Who Will Be There After Lockdown?

We don’t know how long we will be locked down, but it will be longer than any of us would prefer.  I think it is important for us to think and pray about the gaps that this unique season will create in our churches, as well as the new people that could be added.

For the first couple of weeks most churches have leapt into action learning how to livestream Sunday services and how to create some sort of face-to-face replacement for home groups.  Some have thought about offering extra resources for people stuck at home.  But as this situation wears on, we will become more and more aware that when we are allowed to come back together as a church, it will probably not be with the same people as before.  Let’s prayerfully ponder these two lists and consider what steps we can be taking now that will change the face of our regathering:

Gaps Created

  1. Some may be promoted to Christ’s presence.  Statistics tell us that this will most likely be the vulnerable through age or underlying medical conditions, but in human terms, nobody is as safe as we used to feel.  Let’s pray about how to support not only those who feel fear at this time, but also for those who may come to the end of their time here during this time, and also the families of any that are lost to this disease (or to any other cause during this time of separation).
  2. Some may drift and grow cold.  The burning coal, when separated from the other coals, will quickly cool down.  Pray about how to pursue, support, encourage and maintain the connection of younger or less-well-rooted believers who are more prone to drift.  We all know people who don’t have the same convictions about the need for fellowship, teaching, worship, community, etc.  The casual approach may seem to work in comfortable times, but it may be seen in its true light under these pressures.
  3. Some marriages may implode.  It would be naive to think that every Christian couple are thriving under lockdown.  We have a newly married couple living opposite us and it is fun to watch them learn to skate together and playing games, but this is no honeymoon for the vast majority of couples.  Some are desperately struggling already and don’t have the release valve of work or time apart with friends.  We have to pray about this and be proactive in supporting every couple in our churches.
  4. Some may grow embittered or lose heart.  The constant bombardment of negative news will overwhelm any of us.  I pray that people in my church will see God answering prayer in specific ways, but what if some don’t?  Pray for the people in your church who are more likely to dwell on the negative news than feast on the hope in God’s Word.  They are extra vulnerable without church fellowship to influence them.
  5. Some may be beaten down by circumstance or enemy attack.  Remember the parable of the soils.  If only everyone in our churches were good soil and now leaning into this crisis ready to bear multiplied fruit.  Sadly some will find this season is the time where the heat of the day, or the seed-theft of sinister birds will undo their apparent participation in the community of God’s people.  Perhaps it is helpful to reveal those who aren’t really truly receptive, but pastorally it is painful to see it happen.  Let’s pray for the spiritually vulnerable and pray about how to pursue the straying sheep – whether they are already saved or not, they need Jesus.

Gaps Filled

  1. Returning drifters need somewhere to land – There are people who used to be actively involved in the life of the church, but life took its toll and they drifted.  Whatever their state was spiritually, this shaking of their world may be God’s tool to draw them to Himself.  Pray about how your church can not only be church to each other during this crisis, but how can you be welcoming and inviting to others who may be looking to reintegrate into gospel community?
  2. The lost can be found – God is an expert at winning the hearts of those who have been hard to Him.  Again, pray about how your online church can reach people – not only the formal streaming (is that accessible?), but also evangelistic resources that your people can share with those who may be open in a new way.  We can’t just expect people to flock to church some months down the line when our doors open again, we need to be proactively welcoming and engaging with people now.  Wouldn’t it be awesome to look back on this as a season of wonderful evangelistic fruitfulness for our churches?!

Who else would you add to this list?  I am not offering answers, but my prayer is that this post can help us to pray and adjust for the sake of the people in and around our churches at this time.

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This Bible highlight from last week relates to this post:

Bible Highlight Videos

Since being in lockdown I have started to record some simple Bible reading highlight videos.  They are no-frills, hopefully both biblical and relevant.  Instead of making them polished mini-sermons, I have tried to keep them simple so that I can record them quickly and get them online.  I did this for the people in our church, but you may find them useful.  If you do, please share them on social media and pass them on to people that might benefit.

