Subtlety – A Key in First-Person Preaching?

stones2Recently I enjoyed a first-person sermon from a student in class.  He preached as an observer of Jesus’ healing the paralytic in Mark 2.  What he did well made me think about effective first-person preaching.  Specifically, he managed to make the first person details subtle.

Let’s see this on a scale:

Zero “Experienced” Detail – This is where the preacher tells the story from an eyewitness perspective, but essentially it is just a grammatical change.  Instead of third person, now it is told in first person.  Imagine preparing a message normally, then switching to first person at the last minute.  Your mind can make the grammatical shift, but there is no added detail.  There is essentially nothing that makes this sermon have to be first person.  It may add some interest, but the listeners may end up wondering why you did it that way.

Excessive “Experienced” Detail – This is where the preacher tells the story from an eyewitness perspective, but ends up overdoing the added detail.  Suddenly we get quotes from all sorts of added characters, extra biblical elements abound, and the listeners are led merrily further and further away from the main point of the text into a fanciful demonstration of historical imagination.  This will be intriguing, but the listeners will hopefully end up wondering why you felt the Bible had nothing to say.

Subtle “Experienced” Detail – This is where the preacher tells the story from an eyewitness perspective, but carefully selects only limited experienced detail.  In the case of the student I heard, he made an early and late reference to his annoyance at the mud falling on his cloak as the roof was dismantled.  That was enough.  He didn’t need to pile up layer upon layer of complex imaginations.  This made the sermon engaging, and the listeners ended up gripped by the passage that was being preached.

I would suggest that we should aim for subtle rather than zero or excessive experienced detail in a first-person sermon.  This is the content equivalent to a similar dynamic in respect to “costume.”  If you are telling David’s story with Goliath, much better to have a stone in your hand than to be wearing authentic shepherding garb from 1000BC.  If you are telling the Christmas story as a shepherd, much better to just have a crook than to wear full curtains and false beard.

First-person or in character preaching takes a lot of extra effort.  It involves studying a passage fully, but then probing further into geographical and cultural background issues to make sure that you can speak of the biblical text with eyewitness accuracy.  Put that extra effort into your study for the message.  Don’t put that extra effort into fanciful and unrestrained imagination (or an all-out quest for total costume!)

When the Gospel is All Past Tense

 

whiteclock5I grew up in a church tradition that diligently preached the Gospel every Sunday evening.  I heard faithful folks pray in prayer meetings that folks might “come under the sound of the Gospel” and I watched the weekly routine of preaching the Gospel message.  But something was typically missing.

Essentially the problem was that the Gospel message was preached in past tense.  That is, not only was it the preaching of a past event (which it is), but it was also past tense for most of the listeners.  They had heard it before, responded before and were saved already.

So more than once I asked what the point of this service was since guests were not a common feature?  I was told that it was right to preach the Gospel, and that those of us present who had already trusted Christ for salvation could use it as an opportunity to be thankful, and to pray for the unsaved who may or may not be present.  Essentially this meant that I was hearing a Gospel that was not for me.

Here’s the problem: it was for me.  Instead of simply being thankful and praying for others, I needed to learn that I needed the Gospel to live the Christian life too.  It is not just the way in – responding in trust to the Christ who gave himself for me is the way on too.  For years I sat and heard messages that seemed to be targeted at someone else (and often that someone else was not there).  What a wasted opportunity.

The Gospel is not just past tense, it is what I need present tense.  Why?  Because I need Christ and the grace of God that is offered in Christ – I didn’t just need that once.  I need that now.

Fully Known, Fully Loved

fully-known(This post was first posted on www.cordeo.org.uk)

Human beings tend to default to a self-at-the-centre mindset in everything.  We even bring this predisposition to our understanding of Christianity and end up with variations on the same theme.  We are the seekers, we find Jesus, we commit to Jesus, we live for Jesus, etc.  If we are not careful we can paint our own self-at-the-centre approach in the colours of Christianity and assume all is well.

