Preaching to Students in a Pandemic

[Thank you to Peter Dray of UCCF for asking me to write this post, which he included in Connect, September 2020.]

Preaching to students is one of the very best ministries. But what about preaching during an unprecedented pandemic when many of our teaching opportunities are virtual?

Here are six quick thoughts that may be helpful – three on what they need to hear, and three on communicating online.

1. What is true now is always true, so the message does not change.

2020 does not feel normal at all! There is uncertainty all around us, political turmoil, people divided against each other, and a world living in fear of dying. But that description was also true last year and will be true five years from now. 2020 has just made some things feel more vivid.

God loves this broken and hurting world. He loves it so much that he sent his Son on the greatest ever rescue mission. He loves it so much that He has sent His people out, empowered by the Spirit, to proclaim the glorious news of Jesus. So, since the need is as great as ever, our message does not change.

2. What is felt now is far more vivid than before, so speak from God’s heart to theirs.

Since the comfortable culture bubble has been burst, people are potentially more prepared for a message of life and hope. They are feeling concerned, fearful, confused, upset, and vulnerable. When people are feeling more intensely, we can’t simply present cold hard facts and expect them to connect. Yes, our message is a set of truths, but those truths come from the loving heart of God. Seek to speak from God’s heart to theirs: sensitively, passionately, directly, and clearly.

3. What is needed is today’s good news, so speak the truth with targeted relevance.

Don’t just preach a message from last year. The gospel is, by definition, highly relevant – that is why Jesus became a human in the first place! Let’s look for ways to speak into the lives of our listeners with the highly relevant message of what God’s love has done for us in Christ.

4. Anticipate the difference of preaching without hearers in the room.

When you speak to a group of students there is energy in the room, sometimes distraction, often responsiveness. When you speak to the back of your phone or a webcam, the room feels really dead! Know that you will find the experience more draining than normal preaching and be sure to go to God as a top priority to make sure you let Him minister to you before you try to minister to others (like Mary in Luke 10:38-42).

5. Adjust your content to consider two crowds.

The students listening to you may be the same as before, but there is a difference: they’re no longer sitting together in a big group. Your style needs to be more personal and direct. Focus less on addressing the student group as a crowd, and more on speaking directly to your hearers as individuals.

At the same time, given that whatever is put online can be seen by anyone, remember another crowd too. You probably won’t go viral and be watched by millions, but you still need to be careful. Do not to speak carelessly, even in humour, in a way that could be clipped or misappropriated by antagonists to our faith.

6. Apply some basic principles to communicate effectively to camera.

Try to get your camera at eye level, beware of a distracting background, and get as much natural light as possible. Get closer to the camera as if you are on a Skype call with a friend, not standing several metres away as you might in a meeting. Learn to make eye contact in a single lens (not easy).

Test your setup before you preach. Trim content and get to the point quicker. Your viewers have just a screen, rather than the energy of a room full of people. It’s harder to concentrate on a preacher on screen, so do anything you can to help them listen.

And one bonus thought – be sure to get helpful feedback from others and watch what you are expecting others to watch… we are all on a steep learning curve this year, but what we have to share is so worth sharing!

Evaluate Before You Preach

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

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

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

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

When Preaching Is Restricted

This year has thrown up all sorts of challenges for the ministry of preaching. Many of us have been learning quickly how to adjust to preaching to a camera, taking church online, etc. But still, something is missing. Maybe we can’t gather, or maybe the gathering is restricted. Is this restriction actually curtailing the work of God?

The Book of Acts offers us an encouraging section to read when we feel our preaching is restricted. As you know, Acts shows the progress of the witness of the Apostles from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, to the ends of the earth (see 1:8).

The Jerusalem section, chapters 1-7, is thrilling. We see the church birthed and growing rapidly. We get to enjoy the boldness of Peter’s preaching, Peter and John before the authorities, even Stephen’s courageous final proclamation. It feels like preaching to crowds is central to the growth of the church. But opposition is building along the way. The apostles are warned in chapter 4, beaten in chapter 5 and then there is the execution of Stephen in chapter 7.

This brings us to the middle section of Acts, the Judea/Samaria section, if you like. It stretches from Acts 8 to Acts 12, where the summary statement is found in v24: “the word of God increased and multiplied.”

So what do we find in Acts 8-12? We see the gospel spreading to Samaritans and then Gentiles – a massively significant step of progression. But we also see a change of ministry opportunity. After the stoning of Stephen, we read this: “…there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles . . . Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” (8:1,4)

They went about evangelising – that’s what it is saying here.  They couldn’t bring friends to big gatherings in Jerusalem to listen to a great apostle preaching.  They were scattered.  Challenging circumstances, scattered believers, speaking about Jesus.

