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.

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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Redemptive Force

Imagine a scale from 1-10.  It measures the redemptive force of the content of your sermon.  10 is a full presentation of the Gospel: the full plan of God being worked out on the cross by Jesus’ death as our substitute, demonstrating God’s love, inviting us to trust in him and what he has done.  At the other end of the scale there is 1, which points towards the gracious heart of God toward sinners and sufferers, but does not make the journey to Jesus and the cross.  Let’s call this the Redemptive Force Scale.

Question: How far along the scale should you go in your sermon? 

Some would immediately say it has to always be a 10 – after all, Paul’s teaching in 1Corinthians 2:1-5 points to the need to preach Christ and him crucified.  But others might hesitate.  What if the preaching passage doesn’t naturally allow a 10?  Depending on our school of thought, we might feel another value has to be considered too.

Two great values – I feel there are two great values that have to be kept in view.  

(1) One is the value of preaching the Gospel – that is why we preach, it is critical for every listener. 

(2) The other is the value of preaching the text – we need to handle the text well, this is also critical for every listener.  I do not believe we should abandon good handling of the text in order to get to the good news.  It is not wise to imply God is not a good communicator by discarding the Bible in order to get to the Gospel.

Two common mistakes – I also feel there are two mistakes that are made much more than we’d like to believe. 

(1) One is not preaching the gospel at all.  Perhaps we think that the gospel is only for evangelism and there is a different type of preaching for believers.  Or perhaps we don’t realise how much our preaching is really pointing people back to their own resources and their own efforts.  We may not preach salvation by works, but too many of us inadvertently preach sanctification and spiritual maturity by works.

(2) The other mistake is when we sacrifice the integrity of the text in order to jump to Jesus.  A tenuous link, a stretched analogy, a missing stepping stone . . . it is too easy to slip from our passage straight into the shadow of the cross and leave our listeners wondering how we got there from this passage?  If we have to do preaching parkour to get to Calvary, perhaps we have pushed it too hard.

Seven suggestions to ponder:

  1. If the occasion is primarily evangelistic, pick an appropriate passage.  A message on John 3 or Ephesians 2 will naturally yield a Redemptive Force of  8, 9, or 10 without any need to compromise on textual handling in order to preach the gospel.  If the occasion is primarily evangelistic, don’t preach on Ezekiel 38-39 or Nehemiah 7.
  2. If you are preaching a regular church sermon, be sure to get on the scale.  Your listeners all need to feel the redemptive force of the text.  They do not need a moralistic coaching session that puts their focus back onto themselves.
  3. Every text allows a legitimate sermon with redemptive force.  Bryan Chapell points out that every text in the Bible was written after the fall of humanity, and every text was inspired after God had stated his plan to rescue humanity in Genesis 3:15.  Therefore, every text is, in some way, redemptive in what it reveals, what it points to, or how it works in its context.
  4. You can develop the hermeneutical and homiletical ability to move up the scale. To put this a different way, most texts are not just offering a 1 or a 2, but you need to learn how to handle the text well and move legitimately toward the other end of the scale.
  5. You will not be able to hit 10 every week.  Sometimes the text only yields a 6, or even a 3.  Sometimes a congregation is not able to track as you make a complicated link to level 8, but they will grasp the level 5 version (for example, when knowledge of the original language is required to see the level 8 connection, it may not be possible to effectively lead people that far).  Sometimes the sermon time is not long enough to give enough explanation to get to the 9, but a 7 works well.   The text, the congregation, the timing, as well as the occasion, and even the preacher, might limit where you can get to on the Redemptive Force scale without sacrificing good handling of the preaching text.
  6. A church diet with some variety of redemptive force will not hurt people at all, but generally get as far up the scale as you legitimately can.  If you consistently hit 10 in every single sermon, you might give the impression that every biblical text is only there as a launch point to get to the cross.  This may even diminish the rich revelation of God’s heart through the canon of Scripture, if people start to think that every text is only included to launch us to the same presentation of the gospel. 
  7. However you show the redemptive force of the text, let the text still be in charge. To put that in other words, each message should be shaped by the text you are preaching. You should not simply launch from the text and end up giving the same pre-packaged presentation of the gospel at the end of the message. The text you are preaching is the boss of the whole message. You want the gospel presentation to have the implicit authority of God’s Word driving it, not just the sense of authority that comes from your presentation.

