Pondering Pre-Sermon Position

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Never Run Dry

The first time someone is scheduled to preach they typically wonder if they will have enough to say.  It doesn’t take long to discover that the real challenge is not filling time, but knowing what to cut out to fit the time you have.  However, over the long haul of ministry, the risk of running out of things to say becomes very real.

Here are several “wells” that may run dry for us:

1. The Well of Training.  If you have had the privilege of formal study then you know that it can be a great source of content for future ministry.  What is poured into you during your training should be flowing out of you in the years that follow.  Some might assume that three or four years of lecture material will provide a lifetime of sermons to preach.  Not so.  The training content has a limited shelf life.  It decreases over time unless it is mixed and stirred into further study and growth.  You might come out of Bible School, or even a great conference, with material that can be preached for the good of others.  But that same material, if pulled out years later, will be stagnant and far less effective.  It is not just that time has passed and the information has become outdated (this may sometimes be true), rather it is that you have not engaged with that material and grown in the meantime.  Stagnant truths offer little life to listeners.

2. The Well of Experience.  Over time we gain experience in life and ministry.  This can and should enrich our ministry.  We should grow deeper yet clearer, sensitive yet bolder, more spiritual and yet more relevant.  And with experience should come an increasing store from which to speak to others.  But there is a problem here too.  Experience is not simply a matter of the passing of time.  Nor is maturity.  It is possible to grow older, to gain experience, and at the same time to have less and less to say.  If we are merely cruising along we are losing our cutting edge.  If we are standing still, time may move us forward, but we can still be fading backwards within.  Experience is valuable, but it cannot become a well we trust to consistently provide helpful material for others.  I have known some very experienced people whose input to others is profoundly unhelpful at times.  Experience does not guarantee maturity, nor does it guarantee accurate perspective or helpful insight.

3. The Well of “Old Notes.”  There is nothing wrong with preaching a message more than once.  Jesus did.  The danger comes when we trust in a set of old notes because the message seemed effective before.  Old notes are a great head start, but we need to refresh each message we preach.  We cannot rely on past effectiveness any more than we can ultimately rely on our Bible school teachers or our years of experience.

4. The Well That Never Runs Dry.  Truly there is only one well from which we can draw fresh water for a lifetime of ministry.  Let’s appreciate our training, process our experience, refresh our past ministry materials, but most of all, let’s be sure to draw from the well that will never run dry – the well that is Jesus himself.  If we want to have a fresh and helpful ministry that will last for a lifetime, and have an impact for eternity, then we need to continually spend time at the feet of Jesus.

7 Ways to Stay Gospel Sharp

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow I will complete the list…

Children vs Students

Small children and students have some things in common, along with some real differences.  If you are a parent or a professor, your goal is to help them mature and become all that they were created to be.  Maybe as preachers and Christian leaders there are one or two helpful thoughts to be found in this comparison?

Children have vivid imaginations.  When you read them a story, they can see it happening.  It doesn’t take too many years before they graduate from needing the colour pictures and can see everything you describe.  If you tell a scary story, they are gripped with fear.  If you describe a person, they can see them.  Children don’t process through abstractions particularly well, but they will live in the story you tell them.

Students have somehow learned to store abstractions in their short-term memory, while losing the skill of vivid imagination.  When you lay out a lecture before them, assuming there is some sort of motivation to learn the material, they will diligently take notes for later review and they may pass the exam before the details fade from their minds.  It all seems very efficient and education is celebrated. However, the values they live by are probably determined more by the stories they watch on the screen and the influence their peers exert than the wisdom nuggets picked up in lectures.

Perhaps it is a simple matter of progression, but we tend to think of listeners in church as being students rather than children.  That is, we drift into lecture mode more than gripping story mode when we preach.  We assume that if our listeners are taking notes, or at least if they are present and awake, then all is proceeding to plan.  The truth is these “students” with their notes are at best storing our points in their short-term memories.  They are likely more influenced by the screen and their relationships.  The lasting value of outlines inscribed on scraps of paper will be minimal.

Perhaps we would do better to preach as those who offer not just nuggets of wisdom, but most profoundly as those who offer a person.  Let’s preach our text in such a way that our listeners dust off their old “imaginers” and start to see the Christ of whom we speak.  Let’s preach our text in such a way that our listeners start to experience the emotion of being in the story.  Let’s preach so that they are not simply collecting abstractions, but are being marked by the characters they encounter in the passage, supremely by the God revealed there.  If we do that, then maybe their motivation for gaining the life wisdom will increase to a level where they care about the points we make.