Perhaps we have heard counter arguments against our being the seekers.  After all, the great initiative surely rests with Christ in this regard since he came from heaven to earth, from the throne to the manger, from God’s side to ours.  As one of the great punchlines of Luke’s Gospel tells us, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:10) The story of Christmas and the first Easter are conclusive, “while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

Accepting that Jesus moved toward us before we could ever move in his direction, let’s ponder what we might call the encounter.  In John’s Gospel we get the stunning opening prologue that introduces us to the Word of God who is at the Father’s side, but who pitches his tent among us, comes to reveal the Father, full of glorious grace and truth, who comes to his own but they do not receive him, and yet is able to give the right to become the children of God to those who do.

After this prologue, the introduction really continues for the first four chapters or so as we are introduced to great themes that will continue to develop under the intense pressure of the tension between Jesus and the authorities.  In these opening chapters, we are introduced to themes of belief, of glory, of signs, of witness and more.  And in these opening chapters we get incident after incident of people encountering Jesus.

John the Baptist comes as our first witness to Jesus, declaring that he is not the Christ, but is just a voice preparing the way.  He declares that he is just baptizing with water.  But he points to the coming Christ who is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and the one who will baptize people with the Holy Spirit.  The focus is well and truly on Jesus when he finally walks into the action and starts to meet people.

After a couple of John’s disciples follow Jesus, one of them brings his brother to Jesus.  Jesus seems to already know him.  As soon as they meet, Jesus renames him.  Next verse we have another person being brought to Jesus by the witness of another, this time it is Phillip bringing Nathanael.  Nathanael is understandably skeptical about the idea that the Messiah could come from Nazareth, but as he approaches Jesus he also finds that Jesus already knows him.

What Jesus says to Nathanael seems to stir an extreme change in Nathanael.  Jesus makes one comment about the lack of deceit in Nathanael and he suddenly declares that Jesus is the Son of God and king of Israel.  That is a big shift from his skepticism about Nazareth.  Looking at the clues in the text at this point it feels like Nathanael may have been pondering the story of Jacob as he sat under the fig tree, maybe he was praying about it.  Jesus knew Nathanael.  He knew what he had been thinking or praying and proved it with his deceit comment.  He reinforced it with a reference to angels ascending and descending (but notice who is the connection between heaven and earth – it is Jesus!)

In the second chapter, Jesus starts to reveal his glorious kindness, sensitivity, and power at the wedding in Cana, before heading for the temple in Jerusalem.  He created a stir there and people started to trust in him at some level.  But interestingly we are told that Jesus did not entrust himself to them.  Why?  Because he knew what was in man.  So we are introduced to an example man – Nicodemus.

Jesus and the teacher of Israel have a conversation in chapter three that again begins with Jesus revealing that he does indeed know what is in man.  Nicodemus comes to Jesus with kind words and Jesus seems to rebuff him by stating that unless he is born from above, then Jesus can’t chit chat with him about the God subject.  Jesus knows that this great teacher is actually still spiritually dead on the inside.  Nicodemus is confronted not by a Rabbi come from God that he can approach, but by someone who sees to the core of who he is and what he lacks.

In chapter four we get another person encountering Jesus.  This time it is a troubled woman shunned by her own peers who meets Jesus at a well.  Not surprisingly it soon becomes clear that Jesus knows what is going on in her life too.  While she is still thinking this is just another man trying to make a connection with her, Jesus tells her about her five husbands and live-in lover.  She is undone.

Just as we cannot take credit for seeking Jesus, nor can we take credit for getting to know him first.  When we meet Jesus we are meeting one who knows all about us.  Maybe this is an aspect of evangelism that we have let slip over the years?  Perhaps we are proclaiming a gospel that focuses too much on the person, and too little on Jesus?  Perhaps as people encounter Christ they will be undone as they come to discover that he already knows them, and yet loves them still!

Maybe this is an aspect of our own relationship with Christ that has slipped from our awareness too?  How easily we can slip into presenting ourselves carefully to Christ as if he does not know all the gritty reality of our inner lives.  How easily we can pray wearing a mask.  How easily we forget that Jesus really knows us, and fully loves us.  We are totally vulnerable before him, whether we know it or not, he knows us.  We are fully known, and yet fully loved!

