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…

The Power of an Applicational Phrase

mirror1bIt seems like a lot of people want to hear practical and applicable teaching.  This is understandable. If the alternative is impractical and irrelevant messages then by all means sign me up for the former option.  The problem is that application in preaching can so easily direct our gaze in the wrong direction.

Truly transformational preaching will always point us toward God for the transformation.  It is as we encounter God’s self-revelation that we will feel genuine conviction.  It is as we look to Christ that we will find genuine transformation.  Of course we are either responsive or unresponsive to the work of the Spirit in all of this, but if we are not careful we can easily leave God out and look to ourselves for change.

One phrase that I’ve heard Andy Stanley use a few times is potentially very powerful in this regard.  More than once I’ve heard him say that such and such a sin won’t be visible in the mirror.

Our fallen tendency will be to look at ourselves, self-evaluate with a liberal dose of self-justification and rationalization, and thereby skirt around any sense of conviction.  The whole process of conviction-repentance-transformation is thereby cut off before it even begins.

I have seen this in my own life and I am sure you have in yours too.  I have seen this in otherwise very mature believers.  Somehow we seem to be wired not to see certain issues in the mirror.  This means that we cannot simply rely on God for the transformational help at the end of the process.  Instead we have to look to God for the conviction to begin with.

Before we even preach to others lets be sure to ask God to help us see our own blindspots – those issues that we have been rationalizing and covering for too long.  As those who are genuinely learning, let us then preach to others, reminding them that their own self-evaluation will be flawed and blind, since certain sins “will never show up in the mirror.”

One Critical Conviction

conviction2A preaching ministry is built on a whole set of convictions.  Convictions about God, the Gospel, about people, about ministry.  It is right that we let these convictions grow over time as we spend time in the Bible, and learn from mentors, from experience, from life.  In this post I’d like to flag up one of these convictions.

Here it is: God is a good communicator.

This seems so obvious, but so many build a preaching ministry without this conviction in place.  Here are some implications of this conviction to ponder:

1. No matter how clever you are, what you can make it say is not as good as what God made it say.  So do your best to preach what the text is saying.  Do your best to let the details, and also the form of the text influence how you preach it.  Try not to just say what it says, but also to do what it does.  Seek to re-create the effect and the affect of the text!

2. Our job is not to make the Bible interesting.  Whatever other good reasons there are for using “illustrations” in your preaching, this is not one of them.  We should seek to explain, prove and apply as well and as interestingly as we can, but first of all we must be gripped with enthusiasm for God and His Word if we are to communicate it with any contagious influence.  Simply trying to add interesting material like spicing a bland steak is not our calling.

3. We do not make the Bible relevant, we demonstrate and emphasize its relevance.  All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful.  All of it.  Our task is to help people see that.

4. Reading the Bible is not a curse.  Forget preaching it for a moment, some of us seem intent on convincing Christians that reading the Bible is a negative thing.  I’ve heard well-meaning Christians teach that it is hard to enjoy the Bible, so just go for the smallest goals possible.  If we give the impression that reading the Bible is a drudgery that can only be achieved by courageous acts of self-determination, then let’s not be surprised if people don’t spend much time in it.

God is a good communicator.  That conviction is critical for effective preaching.

10 Pointers for Preaching a Touchy Issue

10 target 8bSometimes we have to preach something that is potentially controversial or that may not go down too well.  Here are ten pointers to help when that is necessary.

1. Know yourself.  Some preachers like to ruffle others all the team.  Other preachers never ruffle anyone.  Know your default and beware if you are at either extreme.

2. Be so biblical the argument is with the Bible, not with you.  It is tempting to make polemic statements, but there is much greater authority if you present a solid biblical case.

3. Look for ways to deconstruct first so that the Bible answer is needed.  On the other hand, it is tempting to blast with the Bible, but it is better to show the need for the biblical case before presenting it.

4. Use story to get past defenses.  When a subject is potentially hard to take, take a lesson from Nathan’s approach to King David.  He was able to present painfully personal conviction without a defensive reaction through the telling of a compelling story.  Remember that effective use of narrative can bring down the defenses of your listeners.

