Pondering Pre-Sermon Position

Over the years I have been a visiting speaker many times in churches.   While there is no such thing as a typical church, there are some things that are common to many churches.  Take, for instance, the pre-sermon logistics for the visiting speaker:

Before the Service – Upon arrival the visiting speaker is typically greeted by one of the church leaders and then invited back into a small room to pray with that leader or the leadership team.  Thus most of the time before the service is spent in prayer.  This is a good thing, of course, as we need to declare our dependence on the one apart from whom we can do nothing.  It is good to sometimes be able to hear the heart of leaders for their church.  It is good to settle the heart and prepare to preach.

During the Service – Then just before the service begins, the preacher is often ushered to the front row, or even to sit on the platform facing the congregation.  The latter option will be more typical in more formal churches (sometimes with a more formal arrival to that position too).  Up front in one way or another just seems more practical.  It avoids a long walk down the aisle after the speaker introduction, for one thing.

A lot can be said, both practically and spiritually, for these two standard practices.  Maybe they should remain standard practice, but I just want to ponder them for a moment.

Before the Service – When the speaker arrives at a church, the minutes before the service begins are the prime opportunity to get to know the congregation that will be hearing the sermon.  While some people praying will reveal helpful insight into the congregation, many don’t.  But spend fifteen or twenty minutes chatting with the guy on the sound desk as you collect your microphone, and a handful of other people you can strike up a conversation with, and you tend to learn a lot about a church (especially if that is your goal).  Should we not pray?  Of course we should, and hopefully, we all have.  A lot.  But does an extended time of prayer right before a service outweigh the value of that interaction time?  Typically, I’m not convinced.

During the Service – Then what about the pre-sermon placement of the preacher?  Each to their own preference, I would say.  My preference?  I like to be at the back of a congregation.  It allows me to feel the temperature in the room.  Are people distracted?  Are they engaged?  Again, more opportunity to become aware of the listeners.  Are there some obviously awkward first-timers?  And what about the awkward walk up the aisle after the speaker introduction?  Not a problem.  It is relatively inconspicuous to move to the front row during the last song before the sermon.

I know this is my own preference, but I have found sitting on the front row you can feel watched, unable to properly look at your notes or the Bible, and unable to look around and observe the people.  And sitting on the platform facing everyone?  This feels like hard work because so many eyes could be inquisitive about every sip of water, look at the Bible, posture, facial expression, etc.  Maybe you can see everyone’s faces, but you lose all freedom to observe them, check notes, adjust radio microphone, or whatever.  It is the shortest walk to preaching position, but often you can feel the least prepared when you arrive!

This post is purely subjective ponderings.  I certainly wouldn’t want a church to change its practice just because I am preaching – I am very used to all the options and happy to serve in whatever pattern is preferred.  What do you find helpful when you are not in your own familiar church environment?

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Planning for Christmas Now

The summer is over and the busy autumn schedule is in full swing.  Before you know it, it will be Christmas.  I know, this is where most people moan about consumerism and advertising, but for church leaders now is the time to be thinking beyond the shopping to the church plans.

Christmas is a season that rolls around very quickly.  What will you do this year?  For some it is a festival of special events that require lots of planning.  For others it is a quieter season with the special carol service and maybe even a lighter load.  Whichever way you plan your church Christmas schedule, you do need to pray for sensitivity to a set of potential people present:

1. Seasonal visitors – some people will go to church because it is Christmas.  They typically are not expecting a life changing experience, but we can be praying for that. We also need to make sure the welcome, the experience of being at church, the message and so on are all conducive to motivating them to even consider coming again, finding out more, etc.

2. Family and friends – some people will go to your church because it is Christmas and they have a connection to someone in your church.  Maybe a family member visiting, or perhaps a friend from work.  They need everything the seasonal visitor needs, but it is good to also recognise what their experience means to the person who brings them – it can cost a lot to bring someone to church.

3. Church regulars – some people will go to your church because it is their church.  Don’t forget them.  It is easy to rely on them for extra manpower in a busy Christmas season, but pray that they will also be touched afresh by the wonder of the incarnation and God’s great rescue mission.

So as you think about the different categories of people, think also about these issues (all of which need planning before the tinsel is visible in the shops) …

Experience – The experience of visiting church begins with how people hear about the church (advertising, invitations, etc.), and continues in the car park, and into the building, etc.  Perhaps get a small group to think it through from the perspective of a first timer!

Message – Will you do an advent series?  How will you make each message work on its own?  How will you combine satisfaction of traditional expectations with fresh material for regulars and guests?  (Can I also suggest my book, Pleased to Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation (Christian Focus, 2014) … it contains a lot of potential message material!)

Follow-Up – With all the energy going into the Christmas events, it probably feels like a stretch to run a “just looking” course in January, but it may be ideal timing!

