That Succinct Single-Sentence Summary

What is the difference between one sentence and half an hour? That is a key question in preaching.

We work hard to understand a biblical passage. We look at the context, wrestle with the flow of thought, analyse the details, and work out what the author was trying to communicate. Our end goal in studying the passage is to summarize the passage with a succinct single sentence.

However, when we preach, we don’t just say a sentence and sit down. So what makes up the difference? Let’s assume that the single sentence is an accurate summation of the passage. As we prepare the message (the second half of the preparation process), we essentially have two options:

Option 1. We carefully plan how to land that main idea in the hearts of our listeners. What form of introduction will best draw people into the message, making them thirsty for the passage and eager to hear the main idea? When should we present the main idea in the message? Should we repeatedly drive it home using the movements of the message to repeat the presentation of the idea? Or should we create greater anticipation so that once it is stated it will hit deeper? To put that another way, will the main idea be like a series of well placed sniper shots, or will it hit home like a bunker-busting missile? How will we explain the text, prove the points, and apply the truth in ways that reinforce the main idea of the message? In every aspect of content creation, structural formation, and delivery nuance, we seek to make that main idea so clear, transformative, evident from the text and applicationally earthed, that we will genuinely have preached the text before we sit down.

Or . . .

Option 2. We fill the half hour with material that will drown out the main idea. This is where we instead choose to fill the time, not to support the main idea, but at the cost of the main idea. We provide a series of informational segments, background descriptions, vaguely connected cross-references, somewhat amusing anecdotes, random highlights from our exegesis, favourite soapbox digressions, and illustrations that may or may not be well-suited to this particular moment. While most of these could be helpful, if we are not careful they can end up putting down a cover of smoke to keep the main idea from landing. Or we might hide the main idea beneath three or four points that tie to the text, but do not hold together effectively. The listeners will have an array of mini messages from which to select their favourite, but they are unlikely to have noticed the main idea.

While we probably would not consciously opt for option 2, we do so inadvertently when we embark on planning a message without crystallising our main idea first. After all, if you don’t have a sniper bullet or a bunker-busting missile ready to go, surely a random spray of machine gun rounds might hit home?

Moving from the passage to a single sentence is the first half of the preparation process. Moving from a succinct single-sentence summary to a fully formed message is the second half of the process. Let’s be sure to take option 1 as our approach to preaching.

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7 Reasons Guests Don’t Return

Why don’t guests return? This is a question most church leaders will ask themselves. It is encouraging to see visitors come into the church, but it can be discouraging when the vast majority seem to only be one-time visitors. Here is a list of possible reasons that may be helpful as you evaluate what is happening in your church. Some churches run guest services every week for years with hardly any outsiders ever coming in – that is a different situation that will also benefit from honest evaluation. But if your church gets lots of one-time visitors, what could be contributing to their reticence to return?

1. It is not the church for them. Not every visitor is new to church world. Some will be new to the area, or leaving a local church and considering their options. Your church might not be what they are looking for, and that might be perfectly alright. Your church should not be trying to attract and keep every possible churchgoer. They might want a legitimately different type of church, and you do not want to become that type of church in order to attract them. Or they might be troublemakers that continually need to find a new church to get their hooks into, and hopefully, your church might seem too healthy for them to be able to influence in the negative way they prefer. For good reasons or bad reasons, let’s recognize that no church is ideal for every visitor. And some visitors are just visiting their family members. Change whatever you like, they will not be joining a church that is hundreds of miles from their home!

2. It is not a friendly church. It is so hard to sense this when you are in a church. When you walk in, people smile, people talk to you, etc. But what about the visitor? I am amazed at how unfriendly some churches are. No conversation, no welcome, no friendly questions, no clarity on where to go or what is happening with the children. Some churches are also effectively unfriendly by being awkwardly friendly – putting visitors in the spotlight is not helpful. Don’t ask visitors to stand up and feel awkward, it doesn’t help. And don’t expect them to just enjoy the service and return without any meaningful connection with other humans – they might, but it would not be normal. If church culture is new to them, then look for ways to make them feel comfortable, don’t just underline their awkwardness.

3. It is too much of a mystery. The sub-culture of a local church is very alien to some visitors. If they come from a similar church, then they already know the language and rituals, but if they are new to church it could be like a foreign country to them. If they spend their time guessing when to stand at the start of a song, guessing where a Bible reference is without any page number to help them, guessing when they are supposed to say something out loud with everyone else, guessing how long the service will go on for, etc. then their experience will be draining.