Illustration Variation

image1Be careful that you don’t get stuck in a rut with your illustration material.  Here are some favourites that preachers sometimes find themselves repeating:

1. Sports – it may be your favourite team, or the sport you played in college, or sport in general, but remember, there are people listening who don’t relate to sport in general, and even more to your sport in particular.  Variation needed.

2. Stats – some preachers love nothing more than a statistic.  Barna surveys get lots of attention.  Again, some people appreciate stats, but others can’t connect with them at all.  Variation needed.

3. Anecdotes/Quotes – you might be one of those preachers that loves nothing more than dipping into your stash of Churchill quotes, or General Lee anecdotes, or Bono lyrics, or whatever.  It can all seem a bit distant.  Variation needed.

4. Movies – some preachers love to tie their message to some scene from the big screen.  I won’t get into the complexity of citing movies here, just to say that some people won’t appreciate a constant flow of movie quotes and references.  Variation needed.

5. Family – your family is a constant source of illustrative material, but it may not be wise to use too much of that great store.  For one thing your family might appreciate not being the focus.  For another, there will be people listening who feel an inner pang at a steady stream of marriage stories or children stories.  Variation needed.

Maybe you have another rut, or maybe you have struggled listening to another rut.  None of these are bad sources of illustrations, just be sure to vary it for the sake of your listeners.

Sermon Planning Strategy

chess2As you plan your message you have some critical strategy decisions to make.  Let’s consider a couple of them:

  1. Where will you make the relevance of the message show?
  2. Where will you reveal the complete idea of the message?

The answer to the first one should be fairly simple.  My suggestion is to demonstrate relevance at every opportunity.  Don’t assume people will listen to 90% of a message before hearing some sense of relevance in the form of application.  You can demonstrate relevance in your introduction, in the wording of your main points, in your “illustrations” (illustrate application when you can), in your transitions, etc.

The answer to the second question is more complex.  Will you reveal the main idea early in the message?  This approach, known as a deductive sermon, has some definite advantages.  It tends to be strong on clarity, it can be strong in respect to simplicity, and it also allows for re-accessibility (i.e. when someone has to go out to the nursery for some reason, they can re-enter the message at the next transition point).

But there are negatives to consider too – the deductive sermon will tend to be predictable and reject-able.  People may fill in the rest of the message as soon as they hear the idea and they might not like what they anticipate is coming.

Another option is to plan an inductive sermon, which is where the question being answered is given at the start, but the idea is not completed until later in the message.  The impact of a well-worked inductive sermon can be immense and long-lasting.  Furthermore it tends to be less offensive at the start if people are not going to agree with the substance of the message.

However, it is difficult to maintain tension for the amount of time necessary.  If listeners have to check out (or if you lose them and they mentally check out), it can be much harder to re-enter the listening experience.  Worst of all, if you promise well, but under-deliver, then the whole experience can be very negative.

As you plan the strategy for your message you will need to take into account the text you are preaching, your strengths as a preacher, and who the listeners are going to be.  Pray about it and make a plan – a meandering message lacking in strategy will tend to be the worst of all worlds!

Flock Feeding

sheepeating2One of the primary responsibilities of pastoral ministry is the feeding of the flock.  Here are a few quick thoughts to keep in mind:

  1. Seek to give a consistent diet – it is not good to vary meals between a few scraps one time and gorging on overly rich fare another.  Seek to preach so that listeners have a consistency in their diet.
  2. Seek to give a cumulative diet – it is not possible to give everything that is needed in every meal, or in every message.  Seek to preach so that listeners experience a cumulative growth in their biblical awareness and their relational knowledge of God.
  3. Seek to give a healthy diet – no normal parent balances vegetables with poison.  Do not accept heretical content, even if it is wrapped up in the salad leaves of Gospel truth.  Don’t blend curving your listeners inward with drawing them out to Christ.  Preach Christ and him crucified.  Don’t preach Christ and effort intensified.
  4. Seek to give a timely diet – some fare fits in certain seasons and when it is missing something does not seem right.  In my culture we tend to expect Turkey and mince pies in December, and more salads in the summer.  Whether or not your church follows the church calendar, at least in some basic points, your listeners do.  Christmas and Easter at least deserve some appropriate messages, perhaps harvest or mother’s day is a must too?  Don’t disappoint, there’s nothing to be gained.