 

7 Ways to Stay Gospel Sharp – continued

Continuing yesterday’s list (I won’t repeat the explanation, please click here if you didn’t see it)…

2. Purposefully pray beyond your own sphere – be sure that you invest time in prayer that is not focused solely on your life, your ministry, your family, your church, your country. Pray for the lost. Name some.  Pray for the cross-focused mission of the church both locally and globally.  Pray for some people you will never meet in this life.

3. Sacrificially give to gospel-specific mission – recognize that many good causes can and do raise money from outside (and inside) the church, but who else will give to support evangelistic missions work, Bible translation, church planting, introducing the unreached to Jesus? Giving tends to focus our hearts. If you can, lead your church to give to something outside themselves that only spiritually alive Christians would give to.

4. Read something stimulating – as a preacher we can easily spend a lot of time reading commentaries, and perhaps we make sure we are reading in order to stay current and understand our culture. But what about a missionary biography like God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew, or Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot? You may even have a classic or two on your shelf (there are some great newer ones too, of course!)

5. Identify and persist with a gospel target – I have worked for years with Operation Mobilization, a missionary organization that traces it roots back to one elderly lady who prayed for years for the high school across the street. She could not reach those thousands of students with the good news about Jesus, but she knew who could, so she prayed to Him. She knew what they needed was more than a better school, so she prayed.  She sent a gospel of John to a notorious student, and he got saved and co-launched a global missions movement that has impacted millions of lives.

6. Exit your bubble – Prayerfully ask God to help you see the bubble that exists or is forming around your life and ministry. Can you go into the city-centre and see some genuine gospel mission in action? Can you stay in touch with a friend who is overseas telling people about Jesus?  Can you visit?  The mission of God required and requires the crossing of cultural and national borders … even if your ministry is local, look for ways to cross borders and boundaries so that your bubble does not become a cocoon.

7. Preach bigger than you can achieve – I have deliberately left preaching until the end of the list. If we are to stay gospel sharp it begins in our personal lives, not in our pulpit presentations. But when you preach, don’t settle for achievable goals (such as informing, educating, encouraging, leading, etc.)  Be sure that in some way you present Christ and him crucified such that listeners might be saved, and believers might be stirred.  True preaching must go beyond what our abilities can achieve and rely on the Spirit of God to bring new spiritual life and new spiritual fruit!

What else would you add?  What have you found helpful to avoid gospel drift in your life and ministry?

7 Ways to Stay Gospel Sharp

The history of the church as well as observation of the contemporary church show that God’s people always suffer from gospel drift.  That is, the church slowly but surely tends to move away from the gospel just as our bodies slowly but surely move away from health.

God so loved the world that he sent his Son on a rescue mission to lead people from death to spiritual life.  His mission required a flint-like focus on destination Calvary.  Yes, there are many other aspects and facets to that mission, but if you lose the cross you lose the mission.  As the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus sent his followers … into the same spiritually dead world, with a message to speak that souls might be rescued, disciples made and multiplication of the mission maintained.  But the church drifts.

We drift into lesser projects and, if we are not careful, we start to call them the mission.  After all, it always feels better to be successful at something we can do, rather than keeping focused on something we struggle to do.  The lesser projects are often not unimportant.  The lesser projects should be supportive of the great mission. But when they become identified with the mission, that is a sure sign that drift is occurring.

How often do churches become so consumed with a building project that they lose sight of the greater mission?  What about making the church program the best it can be? What about trying to live good lives as a silent witness (and therefore, eventually, no witness at all)?  What about improve-human-life projects so that the poor can be less poor?  What about political activism that seeks to right wrongs somewhere?  Every one of these things is important, and hopefully Jesus would be central to our motivation for each one, but if we are not careful, we will lose Christ’s flint-focus on the mission.

As preachers, we lead and influence.  So here are 7 quick ideas to stay gospel sharp in your ministry:

1. Restore your gospel focus in your Bible reading – if you are in the Old Testament, watch the gospel trajectories that lead to Christ; if you are in the Gospels, watch Christ’s mission unfold; if you are in Acts, watch the message spreading; if you are in the epistles, watch the application of the gospel to the challenges facing the church.

Tomorrow I will complete the list…

Pride and the Preacher

One of the greatest problems for preachers is pride.  It is an insidious and relentless foe that will look to creep in at every stage of a life spent in ministry.  What might we be proud about?

1. Knowledge.  The preacher is a public speaker who is seen as an expert.  Whether you have a PhD in theology or have simply studied a couple of resources, your listeners will tend to perceive you as an expert.  And while knowledge is not a bad thing, what does knowledge do?  It puffs up.

2. Ability.  Whether it is spiritual gifting, or natural charisma, or learned skill, preaching involves some ability in public speaking – something many people dread deeply.  Thus, there will be countless opportunities for pride as we speak to others.

