Who Will Be There After Lockdown?

We don’t know how long we will be locked down, but it will be longer than any of us would prefer.  I think it is important for us to think and pray about the gaps that this unique season will create in our churches, as well as the new people that could be added.

For the first couple of weeks most churches have leapt into action learning how to livestream Sunday services and how to create some sort of face-to-face replacement for home groups.  Some have thought about offering extra resources for people stuck at home.  But as this situation wears on, we will become more and more aware that when we are allowed to come back together as a church, it will probably not be with the same people as before.  Let’s prayerfully ponder these two lists and consider what steps we can be taking now that will change the face of our regathering:

Gaps Created

  1. Some may be promoted to Christ’s presence.  Statistics tell us that this will most likely be the vulnerable through age or underlying medical conditions, but in human terms, nobody is as safe as we used to feel.  Let’s pray about how to support not only those who feel fear at this time, but also for those who may come to the end of their time here during this time, and also the families of any that are lost to this disease (or to any other cause during this time of separation).
  2. Some may drift and grow cold.  The burning coal, when separated from the other coals, will quickly cool down.  Pray about how to pursue, support, encourage and maintain the connection of younger or less-well-rooted believers who are more prone to drift.  We all know people who don’t have the same convictions about the need for fellowship, teaching, worship, community, etc.  The casual approach may seem to work in comfortable times, but it may be seen in its true light under these pressures.
  3. Some marriages may implode.  It would be naive to think that every Christian couple are thriving under lockdown.  We have a newly married couple living opposite us and it is fun to watch them learn to skate together and playing games, but this is no honeymoon for the vast majority of couples.  Some are desperately struggling already and don’t have the release valve of work or time apart with friends.  We have to pray about this and be proactive in supporting every couple in our churches.
  4. Some may grow embittered or lose heart.  The constant bombardment of negative news will overwhelm any of us.  I pray that people in my church will see God answering prayer in specific ways, but what if some don’t?  Pray for the people in your church who are more likely to dwell on the negative news than feast on the hope in God’s Word.  They are extra vulnerable without church fellowship to influence them.
  5. Some may be beaten down by circumstance or enemy attack.  Remember the parable of the soils.  If only everyone in our churches were good soil and now leaning into this crisis ready to bear multiplied fruit.  Sadly some will find this season is the time where the heat of the day, or the seed-theft of sinister birds will undo their apparent participation in the community of God’s people.  Perhaps it is helpful to reveal those who aren’t really truly receptive, but pastorally it is painful to see it happen.  Let’s pray for the spiritually vulnerable and pray about how to pursue the straying sheep – whether they are already saved or not, they need Jesus.

Gaps Filled

  1. Returning drifters need somewhere to land – There are people who used to be actively involved in the life of the church, but life took its toll and they drifted.  Whatever their state was spiritually, this shaking of their world may be God’s tool to draw them to Himself.  Pray about how your church can not only be church to each other during this crisis, but how can you be welcoming and inviting to others who may be looking to reintegrate into gospel community?
  2. The lost can be found – God is an expert at winning the hearts of those who have been hard to Him.  Again, pray about how your online church can reach people – not only the formal streaming (is that accessible?), but also evangelistic resources that your people can share with those who may be open in a new way.  We can’t just expect people to flock to church some months down the line when our doors open again, we need to be proactively welcoming and engaging with people now.  Wouldn’t it be awesome to look back on this as a season of wonderful evangelistic fruitfulness for our churches?!

Who else would you add to this list?  I am not offering answers, but my prayer is that this post can help us to pray and adjust for the sake of the people in and around our churches at this time.

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This Bible highlight from last week relates to this post:

7 Tips for Preaching Online

This weekend will be our second purely online church service.  So we will have a Kids Worship time on Zoom at the other end of the day, then a worship segment live-streamed, switching venue for live-streamed sermon, then a Zoom gathering for communion and hang out.  That is our approach, but there are many others.