4. The children did not have a good time. If a family comes, then every voice in that family matters. But some voices can be louder than others. If a parent feels uneasy about the children’s program for any reason, that will be a loud voice in their decision making. Does this church look after the children? Are they safe? Is it clean? And the children’s voice will speak loudly too. If they loved it and made friends, they will push to return. If they didn’t, then parents will probably keep looking rather than try to convince them. The children’s ministry of your church matters – whether it is three volunteers in a room or a purpose-built facility with paid staff.

5. The environment was offputting. Was it easy to find the church? Was it easy to park? Was it easy to find your way in? Did you feel safe? Was it easy to find seating (the front row does not count)? Was the atmosphere before and after conducive to conversation and connection? Did the place have a strange smell? Was it warm enough? There are so many details that can have a bearing on the suitability of a church facility. Whether you have your own building or are renting the space, you need to somehow see it through the eyes of a first-timer. Ask family members who visit what they noticed. When people keep coming, ask them, before they get used to everything, what they noticed their first week.

6. The service needs to make sense. We thought about some elements of mystery in point 3 above. People will be drained trying to work out what is going on. But there is another way the service needs to make sense too. The elements of the service need to be explained and need to fit with the experience as a whole. If the style of the church is somewhat contemporary and appropriately warm (not flippant, but somewhat informal or casual), then it doesn’t make sense to have an overbearing pipe organ to lead the sung worship. And there probably needs to be some consistency between the size of the gathering, the quality of the music, the standard of presentation from the front, etc. It might be fun to hear “quirky Quentin” mess up the notices at the start of the service for people who know him, but for a visitor, his weird manner may be off-putting (especially if it isn’t a cosy group of thirty friends like it might have been when Quentin started “doing the notices” – a church phrase, by the way). Actually, the exact style of music or format of service is probably not as important as the consistency between the size of the church, the quality of the music (whatever style is used), and level of participation. A professional quality band with a congregation that doesn’t seem to care does not make sense. Neither does poor music in a significant-sized gathering.

7. The preaching didn’t connect. The preaching could fit into what was said in point 6 above, but let’s place the sermon in its own point. It really does matter. People will join a church because of the preaching, and they will leave a church because of the preaching. Therefore visitors will stick or move on because of the preaching too. If the manner and style is too lofty, too academic, too angry, or too affected, then there will be a disconnect with the listeners. If the manner and style is too flippant, too humourous, too desperate to sound relevant, or too weak on Bible, then there will be a disconnect with some listeners. Can they follow what is being said? Does it feel like they are being pastorally fed from the Scriptures? Does it lift their gaze away from themselves and point them to God’s goodness in Christ? Unbelievers motivated to find the truth, or believers starving for good food, will be drawn or pushed away by what they hear during the preaching segment of the service.

Ultimately, we cannot cherry-pick our visitors, nor determine who will choose to settle in our church. Jesus is the one who promised to build his church, and he is still doing that. But let’s evaluate our churches and make sure we are not adding any unnecessary barriers for guests that come along. It does not have to be all about the guest. But if we never consider their experience at all, we shouldn’t be surprised if we seldom see them again.

John Wesley’s Advice – Part 3

Continuing our walk through twelve points of advice from John Wesley.  So far we’ve looked at numbers 1-2, and numbers 3-5.  Let’s move on…

6. Speak justly, readily, clearly… Clearness in particular is necessary…because we are to instruct people of the lowest understanding… Constantly use the most common, little, easy words (so they are pure and proper) which our language affords.  Most of us are not preaching to uneducated miners like Wesley did, but don’t let out-of-date phrasing obscure the point he is making.  Our job as preachers is to communicate, not to show off.  If you don’t have a theological and grammatical terminology that is higher than your preaching vocabulary, then you are either aiming too high with your words, or you are too weak in your study.  Say the profound things that the Bible says.  And say those things in the simplest way possible.  Even if ten PhD’s walk into your church, you still need to preach so that people with the least understanding (by means of their education, church being an alien environment, English not being their first language, or whatever) will be able to understand what you are saying.  Be clear.  Simple.

