Healthy Revival – 7 Thoughts

You cannot go far in church world before you hear people longing for revival. It gets mentioned in prayer meetings. It gets mentioned in outreach planning. Preachers long to experience it through each new sermon. Reports on social media stir our longings. I want to share some thoughts on the subject.

This is not a technical introduction to the subject. When I refer to revival I am referring to those unusual seasons of heightened responsiveness to the working of God’s Spirit among and through God’s people so that the church is renewed, reinvigorated and revived, resulting in an unusually high harvest of souls.

Seven thoughts for us to prayerfully consider:

1. The Bible does not invite us to live a life of frustration. It is totally understandable that people pray for revival. The state of our church and the state of our world mean that we long for a season of real spiritual breakthrough in our ministry. However, it is important to recognize that the Bible does not anticipate that God’s people will always live in a state of perpetual frustration. As George Verwer, founder of OM International has said, “Personal revival is our daily privilege in Christ Jesus!” By all means, let’s look to God like never before, but let’s not fall into the trap of living life as if we are missing out on something until a bona fide revival breaks out.

2. The Bible does include descriptions of specific seasons of unusual responsiveness. To put it another way, it is not wrong to long. The drift in society, the apathy in the church, and even the coldness of our own hearts should cause us to grieve and to yearn for something more. Paul anticipated the drift when he told Timothy that in the last days people would be lovers of self, of money, of pleasure, rather than lovers of good, or of God. If this does not bother us then we are not reflecting the passionate heart of God. There will always be a longing for revival in any healthy believer.

3. It is healthy to ask if we can be trusted with a season of evangelistic fruitfulness? While “revival” may be primarily about renewing the life of the church, it is often associated with heightened fruitfulness in evangelism. This is wonderful and something we should all long for, but it is healthy to ask whether God would entrust an unusually ripe harvest to our church? Are we committed to the spread of the Gospel, or to defending a Christian sub-culture? Are we offering Christ, or just some type of Christianity? Is our gospel offensively grace-focused, or is it just another version of self-help, law-based religiosity?

4. Part of being prepared is anticipating the aftermath. Jonathan Edwards wrote a book describing the unusual work of God in his town that continued to spark revival across the world even after his own town had slumped into a deeply troubling malaise. How often do we hear of amazing revivals followed by extended periods of spiritual depression? It must be so hard to invest energy into discipleship and training when the evangelistic fruit seems to keep falling off the trees whenever we hint at doing more outreach. Nevertheless, we must learn from history and anticipate the struggles that can follow. How can we make sure people get established in a healthy relationship with Christ, rather than building everything on a foundation that cannot last – namely, faith in the experience of revival rather than in Christ and His Word?

5. Ask God to search your motives. Of course, your motives when praying for revival are pure and perfect, so are mine. But since we are all flesh-naturals at self-justification let us instead ask God to search our motives. Augustine identified the first, second and third precepts of Christianity to be humility. Pride is an insidious destroyer. Indeed, God does not want to fan into flame any hint of pride in you, so if pride were to feature in your prayer for revival, then it is fair to assume that not only would the devil oppose you, so would God (see 1Peter.5:5-7). So does it need to be in your region and not another? Does it need to be your denomination and not another? Does it have to be your church and not the other one down the road?

6. If revival includes an intensification of normal things, what are we waiting for? That is to say, if you dream of a season of revival when you would want to just read the Bible and not be endlessly entertained, if you dream of praying with a persevering intensity, and caring for others more passionately, and loving God more intently, and giving yourself to church ministry more wholeheartedly, then the question could be asked … why wait for revival? God is not excited by your hypothetical and conditional devotion (send revival, Lord, and watch me soar!) – life to the full is on offer now. Maybe your moments of longing are invitations to lean in to what God wants to do in your life.

