Simple Encouragement

Earlier this year I heard a quote from JRR Tolkien.  After having the completed manuscript of The Lord of the Rings in his office for several years, he finally had it published.  Why?  Tolkien replied along these lines: “It would not have been finished, let alone published, if it were not for the simple encouragement of my good friend, CS Lewis.”

In Ephesians 4:25, Paul urges the believers to be truthful with one another, rather than living on in the falsehood that pervades our fallen world.  The community of God’s people are members of one another in a unique way, and so their mouths should be used to unify through the truth rather than the lie.  A few verses later, he returns to the subject of the mouth.  In verse 29 he urges them not to spray rottenness from their mouths, but rather to only speak words that build up and give grace.  Speaking the truth may be challenging, but building up takes it to a higher level again!

If this is true for believers in general, then how much more should we heed this as preachers.  Preacher, do you encourage?  It is strange to take note of how  encouragement is missing in a lot of preaching these days.

Exhortation is not the same as encouragement.  Yes, there is a need for exhortation, especially when the text calls the original hearers to action and that call remains applicable in the same way to our listeners today.  But exhortation tends to include persuasion with a dash of rebuke.  This may be needed, but it is not encouragement (with its recipe of hope, confidence and life).  Exhortation aims toward the listener, but tends to fire provocation rather than the relational fuel that we humans need in abundance.

Guilt is not the same as encouragement.  It really isn’t the same thing at all, just as a fish knife is not a butter knife.  It may seem like it will achieve the same goal, but generally it is sharper and more likely to provoke instinctive withdrawal rather than the desired goal.  Guilt dresses up as a shortcut to achieving conformity, but the results tend to be short-lived and shallow.  By all means pray for the Spirit to convict your listeners of guilt, He is very capable of that, but don’t go adding guilt into your primary repertoire – you will soon be slipping into legalism when you do.  Guilt aims at the listener, but it does so in an essentially negative way.

Enthusiasm is not the same as encouragement.  Yes, enthusiasm can indeed be contagious.  At the same time, it can merely impress others with your passoin while leaving them unencouraged in their own hearts.  Your enthusiasm does matter, but it is really a heartiness toward a subject or topic, rather than the life-giving heartiness toward your listeners that they need.

Application is not the same as encouragement.  By all means demonstrate how a biblical truth can translate into the nitty gritty situations of life.  People do need that to a certain extent.  But simply applying a text will point listeners to the steps they might take.  They also need heartfelt encouragement to feel warmed toward motivation in that direction.

Your words can urge, convict, enthuse, or offer clarification of application.  But let’s make sure our words build up, giving grace to those who hear, so that they feel our hearty encouragement.  They need it.  We all do.

Think back to someone who has been a real encouragement to you.  How did they do it?  Who can you offer encouragement to personally?  What about other people in ministry like you – is there another preacher or pastor that you can build up with some words today?

Perhaps before you preach again you need to look at the passage and ask yourself, “how is God encouraging me in this passage?”  Pass that on.

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Both Bible & Gospel

As I think about preaching I am increasingly convinced that we need to communicate the redemptive relevance of the biblical text.  I am sure that seems obvious, but many fall into one of the following errors and half-measures:

1. Preaching the details and history of the text, without making the redemptive relevance clear.  This could be preaching a text as if it were a historical lecture, or it could be applying a text as if what we need is example to follow and instruction to implement.

2. Preaching the good news using a biblical text, without demonstrating clearly how the message comes from that text.  This could be a theologically brilliant presentation, but if it is unclear how you got there from the passage presented, then you are not honouring the theology of the gospel brilliantly.  You might be a good communicator, your message might be technically accurate in every detail, but if there is a leap from text to message, then you are undermining the foundational reality that God is a good communicator.

3. Preaching our own message with only token reference to the text.  This is the neither/or option.  It uses the text as  launch pad, or as a curiosity, or as a source of wording, but we preach what we want to say, and it is not the message of the text.  If what we want to say is redemptive rather than merely therapeutic or pressuring, then maybe we drift up into option 2.

I think we will tend to drift into one of these options by default.  Let’s be prayerful and careful to preach the redemptive relevance of the biblical text instead.

Preach Don’t Overreach

It is so easy to overreach when preaching.  In fact, I wonder how many thousands of sermons are preached every week that are barely even Christian?

We should point people, via the Word of God, toward God/Christ.  We should clarify not only what the text is saying historically, but also what it means for us today.  We should lead the way in being responsive to God, inviting people to respond to His grace.  We can encourage people to respond and move in the right direction.  But it is not our role to create momentum, nor is it up to us to generate the force to determine speed of change.

