Unique Passage

In the normal flow of church life, the passage you preach on Sunday will not be preached again for quite a while.  If it is in a series on a specific Bible book, how many years until you plan to preach from that book again?  If it is a seasonal text, like an advent passage, there is a chance you will preach it next year, but probably it will be a couple of years at least.

So, the passage you preach on Sunday will not be preached again for quite a while.  Here is something to ponder:

Will your preaching of that text really bring out the uniqueness of the passage for your listeners?  Will the message be text specific?  Will it make clear that passage’s main idea?  Will it draw out that passage’s implications?

It is so easy to start in a passage and end up preaching a generic message.  The problem with that is that you could preach a generic message from any passage, or from none.  Even if the truth you share is stunningly rich and wonderful, what about that passage?

If we have a high view of Scripture then surely we also need to have a high level of confidence that if you have selected a passage to preach, then the listeners should get that passage.  Just as every fingerprint, snowflake, dog’s nose is unique, so is every passage in the Bible.  Every passage is saying something about something in a unique way.  Will your listeners get that passage’s unique something this Sunday?

If not, if you just slide into a generic message, then it will be years before that passage has a chance to be preached into their hearts and lives again.  Don’t miss the opportunity!

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Pondering Pre-Sermon Position

Over the years I have been a visiting speaker many times in churches.   While there is no such thing as a typical church, there are some things that are common to many churches.  Take, for instance, the pre-sermon logistics for the visiting speaker:

Before the Service – Upon arrival the visiting speaker is typically greeted by one of the church leaders and then invited back into a small room to pray with that leader or the leadership team.  Thus most of the time before the service is spent in prayer.  This is a good thing, of course, as we need to declare our dependence on the one apart from whom we can do nothing.  It is good to sometimes be able to hear the heart of leaders for their church.  It is good to settle the heart and prepare to preach.

During the Service – Then just before the service begins, the preacher is often ushered to the front row, or even to sit on the platform facing the congregation.  The latter option will be more typical in more formal churches (sometimes with a more formal arrival to that position too).  Up front in one way or another just seems more practical.  It avoids a long walk down the aisle after the speaker introduction, for one thing.

A lot can be said, both practically and spiritually, for these two standard practices.  Maybe they should remain standard practice, but I just want to ponder them for a moment.

Before the Service – When the speaker arrives at a church, the minutes before the service begins are the prime opportunity to get to know the congregation that will be hearing the sermon.  While some people praying will reveal helpful insight into the congregation, many don’t.  But spend fifteen or twenty minutes chatting with the guy on the sound desk as you collect your microphone, and a handful of other people you can strike up a conversation with, and you tend to learn a lot about a church (especially if that is your goal).  Should we not pray?  Of course we should, and hopefully, we all have.  A lot.  But does an extended time of prayer right before a service outweigh the value of that interaction time?  Typically, I’m not convinced.

During the Service – Then what about the pre-sermon placement of the preacher?  Each to their own preference, I would say.  My preference?  I like to be at the back of a congregation.  It allows me to feel the temperature in the room.  Are people distracted?  Are they engaged?  Again, more opportunity to become aware of the listeners.  Are there some obviously awkward first-timers?  And what about the awkward walk up the aisle after the speaker introduction?  Not a problem.  It is relatively inconspicuous to move to the front row during the last song before the sermon.

I know this is my own preference, but I have found sitting on the front row you can feel watched, unable to properly look at your notes or the Bible, and unable to look around and observe the people.  And sitting on the platform facing everyone?  This feels like hard work because so many eyes could be inquisitive about every sip of water, look at the Bible, posture, facial expression, etc.  Maybe you can see everyone’s faces, but you lose all freedom to observe them, check notes, adjust radio microphone, or whatever.  It is the shortest walk to preaching position, but often you can feel the least prepared when you arrive!

This post is purely subjective ponderings.  I certainly wouldn’t want a church to change its practice just because I am preaching – I am very used to all the options and happy to serve in whatever pattern is preferred.  What do you find helpful when you are not in your own familiar church environment?