I hope you are finding ways to encouraging people into the Bible during this difficult time – we all have a unique opportunity to replace other activities with time in God’s Word. My prayer is that whatever the future new normal will be, that for all of us it will be a life characterised by greater appreciation of the gift that we have in being able to pursue God’s heart in the Scriptures.

Here are the short playlists available so far…

Matthew:

Romans/Galatians:

I Corinthians:

I Corinthians 15:

I & II Thessalonians:

7 Ways Our World Has Changed, But God Hasn’t

We are gradually coming to terms with the massive changes that have gripped our world in the last few weeks.  I have written about 7 temptations we will face in isolation, 7 spheres in which we should be confident in God’s Word during this time, and 7 tips for preaching online.

Now, here are 7 changes that we should pray through at this time:

1. New restrictions on travel– My calendar has suddenly cleared for several months. It used to be so easy to jump in the car and drive, or to book a flight and visit another country.  Hopefully this restriction will ease in time, but let’s not simply focus on what we are missing.  God remains omnipresent, even if our attempts to be omnipresent are thwarted.  Maybe this change can stir us to pray more fervently for situations we would love to influence, and to be more present where God has put us (our families are our primary ministry, after all).

2. New humility in plans– Will we be able to hold that conference next year? Will we be able to fulfil that preaching commitment in October?  We don’t know. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring.  So we ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will … do this or that.” (James 4:13-17) God knows what is coming; He always has, and we never have.  Maybe this can stir a greater humility in us all, even when restrictions ease.

3. New uncertainty of life– What James writes in 4:13-17 includes reference to our lives being like a vanishing mist:  “If the Lord wills, we will liveand do this or that.”  When this crisis started, so much was said about only the over-70s or people with underlying health issues dying from COVID-19.  Somehow many people felt relieved, until they started to think about who that might include.  Now we are hearing more stories of younger, healthy people dying from it.  In actuality, death has always been a real and present threat for us all, even before this crisis. And God has always been God.  We may well be immortal until His work for us on earth is finished, but it probably doesn’t hurt us to feel our mortality more and to let that drive us to our knees.

4. New concerns about money– Will we be able to survive these next weeks?  Will our income disappear?  Will government help be enough?  Will our countries recover after this?  The certainty we felt financially just a few weeks ago has evaporated for many of us.  Whether we have a stable salary, or live on completely unpredictable support from others, let’s remember that God is our provider.  He always was, and He has not changed.  Our lives may change.  Our fervency in prayer may change.  But remember John 21, when the disciples were getting used to the fact that everything had changed for them following the death and resurrection of the soon departing Jesus, and then Jesus cooked them a breakfast of bread and fish beside the Sea of Galilee …I provided miraculously when we fed the 5000 here, and I continue to provide for you now.

5. New recognition of need in our churches– I remember a few weeks ago when I could say, “Things are going well in our church … of course there are one or two difficult situations, but generally things are going well.”  Seems like a long time ago now.  Now every family unit that I think about is facing threat of death, loss of income, no work or overwhelming work, marital tensions, parenting complexities, loneliness, etc.  God has always seen our need as it really is.  Maybe this crisis is making vivid to us all just how needy the flock of God’s people really are.  Perhaps this insight should go with us as we carry our people before God in prayer, whatever a future newfound cultural complacency may suggest.  Our people need God.  So we pray.

6. New feelings of restriction and inadequacy in ministry– As the five previous changes hit us, we realise not only the difficulties of those we serve, but also our own inadequacy to really help.  We don’t even have regular church meetings for face-to-face fellowship and those opportunities to sense that someone isn’t doing so well.  As people who minister to others, we should be feeling a profound sense of inadequacy at this time.  We can’t protect anybody from the virus (although we can help by not breaking government guidelines).  We can’t financially carry every situation in our church (although we are called to stand together and share what we have).  We can’t do the job of doctors, nurses, vital delivery drivers, etc. (although we can support them in prayer and encouragement).  We are significantly limited.  But our God is not.  He never was.  He hasn’t changed.  Our experience has just clarified to us that we are not God.