Here are 7 quick suggestions if you are new to preaching to a camera:

1. Don’t be intimidated by higher tech churches – I’ve already seen lots of other churches showing off their high tech setups for streaming church.  That’s great, but that’s not possible for everyone.  You may choose to review the situation, but if all you have is a smartphone, then make sure the battery is charged and go with that.

2. Eye contact is different – Don’t look around to a non-existent congregation if you are just preaching to a camera.  Only eye contact with the camera counts.  And if you are preaching to a smartphone or tablet, it is better to use the rear camera (better resolution) and highlight the lens to draw your eyes there.  If you preach to the front camera then you will naturally watch the image (and therefore not be making eye contact via the camera).

3. Preach to your church with possible guests, don’t get carried away – Know that your congregation is hopefully watching.  Know that there may be some guests joining you.  Don’t assume that because your service is live-streamed that you have millions watching your stream all over the world.  Somehow our egos can corrupt ministry when we start to imagine thousands of visitors (and it is probably helpful to humility to remember that your own congregation don’t consistently show up under normal circumstances!)

4. So do be personal, but remember it is out there for all – So when you are preaching to your church, be personal to your church.  However, the stream is out there and could in theory be “clipped up” out of context and used against you.  So be extra careful of references to specific people in the congregation, of your use of humour, of criticism of anyone or anything, etc.

5. Expect to feel drained – Maybe you feel drained after every normal Sunday.  Maybe you feel invigorated when you get to preach God’s Word.  Expect online preaching to drain you.  You have zero feedback, zero interactions in person afterwards, and it really can feel like you literally just preached to an empty room.  Tell your spouse and others if it is harder than normal and invite them to support you with positive encouragement after preaching – it is okay to be vulnerable.

6. Think through the impact of 0 feedback during the sermon – There is impact of zero feedback during preaching too.  You won’t sense restlessness as you labour through your notes.  You won’t internally react to faces of people that typically prompt you to be clearer, or more relevant, or whatever.  After you preach this way you may start to recognise differences in how you preach.  I found it harder to be specific in application, I think, because that is partially a relational impulse while preaching.  Get feedback specific to preaching on camera (maybe you touch your face too much – people are sensitive to that right now).

7. Pray about it all – I’ve come across people who will pray about their sermon, but not about their delivery.  That is strange to me.  God cares about it all.  So too now, pray about the technology, the internet connection, the communication of how to find the livestream, the people you are preaching to, the way you preach to a camera, etc.  Pray about it all, because God cares about it all.

What lessons have you learned in the first weeks of preaching online?

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I have been recording some simple Bible reading highlights for my church. If these are helpful to you, please feel free to share them with others.

7 Spheres: Be Confident in God’s Word

We are living in unprecedented times.  Here in the UK the government is gradually locking down society to try to slow the spread of COVID-19.  Our situation is paralleled in some countries, while we watch other countries facing the greater storm that is just breaking here.

As pastors, ministers, church leaders and preachers, we need to be very confident in God’s Word as we plunge into a global crisis.  We need to be confident that it is God-breathed, useful/profitable, and thoroughly equipping (2Tim.3:16-17).  We need to be confident that it is able to comfort, to encourage, to challenge, to bring light in darkness, and so on.  We need to be confident that it mediates the presence of God, so that when the Bible speaks, God speaks (it is more than a record of what God has spoken).

Here are seven spheres for our confidence in God’s Word to show:

1. Be confident in God’s Word for restoring your soul – you can do ministry fuelled by adrenaline, but not for long enough, nor well enough.  Like Mary in Luke 10, let Jesus minister to you before you minister for Him.

2. Be confident in God’s Word for leading your family – many of us will be experiencing full-time life at home with the whole family.  A recipe for tension and struggle?  Possibly. But remember that your family needs your leadership, and your best leadership will involve bringing perspective, hope,  and stability from God’s Word.

3. Be confident in God’s Word for encouraging believers – the church is not a group of people that receive ministry from you.  The church is a gathering of ministers, a team of priests, each with their opportunities to influence, to lead, and to give to others.  Some will be facing grief.  Some will be overwhelmed by their work at the hospital.  Some will be facing massive financial loss.  Some will be struggling with “little stuff” like tensions at home over “nothing.”  All need to be encouraged by the best fuel for the soul – God’s Word.

