7 Tips for Preaching Online

This weekend will be our second purely online church service.  So we will have a Kids Worship time on Zoom at the other end of the day, then a worship segment live-streamed, switching venue for live-streamed sermon, then a Zoom gathering for communion and hang out.  That is our approach, but there are many others.

Here are 7 quick suggestions if you are new to preaching to a camera:

1. Don’t be intimidated by higher tech churches – I’ve already seen lots of other churches showing off their high tech setups for streaming church.  That’s great, but that’s not possible for everyone.  You may choose to review the situation, but if all you have is a smartphone, then make sure the battery is charged and go with that.

2. Eye contact is different – Don’t look around to a non-existent congregation if you are just preaching to a camera.  Only eye contact with the camera counts.  And if you are preaching to a smartphone or tablet, it is better to use the rear camera (better resolution) and highlight the lens to draw your eyes there.  If you preach to the front camera then you will naturally watch the image (and therefore not be making eye contact via the camera).

3. Preach to your church with possible guests, don’t get carried away – Know that your congregation is hopefully watching.  Know that there may be some guests joining you.  Don’t assume that because your service is live-streamed that you have millions watching your stream all over the world.  Somehow our egos can corrupt ministry when we start to imagine thousands of visitors (and it is probably helpful to humility to remember that your own congregation don’t consistently show up under normal circumstances!)

4. So do be personal, but remember it is out there for all – So when you are preaching to your church, be personal to your church.  However, the stream is out there and could in theory be “clipped up” out of context and used against you.  So be extra careful of references to specific people in the congregation, of your use of humour, of criticism of anyone or anything, etc.

5. Expect to feel drained – Maybe you feel drained after every normal Sunday.  Maybe you feel invigorated when you get to preach God’s Word.  Expect online preaching to drain you.  You have zero feedback, zero interactions in person afterwards, and it really can feel like you literally just preached to an empty room.  Tell your spouse and others if it is harder than normal and invite them to support you with positive encouragement after preaching – it is okay to be vulnerable.

6. Think through the impact of 0 feedback during the sermon – There is impact of zero feedback during preaching too.  You won’t sense restlessness as you labour through your notes.  You won’t internally react to faces of people that typically prompt you to be clearer, or more relevant, or whatever.  After you preach this way you may start to recognise differences in how you preach.  I found it harder to be specific in application, I think, because that is partially a relational impulse while preaching.  Get feedback specific to preaching on camera (maybe you touch your face too much – people are sensitive to that right now).

7. Pray about it all – I’ve come across people who will pray about their sermon, but not about their delivery.  That is strange to me.  God cares about it all.  So too now, pray about the technology, the internet connection, the communication of how to find the livestream, the people you are preaching to, the way you preach to a camera, etc.  Pray about it all, because God cares about it all.

What lessons have you learned in the first weeks of preaching online?

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I have been recording some simple Bible reading highlights for my church. If these are helpful to you, please feel free to share them with others.

7 Spheres: Be Confident in God’s Word

We are living in unprecedented times.  Here in the UK the government is gradually locking down society to try to slow the spread of COVID-19.  Our situation is paralleled in some countries, while we watch other countries facing the greater storm that is just breaking here.

As pastors, ministers, church leaders and preachers, we need to be very confident in God’s Word as we plunge into a global crisis.  We need to be confident that it is God-breathed, useful/profitable, and thoroughly equipping (2Tim.3:16-17).  We need to be confident that it is able to comfort, to encourage, to challenge, to bring light in darkness, and so on.  We need to be confident that it mediates the presence of God, so that when the Bible speaks, God speaks (it is more than a record of what God has spoken).

Here are seven spheres for our confidence in God’s Word to show:

1. Be confident in God’s Word for restoring your soul – you can do ministry fuelled by adrenaline, but not for long enough, nor well enough.  Like Mary in Luke 10, let Jesus minister to you before you minister for Him.

2. Be confident in God’s Word for leading your family – many of us will be experiencing full-time life at home with the whole family.  A recipe for tension and struggle?  Possibly. But remember that your family needs your leadership, and your best leadership will involve bringing perspective, hope,  and stability from God’s Word.

3. Be confident in God’s Word for encouraging believers – the church is not a group of people that receive ministry from you.  The church is a gathering of ministers, a team of priests, each with their opportunities to influence, to lead, and to give to others.  Some will be facing grief.  Some will be overwhelmed by their work at the hospital.  Some will be facing massive financial loss.  Some will be struggling with “little stuff” like tensions at home over “nothing.”  All need to be encouraged by the best fuel for the soul – God’s Word.

