Preaching: A Platform for Ministries

When we preach we tend to think about the people sitting in front of us.  Rightly so.  Whatever the size or apparent significance of this group of listeners, they are the ones God has prepared and convened for the public preaching of His Word, and so this is a key moment.

However, that Sunday sermon is also a platform for other ministries.  Let’s consider three:

1. Your other ministries.  While we don’t want to develop prideful delusions of grandeur, it is good to consider how to be a steward of your ministry.  The best thing you could do might be to put all your energy into improving what you do as a preacher.  But you might also consider whether the work that went into that sermon might feed into a shortened recorded summary for a different audience, or a blog post, or an article, or a book chapter, or a set of tweets, or whatever.  You may not have the global reach of some famous author/speakers, but if there are some people that would benefit, why not make best use of the work you have already invested in a message?

2. Your listeners’ ministries.  The people listening to you are not just there to be blessed.  They are also there to be developed and launched in their own ministries.  How is your preaching shaping the way they handle the Bible, communicate gospel truth, trust God in their spheres of service?  While every sermon will have its primary goals that you prayerfully hope to achieve which tend to be unique to each sermon, don’t forget that there are some secondary effects that also matter – how your listeners are motivating and trained to handle the Bible, how your listeners are equipped for ministry, etc.

3. Your church’s ministries.  The sermon you preach on Sunday is not just about that slice of time and those people in their response to it.  It also sets the tone for all the other word ministries of the church.  How is the Bible treated in small groups, or taught in Sunday School, or trusted in youth ministry, or seen as relevant in counseling, or birthing spiritual conversations, etc.  Sunday’s sermon will, especially over time, set the tone for the word-based ministries of the church throughout the week – both formal and informal.

Preach to the people in front of you, but prayerfully ponder how the Sunday sermon can shape more than just that moment.

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The Foundation for Christian Leadership

A lot of people want to be leaders. In the church, or in parachurch ministries, there is within many a desire to be recognized as a leader. After all, leadership allows for influence, it generates respect, it validates the significance or ability of a person. Some will want to be a leader because they want to serve others. Some will want to be a leader because they want to be served by others. Most will probably fall somewhere in between. Nobody has perfect motivations, but that is not to say we are all equally flawed in that regard. Some churches and organizations would be spared significant turmoil by being careful not to appoint leaders unwisely.

The New Testament gives instruction on the qualifications for a church elder (and deacon) in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Churches would do well to take those lists more seriously. Too many churches appoint leaders based on capacity instead of character, and not every church survives to tell the tale! I have never seen a church thrive without leaders that fit those qualification lists, and I have always seen churches struggle when one of the leaders falls short of what is required there.

I have heard people dismiss Paul’s lists as standards that maybe ideal, but are actually impossible in real life. The problem is that I have been blessed to have been shepherded by church leaders that do measure up to that standard, so clearly it is not impossible. The standard is “above reproach” rather than perfection, and the qualifications are all measures of godly character. The challenge we face is that the features of an immature character are typically not seen in the mirror – it has to be the perspective of others that is trusted. This is why the church should recognize maturity, rather than a self-appointed leader declaring his own suitability for a position.

So, let’s begin with issues of character, but also go beyond that to think about two other important aspects of leadership that will always come into play over the course of a life in ministry:

Character – A Leader in Relation to God. I think it is important that we recognize how our character is shaped by God over time. Having a naturally calm manner is not the same thing as spiritual maturity any more than having a naturally extroverted temperament is the same as a spiritual gift. Over time God is at work in our character, shaping us and changing us. Some fruit of the Spirit may come very quickly, but others will take years to ripen in us.

Let’s never fall into the trap of excusing our own sin by simply saying it is the way we are wired. Let’s never appoint people for leadership based on their apparent gifting or ability, while giving a pass to aspects of their character that raise red flags to people who know them well. A more mature me will be more Christlike in every area of character than I am today.

