Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 2c

This week I’ve been thinking about implications of the parable of the sower for us preachers.  So far we have had this post, and then this post, but now we’ll finish the list with this post:

6. The same message can do two things.  Obviously we all want to see a good crop showing evidence of seed penetrating good soil and bringing abundant life.  But we should not be surprised when the same message brings two different responses.  Remember that the same presentation of loving grace both won the hearts of some, and hardened the heart of one in John 13.  It is like popcorn in a sizzling pot of oil: the same heat will bring one of two results – if the heat moves the heart of the kernel then the whole thing will turn inside out into beautiful tasty popcorn.  If the same heat only has effect on the outside, then that kernel will turn into a tooth-breaking ball harder than iron, harder even than lego.  Same heat, different result.  The preaching of God’s grace in Jesus will bear these same results with people.  (Click here for an earlier article on the subject of popcorn!)

7. Don’t be discouraged by lost seed.  We should be saddened whenever anyone does not respond to the word of God, but don’t let it halt your ministry.  We can dream of, and long for, and pray for a gloriously responsive crowd before each message we preach.  But when you drive home after church and it was not quite what you had prayed for … don’t be discouraged.  The kingdom spreads by the weakness of the word and that weakness will often be felt by the preacher in the weakness of their preaching.

8. Be thrilled by divine transformation.  We should also not grow familiar with the gradual miracle of life transformation.  Don’t lose sight of where someone was and what they are becoming now.  Hopefully you have some people in your church that you can continue to be amazed at as you see the transforming power of the penetrated word in their lives.  Jesus’ audience would have understood the three “failed” seed categories, but they would have been amazed at the idea of a hundredfold crop.  Let’s be the same in word ministry – amazed in the right direction!

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Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 2b

I am thinking about the parable of the sower in Luke 8:4-15.  Yesterday we thought about how the kingdom of God spreads by the word, bringing genuine transformation, but not to all. Here are some more thoughts for us preachers to ponder:

4. The goal in seed sowing is heart penetration. The problem with the first three soils is that the seed lacks penetration.  In human terms it looks like a non-transformed heart.  The seed by the path people are self-lovers who are not penetrated at all by the seed. The seed in soil on rock folks are self-lovers who wither spiritually as soon as testing or trial comes because they are still trying to protect self.  The seed among thorns group are attracted to Jesus, but feel the tug of cares, riches and pleasures … and these ultimately win.  None of these people have their hearts transformed.  They love self and show it in different ways.  But the seed in good soil penetrates deep.  The life is not on the surface, but comes from deep within.  That is where Christian transformation takes place.

Seed is not impressive as a projectile.  An acorn will barely dent soil as it falls on it, but if it penetrates, then from inside it can change everything!  In Italy, apparently, there is a famous grave where an acorn fell in with the famous deceased occupant.  Centuries later the great marble slab lies broken in two by the oak tree that eventually grew up.  The word of God is not very impressive as a tool for pressuring conformity from the outside, but when it gets inside a heart then watch patiently as that life is transformed!

5. Listeners should take care then how they hear.  Jesus repeatedly emphasized the need to hear carefully (in Luke 8 see verses 8, 9-10, 18, 21).  In a sense the applicational burden of this parable is on our listeners rather than on us as preachers, but actually, there are several ways we can help our congregations to heed Jesus’ instruction here:

  • Be a careful listener yourself – it will show in your life and in your preaching.
  • Make it clear how important it is to hear the word of God – make sure they know you are just the messenger, but the source of the message is worthy of heartfelt attention.
  • Don’t be dull – be the most engaging and effective communicator you can be.  God’s word is worthy of our best efforts, and what a frightening thought that we could get in the way of our listeners hearing!  (Don’t be boring. Don’t be monotonous.  Don’t be laborious.  Don’t be uninteresting.  How else can I say it?)

Tomorrow I will finish the list of thoughts, but feel free to comment at any time.

 

Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 2

Yesterday I preached on the parable of the sower in Luke 8 (also in Matthew 13 and Mark 4).  It is probably the third most famous parable (after Prodigal Son and Good Samaritan), it is one of only a couple where Jesus explains his meaning, and it is the parable of parables because Jesus also explains why he preached in parables so much!

As before, I am not going to write about how to preach the parable, but some lessons from the parable that may be applicable to us as preachers.