4. Be confident in God’s Word for giving hope to the lost – unprecedented national and global crisis means a planet full of people with their standard complacency and confidence shaken.  This is an opportunity for people to realise and discover their need for something more than they can build for themselves in stable times. So of course we want to offer help and provide selfless and sacrificial service to our communities.  But what they need more than anything is for us to give reason for our hope, to pray for opportunities and then spell out the good news whenever we can.

5. Be confident in God’s Word for the health of your (now online) church – Many of us are learning very quickly how to do church services and home groups online, not to mention prayer gatherings, online devotionals, WhatsApp group chats, etc.  So we don’t have access to buildings, we can’t meet in person, we can’t visit people in their homes, and a whole host of other things we normally rely on.  All may be changing, but God’s Word is still the vital staple in your church’s diet.  Look for ways to share God’s Word with people, and encourage them to share it with each other.

6. Be confident in God’s Word in the midst of a crisis – It is tempting in a crisis to default to offering purely practical help, or to fall into personal tendencies (some will be very good at sharing despair, others are experts at making everything party political, still others seem to think the world needs their version of denial).  In a crisis people need God’s Word.  It is not chained.  Trust it.  Share it.

7. Be confident in God’s Word as you pray – We are facing unprecedented times (for us), but God is not new to times of pestilence, of plague, of grief, of fear, etc.  Trust God’s Word to help you find the words you need as you pray for yourself, your family, your church, your community, your nation and this world.

What would you add?  What passages are comforting and encouraging you?

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Here is a link to the latest short, no-frills, no sermonic polish, Bible reading highlight that I have started offering on YouTube. Please take a look at some of these short videos and if you find them helpful, please share with others.  Thanks.

 

7 Temptations During COVID-19 Isolation

The vast majority of us have no experience of living in these new and challenging circumstances, and as church leaders we have to figure out how to feed, lead, care and protect our flocks on the job.  To begin with there is a novelty element, and also the sense of focus that a crisis generates in us.  But there will be temptations and we would be wise to anticipate them for ourselves, as well as for others:

1. Despair – For many of us, words like, “give us this day our daily bread” have always been somewhat theoretical.  Suddenly our vulnerability as humans is vividly real.  For some the virus itself is a fear, for all of us the impact on society and life is challenging.  It is probably not good to develop an obsession with news updates and constantly refreshing the global death count.  Be informed, but be far more hungry to fill your heart with hope from God’s Word – you need that, and so do those around you.

2. Depression – Don’t let the initial social media enthusiasm for “time to do odd jobs” fool you.  Life on lockdown will quickly become very challenging.  Even with the blessings of video calls, the reduction in face-to-face human interaction is not something we are created to enjoy.  As Christians we may not realise how much meeting together each week matters until we can’t (and churches that plan to meet against government advice need to seriously consider the damage this will do to our shared witness!)  Carrying the weight of a crisis for yourself, your family, and others, will be more than you can bear and depression in its various forms will be a very real and present danger. We need to learn to find strength, hope, rest and wisdom in God.  And remember: technically depression is not a temptation because it is not a sin – be sure to seek help from other people too, God often works best through others.

3. Blame – When the personal comfort of humans is challenged, blame tends to spill out. We can see it already on social media. Remember that Churchill was widely criticised early on, but lauded for his leadership with hindsight. I don’t know if this generation will fully unite under crisis – the early signals are both yes and no. But let’s be sure that we don’t join in and make this about politics. Let’s set a different tone and show how good is the God who sits on the ultimate throne (and humbles himself to suffer life, with, and for us).

4. Distraction – For decades our western culture has increasingly found sophisticated ways of distracting itself and numbing the routine of a dull reality.  This crisis will initially flag the insignificance of much of that distraction.  There may be a sense of relief at the sudden lack of appetite for unimportant things that felt too important a month ago.  But our human nature will crave distraction … binge watching TV series and sports highlights, numbing fear and loss through alcohol and substance abuse, and the temptations that we struggled with before all this are not yet gone for good.  Don’t run from the situation before us, run to the throne of grace to find help, and be sure to be open with your sympathetic high priest about your own struggle with distraction – whatever form it may take under pressure.