Journey in the Dark

darkness2God delights to transform lives.  There are many ways to depict this journey of transformation, but let’s focus on one example from the Old Testament.  In Psalms 130 and 131 we have a three-picture portrayal of a life transformed by God’s goodness.  In this progression of pictures we can find a helpful perspective as we care for the souls of others, and as we take stock of our own spiritual state too.

These Psalms come in the collection known as the Psalms of Ascent (120-134). These were probably a collection of songs used by the Israelites as they journeyed up to Jerusalem three times each year for the pilgrim feasts.  When we think of pilgrimage we tend to think of a difficult journey with a spiritual goal – typically the idea that there is some merit in taking the journey and therefore some benefit. However, the Jewish feasts were actually celebrations of a salvation to which they had contributed nothing.  It was not about earning anything, but about celebrating God’s goodness.

When we focus in on Psalms 130 and 131 we can notice a repeated phrase introducing the conclusion in each Psalm, “O Israel, hope in the LORD!”  Intriguingly this phrase is only found here in the whole book of Psalms.  This at least opens up the possibility that these two Psalms work together in some way.  Then recognition of the progression of imagery underlines the idea that thesecan be read together.  So let’s look at these three images and what they show us:

1. Our desperation for the forgiveness God gives.  In Psalm 130 the writer begins with the terrifying image of being swallowed up by the sea.  He describes the cry of desperation from someone as they sink below the waves of the sea into the darkness of the depths below.  This isn’t a literal situation (unless you are Jonah, of course), but it is a description of what it feels like to realize your guilt before God.  It is a cry for mercy that reaches upwards.

Most people don’t live constantly aware of the gravity of their situation.  Nonetheless, without God’s mercy, all are sinners living in anticipation of horrifying judgment.  Sometimes a glimpse will peak through and the fear will grip them before they distract themselves again.  Without God’s mercy things may not feel bad, but the reality is there nevertheless.  If God were to watch out for our sins in order to keep track of them, if He marked iniquities, then nobody could stand before Him.  But there is great news for the sinner – God forgives.

God forgives sinners, the first step in bringing great peace to the guilty.  He forgives fully, finally, freely and forever.  And when the wonder of God’s forgiveness grips us, we live wide-eyed in awe of God’s remarkable kindness toward the undeserving.  Fully forgiven, forever, really?

2. Our hope is in God himself.  The second half of Psalm 130, from verse 5 onwards paints a second picture.  No longer is it the overwhelming darkness and terror of judgment, but it is the darkness of night that is portrayed.  Having been gripped by God’s forgiveness, the next stage in the transformation of the believer is to discover that we are given so much more than an offer of forgiveness (amazing as that would be).  God gives us His Word (v5), He is a God who makes promises and keeps them.  God gives us Himself (v6).  And with God comes not only forgiveness (v4), but also steadfast love (v7) – the committed self-giving love of God that is ever and always loyal to the undeserving.  He loves us for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, etc.  And with God comes plentiful redemption (v7).  This is forgiveness-plus!

As we grow in relationship with God we discover that He forgives, and He gives so much more – ultimately He gives us Himself.  So we still live in a dark world, but we are like watchmen who have learned over the years to watch for the light of dawn.  Morning always comes.  We live in darkness, but we live with hope.  And our hope is God Himself.

3. Our growth to find peace in the presence of God now.  As the believer matures in the transformation that God’s love brings, we come to the final picture in Psalm 131.  The mature believer is not caught up in their own significance, or in their own ability to make sense of everything.  Almost strangely the image pictures the believer as a child.  How can this be the picture of greatest maturity?

Well this is a weaned child (v2).  That is, a child that no longer screams and grabs for the sustenance they need.  Rather, it is a child that is at peace in the arms of their mother.  We’ve all seen a child who leaves the pile of toys to go and peak in the other room to make sure mother is still there.  We’ve seen a child who wants a story read not so much for the thrill of the tale, but for the security of the embrace.  A weaned child can be in the dark, but all is well, because the mother is there holding them.