3. Position.  It may be elevation on a 12-inch podium before less than a dozen listeners, or it may be a prized pulpit for years on end, but pride in position is always knocking at the door of our hearts.  Society may not revere the Reverend anymore, but many in our churches will certainly reinforce the honour of being a guest speaker, or a pastor, or a leader, etc.

4. Influence.  Whether there is position or not, preaching implies influence.  Preachers can influence lives and how they are lived.  Preachers can influence emotions and create all sorts of churning in the hearts of our listeners.  There are guilty folks convicted, there are vulnerable folks attracted, there is plenty of potential influence, both for good or for bad.  Pride seems to be a lingering smell where influence is involved.

As well as what might be a source of pride, there are also some occasions that may provoke it:

A. When preparing.  Do I need to invest the time in textual study?  Do I need to invest the time in preparation of the sermon?  Do I need to invest the time in prayer?  Maybe old notes, or old knowledge, will see me through?  Preparation should be a season of humble study and personal application, but it can easily drift into prideful self-trust instead.

B. When criticized.  How do you feel when someone pokes a hole in your message?  What if they aren’t particularly educated?  What if they are a younger believer than you?  What if their criticism is wrong?  What if they are right?

C. When praised.  This can be worse than criticism.  The best message they’ve ever heard?  Knowledge may puff up, but what then can praise do?  Just as we need to have a plan for criticism, we also need a plan for handling praise.  Both can stir profound pride problems within the preacher.

D. When ignored.  What if your listeners sit through your message and then don’t even begin to apply it?  What if their lives continue as normal?  What if your careful study and exegesis is considered merely your opinion?  What if the follow up conversation is still just about the weather or a TV show when you have poured your life out for their benefit?

What else may stir pride in the preacher?  When else might we be vulnerable to this great enemy?

Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 4

In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus offers a second parable about prayer – we call it the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  Again, I am not going to write about how to preach the parable, but want to provoke some thoughts for us as preachers in light of this parable.

1. The Gospel is shocking.  The story of the two men going up to pray is not immediately understood because of cultural shifts and lack of biblical understanding. The Pharisee was not seen as “one of the bad guys that killed Jesus” and the Tax Collector was not someone looked at with a “soft spot … since another one gave us half our Christmas readings, and another one climbed trees to see Jesus.”  The Tax Collector was a hated traitor, and the Pharisee was the model citizen.  This makes the final verse shocking.  This man, and not the other!  We can so easily drift into a “nice” gospel where God’s benevolence is offered to decent people.  Not so!  We are all bankrupt before God and His offer of life is 100% undeserved.  Let’s never lose the shock of the gospel in our own hearts as we preach it to others.

2. Pride is frightening.  The Pharisee’s confidence was born out of his own performance.  We easily fall into that too.  A good week, a good sermon, a couple of encouragments and we can march boldly into prayer.  We should be bold, but never based on our personal right to be confident.  Our boast is all in Christ.  Yet, if we listen to our prayers, do we find traces of the Pharisee’s pride?  I am not like others…I do this and that…I go above and beyond what is required.  Pride is frightening and it is often not hard to find it in people that preach.  If anyone is a candidate to be a Pharisee today, it is probably you and me – educated, ethical, respected, maybe even impressive.

3. Brokenness is required.  The Tax Collector’s brokenness is key to the parable.  His posture, his clarity, his self-evaluation are all significant.  He knew he was absolutely sinful and called himself “the sinner.”  As such, he knew he brought nothing in his hands to God, but instead had to rely totally on the atoning mercy of God himself.  The same is true for us.  When we feel that in all its fullness, then maybe we are in a better place to preach a gospel that will not drift into evangelical pride and Pharisaism.  Furthermore, maybe our churches will have a bit more reality in them too – the church is the place where sinners should be open and real about their brokenness.  Is that true in the church culture your preaching has shaped?

Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 3

In Luke 18:1-8 we have the first of a pair of parables about prayer.  In this case it is the persistent widow and the unjust judge. I am not going to talk about how to preach it, but rather think about some of the implications of the passage on us as preachers.

Here are three things that matter:

1. Prayer.  This was a parable Jesus told to encourage people to pray and not give up.  Simple enough.  We know that persistence in prayer is a biblical idea.  But for many of us, we don’t live with the pressures of survival and injustice that might nudge us to more persistent prayer.  To be honest many of us live in the top 5-10 percent of the world’s wealthiest and the danger is that our comfort undermines our awareness of our need to pray.  What’s more, as those involved in leadership and ministry we can easily let our prayer lives drift because of the constant demands on our time, ever-beeping technology, etc.  Remember Acts 6:4 – church leadership, like the apostles, is primarily about the Word and prayer.  We need to pray persistently.

