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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Preaching Bigger Books in Shorter Series

Let’s say you want to preach from a bigger book, but you like the idea of shorter series – is that possible?  Here are a few suggestions:

1. Preach a shorter section – instead of feeling obligated to preach a whole book every time, why not preach a contained unit from a book for a series.  You don’t have to give equal coverage to the whole book in this particular series, you can always come back for another section another time.

2. Have a Gospel/book of the year – we had a season in our church (over a year) where we were in Mark’s Gospel, but we didn’t want to be preaching it for months on end.  We planned so that we had the Easter section at the right time of the year, but in the months before that we had covered some sections in midweek groups instead of on Sundays.  This meant that our shorter series on Sundays were more focused and could be “branded” separately to allow for renewed energy in each mini-series.  We also had breaks from Mark to spend time in other types of series and other types of biblical literature.

3. Preach a landmark tour – this is a way to preach a book without giving every verse equal attention.  You can preach the landmarks of a Bible book over the course of a few Sundays.  For example, you might preach Romans by starting in 1:16-17 to launch, and then touching down in other keys texts like 3:21-25; 5:1-8; 8:1; 12:1-2, etc.  Obviously, you will need to give some overview of the flow for this approach to work, but it allows you to zero in on the golden passages. If done well then the church will be motivated to read the whole book.  You can also supplement with midweek discussions that cover more ground, although that is only one approach to take.

4. Preach different sized chunks – this is similar to number 3, but is more intentional about covering the whole book.  You could launch a Romans series with 1:1-17, but then cover greater ground with a couple of the messages in a series covering several chapters.  For instance, you might have a message covering 1:18-3:20, then maybe one covering 3:21-5:21, etc.  You could preach an 8-week series with three or four of the messages covering three chapters and then the other four focusing in a bit more – i.e. chapter 8 on its own, or chapter 12.

Have you found other ways to run shorter series on longer books?

The Big Advantage of Shorter Series

I have friends that preach through a Bible book over the course of many months. It seems to work for their churches. I tend to think that there are advantages to shorter series.  Here’s why:

1. Shorter series mean more launch points – if you only start a new series every six months then you only get that launch point twice each year.  If you start a new series every 4-8 weeks then you might have 6-8 launch points per year.  Launching a series is an opportunity to invite people in and to invite people back in who might have drifted from regular attendance.

2. Shorter series naturally allow more schedule flexibility – that is, you can juggle the series to fit the calendar.  So you can do a year-starter leadership series, and then something else before a pre-Easter series.  Shorter series’ also means potentially more “buffer weeks” where there is some wiggle room for when you need to make changes to the schedule.

3. Shorter series avoid monotony – you have to be an amazing preacher to keep people engaged in a six month series in Jeremiah.  You are not Martyn Lloyd-Jones and nor am I.  Both preacher and listener benefit from not getting to the point where a series starts to drag.

4. Shorter series avoid genre overload – some people love Proverbs, others thrive on Psalms, some respond well to historical narratives, others eat up the epistles.  Multiple shorter series allow for a schedule that resonates with more people.  Even the most ardent prophecy fan will appreciate some weeks in another part of the Bible.

Next time I will share some thoughts on how to do bigger books in shorter series.

Remembering Haddon Robinson (1931-2017)

Dr Haddon Robinson went home to be with his God on Saturday 22nd July, 2017.  He was 86 years old.  His legacy is incredible.  Haddon started teaching preaching at Dallas Theological Seminary while still a student.  He went on to teach there for 19 years.  He was president at Denver Seminary where he served for 12 years.  He finished his seminary career at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary where he led the Doctor of Ministry program and served as Interim President during a difficult season at the school.  He wrote many books and articles, including his classic textbook Biblical Preaching, and he also served with other ministries including Discover the Word, Our Daily Bread, and the Christian Medical and Dental Society.

Haddon was passionate about preaching, of course, but also about education.  Consequently, it is fitting that the final decades of his ministry were spent at Gordon-Conwell equipping people to teach preaching across the world.  I am so thankful that I got to be one Haddon’s students during those years.  My seminary preaching profs had spoken so highly of Haddon that I was thrilled to get the chance to study at Gordon-Conwell from 2005-2007 in the Doctor of Ministry program.

I remember the first Monday morning our cohort were together.  Haddon took three hours to go around the room and hear from all 25 of us.  Men and women from various backgrounds and denominations, but across the board, we all answered one question in the same way.  “Why did you choose to come here?”  To put it simply, we all said, “I want to learn from you, Dr Robinson.”  He probably got that from every group, but there was never a hint that his ego was stroked.  For Haddon “there are no great preachers, only a great Christ.”

On the final day of our last cohort together Haddon went around the room again.  Time and again we all said something like, “Haddon, I came here to learn from you and I leave here counting you as a friend.”  Haddon was humble, he cared, he showed interest, he cheered us on, and throughout the program he educated.

