Preaching in Step with the Spirit

This is a simple post, but I think an important one.  As a preacher, are you preaching in step with the Spirit?

I am not referring to your lifestyle and personal holiness, although that is vitally important.  I am referring to your preaching.  Rather than multiply words, I am going to lay this out as simply as possible:

The world, the flesh and the devil are constantly pointing us to ourselves.  After all, we can be “like God” and we just need to take some initiative.  We are constantly bombarded with reinforcements of our self-reliant tendencies and self-concerned focus.

The Holy Spirit is pointing us to the love of God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.  As we look to Jesus we can find salvation, and we can discover the transformative power of the glory of his grace.

Your preaching cannot change anyone in itself.  But it can either go against the Spirit, or be in line with the Spirit’s work.  Are we pointing to Christ, or are we pointing people back to themselves?

Simple question.  Profound significance.

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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 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 Easter … 10 Pointers

10 targetfI can’t believe it is three years since I posted the 10 Pointers series.  Here is one part of it for this weekend…

Easter is a critical season in church ministry.  There may be people in church who would normally not be in church. There will be regulars who need to be captured by the Easter story afresh.  Here are 10 pointers for preaching Easter:

1. Tell the story – whether people are first-timers, once a year attenders, or regulars, they need to hear the basic Easter story.  Jesus told his followers to have a regular reminder in the form of communion, so we can be sure that Easter itself should include a clear presentation of what actually happened.

2. Pick a passage – while you can preach a blended harmony of accounts, why not pick a specific passage and preach it properly?  At the very least, it will be a blessing for your own soul.  For instance, Luke’s account of the trials, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is marked by his distinctive “two witnesses” motif . . . underlining the certainty of what took place.  His use of the term “it is necessary” underlines the ‘must-ness’ of God’s plan.

3. Undermine familiarity – the frequency of reference to the death of Christ, combined with serene artistic impressions and popular jewellery, has made most people unaware of the reality of that first Easter.  Carefully pick a fact or two to help bring it home: Jesus was probably crucified at eye-level; the condemned had to lift his body weight to take a full breath.

4. Beware of shock and awe – people won’t be drawn by your graphic description of gory medical detail.  Rather, they will be won by the Spirit.  Be sure to preach Christ and him crucified, don’t try to shock people into a response.  Some may be hardened by exposure to Hollywood special effects, but others may grow faint at the mention of blood.

5. Recognize there is emotion in Easter – we certainly don’t want to manipulate emotions, but neither should we deny them.  Easter stirs emotions.  There will be sadness at what Jesus went through and why it was necessary (my sin). Yet also the joy and celebration of the resurrection – Easter mixes and stirs the emotions.   Preach in such a way as to make evident the emotion within the text you are preaching, while engaging with the mixture of response from those listening.

6. Make clear the truth of Easter – it is hard to think of a good excuse for not making clear the truth of Easter, including the fact of the Resurrection.  Apologetically this is ground zero for our presentation of the Gospel and Christianity.  Don’t miss the opportunity.

7. The Resurrection is more than proof – be careful that the Resurrection does not become simply the proof that theologically Christ’s sacrifice was accepted, or apologetically that Christianity is true.  Yes and yes, the Bible presents this truth and offers unparalleled historicity, but there is more.  The Resurrection introduces the wonder of New Covenant spiritual life now, and hope for the fulfillment of God’s plans in the future, and so much more.

8. The Crucifixion is more than payment – just as the Resurrection can get reduced to a source of proof, so the Crucifixion can be reduced.  Some will make it just an example for us.  That is very weak.  Some will present it purely as the payment for the penalty of our sin.  This is stronger, but still incomplete. Consider John’s Gospel emphasis on the cross as the revelation of the glory of God’s character, or as the means by which people are drawn to Christ.  (Obviously, if your passage is focused on satisfying the wrath of God against sin, then don’t fail to make that your emphasis!)

9. Clarify the ultimate identification – preaching any narrative will naturally lead to listeners identifying with characters in the story.  The Easter story is full of potential points of identification: deserting disciples, denying Peter, doubting Thomas, betraying Judas, power-hungry Caiaphas, self-protective Pilate, hurting Mary, mocking soldiers, shouting crowds, repentant thief, etc.  But don’t miss the central character: Jesus Christ came to identify with us, to bear our sin, to take our place, and to invite our trusting and adoring gaze in his direction.

10. Never lose the wonder – be sure that if you are preaching Easter to others, that it has first refreshed and thrilled your own soul.

