Rebuilding the Bridge to Life

bridge3Most of us have seen or used the bridge to life illustration at some point.  Maybe you have even preached your way through it.  On one side there is God and on the other there is humankind, and they are separated by a chasm (sin).  Perhaps God is represented by a throne or a crown. Try as we might we cannot leap across the chasm or build a bridge of good works, so God has to do the bridge-building.  The cross is interposed and we can walk across to God.  Many people have come to faith with this illustration, so please don’t see this post as a criticism of it.

It is good to think through what is being communicated and I do think there are some concerning features of the gospel offered here.  For instance, let’s ponder the assumed motivation.  Are people really trying to leap the chasm to get to God?  Are people longing for closeness with the throne/crown authority figure presented in this illustration?  I don’t remember talking to someone who was desperate to get to God and disappointed that they could not.  Furthermore, the relationship offered seems ambiguous – what sort of connection will we have with this throne/crown if we do choose to walk his way?

I’d like to offer another version.  Why? Because it is good to rethink the gospel presentations we use. Even if we end up rejecting my modification, the exercise will surely be helpful in thinking through how we present the gospel.

Instead of having the human figure facing towards God and apparently motivated to move towards God throughout the illustration, let’s draw him or her facing away from God.  We were created for relationship with God but we have turned away.  Introduce the chasm (sin is our rebellion against both God and the love he has for us).  Now the illustration is ready to fill in.

A. On the God side, why don’t we represent God in a more Trinitarian way?  After all, the authority imagery is obviously incomplete, so let’s play with an alternative.  How about a house?  Verbally explain the context of the relationship of the Father and the Son by the Spirit – three persons united in love.  This relationship was the home, the family, the belonging that we were made for.  If it is explained well then the authority of God as creator and ruler can still be established fairly easily.  However this is not a God of conflicting realities. He is not “loving, but also just.”  Because of the perfect love within the Trinity, therefore God is just, etc.

B. In the chasm let’s draw a manger.  Why a manger?  Because God’s goal for us is not merely to change our location from the realm of sin to the realm of heaven.  God’s goal is union with us, which is why God the Son became one of us – the incarnation matters to the gospel!  He had to become one of us so that he could be one with us in marriage, which leads us to …

C. Behind the turned away person let’s draw the cross.  Why here? Because ultimately that is how far Jesus travelled for us.  It was the price that had to be paid, it was the revelation of what God is like that had to be made, and it was the proposal to win our hearts to entrust ourselves to God.  God’s proposal was not in nervousness on one-knee, but in agony with outstretched arms.

Why do I like this adaptation of the classic illustration?

  1. Because it speaks of the three great unions of Christianity – the union of God with God (Trinity), the union of God and man in Christ (incarnation), and the union of Christ with humanity (union with Christ).
  2. Because God is presented more relationally.
  3. Because mankind is not presented as motivated to seek and reach God.
  4. Because God, in Christ, came all the way to us.  (You could also explain that the Spirit points our hearts to the cross and invites us to be united to Christ.)
  5. Because it presents a loving God doing everything for a rebellious and dead-to-God creature like me.
  6. Because the gospel is about trusting in that love, rather than about making a personal commitment to travel to God.
  7. Because in the gospel we are brought back home by a loving spouse – it is not our solo trek on a God-made bridge to a nice place, in a very real sense he carries his bride over the threshold!

My goal is not to convince you of this illustration.  Perhaps you have another classic gospel explanation you have used – why not think through its weaknesses and modify it to better offer the richness of the good news?  (For example, the judge doesn’t simply pay our fine, he also approaches the stand and proposes…)

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This post was originally published on www.cordeo.org.uk

Building Preacher-Listener Connection – Part 3

connections2We have thought about the personal life of the preacher and the pastoral ministry of the preacher. Let’s think about the actual content of the message.  Is it designed to connect?

