Subtlety – A Key in First-Person Preaching?

stones2Recently I enjoyed a first-person sermon from a student in class.  He preached as an observer of Jesus’ healing the paralytic in Mark 2.  What he did well made me think about effective first-person preaching.  Specifically, he managed to make the first person details subtle.

Let’s see this on a scale:

Zero “Experienced” Detail – This is where the preacher tells the story from an eyewitness perspective, but essentially it is just a grammatical change.  Instead of third person, now it is told in first person.  Imagine preparing a message normally, then switching to first person at the last minute.  Your mind can make the grammatical shift, but there is no added detail.  There is essentially nothing that makes this sermon have to be first person.  It may add some interest, but the listeners may end up wondering why you did it that way.

Excessive “Experienced” Detail – This is where the preacher tells the story from an eyewitness perspective, but ends up overdoing the added detail.  Suddenly we get quotes from all sorts of added characters, extra biblical elements abound, and the listeners are led merrily further and further away from the main point of the text into a fanciful demonstration of historical imagination.  This will be intriguing, but the listeners will hopefully end up wondering why you felt the Bible had nothing to say.

Subtle “Experienced” Detail – This is where the preacher tells the story from an eyewitness perspective, but carefully selects only limited experienced detail.  In the case of the student I heard, he made an early and late reference to his annoyance at the mud falling on his cloak as the roof was dismantled.  That was enough.  He didn’t need to pile up layer upon layer of complex imaginations.  This made the sermon engaging, and the listeners ended up gripped by the passage that was being preached.

I would suggest that we should aim for subtle rather than zero or excessive experienced detail in a first-person sermon.  This is the content equivalent to a similar dynamic in respect to “costume.”  If you are telling David’s story with Goliath, much better to have a stone in your hand than to be wearing authentic shepherding garb from 1000BC.  If you are telling the Christmas story as a shepherd, much better to just have a crook than to wear full curtains and false beard.

First-person or in character preaching takes a lot of extra effort.  It involves studying a passage fully, but then probing further into geographical and cultural background issues to make sure that you can speak of the biblical text with eyewitness accuracy.  Put that extra effort into your study for the message.  Don’t put that extra effort into fanciful and unrestrained imagination (or an all-out quest for total costume!)

Flock Feeding

sheepeating2One of the primary responsibilities of pastoral ministry is the feeding of the flock.  Here are a few quick thoughts to keep in mind:

  1. Seek to give a consistent diet – it is not good to vary meals between a few scraps one time and gorging on overly rich fare another.  Seek to preach so that listeners have a consistency in their diet.
  2. Seek to give a cumulative diet – it is not possible to give everything that is needed in every meal, or in every message.  Seek to preach so that listeners experience a cumulative growth in their biblical awareness and their relational knowledge of God.
  3. Seek to give a healthy diet – no normal parent balances vegetables with poison.  Do not accept heretical content, even if it is wrapped up in the salad leaves of Gospel truth.  Don’t blend curving your listeners inward with drawing them out to Christ.  Preach Christ and him crucified.  Don’t preach Christ and effort intensified.
  4. Seek to give a timely diet – some fare fits in certain seasons and when it is missing something does not seem right.  In my culture we tend to expect Turkey and mince pies in December, and more salads in the summer.  Whether or not your church follows the church calendar, at least in some basic points, your listeners do.  Christmas and Easter at least deserve some appropriate messages, perhaps harvest or mother’s day is a must too?  Don’t disappoint, there’s nothing to be gained.

Preacher What Are You Doing?

JobDesc2What are we doing when we preach?  What are we aiming for?  I suspect most preachers would say we preach to see lives changed for the glory of God, or something similar.  I agree.  But what are we doing?

Some preachers see themselves essentially as life trainers.  They know Christianity brings transformation, they long for their listeners to be changed and they know they have a key role to play.  Consequently it is always tempting to take on the responsibility for life change through direct and clear instruction, moral pressure and vocal encouragement, along with the necessary warnings about the dangers of living in other ways.  Is this your model of preaching?  Are you conformity coaching?  If this paragraph describes your ministry then it is time to prayerfully take stock and investigate more intently how Christ changes lives.