Helmut Thielicke described Spurgeon’s humour as “Easter laughter,” that which comes as a “mode of redemption because it is sanctified – because it grows out of an overcoming of the world.”  May Easter so grip our hearts this year that our preaching points others to the wonder of the cross and the empty tomb, and so that our own souls burst out in praise to the God who would make such an event the centerpiece of His glorious redemptive plan!

The Goals of Biblical Preaching Are Not Pragmatic

Good preaching should be biblical, clear, engaging and relevant.  At first sight we may be tempted to think that only the first, being biblical, is a theologically driven goal.  At first sight we may feel that being clear, engaging and relevant are more pragmatic goals.  I disagree.

There is a theological foundation for each of the goals.

When we preach we can be more or less clear in both content and delivery.  We can be organised in our material to help our listeners follow us, and we can be easy to understand in our delivery: through our diction, enunciation, body language, expression, and so on.  It is easy to think of clarity as a pragmatic issue.  It is more than that.

When we preach we can be more or less engaging in both content and delivery. We can offer content that seems aloof and tedious, or content that is captivating and connecting.  We can deliver our messages in a manner that feels odd and distant, or we can speak with a contagious enthusiasm and energy for the preaching event that arrests our listeners’ attention and holds their interest throughout.  It is easy to think of being engaging as a pragmatic issue. It is more than that.

When we preach we can be more or less relevant in both content and delivery. We can launch distant content over the top of peoples’ heads, or we can target our content into the very nitty gritty of our listeners’ lives.  We can deliver in such a way that listeners have the sense that we don’t care, or in such a way that they know we are relevant and so is our content.  It is easy to think of being relevant as a pragmatic issue.  It is more than that.

We should be clear, engaging and relevant for theological reasons.  God is a good communicator.  His ultimate communication was in the incarnation, the human to human dynamic that makes our union with Christ possible.  We speak as human to humans, as representatives of the communicator God, the incarnating God, and so we represent him not only in what we say, but also in how we say it.  Nobody cares about the listener being able to follow, knowing it is for them, and wanting to listen, as much as God does.  As his representatives, therefore, we should be stirred toward ever-growing clarity, engagement and relevance in what we say.

Living in the Shadow of the Cross

I grew up in a church that had a steady weekly rhythm of three meetings. There was the Sunday morning service where communion was the main and central feature – different folks sharing thoughts, songs and prayers that generally pointed us back to Calvary. Then there were the other two meetings: one was a Gospel presentation that always seemed to be targeted at unbelievers, the other was a Bible study that was definitely for believers. These were all good meetings and I am thankful for how much I benefited from all of these as I grew up. However, there was an implicit, though unintended, contradiction in this set of meetings.

The communion time kept new believer and seasoned saint together at the foot of the cross every Sunday morning. However, the other two meetings gave the distinct impression that the cross was for unbelievers who needed to get saved, but for believers there was a Bible study that could be anywhere in the Bible … almost as if we had moved on from the cross.

As we approach Easter again this year, do we see it as a season for evangelism, or as a season for personal renewal? Hopefully both. After all, the cross is not just for conversion. In fact, if we reflect on the teaching of Scripture we will recognize that we not only come to faith at the foot of the cross, but we also become mature in its shadow.

Consider the explosive book of Galatians. Paul was deeply bothered to hear that this new group of believers were being troubled by false teachers. These imposters wanted to supplement the Gospel of God’s grace that Paul had brought to them with an apparently “more complete” teaching. What was this more complete gospel? It was one that made the Law a central feature of both conversion (circumcision) and Christian growth (law-keeping effort). Paul was desperate to save the church from this error.

At the end of chapter two he gives the main thrust of his letter from verses 15-21. Notice how he refers to justification four times, followed by references to life six times. He is concerned about both – how do sinners get justified, and how do believers then live? Galatians 2:20 is a synopsis worthy of planting in our hearts:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

His death was my death. When Jesus died I co-died with him. Now it is the resurrected life of Christ that is vibrant within me. So how do I live in this flesh? I live by looking to the one who loved me and gave himself for me – I live my life by a cross-focused faith.

Then we come to chapter three of Galatians, and the first three verses challenge our human tendency to move beyond the cross, thinking we are becoming somehow more sophisticated.

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?

Paul describes his ministry amongst them as one of placarding the cross. His phrase “publicly portrayed as crucified” is meaning that he painted a vivid and bold picture of the death of Christ as the overwhelming focus of his ministry. He had clearly “preached Christ and him crucified” (see 1Cor.2:1-5) and they had responded to that message.