4. Be confident in God’s Word for giving hope to the lost – unprecedented national and global crisis means a planet full of people with their standard complacency and confidence shaken.  This is an opportunity for people to realise and discover their need for something more than they can build for themselves in stable times. So of course we want to offer help and provide selfless and sacrificial service to our communities.  But what they need more than anything is for us to give reason for our hope, to pray for opportunities and then spell out the good news whenever we can.

5. Be confident in God’s Word for the health of your (now online) church – Many of us are learning very quickly how to do church services and home groups online, not to mention prayer gatherings, online devotionals, WhatsApp group chats, etc.  So we don’t have access to buildings, we can’t meet in person, we can’t visit people in their homes, and a whole host of other things we normally rely on.  All may be changing, but God’s Word is still the vital staple in your church’s diet.  Look for ways to share God’s Word with people, and encourage them to share it with each other.

6. Be confident in God’s Word in the midst of a crisis – It is tempting in a crisis to default to offering purely practical help, or to fall into personal tendencies (some will be very good at sharing despair, others are experts at making everything party political, still others seem to think the world needs their version of denial).  In a crisis people need God’s Word.  It is not chained.  Trust it.  Share it.

7. Be confident in God’s Word as you pray – We are facing unprecedented times (for us), but God is not new to times of pestilence, of plague, of grief, of fear, etc.  Trust God’s Word to help you find the words you need as you pray for yourself, your family, your church, your community, your nation and this world.

What would you add?  What passages are comforting and encouraging you?

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Here is a link to the latest short, no-frills, no sermonic polish, Bible reading highlight that I have started offering on YouTube. Please take a look at some of these short videos and if you find them helpful, please share with others.  Thanks.

 

Online Prayer Gathering: You Are Invited!

This Sunday will be the first Sunday that a lot of churches are not able to gather together.  In some places that has been the case for a few weeks.  You are invited to a prayer gathering by Zoom to pray together for our churches, for our communities, and even for our Sunday services as we grapple with unfamiliar technology!

Time: Saturday 21st March, 4-5pm (UK) … which is 5-6pm (Europe) … or noon (New York) … or 9am (West Coast, USA).

Format: Drop in at any time, share your church’s name and location in the chat box, share any specific prayer requests in the chat box, and keep prayers relatively short!

Will it work?  I don’t know, but it will be good to try it!  Depending on numbers we may need to turn off our videos, etc.

Link: Click here to join us anytime during the hour

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Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

7 Temptations During COVID-19 Isolation

The vast majority of us have no experience of living in these new and challenging circumstances, and as church leaders we have to figure out how to feed, lead, care and protect our flocks on the job.  To begin with there is a novelty element, and also the sense of focus that a crisis generates in us.  But there will be temptations and we would be wise to anticipate them for ourselves, as well as for others:

1. Despair – For many of us, words like, “give us this day our daily bread” have always been somewhat theoretical.  Suddenly our vulnerability as humans is vividly real.  For some the virus itself is a fear, for all of us the impact on society and life is challenging.  It is probably not good to develop an obsession with news updates and constantly refreshing the global death count.  Be informed, but be far more hungry to fill your heart with hope from God’s Word – you need that, and so do those around you.

2. Depression – Don’t let the initial social media enthusiasm for “time to do odd jobs” fool you.  Life on lockdown will quickly become very challenging.  Even with the blessings of video calls, the reduction in face-to-face human interaction is not something we are created to enjoy.  As Christians we may not realise how much meeting together each week matters until we can’t (and churches that plan to meet against government advice need to seriously consider the damage this will do to our shared witness!)  Carrying the weight of a crisis for yourself, your family, and others, will be more than you can bear and depression in its various forms will be a very real and present danger. We need to learn to find strength, hope, rest and wisdom in God.  And remember: technically depression is not a temptation because it is not a sin – be sure to seek help from other people too, God often works best through others.

3. Blame – When the personal comfort of humans is challenged, blame tends to spill out. We can see it already on social media. Remember that Churchill was widely criticised early on, but lauded for his leadership with hindsight. I don’t know if this generation will fully unite under crisis – the early signals are both yes and no. But let’s be sure that we don’t join in and make this about politics. Let’s set a different tone and show how good is the God who sits on the ultimate throne (and humbles himself to suffer life, with, and for us).

