Preaching Myths – Part 5

The first four posts have looked at issues of evaluation.  Let’s change direction.  What other preaching myths are out there?  How about this idea:

5. Only well-prepared sermons get blessed.

This is what we might call a “yes and no” type of myth.  There is truth to it, and there is myth too.

A. Ministry never depends on our ability, preparation, skill or learning.  For a life to be changed, be it through salvation or spiritual growth, the Spirit of God has to be at work in the lives of those listening.  It will never be based on what we bring to the situation, and yet we have no freedom to abdicate from our role, because…

B. Good stewardship expects proper preparation.  While we rely fully on Christ as we serve, we are stewards of the opportunity, stewards of the gifting, stewards of our learning, etc.  Therefore it makes sense that we will give full and proper preparation for the ministry opportunities that we are given.  However, this does not mean that our preparation has to be perfect, because…

C. God’s grace overcomes interrupted preparation. We all know that life has a habit of hitting us at inopportune moments.  Family problems, pastoral crises, distressing emails.  In a post-Genesis 3 world we will rarely have the perfect preparation for a sermon, just as any “gardening” in this world is now a sweaty business.  But instead of despairing, we can celebrate God’s grace.  He understands when life hits, and even when we struggle and fail.  There will be times when we preach at our weakest and God’s ministry seems to advance at its strongest.  Yet we do not abuse this grace, but instead, remember…

D. A good sermon is built on macro as well as micro preparation.  There is this coming Sunday’s message, and there are decades of messages.  How long does it take to prepare a message?  It takes a good number of hours this week, but it also takes years of cumulative study and preaching.  This means that when your preparation for Sunday is decimated by life’s circumstances, your sermon will rest on the strength of years in the Scriptures.

So the bottom line is that as a preacher you are being a good steward if you invest in preparation both for this next message, and for all your future ministry.  At the same time, your dependence is not on your preparation, but on God’s grace, because apart from Him we can do nothing.

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Preaching Myths – Part 4

So far in this series we have been looking at myths surrounding evaluating sermons.  Is it wrong to evaluate at allDoes good fruit act as guarantee of the sermonWhat about the “no-offense” rule?  Let’s take one more angle on the issue of evaluation:

4. If the sermon is true, all is well.

This is a slippery one.  The moment a question is raised about a message, some will jump to the defense of the preacher by asserting that what was said was true, even if it was not exactly the truth of the passage being preached.  Let’s knock around a few comments on this:

A. Most of us have mis-preached and should be grateful for God’s graciousness.  I would not want every old sermon scrutinized and held over me, and I suspect you would not either.  This is not about nitpicking through every word preached and being judge and jury of orthodoxy.  However, in balance with this first thought are those that follow.

B. What the Bible says matters.  While we do want to be gracious to one another, we also need to remember that we are handling the Word of God.  Every single word is given by inspiration and we will in no way be honouring God if we take matters of accurate text handling and interpretation lightly.

C. What the listener reads matters.  Here is the sticking point.  Just because what a preacher says is true does not mean that saying it from the wrong passage is acceptable.  Listeners may be looking at the biblical text as the sermon is proclaimed.  It does not matter that they are hearing truth, if that truth is falsely tied to another biblical text that does not mean what is being said.  The integrity of the messenger and message matter.  Even if the message spoken were biblically true, it matters if listeners are looking at their Bibles and scratching their heads.  We do not want to give the impression that the authority for the message is birthed out of the ingenuity of the preacher.  Are we comfortable with someone preaching biblical truth from an appliance instruction manual, or from a kid’s book of fairy tales?  Then we should not settle too easily for misappropriated biblical texts either.

Preaching Myths – Part 3

The whole idea of a “good sermon” is a tricky one.  While some feel it is inappropriate to evaluate, others base that evaluation purely on positive fruit.  Here is another evaluation myth:

3. If a sermon is really good then listeners will not be offended

This is not so much the presence of positive fruit, but the absence of apparently negative fruit.  There are many conflict avoiders amongst us.  Probably most of us would rather not see people upset or offended in the church – it certainly makes ministry easier when everyone is smiling.  But we need to probe the premise here: is a sermon really failing if some get offended by it?

