Preach Don’t Overreach

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

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

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

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

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

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Preaching Needs to Engage

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

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

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

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

Personalize Your Preaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Kinds of Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clarification Not Choir-Celebration

There are lots of things we tend to say when we preach or speak in church-world that could do with clarifying.  I don’t just mean complex terms or obscure references.  In fact, in many cases, we would do well to eliminate many of these rather than simply clarifying them.  What is our real motivation for using technical language anyway?  No, in this post I am focusing on the common Christian words that season our sermons, words that seem to say something to insiders, but probably say very little to those looking in.

Why do I say we should add some clarification?  Because Christians respond to words and it is easy to feel encouraged by a false response.  You could call it “preaching to the choir.”  When you make a reference to salvation, sin, forgiveness, lordship, relationship, prayer or heaven, you will likely get an affirming nod or even a vocal response from some in the church.  If it were appropriate to then question those responders and ask what you specifically meant by what you said, a high ratio of them would struggle to give any meaningful explanation of what you meant.

As well as clarifying what you mean as you preach, also clarify what you mean by applicational statements.  People may nod at vague references to “being more faithful” or “witnessing more boldly,”  but they might still struggle to meaningfully and tangibly explain what you are referring to by vague Christian applications.  Much better to be specific and give them concrete and tangible ways they might implement the truth learned in your message.

This clarification is for both believers and non-believers who are present.  Believers can sit very comfortably nodding at everything but actually being touched by very little.  Non-believers can sit perplexed at why the believers present seem so encouraged by things too vague or superficial to meaningfully engage with real life.

Those who are regularly involved in apologetic and evangelistic conversation with non-believers know that unclear communication is not helpful.  The danger may be greater for those of us who preach in church more often than we debate on the street-corner.

Instead of simply provoking a celebratory nod from “the choir” in your church, why not clarify what you mean in your explanation, and also clarify what you mean by way of application?  Do this for the sake of believers and non-believers present – everyone would be better off understanding what you are actually saying.

(Of course, this supposes that you know what you are actually saying too … how easy it is for us to use words without a clear understanding of what we mean, or without any specificity in application!  Maybe we are all guilty of using words without making sure we really know what we mean.  Perhaps the place to start is by asking God to help us see if we are doing what I have described in this post.)

Appetise Don’t Just Expect

It is so easy to communicate expectation.  For instance, “Christians should desire heaven.”  That is a statement of expectation and potentially a statement of pressure.  Preaching in churches all over the world is full of such statements.  Churches easily become sanctified gyms where the preachers function as the personal trainers conveying expectation and pressure to the struggling masses.

Now I am not saying that we should fail to communicate expectation when the biblical text does so.  However, it probably offers less context-less pressure than we tend to think.  Always take a look and see what the context is offering by way of motivation.  If it is about conviction pure and simple, then by all means, communicate that.  But so often there is a rich bed of gospel motivation underlying statements we can so easily pluck and apply.

Instead of defaulting to mere expectation (with its twin sibling pressure), why not look for ways to stir the appetites of your listeners.  It takes far more skill to describe fine food so that your listeners salivate than it does to tell them they should eat a balanced diet.

Every **ssage is Unique

A lot of preachers seem to scan their preaching passage for gospel words and then essentially preach the same message every week.  Their messages may be doctrinally sound and evangelistically clear, but they and their listeners are impoverished by this approach.

Every passage is unique.  Instead of scanning the passage for gospel words or harvesting imperatives for applicational teaching, my advice would be as follows:

Study the passage and seek to really understand it.  Don’t jump off that pursuit just because sermon material shows up in the text.  Keep studying and really seek to understand the passage.  Then prepare and preach a sermon that has a fingerprint as unique as the passage it is based on – so that every message is unique!

This approach will bless the preacher because you will enjoy the richness of God’s Word far more and find that God stirs your heart with layer upon layer of biblical truth.  This approach will bless the listener because they will not grow tired of hearing the same sermon dressed up in different clothes every week.  Instead they will start to appreciate the uniqueness of each passage, the beautiful diversity of Scripture, and the multi-faceted and highly relevant wonder of God’s character.

Feedback: Best Friend or Worst Enemy?

Receiving feedback on your ministry is so important.  Anyone unwilling to receive feedback is self-identifying as proud and out of their depth.  However, not all feedback is created equal.  Let us learn to discern the difference between feedback that is low value, and feedback that is high value.

Before we get to three ingredients of high value feedback, let’s first consider four types of low value feedback.  When I call it low value, I don’t mean to suggest it has no value.  Everything anyone says to us has value because they do, but we need to be discerning.  In fact, here are four types of low value feedback followed by one guiding principle to help us be good stewards of that feedback.