The mark of success in preaching is not having a lecture hall full of students leaving with your outline on their notes.  It is seeing the change in your listener that can only be explained by their encountering Christ and being changed from the inside-out by His Spirit.

Why Keep Humour Subtle?

I was talking with some friends yesterday about humour in preaching.  We decided that it always seems to work best when it is subtle.  Why?

Imagine a line running through your sermon.  It is the progression of your main idea – that combination of unity, order and progress that keeps your message coherent, structured and moving.  It is possible to use humour below that line, in a subtle way.  Or it is possible to interrupt that line and feature some humour above that line.

When we generally keep our humour below the line, i.e. subtle, it means that the progression of the message is uninterrupted.  It means that the message is treated as the most important thing.  It means that listeners are free to engage the humour or ignore it.  Actually, it means they can catch the humour or miss it, but they won’t feel like they are missing something that is key to understanding the message as a whole.

I am not suggesting that our humour should be tricky, or an “inside joke” – that is typically rude to those who notice it but don’t understand (which is why saying, “sorry, that is an inside joke” never feels good to listeners, no matter how much you smile, laugh, apologise, etc.)

I am suggesting that humour is a complicated thing.  I think we should be extremely humble about it.  If you think you are funny, you probably aren’t.  If you think you can tell a joke, you probably can’t.  If you think your funny remark will make sense to everyone, it probably won’t.  And if you think other cultures will easily get what you are saying, well, you probably haven’t watched a mix-culture crowd react to preaching much.  (That was a very sour sounding paragraph!  I don’t mean to sound sour, I just want to encourage humility in this area.)

What happens when we “feature” humour and let it break through the line and become a significant thing in the message?  We interrupt the flow of thought and require listeners to both understand and appreciate our humour.  We run the risk of making the humour a feature of the message, and sail very close to being an entertainer, which is a far lesser calling than being an engaging authentic proclaimer of God’s Word.  We risk alienating individuals, groups or cultures within our congregation.

I absolutely do not believe we should avoid all humour in our preaching.  I do not believe in dispassionate, disconnected or dull preaching.  I think we should prayerfully take onboard helpful feedback as God continues to sanctify our sense of humour over time, but then generally let the humour be an appropriate, loving and subtle element of our preaching.

Preaching: A Platform for Ministries

When we preach we tend to think about the people sitting in front of us.  Rightly so.  Whatever the size or apparent significance of this group of listeners, they are the ones God has prepared and convened for the public preaching of His Word, and so this is a key moment.

However, that Sunday sermon is also a platform for other ministries.  Let’s consider three:

1. Your other ministries.  While we don’t want to develop prideful delusions of grandeur, it is good to consider how to be a steward of your ministry.  The best thing you could do might be to put all your energy into improving what you do as a preacher.  But you might also consider whether the work that went into that sermon might feed into a shortened recorded summary for a different audience, or a blog post, or an article, or a book chapter, or a set of tweets, or whatever.  You may not have the global reach of some famous author/speakers, but if there are some people that would benefit, why not make best use of the work you have already invested in a message?

2. Your listeners’ ministries.  The people listening to you are not just there to be blessed.  They are also there to be developed and launched in their own ministries.  How is your preaching shaping the way they handle the Bible, communicate gospel truth, trust God in their spheres of service?  While every sermon will have its primary goals that you prayerfully hope to achieve which tend to be unique to each sermon, don’t forget that there are some secondary effects that also matter – how your listeners are motivating and trained to handle the Bible, how your listeners are equipped for ministry, etc.

3. Your church’s ministries.  The sermon you preach on Sunday is not just about that slice of time and those people in their response to it.  It also sets the tone for all the other word ministries of the church.  How is the Bible treated in small groups, or taught in Sunday School, or trusted in youth ministry, or seen as relevant in counseling, or birthing spiritual conversations, etc.  Sunday’s sermon will, especially over time, set the tone for the word-based ministries of the church throughout the week – both formal and informal.

Preach to the people in front of you, but prayerfully ponder how the Sunday sermon can shape more than just that moment.

Reflecting on a Decade of Blogging

I started this blog back in the spring of 2007.  I had no intention of becoming a “blogger,” but the platform made sense as a way to share thoughts about preaching.  That was the original design: not to share my preaching, but instead prompts to help other people think about preaching in a way that would be helpful.