Some preachers see themselves essentially as teachers.  They believe in a God who has spoken and whose Word is the treasure they share from the pulpit.  They know that a life is transformed as the truths of Scripture take root and weed out the rubbish of life lived according to the many words of the world, the flesh and the devil.  Are we information investing?  We should be, but it should be more than that.

Some preachers know their role is primarily introductory.  That is, they know that what brings change is not merely Christianity, nor even Christian teaching, but rather Christ Himself.  It is as we look on His glory that we are being transformed.  Thus the preacher’s role is more humble than conformity coaching since what is needed is transformation at a far deeper level – something we know we cannot achieve by our instruction, pressure and exhortation.  The preacher’s role goes beyond information investing to something much more personal.  The preacher’s role is primarily that of match-making . . . let me point you to Jesus and how wonderful He is.

Whatever label you want to use, make sure you understand the difference between conformity coaching, information investing and match-making.  The difference can make all the difference in the world.

The Power of an Applicational Phrase

mirror1bIt seems like a lot of people want to hear practical and applicable teaching.  This is understandable. If the alternative is impractical and irrelevant messages then by all means sign me up for the former option.  The problem is that application in preaching can so easily direct our gaze in the wrong direction.

Truly transformational preaching will always point us toward God for the transformation.  It is as we encounter God’s self-revelation that we will feel genuine conviction.  It is as we look to Christ that we will find genuine transformation.  Of course we are either responsive or unresponsive to the work of the Spirit in all of this, but if we are not careful we can easily leave God out and look to ourselves for change.

One phrase that I’ve heard Andy Stanley use a few times is potentially very powerful in this regard.  More than once I’ve heard him say that such and such a sin won’t be visible in the mirror.

Our fallen tendency will be to look at ourselves, self-evaluate with a liberal dose of self-justification and rationalization, and thereby skirt around any sense of conviction.  The whole process of conviction-repentance-transformation is thereby cut off before it even begins.

I have seen this in my own life and I am sure you have in yours too.  I have seen this in otherwise very mature believers.  Somehow we seem to be wired not to see certain issues in the mirror.  This means that we cannot simply rely on God for the transformational help at the end of the process.  Instead we have to look to God for the conviction to begin with.

Before we even preach to others lets be sure to ask God to help us see our own blindspots – those issues that we have been rationalizing and covering for too long.  As those who are genuinely learning, let us then preach to others, reminding them that their own self-evaluation will be flawed and blind, since certain sins “will never show up in the mirror.”

Love Your Church

church fuzzy2To be an effective preacher you need to love your local church.  It is not enough to love the church in general.  Even if your ministry takes you to other places, still it is healthy to love your local church.  (I know that it is not our church or my church, it is Christ’s, but let’s go with this terminology for the sake of this post.)

It is the people in your own local church who know you, who pray for you, who know your family and care for them.  It is the people in your own local church who will sense when something is not right in your life.  It is these people who will speak the truth to you, even when you don’t want to hear it.

Of course, there are complexities.  The local church can become an antagonistic environment.  It can become both a source and a threat to your livelihood.  Receiving a salary from your local church means that you can be fired, or opposed, or any number of other challenges.  Nevertheless, it is important to love your local church.

It is not enough to love the church in general.  It is unwise and ungodly to love the income, the respect you get, or the power you develop. It is possible to use your local church position to get power or respect both within that church, and more widely.  We have to be wary of using the church instead of loving it.

So we need to love our local church.  Why? Because God loves it.  This is the local expression of the Bride of Christ and God is at work there.  This is the local gathering of believers that need not only your gifting, your time, your contibutions and your energy, they also and preeminently need your love.  You can work fifty or sixty hours per week, preach and lead multiple meetings, visit people in their homes or in the hospital, give of your time, gifting and energy, but if you do not have love you have nothing.

Maybe it is really obvious. Or maybe this has become your greatest challenge in ministry.  Maybe you are feeling loved and encouraged, or maybe you are feeling beaten up and ready to quit.  Whatever the circumstance, it is vital to look to Christ and to love your local church.

