Running on Fumes

When a car has very little fuel in the tank, we say it is running on fumes.  It is moving forward, but warning signs indicate the vehicle is in trouble.  It won’t go very far unless something changes.  And the something is simple – it needs fuel.

The same thing happens with Christians too.  They give the impression of keeping on spiritually, engaging with the church, and so on.  But there are warning signs, and they won’t go very far unless something changes.  Again, the something that needs to change is relatively simple – they need fuel. Simply being around Christians and using Christian language is not enough. Without a vital personal relationship with Christ, they are merely running on the fumes of Christianity.

Warning Signs – In a car, you have warning lights on the dashboard to alert you to an issue before it becomes a problem.  If you proceed far enough, the engine will start to sputter and make unusual noises.  What are the warning signs when a Christian is running on the fumes of Christianity?

  1. Loss of Joy – There are many reasons for a loss of joy, so do not assume that the spiritual tank is always empty when joy fades.  However, any warning light is a reason to investigate.  Indeed, when someone’s tank lacks the fuel needed, delight in the things of God and church life will only come in fits and starts.  The classic biblical example is Martha in Luke 10:38-42 – she was doing the right thing, but the joy was gone.
  2. Alternate Fuels – Is work or a hobby suddenly becoming more significant?  Are they starting to find motivation and purpose in something other than Christ in a way that was not true earlier in their Christian journey?  Alternative fuels are attractive because someone struggling will see the alternative as more readily accessible and the goals more attainable.
  3. Blaming the Church – It is very rare to hear someone drifting from church life and being honest, “Oh, I am staying away because I am not fuelling my soul, and so I feel awkward being around other Christians right now.”  It is much easier to talk about how the church does not meet their needs, and they don’t fit, the programs are not helpful, the other people don’t like them, etc.  Not every person being critical of the church is in a bad place personally, but many are.
  4. Verbal Paper Cuts – Sometimes it is not the full force explosions that hurt, but the subtle paper cuts.  Someone in a low place spiritually will often make little paper cuts with their words.  Little bits of gossip.  Little criticisms.  Little digs.  Maybe nothing significant enough to confront or challenge, but enough to leave you feeling that sting of an open wound when they walk away.
  5. Emotional Outbursts – Sometimes, things do come out in full force explosions.  And, like a cornered animal, someone feeling spiritually empty can lash out and attack rather than admit their need and open themselves up to help from others.

Emergency Measures – What do you do when someone is running on empty and about to run out of fuel and grind to a halt? 

  1. Re-Fuel – To be blunt, they need to be in the Word of God and allow Him to minister to them.  But they may struggle to feed themselves if they have let their tank get too low.  Perhaps a friend can help them get into the Word and start back into a healthy pattern. 
  2. Recognize the Emergency – How often do we pridefully persist on our path, ignoring all the warning signs?  Many a stranded motorist thought they could go a little farther before stopping for fuel.  Part of solving the problem will be humbly admitting the problem.  As long as pride continues to stir excuses and explanations, the fuel cap remains in place.  They must humbly acknowledge how they have allowed themselves to drift, how they have arrogantly felt they did not need to be in the Word personally, or how another sin has built a blockage between them and God.  Whether that is a giant skeleton in the closet or the “respectable” sin of personal pride, confession will be like a doorway to help for the struggling believer.
  3. Reach out for Help – These are in the reverse order.  We need to be fuelled again, but often that won’t happen until the nature of the problem is recognized, and often that is hard to achieve without first calling out for help from another.  If you see the warning signs in a friend, encourage them to face the reality of their situation.  If you are desperate, you could point them to this post and ask if it resonates with them because you are concerned.  If you see warning signs in yourself, then get a friend immediately.  We tend to think that a renewed effort in my quiet times, or perhaps some alternative, will fix the issue.  A thimble of fuel won’t get you too far.  Call a friend and walk through it with someone. 