7. Be a steward of the remarkable present. Maybe this is saying number 6 in a different way, but it is worth saying. Experiencing revival or renewal is a privilege, but also the Christian life is a privilege! Even if you are in a season of sowing, or growing, or preparing, or living by faith with nothing to see, whatever your situation, the normal Christian life is an incredible privilege! We can live today in fellowship with God our Father, in Christ, by the Spirit! We have God’s Word, we have immediate access to the throne room of heaven, we have the indwelling presence of the Spirit. Our salvation is secure whether we are in a time of revival or not, because the greatest revival of all is the new life that God has breathed into us.

May we live as the most grateful people of all, irrespective of whether we experience a heaven-sent revival during our years on earth or not.

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Exegesis and Exposition

What is the difference between exegesis and exposition? Haddon Robinson put it this way, “Exposition is drawing from your exegesis to give your people what they need to understand the passage.” This implies that the preacher will have a lot more material after the exegesis than they are able to present in the sermon.

Here are three implications for us to ponder:

1. Passage Study Before Message Formation – When you move too quickly from studying a passage to preparing the message you will not have much left over from the exegesis phase. This will result in preaching that lacks authority, that is biblically thin, and that is more an imposition of your ideas onto a passage than the message God intended from that passage.

2. Sermon Preparation Takes Time – If you start the sermon preparation on the Saturday, then Sunday is already looming and you are already looking for the sermon. You have to work your schedule so that the pressure of preaching is not squeezing out time for exegesis and meditation. It takes hours to prepare a message, over many days, built on top of many years. The years of biblical soaking feed into the times of biblical study that bubble up into sermons worth preaching.

3. You Have to Know Better Than You Preach – When you are grasping for a sermon you will be preaching a passage that you have not grasped and that has not grasped you. Aim to know a passage so well that an informed listener can engage you in an extended conversation about the nuances of the passage after they’ve heard your sermon. You may or may not choose to create a venue for that further exegetical presentation, but being able to do that means you are preaching within your range of study, not beyond it.

7 Things Preachers Never Say – pt.7

Alright, we have come to the end of the list.  We have looked at the burden of expectation, the effect of negative responses, family realities, battles with temptation, financial struggles, weariness and now:

7. Preachers can go beyond weary to places of personal coldness, doubt, and depression.

I was at a conference recently where I spoke with several people who had all suffered various forms of burnout in the past months.  For some, the manifestation was physical: symptoms like chest pains and sleeplessness.  For some, the manifestation was emotional with a sudden inability to function as they had before.  For some, the struggle became much more spiritual, with even the smallest aspect of Christian living becoming a big ordeal.

While the manifestations of burnout, breakdown or depression were different, the stories were similar in regards to the lead-up.  A very heavy emotional load.  Perhaps complex church discipline issues.  Perhaps heavy relational meltdown.  Perhaps unrelenting criticism.  Perhaps lies being spread about them. Then came the interrupted sleep, the feeling of being overwhelmed and the eventual inability to function.

Irrespective of whether a preacher suffers from clinical depression, burnout, or whatever we might call a specific case, the reality we have to face is that we are not immune to such struggles.  We can go through seasons of spiritual dryness, even coldness.  We can struggle with a sudden onslaught of doubt.  And it is more than possible for a preacher to suffer from some kind of depression at some point or other, perhaps for years on end.

We simply cannot pretend that all is well when it isn’t.  We need to be honest with someone we trust and we need to get the help that we would advise anyone else to be getting.  Going it alone is not an option.

7 Things Preachers Never Say – pt.6

We are coming to the end of this series of 7 things preachers never say.  Last time we mentioned money, but here is number 6, which will set up number 7.

6. I am weary.

Those in leadership in the church know that it can be a very wearying task.  There is a reason that good churches give their pastors periodic sabbaticals.  While that may seem like a luxury other professions don’t offer, many pastors know that if it weren’t for a sabbatical at a key time they might have burned out and needed to step into a different line of work.

This is really a follow-on from number one in the list – that we can feel overwhelmed by expectation.  And maybe a follow-on from number four – that temptation and spiritual attack can wear us down.  Sometimes the cumulative effect of relentless ministry demands and life can really drain the tanks.