Those lists in Timothy and Titus further focus our thoughts in four areas:

(1) The leader’s response to stress. A more mature me will not release pressure in fits of rage, nor escape stress by abusing alcohol (just to be clear, I am not saying that the current version of me does these things, but it is always helpful to recognize that I still have plenty of room to grow!) Leadership is not a ministry practiced in tranquil moments of calm, but often it will be required in moments of stress and tension.

(2) The leader’s relationship to family. A more mature me will not neglect my marriage or parenting in order to chase my own ambitions … it is concerning to see Christian leaders with dysfunctional home lives – whatever our culture, may we model a Christlike devotion to spouses, children, parents, etc. as a top priority.

(3) The leader’s reputation with outsiders. A more mature me will gradually be seen more favourably with members of the community. Interestingly, there may be some folks whose reputation earned in their pre-conversion days might never be fixed post-conversion … or perhaps they need to spend a season as evangelistic witnesses rather than leaders so that their old community can see the change!

(4) The leader’s handling of revelation (i.e. the Bible). A more mature me will be increasingly someone who can handle the Bible well, submitting to it, and able to share it with others for their encouragement or to challenge them. I don’t believe this is saying church leaders must have a specific spiritual gift. Whether a leader can preach well or not, they must be able to handle God’s Word like a mature believer!

My responsibility is to recognize that God is the one who will continue to grow me in all areas of character. My church or ministry’s responsibility is to recognize if I have matured to a suitable level – above reproach – to be burdened with a position of leadership. So, let’s be sure to recognize people in Christian leadership whose lives demonstrate appropriate levels of spiritual maturity. As we think about ourselves, let’s be sure we pursue growth by drawing near to God, rather than by trying to practice our way to certain character qualities – that will never cut it when the pressure comes!

Before we look briefly at two more important “relationships” of the leader, let me add one very important point to this one. We have looked at the leader in relation to God in respect to the leader’s maturity and character. This is the qualification for leadership. But there is also the leader’s vitality and spirituality: this will determine the quality of their leadership. And again, we cannot practice our way to a thriving spirituality, it will come from a healthy and vibrant relationship with God.

So, character is shaped in relation to God and determines whether a leader has the required spiritual maturity to be qualified for leadership. That relationship with God will also determine the quality of that leadership, but there are two other “relationships” that will also be significant:

Capability – A Leader in Relation to the Task. Different roles will require different skills. Pastoral ministry in the local church requires people able to teach, to lead, to care, to protect and to mentor/disciple. Other leadership roles within the church may require different skills, as will non-church leadership roles. Whatever the setting, it will be important to be growing in the relevant areas. But let me mention a couple of key points:

1. Just because someone has a strength in some of these areas does not mean they should be recognized in leadership. By all means let them serve the church according to their strengths under the leadership of others, but give their character time to catch up with their capacity or learning before you appoint them to positions of responsibility.

2. Nobody is omni-competent. Nobody has every spiritual gift. The New Testament points to a practice soon forgotten after the close of the canon: team leadership. We will always be stronger working together as a team. In my church I am one of three pastor-elders, which means that I personally have two pastor-elders. We are so much stronger in a team. My gifts and strengths are complemented by the gifts and strengths of my colleagues. My weaknesses are not inflicted on the church with quite the same force as they would be if I served alone. Which leads me on to one more main point…

Chemistry – A Leader in Relation to Others. Nothing will wipe out the leadership of a church or ministry as quickly as a toxic team environment. Unhealthy competition, bad attitudes, awkward communication, political maneuvering, self-promotion, and so on, will all poison a leadership team very quickly. Every leadership team will be attacked from outside, but that is typically far more bearable than the tension that can come from within the team. How does this tension get there? There are probably a thousand different paths, but they all seem to start in the same place: the presence of leaders who are not qualified by mature Christian character.

Leadership is never presented as an easy prospect. It will add pressures, it will bring criticism, it will feel thankless … and thankfully, leadership is not a requirement for everyone. If you are leading or aspire to lead, this is a good thing. Thank you for your ministry and service. But whatever your current experience may be, remember that it is God who desires to grow your character, and it is in relationship to Him that you grow. Whatever the burdens may be, and whatever the expectations may be, keep your relationship with Jesus right at the centre of your priorities: that is the foundation for all Christian leadership.

