Preaching to Students in a Pandemic

[Thank you to Peter Dray of UCCF for asking me to write this post, which he included in Connect, September 2020.]

Preaching to students is one of the very best ministries. But what about preaching during an unprecedented pandemic when many of our teaching opportunities are virtual?

Here are six quick thoughts that may be helpful – three on what they need to hear, and three on communicating online.

1. What is true now is always true, so the message does not change.

2020 does not feel normal at all! There is uncertainty all around us, political turmoil, people divided against each other, and a world living in fear of dying. But that description was also true last year and will be true five years from now. 2020 has just made some things feel more vivid.

God loves this broken and hurting world. He loves it so much that he sent his Son on the greatest ever rescue mission. He loves it so much that He has sent His people out, empowered by the Spirit, to proclaim the glorious news of Jesus. So, since the need is as great as ever, our message does not change.

2. What is felt now is far more vivid than before, so speak from God’s heart to theirs.

Since the comfortable culture bubble has been burst, people are potentially more prepared for a message of life and hope. They are feeling concerned, fearful, confused, upset, and vulnerable. When people are feeling more intensely, we can’t simply present cold hard facts and expect them to connect. Yes, our message is a set of truths, but those truths come from the loving heart of God. Seek to speak from God’s heart to theirs: sensitively, passionately, directly, and clearly.

3. What is needed is today’s good news, so speak the truth with targeted relevance.

Don’t just preach a message from last year. The gospel is, by definition, highly relevant – that is why Jesus became a human in the first place! Let’s look for ways to speak into the lives of our listeners with the highly relevant message of what God’s love has done for us in Christ.

4. Anticipate the difference of preaching without hearers in the room.

When you speak to a group of students there is energy in the room, sometimes distraction, often responsiveness. When you speak to the back of your phone or a webcam, the room feels really dead! Know that you will find the experience more draining than normal preaching and be sure to go to God as a top priority to make sure you let Him minister to you before you try to minister to others (like Mary in Luke 10:38-42).

5. Adjust your content to consider two crowds.

The students listening to you may be the same as before, but there is a difference: they’re no longer sitting together in a big group. Your style needs to be more personal and direct. Focus less on addressing the student group as a crowd, and more on speaking directly to your hearers as individuals.

At the same time, given that whatever is put online can be seen by anyone, remember another crowd too. You probably won’t go viral and be watched by millions, but you still need to be careful. Do not to speak carelessly, even in humour, in a way that could be clipped or misappropriated by antagonists to our faith.

6. Apply some basic principles to communicate effectively to camera.

Try to get your camera at eye level, beware of a distracting background, and get as much natural light as possible. Get closer to the camera as if you are on a Skype call with a friend, not standing several metres away as you might in a meeting. Learn to make eye contact in a single lens (not easy).

Test your setup before you preach. Trim content and get to the point quicker. Your viewers have just a screen, rather than the energy of a room full of people. It’s harder to concentrate on a preacher on screen, so do anything you can to help them listen.

And one bonus thought – be sure to get helpful feedback from others and watch what you are expecting others to watch… we are all on a steep learning curve this year, but what we have to share is so worth sharing!

Evaluate Before You Preach

EvaluateIt is super helpful to evaluate your sermon after you preach it.  But it is also vital to evaluate it before you preach.  Here is a partial checklist that may be helpful:

  1. Think about the biblical text – have you answered the questions that the text raises as your listeners read it (for maybe the first time)?  Does your message still have the authority of the biblical text or has your message preparation led to any drifting from the meaning of the passage?  Is your main idea the main idea of the passage?  And is your main idea going to engage your listeners?
  2. Think about your listeners – is your message going to communicate the relevance of the passage to your specific listeners?  Is your support material going to connect with different demographics in the congregation (or do you only use sporting illustrations throughout?)  Does your message only communicate to the in-crowd in Church language, or will it communicate to any guests present?  Are there any points of connection between message and congregation that require extra sensitivity?  It is better to think that through before, rather than trying to fix damage later.
  3. Think about the communicator – how are you doing spiritually?  And relationally?  And physically?  Is there anything you need to put right or address in the time between now and when you have to preach?  Do you need to ask someone for help with a pre-preaching responsibility so that you can be in the best place personally to preach?  (Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and admit to a trusted friend if that is the case.)
  4. Think about the Spirit of God – apart from God working through this sermon, it will achieve nothing.  Have you prepared prayerfully?  Do you need to seek forgiveness for self-reliance or distraction and bring the congregation and the message to the Throne of Grace now?   