7. Beware of clownishness… Avoid all lightness, jesting, and foolish talking.  Again, good advice.  There is a place for humour in preaching, but we do need to be very wary of entertaining or making the sermon about us.  I suspect that if we avoid jesting and foolish talk, as well as clownishness, then we are on safe ground.  We don’t have to come across as sombre in every moment, but we should speak as if we have a very important message to convey – which we do if we are preaching the text properly.  We need to be wary of inappropriate formality.  Just as wearing a tuxedo can feel out of place, so can a strange and affected formal tone or a presentational gravitas that is not consistent with our personality and natural demeanour.  In our fear of jesting, let’s not come across as unloving, lacking in warmth, or out of touch with the room.  

8. Never scream.  Never speak above the natural pitch of your voice.  This was probably a greater concern before amplification equipment.  Nevertheless, this point still applies.  There is a natural upper limit to your pitch, your power, and even your pace.  Don’t go above that level to achieve some kind of emphasis.  The screamer seldom communicates anything other than a loss of control.  In fact, it is good to consciously work on going down instead of up for emphasis.  Down in pitch.  Down in power.  Slow down the pace.  Emphasis sounds very natural in the opposite direction, but it takes unnatural work to develop the skill!  And even more foundationally, your emphasis and impact is not ultimately determined by your vocal delivery, but by God’s Spirit bringing conviction to your listeners.

Next time we will finish the list.

Bible Posture – 2 Points

We live in an age marked by resistance to authority.  The idea of submission has fallen on hard times.  But don’t miss either the logic or the blessing of this concept:

The Logic – Submit yourselves to God (James 4:7).  This is logical.  God is God, and you are not.  And being a Christian involves a thorough acceptance of that reality.  Nobody else has ever achieved even a tiny fraction of success in their attempt to usurp God’s role in the universe.  It is so simple.  God is God.  And I am not.  It makes sense not to pretend otherwise.

The Blessing – The Christian faith is not simply about logic, however.  James 4:8 goes on to describe how we can draw near to God, and he will draw near to us!  What an amazing thing!  If we try to usurp his place, we create a conflict between ourselves and God.  He opposes the proud.  But if we will humble ourselves and submit to him, he gives grace to the humble (see 1 Peter 5:5-6).  The blessing of submission to God is closeness with God.  And since he is a good God, this is a good thing!

So the first posture point to ponder: Be under, not over, the Word!

It would be bizarrely arrogant to think that my finite mind and experience can evaluate and judge God’s Word.  Who am I to imagine that I can decide what to accept, what to dismiss, etc.?   

In Acts 17:11 we read about the Jews in Berea. They were commended for receiving Paul’s message with eagerness, and then checking that teaching against the Scriptures.  May that be our posture too . . . leaning forward, hearts open, head nodding, eager to hear from God’s Word!

Post point two: Receive God’s Word with eagerness!

Here is the latest video (and click here to subscribe to the YouTube channel) –

Enjoying the Word – Introduction

New year and new project! Last year I enjoyed working through the book of Psalms on YouTube.  I hope those videos will be useful to more people this year as people choose to use them as companions in a journey through the Psalms.  And now we are into a new year and a new project: Enjoying the Word.

Enjoying the Word will be a growing collection of videos that will hopefully help people to enjoy reading and studying the Bible.  The first part of the sermon preparation process is the privilege of every believer – to spend time in God’s Word so that it gets into us and changes us.

The plan is to release short videos related to Bible reading and Bible study.  I will share a simple process to think through the Bible study journey.  I plan to release more mini-series called Pursuing God’s Heart Yourself. These short series use a single Bible book or section to illustrate important principles of biblical interpretation.  And I may work through a Bible book or two from start to finish to show the workings of healthy Bible study. 

I hope this will be helpful to you and to others you know.  Please do let me know if you have questions or ideas for videos.  And please share the resources with others too!  As videos are liked and shared, and as more people subscribe to the channel, so these videos will get in front of more people. (You can click here to subscribe to the YouTube channel.)

I am also planning to write companion posts on this blog to point to individual videos or mini-series of videos.  The subjects we will cover in the videos perfectly fit this blog, so why not?

The introductory video includes a quick look at a fantastic biblical truth!

Definition Matters – 7 Pro-Am Preaching Points

Definition matters massively. One person might say, “professional preachers are the problem!” Then another person might say, “amateur preachers are the problem!” And both might be right. It all depends on what they mean by what they say.

1. “Professional” can be referring to very different issues. What image does the term “professional” bring to mind? You might think of a person’s skill, or how they handle their communications with customers, or their manner in person, or their motivation for what they do. That is already four variations of potential meaning for the term “professional.” Perhaps an electrician is called to solve a problem in your house. They might be a real professional in their work (positive – they knew exactly what to do), their invoice was very professional looking (positive – good communications), their conversation and manner in conversation might have been a bit professional (negative – cold or aloof communications), and their reason for working may have seemed too professional (negative – it was all about the money).