Planning for Christmas Now

The summer is over and the busy autumn schedule is in full swing.  Before you know it, it will be Christmas.  I know, this is where most people moan about consumerism and advertising, but for church leaders now is the time to be thinking beyond the shopping to the church plans.

Christmas is a season that rolls around very quickly.  What will you do this year?  For some it is a festival of special events that require lots of planning.  For others it is a quieter season with the special carol service and maybe even a lighter load.  Whichever way you plan your church Christmas schedule, you do need to pray for sensitivity to a set of potential people present:

1. Seasonal visitors – some people will go to church because it is Christmas.  They typically are not expecting a life changing experience, but we can be praying for that. We also need to make sure the welcome, the experience of being at church, the message and so on are all conducive to motivating them to even consider coming again, finding out more, etc.

2. Family and friends – some people will go to your church because it is Christmas and they have a connection to someone in your church.  Maybe a family member visiting, or perhaps a friend from work.  They need everything the seasonal visitor needs, but it is good to also recognise what their experience means to the person who brings them – it can cost a lot to bring someone to church.

3. Church regulars – some people will go to your church because it is their church.  Don’t forget them.  It is easy to rely on them for extra manpower in a busy Christmas season, but pray that they will also be touched afresh by the wonder of the incarnation and God’s great rescue mission.

So as you think about the different categories of people, think also about these issues (all of which need planning before the tinsel is visible in the shops) …

Experience – The experience of visiting church begins with how people hear about the church (advertising, invitations, etc.), and continues in the car park, and into the building, etc.  Perhaps get a small group to think it through from the perspective of a first timer!

Message – Will you do an advent series?  How will you make each message work on its own?  How will you combine satisfaction of traditional expectations with fresh material for regulars and guests?  (Can I also suggest my book, Pleased to Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation (Christian Focus, 2014) … it contains a lot of potential message material!)

Follow-Up – With all the energy going into the Christmas events, it probably feels like a stretch to run a “just looking” course in January, but it may be ideal timing!

 

7 Ways to Stay Gospel Sharp – continued

Continuing yesterday’s list (I won’t repeat the explanation, please click here if you didn’t see it)…

2. Purposefully pray beyond your own sphere – be sure that you invest time in prayer that is not focused solely on your life, your ministry, your family, your church, your country. Pray for the lost. Name some.  Pray for the cross-focused mission of the church both locally and globally.  Pray for some people you will never meet in this life.

3. Sacrificially give to gospel-specific mission – recognize that many good causes can and do raise money from outside (and inside) the church, but who else will give to support evangelistic missions work, Bible translation, church planting, introducing the unreached to Jesus? Giving tends to focus our hearts. If you can, lead your church to give to something outside themselves that only spiritually alive Christians would give to.

4. Read something stimulating – as a preacher we can easily spend a lot of time reading commentaries, and perhaps we make sure we are reading in order to stay current and understand our culture. But what about a missionary biography like God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew, or Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot? You may even have a classic or two on your shelf (there are some great newer ones too, of course!)

5. Identify and persist with a gospel target – I have worked for years with Operation Mobilization, a missionary organization that traces it roots back to one elderly lady who prayed for years for the high school across the street. She could not reach those thousands of students with the good news about Jesus, but she knew who could, so she prayed to Him. She knew what they needed was more than a better school, so she prayed.  She sent a gospel of John to a notorious student, and he got saved and co-launched a global missions movement that has impacted millions of lives.

6. Exit your bubble – Prayerfully ask God to help you see the bubble that exists or is forming around your life and ministry. Can you go into the city-centre and see some genuine gospel mission in action? Can you stay in touch with a friend who is overseas telling people about Jesus?  Can you visit?  The mission of God required and requires the crossing of cultural and national borders … even if your ministry is local, look for ways to cross borders and boundaries so that your bubble does not become a cocoon.