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Check out a Psalm from this week for your encouragement:

Navigating the Mess

Everything looks lovely down below when flying 10,000 meters above the earth. The land is green, the mountains look stunning, and the sea is bright blue. But real life is not lived from 10,000m up; it is lived down here in the mess of real life. We feel this messy reality, especially when it comes to relationships.

Every engaged couple looks forward to their wonderful married life to come. It is loving to help them prepare for marriage knee-deep in the mess of real-life challenges! The anticipation may be eighteen years of joy and giggles when the first baby comes along, but reality will be much more down to earth. The same is true of friendships, church fellowship, ministry teams, etc. Genuine relationships are much messier and need more guidance than a simple “love one another” or “be kind” (although these instructions are essential, of course).

If only God had given us a little note to offer some guidance in the messy confusion of real-life relationships. He did. For almost two millennia, God has placed a little personal note in his collection of inspired documents. It is a personal letter of twenty-five verses from Paul about a runaway household slave. We call the letter Philemon.

Paul’s Little Letter

Philemon was a relatively wealthy man from Colossae. We know this because his home was large enough to host a church, and he had slaves working for him. He had encountered Paul at some point in time – perhaps while visiting Ephesus. Paul had told him about the good news of Jesus, and Philemon was turned upside down on the inside. With this new fire burning within, he became a crucial person in the new church in Colossae.

At another point in time, Onesimus, a slave working in Philemon’s home, had decided to start a new and illegal life for himself. He stole whatever he could carry and travelled far away to Rome, hiding among the swirl of criminals and runaway slaves who wanted to hide their crimes there. Somehow, in God’s goodness, Onesimus was introduced to Paul. Paul had told him about the good news of Jesus, and Onesimus was turned upside down on the inside. With this new fire burning within, he became a crucial helper to Paul, living under the constraints of house arrest in Rome.

Eventually, the story came out. Onesimus had stolen and run away from Philemon, Paul’s old friend in Colossae. So, Paul urged Onesimus to return and make things right with his owner. Despite Onesimus’ fear of arrest and possible capital punishment, Paul wrote his short letter to Philemon. Onesimus would have guarded that letter closely, treasuring the truth it contained. We should do the same.

Why? For Onesimus, it made a way to do the right thing with hope. For us, the epistle to Philemon gives us hope as we try to navigate the messy realities of interpersonal relationships in the Christian community. Let’s consider briefly two critical realities and then three additional features revealed in this letter:

1. Such a great debt. Paul appealed on behalf of Onesimus, making it clear that Onesimus had become a follower of Jesus and a very useful companion to Paul (v8-11). But did Paul know about the crimes committed back in Colossae? Yes, he did. And he promised to pay that debt in full (v18-19).

When there is sin, there is always a debt. When someone hurts you, even if they did not steal something tangible, they leave behind a debt of hurt, shame, or whatever. Everything in us wants to make them pay. Everything in us wants that debt made up to us in some way. Onesimus’ debt could have cost him his life, but Paul charged it to his own account.

What Paul did for Onesimus, Jesus had done for Paul. Like every one of us, Paul had a debt with God’s eternal justice that he could never repay. But Jesus died to pay that debt in full. If Jesus has done that for us, then it makes sense that we will start to look for ways to do that for others. We can never make the atoning sacrifice Jesus made for us. Still, we can accept the cost of hurt and release others from our desires for revenge or our need for compensation. A Christian community navigates the mess of relationships with plenty of forgiveness – the acceptance of interpersonal pain costs that we no longer hold on the accounts of others.

2. Such a great welcome. Paul offered to pay the debts of Onesimus. He also urged Philemon to welcome his runaway slave as if he were his dear brother, Paul himself (v16-17). Suppose it had just been a promise of debt repayment. In that case, Onesimus could have headed back to the servants’ quarters or, in a non-slave setting, be free to walk away. But Paul asked Philemon to welcome Onesimus as if he were Paul himself. The guest room, the seat of honour at dinner, etc.