Each year Haddon would bring in a friend to co-teach the cohort. These were men who had learned from him and were now at the top of their field.  They were wonderful teachers and we learned so much from each of them.  However, whenever Haddon spoke, we all grabbed for our pens.  Actually, it was tempting to grab for a pen even when he prayed.  Haddon was a wordsmith.  He could put things into words so effectively, whether he was teaching a class, preaching a sermon, or chatting over coffee and a donut.

Haddon Robinson did not believe there are great preachers, but nevertheless, he was one.  Many times I have marveled at Haddon’s ability to say so much in a way that feels so unhurried to the listener.  I don’t recall hearing a Haddon sermon where the big idea was not clear, concise and accurate.  I never heard him fail to nail a landing – his final sentences crafted like a runway that he would always touchdown on a couple of sentences earlier than you expected.  Listening to a sermon from Haddon felt like going for a walk through a Biblical text with a wise uncle.  I remember finding a sermon on video where Haddon took his glasses out of his shirt pocket and then struggled to put them on one-handed (his other hand held his Bible and he had no lectern to put it down).  His struggle comforted me because it was good to see that even he could get a bit stuck, but his calmness in the situation was still a delight to watch as he dropped in a hilarious comment about having just had his one-a-day cup of coffee … and that cup was for March 14th 2035.

Haddon Robinson was a great preacher because he so understood the world of the Bible and because he thought deeply about his listeners.  More than that, he understood communication profoundly.  And then, on top of that, he was a master educator.  Haddon said, “Education isn’t filling a pail with information; it’s lighting a fire in the spirit of a learner.”  I remember defending my thesis and having Haddon throw questions at me out of left field with a glint in his eye. He was a wonderful teacher of preachers, although he knew he couldn’t get everyone to the same level.  Some struggled to grasp the freedom Haddon espoused in preaching.  They might read his book or hear him lecture and think it was a complex formula to be meticulously followed.  In reality, Haddon wanted to train preachers who were biblically constrained to say what the text said, who were homiletically free to communicate as effectively as possible, and who were spiritually responsive to the God who so masterfully crafted His communication.  I am sure all of us who learned from Haddon are not as effective as we could be inasmuch as we haven’t grasped or consistently implemented all that he offered us.  At the same time, Haddon was so effective as a teacher that I am confident there are hundreds of preachers and teachers of preaching that are making a massive difference because of Haddon’s input in our lives and ministries.

Haddon grew up surrounded by the gangs of Harlem.  There was always a steely determination and a look in his eyes that showed he knew exactly what was going on around him. Sometimes people who do great things in ministry seem to get a pass from those around them for where their character fails to show the fruit of the Spirit.  In my experience and observation, this is not so much the case with Haddon.  He was gracious, humble, caring and godly.  To use words from his definition of preaching, it was my experience that the Holy Spirit had first applied biblical truth to the personality and experience of Haddon, then through Haddon, he also applied the Bible to the hearers.

Haddon was great fun to be around.  He took the Bible seriously, he took preaching seriously, and he took education seriously.  But he didn’t take himself too seriously.  He was alive in coffee breaks, laughing and probing with a big smile and bright eyes.  He was alive when he would gather the cohort in the center of the classroom to sing some hymns together.  He was alive when Bonnie, his wife, was able to join us for a meal or another sing-along at a piano.  And now he is alive in the presence of the God that he served so faithfully throughout his life.

I thank God for the life and ministry of Haddon Robinson.  I am just one of many who learned from him as a preacher, an educator, a writer, a mentor, and even as a friend.  Haddon loved the Bible, the God of the Bible, preaching, his wife Bonnie, his children … he seemed to love life.  May that legacy be multiplied in the years to come.

Not Every Exhortation is Necessary

Haddon Robinson uses an illustration to make this point. He imagines a friend borrowing his car and then finding they have a flat tire. They call for advice. So over the phone he tells them where the spare is, where the tools are, how to release the spare wheel from its cage, and so on. At the end of the explanation he suggests it is not necessary to finish with the exhortation, “Now I exhort you: change the tire!”

That friend is already motivated to put the instruction into practice, they just need the instruction to be clear. In the same way there are some things that are preached with great life impact simply through clarity of explanation. The listeners are already stirred and motivated to implement the teaching in their lives as soon as they understand it. If that is the case, the added exhortation may do more harm than good.

This is something for us to ponder not only in respect to the practical applications for believers, but also in respect to the offer of the Gospel. We should be persuasive and there will be times when an exhortation is exactly what is needed. But there will be others times when bringing clarity to the message will be all the motivation that is needed to bring about life change.

Let’s learn to sense when our exhortation is helpful and when it might only antagonize or patronize our listeners. Let’s also make sure that our explanation is so clear that people are really understanding what is being said. Let’s pray for sensitivity to people and to God so that we know when to exhort, when to invite, and when to let clarity do its deep work in souls.

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…