7. Preach bigger than you can achieve – I have deliberately left preaching until the end of the list. If we are to stay gospel sharp it begins in our personal lives, not in our pulpit presentations. But when you preach, don’t settle for achievable goals (such as informing, educating, encouraging, leading, etc.)  Be sure that in some way you present Christ and him crucified such that listeners might be saved, and believers might be stirred.  True preaching must go beyond what our abilities can achieve and rely on the Spirit of God to bring new spiritual life and new spiritual fruit!

What else would you add?  What have you found helpful to avoid gospel drift in your life and ministry?

7 Ways to Stay Gospel Sharp

The history of the church as well as observation of the contemporary church show that God’s people always suffer from gospel drift.  That is, the church slowly but surely tends to move away from the gospel just as our bodies slowly but surely move away from health.

God so loved the world that he sent his Son on a rescue mission to lead people from death to spiritual life.  His mission required a flint-like focus on destination Calvary.  Yes, there are many other aspects and facets to that mission, but if you lose the cross you lose the mission.  As the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus sent his followers … into the same spiritually dead world, with a message to speak that souls might be rescued, disciples made and multiplication of the mission maintained.  But the church drifts.

We drift into lesser projects and, if we are not careful, we start to call them the mission.  After all, it always feels better to be successful at something we can do, rather than keeping focused on something we struggle to do.  The lesser projects are often not unimportant.  The lesser projects should be supportive of the great mission. But when they become identified with the mission, that is a sure sign that drift is occurring.

How often do churches become so consumed with a building project that they lose sight of the greater mission?  What about making the church program the best it can be? What about trying to live good lives as a silent witness (and therefore, eventually, no witness at all)?  What about improve-human-life projects so that the poor can be less poor?  What about political activism that seeks to right wrongs somewhere?  Every one of these things is important, and hopefully Jesus would be central to our motivation for each one, but if we are not careful, we will lose Christ’s flint-focus on the mission.

As preachers, we lead and influence.  So here are 7 quick ideas to stay gospel sharp in your ministry:

1. Restore your gospel focus in your Bible reading – if you are in the Old Testament, watch the gospel trajectories that lead to Christ; if you are in the Gospels, watch Christ’s mission unfold; if you are in Acts, watch the message spreading; if you are in the epistles, watch the application of the gospel to the challenges facing the church.

Tomorrow I will complete the list…

Is Our Goal Transformation?

It depends on the point of contrast.  That is, if transformation is contrasted with education, then yes, it is certainly closer to our aim as preachers.  We don’t want to merely inform, we want to see transformation.

If the contrast point is conformation, then I would argue that transformation is a better goal than simply pressuring people to conform to certain behaviours.

But what if the contrast point is relationship?  I have suggested on here before that preaching is about three relationships: the first being the preacher’s relationship with God, the second being the preacher’s relationship with the listeners, and the third is the goal: the listeners’ relationship with God.  In this context I would argue that our goal should be relationship and not just transformation.

Here is the potential problem with transformation language.  If we don’t include the key concept of relationship, then we can drift towards settling for behavioural change or lifestyle change.  The reality is that being in relationship with Jesus is not just the end goal of ministry, but it is also the means by which genuine transformation occurs – or perhaps we could say the intermediate goal as well as the ultimate goal.

True transformation in gospel ministry is a matter of relationship.  But in our fallen world, we naturally believe that an individual can be transformed simply by a change in how they think or what they choose.  It is this fallenness that makes me suggest we be careful with the language of transformation.  Too many in our churches settle for life tweaks without the heart-changing transformation that comes in the context of genuine relationship with the Father through Christ and by the Spirit.

Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 4

In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus offers a second parable about prayer – we call it the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  Again, I am not going to write about how to preach the parable, but want to provoke some thoughts for us as preachers in light of this parable.

1. The Gospel is shocking.  The story of the two men going up to pray is not immediately understood because of cultural shifts and lack of biblical understanding. The Pharisee was not seen as “one of the bad guys that killed Jesus” and the Tax Collector was not someone looked at with a “soft spot … since another one gave us half our Christmas readings, and another one climbed trees to see Jesus.”  The Tax Collector was a hated traitor, and the Pharisee was the model citizen.  This makes the final verse shocking.  This man, and not the other!  We can so easily drift into a “nice” gospel where God’s benevolence is offered to decent people.  Not so!  We are all bankrupt before God and His offer of life is 100% undeserved.  Let’s never lose the shock of the gospel in our own hearts as we preach it to others.

