Learning to Preach in Changing Contexts – Jonathan Thomas

Here is another clip from my interview with Jonathan Thomas, pastor of Cornerstone Church, Abergavenny.  I appreciate Jonathan as a friend and as a preacher.

In this clip he talks about what he has learned from preaching during lockdown – a lesson that we all need to keep learning whatever the circumstances we find ourselves in.

To see the full interview, you just need to sign-up to the Cor Deo mailing list and we will make the full interview available to you!  Click here to sign-up – http://eepurl.com/drPqj1

What have you learned in recent months, or what challenges do you anticipate in the coming months?

7 Thoughts About Fear of Public Speaking

One of the quickest ways to find a false use of statistics is to look up the fear of public speaking.  Given a list of options for their greatest fear, more people selected public speaking than death.  The wrong way to say that?  “More people would choose to die rather than speak in public!”  (Please don’t “tabloid” interesting stats to make them sensational and nonsense – people weren’t given that ultimatum!)

By the way, this could be our first helpful thought: (1.) If so many people fear public speaking then you are already ahead simply by standing up front – after all, you doing it means they don’t have to.  At the same time, this initial credit fades as fast as they sense that you are a poor communicator!

Speaking to a crowd of people is something that is unnatural for everyone, and fearful for many.  Whether you have been asked to preach for the first time, or have been conquering this fear over many thousands of sermons, here are a few more thoughts that may be helpful:

2. It is natural to feel unnatural about doing something that isn’t natural.  Whether you feel tangible fear is besides the point.  Speaking to a crowd of people is unnatural.  They are looking at you.  They are potentially listening to you. They are expecting something of a certain standard from you.  This is not a conversation with a friend you are passing in the corridor.  We need to recognize the unnatural reality of public speaking, but then look for ways to communicate in a more natural way (even if we are quaking on the inside).

3. Don’t follow silly advice to overcome your fear.  Please don’t imagine anyone without their clothes on – that is unhelpful on so many levels.  Please don’t look just above peoples’ heads – they notice that far more than you think they will.  Please  don’t concentrate solely on your content and ignore your listeners – again, they will notice if you don’t care about them.

4. Do care about your subject and your listeners.  Being an expert on your content is not as important as caring about it.  When you care about it you will communicate with greater enthusiasm and emotional integrity.  Obviously it really does help to know what you are talking about though, always remaining humble because there is always more to know.  Care about your listeners too.  Once you become more comfortable with delivering your content, you will be able to grow in sensitivity to the people that are sat before you.  Their facial expressions and body language can become really helpful for you over time.

5. Have something to say.  Ultimately this one is asking for more than just coming up with a message for each particular occasion.  This is also the reason I don’t tend to teach public speaking skills without spending more time on Bible handling, spiritual growth and theological instruction.  Honestly I don’t want to increase the number of people who can say things well without having anything worth saying.

I recently saw an example of a very poor communicator who is putting videos online, but really doesn’t have much of value to say.  Sadly, and predictably, he has multiple friends who are ready to offer their gratitude in the comments and perpetuate the cycle.  In the old days exposure and opportunity would grow with demand, but now we can all “self-publish” via podcasts and YouTube.  If you are really growing in your spiritual maturity, then you will increasingly have something to say … which in turn will help to overcome the nerves.

6. Practice saying it.  Since public speaking is unnatural, work on becoming natural with what you have to say.  There is nothing wrong with running through your message, out loud, to improve it and to prepare yourself to preach it under the increased pressure of listeners.  There will always be something you can work on in your delivery too.  Maybe better use of pauses, or variation of pace, or appropriate size of gestures (and in the right direction from the perspective of the listeners).  It takes work to naturally point to your left when you are referring to the future, but once you do, it looks natural to the listener.

7. Fearlessness is not your goal.  It is understandable that those with a tangible fear of public speaking would long for the day when they can stand and deliver without the slightest qualm.  This may not be the best target.  Some nervousness, awareness of the significance of the situation, concern about your own weaknesses as a communicator, etc., are all potentially helpful.  Whether we listeners realize it or not, we want you to preach in reliance and dependence upon God … that will always bear greater fruit than you relying on yourself because you have become so good at it!

Your Culture and Your Preaching – Part 3

So our culture tends to show in how we preach.  We may accept that premise, but so what?  In part 1 we introduced the subject, and in part 2 we listed five ways our culture will be showing.

What should we do about it?  Here is a six-step action plan…

1. Write an initial list of your assumptions.  What comes to mind when you think of a typical preacher from your culture?  It is good to have a starting point so that as you think and research further you will see what you have learned.  Maybe start without any real categories, just what seems obvious to you.

2. Start to analyze your culture using categories.  In the last post I listed five: self, authority, confidence, humour and emotion/passion.  You might also consider organizational style and clarity (in respect to sermon content), use of visuals and expectation of the audience to read during a presentation, body language, smile and facial expression, and more.