In church ministry, the leaders feel the weight of pastoral responsibility.  We feel burdened by those who are struggling with health difficulties, financial difficulties, and marital difficulties.  We feel burdened by those who are heading for a crash because of foolish decisions they are making in life.  We feel the weight of a relentless ministry schedule that means the next meeting is never too far away and we always have to be present, let alone prepared to lead or speak.  We feel it when our own family is a real family and things come up that require extra time that we don’t really have.  We too tend to have car trouble or washing machine trouble at inopportune moments.  We also may be struggling personally from an onslaught of temptation, doubt, criticism, or whatever.  And so sometimes we are weary.

This is both good and bad.  It is good for us to feel the pressures of life and to be pushed up against God so that we aren’t preaching his sufficiency from the safety of an easy life.  It is bad because in some churches those “in ministry” are expected to have it all together…so there may be nobody to talk to, and thus the weariness can start to feel inescapable and lonely.

This raises an important point.  There are some things preachers never say publicly, but it is important that we do speak somewhere.  We need to be honest with God, and we need safe friends with whom we can be honest too.  Maybe someone else in ministry but outside your church?  I know how vital this has been for me at various times.  Safe and confidential friends to go to for advice or just a listening ear.  Some people vent indiscriminately and do immeasurable damage.  We have to be wise, but we must not go it alone.  Do you have people you can go to in order to share struggle?  Do you have friends that will bring you to Jesus when going to him alone is not lifting you?  If you can’t name them, you probably don’t have them.  Think it through now before the heavy cloud becomes too much and you can’t think straight.

7 Things Preachers Never Say – pt.5

We have come to the fifth in the series of seven things preachers never say.  So far we have touched on expectations, negative response, family, and temptation.  Here’s one we really can’t talk about: money.  We can preach about it, after all, the Bible has a lot to say.  But it is very awkward to talk about money for preachers.

5. As a preacher, I have bills to pay and the money I receive for preaching makes a difference.

There may be some preachers who are retired with a healthy pension, but the majority are not able to self-fund their life and ministry.  Some receive a salary from their church.  Some rely on honoraria received when preaching.  Almost all have a tale to tell, but no opportunity to tell it.

First and foremost there is a tale to tell of God’s provision and faithfulness.  I cannot put into words my gratitude for God’s care over the years.  When my wife and I were visiting churches to raise support to go into missions we got into the habit of praying to say thanks to God before we opened the envelope we had been given in each church – we wanted to be thankful for whatever it contained!

Sometimes the gifts given are slightly perplexing. I remember hearing from one friend who relied on gifts he received to be able to pay the bills.  He was invited by a church to speak during their church mission.  So every day for three weeks he drove a significant number of miles, preached at the evening event, and drove home.  Day after day he faithfully served this church.  On the final night, an elderly member of the church approached him and said, “thank you for all you have done, this is from us for the fuel,” and gave him £5 (about $7).  Incredible.

Of course, this friend, even though the story was being shared with other preachers, was quick to add that God has always provided even when some churches have been oblivious to the cost of living.  We do rely on God’s provision, whether it is through salary or gifts.  At the same time, I know many preachers who would like to be able to say something.

I remember being in a church business meeting where the subject of how much the church gives to visiting preachers came up.  I appreciated the perspective of one younger man who suggested that the church should be really generous because it is not easy to preach and he is thankful others are doing something for his benefit that he wouldn’t personally want to be doing.  I didn’t appreciate the comment from another that we should err on the side of frugal because “having too much money is not good for preachers, they might start living lavishly.”  I had tried to stay quiet, but this stirred me to point out that if we don’t trust preachers with a slightly generous gift, then why are we trusting them to present matters of life and death to us?

Preachers I know personally would re-invest excessive funds in God’s work.  Preachers I know personally rarely have that problem.