2. Pride is frightening.  The Pharisee’s confidence was born out of his own performance.  We easily fall into that too.  A good week, a good sermon, a couple of encouragments and we can march boldly into prayer.  We should be bold, but never based on our personal right to be confident.  Our boast is all in Christ.  Yet, if we listen to our prayers, do we find traces of the Pharisee’s pride?  I am not like others…I do this and that…I go above and beyond what is required.  Pride is frightening and it is often not hard to find it in people that preach.  If anyone is a candidate to be a Pharisee today, it is probably you and me – educated, ethical, respected, maybe even impressive.

3. Brokenness is required.  The Tax Collector’s brokenness is key to the parable.  His posture, his clarity, his self-evaluation are all significant.  He knew he was absolutely sinful and called himself “the sinner.”  As such, he knew he brought nothing in his hands to God, but instead had to rely totally on the atoning mercy of God himself.  The same is true for us.  When we feel that in all its fullness, then maybe we are in a better place to preach a gospel that will not drift into evangelical pride and Pharisaism.  Furthermore, maybe our churches will have a bit more reality in them too – the church is the place where sinners should be open and real about their brokenness.  Is that true in the church culture your preaching has shaped?

Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 2c

This week I’ve been thinking about implications of the parable of the sower for us preachers.  So far we have had this post, and then this post, but now we’ll finish the list with this post:

6. The same message can do two things.  Obviously we all want to see a good crop showing evidence of seed penetrating good soil and bringing abundant life.  But we should not be surprised when the same message brings two different responses.  Remember that the same presentation of loving grace both won the hearts of some, and hardened the heart of one in John 13.  It is like popcorn in a sizzling pot of oil: the same heat will bring one of two results – if the heat moves the heart of the kernel then the whole thing will turn inside out into beautiful tasty popcorn.  If the same heat only has effect on the outside, then that kernel will turn into a tooth-breaking ball harder than iron, harder even than lego.  Same heat, different result.  The preaching of God’s grace in Jesus will bear these same results with people.  (Click here for an earlier article on the subject of popcorn!)

7. Don’t be discouraged by lost seed.  We should be saddened whenever anyone does not respond to the word of God, but don’t let it halt your ministry.  We can dream of, and long for, and pray for a gloriously responsive crowd before each message we preach.  But when you drive home after church and it was not quite what you had prayed for … don’t be discouraged.  The kingdom spreads by the weakness of the word and that weakness will often be felt by the preacher in the weakness of their preaching.

8. Be thrilled by divine transformation.  We should also not grow familiar with the gradual miracle of life transformation.  Don’t lose sight of where someone was and what they are becoming now.  Hopefully you have some people in your church that you can continue to be amazed at as you see the transforming power of the penetrated word in their lives.  Jesus’ audience would have understood the three “failed” seed categories, but they would have been amazed at the idea of a hundredfold crop.  Let’s be the same in word ministry – amazed in the right direction!

Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 2b

I am thinking about the parable of the sower in Luke 8:4-15.  Yesterday we thought about how the kingdom of God spreads by the word, bringing genuine transformation, but not to all. Here are some more thoughts for us preachers to ponder:

4. The goal in seed sowing is heart penetration. The problem with the first three soils is that the seed lacks penetration.  In human terms it looks like a non-transformed heart.  The seed by the path people are self-lovers who are not penetrated at all by the seed. The seed in soil on rock folks are self-lovers who wither spiritually as soon as testing or trial comes because they are still trying to protect self.  The seed among thorns group are attracted to Jesus, but feel the tug of cares, riches and pleasures … and these ultimately win.  None of these people have their hearts transformed.  They love self and show it in different ways.  But the seed in good soil penetrates deep.  The life is not on the surface, but comes from deep within.  That is where Christian transformation takes place.