By that measure, Jesus’ ministry was incredibly ineffective.  Jesus knew what was going on inside people and therefore seemed very willing to offend by what he said and what he did.  We certainly do not have perfect insight into human hearts, but it would be utterly naïve to assume that everyone is in some sort of happy neutral state.  Good preaching should disturb the comfortable and not just comfort the disturbed.  There are people in our churches who should be profoundly bothered by the gospel.

But there are some important caveats to make explicit here:

A. Make sure that people are offended by the right things.  If people find the grace of God scandalous, or the glory of the gospel, or character of God, or the depth of their need, then it is probably a good offense.  But if people are being wound up by your personal ministry soapbox issues or legalistic preferences, if people are being upset by the promotion of a certain Christian sub-culture, then I would argue that the offense is not life-giving.

B. Make sure that people are offended by the right person.  If people find your tone objectionable, or your manner distasteful, or your character un-Christ-like, then they are being offended by the wrong person.  Good preaching will offend some, and they may well pin the blame on the preacher, but at the heart of the offense is the Holy Spirit’s work of conviction and shining a light into their hearts.  They may lash out at you, but the bothering is being done by God.  It is so hard to evaluate this as we have a seemingly infinite capacity to self-protect and justify what we do.  Ask God, and ask trusted others, and make sure that your ministry has a graciousness and gentleness befitting a spokesman for Christ (as well as the courage and boldness to speak the truth that His spokesperson should demonstrate too).

C. Make sure that offense is a text-response. If people are angry at your illustrations, your anecdotes, your explanations and your applications, then there may be an issue.  Ideally, the offense should be caused by the biblical text itself rather than your departure from it.

A positive-response-only expectation is not realistic for true biblical preaching.  We should be seeing some apparently negative-responses, but we need God’s help to make sure that what provokes these responses is life-giving biblical preaching rather than our personal rudeness, pastoral insensitivity, or whatever else we can manage as a misfire from the pulpit.

Preaching Myths – Part 2

Last time we thought about the idea that godly preparation precludes the possibility of evaluation.  This time let’s take an idea that is related to that:

2. If it bears good fruit then it is a good sermon.

This is a good follow up to the previous myth.  Maybe you’ve had the experience of struggling through a sermon only to discover that someone else loved it.  Fair enough, there is certainly subjectivity involved in hearing a message.  But what about when the sermon you hear is not just not to your taste, but actually contains error, and then … someone trusts in Christ at the end.  That can be perplexing!

So many things need to be taken into account here.  You could have misheard the preacher.  You could have been biased in your critical view of the message.  Your evaluation criteria may be completely off.  At the same time, the fruit that seems so surprising could be the fruit of other ministry rather than this particular message.  Or the fruit could not be genuine.  Or the fruit could be the glorious grace of God working despite a weak or flawed sermon (praise God for that if you are a preacher, you’ve probably preached some shockers too!)  There are so many unknowns in this.

However, accepting all the multiple layers of complexity, there seems to be a double-edged bottom line here.  On the one hand ministry will be judged by its fruits and this is right.  Good, faithful, Christ-centred, biblically-driven, Spirit-dependent ministry will bring genuine and eternity-changing fruit over the course of time.  On the other hand, there is not a one-for-one correspondence here: apparently positive fruit (conversions, feedback, etc.) does not mean this particular sermon was solid, neither does apparently negative fruit (no response, negative feedback, etc.) mean this particular sermon fell short.  God does a lot of unseen work through messages while preachers press on in faith without knowing if it is making the slightest bit of difference.

How have you experienced this tension?

Preaching Myths – Part 1

There are plenty of myths floating around.  You may have heard of some.  You may have thought of others.  Here are a few that bear a little bit of scrutiny.  Let’s start with this one:

1. Since the preacher was led by God in the preparation, it would be wrong to evaluate the sermon.

Here is one I heard a few years ago.  Astonishingly, it was spoken by a church leader in reference to a visiting speaker.  The speaker had preached a message that was technically wrong in some details, but more overwhelmingly unhelpful as a whole.  I gently mentioned this to a more senior leader in the church who made it clear that it was not his place to evaluate what this godly man had been led to by God in his preparations.  Huh?