4. Distraction – For decades our western culture has increasingly found sophisticated ways of distracting itself and numbing the routine of a dull reality.  This crisis will initially flag the insignificance of much of that distraction.  There may be a sense of relief at the sudden lack of appetite for unimportant things that felt too important a month ago.  But our human nature will crave distraction … binge watching TV series and sports highlights, numbing fear and loss through alcohol and substance abuse, and the temptations that we struggled with before all this are not yet gone for good.  Don’t run from the situation before us, run to the throne of grace to find help, and be sure to be open with your sympathetic high priest about your own struggle with distraction – whatever form it may take under pressure.

5. Compromise – The added pressure of isolation, or of extra time with your family (which can also be really difficult), or of grief, fear, uncertainty, loss of income, etc., will potentially cause us to consider compromises that we would not have considered when life was the old normal.  Typically civil people have become aggressive in supermarkets.  Typically honest people are out there trying to make dishonest gain by selling their vast stocks of toilet rolls online at a high mark-up.  Typically kind people are and will be tempted to steal, to lie, to cheat and to look out for their own interests as their top priority.  And before we simply condemn sin in others, let’s be sure to recognize that we may feel a pressure to compromise that we have never felt before.  Again, read the Bible with open eyes and an open heart – seek the Lord before the pressures ramp up higher.

6. Burnout – Most of us are used to a certain level of stress from family and ministry life.  But doing family and ministry in an ongoing crisis situation is a whole new level of pressure.  You will be tempted to burnout by giving, giving, giving and not letting God refill your tanks, not looking after yourself with rest, sensible food, etc.  Our inner Martha will rear its head in this time.   That putting others first mentality that is so needed for the church to exist and for ministry to happen.  But when our attitude starts to reveal an empty tank, then it is clear that we have not heeded the Mary example: be sure to sit at Jesus’ feet and let him minister to you before you then pour out to others.  Martha service will prove to be important, but lest we let that Martha tension undo the good, let’s be sure to keep the Mary style devotion as a first priority.

7. Retreat – When everyone is socially withdrawing, it will be tempting to retreat into our own homes and look out for family and church family.  Remember the rest of the world needs Jesus, and many of them have never been this close to realising it!

What else would you add to this list? What other suggestions would you offer?

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Youtube – I have decided to use Youtube for no-frills video versions of some blog posts.  I don’t read the post, but follow the same structure and offer it in spoken form.  To take a look at the video, please click here (and thank you for engaging with either the blog post here or the video there … and I appreciate any sharing of either format to help others find the content.)

A New Not New Experience – COVID-19 Response

There have not been many times in my lifetime when things have been changing so quickly.  Maybe around 9/11.  Maybe when the Iron Curtain fell apart.  But this week the spreading realisation of the seriousness of the Coronavirus situation has been striking.

One day I am seeing Christians on facebook moan about college sports being suspended due to “a silly virus” and the next day they are commenting about the seriousness of the situation.  (Maybe some people should go back and delete some comments that could soon look very uncaring?)

What we are facing is new to many of us.  Uncertainty from one day to the next; travel being complex and restricted; health being under threat; questions over personal income; inability to gather freely for church; potentially inadequate access to healthcare; neighbours living without confidence; people worried about being able to get basic supplies and so on. 

This may be new to most of us, but it is not new for most people, in most of the world, for most of history.

And what does this mean?  It means a unique opportunity to shine like stars in a dark time.  The Roman Empire was all this and more, but the gospel spread like wildfire.  Living under communism with all its restrictions, such as in 20th century China, had many of these features, and unprecedented church growth.  Whether we go back centuries or think more recently, difficult times make for wonderful opportunity for Jesus followers to spill the love of God into a needy and disrupted world.

So what will this season look like for you and me?  Will we mourn the loss of sports, indulge in comfort binge watching of Netflix, complain about all the inconveniences to our usually so comfortable and indulged lives, pour energy into hoarding random grocery items?

Of course it will be a genuinely difficult season for many of us.  Loss of income will hit many. Loss of loved ones will hit some.  But what if we make this unique season an opportunity to proactively love God, love one another and love our neighbours?

Love God – Time in the Bible and prayer can become so routine when life is normal.  Why not let this time stir a greater appetite for time with our God?  Let’s get to know Him more, trust Him more, love Him more.

