Redirecting the Challenge

When we prepare to preach a passage we will find ourselves wrestling with the text, and often we will find the text wrestling with us.  This is good and it should be this way.  The Spirit of God should be doing a work in us through the text that we are studying.

But there is a complexity here.  As a preacher, you are probably, and hopefully, a relatively mature believer.  This means that you will more naturally find yourself challenged by the aspects of the passage that are applicational or doxological.  This will not be the case for some, or even for many, of your listeners.

When you preach in your church there will be some present who cannot see past the challenge of believing the text.  There may be some aspects of it that seem far-fetched or fanciful.  You may have overcome those obstacles years ago and no longer see them when you look at a text, but be sure to put yourself in the shoes of a contemporary unchurched listener.

Until a text does not seem fanciful or far-fetched, the applicational and doxological implications will only have minimal impact in the listener’s heart and life.  This is why we need to spot all the challenges and help our listeners be able to hear the ones that will really help them!

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Perspective on Sermon Response

Howard Hendricks wrote The Seven Laws of the Teacher, in which he refers to an English bishop who said, “You know, wherever the apostle Paul went, they had a riot or a revival. Wherever I go, they serve tea.” (p165.)

I am sure all of us have experienced the soaring anticipation of a sermon, as well as the crashing experience of being crushed by non-response on the day.  Someone famous (probably Spurgeon, but I can’t remember), said that we should not over-estimate what can be achieved in a single sermon, but also never under-estimate what will happen through several years of faithful biblical preaching.

Somehow we have to hold two tensions together.  On the one hand, we know that God can and does work in a single sermon to bring about radical life change.  On the other hand, we know that often the change God is working into the lives of a congregation are imperceptible and we will regularly be tempted to despair.

When you see genuine response and transformation, document it.  Keep that document somewhere safe, but easily accessible.  There will be lots of weeks where you will value the reminder.

The Power of Testimony – Part 2

Hearing the story of God at work in a life can be so life changing for a church, but nerves, timekeeping, and a drift into instruction can undermine a good testimony and bring about a cold sweat for those planning a church service.  Let me explain how we do testimonies in our church and why we do it this way.  It may not be appropriate in your setting, but it may be helpful in some way.

The Testimony Panel – Roughly every six months we dedicate a Sunday to having a “testimony panel.”  The sermon is reduced to a very brief message of a few minutes, leaving 30-40 minutes for the testimonies.  We also keep the rest of the service as free as possible to guard the time.  For the panel, we will typically have two people giving their testimonies, along with an interviewer whose job is to ask questions and weave the two stories together.

What are the advantages of this approach?

1. It is an event.  By so drastically reducing sermon time it communicates to the church that testimonies are important, and these two people are important to us.  We want to hear their stories. Instead of a rushed testimony squeezed into the early part of the service, this is an event where we get to hear more fully from them both.  It says to the church that we value people and we expect God to be at work in people’s lives.  It underlines several values of the church indirectly, but powerfully.

2. A non-nervous person is in charge.  The interviewer is always someone who is comfortable in front of the church and will, therefore, be able to shield the two participants from their own nerves.  It is the interviewer’s problem to watch the clock, to ask the right questions, to bring the panel to an end, etc.  And the interviewer will always have a microphone (no leaving a nervous talker with a microphone alone in front of the church!)

3. It requires preparation without being awkward.  If someone is given ten minutes to give their own testimony it can be difficult to prep them.  They may not realise how a testimony can misfire and therefore resent being asked what they are going to say.  Also, they might be inclined to write a script so it can be checked ahead of time.  This just feels awkward, as does the church leader who is wondering how clear the conversion will sound, how appropriate the pre-conversion stories will be for the listeners, how much tendency there will be to drift into teaching, etc.  A testimony panel requires the interviewer to meet with both people and hear both stories – no script necessary, just an informed interviewer who knows how to direct the conversation on the day.

We have tried interviewing three people and it really needed more time.  Thirty to forty minutes works for us to have two people interviewed.  We did have three elders in one panel, but they interviewed each other, which was different again but worked well.  What have you found helpful when it comes to testimonies in your church?  Feel free to comment below.

One more resource on Testimonies, click here for 10 Top Testimony Tips 

The Power of Testimony

Hearing how God has worked in a life can be very powerful.  Having someone “give their testimony” can also backfire.  Before I explain how we do testimonies in our church, here are a few of the problems that can create the tension:

1. Nerves.  Public speaking is a frightening prospect for most people.  Talking about self so overtly should be a challenge for believers.  Therefore nerves are normal.  While everyone in the audience will understand that the person feels nervous, this doesn’t change the fact that nerves can lead to losing track of the story, or saying something that is not intended, or to shifting into teaching rather than giving testimony, or to losing all awareness of time.  To stand and give a crafted testimony in a set time without reading a script takes the skill of a preacher.