There is plenty more that can be evaluated before you preach.  Are you anticipating the need to rush because of too much content?  Are you still unclear how you will land the message?  Would you want to hear this message?  Does your message point people to themselves or to Christ?

Remember, you will never have a perfect message, but prayerfully do what you can.  In fact, prayerfully evaluate the message and you will probably have a sense of where to put your energies in the time you have left!

When Preaching Is Restricted

This year has thrown up all sorts of challenges for the ministry of preaching. Many of us have been learning quickly how to adjust to preaching to a camera, taking church online, etc. But still, something is missing. Maybe we can’t gather, or maybe the gathering is restricted. Is this restriction actually curtailing the work of God?

The Book of Acts offers us an encouraging section to read when we feel our preaching is restricted. As you know, Acts shows the progress of the witness of the Apostles from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, to the ends of the earth (see 1:8).

The Jerusalem section, chapters 1-7, is thrilling. We see the church birthed and growing rapidly. We get to enjoy the boldness of Peter’s preaching, Peter and John before the authorities, even Stephen’s courageous final proclamation. It feels like preaching to crowds is central to the growth of the church. But opposition is building along the way. The apostles are warned in chapter 4, beaten in chapter 5 and then there is the execution of Stephen in chapter 7.

This brings us to the middle section of Acts, the Judea/Samaria section, if you like. It stretches from Acts 8 to Acts 12, where the summary statement is found in v24: “the word of God increased and multiplied.”

So what do we find in Acts 8-12? We see the gospel spreading to Samaritans and then Gentiles – a massively significant step of progression. But we also see a change of ministry opportunity. After the stoning of Stephen, we read this: “…there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles . . . Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” (8:1,4)

They went about evangelising – that’s what it is saying here.  They couldn’t bring friends to big gatherings in Jerusalem to listen to a great apostle preaching.  They were scattered.  Challenging circumstances, scattered believers, speaking about Jesus.

We immediately get the example of Philip who took the challenging circumstances as sovereign appointment and proclaimed Christ in Samaria.  He spoke to crowds, but he also spoke to an individual in a chariot.  Normal followers of Jesus speaking to people about Jesus wherever they found themselves.

In these chapters we see the conversion and commissioning of Saul to carry the message to the nations, and we see Peter being coached by God to understand how the gospel had to move beyond traditional Jewish boundaries in order to spread.  But we also see normal believers representing Jesus.  People like Tabitha/Dorcas, who was full of good works and acts of charity.  In their words and in their deeds, they evangelised wherever God put them.

We know from Acts 12:24 that the word of God increased and multiplied, even away from Jerusalem, away from the big preaching events, away from the primarily apostolic pulpit.  But there is one thing we have to recognize to really grasp what was going on then, and what is going on today. Challenging circumstances that scattered believers who then spoke about Jesus. 

It sounds like a fruitful formula.  None of us want the challenging circumstances, but when they come we see how believers find themselves in unique situations to speak of Jesus.  So why do we hesitate today?  Why aren’t we confident that our congregations will all gossip the gospel enthusiastically in these challenging times?  Is it a matter of training, of example, of spiritual gifting? Perhaps, but not primarily. 

Perhaps it is more to do with Acts 8-12’s truth not gripping us as it should. Luke returns for a summary of the ministry of the scattered believers in Acts 11:19-27.  It tells us that the post-Stephen persecution scatterees travelled to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch.  It tells us that they spoke the word.  It tells us that the message of Jesus spread to Greek speakers as well as Jews. But notice verse 21:

“And the hand of the Lord was with them.”

That is massive. They needed that. They were witnesses in Judea and Samaria because they had received power when the Spirit came upon them (Acts 1:8). They were able to effectively do their part, not because they were really good at it, but because God did his part.

The same is true today. You may not be able to preach to a normal sized crowd this Sunday or next month. The typical autumn and winter events at the church may not be possible this year due to Covid-19. God’s plan may be to place you and me, and the people in our churches, into divinely ordained one-on-one situations where we can speak of Jesus.

Challenging circumstances that scatter believers who then speak of Jesus to anyone that crosses our path. And we can do so with confidence because the hand of the Lord is with us!

If you and your church folks are convinced that the hand of the Lord is with us this week, what difference will that make? Maybe we will discover that God’s plans are not on pause. And even if the pulpit is partially paused, God’s great plan to reach this world for Jesus is marching forwards, even in October 2020!

7 Truths To Stir Prayer in Challenging Times

This year has been a year of changes and challenges for us all.  It certainly isn’t the year we were expecting as we headed into a new decade just a few months ago.  As church leaders we are having to face situations that we haven’t faced before and make decisions in a continually changing set of circumstances.  Wouldn’t it be great if God could give us some kind of blueprint for when traditional church is not possible, during a time when our society is rocked by racial tensions, by political division and by a constant fear of death?  Actually, God has given us exactly that – the book of Acts.

