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.

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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

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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.

Please, No Hooks!

I have heard the word “hook” refer to two aspects of a sermon: the introduction and the main points.

The introduction is sometimes called the hook because it is supposed to grab the attention of the listener.  The main points are sometimes referred to as hooks because they are supposed to serve as suitable hardware for hanging the preacher’s thoughts on.

I don’t use the word hook for either.  Please don’t think I am being petty.  I just think there are better things to aim for in both areas:

1. Introduction.  The introduction to a sermon should grab the attention of the listener, but there is so much more to be achieved here.  The introduction should stir motivation in the listener for listening to the preacher, for reading the passage, and for listening to the message.  Simply arresting attention is a very inadequate introduction.  I keep hearing messages that start with an engaging or humorous story (great! Attention grabbed!) and then an awkward transition to the message.  Don’t be satisfied with just getting their attention, aim to stir their motivation.

2. Points.  The points of a message are the skeleton of the strategy that you use to deliver your main idea and its relevance to your listeners.  The goal is for them to encounter God as they have an encounter with God’s Word.  But what happens when we start to think in terms of “hooks to hang thoughts on” … ?  Well, listeners start to assume their task is to remember the outline of your message.  In the same way as a handout tends to turn the preaching moment into a classroom lesson, so memorable hooks tend to make the listeners into learners.  As Haddon Robinson used to say, your outline is for you, not for them.  Make your points complete thoughts, full ideas, that develop and progress the communication of the main idea of the message.  Maybe you need a memory aid to simplify your task as a preacher, then have simplified bullet points, but don’t make memorizing those points the point of listening to your sermon.

You can hook your listeners and then give them nice hooks to hang thoughts on if you like, but I wonder if the terminology might inadvertently (or even, advertently – what is the opposite?) lead to preaching that arrests attention but fails to stir motivation, and then offers memorable outlines for future reflection, while wasting golden opportunty for meaningful encounter in the present.

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!

Humility Optional?

If you look around Christianity you will find humility is a fairly common thread, at least in theory.  Humility is in the DNA of salvation, for we cannot be saved unless we humble ourselves before God’s loving provision in Jesus’ death on the cross.  Humility is a staple ingredient in spiritual growth, for we cannot stand proud and still find the growth that is needed in the spiritual life.  Humility is a requirement in leadership, for we cannot successfully replace the servant leader model so central to Christian ministry.

And yet this thread which weaves through all theoretical Christianity is often more sparse in the real Christianity we observe.  There are always gospel presentations that appeal to self-interest and doing what is best for yourself.  There seems to be a never-ending stream of spiritual growth models that focus on our success oriented efforts to sort out our weaknesses and try harder to be good.  And for every humble leader in the church, we tend to find another that reeks of arrogance and pride.

It is clear that humility is woven through the fabric of our faith, but there is also a strong tendency toward pride that saturates our fallen flesh and inclines us to find ways around humility in the Christian life.

Is humility optional?

Humility is not just a preference.  It would be possible to view humility as a divine preference, one item on God’s wishlist for his people.  I like potatoes, but if someone in my family wants to cook a meal for me, they know that they can cook a meal without potatoes and I will still enjoy it.  Potatoes are a preference, but not really a requirement.  Is this how God feels about humility?  Is it a nice touch when he sees it, but not really a problem if it happens to be omitted?  No, humility is not just a preference.

Humility is not an arbitrary demand.  It would be possible to view humility as something God requires, one item on a harsh list of demands for his people.  If I were a tyrant in my home, then I could make a list of demands on my family members.  They might be able to satisfy my demands in some respects, but they might recognize that they could never do everything on my impossible list.  They might hope that I would not pay attention to the missed demands if enough of the others were satisfied.  Is this how it is with God?  No, humility is not an arbitrary demand.

Humility is not a contrast.  It would be possible to view humility as something God requires because it is the complement to his personality.  Again, if I insisted on being the focus of all attention in my home, then I might require humility of everyone else so that nobody else would ever threaten the spotlight in which I insisted that I live.  Is this how it is with God?  No, humility is not a contrast to God’s character.