2. Timekeeping.  Some will rattle through their story and be done in a fraction of the time available.  Others will barely be out of their childhood before the time is done and threaten to drift into the work week unless someone steps in.  Keeping to time is a real challenge (even preachers can struggle with this!)

3. Instructing.  So many good testimonies become awkward because the person feels some compulsion to instruct the listeners.  Where the story of God at work is so powerful, the pointed finger and some generalized imperatives are awkwardly blunt.  Once someone drifts into unplanned teaching they can make theological errors, assume something they don’t understand yet is unexplainable, make promises that their experience is how God always works, or whatever.  It can be a minefield.

And yet, despite all that can go wrong, testimonies can be so powerful.  Why?

1. They can stir worship.  Isn’t God amazing?  What a wonderful story of His faithfulness and persistent love!

2. They can generate hope.  I am not the only one who struggles like that, and they have seen God bring change, maybe there is hope for me?

3. They can foster understanding.  I had no idea they had gone through all that.  I am so glad they are now part of the family and God is still at work.

4. They can unite the church family.  I used to struggle with that person, but now I know their story I can actually celebrate God’s goodness instead of feeling so bothered by their quirks.

5. They can convict unbelievers.  Where you were, that is where I am … I need to respond to God’s convicting work in my life.

And so much more.  Testimonies can have such impact, either positively, or negatively!  Next time I will explain how we incorporate testimonies in our church – it might be helpful.

Healthy Revival – 7 Thoughts

You cannot go far in church world before you hear people longing for revival. It gets mentioned in prayer meetings. It gets mentioned in outreach planning. Preachers long to experience it through each new sermon. Reports on social media stir our longings. I want to share some thoughts on the subject.

This is not a technical introduction to the subject. When I refer to revival I am referring to those unusual seasons of heightened responsiveness to the working of God’s Spirit among and through God’s people so that the church is renewed, reinvigorated and revived, resulting in an unusually high harvest of souls.

Seven thoughts for us to prayerfully consider:

1. The Bible does not invite us to live a life of frustration. It is totally understandable that people pray for revival. The state of our church and the state of our world mean that we long for a season of real spiritual breakthrough in our ministry. However, it is important to recognize that the Bible does not anticipate that God’s people will always live in a state of perpetual frustration. As George Verwer, founder of OM International has said, “Personal revival is our daily privilege in Christ Jesus!” By all means, let’s look to God like never before, but let’s not fall into the trap of living life as if we are missing out on something until a bona fide revival breaks out.

2. The Bible does include descriptions of specific seasons of unusual responsiveness. To put it another way, it is not wrong to long. The drift in society, the apathy in the church, and even the coldness of our own hearts should cause us to grieve and to yearn for something more. Paul anticipated the drift when he told Timothy that in the last days people would be lovers of self, of money, of pleasure, rather than lovers of good, or of God. If this does not bother us then we are not reflecting the passionate heart of God. There will always be a longing for revival in any healthy believer.

3. It is healthy to ask if we can be trusted with a season of evangelistic fruitfulness? While “revival” may be primarily about renewing the life of the church, it is often associated with heightened fruitfulness in evangelism. This is wonderful and something we should all long for, but it is healthy to ask whether God would entrust an unusually ripe harvest to our church? Are we committed to the spread of the Gospel, or to defending a Christian sub-culture? Are we offering Christ, or just some type of Christianity? Is our gospel offensively grace-focused, or is it just another version of self-help, law-based religiosity?

4. Part of being prepared is anticipating the aftermath. Jonathan Edwards wrote a book describing the unusual work of God in his town that continued to spark revival across the world even after his own town had slumped into a deeply troubling malaise. How often do we hear of amazing revivals followed by extended periods of spiritual depression? It must be so hard to invest energy into discipleship and training when the evangelistic fruit seems to keep falling off the trees whenever we hint at doing more outreach. Nevertheless, we must learn from history and anticipate the struggles that can follow. How can we make sure people get established in a healthy relationship with Christ, rather than building everything on a foundation that cannot last – namely, faith in the experience of revival rather than in Christ and His Word?