Here’s one reason why this dear brother was wrong.  The pastoral leadership of a church has the biblically defined role of shepherding the flock, which includes at least four elements.  The shepherds, that is, the pastors or elders, are responsible for the feeding and leading of the flock, as well as making sure it is protected and cared for.  All four elements of the leadership role come into play when a sermon is preached.  Whether the elder/pastor is preaching or not, he is responsible.  Therefore, if a visiting preacher is unhelpful in any of these areas, it is the spiritual responsibility of the leadership to evaluate that message and determine whether something needs to be done retrospectively or just in anticipation of any future visit.  Non-evaluation is not a spiritual option, it is pastoral abdication.

That is specifically in respect to the pastoral leadership, but what about the average listener?  Acts 17:11 is informative for us: The Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians – they listened intently to the apostles and they checked the Scriptures to see if what they heard was so.  There is no footnote or marginal comment that adds, “but if the preacher has prayerfully prepared then the above referenced eagerness and Scriptural evaluation does not apply.”

Next time we will look at another sermon evaluation myth.

Is the Genealogy Really Such a Let Down?

To the first-time reader, the Old Testament can feel like a confusing collection of laws and awkward stories.  Before too long it becomes an amazing epic retelling of God’s preparation for the arrival of his Son into our world.  If you have eyes to see, then the Old Testament becomes a treasure trove of God’s presence and God’s promise.  It is certainly not about heroes of the faith, for God’s people were consistently faithless, and yet God’s faithfulness outshines their wretchedness.  Where God had every right to declare his promises null and void, instead he kept adding to the promise and moving toward the arrival of the Messiah.

Then there is a blank page.  This is it.  This is the moment in a Bible read through that should make your heart leap.  So, you arrive in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 1.  Here it is!  This is the good news!  And then you find . . . a genealogy.  Disappointing to say the least.  Surely God could have launched the New Testament with something more exciting than a list of old names?

Actually, the genealogy at the start of the New Testament is a reason to celebrate.  More than that, it gives us reason to press on in our ministry.  Here are three reasons to be thankful for the genealogy that launches our New Testaments:

1. The good news that we proclaim is not a fairy tale, it is rooted in history.  

The arrival of God the Son into our world is not announced with a “Once upon a time,” introduction as we would expect of a fantasy tale.  It is announced with a “This is the genealogy of…” that we would expect of a historical figure.  This is so important.  In the midst of our preaching and pastoral care of souls we can forget how alien the good news of Jesus actually sounds to people.  It can sound like a fairy tale that we think might offer hope in the “real world.”  But let us never forget that the Gospel is not a fairy tale, it is rooted in actual events.

The Gospel is not a mythical tale that we speak into the real world to give people a purer perspective by which to live, or a touching tale that sets an example for us to follow in our infinitely more complex experience.  The Gospel is not a suggestion for how we should live.  It is an announcement of what God has done.

Real historical figures had real flesh and blood children who gave birth to actual children, and so on.  This genealogy offers forty-two touchdown points in history as preparation to the touchdown point that transforms history.  If Jesus was merely a myth, or only an example, or somehow just a fairy tale to inspire us, then all this would be so unnecessary.  If Jesus were a fairy tale, then he need be no more than a heavenly interruption in our normal world.  Instead, he really entered right into our normal world.

It is important to note that Matthew’s genealogy is carefully crafted.  He is deliberately selecting generations in order to build a shaped list, rather than an exhaustive one.  He is also tracing a line that diverges from the line that Luke includes in his Gospel.  It is not a contradiction, after all, your genealogy could also take any number of lines down through the centuries.

Read through the genealogy and ponder your ministry.  They faced struggles and uncertainty, yet they were part of God’s great story in ways most could hardly imagine.  We too don’t see the end of our story, but we know we are part of his story.  Thank God that the Gospel is rooted not in myth, but in history.  He came into our world and now we can live and serve him in that same history.  Real people, living real lives, facing real struggles, and always part of his story!

2. The good news that we proclaim is not shaped by our culture’s needs, it is shaped by God’s promise plan.

If we were to try and write the story of a God-sized fix to our hellish plight, we would probably make it a story of an other-worldly super-hero coming to our aid.  We wouldn’t have that hero becoming one of us, and a lowly one of us at that.  We would surely not trace a line down through two millennia of dysfunctional families, men who gave their wives away, men who stole other men’s wives, women of ill-repute, and disobedient nationals humiliated by deportation.