We immediately get the example of Philip who took the challenging circumstances as sovereign appointment and proclaimed Christ in Samaria.  He spoke to crowds, but he also spoke to an individual in a chariot.  Normal followers of Jesus speaking to people about Jesus wherever they found themselves.

In these chapters we see the conversion and commissioning of Saul to carry the message to the nations, and we see Peter being coached by God to understand how the gospel had to move beyond traditional Jewish boundaries in order to spread.  But we also see normal believers representing Jesus.  People like Tabitha/Dorcas, who was full of good works and acts of charity.  In their words and in their deeds, they evangelised wherever God put them.

We know from Acts 12:24 that the word of God increased and multiplied, even away from Jerusalem, away from the big preaching events, away from the primarily apostolic pulpit.  But there is one thing we have to recognize to really grasp what was going on then, and what is going on today. Challenging circumstances that scattered believers who then spoke about Jesus. 

It sounds like a fruitful formula.  None of us want the challenging circumstances, but when they come we see how believers find themselves in unique situations to speak of Jesus.  So why do we hesitate today?  Why aren’t we confident that our congregations will all gossip the gospel enthusiastically in these challenging times?  Is it a matter of training, of example, of spiritual gifting? Perhaps, but not primarily. 

Perhaps it is more to do with Acts 8-12’s truth not gripping us as it should. Luke returns for a summary of the ministry of the scattered believers in Acts 11:19-27.  It tells us that the post-Stephen persecution scatterees travelled to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch.  It tells us that they spoke the word.  It tells us that the message of Jesus spread to Greek speakers as well as Jews. But notice verse 21:

“And the hand of the Lord was with them.”

That is massive. They needed that. They were witnesses in Judea and Samaria because they had received power when the Spirit came upon them (Acts 1:8). They were able to effectively do their part, not because they were really good at it, but because God did his part.

The same is true today. You may not be able to preach to a normal sized crowd this Sunday or next month. The typical autumn and winter events at the church may not be possible this year due to Covid-19. God’s plan may be to place you and me, and the people in our churches, into divinely ordained one-on-one situations where we can speak of Jesus.

Challenging circumstances that scatter believers who then speak of Jesus to anyone that crosses our path. And we can do so with confidence because the hand of the Lord is with us!

If you and your church folks are convinced that the hand of the Lord is with us this week, what difference will that make? Maybe we will discover that God’s plans are not on pause. And even if the pulpit is partially paused, God’s great plan to reach this world for Jesus is marching forwards, even in October 2020!

7 Truths To Stir Prayer in Challenging Times

This year has been a year of changes and challenges for us all.  It certainly isn’t the year we were expecting as we headed into a new decade just a few months ago.  As church leaders we are having to face situations that we haven’t faced before and make decisions in a continually changing set of circumstances.  Wouldn’t it be great if God could give us some kind of blueprint for when traditional church is not possible, during a time when our society is rocked by racial tensions, by political division and by a constant fear of death?  Actually, God has given us exactly that – the book of Acts.

When the church began they could not follow what would later become normal church traditions.  In addition, the Roman Empire was a place of racial tension, political divisions and death was never far away.  How did the church thrive then?  And how can the church thrive now?  We could look at the way the church responded to authority, or how they cared for one another, or how they were evangelistically effective wherever they went, or how they were willing to face changes to their own traditions, etc.  But for now, let’s think about prayer.

When Peter was miraculously rescued from Herod’s prison in Acts 12, he immediately went to the gathering of believers that he knew would be praying for him.  Eventually he got let in.  Imagine their joy at this immediate answer to prayer standing in their midst!  Wouldn’t it be great to know what they had been praying?  We are not given that information in Acts 12.  But back in Acts 4, when Peter and John returned to the believers after another bruising encounter with the authorities, we are given their prayer.  In Acts 4:23-31 we can find seven truths that gripped them.  And if these truths will grip us, then we too will be stirred to pray in these difficult times:

1. God is in charge (v24)– “Sovereign Lord!”  That is a great way to start a prayer in troubled times.  They are praying to the One who is in charge of everything.  The term used here is only used three times in the New Testament, but on each occasion it is crying out to God in the context of monumental or trying circumstances.  God is in charge, the Master, the Boss.  The best person to speak to about what we are facing.

2. God created everything (v24b)– If God made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, that really does mean something for our prayer life.  We are not praying to one local and restricted deity among many.  We are praying to the God who made absolutely everything.  That means that absolutely anything we are facing is a challenge from within that creation.  A disease, a financial challenge, enemy armies, global political crises … they are all very much within this creation.  He made it all. Pray to Him.