When the church began they could not follow what would later become normal church traditions.  In addition, the Roman Empire was a place of racial tension, political divisions and death was never far away.  How did the church thrive then?  And how can the church thrive now?  We could look at the way the church responded to authority, or how they cared for one another, or how they were evangelistically effective wherever they went, or how they were willing to face changes to their own traditions, etc.  But for now, let’s think about prayer.

When Peter was miraculously rescued from Herod’s prison in Acts 12, he immediately went to the gathering of believers that he knew would be praying for him.  Eventually he got let in.  Imagine their joy at this immediate answer to prayer standing in their midst!  Wouldn’t it be great to know what they had been praying?  We are not given that information in Acts 12.  But back in Acts 4, when Peter and John returned to the believers after another bruising encounter with the authorities, we are given their prayer.  In Acts 4:23-31 we can find seven truths that gripped them.  And if these truths will grip us, then we too will be stirred to pray in these difficult times:

1. God is in charge (v24)– “Sovereign Lord!”  That is a great way to start a prayer in troubled times.  They are praying to the One who is in charge of everything.  The term used here is only used three times in the New Testament, but on each occasion it is crying out to God in the context of monumental or trying circumstances.  God is in charge, the Master, the Boss.  The best person to speak to about what we are facing.

2. God created everything (v24b)– If God made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, that really does mean something for our prayer life.  We are not praying to one local and restricted deity among many.  We are praying to the God who made absolutely everything.  That means that absolutely anything we are facing is a challenge from within that creation.  A disease, a financial challenge, enemy armies, global political crises … they are all very much within this creation.  He made it all. Pray to Him.

3. God can predict history (v25-27)– In their case they knew that what was described by David a thousand years before in Psalm 2 had come to pass before their eyes.  David anticipated the future gathering of nations to oppose the Lord and the Messiah.  The ultimate fulfillment may still be in the future, of course, but they had watched Herod and Pontius Pilate and Gentile soldiers and Jewish people uniting in their opposition to Jesus.  But God is God, so it was no surprise.  Pray to Him about the challenges facing you – they are no surprise to God.

4. God planned this history we now live (v28)– Not only had God predicted it, but what they had watched was actually God’s plan.  God is working His great purposes out and that includes 2020.  Not only is all of this no surprise to God, but it is part of God’s greater plan that is being worked out.  We can be excited to participate in the history God is writing, and we should certainly pray to Him about it all!

5. God sees our specific challenges (v29)– Just minutes earlier they had been threatened by the authorities.  Now they are praying to a God who looks on those threats and cares about His people.  This was the revelation that Hagar received years before.  God actually sees me and the challenges before me.  We are not invisible pawns in a great chess game being played at a higher level.  God actually knows the specific challenges we face.  That truth should make us want to pray!

6. God is working today (v30)– For that group in Acts 4 it was important to recognize that God was at work all around them with healings and miracles.  None of that was taken away because Peter and John had been threatened.  It is important in a time of crisis to not lose sight of all that God is doing around us.  We may not see the miraculous signs described in this verse, but the miracle of regeneration is taking place across the world today.  As we pray for our local context, the church is being built and the gospel is continuing to spread in this world.

7. God answers prayer (v31)– Notice that when they had prayed the place was shaken.  Impressive!  But that wasn’t the answer to the prayer.  Actually, the final line should grab us – “they continued to speak the word with boldness.”  That was the very thing they had requested.  Actually it was the only thing they had requested.  They didn’t ask for circumstances to change (although they probably did when Peter was imprisoned in Acts 12); instead they prayed for boldness in the midst of their fear.

Let’s make sure we are gripped by these same seven truths so that as we face real challenges, we too can pray with confidence to the God who is in charge, who made everything, who predicts the future, whose plans are being worked out, who sees our specific situation, who is at work today and who answers our prayers.

Same Passage, Same People

Sometimes it becomes necessary to preach the same passage to the same people.  How do you handle that?

For instance, maybe you used a passage in a topical series, or on a special occasion, but then a later series is working through that Bible book and so you need to preach it again.  This happened to me this weekend.  The prayer of Acts 4:23-31 fit perfectly in our current Acts series.  But I preached it as a fitting New Testament conclusion to an Old Testament series on revival from 2 Chronicles less than two years ago.