But now Paul was shocked that they felt they could move on to a more sophisticated spirituality that fixed its gaze not on the cross of Christ, but onto their own flesh-driven efforts to mature (“being perfected”). During the next couple of chapters Paul pursues his powerful contrast between the gift of the New Covenant – wherein believers have a close relationship with God by looking to Christ and receiving the Spirit – and turning back to the Old Covenant that was never intended to save, but only point them to their need of Christ. Our flesh has an infinite capacity to think we can somehow go it alone, by our own efforts.

Galatians is just one place where we see this critical tension in life. We will always be pulled away from God’s salvation and life plan towards a self-reliant alternative. We may be more familiar with the rebellion version – that fleshly tendency to indulge in sin and go it alone in the realms of temptation. But there is a religious version too – a fleshly tendency to indulge in the sin of self-reliance where we start to go it alone in the realms of self-righteousness. For example, how easily do we fall into the default “try harder” approach to life when seeking to overcome temptation, or when sensing a need for a closer walk with Christ?

God wants us to mature, to grow more and more into the likeness of our Lord Jesus Christ. Easter is a great time to be reminded that our growing to maturity is not about our venturing out into various levels of academic or experiential sophistication, nor is it about gritting our teeth and simply trying harder as we look to our own resources. True Christian growth will always be nurtured in the shadow of the cross.

Billy Graham: Some Lessons for Preachers

Billy Graham has changed address. He is now more alive than ever. Upon hearing news of his death I thought it appropriate to reflect on what preachers might want to learn from his life and ministry.

I remember hearing Billy Graham preaching during Mission England in 1984/85. As a boy I sat on the terraces of the stadium and heard his voice ring out with clarity, urgency and sincerity. A few years later technology allowed LiveLink – I remember sitting in a large tent and watching him preach on the screen, and then several friends going forward to trust in Christ for salvation. His book on Angels was the first Christian book to ignite a love for reading in me. A few years later as a student I listened to a cassette of him preaching as I drove into university each day. I lived at the tail end of Billy Graham’s ministry, but I am a grateful recipient of it nevertheless

As preachers in a new century, what can we learn from Billy Graham as we reflect on his life and ministry? Here are a few lessons, please do add more:

1. Preach Christ. Billy Graham gradually developed a very significant platform in society. He had access to Presidents, and yet that never swayed him into preaching politics. He was known across the globe, and yet that never stirred him into promoting himself. He preached Christ.

2. Personal Integrity. Billy Graham would have been a colossal scalp for the enemy to take. It would have been a huge media frenzy. It never happened. He is a lesson to us all on the power of personal integrity in ministry. He made choices regarding money, and especially personal purity, that many would scoff at today. But we should thank God for men who make it to the finish line.

3. Profound Conviction. Billy Graham believed what he preached, and so listeners felt the force of his message. The direct manner of his communication left listeners without any doubt that he wanted them to hear him and act on what he said. This conviction was not a performance, it was forged in the crucible of prayer and a personal walk with Christ.

4. Pioneering Innovation. Billy Graham was willing to embrace transport and technological developments to preach Christ. When others felt constrained by tradition, he was willing to travel further and press into the use of newspaper columns, network radio, television, satellite broadcast and so on. What he did may look antiquated now, but he was radical then.

5. Proclamation Ministry. Billy Graham proclaimed a message. He was a herald. There is certainly a need for those who can debate or engage in high level apologetics. There is a place for various approaches to evangelism and ministry. Billy Graham heralded the gospel. “The Bible says…” may sound quaint to some, but it rang crystal clear in many hearts. He knew that God would use the proclaimed Word.

6. Preach Simply. Billy Graham preached so that ordinary people could understand what he was saying and relate to it. He avoided complicated terminology. He didn’t show off his learning. He kept the vocabulary and the sermonic structure simple. He would build rapport, show that something is not right (sin), and then announce the hope to be found in Jesus, inviting response.

7. Pathos Targeted. Billy Graham knew that the Gospel had to be proclaimed to the heart. He knew people feel empty, they feel lonely, they feel guilty and they feel afraid of death. He did not harangue his listeners with duty, but proclaimed the message with deep compassion.

8. Prayer Integral. Billy Graham knew that for lives to be transformed it would need to be the work of the Holy Spirit. Thus, he was a man of prayer. His ministry was bathed in prayer. We might say his impact can only be explained by prayer. Copying Billy Graham’s intonation or gestures, using his illustrations, replicating his urgency, and even plagiarizing his sermons will not bring significant fruit. Copying his prayer life might.