But what do we say when the subject comes up?  Once in a while, someone might ask what we charge for preaching if we were to come to them.  The best answer I’ve heard went along these lines, “If you were a university or business asking me to come and offer a training session for them, then I would charge a professional rate.  It would reflect the investment I made in formal education, my years of experience in this work and the hours of preparation as well as travel for this particular event.  It would reflect the charges made by similar professions in our culture.  But I don’t charge for ministry.  I trust God to provide and will be very grateful for any gift you feel able to give and feel is appropriate for the ministry I offer.”  

The truth is that most preachers don’t say something like this, but perhaps if we did it might help churches and ministries to think more realistically about what they give to preachers.

When it comes to a pastor’s salary, that is another whole set of complex issues.  It is awkward for a pastor to have their salary published and discussed in church finance meetings.  Nobody else has their income scrutinized and discussed in a public meeting of the church.  I suspect every pastor deeply appreciates those who are willing to raise their voices and advocate for the pastor when others are seeking to require the pastor to need miraculous provision to survive another year on out-of-date salary levels.

I was intrigued to see a written answer to the honorarium question.  If you click here and scroll down past the form you will see an example of what a lot of preachers would like churches and event organisers to see.  The truth is, most of us will continue to remain quiet on this issue.  We understand that some may give very little and yet actually giving incredibly generously for their situation.  We understand that we are trusting God to provide.  And we understand that the moment we raise this issue, it can look like we are trying to pursue a lavish lifestyle like some on TV who do not represent the real preachers willing to serve God irrespective of income.

Next time, number 6…

7 Things Preachers Never Say – pt.4

Here is the fourth in our series of things preachers tend not to say:

4. I feel the force of real temptation, and I am not always victorious.

This is a tricky one, isn’t it?  We are told that people love to hear a preacher being vulnerable and authentic.  At the same time if the preacher simply lays it all out there, then credibility tends to fade through the floor.  One person suggested on this site that it is not good to be vulnerable about sin that is currently still in process.  Work it out and then share appropriately.  That is probably wise.

But whether we tell recent stories or not, there is a struggle with temptation that is current and that is real.  Some preachers may be struggling with their fleshly reaction to others.  Some preachers may feel like lust is in full attack mode.  Some preachers may feel like their victory over some private temptation is less than all-conquering.  That is not to say that the preacher is therefore living in sin.  They may be living in victory and yet still feel worn down by the constant temptation.

We tend to focus talk on sin in areas of overt misconduct – lust or theft or whatever.  But what about the more “sanctified” sins … the popular churchy ones.  It is not easy to talk about ongoing struggles with pride, or poor self-worth, or unresolved conflict, or temptation to gossip, or whatever.

The truth is that while there may be no disqualifying disaster sin lingering like a skeleton in your preacher’s closet, there is a daily and weekly battle with temptation that is wearying and real.  We may not be losing control and assaulting others in fits of drunken rage, but there may be some self-protective habits in life, and there may be some tensions in the home or the church that tempt us to lash out, or numb the pain, or escape, or whatever.

Sometimes people treat the preacher in such a way that the preacher is the only person in the church who feels unable to share their struggles.  After all, not only is the preacher potentially not being vulnerable, but in some churches there is nobody else creating hope of grace and love if the preacher were to express their own struggle or failure.

Preachers struggle with temptation too, and preachers sin too, and it would be really helpful to get some real conversations going.

7 Things Preachers Never Say – pt.3

What do preachers feel unable to say?  We’ve mentioned the burden of expectation, and the pain that can come from responses of criticism and apathy.  Here’s another to throw into the discussion:

3.  My family is not the picture perfect family you think it is or wish it were.

Real families have real struggles.  Preachers have real families.  Therefore our families struggle.  That means that sometimes there are real challenges in a preacher’s marriage.  I am not talking about the petty disputes over toilet seats that are easy to reference in the pulpit.  I am talking about the incredibly tense interchanges that you don’t mention in a sermon.  Husbands and wives can really clash, or really drift, or really struggle, and that is really true for preachers too.  It is easy to assume that a preacher’s marriage is healthy and easy, but healthy marriages are not usually easy.  If there is a healthy marriage then that is the fruit of God’s grace to overcome lots of sin, and it is the result of lots of difficult decisions along the way, including lots of forgiveness in both directions.  Only the most naïve can say, “you’re lucky, you have a good marriage.”  And sometimes they will say it.