Here are four types of feedback that allow us to value the giver of the feedback, but perhaps we should be careful not to over-treasure the comments themselves:

1. The polite comment – when you preach to a group of people and then stand at the door to shake hands as they leave (a common custom in many churches), then people feel somewhat obligated to express something to you as they pass.  For some a smile and friendly greeting will feel natural, while for others they will feel obligated to offer a polite expression of gratitude.  This is kind and should be appreciated for the loving gesture it is, but it is rarely feedback that should mark the future of your ministry!

2. The extreme comment – while the majority are adept at the polite non-comment, some people have a tendency to drift to one extreme or another.  One may tell you that your message was the best message ever preached in your language, while another may be happy to label you a heretic worthy of stoning to death.  There may be some truth in either extreme, but probably without the extreme intensity of the comment.  Again, appreciate the person, but be careful with the comment.

3. The no comment – after preaching, teaching, leading, or serving in whatever way, we tend to feel somewhat drained.  Sometimes the feedback that screams loudest is the silence in the aftermath.  Some will chat about anything but what you have done and said, while it may feel that others are apparently avoiding interaction.  You can go home feeling very discouraged.  This may not be an accurate reading of the situation.  I recently preached a sermon and received essentially a friendly silence on the day.  Two days later several positive comments came during home group.  I would have been wrong to assume that the silence on the day was an indictment from all who heard, but it is so easy to feel that way.

4. The misunderstandable comment – when people have to say something, they sometimes veil their comments.  I have watched preachers get excited by feedback that was actually not positive.  For example, “that was so deep” often means that you went over their heads.  Or “thanks for your hard work preparing” may be avoiding a reference to the fruit of that preparation.  Maybe a “you certainly put a new spin on things!” might be pointing out borderline heresy.  And “what a feast of Scripture” may well mean you cross-referenced your audience into submission.  Don’t look for a hidden meaning in everything that you hear, but equally don’t build a ministry on a collection of ambiguous feedback.

So what is the guiding principle I mentioned above?  How should we handle these kinds of feedback that we may suspect are not that valuable in respect to shaping our future ministry?  When you receive feedback make sure that instead of letting praise go to your head or criticism to your heart, first take it all to the throne.  You can express gratitude and care for anyone that expresses anything to you about your ministry.  But then take it to God.  He is able to protect you from pride, and to guard you from despair.  He is able to filter what you have heard and, by His Spirit, hand back that which should make a difference to your ministry.  There is always something to learn, but there is also always a need for God’s help in handling all that comes (or doesn’t come) your way.

This may sound like a criticism of all comments people might make.  I do not mean it to be that.  I thank God for the kindness of people to offer gratitude, and to offer constructive feedback (and I can even thank God for his kindness when some have been brutal in their assessments, even if I didn’t feel it at the time!)

Here are three ingredients that tend to flag up more valuable feedback.  When one or more of these ingredients is present, then you can be confident that what you have heard is going to be useful (still take it to the throne first, of course!)

1. Time.  When someone comes to you with a comment or with gratitude and some time has passed, this is a flag that you are hearing something that should register.  Perhaps it is a few days, or a week or two.  Maybe someone tells you about something you said or did over a decade ago.  When time is an ingredient, then the feedback has a special value and should not be ignored or brushed off.

2. Thought.  When someone puts thought into offering gratitude, feedback or even constructive criticism, then recognize that you are likely to have something to treasure here.  Maybe they took the time to write a note, or maybe they have obviously thought ahead about what they want to say to you. This is not off-the-cuff comment, but thought through and careful communication.  Don’t miss it, it is probably worth your time to ponder it before God.

3. Insight.  When someone has not just thought about what they want to say, but show an insight into what you said or did, then you have valuable feedback.  Sometimes people are quick to appreciate an illustration that made them laugh – great, be thankful for positive response, but when someone sees what you were saying and takes it forward an extra step, or applies it in an appropriate direction you hadn’t considered, then you have something to be valued.

When we stand in front of people to preach, to teach, or to lead, then comments will come our way.  Let’s pray for grace to always value the person more than the comment, discernment in evaluating how much that comment should mark our ministry, humility to guard against sabotage by praise, and resilience to withstand attacks not designed to help us, but rather to do damage.  Words can do so much, but let’s ask God to help us distinguish what is truly helpful in the midst of so much talk.

5 Aspects of Feeding the Flock

One of the main responsibilities of the shepherds of a local church is to feed the flock.  What does this involve?

1. A biblical diet, not a provision of pastoral personality – Some pulpits have degenerated into a weekly opportunity for the flock to enjoy the pastor’s eloquence or humour.  He may be a godly man, an inspiring man, a kind man, or whatever, but his job is to point the flock to the Word of God, not his own brand of pious oratory.