5. Ask God to search your motives. Of course, your motives when praying for revival are pure and perfect, so are mine. But since we are all flesh-naturals at self-justification let us instead ask God to search our motives. Augustine identified the first, second and third precepts of Christianity to be humility. Pride is an insidious destroyer. Indeed, God does not want to fan into flame any hint of pride in you, so if pride were to feature in your prayer for revival, then it is fair to assume that not only would the devil oppose you, so would God (see 1Peter.5:5-7). So does it need to be in your region and not another? Does it need to be your denomination and not another? Does it have to be your church and not the other one down the road?

6. If revival includes an intensification of normal things, what are we waiting for? That is to say, if you dream of a season of revival when you would want to just read the Bible and not be endlessly entertained, if you dream of praying with a persevering intensity, and caring for others more passionately, and loving God more intently, and giving yourself to church ministry more wholeheartedly, then the question could be asked … why wait for revival? God is not excited by your hypothetical and conditional devotion (send revival, Lord, and watch me soar!) – life to the full is on offer now. Maybe your moments of longing are invitations to lean in to what God wants to do in your life.

7. Be a steward of the remarkable present. Maybe this is saying number 6 in a different way, but it is worth saying. Experiencing revival or renewal is a privilege, but also the Christian life is a privilege! Even if you are in a season of sowing, or growing, or preparing, or living by faith with nothing to see, whatever your situation, the normal Christian life is an incredible privilege! We can live today in fellowship with God our Father, in Christ, by the Spirit! We have God’s Word, we have immediate access to the throne room of heaven, we have the indwelling presence of the Spirit. Our salvation is secure whether we are in a time of revival or not, because the greatest revival of all is the new life that God has breathed into us.

May we live as the most grateful people of all, irrespective of whether we experience a heaven-sent revival during our years on earth or not.

Preaching Bigger Books in Shorter Series

Let’s say you want to preach from a bigger book, but you like the idea of shorter series – is that possible?  Here are a few suggestions:

1. Preach a shorter section – instead of feeling obligated to preach a whole book every time, why not preach a contained unit from a book for a series.  You don’t have to give equal coverage to the whole book in this particular series, you can always come back for another section another time.

2. Have a Gospel/book of the year – we had a season in our church (over a year) where we were in Mark’s Gospel, but we didn’t want to be preaching it for months on end.  We planned so that we had the Easter section at the right time of the year, but in the months before that we had covered some sections in midweek groups instead of on Sundays.  This meant that our shorter series on Sundays were more focused and could be “branded” separately to allow for renewed energy in each mini-series.  We also had breaks from Mark to spend time in other types of series and other types of biblical literature.

3. Preach a landmark tour – this is a way to preach a book without giving every verse equal attention.  You can preach the landmarks of a Bible book over the course of a few Sundays.  For example, you might preach Romans by starting in 1:16-17 to launch, and then touching down in other keys texts like 3:21-25; 5:1-8; 8:1; 12:1-2, etc.  Obviously, you will need to give some overview of the flow for this approach to work, but it allows you to zero in on the golden passages. If done well then the church will be motivated to read the whole book.  You can also supplement with midweek discussions that cover more ground, although that is only one approach to take.

4. Preach different sized chunks – this is similar to number 3, but is more intentional about covering the whole book.  You could launch a Romans series with 1:1-17, but then cover greater ground with a couple of the messages in a series covering several chapters.  For instance, you might have a message covering 1:18-3:20, then maybe one covering 3:21-5:21, etc.  You could preach an 8-week series with three or four of the messages covering three chapters and then the other four focusing in a bit more – i.e. chapter 8 on its own, or chapter 12.

Have you found other ways to run shorter series on longer books?

The Big Advantage of Shorter Series

I have friends that preach through a Bible book over the course of many months. It seems to work for their churches. I tend to think that there are advantages to shorter series.  Here’s why:

1. Shorter series mean more launch points – if you only start a new series every six months then you only get that launch point twice each year.  If you start a new series every 4-8 weeks then you might have 6-8 launch points per year.  Launching a series is an opportunity to invite people in and to invite people back in who might have drifted from regular attendance.

2. Shorter series naturally allow more schedule flexibility – that is, you can juggle the series to fit the calendar.  So you can do a year-starter leadership series, and then something else before a pre-Easter series.  Shorter series’ also means potentially more “buffer weeks” where there is some wiggle room for when you need to make changes to the schedule.

3. Shorter series avoid monotony – you have to be an amazing preacher to keep people engaged in a six month series in Jeremiah.  You are not Martyn Lloyd-Jones and nor am I.  Both preacher and listener benefit from not getting to the point where a series starts to drag.