It is the same with counseling, pastoring, parenting, etc.  We can orient hearts in the right direction, we can make clear what next steps might look like, and we can travel alongside the person we are caring for … but we cannot push them along at a pace to suit us.

Sometimes God generates an incredible rate of change in a life.  Sometimes forward motion is imperceptible.  As preachers, as pastors, or as parents, let’s not usurp the Spirit’s role and try to force things along.  When we do, we undermine the foundation of our ministry.  Remember the first step?  It is to orient hearts in the right direction, to point people to God/Christ.  Usurp the Spirit and you will quickly point people back onto themselves.

When we turn people toward themselves, toward their efforts, their failings, their discipline, etc., then we can quickly slip out of biblical ministry and into the role of a personal trainer or life coach.  Our calling is higher than that.

Thousands of People

When we read the Bible we tend to gravitate to the “big names” – Abraham, Moses, David, Peter and Paul.  Perhaps there are another fifty characters that get significant attention in our churches.  But there are at least another thousand people mentioned by name, some counts going much higher.  (Forgive me for not researching this number myself for this post!)  Perhaps we too easily skim over these more minor characters that fill the pages of our Bibles?

There are at least three benefits that can come as we focus in on the more minor characters of the Bible:

  1. The fact that they are noticed, noted and named is an encouragement in itself. Most of us don’t feel like major characters in the epic history of God’s great plan as it is being worked out in our generation.  We know we are minor characters.  And if we have our eyes open to see the minor characters in the Bible, then we can be encouraged to know that our small part in God’s big plan also matters.
  2. Whenever we see any detail about a character in the Bible we will tend to see them involved in real life situations (since that is the nature of God’s inspired Word) – and consequently we can see both good and bad examples that can be so helpful for us in our contemporary circumstances. It would be naïve to think that there is nothing to learn from the many examples presented in Scripture, but it would also be a real shame to stop at mere example.
  3. God inspired the Bible so that the characters in it are more than examples to copy or learn from, they are also part of a story that is pointing the reader to God – his redemptive character and plan. The Bible is not a collection of historical tales with good moral lessons to be gleaned.  It is God’s self-revelation to a world that desperately needs what only God can offer.

Let’s look at an example.  Elizabeth only appears in one chapter in the Bible (Luke 1).  It is a story with two or three major characters, as well as two very significant babies, and Elizabeth is relatively minor in comparison.  There is the angel Gabriel bringing a message to Zechariah in the temple, and then several months later to young teenage Mary in Nazareth.  Two very different recipients, in two very different locations, with two significantly different responses.  Then in the second half of the chapter we see two great exclamations of praise – first Mary’s “Magnificat” and then Zechariah’s “Benedictus.”  These two passages are triggered by two events.  For Zechariah it is the birth of his son John, and the reinstatement of his voice.  For Mary it is the declaration of Elizabeth when the two mothers-to-be met.

What can we legitimately learn from looking at Elizabeth in Luke 1?  First of all, let’s evaluate some of the observations we might make.  It is right to observe the details in the text, but not every observation should be applied in our lives.  Some things were specific and not intended to function by way of example for us.  Generally, the more we know our Bibles the easier we will find it to not apply observed details inappropriately.  For instance, the rest of the Bible does not teach people to go into hiding when they discover they are pregnant.  Nor does it support the idea that when a child moves inside the womb we should interpret the significance of that movement prophetically.

However, the rest of the Bible would support several possible observations from this passage:

  1. God hears and answers prayer – even if the years have passed and hope has apparently dissipated, God hears and answers prayer. We should continue to trust in God’s goodness and God’s plan.  (See Luke 1:13)
  2. Every moment matters – Elizabeth, like most characters in the Bible, is offered to us in light of one incident in her life. What about the other 60 or 70 years?  God noticed and noted their blameless living (see Luke 1:6).  While our righteous choices don’t earn, they do matter.
  3. Our most significant role may still be future – Elizabeth supported her priestly husband faithfully over the years. This was her ministry.  But then, out of the blue, came a role she never anticipated – she was to be the mother of the forerunner of the Messiah.  That role is finished, but it is fair to say our most significant moment of ministry may be completely unknown to us and still future.
  4. For those of us who are parents, our most significant ministry may well be the children we raise – This passage, like many others in the Bible, underlines the significance of the children God gives to us. We live in a world that may seem desperate to protect children (at least those who have been born), but it is a world that constantly undermines the value of parenting.  Time in passages like Luke 1 will reinforce our confidence that time invested in our little ones is time well spent.

These are some Biblically supportable observations from the story of Elizabeth.  But these are somewhat at the level of surface observation, even if the points are theologically important.  What does the text itself underline for the careful reader?