A mature believer grows to not only hope for deliverance in the future, but also to enjoy the peace that is found in God’s presence now.  Not self-focused and grasping for things, but content to know that they are safe in God’s embrace.

From the terrifying darkness of despair, to the hope-filled darkness of anticipation, to the contented peace in the midst of darkness – this is the progress of God’s transformation work in our hearts.  God gives great peace to the guilty, because God gives Himself to us!

Uncorrupted Crowns

wreath2Many Christians feel slightly awkward about the idea of receiving a crown or reward from God.  For a quick check, take a look at James 1:12, 2 Timothy 4:8, 1 Peter 5:4, and Revelation 2:10.  Crowns for loving God, for loving the appearing of Christ, for serving as an elder, for remaining faithful to the point of death . . . crowns, for people.  Awkward.  Surely crowns should only go to God?

One of the great challenges we all face is extricating ourselves from the brine in which we are pickled in this world.  Actually, we can’t do it.  We are so immersed in the glory grabbing ethos in which we live that we can’t see any other way.  This world has become our home and we need someone from outside to come in and rescue us.  God has done that in Christ.  Without that rescue we have no hope of understanding how heavenly crowns work.

So we are here, in a fallen world where power is corrupted, where power is abusive, and where power is always linked to clambering over and suppressing others.  If someone is at the top of the pyramid, then they must have stood on others to get there.  In this world it is hard to see how power can ever not go hand in glove with corruption and selfishness.  That’s this world.  What about in another and better world?

We should take the angst we feel about crowns and rewards and then let that energy drive us into the Bible to explore what God is like.  How does God wear His crowns?  Why would He ever give any away?

The Bible’s presentation of God gives to us the fact of three persons within the one God.  The Father is ever the initiator.  Surely He has the right to demand His position, the worship of everyone else and an exclusive right to eternal preeminence.  Indeed He has every right, but what does He do?  He elevates, honours and glorifies the Son.  He gives everything to the Son.  He puts all things under His feet.  He gives Him the name above every name.

Alright, so the Son is the ultimate pinnacle of the heavenly pyramid.  Fine, all crowns to Him then.  But what does the Son do?  Ultimately the Son will subject everything, and be subject, to the Father.  In the most humbly glorious way imaginable we find the heavenly interchange to be “to me, to you” as the Son receives and reciprocates the totally giving and selfless nature of the Father.

Fine, but what about the Spirit?  Is there not tension within the Trinity because the Spirit is never crowned or elevated like the Son is?  There would be if the Spirit was from us.  But the Spirit is also forever proceeding from both the Father and the Son, so His nature is like theirs, so He too is humbly preferring the other – the Holy Spirit is the humble Spirit because that is a key feature of the holiness that is uniquely God’s.  No clamour.  No grabbing.  No “me first.”  Glorious divine humility.

So, what about us then?  Surely we can’t come into that world and do anything but corrupt it, can we?  We certainly would if we entered unchanged from this world.  If God gave me a crown right now I know I would make a mess by immediately feeling the powerful impulse of my rebellious flesh to honour myself.  God is wise enough not to give us crowns too soon.  Once the transformation of our life, in full heavenly sanctification is complete, then we can receive crowns and rewards.

In that day we won’t consider elevating ourselves.  Neither will we bring with us a false humility that rejects the crown.  Instead we will handle crowns and rewards in a way that befits the heavenly world of God’s love that we have entered.

Crowns, for people.  Awkward.  Surely crowns should only go to God?  Ultimately they will.  Surely the heavenly way is to take off the crown and give it away as we see in Revelation 4:10.  And in casting our crowns at His feet we will have joined in the love-driven glory-giving life of the Trinity.

Preacher What Are You Doing?

JobDesc2What are we doing when we preach?  What are we aiming for?  I suspect most preachers would say we preach to see lives changed for the glory of God, or something similar.  I agree.  But what are we doing?