9.    Really get to know the Bible and your text better. Preaching is not like a relaxed conversation between friends. It is a presentation. One person is presenting both truth and application to others. In every situation where one person is expected to speak with authority, they need to convey credibility. It is true in a sales transaction, in a doctor explaining a treatment plan to a patient, in an educational setting, and it is no less true in preaching. Not only do you need to know what you are talking about, but your listeners need to be able to sense that you know what you are talking about. As Bert Decker’s book title put it, you need to be believed to be heard. Do not try to shortcut to this by showing off knowledge. You need to carry knowledge with humility. The only way to achieve this is to genuinely know the Bible and your text as well as possible.

10.    Internalize your message. If you met someone for the first time and were making conversation, you would feel nervous if they had to check their notes for what their job was, or where they met their spouse. It is hard to trust truth that is not fully owned. So in preaching you need to get the content of your message into you before it can convincingly come out. We will come back to this one tomorrow.

11.    Reflect on personal response and application before preaching. It is not enough to know the content of your message. That content needs to have been filtered through your own life in some way so that you speak not only the truth, but you also speak from the impact of that truth.  This means we would do well to …

12.    Extend lead time before preaching a message. It is difficult if you are preaching at least once per week to have anything more than five days of lead time before preaching a message. Some of us end up with just a couple of days to prepare messages, which is far from ideal. The ideal plan would be to extend the lead time by bringing preliminary study forward before your previous message. If you cannot do a good chunk of initial study well ahead of time, then at least try to give some thought and prayer to forthcoming messages in advance so they can percolate in the background. Unless the speaker has fallen ill and you are stepping in at the last minute, it is not good to start from scratch the day before you preach.

13.    Connection between humans is a heart to heart phenomena. It is easy to present information to inform. It can also be easy to pressure your listeners to perform. But good preaching will always present Christ in such a way that listeners might be drawn to him, stirred by him, motivated to love and trust him. Preaching to the heart is primarily about content, not manner. Evaluate whether your content is offering a God that listeners may find delightful, and whether it is proclaiming a present tense invitation to that God rather than merely giving a historical lecture.

We need listeners to connect with the message, not just the messenger. That is why the content is important. Tomorrow we will think about the delivery.

Building Preacher-Listener Connection – Part 2

connections2What can you do to build the connection with listeners? Let’s think about the wider pastoral ministry of the preacher.

8.    Pray for the listeners.  Never forget Acts 6:4. It was when the apostles determined not to be distracted by the business of running the church organization so that they could focus on two things: the word of God and prayer. Many of us today short change both. We can easily think that instant communication means we are the first generation to face the temptation to short change our two primary responsibilities. And how easy it is to focus only on one of them – typically that is not prayer. Our prayer matters. The enemy knows that. We need to believe it. Our churches need to want it (not just tolerate it as they wait patiently for us to be available and leading meetings, but they need to actually want it). It is not easy to promote the value of your own prayer life since there is a need for some secrecy, but I suspect if you just go for it, people will somehow sense it.

9.    Connect with the listeners. I don’t have the stats to prove this, but my sense is that the slight majority of preachers are introverts. Most would expect the opposite to be true, but introverts are able to gain energy in the long hours of solitary preparation, and they are typically more comfortable in a controlled environment (i.e. preaching) than an uncontrolled one (i.e. a party). Anyway, all that to say that you need to connect with your listeners. Model the increasingly rare skill of generating conversation by asking questions, be the leader in not turning every conversation back to yourself, and pray for ways to connect with people. You will be tempted to pull back, especially once people have bruised you a few times. It is hard, but it is important, connect anyway.

10.    Lovingly study the lives of the listeners. As a preacher you have some level of skill in studying the Bible and understanding the culture. Be sure to put in some effort to study your congregation too. If you are a visiting preacher then you have only very limited opportunities to learn about the people who will be listening. But if it is your own church, then by all means make it a goal to understand their lives, their struggles, their fears, their work situations, their family situations, etc. People will feel loved when they feel known – as long as you actually love them.

So much more could be said about the pastoral ministry of the preacher.  What would you add? Tomorrow we will focus on another factor in building preacher-listener connection.

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.