5. Compromise – The added pressure of isolation, or of extra time with your family (which can also be really difficult), or of grief, fear, uncertainty, loss of income, etc., will potentially cause us to consider compromises that we would not have considered when life was the old normal.  Typically civil people have become aggressive in supermarkets.  Typically honest people are out there trying to make dishonest gain by selling their vast stocks of toilet rolls online at a high mark-up.  Typically kind people are and will be tempted to steal, to lie, to cheat and to look out for their own interests as their top priority.  And before we simply condemn sin in others, let’s be sure to recognize that we may feel a pressure to compromise that we have never felt before.  Again, read the Bible with open eyes and an open heart – seek the Lord before the pressures ramp up higher.

6. Burnout – Most of us are used to a certain level of stress from family and ministry life.  But doing family and ministry in an ongoing crisis situation is a whole new level of pressure.  You will be tempted to burnout by giving, giving, giving and not letting God refill your tanks, not looking after yourself with rest, sensible food, etc.  Our inner Martha will rear its head in this time.   That putting others first mentality that is so needed for the church to exist and for ministry to happen.  But when our attitude starts to reveal an empty tank, then it is clear that we have not heeded the Mary example: be sure to sit at Jesus’ feet and let him minister to you before you then pour out to others.  Martha service will prove to be important, but lest we let that Martha tension undo the good, let’s be sure to keep the Mary style devotion as a first priority.

7. Retreat – When everyone is socially withdrawing, it will be tempting to retreat into our own homes and look out for family and church family.  Remember the rest of the world needs Jesus, and many of them have never been this close to realising it!

What else would you add to this list? What other suggestions would you offer?

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Youtube – I have decided to use Youtube for no-frills video versions of some blog posts.  I don’t read the post, but follow the same structure and offer it in spoken form.  To take a look at the video, please click here (and thank you for engaging with either the blog post here or the video there … and I appreciate any sharing of either format to help others find the content.)

Your Church Does Not Need a Superstar

In one sense preachers have always felt pressure.  In the past, the position of church minister was respected in the community, along with other leadership roles in society.  These days the pressure often feels more cynical, with a world ignoring us until they have some dirt to celebrate.

In another sense, there is an increasing pressure on preachers.  In the past people might hear a Billy Graham once every few years, and perhaps they would be exposed to other preachers a little more often.  Today people get to listen to some brilliant communicators, often in edited form, on podcasts throughout the week.  As preachers we can feel the pressure that comes from expectation built by podcast.

To use an analogy, the famous preacher is a bit like a fine chef in a restaurant (assuming the famous preacher is actually a good preacher!)  A periodic meal in a restaurant is a real treat.  However, these days, people effectively have the option of fine dining multiple times each day.  Then Sunday comes and it is back to normal food for a disappointing change.

Remember that children grow into healthy adults based on a continuing supply of reasonably healthy food.  I don’t know many families that offer haut cuisine day in and day out.  In the same way, if you are providing the regular diet for your church, know that the bar is not set impossibly high.

Preach messages that are solidly biblical, as clear as you can manage, as engaging as possible, with relevance underlined for your congregation.  Every now and again you might manage a stunning illustration, or a particularly satisfying turn of phrase.  But for the most part, just decent biblical preaching is the meat and vegetables your church needs to grow healthy and strong.  And if they like to listen to a brilliant podcast?  Great, encourage it.

Weight of Evidence Preaching: 5 Lessons Learned

Generally my default approach to preaching is to preach a single passage.  Sometimes I will preach a more topical message where each point is the idea of a text and the points together make up the main idea.  But there is a variation that might be called a weight of evidence sermon.

This is where the main idea of the message is repeated multiple times in the Bible.  So while you may use multiple texts, it is not primarily to build the main idea, but rather to reinforce the main idea.  For example, this past Sunday I essentially preached Isaiah 41:10, “Fear not, for I am with you.”

