Rebuilding the Bridge to Life

bridge3Most of us have seen or used the bridge to life illustration at some point.  Maybe you have even preached your way through it.  On one side there is God and on the other there is humankind, and they are separated by a chasm (sin).  Perhaps God is represented by a throne or a crown. Try as we might we cannot leap across the chasm or build a bridge of good works, so God has to do the bridge-building.  The cross is interposed and we can walk across to God.  Many people have come to faith with this illustration, so please don’t see this post as a criticism of it.

It is good to think through what is being communicated and I do think there are some concerning features of the gospel offered here.  For instance, let’s ponder the assumed motivation.  Are people really trying to leap the chasm to get to God?  Are people longing for closeness with the throne/crown authority figure presented in this illustration?  I don’t remember talking to someone who was desperate to get to God and disappointed that they could not.  Furthermore, the relationship offered seems ambiguous – what sort of connection will we have with this throne/crown if we do choose to walk his way?

I’d like to offer another version.  Why? Because it is good to rethink the gospel presentations we use. Even if we end up rejecting my modification, the exercise will surely be helpful in thinking through how we present the gospel.

Instead of having the human figure facing towards God and apparently motivated to move towards God throughout the illustration, let’s draw him or her facing away from God.  We were created for relationship with God but we have turned away.  Introduce the chasm (sin is our rebellion against both God and the love he has for us).  Now the illustration is ready to fill in.

A. On the God side, why don’t we represent God in a more Trinitarian way?  After all, the authority imagery is obviously incomplete, so let’s play with an alternative.  How about a house?  Verbally explain the context of the relationship of the Father and the Son by the Spirit – three persons united in love.  This relationship was the home, the family, the belonging that we were made for.  If it is explained well then the authority of God as creator and ruler can still be established fairly easily.  However this is not a God of conflicting realities. He is not “loving, but also just.”  Because of the perfect love within the Trinity, therefore God is just, etc.

B. In the chasm let’s draw a manger.  Why a manger?  Because God’s goal for us is not merely to change our location from the realm of sin to the realm of heaven.  God’s goal is union with us, which is why God the Son became one of us – the incarnation matters to the gospel!  He had to become one of us so that he could be one with us in marriage, which leads us to …

C. Behind the turned away person let’s draw the cross.  Why here? Because ultimately that is how far Jesus travelled for us.  It was the price that had to be paid, it was the revelation of what God is like that had to be made, and it was the proposal to win our hearts to entrust ourselves to God.  God’s proposal was not in nervousness on one-knee, but in agony with outstretched arms.

Why do I like this adaptation of the classic illustration?

  1. Because it speaks of the three great unions of Christianity – the union of God with God (Trinity), the union of God and man in Christ (incarnation), and the union of Christ with humanity (union with Christ).
  2. Because God is presented more relationally.
  3. Because mankind is not presented as motivated to seek and reach God.
  4. Because God, in Christ, came all the way to us.  (You could also explain that the Spirit points our hearts to the cross and invites us to be united to Christ.)
  5. Because it presents a loving God doing everything for a rebellious and dead-to-God creature like me.
  6. Because the gospel is about trusting in that love, rather than about making a personal commitment to travel to God.
  7. Because in the gospel we are brought back home by a loving spouse – it is not our solo trek on a God-made bridge to a nice place, in a very real sense he carries his bride over the threshold!

My goal is not to convince you of this illustration.  Perhaps you have another classic gospel explanation you have used – why not think through its weaknesses and modify it to better offer the richness of the good news?  (For example, the judge doesn’t simply pay our fine, he also approaches the stand and proposes…)

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This post was originally published on www.cordeo.org.uk

Diagnosing Sheep

sicksheep2In pastoral ministry, there is a great need for the right diagnosis of sheep. Just as a medical doctor cannot ignore the person in front of them and assume the same treatment will be equally effective for all, so the pastoral worker cannot assume all need the same type of care.

In John 11 Jesus arrived at Bethany after Lazarus had died.  Martha and Mary both approached Jesus with exactly the same words, “If you had been here my brother would not have died.”  Jesus did not reply with identical statements. He gave Martha practical hope, but Mary emotional empathy. Jesus knew the people he was caring for and treated them as individuals.

