Learning to Preach in Changing Contexts – Jonathan Thomas

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

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

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

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

7 Thoughts About Fear of Public Speaking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 Quick Ways to Improve Your Preaching – Part 3

So far we’ve mentioned cross-referencing, quoting scholars and meandering in part 1, then apologizing and illustrations in part 2.  Now, let’s finish this list of seven quick fixes with part 3 of the list:

6. Stop trying to be funny.

To put it bluntly, either you are funny or you are not funny.  But trying to be funny is not funny.  It is annoying.  That is not to say there can be no humour in our preaching, but let it be more natural.  Unless you are a great joke teller, don’t invest minutes of a sermon in telling a joke.  Trying to entertain or seek approval by laughs is not fulfilling your role as a preacher.  Instead let your demeanor be saturated with genuine gospel joy and enthusiasm that comes from living in the text you are preaching and walking closely with God.  It will be more sincere and people will appreciate it more.  If they want stand-up comedy then the internet is replete, ready and waiting.

7. Stop scratching at your passage.

Ok, this is probably not a quick fix, but it is significant.  A lot of preaching barely scratches the surface of the preaching text.  No matter how much you add careful illustration and clear structure, you can’t overcome the lack of biblical rootedness in this kind of preaching.  Instead of adding filler, or jumping around the canon, or whatever else you might do, dig down into the text you are preaching and make sure the message has the fingerprints of this specific passage all over it.

That was quite a random list, but maybe one of two of these quick fixes fit for you?  Feel free to comment with other things you have tweaked that helped you, or what you need to do next!

7 Quick Ways To Improve Your Preaching

Sometimes a quick change can make a big difference.  Let’s say you drive your car with the handbrake only partially released.  Release it properly and your driving will immediately improve.  Here are 7 quick fixes to markedly improve your preaching.

1. Stop excessive cross-referencing.

There are lots of reasons we cross reference with other passages, but not many good reasons.  I tend to think that reinforcing a point as biblical when it seems unlikely, or clarifying the background of a text quoted in your text are two of the good reasons to jump out of your passage.  But some of the bad reasons?  To fill time.  Because that’s what other preachers do.  To show off knowledge.  Because older listeners expect it.  These are not good reasons.  I remember someone saying that too much cross-referencing confuses younger Christians because they can’t follow along, and it causes older Christians to sin because it feeds their pride.  There are reasons to cross-reference, but remove the excess and your preaching will improve.

2. Stop excessively quoting scholars.

Adept transitioning between the insights of various commentaries can be like good gear changes in driving.  Referencing every scholar along the way makes those gears crunch.  Generally, it is worth asking what is added by naming the scholar?  If you use particularly specific wording and the name of the scholar is helpful, then by all means name them.  Otherwise generally decide between preaching without any reference, and making a vague reference…”One book I was reading put it like this…” (Remember, people can always ask for your sources, even though they almost never do.)  There is no requirement that you identify three commentaries and include a Spurgeon quote in every sermon.

3. Stop meandering.

Listeners will listen gripped by well organized and well-presented material.  But listeners can also spot meandering and filler like a dog can sniff meat.  Don’t look at your notes and assume it will come out ok when you are preaching.  It is much better to preach it through and make sure it can come out of your mouth and not just look good on paper.  Meandering transitions, conclusions and even whole points are counterproductive.  And with decent preparation, they are really unnecessary.

I will continue the list tomorrow, but what would you add?

7 Ways Our World Has Changed, But God Hasn’t

We are gradually coming to terms with the massive changes that have gripped our world in the last few weeks.  I have written about 7 temptations we will face in isolation, 7 spheres in which we should be confident in God’s Word during this time, and 7 tips for preaching online.