Marginally Helpful Preacher Metaphors – Part 3

We have thought about the preacher as a video painter, and as a gallery guide.  Here’s the third in my list:

A Quirky Detective – When you are preaching epistles it may be helpful to think of yourself as a quirky detective.  You might be thinking that quirky is a strange qualifier to add, but hang in there, I have a paragraph to come up with a justification for that bit.  Epistles are powerful.  They offer a unique presentation of gospel truth and application of theology to a specific situation.  When an epistle does its work, it can really work in the heart and mind of a listener.  So what is the preacher to do?  Are we supposed to ignore the contextual features and offer sterilized theological argumentation using a blend of biblical and theologically loaded terminology?  Or are we supposed to hold out the epistle in all its uniqueness, helping listeners to see how the letter was designed to change lives then, and consequently, watch them feel the force of it now?  A good preacher of epistles ignites the imagination, clarifies the thinking of the writer, demonstrates its compelling relevance to today, and allows the text to do what the text was inspired and designed to do.  A detective holds up something as apparently insignificant as a piece of mail and shows how it unlocks and clarifies a real life (and death) situation.  And since people might expect an epistle to be just another boring letter, it probably doesn’t hurt to be a bit quirky too (all the best TV detectives are a little bit unique!)  There is more to preaching epistle than that, but there shouldn’t be less.

As before, feel free to add your own metaphors in the comments and I might develop some (giving credit).

Marginally Helpful Preacher Metaphors – Part 2

Last time we looked at the preacher as a video painter, particularly when preaching biblical narratives.  Let’s add another metaphor that will not become a classic, but may be helpful for now:

A Gallery Guide – When you are preaching biblical poetry it may be helpful to think of yourself as a guide in an art gallery. You might be thinking that you don’t enjoy art galleries so perhaps you should skip this point, but hang in there.  Poetry is powerful.  Through stirring imagery and crafted structure, listeners are moved in a way that prose could never achieve. When biblical poetry does its work, it can really work in the heart and mind of a listener.  So what is the preacher to do?  Are we supposed to strip out those poetic features and coldly present the results of our analysis of an ancient poem?  Or are we supposed to preach that poem in words that help the listeners to appreciate the depth of feeling and thought that was stirring in the artist’s heart and life as he wrote the poem?  A good preacher of poetry does for listeners what a gallery guide might do for me: lead me beyond first impressions, cause me to slow down and start to feel with the artist as he or she begins to plumb the depths of the piece before me.  When the preacher does that, he allows the text to do what the text  was inspired and designed to do.  There is more to preaching poetry than that, but there shouldn’t be less.

Next time we will add one more metaphor.  Feel free to make up your own in the comments … I might even develop it as a post (giving you credit, of course).

Marginally Helpful Preacher Metaphors – Part 1

Perhaps you have read Between Two Worlds by John Stott?  It is a classic textbook for preachers.  In it, Stott lists the biblical metaphors for a preacher: a herald, a seed sower, etc.  Then he reverently adds his own – the preacher as a bridge-builder.  Well, this is not a classic textbook, this is a blog post.  And I am not John Stott.  So I am going to offer several only marginally helpful metaphors for the preacher.  They are probably helpful as far as they go, and it is also helpful to not go too far!

A Video Painter – When you are preaching biblical narrative it may be helpful to think of yourself as a video painter.  You might be thinking these metaphors are only marginally helpful because this is not a real thing, but hang in there.  Narratives are powerful.  They grip listeners with the tension of a plot.  They stir identification and association with the reality of the characters.  When a narrative does its work, it can really work in the heart and mind of a listener.  So what is the preacher to do?  Are we supposed to strip out those narrative features and perform an autopsy on a dissected and dead story?  Or are we supposed to preach that story in words that paint moving pictures on the internal video screen of our listeners’ imaginations?  A good preacher of narrative ignites the imagination, paints pictures that move, and allows the text to do what the text was inspired and designed to do.  There is more to preaching narrative than that, but there shouldn’t be less.