Some preachers see themselves essentially as life trainers.  They know Christianity brings transformation, they long for their listeners to be changed and they know they have a key role to play.  Consequently it is always tempting to take on the responsibility for life change through direct and clear instruction, moral pressure and vocal encouragement, along with the necessary warnings about the dangers of living in other ways.  Is this your model of preaching?  Are you conformity coaching?  If this paragraph describes your ministry then it is time to prayerfully take stock and investigate more intently how Christ changes lives.

Some preachers see themselves essentially as teachers.  They believe in a God who has spoken and whose Word is the treasure they share from the pulpit.  They know that a life is transformed as the truths of Scripture take root and weed out the rubbish of life lived according to the many words of the world, the flesh and the devil.  Are we information investing?  We should be, but it should be more than that.

Some preachers know their role is primarily introductory.  That is, they know that what brings change is not merely Christianity, nor even Christian teaching, but rather Christ Himself.  It is as we look on His glory that we are being transformed.  Thus the preacher’s role is more humble than conformity coaching since what is needed is transformation at a far deeper level – something we know we cannot achieve by our instruction, pressure and exhortation.  The preacher’s role goes beyond information investing to something much more personal.  The preacher’s role is primarily that of match-making . . . let me point you to Jesus and how wonderful He is.

Whatever label you want to use, make sure you understand the difference between conformity coaching, information investing and match-making.  The difference can make all the difference in the world.

5 Ways to be a Good Bible City Tour Guide

TourGuide2When you move to a new city it can be very overwhelming.  I remember moving to South London back in the days before my phone knew how to get me to my destination.  I had a huge book of street maps on the passenger seat and I gradually learned to navigate between key landmarks.  I would have loved a tour guide sitting there instead – as long as it was a good tour guide.

I would not have appreciated hearing meticulous details about the front of several houses in an obscure cul-de-sac.  “Turn right into Downing Close.  Pull over behind the white care.  Notice how houses 3, 5, and 7 all have a black gate, but different colour front doors?  Isn’t it intriguing to note how number 5 in particular does a good job keeping the side hedge trimmed and the roses look pretty good too?”

That kind of detail, presented with a dull lack of enthusiasm, would have quickly pushed me back to trusting in my book of maps.

What makes a good tour guide?  And what has this got to do with preaching?

We live in a time when very few people grow up with a good level of biblical awareness. Consequently our churches have a growing population of people who find themselves lost when they open the pages of the Bible.  They need help, and the preacher might be their main “tour guide” to help them get around.

Here are some thoughts to ponder:

1. Preacher Bible Guides should believe that their listeners need to journey in the Bible for themselves during the week – a sermon on a Sunday is not enough Bible for anyone.  We must realize how much people need to be in the Word when we aren’t there to preach it to them.

2. A good tour guide knows the big picture and the key landmarks.  It is not enough to know your way around a few key streets, you need to know how the whole fits together and what the significant landmarks are.  In Bible terms this means you need to know the big story, and understand the key landmarks: can you tell the Bible story by key characters (Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, Paul), or by key covenants (Abrahamic, Palestinian, Davidic, New), or by key events (creation, exodus, exile, cross, second coming), etc?

3. A good tour guide knows fascinating details that help to make sense of, and add colour to, the big picture.  It is important to be able to slow down and help someone see the significance of what is happening in a particular passage of Scripture, but not as a cul-de-sac in isolation.  The best tour guides can point to a detail, tell the story, and make the big picture make more sense.

4. A good tour guide knows when to go to a big landmark and when to go to a little detail.  The same is true for the preacher.  Learn how and when to give a sense of the whole, as well as how and when to make much of a detail.  You need to be able to do both, and you need to learn when to do each one.

5. A good tour guide genuinely loves the city.  Nothing worse than good knowledge offered dispassionately as if it actually doesn’t matter.  A good tour guide will help you fall more and more in love with the city and its story and its people and its charms.  How much more is this true for a Bible City Tour Guide?

Believe that your listeners should be discovering more for themselves all week long in Bible city.  Know the big picture and key landmarks, as well as the fascinating details that bring the big story to life, and know when to offer big picture or little detail.  Love the Bible city and the God revealed there.  Put that all together and you are the kind of Bible City Tour Guide that people in our churches are crying out for…