What Paul did for Onesimus, Jesus had done for Paul. Like every last one of us, Paul had no business being welcomed into God’s family and home. But Jesus makes it possible for us to be welcomed into God’s family, home, and table of feasting as if we were Jesus himself! Accepted in the beloved Son – what a privilege!

If Jesus has done that for us, then it makes sense that we will start to look for ways to do that for others. So the Christian community because a place that is uniquely welcoming in a world of simulated tolerance. Hurt and broken people can find the welcome of a true family when they meet Jesus and join a healthy local church. And it is not just at the moment of conversion, either. Continually we forgive one another, and we express genuine love and acceptance toward each other. We navigate the mess of relationships by remembering the Gospel – what has Jesus done for us? And then we look to spill that same goodness toward one another.

If Philemon only pointed us to the beautiful truths of forgiveness and acceptance, it would already be a treasure. But there are at least three more features to notice as you read it. Three more ways that the Gospel shapes us to navigate the complexity of life knee-deep in the mess of relationships:

Connected – Meeting Jesus and joining his family gives us a sense of connectedness that we could never have outside the church. The world strives to achieve self-serving networking. We are brought into the extended family of God. Look at the connections described in verses 1-2 and 23-24. And be sure to pause on the level of connection described in verse 12 – Onesimus: “my very heart.”  We can mean so much to each other because we first mean so much to God!

Refreshing – Look at how Paul thanks God for Philemon’s faith in God and love for others in verses 4-7. As we grow in our relationship with Jesus, we almost imperceptibly grow in our impact on others. In a world of people who feel like their existence makes essentially no difference to anyone, we discover that our participation in the body of Christ is a source of refreshment to others!

Giving – Paul would have benefitted from keeping Onesimus with him in Rome. After all, “Useful” (the meaning of the name) had become very useful to Paul. But healthy Christians are marked by Christlike generosity. The Gospel makes us givers, not grabbers. In a world full of grabbing and self-serving, it is beautiful to become part of a family of givers.

How can we navigate the mess of human relationships in the church? None of us lives at theoretical heights of 10,000m. If we are involved in church life and ministry, it is messy. The answer to the question is not a pragmatic suggestion or a simple how-to guide. The answer flows from the reality of who God is and what he has done for us. Let’s allow the book of Philemon to become a treasure in our lives – treasured because it reminds us that the Gospel speaks of how we can be saved and how we can navigate the messy complexity of human relationships.

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Brief videos on the Psalms . . . a great book for the mess!

Fighting Flat

Part of our challenge as preachers is to fight flatness in our preaching. This could be in terms of delivery, structure, or content. Perhaps you would add more areas too.

Basic Principle – When we stand in front of a crowd, which is an unnatural environment, then we have to fight a tendency to become restricted in all types of variation. What seems varied in our minds can sound flat, or monotonous, to our listeners. We have to fight against that flatness to be as engaging as possible.

Delivery – I am resisting the term monotony, because technically, that only refers to tone. Tone is certainly included, but we can become flat communicators in other areas too. The added pressure of speaking to a crowd, even if we are not nervous, will push us toward a restricted range of vocal tone. Or physical movement. Or facial expression. Or range of gestures. Or volume. Any aspect of our delivery can easily become repetitive and restricted rather than varied and interesting. Naturally, we will tend to bore rather than grip. So let’s fight the flatness in order to be engaging.

Structure – What happens with delivery, can also happen with the parts of our sermon. We can easily present the content in a flatter way than we anticipated. The nerves, or just the dynamic of a crowd, can cause us to progress through the passage at a fixed height. It is easy to lose the moments of greater overview to help our listeners, instead of either plodding at a fixed height or jumping between details without showing the connections. It takes a clear mind to remember to make the transitions clear and helpful. It takes a deliberate approach to give high-level overview and then dip down for details with clarity. If we don’t think about it, every sermon point will simply be the next natural step in our progression through the text. Naturally, we will tend to slide through the text rather than showing the contours and enlighten listeners regarding the passage as a whole. Let’s fight the flatness in order to be engaging.