So it may be the same passage, to the same people, but the series and the situation is different.  In fact, everything feels very different in 2020 than it did in 2018!  Here are four ways to handle this type of situation:

1. Same frame, different colouring. If your outline is a close representation of the passage, one approach is to use essentially the same outline, but adjust the illustrative details, the introduction, the conclusion, etc. (Yesterday my intro, conclusion, application and illustrations were all different to last time.)

2. Same frame, different emphasis. Another approach is to preach the same outline, but to shift the emphasis.  For example, the first time I preached the passage my emphasis was on the actual petition of the prayer – they asked for boldness.  This time my emphasis was on their view of God that led them to pray as they did.

3. Different outline.  It is possible to vary the outline of a message on a repeat passage and still be true to the text.  Effectively this is what I did yesterday.  In my first sermon I used three points to overview and present the content of the prayer relevantly to my hearers.  Yesterday I used a sequence of seven truths as they emerged from the prayer to preach the passage to a contemporary situation.  On this occasion the shift in emphasis naturally adjusted the outline (from their prayer for boldness, to their view of the God they were praying to), but I believe I preached the passage with an expository approach both times.

4. Same message, new context.  There may be occasions where it is appropriate to preach the same message with essentially the same emphasis, the same outline, and the same illustrative material to the same people.  However, this should not be done because the preacher didn’t do the work to prepare for this particular Sunday. Here are three quick thoughts about the same message being repeated to the same congregation:

A. A long time ago.  If it is years later, it can be interesting and helpful.  “On my first Sunday as pastor, twenty years ago today, I preached this message.  I was looking through my notes and decided to preach it again on this anniversary Sunday because the truth of this message is still so important for us all to hear…”  I can imagine that being appropriate and helpful. (Technically, this is very unlikely to be mostly the same people listening!)

B. A recent repetition. If it is a fairly recent repeat, then the preacher is essentially suggesting, implicitly, that the listeners need to hear it again, or maybe haven’t applied its message yet.  Again, you will need to be clear with the reasons for re-preaching your message.  Better they hear your motive than guessing it.

C. A secret repetition. Whatever the time lag, I would suggest not trying to sneak it past your listeners as a new message.  If it is essentially an old message, from old notes, then be honest about it.  You don’t want listeners feeling a weird sense of unidentifiable familiarity, nor do you want a keen listener to suspect you of pulpit foul play, nor do you want the discouragement of nobody having the slightest recollection of it!

Generally speaking, old notes do not equal a shortcut for this Sunday’s message.  A familiar text may require less exegetical work, but be sure that your listeners are getting fresh preaching because you have prepared your heart as well as your message, in anticipation of this Sunday!

7 Waste Points on Your Preaching Clock

Some preachers are incredibly aware of the clock as they preach.  For manuscript readers, the clock can be entirely predictable.  For others of us, time tends to move past quickly and sometimes erratically.  It is helpful to figure out where the time actually goes.

Here is one approach that could be helpful.

Step 1 – Before preaching try to anticipate how long the message will be, and how long will be spent on each section of the message (introduction, background, first point, second point, etc.)

Step 2 – After preaching try to evaluate how long the message was (if possible don’t check your watch!), and write down how long you felt you spent on each section of the message.

Step 3 – Using an audio or video recording, take notes on actual timings of each section and the whole message.

With these three steps under your belt, you are now in a position to evaluate the whole process.  Where did reality (step 3) differ from steps 1 and 2?  You may find that you are fairly careful with your timings, but lost track of time in one section.  Or you may find that time is lost repeatedly throughout the message.

Here are seven common trouble spots:

1. Introduction – Sometimes we can struggle to generate momentum at the start of a message.  Maybe more crafting and rehearsal is needed for a strong start.

2. Textual Background – Some of us get very excited when we have a chance to dive back into the biblical world and we end up giving more background than is needed for this message.  What is the most pertinent and helpful information for this message to communicate?

3. Illustrations – Sometimes illustrations just need too much time to explain, especially if our listeners look less familiar with the context of the illustration than we anticipated (beware of needing to tell whole Bible stories to make sense of a biblical illustration, or telling a whole movie plot, plus comments about spoilers, for the sake of a movie illustration).

4. Humour – Perhaps illustrations are ok, but when you say something a little bit humorous you can end up circling around that moment for too long?

5. Explanation – Some love nothing more than making sense of a biblical text for our listeners, but are we labouring the point longer than the majority need?  We would be surprised how long it takes to be truly heard, but how quickly we can annoy our listeners if we lack momentum.

6. Transitions – Perhaps your content is crisp, but your transitions involve too much review of earlier content?  It is easy for time to drift as we try not to rush ahead too quickly at transitions – a good motivation, but may need some work to do effectively.

