Preaching Myths – Part 5

The first four posts have looked at issues of evaluation.  Let’s change direction.  What other preaching myths are out there?  How about this idea:

5. Only well-prepared sermons get blessed.

This is what we might call a “yes and no” type of myth.  There is truth to it, and there is myth too.

A. Ministry never depends on our ability, preparation, skill or learning.  For a life to be changed, be it through salvation or spiritual growth, the Spirit of God has to be at work in the lives of those listening.  It will never be based on what we bring to the situation, and yet we have no freedom to abdicate from our role, because…

B. Good stewardship expects proper preparation.  While we rely fully on Christ as we serve, we are stewards of the opportunity, stewards of the gifting, stewards of our learning, etc.  Therefore it makes sense that we will give full and proper preparation for the ministry opportunities that we are given.  However, this does not mean that our preparation has to be perfect, because…

C. God’s grace overcomes interrupted preparation. We all know that life has a habit of hitting us at inopportune moments.  Family problems, pastoral crises, distressing emails.  In a post-Genesis 3 world we will rarely have the perfect preparation for a sermon, just as any “gardening” in this world is now a sweaty business.  But instead of despairing, we can celebrate God’s grace.  He understands when life hits, and even when we struggle and fail.  There will be times when we preach at our weakest and God’s ministry seems to advance at its strongest.  Yet we do not abuse this grace, but instead, remember…

D. A good sermon is built on macro as well as micro preparation.  There is this coming Sunday’s message, and there are decades of messages.  How long does it take to prepare a message?  It takes a good number of hours this week, but it also takes years of cumulative study and preaching.  This means that when your preparation for Sunday is decimated by life’s circumstances, your sermon will rest on the strength of years in the Scriptures.

So the bottom line is that as a preacher you are being a good steward if you invest in preparation both for this next message, and for all your future ministry.  At the same time, your dependence is not on your preparation, but on God’s grace, because apart from Him we can do nothing.

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Preaching Myths – Part 4

So far in this series we have been looking at myths surrounding evaluating sermons.  Is it wrong to evaluate at allDoes good fruit act as guarantee of the sermonWhat about the “no-offense” rule?  Let’s take one more angle on the issue of evaluation:

4. If the sermon is true, all is well.

This is a slippery one.  The moment a question is raised about a message, some will jump to the defense of the preacher by asserting that what was said was true, even if it was not exactly the truth of the passage being preached.  Let’s knock around a few comments on this:

A. Most of us have mis-preached and should be grateful for God’s graciousness.  I would not want every old sermon scrutinized and held over me, and I suspect you would not either.  This is not about nitpicking through every word preached and being judge and jury of orthodoxy.  However, in balance with this first thought are those that follow.

B. What the Bible says matters.  While we do want to be gracious to one another, we also need to remember that we are handling the Word of God.  Every single word is given by inspiration and we will in no way be honouring God if we take matters of accurate text handling and interpretation lightly.

C. What the listener reads matters.  Here is the sticking point.  Just because what a preacher says is true does not mean that saying it from the wrong passage is acceptable.  Listeners may be looking at the biblical text as the sermon is proclaimed.  It does not matter that they are hearing truth, if that truth is falsely tied to another biblical text that does not mean what is being said.  The integrity of the messenger and message matter.  Even if the message spoken were biblically true, it matters if listeners are looking at their Bibles and scratching their heads.  We do not want to give the impression that the authority for the message is birthed out of the ingenuity of the preacher.  Are we comfortable with someone preaching biblical truth from an appliance instruction manual, or from a kid’s book of fairy tales?  Then we should not settle too easily for misappropriated biblical texts either.

Preaching Myths – Part 3

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

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

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

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

But there are some important caveats to make explicit here:

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

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

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

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

What Kind of Leader?

The first days of the year are typically days of anticipation and planning.  All around us people will be making their resolutions.  Even in the world of Christian ministry it is easy to get caught up the annual cycle of planning and scheming, often with unchecked values driving fine-sounding aspirations.  This year I want to be fitter, better informed, more productive.  This year I want to start a book, finish a book, see the church grow, etc.  All good things, but potentially all reflections of a set of values that may be dressed up in Christian language, but deep down are very much in line with the competitive culture of this world.

How about something a bit different?  This year I want to think about Jesus so much that I become more like him.  That would be a leadership resolution worthy of our investment!

Just in case you like the idea, let’s kick start the year with a few verses from Isaiah 42.  This is the first of the so-called “Servant Songs” – four songs that are clearly speaking of the Messiah himself, and not the nation of Israel as a whole.  This first song speaks of Jesus as a leader.

42 Behold my servant, whom I uphold,

my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my Spirit upon him;

he will bring forth justice to the nations.