2. “Amateur” can be referring to very different issues, too. What image does the term “amateur” bring to mind? You might think in the same categories as before. Perhaps the electrician was amateur in their work (negative – they did not know what to do), their invoice looked very amateur (negative – sloppy communication), their conversation might convey the enthusiasm of an amateur (positive – they love what they do), and their reason for work may have been the best side of an amateur (positive – they do it for the love of their craft).

3. In terms of skill, be professional. I don’t want someone showing “amateurish” skill levels when they fix my car, cut my hair, or operate on me. Skill is good. In reality, some of the most skilled people in the world may not be paid for what they do, while some who are paid should not be allowed anywhere near your car, your scalp or a scalpel. So actually, pay is irrelevant. The point is about skill. So as a preacher, it does not matter to this point whether you are paid to preach or not. In terms of skill, be as professional as possible. Read, learn, study, grow. Be a good steward of the ministry opportunity God has given you.

4. In respect to motivation, be amateur. When someone’s vocation has been “professionalised” then their motivation becomes suspect. This is why a nationally known car exhaust company may not be trusted (did they do more work than was needed in order to get more of my money?) Or why it is a problem if your medical practitioner is incentivized by drug companies to prescribe treatments to as many people as possible (whether they need the treatment or not!) In this respect, skill is not the issue. The point is about motivation. A highly skilled mechanic who rips off the customer is not to be celebrated. A brilliant clinician who risks lives to increase their income should be prosecuted. So as a preacher, your skill level (in this point) is not my concern. In terms of motivation, be as amateur as possible. Love God, love people, and love your craft. Be driven by the privilege of getting to speak God’s Word to people for their benefit.

5. And in the area of interpersonal communication, be genuine. I have underlined issues of skill and motivation, but interpersonal communication is also part of the package. Coming across as too professional can be problematic, even when you are not preaching. Coming across as an amateur might be an issue too. Instead, how about we settle on the need to be genuine? It does not resolve all the complexity of conversational dynamics, but it does leave us with two clear points to finish.

6. As a preacher, let’s do what we do as well as we can. If that means being professional in some sense, so be it. We certainly don’t want to be amateurish.

7. As a preacher, let’s do what we do with heartfelt motivation. If that means being amateurs in some sense, so be it. We certainly don’t want to be professionalised.

The definition of labels is important. This is an example worth pondering as far as preaching is concerned and how we might view our ministry. We should preach as professionals in the sense of “to the best of our ability” and as amateurs in the sense of “with the passion of a captured heart.” We should not preach as professionals in the sense of “relying on our own ability,” or “just for money,” nor as amateurs in the sense of “to a poor standard.”

It is also an example to keep in mind in a world where labels so easily get applied as a pejorative, and the mud sticks because people don’t question what is really meant.

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In the next week or so I will be completing my short video collection through the Psalms. Please do check it out and share with any who may find it helpful as a reference, or better yet, as a companion through the Psalms in 2023!

Is Preparation Spiritual?

I think we would do well to clarify our terminology when it comes to asking about whether something is spiritual or not. The world often sees “spiritual” as a mystical quality inherent in certain activities or persons. So the mystical neighbour with the yoga mat is considered spiritual, but the engineer on the other side who plays football and enjoys soft rock anthems is not considered spiritual.

Then there is a semi-Christian version of the word which basically uses it as a synonym for sanctified behaviour. So it is not describing a quality of spirituality being present in something, but rather it just means whether it is appropriate Christian behaviour or not. In this way of thinking it is “spiritual” to pray, but it is not “spiritual” to go and watch the football game.

So let’s consider the issue of sermon preparation. Is it spiritual? Some, with the semi-Christian understanding of the word might affirm that it is spiritual to prepare a sermon – it is appropriate Christian behaviour for a pastor. Others, with a Christianized version of the first, more mystical, concept, might argue that it is not spiritual to prepare a sermon. Better, they might say, to disengage yourself from study and just rely on inspiration in the moment.