5. Love the people.  When you bark at them, they sense you don’t love them.  Then the issue will not be your content.

6. Build connections.  Jesus had some tough things to say to several of the seven churches in Revelation 2-3.  He did not jump straight into rebuke.  He built that on a foundation of “I know you!”  This can be relational, or it can be manipulative.  That probably depends on your motivation.

7. Drip feed whenever possible.  Does the issue have to be hit head-on this Sunday?  As someone wisely said about preaching in general, ‘we tend to overestimate what we can achieve in one message, but underestimate what will be achieved through five years of biblical preaching.’

8. Understand why they are where they are.  It is relatively easy to go after an issue, but to be effective in this pursuit we have to understand why people are where they are.

9. Don’t do everything from the pulpit.  A lot of issues in the church are complex, but we can easily fall into thinking that our only output is from the pulpit.   Could you gain more traction in a one-on-one conversation?

10. Pray.  The most important in the place of final emphasis. There is a lot that can be done outside of preaching – conversation, interaction, etc. But the greatest element of any change will come not from our confrontation of it, but from our expressed absolute dependence on God to bring about the change.


Here are some other 10 Pointer posts for you to check out:

Younger Preachers / Older Preachers

Seminary Trained Preachers / No Formal Training Preachers

Evangelistic Preaching / Special Occasion Preaching

Planning a Preaching Calendar / Planning a Preaching Series

Why We Pray

PrayingHands5The church is the greatest news story, even though it is never reported.  Lives are changed, peoples are united, society is helped, and preaching is at the heart of all of it.  But preaching is not inherently powerful.

The church is not a society generated by, united through, and stirred to give of itself by human social engineering.  It is possible to produce something by the skill of natural man as we exhort, encourage, celebrate and direct from the front.  But ultimately preaching is not the true story because the church is not about sales technique, social engineering, or motivational speech.

The true church is supernatural and therefore the true story of the church is the story of God at work. God opens blind hearts to see the glory of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  God unites believers as the Spirit unites their spirits with Christ and with each other.  God’s love spills over from churches that are loved by Him so that His love can make a mark in society through social care and moral influence.

Preaching the Word of God is at the heart of the life of the church, but preaching in and of itself is not powerful.  And that is why we pray.

A Bible Soaking

BibleMug2Yesterday evening a group of us enjoyed four and a half hours of Bible reading together.  No preaching, just reading.  We read John’s Gospel, and then from James through to Revelation.  We paused briefly to share reflections three or four times, followed by brief comfort breaks, but otherwise kept reading.

Here are a few reasons why I think mini-marathons like this one, or even longer Bible reading marathons are a great idea for your church:

1. It is good to experience Bible books as a whole, instead of only ever hearing them in shorter sections.  For example, the letters were written to be heard in one go.  We can easily lose the overall flow when we only ever focus on one section at a time.

2. It is good for people to experience Bible reading “in the zone.”  To put it another way, even the most diligent Bible in a year reader may only ever experience reading the Bible during the relatively noisy first 10-15 minutes.  A Bible marathon is a group experience of reading beyond that noise and enjoying the feast that comes when you are reading “in the zone” (i.e. focused).

3. It is good to have a proper soaking.  Most people live in a noisy and busy world these days. This means it is difficult to carve out longer chunks of time to pursue God in His Word.  A Bible marathon like this is like a spiritual spa, allowing the washing with the water of the Word to cleanse at a deeper level.

4. It is good to enjoy God together.  Too often Bible reading is treated as a lone ranger experience, but it is good to have the gentle spur to focus of being in the group.  Last night our group included an 11-year-old, as well as a student who is rarely home.  Another time maybe we will get someone who struggles to read (and can therefore enjoy listening), or a brand new Christian, or someone in a highly pressurized career, or whatever . . . every group will be special because of the individuals involved, because of the group dynamic, and mostly because of the God we are encountering in His Word!