He preached in person to over 210 million people through his ministry. I suspect none of us will come close to that. But we would do well to seek to emulate a life lived with utmost integrity, gracious humility, profound simplicity – and may we also proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to an ever-needy world.

Preaching Myths – Part 8

I could extend this series for much longer, but I think I will finish with this familiar myth:

8. Since preaching is not a performance, as long as the content is good, delivery doesn’t matter.

This myth is birthed from a good motivation.  Many preachers want to honour the biblical text (content), and don’t want to draw attention to themselves (delivery).  So, in an attempt to avoid performance or entertainment, the preacher therefore ignores delivery.  This is worth wrestling with though:

A. Poor delivery skills will draw attention to the preacher.  If you have ever heard someone preaching with an unchecked verbal pause (i.e. the repeated use of a word without intending to use its meaning), or with an awkward gesture, or without any hint of a smile, or with unusual or absent eye contact, then you will know that it can become very distracting.  A preacher you cannot hear, or who bores you to tears, or who doesn’t seem to care about you, is a preacher who will draw attention to himself as people try not to roast the preacher over their Sunday lunch (instead of celebrating the great content that may or may not have been there).

B. Working on delivery is not about performing.  Obviously, for some it is, and there are plenty of examples on YouTube or in the press that bring shame on the name of Christ for their quirky insistence on being strange.  However, for most of us, working on our delivery is a matter of love for our listeners and good stewardship of the ministry God has entrusted to us.  Working on delivery is not about performing, it is about communicating effectively.

C. The goal of giving attention to our delivery is to help us become more natural.  We are not living in the old days where delivery was largely about platform presence and effective acoustics (i.e. vocal projection).  In this day and age, the goal should be to be natural, normal, authentic.  And in the unnatural environment of public speaking, it takes work to be natural.  It takes some work to make our gestures “fit” the size of the audience, or to progress logically or chronologically from left to right (from the listeners’ viewpoint).  It takes work to bring the energy and dynamism we have in conversation into the strange setting of addressing a crowd.  Our goal is not to perform, but to be able to communicate effectively … and to be ourselves.

D. We cannot abdicate any aspect of preaching and “leave it to the Spirit.”  I have seen this logic in several variations.  There is the “I will do the explaining, but leave the application to the Spirit” idea – this is not good thinking.  The Spirit is involved in your study, your explanation and your application.  (What you can’t do is force change inside your listeners, that is His exclusive domain.)  Equally, there is the “I will do the content, but I will leave the engaging of listeners’ attention and interest to the Spirit” excuse for being a dull communicator.  Again, poor thinking.  We need to be leaning on the Spirit’s help in every aspect of sermon preparation and delivery.  We cannot hand over one part of that, any more than we can push out the Spirit and claim to handle any part on our own.

There are many other myths I could ponder, but I will leave it there for this series.  Thanks for your comments, conversation, sharing, etc. – it is all appreciated.

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!

Preaching Myths – Part 6

Here’s another idea that we too easily believe:

6. A sermon is just the sum of its parts.

That is to say, a sermon consists of explanation combined with application and some illustrations.  There is an element of truth here, but it would be naïve to think that it is that simple.

A. There are basic components of a biblical sermon.  Essentially there are sermon components like the introduction and the conclusion.  And there are ingredients that go into the body of a sermon, such as explanation, application and so-called illustration.  At a certain level every sermon could be analysed and found to include these components and ingredients.

B. There are nuances that influence the effectiveness of each of those components and ingredients.  For example, there is no such thing as a good illustration, there is such a thing as a good illustration of something.  A good explanation for one group of people will fly completely over the heads of another crowd.

C. There are less tangible influences on the effectiveness of a sermon.  We could go in many directions here, but lets think about the preacher.  What influences how the preacher preaches the components and ingredients of a sermon?  The preacher’s love for God and love for the listener is hard to quantify, but it surely influences the choice of sermon ingredients and their delivery.  The preacher’s personal baggage is a filter through which every sermon is processed and preached.  If a preacher is struggling with pride, then in some way it will show in the sermon.  If a preacher is angry, then in some way it will show in the sermon.

A sermon is not just the ingredients of explanation, application and illustrations blended together with sermon components like an introduction and a conclusion.  The effectiveness of a sermon goes much deeper than the quality of the elements that are blended together.  There is also the moving dynamic of those listening, the occasion, as well as the preacher’s ability, style of communication and so much more.  There are complex nuances influencing every aspect of a sermon.  Let’s prayerfully keep learning so that we can be the best stewards of the preaching privilege that we can.