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.

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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!

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.

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.

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!