In one part of the message I quoted Genesis 26:24; Deuteronomy 31:8; Joshua 1:9 and Jeremiah 1:8 – all of which say the same thing in a variety of ways.  I anticipated that I would be able to find examples of the main idea that addressed different circumstances in life, but then in my study found that the “fear not” part of the phrase was either overt or in the context of almost every text I found with “I am with you” or similar phrasing.  So since over 90% of the 30+ passages I looked at had that fear context, I focused the message on God being with us, so we should not be afraid.

I touched down briefly in Hebrews 13:5-6, Psalm 23:4 and Matthew 28:20.  He is with us when threatened by people, when facing death, and in our service for Him – all contexts in which we feel fear.

Here are 5 lessons learned on weight of evidence preaching:

1. This should not be the default.  Typically our goal should not be to touch down in as many different verses as possible.  Padding sermons with unnecessary cross-references is very common and often a detriment to healthy preaching.

2. Be very focused. If the message uses multiple texts, then the main point needs to be very clear and obvious.  Otherwise the multiplied verses will confuse and lose listeners. For instance, there were verses in my list where the world noticed God being with his people and it causing them to fear, or verses that spoke of believers loving one another as the context of God’s dwelling with them.  This message could have lost focus and therefore lost its force.  Be selective in what you preach.

3. Keep their finger on one text.  Preaching is not a Bible sword drill where we try to make people find multiple references.  So I encouraged people to open to Isaiah 41:10, but I projected the text of the other verses used.

4. Feel the force of the frequency.  The point of a weight of evidence message is to help listeners feel the force of the frequency.  Time and again God’s word says this, so we should be sure to hear it!

5. Make follow up study possible. People may respond positively, but make sure the list of passages is available to any who want to study it for themselves.  There is the benefit of the main idea punched home in the sermon, but there is also the possibility of people enjoying the Bible study chase for themselves, if they have the references.

I’d be interested to hear any more thoughts on this approach – both the pros and the cons.

The 2010’s on BiblicalPreaching.net

As we come to the end of a decade I am reflecting on ten years of ministry.  What a privilege!  In these last ten years I have been involved in launching, developing, leading, teaching and preaching.  Along the way I have blogged a lot at times, and less at other times.  One of several reasons for blogging less in the second half of this decade was the need to focus on writing several books.

So now as I look back on ten years of BiblicalPreaching.net … the decade began with a link to a radio interview that included me and Dr Erwin Lutzer (who I enjoyed meeting in 2018).  Then the next posts looked at things that have been staples on this site: how to handle the text accurately, how the theology of a text carries into the message, analogies to illustrate what we are doing when we preach, etc.

Anyway, here are some quick highlights:

1. As we ponder preaching we can improve our preaching.  For instance, here’s a reflection on how preaching became a solo sport.

2. The core of preaching is not homiletical technique, but spiritual vitality.  Here is one New Year post about Bible reading, and another about resolutions.

3. This decade included the end of an era, as my teacher and friend Haddon Robinson was promoted to glory.  Here was the post I wrote on hearing of his death.

4. Some posts have been really fun to write and launch into the ether.  I think the most successful series, in terms of feedback and sharing, has been the 10 Pointers series I ran back in 2015/2016.  Here is one on preaching touchy issues, with links to the earlier posts listed at the bottom.

5. Some posts were controversial.  Probably the one that stands out the most was the one I wrote about Bible reading plans – both sides of the debate seemed to jump on that subject!

6. It is encouraging to hear how people have been helped even by the apparently “no response” posts.  For example, I don’t think anyone commented on this post online, but lots of people did in person – it was a theological reflection on how Satan hates the Holy Spirit.

7. I am looking forward to another decade of blogging about preaching, about the life of the preacher, about the Bible we get to preach, and most of all, about the God we get to speak about.

Thanks for your participation in this site!