3. Triangulate a new vantage point.  This is especially hard if you have only lived and attended church in one culture.  But it is still possible.  Select a culture that is not your own, but you have some awareness of … for example, most British Christians have some exposure to podcasts and speakers from the USA.  Listen to some good examples (not the extreme stereotypes that people like to use to dismiss “everything American” but preachers that you can enjoy and appreciate), listen not only to benefit from their preaching, but also to try to identify what makes their preaching distinctly American (or whatever culture you select).  Obviously there are always caveats, three white conservative evangelical preachers will help you to spot some common traits, but you will have missed the massive tradition of African-American preaching, etc.  You are not doing this to generalize or to label, but rather to gain a vantage point for your own culture.

Do the same with a culture you are not familiar with.  For instance you might find a handful of examples of preachers from a third continent.  Be careful not to just watch a handful of preachers with a different ethnic background who also live, study and preach in the USA or the UK – the distinct differences will be reduced by their assimilated context.  A totally new culture can give you the culture shock of unfamiliarity that will help this process.

Once you’ve started to recognize some commonalities in these two other cultures, making notes for your own use, then try step 4:

4. Watch your own culture from the vantage point of step 3.  Maybe find a handful of preachers from your own culture and watch them.  How do they differ from what you observed in the two cultures of step 3?  Be careful not to just feel at home and simply affirm them as generically good preachers.  Recognize that they have strengths and weaknesses from their culture.  Maybe having had a dose of a different culture or two you can start to spot some idiosyncrasies that may not be so helpful after all?  If you only see positives in your own culture, then go back and repeat step 3!

5. Ask questions. Sometimes you can gain a lot of ground quickly by just asking someone who is from outside your culture but will be honest enough to answer your question.  This will be more helpful after doing some good thinking yourself.  If you just jump to this then the benefit will be reduced, but it is still worth doing, especially if that person is in your church and you are preaching to them regularly.

6. Evaluate and adjust.  The more thoroughly you do steps 1-5, the more likely you are to take stock and start to make some adjustments.  This will involve not only understanding more of what is stereotypical in your culture, but also evaluating what traits you personally reflect from that culture, and thinking through who your listeners are too.  If they are from different cultural backgrounds, then that creates some obvious opportunities for adjustment.  But even if everyone in your church is saturated in your own culture, there may still be cultural idiosyncrasies that you could choose not to reflect in order to strengthen your communication.

Maybe you have travelled and become more aware of your own culture? Maybe you are ministering outside of your home culture? What other categories might you add to what has been mention in this short series

Your Culture and Your Preaching – Part 2

Yesterday we began the series by flagging that your preaching is probably more influenced by your national culture than you tend to realize (click here if you haven’t read part 1 already, it will help to make sense of this post.)

Here are some aspects of our preaching that may be more reflective of our culture than we realize:

1. Self.  How much of ourselves do we inject into the talk, and how do we speak about ourselves?  How comfortable do we feel telling stories about ourselves to support what we are saying?  Do we assume our listeners want to hear about us because we are the one speaking, or are we further down the continuum that assumes our role is to point them to the subject at hand rather than to the person stood before them?

2. Authority.  Do we tend to take the stance of the celebrity expert, or the authoritarian scholar, or use the indirect authority of gentle encouragement?  It is not just whether we speak with authority or not, but how that authority is wielded.  This is about whether we are more direct or indirect, instructive or suggestive, bold or subtle.

3. Confidence.  Related to authority is the issue of confidence.  Do we tend to show confidence when we speak, and is our confidence (or lack of it) usually more focused on subject matter, or on ourselves?  What can seem confident and humble in one culture can be heard as arrogant and aloof in another.

4. Humour.  Even though every person’s sense of humour is highly personal, there are cultural cues in our use of humour too.  What can have one crowd guffawing with laughter can easily leave someone from another culture wondering what all the fuss is about.  Some cultures value personal wit, others leave all humour to the experts, some cultures thrive on scripted stories, but others will naturally find such staged moments tiresome.  Self-deprecation will be another ingredient that shows at differing levels in different cultures.

5. Emotion/Passion.  Some cultures generate more public speakers with flare and enthusiasm, others are much more reserved.  While many will joke about their own cultural stereotypes, what shows in preaching is not always so obvious – in fact sometimes it can go in the opposite direction (I can think of some cultures known for being at one end of the continuum and yet generating many preachers who seem to reflect the opposite end of the scale!)  How does enthusiasm show, and in what element of the message does that energy become manifest?

These are just five categories of cultural influence on our public speaking.  What would you add to the list?

Your Culture and Your Preaching – Part 1

Last evening we sat down as a family to watch the first part of a training course that we want our teens to experience this summer.  It was very helpful.  And it was presented by someone from a different culture than the one we are living in.  Some of the differences were striking, but I wonder if the presenter might only have a limited idea if asked what was peculiarly typical of his culture.