Now, here are 7 changes that we should pray through at this time:

1. New restrictions on travel– My calendar has suddenly cleared for several months. It used to be so easy to jump in the car and drive, or to book a flight and visit another country.  Hopefully this restriction will ease in time, but let’s not simply focus on what we are missing.  God remains omnipresent, even if our attempts to be omnipresent are thwarted.  Maybe this change can stir us to pray more fervently for situations we would love to influence, and to be more present where God has put us (our families are our primary ministry, after all).

2. New humility in plans– Will we be able to hold that conference next year? Will we be able to fulfil that preaching commitment in October?  We don’t know. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring.  So we ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will … do this or that.” (James 4:13-17) God knows what is coming; He always has, and we never have.  Maybe this can stir a greater humility in us all, even when restrictions ease.

3. New uncertainty of life– What James writes in 4:13-17 includes reference to our lives being like a vanishing mist:  “If the Lord wills, we will liveand do this or that.”  When this crisis started, so much was said about only the over-70s or people with underlying health issues dying from COVID-19.  Somehow many people felt relieved, until they started to think about who that might include.  Now we are hearing more stories of younger, healthy people dying from it.  In actuality, death has always been a real and present threat for us all, even before this crisis. And God has always been God.  We may well be immortal until His work for us on earth is finished, but it probably doesn’t hurt us to feel our mortality more and to let that drive us to our knees.

4. New concerns about money– Will we be able to survive these next weeks?  Will our income disappear?  Will government help be enough?  Will our countries recover after this?  The certainty we felt financially just a few weeks ago has evaporated for many of us.  Whether we have a stable salary, or live on completely unpredictable support from others, let’s remember that God is our provider.  He always was, and He has not changed.  Our lives may change.  Our fervency in prayer may change.  But remember John 21, when the disciples were getting used to the fact that everything had changed for them following the death and resurrection of the soon departing Jesus, and then Jesus cooked them a breakfast of bread and fish beside the Sea of Galilee …I provided miraculously when we fed the 5000 here, and I continue to provide for you now.

5. New recognition of need in our churches– I remember a few weeks ago when I could say, “Things are going well in our church … of course there are one or two difficult situations, but generally things are going well.”  Seems like a long time ago now.  Now every family unit that I think about is facing threat of death, loss of income, no work or overwhelming work, marital tensions, parenting complexities, loneliness, etc.  God has always seen our need as it really is.  Maybe this crisis is making vivid to us all just how needy the flock of God’s people really are.  Perhaps this insight should go with us as we carry our people before God in prayer, whatever a future newfound cultural complacency may suggest.  Our people need God.  So we pray.

6. New feelings of restriction and inadequacy in ministry– As the five previous changes hit us, we realise not only the difficulties of those we serve, but also our own inadequacy to really help.  We don’t even have regular church meetings for face-to-face fellowship and those opportunities to sense that someone isn’t doing so well.  As people who minister to others, we should be feeling a profound sense of inadequacy at this time.  We can’t protect anybody from the virus (although we can help by not breaking government guidelines).  We can’t financially carry every situation in our church (although we are called to stand together and share what we have).  We can’t do the job of doctors, nurses, vital delivery drivers, etc. (although we can support them in prayer and encouragement).  We are significantly limited.  But our God is not.  He never was.  He hasn’t changed.  Our experience has just clarified to us that we are not God.

7. New awareness of gospel need all around –Remember when people were comfortable, secure, invincible, and happy in their hobbies?  Now we are surrounded by people with a genuine fear of death, combined with genuine concerns about how they will provide for their families in the coming months.  Our continent is humbled.  And we are stuck in isolation with some restrictions on spreading the gospel.  But God’s Word is not chained.  Over the garden fence, through the internet, by phone call … the good news of Jesus has always flourished most in times of real struggle.  God has faithfully carried His people through pestilence, plague, persecution, and war all through history. And all through history it has been the most difficult times that have led to the greatest growth in the church.  It feels like we are living a key moment in history right now – may it be a key moment in the history of church growth too!

__________________________________________

During this Coronavirus crisis I have started making short Bible reading highlight videos. If you find these helpful, please share them with others.  Thanks.

