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.

Advertisements

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.

Expectation and Preaching

Somebody has said that we tend to over-estimate what can be achieved by our next sermon, but we under-estimate what can be achieved through the next five years of faithful preaching.

Here are some thoughts on expectation and preaching:

1. If our confidence is in anything other than Jesus, then our expectations are too high.  It doesn’t matter how well you have prepared, how well you know the passage, how on target the message feels for people in the congregation, etc.  We all have to fight the perennial temptation to trust in something other than Christ for the fruit in our ministry.

2. High expectation tends to lead to disappointment, but maybe it is better to have high expectations anyway. There are nuances to these things, but generally speaking it seems to take a toll to preach with high expectations.  Gradually preachers settle into a safer zone of not expecting too much so that they don’t feel too drained by regular disappointment.  But if having high expectation comes from, or leads to, more prayer for the people and for the occasion, then maybe it is worth the negative cost involved.  Maybe climbing back up again each week and choosing to trust Christ and preach again is worth it.

3. Other factors will influence your internal levels of expectation.  You may be drained from interrupted nights, or pastoral crises, or criticsm, or spiritual warfare, etc.  And there will be seasons where you struggle to expect much at all.  At these times it may be the best you can offer to simply keep going by faith.  (Of course, there may also be a need to seek help, be vulnerable, take a sabbatical, adjust your diet, start exercising or whatever might be needed – simply plodding on is not always the faithful next step – ask God and others for wisdom.)

4. Praise God that it is his ministry and not yours.  There will be times when you are fired up to launch a revival and instead your sermon falls as flat as a paper plane in torrential rain.  God knows what he is doing when he humbles us.  There will also be times when we feel like we have nothing to give and are shocked to find out that God uses us mightily in those meager moments.  God is God and we are not, let’s be sure to be good with that!

What do you experience when it comes to levels of expectation relating to your preaching ministry?

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.

3 Approaches to Preaching

Here is a simplified summary of how preachers engage with the biblical text.  It is not an exhaustive summary, but I hope it will offer some helpful insight.

1. Springboard Preaching

This is where the preacher touches down in a passage only as long as necessary to bounce out of the text and into their own thoughts. A word or phrase may be taken on the journey through the message, but it has long since been ripped out of its passage context.  The preaching may be superficial and heretical, or it may be theologically brilliant, but whatever it is, it is not handling the Scriptures in a helpful or meaningful way.

2. Highlight Bounce Preaching

This is where the preacher is a little more aware of the context of the passage and moves through the passage noting highlights along the way. Typically these highlights will reflect the best bits of Bible study done in preparation, and if the message remains focused on the preaching text then it will tend to be a stronger message (there are exceptions to this, of course).  This approach is better than Springboard Preaching, but it can still feel like a fairly amateur approach to preaching.  That is not to say that there are not proponents of preaching styles that inadvertently advocate this approach, albeit with a greater emphasis on the unity of the message than the more rudimentary “random highlights” approach of an untrained beginner.

3. The Deeper Passage to Life Approach

This is where the preacher has studied the passage in its context and is able to present the message of the passage to some depth.  The depth and focus of the passage engagement also allows for effective targeting and penetration in contemporary life application.  This is not a series of mini-messages on various passage details, nor an oversimplification of the passage that offers a set of parallel preaching points.  Instead, it seeks to allow each detail to work together to convey the single thrust of the passage in a message that really represents the passage in question (rather than forcing the passage to support a standard sermon shape as often happens in the previous approaches).  Obviously the depth of the message and the accuracy in application will vary depending on the skill and maturity of the preacher, the time available for preparation, and the capacity of the listeners.

This third approach should honour the text in seeking to communicate what is actually there.  It should stir the preacher who is actually studying a passage rather than simply shaping a message with different material.  It should impact the listeners because the unique message of this passage will be planted in their hearts.

Let’s evaluate our approach to preaching and seek to stay in the text more than the first approach, and then seek to probe the text more than the second approach.  And if we get into the realm of the third approach, then there will always be so much more to learn and improve!

7 Good Reasons to Not Preach

Do you preach every week without fail?  If you do, then this post is for you.  Do you know someone who preaches week after week?  You might want to lovingly share this post with them.

When do you get a break from preaching?  I know that you may love preaching and want to preach every week.  But I think it would be wise to schedule a break here and there.  Why?  Here are seven quick reasons to not preach every now and then:

1. Your spiritual, physical and relational health will all benefit from taking a week or two off.  An unrelenting preaching schedule will take its toll on you, even if you don’t recognize it.

2. Your temperature for preaching will tend to increase when you take a break, so you come back stronger.  John Ortberg put it this way, “If you want to keep the oven hot, don’t open the door too much.”
3. Others will benefit from preaching too.  Maybe you have other preachers who need experience to develop, or a fellow pastor who would be blessed by the encouragement of your congregation and the feeling of being trusted by you.

4. The preaching of others will benefit people in your church.  Which leads me on to the next two…

5. Your church needs to know that you are not irreplaceable in the body of Christ. We may preach the priesthood of all believers, but some pastors undermine that by demonstrating the impregnability of “our” pulpits.

6. You need to know that you are not irreplaceable in the body of Christ.  It might seem strange, but your church will not collapse because you take a week or two off of preaching.  In fact, it will be good for your soul to be reminded that your identity is not anchored in your current ministry role.  You can use it as practice for a later stage in life when you are not being asked to preach at all.

7. You can experience other aspects of church life.  You may be tempted to schedule yourself to preach somewhere else – this is fine, but it is not a break from preaching.  You could serve in the kids ministry, or on the welcome team, or serving refreshments, or whatever.  At the same time, you could also sit in the congregation and benefit from simply participating in the worship and listening to God’s Word.  Either way, it will do you good.