2. A consistent diet, not a sporadic scattering of random teaching – Some churches receive an incredibly inconsistent diet – some from the same preacher who shifts and changes with the wind, others from multiple speakers who visit to preach but can never lead.  It is good for a preacher to include variety and to keep learning.  It is good for guest speakers to be used judiciously by a church leadership.  But if the net effect of either approach is an inconsistent diet, then the flock will not be properly fed (and the flock will also not trust the church to be a safe place for bringing guests – an important side effect of inconsistency!)

3. A cumulative diet, not a hodge-podge of unordered repetition – Some churches get to digest a diet that has no cumulative structure.  That is, each Sunday the pastor or varied speakers offer whatever they feel led to bring on that Sunday.  Again, there is place for space in the schedule – buffer weeks to allow for teaching that was unplanned months before but is on target in the moment.  However, when churches lean too much into this approach what they end up getting is not a balanced diet, but an overload of certain favourite subjects and passages.  Repetition can become the name of the game.

4. A healthy diet, not a toxic overload of fast food entertainment – Listeners love to have itching ears scratched with entertainment, experience and surface level applicational teaching.  The shepherds of a church need to recognize that the sheep may not know what is best for their diet.  Too much sugar will poison a person, and too little healthy teaching will do profound damage to a church.

5. A Christ-focused diet, not a pseudo-Christian selection of self-help nibbles – Building on the previous point, people love to nibble on self-help top-tips wrapped in Bible stories and garnished with proof texts.  However, if the preacher is pointing listeners to themselves, to their efforts, to their application, to their discipline, then that preacher is not primarily pointing people to Christ.  The preaching may feel very churchy, but is it actually Christian?

Feeding the flock is an important responsibility.  Let’s look at our own preaching, as well as the preaching plan for our churches.  Let’s prayerfully consider whether we are offering health to our listeners.  Like a good parent you won’t be able to serve up a feast at every meal, but you will look to offer health at every opportunity.

Prayerful & Proactive

The preaching of God’s Word is massively significant in the life of the local church.  You cannot have a healthy church without effective biblical preaching.  But a healthy church requires more than just a good diet from the pulpit.  A healthy local church will be characterized by believers “one anothering one another” as some like to say – that mutual ministry that occurs not sat in rows hearing the sermon, but face to face and shoulder to shoulder throughout the week.

Here are two well known verses from Hebrews 10 –

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

Perhaps you’ve heard these verses quoted as a nudge to attend services at church?  While services are the typical format in which believers meet together, this is not really saying that attendance at services is key.  It is what happens in the church fellowship that is being addressed here.  It is possible to attend every service in a church, but never actually engage with the life of that church fellowship.  It is sad that some will have attended services for their whole life, but never actually participated in what these verses are describing.

In the original context, the members of the church community were feeling the pressure of their circumstances and were starting to retreat and pull back from the life of the body of Christ.  The preacher/writer to the Hebrews is urging them not to pull back from Christ, or the body of Christ!

Notice that there are two “one another’s” here.  The first involves stirring up one another to love and good works.  The word translated “stir up” is typically a negative word.  It can refer to a sharp disagreement between people, or a strong response to something that is sour.  And yet here it is used positively.  Like a cattle prod, or a sheep dog, or a whip on a horse – a negative thing used to achieve a good goal.  So believers are to agitate one another toward spiritual health.

I think it is really important to notice that we are not simply commanded to do this, but rather to consider how to do it.  That extra layer of preparation is important.  There are some in the church who feel it is their God-given role to freely administer rebuke and discomfort in the body of Christ.  These people often have too high a view of their own ability to discern and tend to do more damage than good.  No, rather, we are to prayerfully ponder how we can carefully provoke spiritual health in those closest to us in the church.

Then there is the other side of the coin – the more obviously positive side, if you like.  We are to “encourage one another” as we see Christ’s return getting closer.  This seems easier – less planning needed, just go for it.  Be an encourager.  Say thank you.  Write a note.  Affirm people.  Express appreciation.  Cheer people on in their church service, or their family life, or their spiritual growth.

It seems to me that some people get these two “one anothers” reversed in a certain sense.  Some find it too easy to offer criticism widely, but withhold encouragement and only offer it to those closest to them.  We should reverse that.  Offer encouragement to everyone as freely as you can, the church needs lots of that.  And then prayerfully ponder those in your closer circle of friends – those where the relationship exists for you to carefully provoke them to growth and greater spiritual health.

This kind of “one anothering” does not happen as we sit side by side listening to the sermon.  But in a healthy church, it will happen as a result of God’s Word stirring our hearts with love for God and those around us.