Love One Another – We may not be able to meet on a Sunday and in home groups, but church is still church even without the meetings.  In fact, it is a great opportunity to think through how we can love one another, shepherd one another, support one another, look out for one another, etc.  The way the church loves is supposed to be noticeable to a world full of people living “me-first.”  This is an opportunity for us to really look different.

Love Our Neighbours – The government will do what it can, probably.  Community spirit may kick in and be helpful.  But the greatest force for on-the-ground love and selfless care should be the followers of Jesus.  A confused, disrupted and increasingly hurting community is what we are here for – what can we do to be ready?  What steps can we take to be bold?  Wash your hands, wash their feet, and tell them the good news about Jesus.

This situation is new to us, but it is not new to God’s people.  Let’s fix our eyes on Jesus and embrace this taste of a more normal life in this broken and hurting world.

Your Church Does Not Need a Superstar

In one sense preachers have always felt pressure.  In the past, the position of church minister was respected in the community, along with other leadership roles in society.  These days the pressure often feels more cynical, with a world ignoring us until they have some dirt to celebrate.

In another sense, there is an increasing pressure on preachers.  In the past people might hear a Billy Graham once every few years, and perhaps they would be exposed to other preachers a little more often.  Today people get to listen to some brilliant communicators, often in edited form, on podcasts throughout the week.  As preachers we can feel the pressure that comes from expectation built by podcast.

To use an analogy, the famous preacher is a bit like a fine chef in a restaurant (assuming the famous preacher is actually a good preacher!)  A periodic meal in a restaurant is a real treat.  However, these days, people effectively have the option of fine dining multiple times each day.  Then Sunday comes and it is back to normal food for a disappointing change.

Remember that children grow into healthy adults based on a continuing supply of reasonably healthy food.  I don’t know many families that offer haut cuisine day in and day out.  In the same way, if you are providing the regular diet for your church, know that the bar is not set impossibly high.

Preach messages that are solidly biblical, as clear as you can manage, as engaging as possible, with relevance underlined for your congregation.  Every now and again you might manage a stunning illustration, or a particularly satisfying turn of phrase.  But for the most part, just decent biblical preaching is the meat and vegetables your church needs to grow healthy and strong.  And if they like to listen to a brilliant podcast?  Great, encourage it.

5 Preaching Paradoxes

John Stott listed five paradoxes in preaching.  This is his list, but the comments are mine:

1. Authentic Christian preaching is both biblical and contemporary – We will tend to incline one way or the other.  Are you strong on biblical studies but not so in touch with the world of your listeners?  Or are you in touch today, but weak on the biblical side of this?  The solution is not a 50:50 formula for study time.  However, it would be wise to prayerfully take stock every so often.

2. Authentic Christian preaching is both authoritative and tentative – What is your dominant tone?  Some have learned to speak everything with unsupportable authority. Others seem hesitant to suggest anything for fear of coming across too strongly.  Listen to a recent sermon and take stock of your tone – there should be both authority and humility.

3. Authentic Christian preaching is both prophetic and pastoral – Preaching should speak into the world of your listeners with declarative and incisive authority, like a prophet of old.  At the same time, these sheep really need the tenderness of a self-sacrificing shepherd.  Perhaps it is worth asking some listeners how they feel when you preach?  Is it helpful confrontation by the truth of God’s Word, or is it the tender care of God’s shepherd heart?  Remember, they need both.

4. Authentic Christian preaching is both gifted and studied -I was always impressed by my teacher’s ability to both preach and teach preaching.  He was clearly gifted, but he also really knew his stuff.  Some good preachers are poor teachers of preaching.  But that double dynamic is at work in preaching too – we need the gifting God has given us (personality, ability, strengths, etc.), and we need to do the work in our study to be able to preach well.  Have you started to lean on your gifting to the detriment of study?

5. Authentic Christian preaching is both thoughtful and passionate – Just thoughtful becomes ponderous and sends you to sleep.  Just passionate can get very loud and annoying when the absence of substance becomes obvious.  Learn what you need to learn, but make sure that study, prayer and life work together in you to generate a passion for what you preach.  They can’t catch the disease unless you are properly contagious.

I am not a fan of balance as a default, but in these five areas, I think Stott’s list is really helpful.