I think this Redemptive Force scale could be helpful to us.  Let’s always be sure to get on the scale, and let’s preach with as much redemptive force as the text, the occasion, the listeners, and our communicative ability will allow.  Let us preach the Gospel clearly as we carefully handle God’s inspired Scriptures with precision and integrity.  And let us always remember that only God can give spiritual life to those that hear!

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Lockdowns & Online Church: Time to Evaluate?

There are few subjects as controversial as Covid-19.  Many churches are feeling the stretch of a full spectrum of views within the congregation. It certainly feels safer to not venture into writing about this subject, but I feel it is important that we evaluate what we do in church world – whatever our view of the actual issue may be.  Obviously, each context is different.  What my church was allowed to do will be different than the rules in your country or state.  What my church decided to do may have been inappropriate for another church in the same town because of different facilities, congregational demographic or local context.

At the beginning of the global crisis in early 2020, most churches saw the situation as a no-brainer.  We were confronted with a new virus and we did not know the extent of the risk (although early predictions were anticipating hundreds of millions of deaths globally).  What we did know was the importance of everyone pulling together to save lives. To illegally meet as a church during those early weeks could easily have been the talk of the town (and it would have made Jesus look very bad).  So for us, and probably for most churches, it was time to get creative and adapt to this unforeseen and temporary lockdown.

Now, 18 months later, we are in a better position to look back and do some evaluating.  In our context we had a long first lockdown, followed by a summer of restrictions, then a shorter lockdown in October/November.  The third lockdown, for the first half of 2021, did not apply to churches (although there were plenty of restrictions). 

Our church experienced the sudden move to “meeting” online without a budget for setting up a high tech studio.  When we were allowed to meet again, we experienced meeting in different venues because our normal venue would not rent to us during the pandemic.  We met in a place where our numbers had to be limited way below our congregation size.  We met in a field, actually two different fields, a large English garden, and as guests of a very kind Anglican church in our town.

Every church will have its own story.  Every church situation is unique.  I am not writing to criticize anyone.  But we should all evaluate.  We are so thankful for the way our congregation responded with flexibility and enthusiasm to the constant changes. As leaders I am sure we made mistakes during these months.  We probably all did.  None of us ever took a seminary class in how to do lead a church during a never-before-seen global health crisis!

So as we look back at online church under various levels of lockdown, let’s take stock of both the costs and the benefits.

There have been benefits – I have spoken with many church leaders and church members who have spoken of learning to be flexible.  Having to adapt to new technology and changing circumstances is probably healthy for all but the most fragile Christians.  Many of us are now as capable of hosting a Zoom call as a business executive, or as familiar with streaming live on YouTube and “speaking to camera” as a social influencer (even if we are still not as comfortable with it!)  Perhaps the reach of your church has extended to people who would never have stepped into your building.  Perhaps, moving forward, the blessing of your live-stream will also be felt by church members at home with a sick child or travelling for work.  

And it is not just about technology and livestreaming.  We have had to think through how to shepherd people that we don’t see in person multiple times each week.  We have had to think about unity more than ever before since Covid has scattered people across a spectrum of responses and perspectives.   We have possibly been given greater clarity on the spiritual condition of many in our churches than was obvious under “the old normal” of predictable church routine.  We have hopefully been pushed to our knees to recognize that we rely on God alone for the health of the flock and not that predictable structure of church life. It is right to recognize the benefits and thank God for His faithfulness during these challenging months of change.

There have been costs – Some people will only speak positively of the impact of lockdown on their church experience.  Perhaps there is something in the air these days that makes it feel forbidden to critique any aspect of Covid response?  But we must evaluate.  Our calling is too significant to do otherwise.  What has been the cost of the loss of fellowship?  What has been the cost of loneliness for believers living alone or as the only believer in their home?  Have people grown to see church as merely watching a sermon and perhaps singing?  What value does corporate worship have in the spiritual life of the believer? What about the relational dynamic at the heart of biblical Christianity?  What about discipleship?  What about serving others?  What about unplanned conversations, warm greetings, handshakes, smiles and hugs?

Have people thrived spiritually with online church, or have they just survived?  There is a cost to not meeting for weeks, or even months on end.  Remember how we would be very concerned pastorally about people who stopped participating in the life of the church for extended periods of time before Covid-19 came along?  That concern still applies.  As churches come out of existing online to meeting in person, they discover that they have lost people.  Some are lost to “pajama church” while others are lost to no church connection at all. Sundays have taken on new rhythms for them.