He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,

or make it heard in the street;

a bruised reed he will not break,

and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;

he will faithfully bring forth justice.

He will not grow faint or be discouraged

till he has established justice in the earth;

and the coastlands wait for his law.

Three times Isaiah refers to the Servant’s great task of bringing justice to the nations (Isa.42:1, 3, 4).  This is no mean task.  This calls for all the strength, all the power, all the political acumen, and all the gravitas to achieve such a task.  Surely the passage is going to speak of the Servant’s power, his presence, his charismatic personality, and so on?  Actually, no.  Surprisingly it speaks of the Messiah’s relational tenderness.

1. In the first verse, we see the Trinitarian rootedness of the Messiah.  Here the Father speaks of his delight in his chosen servant.  He speaks of putting His Spirit upon him.  It is easy to bypass this introductory image, but we would be theologically poorer if we did bypass it.  Actually we should be rejoicing that our God is the Trinity.  We should be delighted beyond words that we are not serving a self-serving despot, but instead we get to also serve a God who gives of himself, a God who exists in delightful communion.  Later in John 13:3-5(??) we see how Jesus’ rootedness in his relationship with his Father enable him to give sacrificially of himself as he took on the role of the slave at the feet of his disciples.  The Christ-like leader will always be one whose life and ministry is planted deep in the soil of fellowship with the Triune God.  If God being Trinity does not thrill you, stop whatever else you are doing and lay your heart before God, pursuing the delight that can only be found in fellowship with Him.

2.  In the second verse, we see the Messiah in respect to himself.  The striking thought here is that he does not boldly announce his arrival.  He chooses no fanfare, no elaborate introduction, no impressive biographical details.  We exist in a world of self-promoters, and sadly the church offers little respite from this scourge.  Maybe it will be through spending time looking at Jesus that we will lose our appetite for self-promotion and impressive introductions.  Maybe your leadership is marred by a spectacular obsession with self of which you alone are unaware.  Jesus is refreshingly different.

3. In the third verse, we see the Messiah relating to his subjects.  Just as there is a subtle tenderness and humility in the preceding verses, so that becomes explicit in how he deals with others.  So many in our churches and ministries are bruised reeds and faintly burning wicks.  So many are on the edge of collapse in one form or another.  So easily we can stamp all over the people around us, leaving a trail of crushed spirits and broken souls.  Look past the praise of your strong leadership and ask God for sensitivity toward the weak who you may have trodden on in recent months.  Time spent gazing on Christ will result in a radically different manner with people.  Perhaps if we spent more time with Jesus we would invest less praise in the shooting star heroes of the faith who leave a burning trail of destruction behind them.

4. In the fourth verse, the Messiah’s tenderness is not seen to be a lack of endurance.  His task was great, and yet that did not mean he created casualties.  Tenderness is no reason for giving up, nor is endurance an excuse for hurting others.  As it says in Hebrews 12, we should fix our gaze on Jesus so that we also will not grow weary and be tempted to give up.

Maybe a good 2018 for you is not to be measured in new projects, increased productivity or amplified praise.  Maybe a good 2018 will mean more time spent with Jesus, greater tenderness toward others, and simply pressing on with what God has already given to you.  I don’t know what my year looks like, nor even yours, but I know that if our leadership looks Christ-like, then it will be a year well worth living.

Redirecting the Challenge

When we prepare to preach a passage we will find ourselves wrestling with the text, and often we will find the text wrestling with us.  This is good and it should be this way.  The Spirit of God should be doing a work in us through the text that we are studying.

But there is a complexity here.  As a preacher, you are probably, and hopefully, a relatively mature believer.  This means that you will more naturally find yourself challenged by the aspects of the passage that are applicational or doxological.  This will not be the case for some, or even for many, of your listeners.

When you preach in your church there will be some present who cannot see past the challenge of believing the text.  There may be some aspects of it that seem far-fetched or fanciful.  You may have overcome those obstacles years ago and no longer see them when you look at a text, but be sure to put yourself in the shoes of a contemporary unchurched listener.

Until a text does not seem fanciful or far-fetched, the applicational and doxological implications will only have minimal impact in the listener’s heart and life.  This is why we need to spot all the challenges and help our listeners be able to hear the ones that will really help them!

Perspective on Sermon Response

Howard Hendricks wrote The Seven Laws of the Teacher, in which he refers to an English bishop who said, “You know, wherever the apostle Paul went, they had a riot or a revival. Wherever I go, they serve tea.” (p165.)

I am sure all of us have experienced the soaring anticipation of a sermon, as well as the crashing experience of being crushed by non-response on the day.  Someone famous (probably Spurgeon, but I can’t remember), said that we should not over-estimate what can be achieved in a single sermon, but also never under-estimate what will happen through several years of faithful biblical preaching.