While I have reduced the number of posts in recent years due to a combination of ministry circumstances and other writing, I have posted over 2200 times and written around a million words on here.  I have been pondering a few reflections on this past decade of blogging and am finally getting around to sharing them:

1. Bless others, don’t stress.  For over a decade I did not monetize the site, or build any business out of the subscribers or hits.  I have just given thoughts away and hope they have been helpful. I know there are many who are wanting to build income through their online presence and a regular churn of materials in blogs, YouTube, or even the “special offer” PDF books that some people put so much energy into selling.  Honestly, I have enjoyed not having the stress of needing the blog to be a success.  While I know the challenges of needing to fund a ministry, I always appreciate it when helpful material is given away.  (I have experimented with allowing ads on here in recent months just to try and cover some of the costs, I hope they haven’t been too annoying!)

2. Building a word bank is helpful.  I blogged for years before publishing any writing. Before blogging I was producing academic work for years.  Someone once told me that you need to write a million words before it is worth reading.  I know I blogged for some time before I had a paid article published, and about seven years before my first book was published.  Blogging is a nice way to put words out there and hopefully help some other folks.

3. There is a difference between blogging and publishing.  It is easy for the flesh to get involved and to start declaring our own importance.  The truth is that blog posts are not the same as peer reviewed journal articles or published books.  In our social media driven narcissism it is easy to think that subscribers, hits and unique page views say something about our worth as humans.  They really don’t.  It is nice to write, and it is encouraging to find out others have read your writing and found it helpful.  At the same time, there will be worse materials getting more attention because the writer or organisation has more online clout, and there will be better materials getting no attention because the writer doesn’t know how to get it out there.

4. I still believe books are better.  I would rather spend an hour and read a book by a good author instead of spending that same hour reading blog posts by the same author. I fear that preachers who only digest what they receive into their inbox will grow mentally and spiritually impoverished without even realizing it.  I am thankful for blogs, but my church needs me to read books.

Thank you for reading this blog over the years. I hope it can be a blessing to preachers in the years to come.

 

Preaching Myths – Part 3

The whole idea of a “good sermon” is a tricky one.  While some feel it is inappropriate to evaluate, others base that evaluation purely on positive fruit.  Here is another evaluation myth:

3. If a sermon is really good then listeners will not be offended

This is not so much the presence of positive fruit, but the absence of apparently negative fruit.  There are many conflict avoiders amongst us.  Probably most of us would rather not see people upset or offended in the church – it certainly makes ministry easier when everyone is smiling.  But we need to probe the premise here: is a sermon really failing if some get offended by it?

By that measure, Jesus’ ministry was incredibly ineffective.  Jesus knew what was going on inside people and therefore seemed very willing to offend by what he said and what he did.  We certainly do not have perfect insight into human hearts, but it would be utterly naïve to assume that everyone is in some sort of happy neutral state.  Good preaching should disturb the comfortable and not just comfort the disturbed.  There are people in our churches who should be profoundly bothered by the gospel.

But there are some important caveats to make explicit here:

A. Make sure that people are offended by the right things.  If people find the grace of God scandalous, or the glory of the gospel, or character of God, or the depth of their need, then it is probably a good offense.  But if people are being wound up by your personal ministry soapbox issues or legalistic preferences, if people are being upset by the promotion of a certain Christian sub-culture, then I would argue that the offense is not life-giving.

B. Make sure that people are offended by the right person.  If people find your tone objectionable, or your manner distasteful, or your character un-Christ-like, then they are being offended by the wrong person.  Good preaching will offend some, and they may well pin the blame on the preacher, but at the heart of the offense is the Holy Spirit’s work of conviction and shining a light into their hearts.  They may lash out at you, but the bothering is being done by God.  It is so hard to evaluate this as we have a seemingly infinite capacity to self-protect and justify what we do.  Ask God, and ask trusted others, and make sure that your ministry has a graciousness and gentleness befitting a spokesman for Christ (as well as the courage and boldness to speak the truth that His spokesperson should demonstrate too).

C. Make sure that offense is a text-response. If people are angry at your illustrations, your anecdotes, your explanations and your applications, then there may be an issue.  Ideally, the offense should be caused by the biblical text itself rather than your departure from it.

A positive-response-only expectation is not realistic for true biblical preaching.  We should be seeing some apparently negative-responses, but we need God’s help to make sure that what provokes these responses is life-giving biblical preaching rather than our personal rudeness, pastoral insensitivity, or whatever else we can manage as a misfire from the pulpit.