Praying Your Way to the Pulpit

PrayingBible2Sometimes it feels like we are living in an age of prayerless and therefore relatively powerless ministry.  We live in an age of increasing noise and preachers crave efficient preparation.  In this post I would like to narrate the journey from passage to pulpit in terms of prayer.  Maybe this can help nudge us toward the kind of preaching we all want to experience.

“What Shall I Preach?” – before the process of preparing a message can really begin, we have to select the passage or passages that we will study and preach.  New preachers tend to get stuck at this stage.  “Lord, give me a good sense of what they need to hear,” combined with “Father, stir my heart for Christ so I can preach out of the overflow of my own heart,” should help with picking a text or texts.  If necessary add this, “Ok Lord, I’m struggling to pick, so on Tuesday evening I am going to make a choice – would you please be in that decision!”

In the study – Now it is time to turn off all distractions and get alone with God and the Bible.  Your goal is to understand the text, and to meet with God personally.  “My Father, please give me eyes to see the meaning of this text as you intended when you inspired it.  And please give me eyes to see your heart revealed in this text.  And please change my heart in the process.  Give me determination to do the work necessary with the passage, and may the fruit of this study so stir and lift my heart that I am deeply changed…”

Before you move into message mode – You have the fruit of your study, and now you consciously reintroduce the listeners to your prayers again.  “O Lord, I am thankful for what this text has already done in my heart, but now I pray for my listeners.  I don’t love them as you do, please give me your heart for them.  How can the main idea of this text be a gift from you to them this Sunday?”

Shaping the message – It is time to form and shape the message – it’s purpose, main idea, structure and detail.  “Our Father, I so want this message to communicate with the hearts of my listeners.  Please give me wisdom to know how I can shape this message as an act of love for them.” And as you go, detail by detail, “Lord, will Steve understand it if I put it that way?” and “Father, you know how Sarah is hurting at the moment, how can I say that sensitively for her sake?”

Delivery time – Both before and during delivery we can be praying continually, even if only in arrow prayers…“May we see you!” and “Protect us from distractions,” and “Help the guys on sound to sort that annoying hum,” and “Guard my heart heart from pride in this,” and “I feel like I’m rushing, help me pace this better,” and “Lord, John seems troubled,” and “Protect us from the evil one,” and “Lord only you can give them eyes to see the glory of your grace in this,” and “Change lives, Lord!” and so on.

Preaching is about exegesis and communication and pastoral care and evangelism and leadership and discipleship . . . but it should be preeminently about prayer.

Defusing Preacher Landmines

landmine4Last week I listed 7 preacher landmines – hidden explosives that can do untold damage to your ministry.  Being aware of the dangers is a very significant first step.  But what else can we do once we identify the dangers in our path?  Here are seven quick suggestions to help clear the way in our ministry:

1. Prayerfully ask God to highlight your personal dangers – While any of us can struggle in any area, we tend to have personal weak spots that we should be especially aware of.   Rather than prodding around in your own heart, invite God into the conversation since He is the expert in you.

2. Accept that your path will never be fully cleared in this life – Hopefully this post will be a small help in clearing some of the dangers ahead of us, but know that you will never have a fully clear path. You will need to be prayerful every step of the way in your ministry.

3. Do not travel alone – Too many preachers get into a lonely cycle of doing ministry without the travel companions that they need. We are not designed to be lone rangers. Invite your spouse, and some ministry colleagues, and some personal friends, to get in close and be real with you. Ask them what they think your risk factors are. Ask them to pray with you, and give them the freedom to be honest with you at any point. Don’t just be accountable, be stimulated through real connection.

4. Fan the flames of your spiritual life – Never settle for a Martha mentality when the Mary option is always there.  That is, don’t settle for saying, “I am loving Christ by serving others,” when you should be saying, “I must love Christ and sit at His feet in order to be able to serve others.”  When our gaze drops from Christ to ministry then our feet start to step close to pride, to prayerlessness, to fatigue, to lust, etc.

5. Stay fit for service – Without becoming distractedly obsessive, take care of yourself physically and emotionally.  Get enough quality sleep, get out and exercise regularly, eat as if you want your body to be able to function both today and in years to come. Be sure to take your day off. Relax with family and friends. Laugh. Open up. Replenish.

