A Contagious Pulpit

I remember Haddon Robinson saying that a mist in the pulpit will result in a fog in the pew.  It seems so obvious to say it, but there is a strong connection between what is going on in the preacher and what will go on in the listeners.  This is true both positively and negatively.  Here are some examples with brief comment:

Negatively

1. Nerves & Stress.  If you are nervous, they will join you in that.  If you seem stressed, you will put them on edge.  Whatever your preparation has or has not been like, make sure you go into preaching by faith rather than self-reliance, or self-concerned stress.

2. Coldness & Distance.  A congregation is like a dog in this regard: they can always sense if you don’t care for them.  Pray until your heart beats with God’s heart for these people, especially when you sense that indifference and lack of love that so easily creeps in for all of us.

3. Boredom & Disinterest.  Nobody wants to listen to someone who is not particularly interested in the passage they are preaching or the God they are speaking about.  In fact, they won’t listen.  Your disinterest will transmit so that they mentally leave the venue long before you leave the pulpit.

Positively

4. Warmth & Connection.  Maybe you have met somebody so warm and congenial that you found yourself warming to them as the conversation progressed.  The same is true in preaching: your love for them and enthusiasm for the God you speak about will increase their temperature toward you and Him!

5. Clarity of Image.  Whether it is an illustration or the retelling of a narrative, this principle applies: if you can see it, so will they.  Be prepared enough to be able to see what you are describing and you will be surprised how much more your listeners feel like they are immersed in the movie, not just enduring a monologue.  Blow the fog away, describe what is vivid to your mind and it will be clear to theirs, and engaging to their hearts too.

6. Responsiveness & Worship.  This goes way beyond enthusiasm and even interpersonal warmth.  This is about response to God.  If you are moved by the passage and the message to worship and obedience birthed from stirred affection, then that will increasingly be the response of your listeners too.

There are many ways in which we  will infect our listeners as we preach.  What “diseases” do we want to carry to them?

Sanctified Imagination

Some people are very hesitant to ever say anything that is not asserted by the preaching text.  I understand the hesitation and appreciate the desire to honour the inspired text.  However, I think that with care and clarity, there is a place for some sanctified imagination.

Years ago I was preaching Psalm 73 and made a passing remark about Asaph at the transition point in the middle of the Psalm.  I said, “I can imagine him weighed down by the weight of his struggle and kicking a coke can along the street, mentally miles away, until it hit the curtain of the tabernacle fence and he realised where he was…”  It was, to my mind, an obviously contemporary (and therefore anachronistic) way to illustrate the struggle and to set up the transition of coming to the sanctuary and finding a whole new perspective.

After the sermon a lady approached me and helpfully pointed out that Coca Cola hadn’t been invented yet.  I thought she was joking, but actually she was concerned about my adding to Scripture.  When we do add a detail …

1. Make sure it is historically, culturally, and biblically accurate.

2. If it is “just colour,” a little flourish in storytelling for contemporary relevance, then make sure it is obvious that you added it (either say so, or make some kind of visual gesture that will help listeners to get what you are doing).

This Sunday I was preaching John 9 and the story of the man born blind.  At the end of the chapter he is stood before the Jewish authorities with a boldness that stands in stark contrast to the healed paralytic in John 5, or even his own parents.  He is declaring the wonder of what has happened to him, noting that nobody had ever healed a person blind from birth in all of history until that day.

As I told the story I said something like, “I wonder, and this is pure speculation, but I wonder if perhaps he had learned that from the very people he was now speaking to?  Perhaps as a blind beggar he had dared to ask some passing Pharisees, ‘excuse me, sorry to bother you, is there any hope for me?  Has anybody blind from birth ever been healed before?’  And maybe they had lifted their noses in the air and flippantly educated him, ‘Never!’  I don’t know if that had happened, but it could have.  And now he may be quoting their fact back to them! …”

When our speculation is substantial rather than a flippant anachronism:

3. Make sure it makes sense in light of the context and detail given.

4. Be overt and clear that it is speculation.  Don’t give the impression that you have some sort of secret knowledge when you don’t.