7 Tips for Preaching Online

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_____________________________________________________

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

Your Church Does Not Need a Superstar

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

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

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

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

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

5 Rubbish Reasons to Preach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weight of Evidence Preaching: 5 Lessons Learned

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

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

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

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

Here are 5 lessons learned on weight of evidence preaching:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personalize Your Preaching

Preaching is person to person, so surely it should be personalized?  But if we are not careful our preaching can feel impersonal and distant.  We can learn how to prepare a sermon, then treat the process like a machine for generating messages – put in a text at one end, turn the handle, and out pops a three point outline ready for Sunday.

True biblical preaching is not primarily about outlines.  It is about heart-to-heart communication.  Ultimately it is God’s heart to our listeners’ hearts, but our heart is in the circuit too.  So how can we make sure our preaching feels personal when you stand to deliver this Sunday?

1. Make sure your study of the biblical text touches your heart.  Newcomers to preaching may think sermons are texts and ideas squeezed into outlines, but actually we need to be studying the text to understand it.  When we study it, we have to make sure our hearts are engaged and not just our heads.  This passage was put there by God to impact readers spiritually – how is it impacting me?  I need to be talking to God about that and not just looking for a sermon that will preach.  In fact, here are a few quick sub-points relating to this phase of preparation:

A. Ask God to help you understand what the text was intended to communicate to the original recipients – what was the spiritual impact supposed to be back then?

B. Ask God to help you understand what the text was intended to communicate to readers like you – it is part of a bigger whole that all points receptive hearts toward Him.

C. Ask God to convict you of sin, to motivate you for service, to make your heart beat with His and to stir you to worship as you spend time in the text.

2. Pray for God to give you His heart for the hearers as you prepare the message.  Before you start to shape your study into a sermon, come before God in prayer and really intercede for your hearers.  Whether it will be your home congregation or a group you have never preached to before, God knows and loves them better than you do.  Ask Him to give you His heart for them.  Don’t just pray for the message to “go well,” but pray for them as real people, in real situations, facing real difficulties.  Pray for those who are not His yet, and those that are.  Pray for His heart for them, and for their hearts to be ready to hear from Him.

3. Prepare a message that will give your best, vulnerably.  Actually this is two points.  First, preach your own message.  Don’t steal someone else’s sermon and preach it.  That is a shortcut that wastes time in the long run.  When you steal sermons you don’t get the benefit of the study, and they don’t get the benefit of hearing from you … instead they hear a poor version of someone else’s message.  If you choose to use a point or a quote, that is fine, just say that “someone put it this way…” and use it, but make sure you are preaching when you preach.  By faith you can trust God that your moderate ability will be better suited to these listeners than someone else’s impressive message.

Second, prepare to preach with vulnerability.  Let the you shine through.  There is no benefit to hiding behind your exegesis and presentation.  People need to know that you also struggle, that this moves you, that you are a real human.  Obviously you should think through what you will be saying.  It isn’t helpful to vent your anger or share a struggle that is too raw.  It also isn’t helpful to overstate your struggle or to share something that will distract or undermine your credibility.  But there is plenty of real you to share as you preach.  Plan to preach your own stuff, and plan so that it is really you that is preaching.

4. Grow in your ability to deliver sermons naturally.  We no longer live in an age of voice projection and concert hall oratory.  We live in a time when people value authentic, genuine, relational communication.  Some are taught to preach dispassionately, thereby avoiding emotionalism and manipulation with the opposite poison of disconnection (and a different form of intellectual manipulation at times).  Don’t be arms length from your material, preach from the heart and through your genuine personality.  If you are quiet, that is fine.  If you are out-going and enthusiastic, that can work too.  What matters is not the personality you portray, but that it is your personality as you preach.  As I often say when teaching preaching, it takes work to be natural in such an unnatural setting.  Do the work so that people can hear from you.

There is more that could be added, but that is four ways to try to inject the personal into your preaching.  What would you add?