Content – The same thing can happen with other aspects of our content. It is easy to get in a rut with how we explain the details in the text, or the kind of illustrations that we use, or the emotional energy in the support material shared. Five sporting analogies in a row is typically not as thrilling as we might feel internally. Always using cross-references in every point is not biblically engaging, it is dull. Don’t fall into a pattern of always offering illustrative material that is merely interesting, but never personal, or always personal, but also mundane. Listeners need variety in content to distinguish parts of the message and to offer the velcro for their minds and hearts to stay engaged. We have to fight the flatness in order to be engaging.

How else do you see monotony, or flatness, creeping into a sermon? It is also possible to get into a rut between messages, too. For instance, always using the same shape sermon, always quoting the same source (Spurgeon, anyone?), or always ending with the same emotional force.

An Incredibly Close Connection

In 1922, Howard Carter discovered and then entered the tomb of King Tutankhamun, the first tomb of a Pharaoh to be found.  It is hard to imagine the feeling of entering a tomb filled with priceless golden treasures that has been sealed for 3,300 years.  It is hard to imagine, but we have something greater.

Paul wrote to the church in Colossae, a church he had never visited, with a letter designed to point their hearts to Christ.  Whatever specific false teaching was influencing the church at Colossae, it faced the same great temptation found in every church: that is, to be busy with Christianity, but to let Christ drift from his position of preeminence.  We all face that temptation every day.  So, it is never a bad day to reread Colossians.

Christ Supreme In the first chapter, Paul offers a hymn of Christ’s supremacy that is about as high a Christology as can be found anywhere in Scripture.  Adolf Deissmann famously stated, “When I open the chapel door of the Epistle to the Colossians, it is as if Johann Sebastian himself sat at the organ.”  So, Paul celebrates the supremacy of Christ over all creation, and also over our salvation.

Servant Ministry – As he proceeds beyond the great hymn, he writes of his own ministry.  He was a servant of the gospel, that Christ might be proclaimed to every creature (v23).  And he was a servant of the church, to present all the Word of God (v25) and to present all God’s people fully mature (v28).

What was the message that Paul proclaimed to this church in ancient Turkey?  He proclaimed God’s glorious plan for them to enjoy an incredibly close connection to Christ.  Twice he writes about his own suffering in ministry, before proclaiming the wonder of the mystery.  In v24 he rejoices over his suffering as he participates in the mission of Christ (not because Christ’s suffering on the cross was insufficient; it clearly was), but because his servants get to participate in the afflictions necessary to the spreading of the gospel in this age.  In 1:28-2:1, he again returns to his ministry, this time writing about how he was strenuously contending for these believers whom he had never met.

Revealed Mystery Notice how after each of these ministry descriptions, we get a glorious glimpse into the mystery – God’s now-revealed plan.  (By the way, we tend to think of the word “mystery” like we do a murder mystery – that 50 minutes of being in the dark as to who committed the crime as we watch our favourite TV drama.  Instead, when Paul uses the word mystery in Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, etc., he is referring to something that is now revealed.  We are now living in the age of A-ha! at the end of that drama – only much better!)

Close Connection – The first part of that formerly hidden but now revealed mystery is just seven words long, but infinitely profound: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”  Notice three things. 

First, God’s plan, formerly hidden but now revealed, is not just for the Christ to be a king and a deliverer leading his people from the front.  It is for Christ to dwell in his people.  That is as close a connection as it is possible to have. 

Second, God’s plan, through the indwelling Christ, is for his people to have the hope of glory.  Whatever we may be facing right now, this is not the end of the story.  And if Christ would choose to live in us now, then we can be confident that he will want us with him in the future too. 

Third, this mystery is made known among the Gentiles, it is not just for the Jews.  “Race relations” is not a 21st-century invention; God was there way before any of us!  Gentiles equally brought into the body of Christ with Jews – a formerly hidden plan now revealed through Paul in Ephesians and Colossians!