4. Shorter series avoid genre overload – some people love Proverbs, others thrive on Psalms, some respond well to historical narratives, others eat up the epistles.  Multiple shorter series allow for a schedule that resonates with more people.  Even the most ardent prophecy fan will appreciate some weeks in another part of the Bible.

Next time I will share some thoughts on how to do bigger books in shorter series.

Not Every Exhortation is Necessary

Haddon Robinson uses an illustration to make this point. He imagines a friend borrowing his car and then finding they have a flat tire. They call for advice. So over the phone he tells them where the spare is, where the tools are, how to release the spare wheel from its cage, and so on. At the end of the explanation he suggests it is not necessary to finish with the exhortation, “Now I exhort you: change the tire!”

That friend is already motivated to put the instruction into practice, they just need the instruction to be clear. In the same way there are some things that are preached with great life impact simply through clarity of explanation. The listeners are already stirred and motivated to implement the teaching in their lives as soon as they understand it. If that is the case, the added exhortation may do more harm than good.

This is something for us to ponder not only in respect to the practical applications for believers, but also in respect to the offer of the Gospel. We should be persuasive and there will be times when an exhortation is exactly what is needed. But there will be others times when bringing clarity to the message will be all the motivation that is needed to bring about life change.

Let’s learn to sense when our exhortation is helpful and when it might only antagonize or patronize our listeners. Let’s also make sure that our explanation is so clear that people are really understanding what is being said. Let’s pray for sensitivity to people and to God so that we know when to exhort, when to invite, and when to let clarity do its deep work in souls.

Hungry People Pay Attention to Food

I read an article Jeffrey Arthurs wrote about getting and keeping listeners’ attention. He built his article around the point that hungry people pay attention to food. It is so true. Recently I sat in a home where I was being hosted for a meal, waiting for the final guest to arrive so that we could sit down and eat. I was hungry. Consequently every waft from the kitchen, every comment about final touches to the meal, every hint about what was to come had my full attention.

The same is true of preaching. Listeners can ignore Bible passages for years, but when a preacher helps them to see that this passage is relevant to their deepest needs, they will give it their full attention. But this is not easy to do. Too easily we settle for an introduction that is interesting, but doesn’t surface a need. It is not enough to introduce the context for the text back then, we need to show the context for its relevance today.

How can we do that? One key skill is to incorporate awareness of what Haddon Robinson calls the Depravity Factor into our passage study. What is the impact of Genesis 3 on this passage? How does fallenness in this passage mirror brokenness in our contemporary world? It is not always sin that presents itself, sometimes it is hurt, it is need, it is fear, it is inadequacy … but always the fallenness of this world shows in the passage you are studying.

A study of the passage and of our listeners should yield complementary facets of fallenness. Help people to taste their need for security, for hope, for forgiveness, for life, for whatever this passage will address, and then watch them care about the passage like never before.

“Welcome to today’s sermon, turn with me to Bible Book chapter 4, verse 1…” Stop. Start that sermon again. Not just with a joke or an anecdote, but with a real taste for the goodness to come. Help the listeners sense their inner craving for that goodness and your sermon will be off to a much better start!

7 Things Preachers Never Say – pt.7

Alright, we have come to the end of the list.  We have looked at the burden of expectation, the effect of negative responses, family realities, battles with temptation, financial struggles, weariness and now:

7. Preachers can go beyond weary to places of personal coldness, doubt, and depression.

I was at a conference recently where I spoke with several people who had all suffered various forms of burnout in the past months.  For some, the manifestation was physical: symptoms like chest pains and sleeplessness.  For some, the manifestation was emotional with a sudden inability to function as they had before.  For some, the struggle became much more spiritual, with even the smallest aspect of Christian living becoming a big ordeal.

While the manifestations of burnout, breakdown or depression were different, the stories were similar in regards to the lead-up.  A very heavy emotional load.  Perhaps complex church discipline issues.  Perhaps heavy relational meltdown.  Perhaps unrelenting criticism.  Perhaps lies being spread about them. Then came the interrupted sleep, the feeling of being overwhelmed and the eventual inability to function.

Irrespective of whether a preacher suffers from clinical depression, burnout, or whatever we might call a specific case, the reality we have to face is that we are not immune to such struggles.  We can go through seasons of spiritual dryness, even coldness.  We can struggle with a sudden onslaught of doubt.  And it is more than possible for a preacher to suffer from some kind of depression at some point or other, perhaps for years on end.

We simply cannot pretend that all is well when it isn’t.  We need to be honest with someone we trust and we need to get the help that we would advise anyone else to be getting.  Going it alone is not an option.