Somehow we have to hold two tensions together.  On the one hand, we know that God can and does work in a single sermon to bring about radical life change.  On the other hand, we know that often the change God is working into the lives of a congregation are imperceptible and we will regularly be tempted to despair.

When you see genuine response and transformation, document it.  Keep that document somewhere safe, but easily accessible.  There will be lots of weeks where you will value the reminder.

God’s Great Evangelistic Plan

God’s plan to reach people with the gospel is not primarily evangelists or apologists, although both are vitally important.  God’s plan to reach people with the gospel is the church.  We can make no greater investment of our resources than to help churches become infectious communities of gospel-gripped people motivated and equipped to bring others into God’s family.

So what does a church need in order to be this kind of evangelistic tool in God’s hands?  It seems like there are three vital ingredients in the mix.  These could be seen as three legs on a stool, and the stool needs all three legs to be used as it was intended

1. People need to ENJOY God and the gospel.

It is easy to encourage or pressure believers to share their faith with others.  Many Sunday sermons end with the call to read our Bibles every day and witness to somebody this week.  The problem is that pressure without motivation will produce poor results.  Many will simply default to doing nothing.  Those that try to do as they have been instructed will often give a clear sense of their own obligation and reticence.  The best witnesses and evangelists will always be those that are truly gripped with the goodness of the good news of who God is and what God has done for us in Christ.

We do not want a church full of reticent and obligated witnesses.  We do want as many as possible to be so enjoying God and the gospel that they can’t help but spill that good news out to others.  This is why simply telling Christians to evangelise is never very effective.  We would achieve much more evangelistically if we invest more time in showing them Christ that their hearts become enflamed with love for him.  When someone gets engaged they can’t help but smile big and show off the ring to anyone around them.  O for churches full of people thrilled that they are more than engaged to Christ!!

2. People need to CONNECT with people outside the church.

A highly motivated community of Christians will not have much impact on their local culture if they live in isolation from it.  The New Testament does not instruct us to purposefully make connections with the people around us because it was automatically happening.  Not only is the church in the book of Acts an example to us, so is Jesus himself.  He was known as a friend of sinners.  Sadly too many churches are full of people that feel their main job is to find ways to avoid contact with non-Christians.

As leaders of churches let us lead by example and let us encourage through our teaching.  God is relational and outwardly focused to the core of his being.  Christianity has a missionary and evangelistic inclination in its very DNA.  Many Christian leaders can easily spend all their time with Christians.  Set an example by joining a club or taking a class, finding some way to connect with people that may have no other contact with true Christians.  If you are working alongside not-yet-Christians, set an example to your church by guarding time to invest in those relationships.  Invite a colleague to your home for a meal, socialize together, move the conversation beyond the superficial.  Many Christians seem to have lost the art of conversation, and asking questions seems to be a dying art.  Set an example and even teach believers how to ask questions and care about the answers.  Our local churches need to be communities that connect with those around.

3. People need to be able to COMMUNICATE the gospel when they have opportunity.

We may have motivated and connected believers in our churches that are unclear on how to present the core gospel message.  We can be overt here – tell them the value of a personal testimony that includes the three elements of before conversion, how I became a Christian, and the difference it has made since.  The power of the personal testimony is massively under-utilized by many Christians.

And why not instruct our churches with a simple gospel presentation.  I heard a famous preacher suggest the simple use of John 3:16 with four key points some years ago.  It is still my go-to explanation if the opportunity suddenly crops up.  Obviously I will adjust the explanation in light of what I know about the person I am speaking to, but still it is a useful presentation.  1. God loved so (2) God gave.  3. If we believe, then (4) we have eternal life.  It starts with the kind of God we are presenting, moves naturally into what God did for us in sending Christ to go to the cross.  It keeps the invitation unencumbered with unhelpful baggage by calling us to believe in – that is, not just believe that, but believe in … to entrust the full weight of our lives onto the person and work of Christ, with no backup plan!  And it allows us to define the Christian offer not as a free pass or a ticket to heaven, but rather as coming into the forever relationship that we were designed to enjoy.

So that is the three-part recipe for helping a church to be more effective in its evangelism.  There are other things that could be added.  For instance, it is important for a local church to establish an evangelistic baseline (for our church it is about making every Sunday accessible to guests, and running a regular evangelistic course – we use Glen Scrivener’s 321).  Then there are special events that can be highly effective.  But first and foremost, the church is not the program, it is the people, and if we can help the people in our churches to enjoy God more, be intentionally connected, and be able to communicate the gospel, then we are unleashing God’s great evangelistic strategy on the world: the local church!

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.

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.