Elizabeth stands at the hinge of the story, between the two angelic visits and the two great exclamations of praise.  She is not just the hinge of the chapter, she is the meeting point of the two pregnancy stories.  She was the one who lived in hiding with this miracle child inside her. Surely, she quietly longed for conversation while her husband lived in wide-eyed silence because he had not believed the angel’s words.  Then when the angel told Mary the great news of her soon-to-be pregnancy, he anticipated her need to talk things through with someone that would really understand, and so mentioned that her cousin was also with child.  When Mary greeted Elizabeth there was a leaping of John within, and the Spirit of God poured out on her.  The silence was broken, a great cry came out, and Elizabeth’s celebratory exclamation builds to the climactic point: “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

She’d lived with the consequences of disbelief, and now she could not contain her joy at the blessing of belief.  Trust what God says and experience the blessing that follows.  You and I will never have the same role as Mary or Elizabeth (for several reasons!), but that exclamation stands true for us today: let us trust what God says and experience the blessing that follows.  At work, at home, in parenting, in ministry, in life.

Preaching Needs to Engage

Preaching is not just about speaking, presenting, informing, educating or even filling a time slot … preaching needs to engage.

There are too many people settling for filling time, entertaining, or giving a lecture.  What our churches need is for people to have their hearts and minds engaged with the Word of God.  What are some of the ingredients that will make this possible?

  1. The preacher needs to be engaged by the passage, by the message, and by God on a personal level.
  2. The preacher needs to share God’s heart for the listeners who will be hearing the message.
  3. The content needs to be engaging – that is, clear, relevant and interesting for the listeners who will be present.
  4. The delivery needs to be engaging – that is, there needs to be energy, variety and warmth in vocal tone, body language and facial expression.

More could and should be written about each point, but that’s good for starters!  What do you find helpful when you preach, or when you hear an engaging preacher?

Personalize Your Preaching

Preaching is person to person, so surely it should be personalized?  But if we are not careful our preaching can feel impersonal and distant.  We can learn how to prepare a sermon, then treat the process like a machine for generating messages – put in a text at one end, turn the handle, and out pops a three point outline ready for Sunday.

True biblical preaching is not primarily about outlines.  It is about heart-to-heart communication.  Ultimately it is God’s heart to our listeners’ hearts, but our heart is in the circuit too.  So how can we make sure our preaching feels personal when you stand to deliver this Sunday?

1. Make sure your study of the biblical text touches your heart.  Newcomers to preaching may think sermons are texts and ideas squeezed into outlines, but actually we need to be studying the text to understand it.  When we study it, we have to make sure our hearts are engaged and not just our heads.  This passage was put there by God to impact readers spiritually – how is it impacting me?  I need to be talking to God about that and not just looking for a sermon that will preach.  In fact, here are a few quick sub-points relating to this phase of preparation:

A. Ask God to help you understand what the text was intended to communicate to the original recipients – what was the spiritual impact supposed to be back then?

B. Ask God to help you understand what the text was intended to communicate to readers like you – it is part of a bigger whole that all points receptive hearts toward Him.

C. Ask God to convict you of sin, to motivate you for service, to make your heart beat with His and to stir you to worship as you spend time in the text.

2. Pray for God to give you His heart for the hearers as you prepare the message.  Before you start to shape your study into a sermon, come before God in prayer and really intercede for your hearers.  Whether it will be your home congregation or a group you have never preached to before, God knows and loves them better than you do.  Ask Him to give you His heart for them.  Don’t just pray for the message to “go well,” but pray for them as real people, in real situations, facing real difficulties.  Pray for those who are not His yet, and those that are.  Pray for His heart for them, and for their hearts to be ready to hear from Him.

3. Prepare a message that will give your best, vulnerably.  Actually this is two points.  First, preach your own message.  Don’t steal someone else’s sermon and preach it.  That is a shortcut that wastes time in the long run.  When you steal sermons you don’t get the benefit of the study, and they don’t get the benefit of hearing from you … instead they hear a poor version of someone else’s message.  If you choose to use a point or a quote, that is fine, just say that “someone put it this way…” and use it, but make sure you are preaching when you preach.  By faith you can trust God that your moderate ability will be better suited to these listeners than someone else’s impressive message.

Second, prepare to preach with vulnerability.  Let the you shine through.  There is no benefit to hiding behind your exegesis and presentation.  People need to know that you also struggle, that this moves you, that you are a real human.  Obviously you should think through what you will be saying.  It isn’t helpful to vent your anger or share a struggle that is too raw.  It also isn’t helpful to overstate your struggle or to share something that will distract or undermine your credibility.  But there is plenty of real you to share as you preach.  Plan to preach your own stuff, and plan so that it is really you that is preaching.