One of the benefits of living in a foreign culture is that it gives you eyes to see your own culture of origin more clearly.  Our culture is like the water a fish swims in – it is all around us and affects everything, but we tend to be oblivious to it.

As preachers we work to know the world of the Bible and the world of our listeners, and maybe we think about our own world in respect to the inner landscape of our own lives that help us to recognize where we might be inclined to push an issue harder or avoid it altogether.  But I suspect a lot of us preachers remain fairly unaware of how our preaching and communication reflects our own culture.

Culture is made up of a series of overlapping categories that shape us and the way we communicate.  We are influenced and shaped by our family of origin, our education, our local area of upbringing, subcultures we choose to identify with (political, entertainment, music, special interests, etc.), national culture and even global-regional cultures (i.e. Latin America, or North America, or even Western vs Eastern).

And yet, while we are all individual in the profile of our various sub-cultural influences, still we tend to reflect the broader categories more than we realize. Even with clothing neutralized, vocabulary filtered, physical features blurred and accent removed, I suspect we might still be able to identify a speaker as being typically British or American or Australian or Italian or Polish or South African or Japanese or Brazilian, etc.

Tomorrow I will list five ways in which our culture tends to influence how we speak.  The following day I will list a plan for growing in awareness of this and hopefully improving our speaking as a result.  In the meantime, feel free to comment with things that come to mind when you think about how people tend to preach in your culture (probably better not to comment critically about other cultures though!)

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I just finished my Journey Thru John – one highlight per chapter through John’s Gospel.  Here’s the link in case you want to take a look (notice the slightly indirect invitation and that I didn’t make bold assertions about the life-changing truths in these brief videos?  Actually, it feels slightly awkward to mention them at all.  That’s my culture showing…)

 

7 Quick Ways to Improve Your Preaching – Part 2

Sometimes a little tweak can make a big difference.  Yesterday I started the list with stop excessive cross-referencing, excessively quoting scholars and meandering (click here if you missed it).  Here is the next installment of the list.  Do any of these quick fixes fit for you?

4. Stop apologizing.

I don’t know if you do this, but if you do, don’t.  Apologies for lack of preparation, or for complexity of subject, or for lack of illustration, or for lack of time to do justice to the subject (you’d have had more if you didn’t apologise for not having enough!) … there are probably a dozen opportunities to apologize in every sermon.  Generally speaking, don’t.  I apologized the first time I was up front at church.  The visiting missionary thanked me afterwards and told me not to apologize because everyone else was encouraged to see me up there.  Then the first time I took a lecture for one of my profs at seminary I apologized for not covering every aspect of my subject.  He firmly told me to let people think they have the full meal deal.  Generally speaking, with some careful exceptions, don’t apologize.

5. Stop using illustrations that don’t work for most listeners.

Illustrative material generally should either work for all, or be combined with parallel illustrations that together will cover the congregation.  For example, I have some teens in my house.  If I talk about parenting teens then what about parents with smaller children, or those who couldn’t have children, or empty-nesters whose memory has faded?  (Plus, what about my teens who have to sit through the illustration – maybe your own family isn’t as good a source of illustrations as you might think!)  Then there are my hobbies, or my film choices, or my life experiences…all of which are quite specific to me.  Actually, finding illustration material that most can relate to is not easy.  But being irrelevant to a group of people for too long in a message is too damaging.

I will finish the list tomorrow…watch this space!

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.

How Would Jesus Teach Us To Preach?

If Jesus was offering a seminar on preaching, I am sure we would all sign up.  The full course would probably include matters of authoritative preaching (unlike the scribes), crafting compelling images, plotting effective stories, and so on.  But a brief seminar?  Perhaps it would cover two points.

When Jesus was asked about prayer he answered with his two-part variation on the greatest commandment.  Since he did the two-part answer repeatedly, let me speculate about how the “how should we preach?” answer might go…

1. Love God.  The starting point is always fellowship with the Father. We cannot give what we are not first receiving.  Allow him to minister to you, before you minister for him.  Seek the Lord and find him, then share him.  Seek the Lord in His Word, then share the person you meet there.  Diligently study and wrestle with the text, not to gain cold knowledge, but to have your heart melted by the God who reveals himself there.  Before you speak to others, love God yourself in response to his love for you.

2. Love your neighbour (i.e. your Sunday morning listener) Be sure you are praying for the people you will be speaking to and spend time with God concerning their lives and their hearts.  Plan your message prayefully as an act of love driven by deep concern for their lives. Work so that they can understand, stay engaged, follow along, feel the importance and the impact of God’s Word to them from his Word. Preach with the winsomeness and grace of God’s heart flowing out from yours, because God is passionately committed to incarnating his message.

What do you think Jesus would teach in a preaching seminar?

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By the way, I have a little book about the Jesus we preach coming out soon … more information to follow – watch this space.

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.