The improvement is connected to faith.  Not so much our faith, but theirs.  And not so much the amount of it, but its object.  Lots of Christian ministry is invested into encouraging people to have and exercise more faith.  But what people really need is to catch a better glimpse of the Christ who is worth believing in.  Let me put it like this:

Present the object of faith better, don’t just pressure people to have better faith.

It is easy to turn up the pressure.  Whether we are preaching to a church, witnessing to a non-believer, coaching our children, or whatever, we can easily put the burden on them to believe, to believe more, to believe better, etc.

Once we see that faith is a response to something, then the focus can shift.  Instead of the pressure being on them to work up more faith, the privilege is with us to better present Christ so that they might believe.  Don’t tell them to inflate their response, look for ways to offer a better something to respond to.

What might this involve?

1. You have to be infected to be infectious – do you love Jesus?  Since love, like faith, is a response, then the only way to increase your contagiousness is to spend time with him for yourself.  Like Mary, we need to sit at Jesus’ feet and let him minister to us before we try to minister for him.

2. Evaluate the content of your communication. In column A, notice all the content in what you say that presents Christ/God/Gospel, etc.  In column B, notice all the content that points listeners to themselves, their effort, their discipline etc.  Where are you investing your minutes as you preach, speak, teach, etc.?  Some preachers offer so little of Christ in what they say that it is shocking anyone ever walks away thinking about anything other than themselves.

3. Present the person, not just points of fact.  Perhaps you say a lot about Jesus, but what you say is somewhat impersonal.  Imagine I was telling you about my wife and all I ever mentioned was a list of facts: her height, her hair colour, her shoe size.  That would have far less impact than speaking of her character, her values, her worth in my eyes.  The same is true of Christ.  Some Christians only seem to speak of points of fact from the creed, but never speak of the person they are in relationship with.  People are more likely to respond with relational faith to a Christ that is more than mere data.

4. Pray about it.  This is not first and foremost an encouragement to pursue improvement as some sort of solo exercise.  Nobody cares more about presenting Christ well than the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Don’t just try to do better at this, but instead speak with God about your ministry.  This is an improvement that you can be confident is in line with God’s will for you!

There are hundreds of ways to improve every ministry we are involved in.  But it is hard to think of an improvement that has more than this one – to prayerfully ask God to help you present the object of faith more effectively for the sake of those who hear you.

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.

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!