The parable is very simple. A sower scatters seed.  Same sower, same seed, different soils.  By the path seed was trodden on and snatched away.  Thin soil on rock seed shot up and withered without root.  Among thorns seed started to grow, but got choked.  Good soil seed grew and was very fruitful.  From the perspective of a farmer wanting a crop, only the last category was successful.

Here are a few things for us to ponder:

1. God’s kingdom spreads by the word, not the sword. I think it was Tim Keller who made the helpful observation that Jesus could have chosen other Old Testament analogies for the word of God – a hammer, a fire, etc.  But he chose a seed.  Every other kingdom that has spread has done so at the edge of the sword, killing and threatening.  Christ’s kingdom advances through the weakness of a spoken message.  Be encouraged in your preaching, you are part of that advance.

It may seem weak when you look at your preaching, and even at the results of it, but all over the world there are millions of people worshiping Jesus and being transformed day by day who began their journey by hearing a presentation of the gospel from a friend or from a preacher (and most of those presentations were probably not that impressive!)

2. God’s kingdom spreads by profound transformation, not questionable conversion.  The parable is so simple, but we may wrestle with the second and third soils.  Are the signs of life something to celebrate?  Are these people saved?  Surely we should count every one we can?  Perhaps we would do better to be astonished by the profound crop of the good soil instead of trying to count every sprout as part of the harvest.

Jesus’ hearers would have been stunned at talk of a hundredfold crop.  We should be stunned when a life is truly transformed.  Jesus turned the world upside down with eleven transformed disciples, plus the women in that inner circle.  He was not anxious to count the crowds who only wanted miracles or Judas Iscariot who looked like an insider but ultimately wanted money over Jesus.

3. God’s kingdom spreads, but not to all.  We should be bothered that not everyone receives the gospel message with heartfelt response.  We should be bothered for their sake.  We should be bothered for logic’s sake too – if anyone sees how good the good news is, how wonderful Jesus is, how full life to the full is, then it makes no sense to not give everything in response.  But many will  not.

CS Lewis said there are two types of people in the world – those who say thy will be done to God, and those to whom God ultimately says, thy will be done.  This parable, in part, can encourage you to press on when you are seeing more non-response than you feel you can cope with!

Tomorrow I’ll add some more thoughts.

Children vs Students

Small children and students have some things in common, along with some real differences.  If you are a parent or a professor, your goal is to help them mature and become all that they were created to be.  Maybe as preachers and Christian leaders there are one or two helpful thoughts to be found in this comparison?

Children have vivid imaginations.  When you read them a story, they can see it happening.  It doesn’t take too many years before they graduate from needing the colour pictures and can see everything you describe.  If you tell a scary story, they are gripped with fear.  If you describe a person, they can see them.  Children don’t process through abstractions particularly well, but they will live in the story you tell them.

Students have somehow learned to store abstractions in their short-term memory, while losing the skill of vivid imagination.  When you lay out a lecture before them, assuming there is some sort of motivation to learn the material, they will diligently take notes for later review and they may pass the exam before the details fade from their minds.  It all seems very efficient and education is celebrated. However, the values they live by are probably determined more by the stories they watch on the screen and the influence their peers exert than the wisdom nuggets picked up in lectures.

Perhaps it is a simple matter of progression, but we tend to think of listeners in church as being students rather than children.  That is, we drift into lecture mode more than gripping story mode when we preach.  We assume that if our listeners are taking notes, or at least if they are present and awake, then all is proceeding to plan.  The truth is these “students” with their notes are at best storing our points in their short-term memories.  They are likely more influenced by the screen and their relationships.  The lasting value of outlines inscribed on scraps of paper will be minimal.

Perhaps we would do better to preach as those who offer not just nuggets of wisdom, but most profoundly as those who offer a person.  Let’s preach our text in such a way that our listeners dust off their old “imaginers” and start to see the Christ of whom we speak.  Let’s preach our text in such a way that our listeners start to experience the emotion of being in the story.  Let’s preach so that they are not simply collecting abstractions, but are being marked by the characters they encounter in the passage, supremely by the God revealed there.  If we do that, then maybe their motivation for gaining the life wisdom will increase to a level where they care about the points we make.

The mark of success in preaching is not having a lecture hall full of students leaving with your outline on their notes.  It is seeing the change in your listener that can only be explained by their encountering Christ and being changed from the inside-out by His Spirit.

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.

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!