These are two examples of the use of sanctified imagination used in preaching a biblical text.  There are other ways, both good and bad, to add colour to the text we are preaching.  Whatever you do, make sure any flourishes work to support the preaching of the text, not to steal the spotlight away from it.

Simple Encouragement

Earlier this year I heard a quote from JRR Tolkien.  After having the completed manuscript of The Lord of the Rings in his office for several years, he finally had it published.  Why?  Tolkien replied along these lines: “It would not have been finished, let alone published, if it were not for the simple encouragement of my good friend, CS Lewis.”

In Ephesians 4:25, Paul urges the believers to be truthful with one another, rather than living on in the falsehood that pervades our fallen world.  The community of God’s people are members of one another in a unique way, and so their mouths should be used to unify through the truth rather than the lie.  A few verses later, he returns to the subject of the mouth.  In verse 29 he urges them not to spray rottenness from their mouths, but rather to only speak words that build up and give grace.  Speaking the truth may be challenging, but building up takes it to a higher level again!

If this is true for believers in general, then how much more should we heed this as preachers.  Preacher, do you encourage?  It is strange to take note of how  encouragement is missing in a lot of preaching these days.

Exhortation is not the same as encouragement.  Yes, there is a need for exhortation, especially when the text calls the original hearers to action and that call remains applicable in the same way to our listeners today.  But exhortation tends to include persuasion with a dash of rebuke.  This may be needed, but it is not encouragement (with its recipe of hope, confidence and life).  Exhortation aims toward the listener, but tends to fire provocation rather than the relational fuel that we humans need in abundance.

Guilt is not the same as encouragement.  It really isn’t the same thing at all, just as a fish knife is not a butter knife.  It may seem like it will achieve the same goal, but generally it is sharper and more likely to provoke instinctive withdrawal rather than the desired goal.  Guilt dresses up as a shortcut to achieving conformity, but the results tend to be short-lived and shallow.  By all means pray for the Spirit to convict your listeners of guilt, He is very capable of that, but don’t go adding guilt into your primary repertoire – you will soon be slipping into legalism when you do.  Guilt aims at the listener, but it does so in an essentially negative way.

Enthusiasm is not the same as encouragement.  Yes, enthusiasm can indeed be contagious.  At the same time, it can merely impress others with your passoin while leaving them unencouraged in their own hearts.  Your enthusiasm does matter, but it is really a heartiness toward a subject or topic, rather than the life-giving heartiness toward your listeners that they need.

Application is not the same as encouragement.  By all means demonstrate how a biblical truth can translate into the nitty gritty situations of life.  People do need that to a certain extent.  But simply applying a text will point listeners to the steps they might take.  They also need heartfelt encouragement to feel warmed toward motivation in that direction.

Your words can urge, convict, enthuse, or offer clarification of application.  But let’s make sure our words build up, giving grace to those who hear, so that they feel our hearty encouragement.  They need it.  We all do.

Think back to someone who has been a real encouragement to you.  How did they do it?  Who can you offer encouragement to personally?  What about other people in ministry like you – is there another preacher or pastor that you can build up with some words today?

Perhaps before you preach again you need to look at the passage and ask yourself, “how is God encouraging me in this passage?”  Pass that on.

Both Bible & Gospel

As I think about preaching I am increasingly convinced that we need to communicate the redemptive relevance of the biblical text.  I am sure that seems obvious, but many fall into one of the following errors and half-measures:

1. Preaching the details and history of the text, without making the redemptive relevance clear.  This could be preaching a text as if it were a historical lecture, or it could be applying a text as if what we need is example to follow and instruction to implement.

2. Preaching the good news using a biblical text, without demonstrating clearly how the message comes from that text.  This could be a theologically brilliant presentation, but if it is unclear how you got there from the passage presented, then you are not honouring the theology of the gospel brilliantly.  You might be a good communicator, your message might be technically accurate in every detail, but if there is a leap from text to message, then you are undermining the foundational reality that God is a good communicator.