And yet there is a shape to this genealogy.  It is a deliberate shape that Matthew introduces in verse 1 and underlines with summary sums in verse 17.  This is the Abraham to David to Exile to Jesus genealogy.  What is significant about Abraham, David and the Exile?  Surely it is not the giving wife away (twice), stealing a wife and having her husband killed, and the humiliation by deportation … surely these are not the high points of the story?  Actually, no, but as we will see in the next point, this background certainly adds a unique colour to it all.

What is significant about this shaping of the genealogy is that these are three points in history where God leaned forward and added detail to his great promise plan.  God had promised to rescue humanity from sin back in Genesis 3:15.  That promise was developed when God promised to make Abram’s name great and to bless all the families of the earth through his seed.  Tick, tock, the clock was counting down.

King David was blown away by further development on that promise, that his throne would endure forever and his greater son would ascend to it in the future.  Tick, tock, the clock continued to count down.

The prophets spoke in the context of national failure, in the context of Israel’s flaws being fully revealed by the Old Covenant that the day was coming when God would establish a New Covenant that would change everything.  Tick, tock, the clock was counting down and this genealogy shows us where it ends.

Jesus.

The fulfillment of God’s great sin-conquering, life-giving, problem-solving, Satan-defeating, promise plan was Mary’s son, baby Jesus.

What an encouragement this is to us as we continue to minister two thousand years later.  It is easy to see the mess of humanity.  And it is easy to miss that God has a greater plan being worked out in his own timing.  We can trust him, we must trust him.  We have no other hope besides him.

3. The good news that we proclaim is not coloured by human success, it is coloured by God’s grace for sinners.

We could put on rose-tinted spectacles and see the good in this list.  After all, Abraham was eventually a man of faith.  David was a man after God’s own heart.  Jacob was at least productive when it came to building a nation, and Boaz was an all-around good egg.  There are others we could name in the list, people of noble character, including Ruth, not to forget Joseph and Mary, of course.  Definitely some good people, or in many cases, some good moments.

Nevertheless, the more you study the list, the more you see the sin.  This is not a list of Israel’s finest and greatest.  This is a list of ordinary people who stumbled and messed up and blew it and sinned.  This is not a bland list of empty suits – positions celebrated without recognition that it was real humanity in those roles.  This is not a list brightened by human success, but rather a list coloured in by God’s grace to fallen people.

Did Abraham, Isaac and Jacob deserve to receive God’s good promise?  Obviously not, if you read through Genesis.  Did David deserve to have his throne established over the whole world forever?  Definitely not, if his story is heard in full.  Did Israel deserve the New Covenant?  Not in a million years.

God’s grace transforms human mess.

And perhaps the greatest colour in the genealogy?  Surely it is the colour added by the unusual inclusions … Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the wife of Uriah.  Four women. Probably four foreign women.  Most importantly, four women with significant question marks over their moral purity.  Tamar dressed up as a shrine prostitute to trick her father-in-law into giving her a son.  Rahab’s name always comes with the title of her profession.  Ruth was a wonderful women, but she did get a man drunk and slip under the covers at midnight.  And Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, was involved in the greatest scandal ever seen in Israel’s royal court.  They weren’t all bad, in fact, all of them were women of faith.  But they all had that question mark hanging over them.

And that is the colour that sets up the final woman in the list – Mary.  A woman of faith.  And yet a woman with her moral purity questioned by all.  She was pregnant before her wedding.  It was a scandal, even in a sin-stained place like Nazareth.  But this was not more of the same human mess.  This was God’s answer to the human mess.

The genealogy might first appear dull, then at a closer look it seems to contain some great names, but if you keep looking you see the mess of those lives, and if God opens our eyes to see, we start to see the glorious grace of God shining through it all.

That is where this post ends, but it is where hope begins.  When God gives us eyes to see the beauty of his glorious grace shining in the mess of humanity.  The genealogy prepares us for the coming of Jesus, the Christ.  Maybe this genealogy prepares us to press on in our messy ministries too – knowing that God’s great promise plan and glorious grace has already entered our world and brought the hope we all so desperately need.

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A couple of years ago I wrote Pleased to Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation – I hope you can get hold of a copy and enjoy a light biblical read on this critical subject of God’s Son becoming one of us so that we could be one with Him!  It is not just a subject to study at Christmas.  The incarnation is in the very DNA of the Christian faith.

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