Next time we will add another!

Preaching Myths – Part 7

Following on from the last myth, here’s another:

7. A sermon is the output of a mechanical process

Almost every preaching textbook offers a sequence of steps that lead from the text to the pulpit. Some books use seven, eight or ten, others perhaps fourteen or more.  The number is not the point.  The sequence of steps can give the impression that you put the Bible text in at one end of the machine, crank on the handle and out pops a good biblical sermon.

A. There is a logical preparation process for a sermon.  While there may be different labels used in the various processes, there is also a logic to the process.  You have to select a passage before you can study it and determine its idea.  You have to understand the passage before you can think about formulating a sermon.  And so, at one level, the process is necessary.  Just as it is necessary to learn the basic skills and sequences for driving a car, so the textbooks give us a helpful breakdown of the sermon preparation process.  However, after driving a car for a quarter of a century, I am no longer repeating to myself “mirror-signal-maneuver” like I did at the start.  I’ve learned that driving is about much more than basic skills and sequencing.

B. Sermon preparation requires multi-directional sensitivity.  To push the driving analogy further, I could say that driving requires multi-directional sensitivity – I have to be aware of dozens of things at once.  To fully describe what is going on in a mature and skilled driver would overwhelm every beginner.  The same is true in preaching.  The preacher needs to develop multiple levels of sensitivity to the text, to the listeners, to the Spirit of God, to the occasion, to the church where the sermon is delivered, to the culture in which the listeners live, to the acoustics of the venue, to the influence of proxemics on the delivery, to the body language of the listeners, to his/her own strengths and weaknesses as a preacher, to baggage in his/her own life that may be influencing the preaching, to the clock, and more.

There is no machine that will generate the right sermon for you and your listeners for this Sunday. What there is is a preacher prayerfully relying on God and seeking to bring together every skill learned and sensitivity developed to make this sermon the best it can be.  You may rightly say that another preacher could be more skilled and more sensitized than you are, and that therefore you are a weak option for your church this Sunday.  Good.  God loves to work through the weak.  Let’s give it the best we can and know that God has got to come through again!

Preaching Myths – Part 6

Here’s another idea that we too easily believe:

6. A sermon is just the sum of its parts.

That is to say, a sermon consists of explanation combined with application and some illustrations.  There is an element of truth here, but it would be naïve to think that it is that simple.

A. There are basic components of a biblical sermon.  Essentially there are sermon components like the introduction and the conclusion.  And there are ingredients that go into the body of a sermon, such as explanation, application and so-called illustration.  At a certain level every sermon could be analysed and found to include these components and ingredients.

B. There are nuances that influence the effectiveness of each of those components and ingredients.  For example, there is no such thing as a good illustration, there is such a thing as a good illustration of something.  A good explanation for one group of people will fly completely over the heads of another crowd.

C. There are less tangible influences on the effectiveness of a sermon.  We could go in many directions here, but lets think about the preacher.  What influences how the preacher preaches the components and ingredients of a sermon?  The preacher’s love for God and love for the listener is hard to quantify, but it surely influences the choice of sermon ingredients and their delivery.  The preacher’s personal baggage is a filter through which every sermon is processed and preached.  If a preacher is struggling with pride, then in some way it will show in the sermon.  If a preacher is angry, then in some way it will show in the sermon.

A sermon is not just the ingredients of explanation, application and illustrations blended together with sermon components like an introduction and a conclusion.  The effectiveness of a sermon goes much deeper than the quality of the elements that are blended together.  There is also the moving dynamic of those listening, the occasion, as well as the preacher’s ability, style of communication and so much more.  There are complex nuances influencing every aspect of a sermon.  Let’s prayerfully keep learning so that we can be the best stewards of the preaching privilege that we can.

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.

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.