A Contagious Pulpit

I remember Haddon Robinson saying that a mist in the pulpit will result in a fog in the pew.  It seems so obvious to say it, but there is a strong connection between what is going on in the preacher and what will go on in the listeners.  This is true both positively and negatively.  Here are some examples with brief comment:

Negatively

1. Nerves & Stress.  If you are nervous, they will join you in that.  If you seem stressed, you will put them on edge.  Whatever your preparation has or has not been like, make sure you go into preaching by faith rather than self-reliance, or self-concerned stress.

2. Coldness & Distance.  A congregation is like a dog in this regard: they can always sense if you don’t care for them.  Pray until your heart beats with God’s heart for these people, especially when you sense that indifference and lack of love that so easily creeps in for all of us.

3. Boredom & Disinterest.  Nobody wants to listen to someone who is not particularly interested in the passage they are preaching or the God they are speaking about.  In fact, they won’t listen.  Your disinterest will transmit so that they mentally leave the venue long before you leave the pulpit.

Positively

4. Warmth & Connection.  Maybe you have met somebody so warm and congenial that you found yourself warming to them as the conversation progressed.  The same is true in preaching: your love for them and enthusiasm for the God you speak about will increase their temperature toward you and Him!

5. Clarity of Image.  Whether it is an illustration or the retelling of a narrative, this principle applies: if you can see it, so will they.  Be prepared enough to be able to see what you are describing and you will be surprised how much more your listeners feel like they are immersed in the movie, not just enduring a monologue.  Blow the fog away, describe what is vivid to your mind and it will be clear to theirs, and engaging to their hearts too.

6. Responsiveness & Worship.  This goes way beyond enthusiasm and even interpersonal warmth.  This is about response to God.  If you are moved by the passage and the message to worship and obedience birthed from stirred affection, then that will increasingly be the response of your listeners too.

There are many ways in which we  will infect our listeners as we preach.  What “diseases” do we want to carry to them?

Sanctified Imagination

Some people are very hesitant to ever say anything that is not asserted by the preaching text.  I understand the hesitation and appreciate the desire to honour the inspired text.  However, I think that with care and clarity, there is a place for some sanctified imagination.

Years ago I was preaching Psalm 73 and made a passing remark about Asaph at the transition point in the middle of the Psalm.  I said, “I can imagine him weighed down by the weight of his struggle and kicking a coke can along the street, mentally miles away, until it hit the curtain of the tabernacle fence and he realised where he was…”  It was, to my mind, an obviously contemporary (and therefore anachronistic) way to illustrate the struggle and to set up the transition of coming to the sanctuary and finding a whole new perspective.

After the sermon a lady approached me and helpfully pointed out that Coca Cola hadn’t been invented yet.  I thought she was joking, but actually she was concerned about my adding to Scripture.  When we do add a detail …

1. Make sure it is historically, culturally, and biblically accurate.

2. If it is “just colour,” a little flourish in storytelling for contemporary relevance, then make sure it is obvious that you added it (either say so, or make some kind of visual gesture that will help listeners to get what you are doing).

This Sunday I was preaching John 9 and the story of the man born blind.  At the end of the chapter he is stood before the Jewish authorities with a boldness that stands in stark contrast to the healed paralytic in John 5, or even his own parents.  He is declaring the wonder of what has happened to him, noting that nobody had ever healed a person blind from birth in all of history until that day.

As I told the story I said something like, “I wonder, and this is pure speculation, but I wonder if perhaps he had learned that from the very people he was now speaking to?  Perhaps as a blind beggar he had dared to ask some passing Pharisees, ‘excuse me, sorry to bother you, is there any hope for me?  Has anybody blind from birth ever been healed before?’  And maybe they had lifted their noses in the air and flippantly educated him, ‘Never!’  I don’t know if that had happened, but it could have.  And now he may be quoting their fact back to them! …”

When our speculation is substantial rather than a flippant anachronism:

3. Make sure it makes sense in light of the context and detail given.

4. Be overt and clear that it is speculation.  Don’t give the impression that you have some sort of secret knowledge when you don’t.

These are two examples of the use of sanctified imagination used in preaching a biblical text.  There are other ways, both good and bad, to add colour to the text we are preaching.  Whatever you do, make sure any flourishes work to support the preaching of the text, not to steal the spotlight away from it.