If you want to know how long books take to read out loud, here is a helpful list.  Dr Garry Friesen has some helpful guidelines here.

Praying Your Way to the Pulpit

PrayingBible2Sometimes it feels like we are living in an age of prayerless and therefore relatively powerless ministry.  We live in an age of increasing noise and preachers crave efficient preparation.  In this post I would like to narrate the journey from passage to pulpit in terms of prayer.  Maybe this can help nudge us toward the kind of preaching we all want to experience.

“What Shall I Preach?” – before the process of preparing a message can really begin, we have to select the passage or passages that we will study and preach.  New preachers tend to get stuck at this stage.  “Lord, give me a good sense of what they need to hear,” combined with “Father, stir my heart for Christ so I can preach out of the overflow of my own heart,” should help with picking a text or texts.  If necessary add this, “Ok Lord, I’m struggling to pick, so on Tuesday evening I am going to make a choice – would you please be in that decision!”

In the study – Now it is time to turn off all distractions and get alone with God and the Bible.  Your goal is to understand the text, and to meet with God personally.  “My Father, please give me eyes to see the meaning of this text as you intended when you inspired it.  And please give me eyes to see your heart revealed in this text.  And please change my heart in the process.  Give me determination to do the work necessary with the passage, and may the fruit of this study so stir and lift my heart that I am deeply changed…”

Before you move into message mode – You have the fruit of your study, and now you consciously reintroduce the listeners to your prayers again.  “O Lord, I am thankful for what this text has already done in my heart, but now I pray for my listeners.  I don’t love them as you do, please give me your heart for them.  How can the main idea of this text be a gift from you to them this Sunday?”

Shaping the message – It is time to form and shape the message – it’s purpose, main idea, structure and detail.  “Our Father, I so want this message to communicate with the hearts of my listeners.  Please give me wisdom to know how I can shape this message as an act of love for them.” And as you go, detail by detail, “Lord, will Steve understand it if I put it that way?” and “Father, you know how Sarah is hurting at the moment, how can I say that sensitively for her sake?”

Delivery time – Both before and during delivery we can be praying continually, even if only in arrow prayers…“May we see you!” and “Protect us from distractions,” and “Help the guys on sound to sort that annoying hum,” and “Guard my heart heart from pride in this,” and “I feel like I’m rushing, help me pace this better,” and “Lord, John seems troubled,” and “Protect us from the evil one,” and “Lord only you can give them eyes to see the glory of your grace in this,” and “Change lives, Lord!” and so on.

Preaching is about exegesis and communication and pastoral care and evangelism and leadership and discipleship . . . but it should be preeminently about prayer.

Preaching and Politics

Politics2Should the preacher be influential when it comes to politics?  The USA is coming to the end of the presidential primaries and moving towards the most controversial presidential election ever.  The UK is fast approaching a long-awaited referendum on EU membership.  Other countries are facing equally significant decisions.  Should the preacher be influential in these things?  I believe the answer is yes, we should.  But how?

How we are influential is a very important question. And it is a complicated question.  Here are 4 of the ways that preachers handle politics and the pulpit . . .

1. No mention of politics.  Some preachers will avoid reference to politics in their preaching and keep the focus on the good news of Jesus. This does not, and should not mean that they have no political influence. It does mean that the influence will be more subtle and indirect.

2. Standing on ethical/moral issues without being party political.  Some preachers will overtly take stands on certain issues, but without becoming party promoters. They might sound like they affiliate with one party for an issue like the sanctity of life, and then sound like they affiliate with another party on an issue like social justice and care for refugees.

3. Jump on the bandwagon and preach to the choir. Some preachers will go with the majority party in their audience. Some churches will want preachers to sound very conservative, while other subcultures lean much more to the left. How easy it is to be fashionable in these things. So some preachers will effectively jump on the bandwagon and end up preaching to the choir, fearful of displeasing the perceived majority. One danger, of course, is that the few dissenters who listen may struggle to hear what really matters and feel unnecessarily alienated.