6. Pray and plan to grow as a preacher – There is nothing worse than listening to a preacher who thinks they learned enough years ago. Feeling plateaued is a warning that you are close to pride, laziness, etc. How does God want you to grow as a preacher in the next few years? Is it preaching skill that you should pursue? Is it a greater vision of Him that you need for this season of life? Is it investing in some younger preachers that will give you the edge?

7. Orient your heart for life without preaching – I don’t mean plan to step on a landmine. I mean take the time to contemplate life without preaching, because your identity is not ultimately in your preaching ministry. It is in your union with Christ. Throat cancer could stop your ministry this week. Your spouse might need your full-time care without warning. Any number of legitimate things could stop your preaching ministry. Ask God to get your heart to a place where such a change wouldn’t wipe out all sense of identity for you.  Ultimately you are not a preacher, you are His.

What would you add? Maybe you have specific ideas for specific landmines? Please share with the rest of us.

UK Preacher Training Day – 18th of June

Preacher TrainingOn Saturday the 18th of June I will be involved in a preacher training day in Chippenham, UK. There are still spaces available.  We will take the day to think together about preaching and how to prepare biblical messages.  There will also be a voluntary follow-up day on the 9th of July where you can come back and preach a short message for feedback from those present (this is a very valuable learning experience, but entirely optional).

If you are coming a distance and need accommodation for the night before and/or after, please let us know and we can provide low-cost options for this.

Timing – 9:30-5pm, Saturday 18th of June.

Location – Cor Deo, in Chippenham.

Cost – Cor Deo offer ministry without charge, but all donations are dearly appreciated. The one-day course has a suggested donation of £30 (this includes lunch and snacks).

Contact – please email info@cordeo.org.uk to find out more and to reserve your place.

Handling Old Testament Quotes in Preaching – Part 3

Two scrolls2So far we have thought about the need to read the Old Testament and to go back to study the source of a quotation. We looked at a specific example (Psalm 82:6 in John 10:34).  What do we do when we have limited time in the sermon?

1. Do the study yourself, even if you don’t plan to preach about it.  Taking the time to study an OT quote, reference, allusion or whatever will always benefit you. You need to be studying the Bible at a deeper level than you are communicating it to others. Too many preachers try to sound more informed than they are – that is dangerously thin ice to skate on.  Study deeper than you preach.

2. Evaluate how significant a full explanation of the quote will be in communicating the main idea of your preaching passage.  Perhaps you have a passage that is built on a single Old Testament quote and it would be worth taking the listeners back to the quote (you could project it so they don’t get lost flipping pages). It may be worth taking them through a simplified process of pondering the context, the meaning back there, how that carries over and informs the NT passage, etc.  It may be appropriate to be interactive in this process, inviting them to think out loud with you.  There are lots of possibilities, however, this will not be possible or helpful with every OT quote you preach.

3. Recognize that there are multiple levels of explanation.  Sometimes it is possible and helpful to go back and look at the quote in its context. Sometimes that would take too much time, or it would take away too much focus from the passage you are preaching.  It is possible to explain an Old Testament quote verbally in 10 seconds, or 30 seconds, or two minutes, etc.  It is possible to give the bottom line of your study, such as, “if we were to take the time to go back and look at that quote, we would see that the whole section in Ezekiel is a rebuke of Israel’s failed leadership . . . which is what Jesus is critiquing here as he points to himself as the Good Shepherd, etc.”  (This is thinking more of early John 10 and the Ezekiel 34 background.)  You have lots of options, from not even noticing it is a quote or allusion, to doing the full process with your listeners.  Choose appropriately.

4. Remember that your listeners need encouragement to enjoy the Bible for themselves.  While you may not have the time to go back and look, it doesn’t hurt to suggest that people do that themselves. Too often listeners feel the Bible is out of their reach and only the preacher can dispense the goods.  Too often listeners feel there is some kind of subjectivity and magic worked when preachers explain passages.  Encourage your listeners to go digging.  Encouragement combined with some good examples may motivate them to go back into the Old Testament for themselves!