What if we cast off confusing misappropriations of the term and think in genuinely biblical terms. What constitutes “spiritual” in the New Testament? Is it not the presence or absence of the Holy Spirit? If that is the “top and bottom” of the issue, then we would have to say that either neighbour could be spiritual, or maybe completely devoid of the Spirit. And praying or watching football could be spiritual, or could also be completely devoid of the Spirit. And we would have to say that either preparing a sermon or choosing not to prepare a sermon could be spiritual, or completely devoid of the Spirit.

I do not doubt that God, by His Spirit, may work wonderfully if I am called on to preach without a moment to prepare. However, I do wonder at the wisdom of abdicating my role as a steward of the ministry if I were to decide to preach as if it were somehow more spiritual to not prepare at all.

My vote would absolutely be on the side of preparing. Wayne McDill, in his 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching (p219), wrote, “The fact is that God has decided to use preachers.  Our laziness does not help the Holy Spirit; it hinders him.  There is nothing particularly spiritual about poor sermon preparation.”

However, preparation is not automatically spiritual, either. Is my confidence in my preparation, my homiletical skill, my gifting, my knowledge, my view of preaching, my teachers, my books? Or is my heart reliant on God, my mind humbly subject to God’s instruction, my attitude one of humility before the Word of God, etc.? My suspicion is that whether my preparation is spiritual or not will be evident in my prayer. It will be known to God and probably more obvious to my listeners than I might think (especially if I am functioning in a state of self-confidence).

If you are asked to preach, prepare. Prepare humbly. Prepare prayerfully. Prepare as if “apart from me, you can do nothing.”


Vary the Crescendo

I remember sitting high up in the Royal Albert Hall for a schools concert some years ago. Impressive venue, electric atmosphere, and stunning music. All of the music was very good, but there is something unique about the 1812 Overture once the cannons are fired up in the rafters – it was so fun to watch the children’s faces (they didn’t know it was coming!) I am no classical music fan, but that always feels like a high point in any concert.

The thing is, music can’t all be a thrilling crescendo. And the musical impact is not all achieved by crescendo. There are variations of melodic themes woven together, changes from major to minor key to influence the mood, variations in rhythmic intensity, and so much more. It would not make for great music to simply string together and elongate every possible crescendo (or add cannons to every piece)!

The same principle is true in preaching. There are various ways in which we can start to lean on a powerful crescendo too much, and thereby weaken our preaching. Here are a few examples:

Your Voice – Undoubtedly you can run into a crowded room and get everyone’s attention by screaming. That doesn’t mean you should scream your way through a sermon. Naturally, when we are excited about what we have to say, our voice will tend to climb upwards. It will go up in pitch, up in volume, and up in pace. And the ability to pause meaningfully? That will go up in smoke! As a preacher, you will do well to learn the benefit, and the skill, of going down for emphasis too. You can go down in pitch, down in volume, and down in pace – all for a non-crescendo variation on emphasis. And bring the skill of pause back down to earth too, it really can help!

Your Points – It is so easy to find a formula that works for a point in a message and then find yourself repeating that same formula for each point. Perhaps the flow moves from stating the point to explaining it textually and then applying it with an exhortational forcefulness that works well in point 1. That does not mean that point 2 must also have the same crescendo at the point of application. Be sure to look at how your points serve each other. Sometimes a point works better without forcefulness – let it fulfil its function in the message.

Your Support Material – It is always tempting to think that a certain type of “illustration” will always work well because one particular example did. Maybe your sermon seemed to soar when you recounted the moving story, shared the humourous anecdote, or let rip with the fiery rebuke (you know your tendency in terms of preferred “illustrations!”) Great. Be thankful that it worked. But don’t start to lean on that type of material to the exclusion of others. People grow tired of perfectly placed emotional stories, side-splitting humour, or repeated rebuke. The repetition will not achieve greater impact but will move listeners to start to see your preaching as manipulative, your goal as to entertain, or your pastoral concern as haranguing.

Your Series – Last Sunday I was preaching the passage after God rescued Isaac on Mount Moriah. That had been a crescendo message in an Abraham series stretching back for many weeks. People commented and appreciated and responded to the emotional impact of that sermon. So what to do the week after? It was tempting to try to continue the crescendo. Why not keep up the same emotional pitch for maximum personal impact? Instead, I chose to deliberately preach in a much more relaxed “teaching” style that allowed us to consider the new passage before us. I think it was the right choice. There was still some emotional impact, but it was not through the perpetuation of the crescendo. The message was in a different key, the music made its own impact, and it didn’t try to roll out the cannons again.

Where else can we find ourselves leaning on crescendo to the exclusion of other helpful options?

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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.