Close Connection II – The second part of that formerly hidden but now revealed mystery is just one word long, but is the most profound statement of all. Just as Paul revealed God’s plan for Christ to find a home in you, so Paul also revealed God’s plan for you to find all you need in Christ.  His objective was for all God’s people to be presented fully mature in Christ (1:28).

So, they needed to realise that the full riches of complete understanding were theirs if they would know the mystery of God.  What is this infinite treasure trove of wisdom and knowledge?  Is it a training course, a degree program, an online seminar, a special edition book?  No, everything they could ever need was theirs in knowing God’s mystery now revealed – Christ! (See 2:2-3)

Conclusion – They would be assailed by impressive alternative versions of Christianity, but they should never allow the supremacy of Christ to diminish and drift in their faith.  Later in the second chapter, Paul would remind them of the supreme victory of Christ on the cross – they should never lose sight of that.  Neither should we.  What difference would it make to our confidence if we pondered anew the wonder of Christ in me, the hope of glory?  What difference would it make to our maturity if we investigated afresh the riches of knowledge and wisdom in Christ himself? 

God’s plan was for Christ to find a home in you, and for you to find all you need in Christ.  God’s plan was for an incredibly close connection between you and Christ.  Our union with Christ really is the chief of doctrines.  As Paul went on to write, “just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith (in him) as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness” (2:6-7).

What is God’s plan for each of us as we head into another new month, and another annual celebration of Easter?  It is that we would be continually more marked, shaped, stirred, and matured, as we fix the gaze of our hearts on the wonder that is Christ himself!

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Recent short video in Psalms Today series:

Your Job is to Make Words Clear

When I used to live close to London I sometimes visited the British Library. There you can see some amazing treasures, such as Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus.  It is amazing to see such ancient books, but they are not the easiest things to read and understand. For one, they were written in uncials: ITISNOTEASYTOREADTEXTWITHOUTGAPSORPUNCTUATION.  Oh, and they are in Greek, just to add to the challenge.

Thankfully we don’t have to read Greek text written in uncials (unless we want to, then praise God that we can access so much!) We are blessed to have the Bible very accurately translated into our language and readily affordable (or free online). They even add in spaces, lower case letters, punctuation, etc. How blessed we are! I suppose I should also mention the chapter and verse divisions, which save a lot of time. And there are the somewhat and sometimes helpful section headings.

But remember that to many people in our churches today, the text feels as inaccessible as an ancient uncial codex! To many, it feels like a big block of text with thousands of words running into each other.

And so the preacher goes to work each week, diligently studying a passage in order to first understand it, and then to preach it. That work moves from the initial simplicity of familiar words, through the complexity of trying to grasp an author’s flow of thought, and out into the warm sunshine of studied simplicity. Hopefully, the preacher is then in a place to make sense of the flow of thought, to identify the major thoughts and to see the supporting role of each subordinate thought. The passage no longer feels like a random set of instructions and assertions.

When we preach our task includes the need to make a string of words clear.  We don’t have to start with an uncial script, but to all intents and purposes, we practically are.  Listeners hearing a string of verses often grasp very little during their first exposure. As we preach we look for ways to emphasize the main thoughts, we look for ways to demonstrate how the “support material” in the text explains, proves and/or applies the main thoughts.  Without technical jargon, our preaching needs to verbally achieve the formation of something like a clausal layout in the minds and hearts of our listeners.  Certainly, by the time we are done preaching, they should not see the text as a string of random words or thoughts . . . it should be much clearer than that!

Preaching goes way beyond clarification of the meaning of a string of words. But preaching won’t go anywhere good if it bypasses this critical element of the task.

Evaluating Exegetical Options

When you are making sense of a passage, you will often have to evaluate several options. Perhaps two or three possibilities quickly emerge to make sense of a detail in the text. Maybe different commentators offer different explanations. If you take biblical study seriously then you will face this frequently. How can we evaluate the options and weigh the evidence in support of each?