And what about the loss of opportunities?  We can and should celebrate the people that found church online, but what about guests that never came to church, never experienced believers worshipping together, never experienced the love of a community of God’s people welcoming them warmly?  What about the loss of in-person communion and group prayer?  What about the loss of other opportunities: childhood friendships and life transition moments, mission trips for teens at that key stage of transition to adulthood, youth group heart-to-heart conversations after youth group adventures, and so on?

What do you think? Personally, I believe that online church and lockdown has had far more costs than benefits.  If we had to do it again, what would we do differently?  And are we now happy to switch to online church whatever reason is given for future lockdowns?  Are we really settled with the idea that the authorities can mandate what we do as a church, who we meet with, what we wear, etc.? Is the plan to do what is commanded, or what is culturally popular, whatever the reason? Or are we making different plans to handle what may still lie ahead of us?  Whatever your perspective, it is vital that we all take stock and evaluate. 

I want to recognize that it has been a challenging season to be in church leadership. Thank you for all you have done where you are. It has not been easy. Hopefully, your congregation have expressed their gratitude for all that you have done to make it work in these strange times. Hopefully, you have seen God at work despite the challenges. Jesus promised to build his church!

Our contexts are different and rules seem to be constantly changing everywhere.  How vital it is to think it through, pray it through, and learn lessons in the late summer before another winter comes (whatever that may look like where you are).

(I have sought to gently provoke with questions in this post. I am not looking to stir a political debate, but prayerful reflection. Please do share in the comments anything that could be helpful for others.)

The Local Church and the Missionary

The relationship between the local church in the West and the missionary sent to a far-off land has always been unique.  In one respect, the roles in this relationship may soon be reversed.

In some cases, the local church has revered missionaries and almost idolized them.  When visiting their home country, they are honoured as they regale the congregation with tales of life in exotic far flung lands. 

In other cases, the local church has felt awkward around missionaries and almost ignored them.  When they visit they have a token opportunity to “show their slides” and they sometimes feel like fish out of water – trying to communicate in a culture that is no longer their own.

Cultural Awkwardness

Whether the missionaries are somewhat celebrated or generally forgotten, they will speak to one another of the cultural awkwardness they feel when they return to their sending country.  They arrive and hear passing questions like, “is it nice to be home?”  But often missionaries feel far from home and uncertain of how to fit into the culture that has moved on from the one they left years ago.

In contrast, the local church in the West has typically felt very much at home.  It has always been the missionary’s context that has seemed strange and hard to comprehend.  The church in the West might wonder about the missionary: How do you live in a culture dominated by that strange and zealous religion?  How do you communicate to people who see the world completely differently?  How can the church exist and grow in a culture that considers Christians to be a danger and a threat to society? 

Times are Changing!

In recent years, western cultures have been experiencing significant changes.  The shift feels very rapid.  Years of preparatory work in education, the media, and entertainment culture are now bearing fruit as a much more activist-driven cultural upheaval is quickly turning everything upside-down (or right-side up, depending on your perspective!).  This is no superficial shift.  The very foundations of Western society are being replaced so that we now face a totally different worldview and a whole new morality.  Our culture is radically different than it was even at the turn of the century.  Truths everybody knew until a few minutes ago are now dogmatically dismissed and everyone is increasingly required to agree with the new truths. No debate is permitted.

Times have changed and now the home church does not feel like it is at home.  Increasingly, it feels like our culture is strange and hard to comprehend.  In the next few years we will be asking ourselves, how are we supposed to live in a culture dominated by another ideology that feels almost religious and fundamentalist in its zeal?  How can we communicate with people who are conditioned by their education and media to see the world very differently than we do?  How can our church exist and grow in a culture that is increasingly antagonistic to its very existence and considers the church to be dangerous and a threat to the safety and unity of society?

Maybe if we are not already asking ourselves these questions, we will be asking them soon.  Perhaps we should think about asking our missionaries how they would answer them.  Their experience of life and ministry in some foreign countries may become more relevant to life in “the West” than it would have been forty, or even ten, years ago. 

In the past, we may have asked the missionary about the dominant religion in their mission field because we saw families with that same religion moving in locally.  This is still true.  But maybe there is much more we can learn from them now that our culture is moving so far away from its Judeo-Christian roots and worldview.  Our culture will increasingly feel like the ideologically dominated cultures we used to think of as foreign mission fields.  Maybe we should be asking the missionaries how we can effectively reach people here.