Seed is not impressive as a projectile.  An acorn will barely dent soil as it falls on it, but if it penetrates, then from inside it can change everything!  In Italy, apparently, there is a famous grave where an acorn fell in with the famous deceased occupant.  Centuries later the great marble slab lies broken in two by the oak tree that eventually grew up.  The word of God is not very impressive as a tool for pressuring conformity from the outside, but when it gets inside a heart then watch patiently as that life is transformed!

5. Listeners should take care then how they hear.  Jesus repeatedly emphasized the need to hear carefully (in Luke 8 see verses 8, 9-10, 18, 21).  In a sense the applicational burden of this parable is on our listeners rather than on us as preachers, but actually, there are several ways we can help our congregations to heed Jesus’ instruction here:

  • Be a careful listener yourself – it will show in your life and in your preaching.
  • Make it clear how important it is to hear the word of God – make sure they know you are just the messenger, but the source of the message is worthy of heartfelt attention.
  • Don’t be dull – be the most engaging and effective communicator you can be.  God’s word is worthy of our best efforts, and what a frightening thought that we could get in the way of our listeners hearing!  (Don’t be boring. Don’t be monotonous.  Don’t be laborious.  Don’t be uninteresting.  How else can I say it?)

Tomorrow I will finish the list of thoughts, but feel free to comment at any time.

 

Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 2

Yesterday I preached on the parable of the sower in Luke 8 (also in Matthew 13 and Mark 4).  It is probably the third most famous parable (after Prodigal Son and Good Samaritan), it is one of only a couple where Jesus explains his meaning, and it is the parable of parables because Jesus also explains why he preached in parables so much!

As before, I am not going to write about how to preach the parable, but some lessons from the parable that may be applicable to us as preachers.

The parable is very simple. A sower scatters seed.  Same sower, same seed, different soils.  By the path seed was trodden on and snatched away.  Thin soil on rock seed shot up and withered without root.  Among thorns seed started to grow, but got choked.  Good soil seed grew and was very fruitful.  From the perspective of a farmer wanting a crop, only the last category was successful.

Here are a few things for us to ponder:

1. God’s kingdom spreads by the word, not the sword. I think it was Tim Keller who made the helpful observation that Jesus could have chosen other Old Testament analogies for the word of God – a hammer, a fire, etc.  But he chose a seed.  Every other kingdom that has spread has done so at the edge of the sword, killing and threatening.  Christ’s kingdom advances through the weakness of a spoken message.  Be encouraged in your preaching, you are part of that advance.

It may seem weak when you look at your preaching, and even at the results of it, but all over the world there are millions of people worshiping Jesus and being transformed day by day who began their journey by hearing a presentation of the gospel from a friend or from a preacher (and most of those presentations were probably not that impressive!)

2. God’s kingdom spreads by profound transformation, not questionable conversion.  The parable is so simple, but we may wrestle with the second and third soils.  Are the signs of life something to celebrate?  Are these people saved?  Surely we should count every one we can?  Perhaps we would do better to be astonished by the profound crop of the good soil instead of trying to count every sprout as part of the harvest.

Jesus’ hearers would have been stunned at talk of a hundredfold crop.  We should be stunned when a life is truly transformed.  Jesus turned the world upside down with eleven transformed disciples, plus the women in that inner circle.  He was not anxious to count the crowds who only wanted miracles or Judas Iscariot who looked like an insider but ultimately wanted money over Jesus.

3. God’s kingdom spreads, but not to all.  We should be bothered that not everyone receives the gospel message with heartfelt response.  We should be bothered for their sake.  We should be bothered for logic’s sake too – if anyone sees how good the good news is, how wonderful Jesus is, how full life to the full is, then it makes no sense to not give everything in response.  But many will  not.

CS Lewis said there are two types of people in the world – those who say thy will be done to God, and those to whom God ultimately says, thy will be done.  This parable, in part, can encourage you to press on when you are seeing more non-response than you feel you can cope with!

Tomorrow I’ll add some more thoughts.