Life-Changing and Applicational Preaching – Same Thing?

Lots of people want to hear applicational preaching.  Is that the same as asking for life-changing preaching?  Surely it must be.  Aren’t these two ways of saying the same thing?  I think there is a difference.

Applicational Preaching typically refers to preaching that spells out practical implications and applications for the listener.  To caricature, people don’t just want to learn about ancient history, they want to know what to do with that information this week in their lives.  Since something that is irrelevant is not as helpful or as motivating as something that is relevant, people therefore ask for preaching with good clear application.  “Just tell me what to do!”

But Houston, we have a problem.  There is confusion in this logic.  This thinking would be true if the only alternative to relevant applicational instruction was antiquated irrelevant facts.  But preaching is not so simple.

In 2 Timothy 3:16 Paul writes that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful.”   Paul obviously didn’t realize that there are many pages of Scripture that do not contain “relevant applicational instruction.”  Or maybe Paul realized that the Scripture does more than simply tell us what to do.

When I teach application in preaching I tend to refer to the ABCs of application.  Yes, there is a C-level of application … and that relates to our conduct: what we ought to do.  But underlying that is a B-level of application which runs deeper … and that relates to our beliefs: what we ought to believe.  And underlying even that is an A-level of application which runs deeper still … and that relates to our affections: what response should be stirred within us.

Application is not just about conduct.  Or perhaps I should say, life-change occurs at a deeper level than just conduct.  When life-change occurs, it tends to change us from the inside-out – from the depths of our hearts, through our thinking, and into our actions.

So “just tell me what to do!” is a very problematic statement.  Are you sure that’s all you want to hear?  Don’t you desire that the preaching bring genuine, profound, heartfelt life-change?  If so, then just telling you what to do would be to seriously sell you short of all that God has for you!

Let me put it another way.  “Just tell me what to do!” would be evidence of a significantly broken marriage.  If one spouse has no interest in hearing the heart of the other, no desire to understand them, no longing to connect at a deeper level, then simply asking for the bottom line action requirement is evidence of significant relational brokenness.

Our relationship to the God of the Bible should be closer to a healthy marriage than to a pragmatic subservient slave anxious to get on with their duties for the week.

Preaching that only offers irrelevant historical information is not really preaching at all.  But true biblical preaching should always be potentially life-changing – and not at just the superficial level of traditional “to-do list” applications!

Spot the Moment for Momentum

A lot of good messages struggle through a lack of momentum in a certain phase of delivery.  Here are two skills to prayerfully develop:

1. Learn to anticipate that momentum moment – As you look at your sermon in outline form, or the manuscript, whichever approach you take, you should be able to spot where the sermon could start to feel sluggish.  It could be a heavy section of explanation, or a sequence of interconnected thoughts, or the second of two similar points.  Or it could be that you tend to lose momentum as you move through your last point toward the conclusion.  Knowing yourself and knowing your preaching will increasingly help you to anticipate where a sermon may start to drag.

2. Learn to listen as you are preaching – As you are delivering your message, learn to listen to yourself and your listeners.  Are you starting to bore yourself?  Do something about it.  Are they starting to shuffle around, glaze over, look at their watches, or cough?  Do something about it.  New preachers may deliver in a state of panic and sheer focus, but if you have experience with public speaking you should be able to prayerfully be aware of yourself and your listeners.

Don’t just trudge on through a dull phase of a message.  Add some energy, break the moment with an illustration, make a humorous (but appropriate) aside, review and build momentum at the next transition … do something that will help.

The Art of the Sermon Introduction

Business Phases Lifecycle Expansion Contraction Signs 3d Illustration

There are lots of ways to introduce a sermon.  Here are a few common approaches:

1. The Bible reading – Some like to announce the text and read the text before saying anything about the text.  I understand the desire to put the Word of God in a pre-eminent position, but there is a downside.  With this approach people may or may not, in fact, probably won’t be ready for the text.  If you have had a genuinely stirring time of worship and the mood is absolutely focused, then maybe it might work for some.  Generally, although well-intentioned, this is not an ideal launch to a sermon.

2. The interesting or amusing anecdote – Some view the first couple of minutes of a sermon as the opportunity to tell a great story, after which there is a crunching of the gears as the preacher jerks the steering wheel and changes course to start the message proper.  This time could be used so much more effectively, so generally let’s not see this as a good approach.

3. The context of the passage – Perfect if your congregation have been pestering you all week to tell them about the reign of Zedekiah or the troublesome deceivers on Crete. Not so many phone calls about that?  Probably shouldn’t start there then.

4. The hesitant run-up – Like a child preparing to do a daring leap, the preacher seems to try and get going several times before daring to actually do it.  It’s exciting for the preacher.

5. The meandering round about approach – Like a hesitant tour guide going around the houses before eventually starting into the house you came to see. It may be reassuring for the preacher, but it will be tedious for the listeners.

None of these approaches are very effective.  Here are three things to keep in mind when planning a sermon introduction:

A. Make it as long as necessary and as short as possible – A great introduction does its job, no less and no more.

B. Stir motivation in the listener to hear you preach this message from this passage Ask yourself, does this introduction motivate the listener to hear me, this message and this passage?

C. Make sure they want you to continue – Once you are done, they should want you to continue.

There is no one-size fits all introduction.  Sometimes a story is perfect, sometimes you need to ask a question, or describe a problem, or engage the imagination, or read a headline, or share a struggle.  Whatever you do, keep these three guidelines at the forefront of your preparation.