7. Conclusion – Would your message be better if you simply landed the plane more directly?

How Does Preaching Change Lives? – Jonathan Thomas

Here is a great little three minute clip from Jonathan Thomas, pastor of Cornerstone Church, Abergavenny.  Click here for the clip.

To see the full interview, which is well worth it, please sign up to the Cor Deo Online mailing list and we will give you access when it is released later this week.  Click here to sign up.

Thank you to Jonathan for the interview for Cor Deo Online – it has proved to be a very helpful series of clips for this site too!

Learning to Preach in Changing Contexts – Jonathan Thomas

Here is another clip from my interview with Jonathan Thomas, pastor of Cornerstone Church, Abergavenny.  I appreciate Jonathan as a friend and as a preacher.

In this clip he talks about what he has learned from preaching during lockdown – a lesson that we all need to keep learning whatever the circumstances we find ourselves in.

To see the full interview, you just need to sign-up to the Cor Deo mailing list and we will make the full interview available to you!  Click here to sign-up – http://eepurl.com/drPqj1

What have you learned in recent months, or what challenges do you anticipate in the coming months?

7 Thoughts About Fear of Public Speaking

One of the quickest ways to find a false use of statistics is to look up the fear of public speaking.  Given a list of options for their greatest fear, more people selected public speaking than death.  The wrong way to say that?  “More people would choose to die rather than speak in public!”  (Please don’t “tabloid” interesting stats to make them sensational and nonsense – people weren’t given that ultimatum!)

By the way, this could be our first helpful thought: (1.) If so many people fear public speaking then you are already ahead simply by standing up front – after all, you doing it means they don’t have to.  At the same time, this initial credit fades as fast as they sense that you are a poor communicator!

Speaking to a crowd of people is something that is unnatural for everyone, and fearful for many.  Whether you have been asked to preach for the first time, or have been conquering this fear over many thousands of sermons, here are a few more thoughts that may be helpful:

2. It is natural to feel unnatural about doing something that isn’t natural.  Whether you feel tangible fear is besides the point.  Speaking to a crowd of people is unnatural.  They are looking at you.  They are potentially listening to you. They are expecting something of a certain standard from you.  This is not a conversation with a friend you are passing in the corridor.  We need to recognize the unnatural reality of public speaking, but then look for ways to communicate in a more natural way (even if we are quaking on the inside).

3. Don’t follow silly advice to overcome your fear.  Please don’t imagine anyone without their clothes on – that is unhelpful on so many levels.  Please don’t look just above peoples’ heads – they notice that far more than you think they will.  Please  don’t concentrate solely on your content and ignore your listeners – again, they will notice if you don’t care about them.

4. Do care about your subject and your listeners.  Being an expert on your content is not as important as caring about it.  When you care about it you will communicate with greater enthusiasm and emotional integrity.  Obviously it really does help to know what you are talking about though, always remaining humble because there is always more to know.  Care about your listeners too.  Once you become more comfortable with delivering your content, you will be able to grow in sensitivity to the people that are sat before you.  Their facial expressions and body language can become really helpful for you over time.

5. Have something to say.  Ultimately this one is asking for more than just coming up with a message for each particular occasion.  This is also the reason I don’t tend to teach public speaking skills without spending more time on Bible handling, spiritual growth and theological instruction.  Honestly I don’t want to increase the number of people who can say things well without having anything worth saying.

I recently saw an example of a very poor communicator who is putting videos online, but really doesn’t have much of value to say.  Sadly, and predictably, he has multiple friends who are ready to offer their gratitude in the comments and perpetuate the cycle.  In the old days exposure and opportunity would grow with demand, but now we can all “self-publish” via podcasts and YouTube.  If you are really growing in your spiritual maturity, then you will increasingly have something to say … which in turn will help to overcome the nerves.

6. Practice saying it.  Since public speaking is unnatural, work on becoming natural with what you have to say.  There is nothing wrong with running through your message, out loud, to improve it and to prepare yourself to preach it under the increased pressure of listeners.  There will always be something you can work on in your delivery too.  Maybe better use of pauses, or variation of pace, or appropriate size of gestures (and in the right direction from the perspective of the listeners).  It takes work to naturally point to your left when you are referring to the future, but once you do, it looks natural to the listener.

7. Fearlessness is not your goal.  It is understandable that those with a tangible fear of public speaking would long for the day when they can stand and deliver without the slightest qualm.  This may not be the best target.  Some nervousness, awareness of the significance of the situation, concern about your own weaknesses as a communicator, etc., are all potentially helpful.  Whether we listeners realize it or not, we want you to preach in reliance and dependence upon God … that will always bear greater fruit than you relying on yourself because you have become so good at it!