This feels like a preacher’s concern. Of course, it should be. I suspect too many preachers don’t wrestle with their passage enough to notice different exegetical possibilities. But it should not be just a preacher’s concern. What about the people in your church? Where will they get a taste for really wrestling with the biblical text and coming to thought through and informed conclusions?

The approach I use is not a formula guaranteeing results. It is not spreadsheet-based with automatic formulae. It is a guideline that helps me weigh evidence. If I have level 1 evidence then it will generally be given more weight than level 2 or level 3 evidence. At the same time, if I have evidence at several different levels, it may outweigh evidence at a higher level. This is a guide, not a formula. I still need to subjectively do the weighing, even when the guide gives me an indication of the relative weight.

So from most valuable down to the least valuable:

Level 1. Syntactical Evidence – this is support for an interpretational option that is found within the passage’s own structure or grammar.  This is the internal contextual support for an understanding of the passage.

Level 2. Contextual Evidence – this is support for an interpretational option found in the context of the passage.  The closer the context, the higher the value (immediate context is stronger than section context, which is stronger than book context, which is stronger than same writer context, etc.)

Level 3. Lexical Evidence – this is support for an interpretational option found in the specific meaning of words used.  Since the meaning of a word is determined by the company it keeps, this category actually overlaps with both syntactical and contextual evidence, but a lexical argument lacking in syntactical or contextual support can sit here at level three.

Level 4. Correlational Evidence – this is support for an interpretational option found in more distant biblical support where the same word or concept appears.  After all, a different writer may be using the term in a different way.  (Remember that a distant passage that directly influences your focus passage, such as an Old Testament section that is quoted, is highly significant and may be considered as a form of contextual or level 2 evidence.)

Level 5. Theological Evidence – this is support for an interpretational option found in theology, rather than elsewhere in the Bible.  This is like correlational evidence, but the correlation is with a theological creed or system.

Level 6. Verificational Evidence – this is support for a position found in “experts” (i.e. commentators, authors, sermons, etc.)  It is easy to fall into a false reliance on published books. Simply because a published name agrees with a position is of minimal value.  It is so much better to integrate their arguments into the five categories above. That way the commentary becomes a conversation partner rather than a shortcut that always determines your understanding. Much better to weigh the evidence and come to an informed conclusion, rather than reading a commentator and come to someone else’s conclusion.

Remember, this is a guideline, but I think it is helpful.  It pushes us to look for understanding within the text itself and within the context. 

I do see a lot of people who either don’t wrestle with the meaning of the text in any meaningful way or else are too quick to accept the conclusions of others – either their preferred system of theology or their favourite commentator or preacher. Looking up a passage in two or three commentaries does not equate to exegetical effort.

We have to recognize the spiritual gravitas and countless other personal and ministry benefits that only come from diligent exegetical labour.

You Preach to Ordinary People

It is good to remember that your church is not a unique collection of hyper-spiritual elite super saints. Nor is it the strangest and most bizarre collection of people either. You preach to ordinary people.

Ordinary people have doubts that they don’t think they’re supposed to have.

Ordinary people generally feel tired and short on motivation.

Ordinary people often have fears that may be unfounded but still feel ever so real when they lie awake at night.

Ordinary people are anxious about “little things” and distracted.

Ordinary people think they struggle, but assume that everyone else has it all together in life.

Ordinary people don’t think they are particularly significant, or influential.

Ordinary people sin.

Ordinary people are oblivious to some of their sin, but painfully burdened by other aspects of it.

Ordinary people, even after responding to the gospel of grace, still feel that their standing before God depends on their own effort and spiritual “success.”

Ordinary people already feel guilty about several things, not least their lack of proactive witnessing.

Ordinary people are very ordinary.

You preach to ordinary people. You are also one of them. It would probably be good to prayerfully consider what this might mean for how you present yourself, how you present the message, and how the message is supposed to intersect with their lives.