And then there is parenting, another great arena for luck!  “You are lucky, you have easy children.”  Guess again.  Some children may be more compliant than others, but every child needs parenting.  And parenting involves heartache.  The preacher’s children throw tantrums, sin foolishly, and sometimes rebel along the way.  I think there are times when a preacher would do well to pull back from preaching ministry to give their energy to parenting ministry, but there is never a time when a preacher has an easy life as a parent.  Parenting includes heartache, and real fear, disappointments, concern, sleepless nights, and so on.

And it needs saying that the “problem” is not always with the non-preaching spouse or the children.  It could be, but it could also be the other way around too.  Sometimes a preacher may not be a good spouse or a good parent.  There may be times when the preacher vulnerably acknowledges their personal weakness or the challenges at home, but no congregation wants a weekly update on the preacher’s family soap opera.  And typically no preacher wants to expose their family so that everyone knows the struggles they face at home.

Am I saying that all you see is false?  Not at all.  What I am saying is that the preacher’s family is a real family, with real sin, real tension, real disagreements, real weaknesses, real discussions, real disciplining, real parenting and real inadequacy.  If the fruit that is visible is good, then praise God, not luck.  (If the fruit is obviously not good, maybe the preacher needs releasing from some burdens to be able to prioritise their ministry at home.  I can never fathom churches watching helplessly as their pastor’s marriage collapses or their child goes off the rails!)

The preacher’s family life is real, whether you get to see the inner workings or not!

7 Things Preachers Never Say – pt.2

This series looks at seven things preachers never say.  Last time we thought about the burden of expectation.  How about this for another:

2. Both sides of negative response can really sting, that is, both criticism and apathy.

As a preacher, there are hosts of factors at play in my ministry.  There are tangible and intangible costs to what I do.  There is the immediate and the long-term.  As a preacher, I may spend hours during the week praying for the people and preparing to preach to them.  As a preacher, I may be forfeiting a number of other paths I could have walked down in life.  At times I will see the positives that come from being in a preaching ministry.  Believe me when I say it is one of the greatest privileges imaginable.  At the same time, some negative responses really can sting.

It hurts to be criticized.  It hurts when people criticize your motives or lie about you to others.  It hurts when the preacher is being roasted more than the joint of beef during Sunday lunch in every household of a congregation.  It hurts when people throw stones and storm out of the door.  It hurts when people’s grievances seem to inevitably hit the most visible targets in the church, which tends to be those who lead and preach.

Sometimes criticism is justified.  But it still hurts when instead of coming to you, those with grievances decide to broadcast their complaints to others instead.  It hurts to have to always be the mature one when others are being profoundly immature.  When sheep go on the attack it can really hurt!

But there is another side to negative response:

Apathy also hurts.  When you pour out your heart in prayer and burn the candle at both ends in preparation, only to be met with polite apathy, it stings.  The polite comments that amount to “nice sermon” when you have just given everything you had to preach it can really sting.  When year after year of preaching is met with the expectation that you will just be ready to do it again next week, but without much gratitude or apparent responsiveness, that stings.

We don’t preach for human affirmation.  Preachers tend to be like parents – our goal is not to be liked, it is to lovingly give what is needed by the people we love.  But preachers are also like parents in that both criticism and apathy can really hurt.  We preach for our audience of One, but that doesn’t give us infinitely thick skin.

We Are Not Church Sub-Culture Guardians

This morning I was sat in a coffee shop a few hundred miles from my home country.  Behind me there were six or seven elderly men in highly animated conversation.  By highly animated I mean literally shouting over each other and gesticulating wildly.  They were not in a conflict, they were in a normal Saturday morning conversation.