The Power of Testimony – Part 2

Hearing the story of God at work in a life can be so life changing for a church, but nerves, timekeeping, and a drift into instruction can undermine a good testimony and bring about a cold sweat for those planning a church service.  Let me explain how we do testimonies in our church and why we do it this way.  It may not be appropriate in your setting, but it may be helpful in some way.

The Testimony Panel – Roughly every six months we dedicate a Sunday to having a “testimony panel.”  The sermon is reduced to a very brief message of a few minutes, leaving 30-40 minutes for the testimonies.  We also keep the rest of the service as free as possible to guard the time.  For the panel, we will typically have two people giving their testimonies, along with an interviewer whose job is to ask questions and weave the two stories together.

What are the advantages of this approach?

1. It is an event.  By so drastically reducing sermon time it communicates to the church that testimonies are important, and these two people are important to us.  We want to hear their stories. Instead of a rushed testimony squeezed into the early part of the service, this is an event where we get to hear more fully from them both.  It says to the church that we value people and we expect God to be at work in people’s lives.  It underlines several values of the church indirectly, but powerfully.

2. A non-nervous person is in charge.  The interviewer is always someone who is comfortable in front of the church and will, therefore, be able to shield the two participants from their own nerves.  It is the interviewer’s problem to watch the clock, to ask the right questions, to bring the panel to an end, etc.  And the interviewer will always have a microphone (no leaving a nervous talker with a microphone alone in front of the church!)

3. It requires preparation without being awkward.  If someone is given ten minutes to give their own testimony it can be difficult to prep them.  They may not realise how a testimony can misfire and therefore resent being asked what they are going to say.  Also, they might be inclined to write a script so it can be checked ahead of time.  This just feels awkward, as does the church leader who is wondering how clear the conversion will sound, how appropriate the pre-conversion stories will be for the listeners, how much tendency there will be to drift into teaching, etc.  A testimony panel requires the interviewer to meet with both people and hear both stories – no script necessary, just an informed interviewer who knows how to direct the conversation on the day.

We have tried interviewing three people and it really needed more time.  Thirty to forty minutes works for us to have two people interviewed.  We did have three elders in one panel, but they interviewed each other, which was different again but worked well.  What have you found helpful when it comes to testimonies in your church?  Feel free to comment below.

One more resource on Testimonies, click here for 10 Top Testimony Tips 

The Power of Testimony

Hearing how God has worked in a life can be very powerful.  Having someone “give their testimony” can also backfire.  Before I explain how we do testimonies in our church, here are a few of the problems that can create the tension:

1. Nerves.  Public speaking is a frightening prospect for most people.  Talking about self so overtly should be a challenge for believers.  Therefore nerves are normal.  While everyone in the audience will understand that the person feels nervous, this doesn’t change the fact that nerves can lead to losing track of the story, or saying something that is not intended, or to shifting into teaching rather than giving testimony, or to losing all awareness of time.  To stand and give a crafted testimony in a set time without reading a script takes the skill of a preacher.

2. Timekeeping.  Some will rattle through their story and be done in a fraction of the time available.  Others will barely be out of their childhood before the time is done and threaten to drift into the work week unless someone steps in.  Keeping to time is a real challenge (even preachers can struggle with this!)

3. Instructing.  So many good testimonies become awkward because the person feels some compulsion to instruct the listeners.  Where the story of God at work is so powerful, the pointed finger and some generalized imperatives are awkwardly blunt.  Once someone drifts into unplanned teaching they can make theological errors, assume something they don’t understand yet is unexplainable, make promises that their experience is how God always works, or whatever.  It can be a minefield.

And yet, despite all that can go wrong, testimonies can be so powerful.  Why?

1. They can stir worship.  Isn’t God amazing?  What a wonderful story of His faithfulness and persistent love!

2. They can generate hope.  I am not the only one who struggles like that, and they have seen God bring change, maybe there is hope for me?

3. They can foster understanding.  I had no idea they had gone through all that.  I am so glad they are now part of the family and God is still at work.

4. They can unite the church family.  I used to struggle with that person, but now I know their story I can actually celebrate God’s goodness instead of feeling so bothered by their quirks.

5. They can convict unbelievers.  Where you were, that is where I am … I need to respond to God’s convicting work in my life.

And so much more.  Testimonies can have such impact, either positively, or negatively!  Next time I will explain how we incorporate testimonies in our church – it might be helpful.