3. God can predict history (v25-27)– In their case they knew that what was described by David a thousand years before in Psalm 2 had come to pass before their eyes.  David anticipated the future gathering of nations to oppose the Lord and the Messiah.  The ultimate fulfillment may still be in the future, of course, but they had watched Herod and Pontius Pilate and Gentile soldiers and Jewish people uniting in their opposition to Jesus.  But God is God, so it was no surprise.  Pray to Him about the challenges facing you – they are no surprise to God.

4. God planned this history we now live (v28)– Not only had God predicted it, but what they had watched was actually God’s plan.  God is working His great purposes out and that includes 2020.  Not only is all of this no surprise to God, but it is part of God’s greater plan that is being worked out.  We can be excited to participate in the history God is writing, and we should certainly pray to Him about it all!

5. God sees our specific challenges (v29)– Just minutes earlier they had been threatened by the authorities.  Now they are praying to a God who looks on those threats and cares about His people.  This was the revelation that Hagar received years before.  God actually sees me and the challenges before me.  We are not invisible pawns in a great chess game being played at a higher level.  God actually knows the specific challenges we face.  That truth should make us want to pray!

6. God is working today (v30)– For that group in Acts 4 it was important to recognize that God was at work all around them with healings and miracles.  None of that was taken away because Peter and John had been threatened.  It is important in a time of crisis to not lose sight of all that God is doing around us.  We may not see the miraculous signs described in this verse, but the miracle of regeneration is taking place across the world today.  As we pray for our local context, the church is being built and the gospel is continuing to spread in this world.

7. God answers prayer (v31)– Notice that when they had prayed the place was shaken.  Impressive!  But that wasn’t the answer to the prayer.  Actually, the final line should grab us – “they continued to speak the word with boldness.”  That was the very thing they had requested.  Actually it was the only thing they had requested.  They didn’t ask for circumstances to change (although they probably did when Peter was imprisoned in Acts 12); instead they prayed for boldness in the midst of their fear.

Let’s make sure we are gripped by these same seven truths so that as we face real challenges, we too can pray with confidence to the God who is in charge, who made everything, who predicts the future, whose plans are being worked out, who sees our specific situation, who is at work today and who answers our prayers.

Reading Order: New Testament

Since this has come up a few times in conversation, I thought I’d mention it on here.  What order do you read the New Testament books in?  Here are four options that might offer some variety either for your personal reading, or for an 18-hour reading marathon in a group:

1. The Canonical Order – let’s start with the obvious.  Start in Matthew and read through to Revelation in the order they are printed.  If you start to find the back-to-back Gospels to be an issue, then try one of the next two approaches…

2. The Gospel-Clusters Order – I made up that title.  This approach reads the books naturally associated with a Gospel after it in order to separate the Gospels from each other as you read:

Matthew followed by Hebrews and James (highly Jewish in feel and James has been called the Sermon on the Mount in Epistle form).

Mark followed by 1 & 2 Peter and Jude (Peter is associated with the Gospel of Mark, and there are overlaps between 2 Peter and Jude).

Luke followed by Acts (same author), and then Romans-Philemon – all the epistles of Paul (flowing out of the Acts story).

John followed by 1, 2, & 3 John and Revelation.

3. The Historically-Grouped Gospel-Clusters Order – This approach just changes the Luke cluster by taking Paul’s letters in order and in their historical setting:

Luke is followed by Acts 1-14, then Galatians.

After Acts 18:22, then 1 & 2 Thessalonians.

After Acts 21:16, then Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians.

After Acts 28, then Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon.

Then 1 Timothy, Titus, 2 Timothy.  (This structure reads letters associated with a missionary journey at the conclusion of the narrative concerning that particular journey.)

There is also the date of composition approach, which would be similar to option 3, but with the Gospels coming later, mixed in with most of the General Epistles (so the reading order would begin with James, Galatians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, etc.)

One last approach to mention:

4. The Personal Preference Order – No rule states that you have to follow a pre-prescribed order.  It may be beneficial to do so, especially in a group reading event, but for personal reading you can chart your own course.  Read what you are motivated to read and then pick the next book you are motivated to read until you have finished them all.

It goes without saying, but let me end by saying it … whichever approach you take, be sure to keep diving in, looking to know Jesus more and growing in your appreciation of God’s heart towards you!

The Heart of Jesus Christ for Me – Dane Ortlund

Last week I was delighted to interview Dane Ortlund about his wonderful new book, Gentle and Lowly (Crossway).  In this clip Dane speaks about the heart of Jesus toward us as we struggle in this life.  I am sure you will find Dane to be such an encouragement!

To see the full interview, which is well worth it, please sign up to the Cor Deo Online mailing list and we will give you access when it is released later this week.  Click here to sign up.