This would have been completely normal for a local observer, but for me as a foreigner it was highly fascinating.  Each culture has its own set of “normal” behaviours and values which will feel anything but normal to an outsider.

Another feature of this visit is the number of conversations I have been involved in that relate to church tensions. To the insiders, each conversation has reflected what they might call deeply held biblical convictions.  To my outsider ears, each conversation has reflected deeply held cultural values.  Of course, you can attach a Bible verse to such things, but at their core these issues have been much more about guarding the sub-culture of a church tradition than promoting the life-giving health of the gospel.

Just like the men shouting over each other in the coffee bar, so also the men shouting over each other in these church tensions … all are very much playing out their own cultural norms.  In the case of the church issues, some of those norms are cultural as per their country, while other norms are sub-cultural as per their denomination.

This presents a challenge for us all.  How can we know when instead of promoting the gospel in our context, we are merely reflecting the cultural and sub-cultural norms of our context?  How can we know when instead of being ambassadors for Christ in a needy world, we are instead being roadblocks to Christ that are getting in the way of people seeing His character displayed before them?

Here are seven questions to ask yourself that may help to identify where your Christianity has devolved into sub-culture promotion or protection.  Actually, it is very hard to see this in the mirror, so be sure to ask these questions in conversation with others, and especially with God – He certainly will want to help you see clearly where you are not effectively representing him.

1. Do people in your church feel comfortable bringing friends into the church community? While all might affirm the importance of inviting outsiders into the church, most will hold back if they sense that the environment is not welcoming and appropriate for their contacts.  One huge barrier will be when believers sense that their church is more about maintaining its own culture than reaching out to the lost.

2. Is there any expectation that certain issues preclude people from getting saved or hearing the gospel? It could be a lifestyle issue, an unacceptable habit, a certain look, or whatever.  Is the gospel for all, or only for those that fit in with us?

3. Do certain issues dominate conversation about church more than the wonder of the gospel, the goodness of God, or the blessing of fellowship? Once you turn on the radar it soon becomes obvious what issues keep cropping up in conversation.  Perhaps if there is more talk acceptable and unacceptable behaviour than there is talk of Christ, then maybe your church or your family is more about the sub-culture of a pure church than the wonder of bride of Christ.

4. Would someone encountering your church community see you as representatives of Christ, or would they see you as guardians of a specific issue / the police for a specific sin? People will notice when they meet a love that is different from anything they have experienced before.  They will also sense when your church comes across with a guardians of purity (as defined by them).

5. Do people have thought-through biblical rationale for issues that come up a lot, or is the Bible brushed aside in conversation about that issue? If a church is dealing with specific issues repeatedly then it is not unreasonable to expect the leaders to have thought-through, biblically solid, but pastorally sensitive rationale for their position.  It is a clear indication of trouble if the Bible is dismissed when it is used to challenge a dogmatically held opinion.

 6. Does the manner of conversation and addressing difficult issues reflect the characteristics of the fruit of the Spirit? If the position that a person is taking is a godly position, then it won’t come across with venom and acrimony.  It will bear evidence of the fruit of the Spirit.  Divisive, critical, grace-less, argumentative or condemning attitudes are not evidence of the Spirit’s work in a person or church.

7. Are those who differ on a non-primary issue considered sub- or non-Christians?  Are their churches considered sub- or non-churches? The primary issues are required agreement for fellowship to exist – that is, the Trinity, the person and work of Christ, the inspiration of Scripture, salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.  No matter how important, we cannot make a non-primary issue into a primary one by simply declaring it as such ourselves.  Your view on clothing, on music, on certain hobbies, on smoking, on divorce, on tattoos, etc., does not make them primary issues.

It is good to prayerfully take stock and make sure that your church stands for, represents and smells of the beauty of the gospel, of the wonder of God’s saving grace, of the other-worldly fellowship of believers and so on.  It is so easy for our churches to become bastions of a sub-culture.  And the frightening thing is that we may not see it, even if we look in the mirror!