In 1Thessalonians 5:12-14, Paul gives instructions to the church, that they should respect and esteem the leadership. And he gives instructions to the leadership.  There are people who are idle – they need admonishing or exhorting.  There are those who are fainthearted and discouraged – they need encouraging and comforting.  There are those who are weak – they will need your devotion and help.  And every one of them will need patience.

It would be profoundly ineffective to admonish the fainthearted, help the idle, or to encourage the weak.  The fainthearted need care not rebuke. The idle need a change of perspective, not help to carry on as they are.  The weak need practical help, not words.

This is one of the great challenges of pastoral ministry, and therefore, of preaching too.  We need to grow in sensitivity to the people we care for, and we need to grow in discernment too.  Some of us will tend toward a harshness with others that will bruise and harm many of the sheep.  Some of us will tend toward a tenderness toward everyone that will actually be unhelpful to some.

We need to listen well, watch carefully, pray diligently, and keep in mind that in pastoral care situations there will be multiplied factors at play – the circumstances of the person, their relational dynamics, their own sinful responses, their triggered responses from previous hurts, their understanding and ability to think through life clearly, their underlying health issues or hidden fears, insecurities, etc.

The truth is that there is not one of us who can see even themselves clearly and fully, let alone others.  We are severely restricted in our ability to really understand others. Make sure that pastoral ministry drives you to your knees.  Any other position is too elevated.

Building Preacher-Listener Connection – Part 5

connections2So we have thought about the personal life of the preacher, the pastoral ministry of the preacher, the preacher’s content and the preacher’s delivery. There is another important side to this subject. The listener. Are they responsive to both the message and the messenger? What can you do about it? Actually, you can implement everything we have suggested in the last four posts and still find some people to be unresponsive.

18.    Some sheep are dead. I don’t mean to be unhelpfully blunt, but there are people in our churches who are not spiritually alive. They do not have the Spirit. It is not our place to judge whether someone is genuinely saved or not, but when we have concerns about the lack of the fruit of the Spirit, then we should be both evangelistic in our content and prayerful in our approach. We should not expect those who are still spiritually dead to respond and function like believers.  And yet we so easily do.

19.    Some sheep may determine not to connect with you.  Every human is complex,  believers included. A thousand factors are at play in any life at any time. Just as you find yourself drawn to or negative toward others, so others will differ in their response to you. You might do everything you can to connect with your listeners, but there may well be some that simply refuse to connect. Perhaps they have personal issues they are working through and you are an easy target.  Perhaps you have unintentionally touched a nerve with something you have said or done that has grown into a big thing in their minds. Perhaps an unhelpful “mutual friend” has a deliberate or unintended ministry of spreading negativity and poisoning relationships. It takes far less effort to do damage to relationships than to build them up and perhaps others have been at work to undermine your connection with this particular individual.

Even if others in the church have not been at work, the enemy has. He loves nothing more than to turn believers against each other.  And there are some people that are personally wounded or carrying enough baggage to be an easy target for his machinations.

How can this reality not cripple your ministry? That could be a series in its own right, but Romans 12:18 has to be in the mix – inasmuch as it depends on you, live at peace with everybody. Sometimes peace is not possible and the issue lies beyond your reach. Pray for God to show you what is going on in you, and pray for God to change hearts as necessary – both yours and theirs.  And press on in your ministry.

20.    Only one person can change hearts. Whether we are talking about unsaved individuals who are not yet transformed, or whether we are talking about believers functioning in a fleshly and immature way – the only person who can change hearts is God.  Therefore our ministry can never be just Word.  We must be people of the Word and prayer.  If you are like me this might be a helpful reminder. It is so easy to forget to pray for specific people while focusing all my attention on preaching what they need to hear.  For effective preacher-listener connection there are many factors as we have seen. None is more important than prayer.

That is the end of the series, but we have really just scratched the surface. What would you add? What has helped you connect?

The 5 Dynamics of Preacher-Listener Connection

connections2Preaching is a complex art. It requires the weaving together of exegetical skill, theological awareness, congregational insight, clarity of thought, structuring of material for the ear, etc. And yet even though the list of necessary skills  can seem endless, preaching takes more than technical skill. There is also the need for listeners to feel connection, to both feel and sense empathy. What is it that forges that connection between preacher and listener?

Over the next few posts I would like to offer small suggestions to generate big gains in this preacher-listener connection.