Humility is not just a preference, an arbitrary demand, nor a contrasting quality to God.  Humility is in the DNA of Christianity because it is a distinctive feature of God’s character.  We were created in God’s image, made for profoundly other-centered relationship, but when we fell into sin something profoundly corrupt perverted our core inclinations.  As fallen humans we are turned in on ourselves, we are proud.  We believe that we don’t need God or other people and we default to trying to be independent in any way that we can.  The pull of that fallen tendency continues to exert force on every one of us.

Yes, Jesus entered our world and rocked our world with a profound contrast – willingly humbling himself not only to wash feet, but even to die a humiliating death in our place.  God is nothing like the pride in you, or me.  So we are invited to humble ourselves before the cross and find true life, not by our own achievement, but by the gift of God’s grace.  We know that, and yet even as Christians, we still feel the tug toward prideful independence.  Subconsciously we will drift toward self-effort and self-elevation.  Our view of spiritual growth will tend to have the aroma of arrogance, and if we are not careful, then our efforts at Christian leadership will often be tainted by the stench of self-promotion.

Humility is not just something God prefers, as I like potatoes, but am fine without them.  Humility is not an arbitrary demand we can hope to bypass.  Nor is humility a contrast to God’s supposed demand for the spotlight.  Humility makes sense in every corner of our Christianity.  It makes sense because it is a key aspect of God’s character.  It makes sense because he has rescued us, and is rescuing us, from our fall into pride.  Humility is always a heaven-ward step.

What role does humility play in your spiritual life?  What role does it play in your ministry and leadership?  And I don’t just mean in theory.  I mean in actual practice…

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?

Never Run Dry

The first time someone is scheduled to preach they typically wonder if they will have enough to say.  It doesn’t take long to discover that the real challenge is not filling time, but knowing what to cut out to fit the time you have.  However, over the long haul of ministry, the risk of running out of things to say becomes very real.

Here are several “wells” that may run dry for us:

1. The Well of Training.  If you have had the privilege of formal study then you know that it can be a great source of content for future ministry.  What is poured into you during your training should be flowing out of you in the years that follow.  Some might assume that three or four years of lecture material will provide a lifetime of sermons to preach.  Not so.  The training content has a limited shelf life.  It decreases over time unless it is mixed and stirred into further study and growth.  You might come out of Bible School, or even a great conference, with material that can be preached for the good of others.  But that same material, if pulled out years later, will be stagnant and far less effective.  It is not just that time has passed and the information has become outdated (this may sometimes be true), rather it is that you have not engaged with that material and grown in the meantime.  Stagnant truths offer little life to listeners.

2. The Well of Experience.  Over time we gain experience in life and ministry.  This can and should enrich our ministry.  We should grow deeper yet clearer, sensitive yet bolder, more spiritual and yet more relevant.  And with experience should come an increasing store from which to speak to others.  But there is a problem here too.  Experience is not simply a matter of the passing of time.  Nor is maturity.  It is possible to grow older, to gain experience, and at the same time to have less and less to say.  If we are merely cruising along we are losing our cutting edge.  If we are standing still, time may move us forward, but we can still be fading backwards within.  Experience is valuable, but it cannot become a well we trust to consistently provide helpful material for others.  I have known some very experienced people whose input to others is profoundly unhelpful at times.  Experience does not guarantee maturity, nor does it guarantee accurate perspective or helpful insight.

3. The Well of “Old Notes.”  There is nothing wrong with preaching a message more than once.  Jesus did.  The danger comes when we trust in a set of old notes because the message seemed effective before.  Old notes are a great head start, but we need to refresh each message we preach.  We cannot rely on past effectiveness any more than we can ultimately rely on our Bible school teachers or our years of experience.

4. The Well That Never Runs Dry.  Truly there is only one well from which we can draw fresh water for a lifetime of ministry.  Let’s appreciate our training, process our experience, refresh our past ministry materials, but most of all, let’s be sure to draw from the well that will never run dry – the well that is Jesus himself.  If we want to have a fresh and helpful ministry that will last for a lifetime, and have an impact for eternity, then we need to continually spend time at the feet of Jesus.

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!