4. Use position of influence to push an overt political agenda.  Some preachers seem to think that their political influence is a primary calling. They won’t just tow the expected party line, as in #3 above, but will seek to push and change the opinion of others. God has given them influence, and they feel their calling is to shape opinion for the good of society.

In a year like this one, I believe we should prayerfully think through several issues regarding politics and our preaching:

A. We are to influence society, but the greatest influence will not be the outcome of the next vote. Yes Christians matter in society, yes we should be voting, yes we should be informed, and yes, these decisions matter.  But our calling has eternal ramifications, not just four-year cyclical implications. Don’t confuse political decisions with the far greater influence that knowing Christ will bring to our society one person at a time. Our hope is not in any party, but in Christ.

B. People need hope, not bitterness, if things turn out differently than expected. Whether we have nailed our colours to the mast or not, we will need to pastorally point people to Christ once results are in. Don’t be so politically invested that you then become a beacon of bitterness for your hurting political subculture (or triumphalist if things go as you hoped!)

C. Could we be placing trip hazards on the path to Jesus? This is huge. In our church we say we don’t want anything to get in the way of people meeting Jesus. How about in yours? If they hear the rhetoric they are getting all week in the media when they step into church, could that not be a huge trip hazard that keeps people from Christ? Do we want to see all coming to Christ, or just those that agree with us politically?

D. Is there a difference between preaching and social media?  Just to finish, here’s a caveat.  I have chosen to generally avoid being political in my use of social media, but I fully respect the rights of others to use social media differently. Our preaching and our social media proclamations don’t have to match. Maybe you choose to avoid overt party politics in the pulpit, but choose to tweet and share articles that you think will be helpful in forthcoming elections and referenda.  Obviously it is worth prayerfully pondering the points above, but by all means seek to influence in the way that you feel is appropriate.

May God give every one of us wisdom to know what to say and when to say it. May we be known in heaven for influencing eternity on our knees, and shaping culture for good, but never for simply soapboxing with temporal blinders on. May we have real wisdom in how we vote, and how we care for the souls of voters too.

The Pathway to Spiritual Maturity

Pathway2The epistle of James is a remarkable document. He was the skeptical half-brother of Jesus who became a key leader in the church in Jerusalem. While Jesus was going through his season of public ministry, James thought he was mad. Then we discover that the risen Christ “appeared to James” (1Cor.15:7). Resurrection from the dead was enough to convince and transform skeptical James. He became a passionate follower of Christ and a leader who longed to see all who called themselves Christian living sold out lives for God.

The first chapter of his epistle starts as he means to go on. He gets right into the nitty gritty of life, but he does not want to simply offer pragmatic instructions.  James’ great concern was spiritual maturity. He wanted his readers to live fully for God.

So he launches into the issue of the various kinds of trials we face in life.  James sees trials as inevitable – for he does not write, “if you face trials,” but “when you face trials.”  James sees trials as painful – for otherwise why would he tell the reader to “count it joy when you face trials.”  The kind of processing resulting in a bottom line evaluation that this is a joyful thing is not an automatic response to suffering.  But James also sees trials as purposeful and fruitful.  Trials lead to steadfastness, which in turn brings about maturity.

That is a great promise, but how can we “count it all joy?”  How do we get there?  After all, most of us naturally will “count it all misery” when we suffer.  How can we get the perspective that James’ is advocating, and thus how can we move toward maturity?

First James counsels the reader to ask God for the perspective, or the wisdom, that is needed in times of trial (see vv5-11).  God is a loving father who loves to give good gifts, including the trials that mature us, so we need only ask.  Actually James really is at pains to underline the importance of pursuing 100% God’s perspective in these times.  Our natural approach will be to make sense of our trials from our own perspective, or with worldly wisdom.  Our natural approach will be to blame our lack of resources, or rely on our own resources to face the things that we have to face.  But James wants his readers to go 100% for God’s perspective.