That there needs to be such a connection is lost on some who seem to assume their role is merely to inform, or to proclaim, or to pressure, or even to fill the time allocated for the preaching of a sermon. But I suspect there are many preachers who innately know that there should be something of a connection, but are not sure how to strengthen it.

So what dynamics work together for preacher-listener connection?

Here are the five dynamics that we will explore in the next few days :

1. There is the personal life of the preacher – this means looking at issues of authenticity and spiritual integrity.

2. There is the pastoral ministry of the preacher – is there an investment of loving prayer behind the scenes for those who will be listening, and is there interpersonal connection outside of the pulpit?
 
3. There is the content of the message – is it designed to engage the listener at the heart level? Is it marked by a contemporary focus and sense of purpose?
 
4. There is the presentational dynamic of sermon delivery – is the preacher communicating in the most effective way possible to achieve preacher-listener connection?

5. And there is the heart of the listener – is there a responsiveness to both the message and to the messenger?

Stay tuned for a series of suggestions to help build your preacher-listener connection. It is my hope that implementing some of these suggestions, combined with prayer, will lead you to a greater level of connection with your listeners in the coming weeks.

Share Scars Not Wounds

scar2Knowing how much to share of ourselves is a challenge for preachers.  Some tend toward over-sharing, others veer the opposite way.  When we share nothing we can give the impression that our lives are perfect, or that we don’t care about listeners because we treat them as recipients of our education efforts rather than the richer fullness of our preaching.

Preaching is so much more than education.  It is an incarnational ministry that involves not only the words we communicate but the fullness of our communication.  That is, we give of ourselves when we preach.  We should do so because we are speaking not only as information transmitters but as ambassadors of Christ.  How would he preach?  At arm’s length?  Dispassionately?  Surely not.

So when we speak for Him and of Him, we need to represent Him.  Part of that is to be real and give of ourselves so that when we have served in preaching we have expended more than the energy needed to simply stand and speak the words.

But when we decide to share from our own lives, how can we know what to share?  Here is one way to evaluate whether something is appropriate or not (the idea was shared by a friend, but it may well come from a book that I do not know)…

Is it a scar or a wound?

A scar is evidence not only of failure but also of healing.  Scars speak of the difficulty of life, but also of hope when life hurts.  Maybe the scars are from personal failure, or from personal suffering, or from opposition we have faced.  Every scar can be a source of hope and help to others as we speak with the credibility of the hope that they can find in Christ in the midst of their current challenges.

However, a wound is different.  A wound can be very small but will result in a strong reaction if it is poked.  Maybe someone is opposing you at the moment.  Maybe you are struggling in the aftermath of personal sin or failure.  Maybe you are facing a physical trial right now.  It may be possible to share from this as you preach, but be very careful that what is shared is not excessive or inappropriate.  If someone is making your life difficult at this time you may describe the situation unhelpfully or say something that you would better keep to yourself.  If you are in process in regards to some failure then you may not yet have the credibility to speak of hope for others in that struggle.

This is not a hard and fast rule.  Rather it is a helpful guideline.  What clarifications would you add?  Scars can be powerful preaching aids, but open wounds rarely are.

When the Gospel is All Past Tense

 

whiteclock5I grew up in a church tradition that diligently preached the Gospel every Sunday evening.  I heard faithful folks pray in prayer meetings that folks might “come under the sound of the Gospel” and I watched the weekly routine of preaching the Gospel message.  But something was typically missing.

Essentially the problem was that the Gospel message was preached in past tense.  That is, not only was it the preaching of a past event (which it is), but it was also past tense for most of the listeners.  They had heard it before, responded before and were saved already.

So more than once I asked what the point of this service was since guests were not a common feature?  I was told that it was right to preach the Gospel, and that those of us present who had already trusted Christ for salvation could use it as an opportunity to be thankful, and to pray for the unsaved who may or may not be present.  Essentially this meant that I was hearing a Gospel that was not for me.

Here’s the problem: it was for me.  Instead of simply being thankful and praying for others, I needed to learn that I needed the Gospel to live the Christian life too.  It is not just the way in – responding in trust to the Christ who gave himself for me is the way on too.  For years I sat and heard messages that seemed to be targeted at someone else (and often that someone else was not there).  What a wasted opportunity.

The Gospel is not just past tense, it is what I need present tense.  Why?  Because I need Christ and the grace of God that is offered in Christ – I didn’t just need that once.  I need that now.

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.

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…