4. Grow in your ability to deliver sermons naturally.  We no longer live in an age of voice projection and concert hall oratory.  We live in a time when people value authentic, genuine, relational communication.  Some are taught to preach dispassionately, thereby avoiding emotionalism and manipulation with the opposite poison of disconnection (and a different form of intellectual manipulation at times).  Don’t be arms length from your material, preach from the heart and through your genuine personality.  If you are quiet, that is fine.  If you are out-going and enthusiastic, that can work too.  What matters is not the personality you portray, but that it is your personality as you preach.  As I often say when teaching preaching, it takes work to be natural in such an unnatural setting.  Do the work so that people can hear from you.

There is more that could be added, but that is four ways to try to inject the personal into your preaching.  What would you add?

7 Pointers from Stephen’s Sermon

This morning I listened to the section of Acts this includes Stephen’s great speech (Acts 7).  This is the longest speech in Acts and well worthy of studying.  Obviously it was a unique situation and not a planned sermon for Sunday morning in church.  Nevertheless, here are some basic thoughts to nudge us in our ministry:

1. Stephen preached for a response.  While the response was not what we would prefer Sunday by Sunday, there is no doubting that he went for it.  He knew it was do or die – either they would be cut to the heart or his life would be cut off.  He didn’t hold back but boldly proclaimed God’s message.

2. Stephen preached for Christ’s glory, not for his own comfort.  He was in a legal situation where every natural instinct would be self-preservation, but instead he lifted Christ very high.

3. Stephen knew his Bible.  If this message was not prepared (it may have been, but that doesn’t really change the point here) then he clearly knew his way around the Hebrew Bible.  Not only could he tell the story of Israel, but also…

4. Stephen carefully selected material.  Too many summaries of this sermon skim over the body of it with a statement like, “Stephen reviewed Israel’s history.”  Not so simple.  Stephen reviewed Israel’s history with God in locations other than the temple mount.  He reviewed Israel’s history with rejecting God’s messengers.  He carefully selected his material to fit this particular message.

5. Stephen knew his audience.  He knew the people, their pride, their antagonism, their recent history with Jesus.  That is why it was do or die … this was not the time for gradual seed sowing, he knew what they needed to hear, and he probably knew where it would lead.  Which is why we can also say….

6. Stephen knew his audience of one.  He knew that the only listener that ultimately mattered was the one standing to receive him into glory.  If only we could always preach with an overwhelming sense of our ultimate audience!

7. Stephen built to climax.  He didn’t just talk until the stones flew, or until the time ran out, or until people started to leave.  He built towards a climax, towards the point of response and ultimately the point of no return.

Lots more could be said, but these seven thoughts might be worth pondering as you read or listen through Acts 7 and think about your particular context, audience and ministry.

Two Kinds of Prayer

There are essentially two kinds of prayer that we pray.  This is true for us as preachers, as it is for us as sheep in Christ’s flock.  They seem so similar.  But they are radically different.

My Great Plan – In Mark 10:35, James and John come to Jesus with their big request, “do for us whatever we ask of you…”  What was their request?  It was to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand when he came into his glory.  It is easy to sit here now and read that with a judging tone.  Perhaps like the other disciples our indignance might reveal something about us (it takes one to know one!)

In reality James and John had probably pondered their request for a while.  Their gradually dawning awareness of Jesus’ identity perhaps stirring a request that reflected a craving for position and power, but also perhaps felt justified out of a desire to stay close to Jesus.  Whatever their thinking, in their minds it seemed like a good plan.  Now they just needed Jesus to sanctify the request with his blessing and all would be well.

How easily we can come to Jesus with our great plans. Jesus, I know how revival should spark from this next sermon.  Jesus, I have an idea for who should be hit the hardest by this message.  Jesus, I know the next step in the development of my ministry.  Our motives are always mixed, so we can usually add the veneer of humble service over any grandiose self-promotion.  It seems that Jesus is not in the habit of fanning the flames of our egos as we pray.

My Great Need – Fast forward to verse 51 and Jesus is using the same words as he speaks to Bartimaeus.  This man had been crying out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” until he had Jesus’ attention.  Then Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?”  Bartimaeus was blind, but he could see some truths about who Jesus was.  He knew his need was great.

It seems to me that Jesus is very discerning when it comes to telling the difference between “Great Plan” prayers and “Great Need” prayers.  We may fool ourselves with the veneer we add, but Jesus knows our hearts, and he knows what is best for us.  The reality for you and I, as individuals and as preachers, is that we have plenty of need to bring to Jesus in prayer.

Maybe we would do well to ask him to help us discern the difference, and perhaps to invest more of our time bringing great needs to a merciful Saviour, instead of just bringing our great plans to someone who knows better than to grant everything we ask!

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.)

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!