Sitting Alone

In John 6, Jesus appears to have a public relations disaster.  He starts the chapter with a huge crowd and an event that will become a favourite of children’s Bible story books – in fact, the only pre-passion narrative that makes it into all four Gospels.  But he ends the chapter with a question mark hanging over his core disciples and a poignant reference to one of the twelve being a devil.

How does it all go so “wrong” for Jesus?

The passage begins with a huge crowd gathering with Jesus and a reference to the forthcoming Passover feast.  He takes five barley loaves and two fish (a poor person’s food) and turns it into more than enough (a proper feast).  The response of the people seems to be on target.  They start asking if he is the Prophet anticipated in Deuteronomy 18, and they want to make him king.  From a human standpoint, it looks to be a successful operation at this point.

Overnight Jesus sends the disciples on ahead and takes a creative shortcut across the lake, ready for the morning crowds.  The morning crowds are yesterday’s crowd, plus some others from Tiberias, and they come looking for something.  Jesus cuts through the hype and identifies what they want – another free lunch.  But this is insulting to Jesus, who actually came to give eternal life.  How often do we petition Christ for the petty things, while ignoring the far greater gifts that he wants to give us?  It is certainly not wrong to pray about the little stuff, for he does care for everything, but when we only care for short-lived comforts, while ignoring his greater giving goals, then we insult him.

Along the way Jesus critiques the Jewish idea that Moses had given them the miracle bread from heaven, when in fact it was the Father.  Then, instead of making himself the new Moses that they referred to in verse 14, Jesus makes himself the bread from heaven, sent to save and sustain the people.  He will turn none away, will give them true life, and will raise them up on the last day – a past, present, and future package of assurance from God. (See vv35-40, for instance.)

This only makes the Jews grumble about him.  How can he be the bread?  They wonder if he is talking about eating his flesh and drinking his blood.  Rather than backing away from the physicality of this misunderstanding, instead Jesus goes along with the language of eating and drinking.  (Remember how people have already misunderstood the temple language in chapter 2, the new birth language in chapter 3, and the living water and food language of chapter 4.)

I suspect Jesus wasn’t expecting to be understood in reference to the later ordinance of the Christian church – communion, Lord’s Supper, or whatever your church calls it.  Rather, I think he may well have been thinking of the Passover meal.  The people were expected to eat all the flesh of the lamb, as well as drink all the “blood of the grapes.”  It was a special meal, an “eat-it-all-because-we-are-leaving-in-a-hurry” type of feast.  It celebrated the Passover lamb, provided to rescue the people and let them live in the face of all that was happening in Egypt that night.

Jesus could have been misunderstood as speaking of flesh eating and blood drinking, but I suspect that was not the issue.  Actually, what he meant was also insanely challenging.  Just as God had provided a way for the people to live through the Passover back in Egypt, so now there was a new Passover coming.  This new Passover was for eternal life.  The provision was costly and there was an implicit demand in the meal.  Jesus was effectively saying, “It is all about me, I am giving everything for you…make me your everything.”

Jesus was the whole lamb, the drink, everything.  At the next Passover he would make it clear that his body was being given and his blood was to be shed.  What was most offensive to human sensibilities was not the potential misunderstanding of eating flesh and drinking blood, but instead the absolute nature of Jesus’ offering and implicit demand.  He gave everything, so make him everything.

We humans are not fans of such absolute expectations.  We’d rather blend our options.  The crowds certainly felt uncomfortable and quickly dispersed.  The popular vote was lost in a day.  Maybe ten to twenty thousand people left and just twelve remained.  Jesus spoke truth and they didn’t like it.  He turned to the twelve.  “What about you?  Want to go too?”

Peter’s response is reflective of our situation too.  We have been drawn to a place of belief.  We are blessed not only by knowing Jesus, but also by knowing there is no alternative!  “To whom shall we go?”  Peter’s response is spot on.  “You have the words of eternal life.”  He certainly does.  But those words are not popular.

We live in a world where people live in fear of saying something that will receive the backlash of irrational intolerance and hatred.  To stand for truth is as unpopular as it has ever been, and there is no longer a Christian-worldview majority ready to affirm and support us in these times.  Instead it feels like everyone is fleeing the scene and chasing empty alternatives.  Will we leave him too?  To put it bluntly, where would we go?  This world has no viable alternatives to Christ.

And so we sit, almost alone, before Jesus.  Do we want to follow the crowds and reject Christ and the God he came to reveal?  It would certainly feel easier to follow the population, for the popular vote is never with God.  But honestly, we would do well to follow Peter’s pathway here… “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

Jesus gave everything for us to have eternal life.  Will we make him everything and follow him, even if nobody else will?