A Random Series of One-Off Appearances

I recently wrote about preaching series that work their way through a Bible book, or a section of a Bible book. A comment, from Anthony Douglas, made an excellent point. He wrote, “They also normalise what used to be an uncontested idea – that God’s people are meant to turn up week after week, rather than in a random series of one-off appearances.”

This puts a finger on a very clear cultural shift that has taken place over the years.

Is it because the rhythms of society have changed? Sunday used to be a noticeably different day when I was growing up. But then, once it became a seventh shopping day, it quickly became the pre-eminent shopping day. Going to church was dethroned as the primary activity of the day. Add in sports, split families doing child transfers, etc. and Sunday is not what it used to be.

Is it because the variety of alternatives has grown? It is not just shopping and sport that offer an invitation to people on a Sunday. More TV channels, more entertainment options, greater local travel, and until Covid and cost of living challenges, even quick foreign travel became a much more common option.

Is it because family traditions have shifted? I grew up in what was a more traditional set of family values. Going to church on Sunday was not top of the list of things we might do. Rather, it was first on the list of things we always do, along with going to bed at night, and going to school or work each day. Most people today do not live life with that rhythm instilled.

Whatever the reason, we are living in an age where diligent church attendance is not normal. A good percentage of church folks are prone to what Anthony described as “a random series of one-off appearances.” It does feel like a good number of people come to church on Sundays when they have nothing else planned.

The challenge for us, as church leaders, is to think carefully about how we respond to this. It is always tempting to simply dial up the pressure. We can put attendance in church membership covenants, we can declare the importance of diligent attendance, we can chase people when they are absent, etc. Let’s be careful of an outside-to-in approach that pressures without stirring motivation. It is easy to slip over the line into creating a legalistic culture that contradicts the gospel we preach.

What does an inside-to-out approach look like? In one sense, we can aim for making church on a Sunday, or a midweek home group, or youth group, so good that people don’t want to miss it. Whether it is the quality of the preaching and worship, or the warmth of the fellowship, why wouldn’t we want to make church as good as it can possibly be – both for believers and guests?

Then there are other details. It is totally appropriate to pastorally care for people. Their absence is an indicator of concern, so checking in is not wrong (but the tone can convey more legalism than care). Teaching the benefits of full participation in the church community, and involving people on the various teams to help ministry happen is appropriate (but always being careful not to fall foul of the outside-to-in evaluation ourselves – just because someone is present is not automatically a positive indicator of spiritual health).

This is where Anthony’s point comes in – sermon series helpfully support the idea of attendance. Preaching in series normalises the idea that church is not a random collection of one-off sermons for a random set of one-off appearances. Now, that does not mean we can make each sermon fully dependent on full attendance at the series – remember that guests always begin by being first-time attendees. They need to be able to fully engage the message, even if it is part 7 in a 10-part series. Even so, a well-crafted series subtly communicates the expectation of regular attendance, and if done well, will motivate it too.

As Anthony put it in his comment, “series preaching better accords with God’s not-so-subtle decision to supply his word to us in rather large chunks sometimes.” We need the whole of John, and Acts, and Romans, and Habakkuk, and Isaiah, and Genesis, etc. The Christian life is not covered by a one-day seminar, it is a lifelong journey of preparation for eternity to come. So just preaching our favourite fifteen passages simply won’t suffice!

Preaching Series: Six Suggestions

Last time I shared a few reasons why I think sermon series should be a key part of the preaching schedule in a church. Here are some suggestions to help them work well:

1. Spirit – Does a series quench the Holy Spirit?  Does preparing a sermon quench the Spirit?  It is amazing how a series can be scheduled many months ahead of time, then when a particular Sunday comes, the text and its application fit as if the Spirit Himself had made the plan.  Nevertheless, we still need to allow flexibility in our schedules.