5 Rubbish Reasons to Preach

I was with a group of preachers last week and we had a conversation about good reasons to preach.  Along the way we generated a few not so good reasons to preach … actually, five downright rubbish reasons to preach (for non-England English speakers, “5 Bad Reasons”).  Just in case this is helpful:

1. To keep my job – I understand that both ministry and life are often challenging.  I also understand that we at times will find ourselves preaching without the fire we know we should feel inside.  But when it gets to the stage of simply trying to keep your job, you are long overdue a conversation with some trusted friends.

2. To make them laugh – There are probably a million variations of this.  Essentially the goal is to make people respond to you.  Maybe it is to make them appreciate you.  Maybe it is to show off your intellect rather than your wit.  Whatever the case, if the motivation in your heart is for them to be appreciating you, then your ministry is misfiring.

3. To get the petrol money – Whether it is official honorarium, or a kind gift to cover travel expenses, or even your salary … the chances are that you are not being adequately remunerated for the time spent in study, in ministry experience, and in message preparation.  We are far better off trusting God for our support and serving wholeheartedly, rather than worrying about the gift.  Once we start directly equating our effort for whatever may come back in return, we are probably better off looking at most regular jobs – not just because of the money, but also because of the state of our hearts!

4. To arrive at the end of the service – Sometimes you aren’t thinking about job security, or the response of the people to you, or even the money you might receive, but you are simply longing for the minute hand to reach the appropriate ending point for the sermon.  If you are new to preaching, don’t worry, this feeling won’t last long and you will soon be wondering how your time disappears so quickly.  If you are just going through a really low time, prayerfully make it to the end and sit down with someone safe who can listen and pray with you.

5. To get invited back – This is a weird one in preaching world.  Whether you are a visiting speaker hoping to not offend enough to get another invitation, or whether you are “preaching with a view” and hoping for a pastoral call, the motivation seems off here too.  In every situation we should be trusting God and saying what we believe is appropriate for the text, the listeners and the occasion.  Too many “pulpit dating” sermons and the church won’t be getting a healthy diet, even if they are getting “your best sermons.”

There are plenty of reasons why we should preach, but what would you add to this list of rubbish reasons?

Weight of Evidence Preaching: 5 Lessons Learned

Generally my default approach to preaching is to preach a single passage.  Sometimes I will preach a more topical message where each point is the idea of a text and the points together make up the main idea.  But there is a variation that might be called a weight of evidence sermon.

This is where the main idea of the message is repeated multiple times in the Bible.  So while you may use multiple texts, it is not primarily to build the main idea, but rather to reinforce the main idea.  For example, this past Sunday I essentially preached Isaiah 41:10, “Fear not, for I am with you.”

In one part of the message I quoted Genesis 26:24; Deuteronomy 31:8; Joshua 1:9 and Jeremiah 1:8 – all of which say the same thing in a variety of ways.  I anticipated that I would be able to find examples of the main idea that addressed different circumstances in life, but then in my study found that the “fear not” part of the phrase was either overt or in the context of almost every text I found with “I am with you” or similar phrasing.  So since over 90% of the 30+ passages I looked at had that fear context, I focused the message on God being with us, so we should not be afraid.

I touched down briefly in Hebrews 13:5-6, Psalm 23:4 and Matthew 28:20.  He is with us when threatened by people, when facing death, and in our service for Him – all contexts in which we feel fear.

Here are 5 lessons learned on weight of evidence preaching:

1. This should not be the default.  Typically our goal should not be to touch down in as many different verses as possible.  Padding sermons with unnecessary cross-references is very common and often a detriment to healthy preaching.

2. Be very focused. If the message uses multiple texts, then the main point needs to be very clear and obvious.  Otherwise the multiplied verses will confuse and lose listeners. For instance, there were verses in my list where the world noticed God being with his people and it causing them to fear, or verses that spoke of believers loving one another as the context of God’s dwelling with them.  This message could have lost focus and therefore lost its force.  Be selective in what you preach.

3. Keep their finger on one text.  Preaching is not a Bible sword drill where we try to make people find multiple references.  So I encouraged people to open to Isaiah 41:10, but I projected the text of the other verses used.

4. Feel the force of the frequency.  The point of a weight of evidence message is to help listeners feel the force of the frequency.  Time and again God’s word says this, so we should be sure to hear it!

5. Make follow up study possible. People may respond positively, but make sure the list of passages is available to any who want to study it for themselves.  There is the benefit of the main idea punched home in the sermon, but there is also the possibility of people enjoying the Bible study chase for themselves, if they have the references.

I’d be interested to hear any more thoughts on this approach – both the pros and the cons.