(Photo by Roman Denisenko on Unsplash)

A Low Fence: Revisited

One of my early posts on this site was called “A Low Fence.” I have recalled that post many times, and since yesterday’s post related to the idea, I thought I’d give it a revamp:

When you have a single text for a sermon, you also need a fence.  The fence is there to keep you from wandering too far away from your focus.  

1. Erect a fence for the passage – If you are preaching John 3, put your fence around John (or maybe the section of John 1-4). If you are preaching Colossians 1, put a perimeter around Colossians. That fence means you try to keep your study, and your presentation, within John, or Colossians.

2. Study inside the fence – As you try to make sense of details within your passage, try not to spend all your time visiting other writers and other eras of biblical history. By staying within the writing of that author, or if possible, within this writing of that author, you will put your energy into the best evidence to find authorial intent within your passage. The fence marks off the best context for your study. Staying there will help you to spot the flow of thought within the passage, as well as the way the author is using a word or concept.

3. Preach inside the fence – As we thought about in the last post, it is often tempting to present a sermon in our own preferred terms (or preferred texts, cross-references, etc.) A couple of things can be said of cross-references. (1) Listeners don’t love a biblical “sword drill” and tend to switch off when a message becomes too textually complicated, and yet (2) Listeners seem to praise the preacher for being “deep” or some such non-compliment often misunderstood as endorsement. But it isn’t just about jumping around the canon. How easily we will preach a Resurrection passage in a Gospel using Paul’s terminology from 1 Corinthians 15. Or how easily our standard Christian terms get painted on every text so that the distinctive vocabulary of Luke or John or Hebrews or Peter is lost.

4. It only needs to be a low fence – I am not suggesting that you study, or preach, a biblical book in isolation from other inspired texts.  I am suggesting that you honour the author of the book both in your study and in your preaching.  With a low fence you can step back into the Old Testament to look at a passage that informs your preaching passage, or you can step over to other writings by the same author for a more complete word study.  With a low fence you can choose to step beyond the book for a quick presentation of how this apparently unusual idea is actually very biblical.  With a low fence you can choose to step forward to see the culmination of momentum found in your text.

These are the three reasons I tend to step over the fence –

A. For the informing texts that help me understand my preaching text,

B. For the supporting texts that help others accept my preaching text, or

C. For a culminating passage that helps to conclude a trajectory in my preaching text. 

Otherwise, I’d say it is generally best to stay where you are.  I certainly don’t think we should spend much time going elsewhere just because other passages have similar wording, nor to offer “illustration” for the truth of our passage, and definitely not to fill time.  Dig in the text you have, honour the author by doing so, and give your listeners the best you can from this passage.  Next week it will be a different one.

(To see the original post with worked example from Hebrews 13:20-21 – click here.)

Evaluate Before You Preach

EvaluateIt is super helpful to evaluate your sermon after you preach it.  But it is also vital to evaluate it before you preach.  Here is a partial checklist that may be helpful:

  1. Think about the biblical text – have you answered the questions that the text raises as your listeners read it (for maybe the first time)?  Does your message still have the authority of the biblical text or has your message preparation led to any drifting from the meaning of the passage?  Is your main idea the main idea of the passage?  And is your main idea going to engage your listeners?
  2. Think about your listeners – is your message going to communicate the relevance of the passage to your specific listeners?  Is your support material going to connect with different demographics in the congregation (or do you only use sporting illustrations throughout?)  Does your message only communicate to the in-crowd in Church language, or will it communicate to any guests present?  Are there any points of connection between message and congregation that require extra sensitivity?  It is better to think that through before, rather than trying to fix damage later.
  3. Think about the communicator – how are you doing spiritually?  And relationally?  And physically?  Is there anything you need to put right or address in the time between now and when you have to preach?  Do you need to ask someone for help with a pre-preaching responsibility so that you can be in the best place personally to preach?  (Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and admit to a trusted friend if that is the case.)
  4. Think about the Spirit of God – apart from God working through this sermon, it will achieve nothing.  Have you prepared prayerfully?  Do you need to seek forgiveness for self-reliance or distraction and bring the congregation and the message to the Throne of Grace now?   

There is plenty more that can be evaluated before you preach.  Are you anticipating the need to rush because of too much content?  Are you still unclear how you will land the message?  Would you want to hear this message?  Does your message point people to themselves or to Christ?

Remember, you will never have a perfect message, but prayerfully do what you can.  In fact, prayerfully evaluate the message and you will probably have a sense of where to put your energies in the time you have left!