God wants to give perspective to us in times of trial, and also hope to help us remain steadfast in the midst of it all (see v12).  But don’t miss where he goes next, for this is not describing some kind of Christian fatalism.  Yes God gives good gifts, including ones that feel negative, but God never gives us temptation.  I am more than capable of generating enough of that from my own heart, but it is a comfort to know that God has never once tried to get me to sin.

He gives good gifts like a Father loves to give his children good food.  He gives good gifts like a father loves his child and therefore gives the nasty tasting cough medicine when it is needed.  He gives good gifts – tasty food, nasty medicine, but never poison.  God is consistently and persistently a loving Father, so we should look to Him for perspective and hope in the midst of trials.

But when we ask for God’s wisdom in the midst of our trials, how do we hear from Him?  The end of the chapter shifts from vv19-25 to address the role of the Bible in our journey toward spiritual maturity.

He seems to begin with some slightly random relational wisdom – be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.  Maybe you have worked or lived with someone who is slow to listen, quick to speak and quick to become angry.  It is very difficult.  Maybe you are that person around others? Know that this is a description of natural humanity, or what we are like in our spiritual immaturity.  James is not giving random relational insights, he is addressing the issue of our response to God’s word.  Verses 20-21 make it clear that he is addressing our natural default response of self-protective anger when confronted or challenged by God’s word.

Instead of flaring up in anger when God’s word challenges us, let us instead receive the implanted word of God with meekness or humility.  Notice two things here:

First, the word is “implanted” – which refers to it not being acquired, but natural. James is speaking of salvation and how the Spirit of God plants within us the word of God, through which we are saved. That means that we are now heart-level Bible people . . . we don’t instantly know everything, but we now have a heart-level resonance with the Scriptures. We start to find them beautifully attractive, and personally relevant. The Bible is not just an object to be studied, but a means to an encounter with God to be enjoyed and experienced.

Second, notice the attitude with which we are to receive this implanted word – with meekness.  This is a humility that is not defensive, not self-protective, not angrily resistant, but instead humbly receptive to how God wants to put His finger on issues in our life.

James goes on to describe a further aspect of truly receiving God’s word.  We are also to put into practice what is shown to us as we look intently into the Bible. This is the living word of God that will pinpoint issues in us that God invites us to responsively address.  James wants “doers who act” in response to the Bible. Notice two things in verse 25 that are really important as we mature spiritually.

First, he advocates a persevering approach to gazing into the word of God.  Like a man looking in a mirror, we won’t easily or naturally see ourselves clearly. Instead our inclination will be to see what we want to see in the mirror of the word.  But James wants the readers to really look intently and to get a clear sense of God’s perspective on us.  Seeing ourselves clearly in the mirror of the word of God is vital, but it is not enough.  In fact, to miss James’ point here and focus on ourselves would be dangerous.

Second, notice his reference to the “perfect law” which he calls the “law of liberty.”  This is not just a reference to the standard of God’s written word.  It is, I believe, a reference to the fulfilled law that we find after Christ came – a law no longer written on tablets of stone, but now etched into our newly living hearts, indwelt by the Spirit and characterized by intimacy with God.  It’s not that we must simply receive the word with humility and respond to it.  No, we go into our Bibles for more than information and self-diagnosis, we are to receive the word with humility and respond to Him.

The pathway to spiritual maturity is littered with trials – little ones like losing our keys, and big ones like losing a loved one.  How are we to engage with these trials?  By engaging fully with God.  We should ask Him for wisdom, relying solely on His character and goodness, not simply mixing that in with our self-protective narratives and self-reliant resources.  We ask Him for wisdom, and look to the Bible to hear his answer.

How easily we can make this passage a pragmatic set of suggestions, but really it is an invitation to a sold out, all for Jesus, God and God alone, fully-His relationship.  May we be leaders that seek God’s perspective alone in the trials of life.  May we be those who persevere in His word so that we hear from Him, and act on what He shows us.  Maybe then our lives and ministries will be reflective of His character as James summarizes at the end of the chapter – concern for God’s values and care for others, a genuinely Christlike maturity.