2. View of God.  This matters massively.  Jesus used a totally ungodly judge to prove his point, then amplified his point with the character of God.  Sadly, though, many think God is a lot like the judge in the story, only less persuadable.  Our view of God is the most important thing that can be said about us.  And the pressures of ministry, the struggles of interpersonal conflict, or even apparently unanswered prayer can secretly sour our view of God, even while we still preach good truth on Sundays.  This parable says that your view of God really matters.

3. View of time.  Following on from point 2, many of us can easily get so caught up in the present that we lose the eschatological edge that should cut through every situation we face.  Jesus is coming back.  Through busy lives, unhelpful “baby out with bathwater” theological reactions to sensational teaching, and a lack of attention to Scripture, we can easily start to think that today is as predictable as yesterday, and that there is no radically different tomorrow to influence how we live and how we pray.  But there is a different today that comes from living in light of that tomorrow that will come when Jesus returns.  Will we remain faithful: trusting and praying for situations that seem so unjust, and looking for his coming?

There’s plenty more that could be added, please do so in the comments below!

 

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.

A Spurgeon Preaching Thought: Bible

“Love your Bibles. Keep close to your Bibles.” 

Perhaps one of the greatest privileges of the preacher is also one of the greatest dangers: time with the Bible.  We have to go above and beyond a casual reading of Scripture in order to speak it out to others.  The risk is that it become a professional tool, rather than a life-giving gift from God himself.

One area where this can show is in that of our confidence in Scripture.  We need to be confident in the Bible, but where does that confidence come from?  It is easy to settle for an academic confidence, birthed out of knowing the facts that build a presentation on the authenticity and authority of the Bible.  But as John Piper has helpfully challenged us in recent years, our confidence should not be built on something that is external to Scripture itself.  Here’s Spurgeon on this matter:

We accept it as the very word of the living God, every jot and tittle of it, not so much because there are any external evidences which go to show its authenticity, — a great many of us do not know anything about those evidences, and probably never shall,– but because we discern an inward evidence in the words themselves. They have come to us with a power that no other words ever had in them, and we cannot be argued out of our conviction of their superlative excellence and divine authority. (Quoted p41 of Reeves.)

Rather than gradually learning a convincing argument for the Bible’s reliability, we need to be meeting Christ there so that our confidence is birthed by the Spirit himself at work in us.  What would Piper say, quoting Edwards, that we “ascend to the truth of the gospel in a single step, which is its divine glory…” there is more to chase there, but for now, let’s finish with a paragraph that we could well pray with Spurgeon:

O living Christ, make this a living word to me. Thy word is life, but not without the Holy Spirit. I may know this book from beginning to end, and repeat it all from Genesis to Revelation, and yet it may be a dead book, and I may be a dead soul. But, Lord, be present here; then will I look up from the book to the Lord; from the precept to him who fulfilled it; from the law to him who honoured it; from the threatening to his who has borne it for me, and from the promise to him in whom it is “Yea and amen.” (quoted on p48 in Reeves.)

[Be sure to get a copy of Mike Reeves’ excellent book on Spurgeon.]

Some Spurgeon Preaching Thoughts

I’ve recently been reading Michael Reeves’ excellent book, Spurgeon on the Christian Life: Alive in Christ (Crossway, 2018).  As you would expect, Spurgeon said a lot that can be helpful to preachers.  I’d like to share some quotes and chat about them, but be sure to buy the book and have a helpful read!

“Great hearts are the main qualifications for great preachers.” (p28)  Too often we fall into thinking that a great preacher is made by great learning, or great skill, or great presentation, or even great personality, but Spurgeon is pushing deeper here.  He is pointing to the relational core of the preacher and saying that to be a great preacher, we need to be in a very healthy relationship with Christ, with self, and with others.  The problem is that many preachers have character issues that others excuse as personality quirks.  Great learning, great skill, great force of character, and so on do not compensate for problems at the core of a person.  Hear more of Spurgeon:

“A man must have a great heart if he would have a great congregation. His heart should be as capacious as those noble harbors along our coast, which contain sea-room for a fleet. When a man has a large, loving heart, men go to him as ships to a haven, and feel at peace when they have anchored under the lee of his friendship. Such a man is hearty in private as well as in public; his blood is not cold and fishy, but he is warm as your own fireside. No pride and selfishness chill you when you approach him; he has his doors all open to receive you, and you are at home with him at once. Such men I would persuade you to be, every one of you.”

We live in an age of perpetual noise, of constant distraction, of increasingly accepted narcissism.  The 21st century is not the ideal time to grow the kind of heart that Spurgeon describes here, but we must.  Perhaps it is time to put our phones on silent, turn off the social media, and invest time into private prayer, personal enrichment and enriching fellowship.  Have a conversation. Read a book.  Intercede for dear folks in your church.

We cannot be corporate managers of churches and expect spiritual results.  We are in the business of heart change.  May our hearts lead the way.