3. Preaching our own message with only token reference to the text.  This is the neither/or option.  It uses the text as  launch pad, or as a curiosity, or as a source of wording, but we preach what we want to say, and it is not the message of the text.  If what we want to say is redemptive rather than merely therapeutic or pressuring, then maybe we drift up into option 2.

I think we will tend to drift into one of these options by default.  Let’s be prayerful and careful to preach the redemptive relevance of the biblical text instead.

Preach Don’t Overreach

It is so easy to overreach when preaching.  In fact, I wonder how many thousands of sermons are preached every week that are barely even Christian?

We should point people, via the Word of God, toward God/Christ.  We should clarify not only what the text is saying historically, but also what it means for us today.  We should lead the way in being responsive to God, inviting people to respond to His grace.  We can encourage people to respond and move in the right direction.  But it is not our role to create momentum, nor is it up to us to generate the force to determine speed of change.

It is the same with counseling, pastoring, parenting, etc.  We can orient hearts in the right direction, we can make clear what next steps might look like, and we can travel alongside the person we are caring for … but we cannot push them along at a pace to suit us.

Sometimes God generates an incredible rate of change in a life.  Sometimes forward motion is imperceptible.  As preachers, as pastors, or as parents, let’s not usurp the Spirit’s role and try to force things along.  When we do, we undermine the foundation of our ministry.  Remember the first step?  It is to orient hearts in the right direction, to point people to God/Christ.  Usurp the Spirit and you will quickly point people back onto themselves.

When we turn people toward themselves, toward their efforts, their failings, their discipline, etc., then we can quickly slip out of biblical ministry and into the role of a personal trainer or life coach.  Our calling is higher than that.

Clarification Not Choir-Celebration

There are lots of things we tend to say when we preach or speak in church-world that could do with clarifying.  I don’t just mean complex terms or obscure references.  In fact, in many cases, we would do well to eliminate many of these rather than simply clarifying them.  What is our real motivation for using technical language anyway?  No, in this post I am focusing on the common Christian words that season our sermons, words that seem to say something to insiders, but probably say very little to those looking in.

Why do I say we should add some clarification?  Because Christians respond to words and it is easy to feel encouraged by a false response.  You could call it “preaching to the choir.”  When you make a reference to salvation, sin, forgiveness, lordship, relationship, prayer or heaven, you will likely get an affirming nod or even a vocal response from some in the church.  If it were appropriate to then question those responders and ask what you specifically meant by what you said, a high ratio of them would struggle to give any meaningful explanation of what you meant.

As well as clarifying what you mean as you preach, also clarify what you mean by applicational statements.  People may nod at vague references to “being more faithful” or “witnessing more boldly,”  but they might still struggle to meaningfully and tangibly explain what you are referring to by vague Christian applications.  Much better to be specific and give them concrete and tangible ways they might implement the truth learned in your message.

This clarification is for both believers and non-believers who are present.  Believers can sit very comfortably nodding at everything but actually being touched by very little.  Non-believers can sit perplexed at why the believers present seem so encouraged by things too vague or superficial to meaningfully engage with real life.

Those who are regularly involved in apologetic and evangelistic conversation with non-believers know that unclear communication is not helpful.  The danger may be greater for those of us who preach in church more often than we debate on the street-corner.

Instead of simply provoking a celebratory nod from “the choir” in your church, why not clarify what you mean in your explanation, and also clarify what you mean by way of application?  Do this for the sake of believers and non-believers present – everyone would be better off understanding what you are actually saying.

(Of course, this supposes that you know what you are actually saying too … how easy it is for us to use words without a clear understanding of what we mean, or without any specificity in application!  Maybe we are all guilty of using words without making sure we really know what we mean.  Perhaps the place to start is by asking God to help us see if we are doing what I have described in this post.)

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.

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!