2. Scheduling – It is unhelpful to pack the schedule so tight that the preacher feels under pressure from the schedule.  Consider leaving “buffer weeks” in the schedule between series.  You will have no problem filling them when the time arrives, either with a visiting missionary, a one-off message on a text you’re dying to preach, or addressing an issue that comes up, or a one-off for one of the preachers you are mentoring in the church.  You might also need to extend a series by a week. Buffer weeks are never a problem. No buffer weeks can create a headache.

3. Variety – A long series in the same book can get old.  There are several ways to avoid this.  Vary the message structure (include a first-person sermon, a more narrative sermon, a more interactive sermon, etc.)  Vary the text length (some weeks you may choose to cover only a few verses, but other weeks it would be possible to cover a chapter or two).  Perhaps sameness can be avoided by having another speaker involved (see below).  And, of course, a long series in the same book can get old, so . . .

4. Length – Think through the length of the series.  The old days of seven years verse-by-verse through one book really are the old days.  Today some advocate that a series should not go longer than 8 weeks.  Others say  4 or 5.  I say you have to think through the situation – who is preaching, to whom, what are they used to, what is the preacher capable of doing effectively, what is the subject matter, etc.  No hard and fast rules, but several months will probably get old for some.  Cover ground more quickly, or break the series and then return to it. Remember that a new series is a moment for new energy, new invitations to guests, etc.

5. Preachers – A series with more than one preacher can work well, but it takes some coordination. Make sure you are on the same page about the book’s structure, main idea, relevance to your church, etc. Probably don’t go higher than 2 or 3 preachers in a single series. If you are blessed with more, save them for the next series. Be sure to communicate and take advantage of the team ethos.

6. Series – Remember to balance your series too. If you have just been in Colossians, probably don’t follow up with a series from Ephesians (or any epistle, for that matter). Mix up sections or whole books across the whole canon, always prayerfully considering what book or section should leave its mark on your congregation.

What else do you find helpful as you plan series?

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Preaching Series: Six Strengths

Some churches always preach sermons in a series. Some churches never do. Here are six strengths of well-planned series:

1. Greater Leverage. By reinforcing and reviewing a Bible book, the series allows for the teaching to sink in and be applied more effectively than a stand-alone sermon. We often expect too much from a single sermon but underestimate what can be achieved over time with cumulative preaching.

2. Greater Coverage. When a church is preaching through a Bible book for a season, it allows other access points for people to benefit from immersion into that Bible book. For instance, people can be encouraged to read and study it at home. Midweek groups can probe the application of the passage preached on Sunday. Maybe even youth and other age groups can be in the book to encourage family conversations at home. Visual presentation does not require weekly creative energy (series title, series image, social media visuals, etc.)

3. Greater Momentum. The preacher can look back and build on what has gone before, but the listeners can also look forward and anticipate what is coming. With some encouragement, they might even read ahead and be more prepared for what is coming.

4. Greater Balance. If a message stands alone, then its distinctive thrusts will often need to be balanced within the message. This can sometimes reduce the applicational impact of a message. When you know (and if helpful, state) that a future sermon will present another side of this particular issue, this present message can be preached without too much energy for balancing it. Also, when a message has been preached and weaknesses were noted, coming weeks allow for easy correction of those weaknesses.

5. Greater Preparation. Knowing what is coming several weeks from now allows the preacher to prepare for more than just this coming Sunday’s message. This means that a book can be working in the preacher before the preacher comes to work through each passage of that book.

6. Greater Depth. When you are preaching through a book, you can overlap some exegetical work and go deeper in each passage as you prepare. For example, this week, I am preaching from Colossians 1:24-2:7. If it was a stand-alone, I would also need to get to grips with the hymn of 1:15-23, thus using up study time. Since I’ve been there already, I can build on that and focus on the preaching passage for this Sunday’s message.

There is a place for stand-alone messages in the preaching schedule – they have a definite strategic purpose. And just because you have a series, that does not mean it is effective or that the strengths are maximised. But I do recommend using carefully planned single-Bible-book series as a significant ingredient in your preaching planning.