7. New awareness of gospel need all around –Remember when people were comfortable, secure, invincible, and happy in their hobbies?  Now we are surrounded by people with a genuine fear of death, combined with genuine concerns about how they will provide for their families in the coming months.  Our continent is humbled.  And we are stuck in isolation with some restrictions on spreading the gospel.  But God’s Word is not chained.  Over the garden fence, through the internet, by phone call … the good news of Jesus has always flourished most in times of real struggle.  God has faithfully carried His people through pestilence, plague, persecution, and war all through history. And all through history it has been the most difficult times that have led to the greatest growth in the church.  It feels like we are living a key moment in history right now – may it be a key moment in the history of church growth too!

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During this Coronavirus crisis I have started making short Bible reading highlight videos. If you find these helpful, please share them with others.  Thanks.

7 Tips for Preaching Online

This weekend will be our second purely online church service.  So we will have a Kids Worship time on Zoom at the other end of the day, then a worship segment live-streamed, switching venue for live-streamed sermon, then a Zoom gathering for communion and hang out.  That is our approach, but there are many others.

Here are 7 quick suggestions if you are new to preaching to a camera:

1. Don’t be intimidated by higher tech churches – I’ve already seen lots of other churches showing off their high tech setups for streaming church.  That’s great, but that’s not possible for everyone.  You may choose to review the situation, but if all you have is a smartphone, then make sure the battery is charged and go with that.

2. Eye contact is different – Don’t look around to a non-existent congregation if you are just preaching to a camera.  Only eye contact with the camera counts.  And if you are preaching to a smartphone or tablet, it is better to use the rear camera (better resolution) and highlight the lens to draw your eyes there.  If you preach to the front camera then you will naturally watch the image (and therefore not be making eye contact via the camera).

3. Preach to your church with possible guests, don’t get carried away – Know that your congregation is hopefully watching.  Know that there may be some guests joining you.  Don’t assume that because your service is live-streamed that you have millions watching your stream all over the world.  Somehow our egos can corrupt ministry when we start to imagine thousands of visitors (and it is probably helpful to humility to remember that your own congregation don’t consistently show up under normal circumstances!)

4. So do be personal, but remember it is out there for all – So when you are preaching to your church, be personal to your church.  However, the stream is out there and could in theory be “clipped up” out of context and used against you.  So be extra careful of references to specific people in the congregation, of your use of humour, of criticism of anyone or anything, etc.

5. Expect to feel drained – Maybe you feel drained after every normal Sunday.  Maybe you feel invigorated when you get to preach God’s Word.  Expect online preaching to drain you.  You have zero feedback, zero interactions in person afterwards, and it really can feel like you literally just preached to an empty room.  Tell your spouse and others if it is harder than normal and invite them to support you with positive encouragement after preaching – it is okay to be vulnerable.

6. Think through the impact of 0 feedback during the sermon – There is impact of zero feedback during preaching too.  You won’t sense restlessness as you labour through your notes.  You won’t internally react to faces of people that typically prompt you to be clearer, or more relevant, or whatever.  After you preach this way you may start to recognise differences in how you preach.  I found it harder to be specific in application, I think, because that is partially a relational impulse while preaching.  Get feedback specific to preaching on camera (maybe you touch your face too much – people are sensitive to that right now).

7. Pray about it all – I’ve come across people who will pray about their sermon, but not about their delivery.  That is strange to me.  God cares about it all.  So too now, pray about the technology, the internet connection, the communication of how to find the livestream, the people you are preaching to, the way you preach to a camera, etc.  Pray about it all, because God cares about it all.

What lessons have you learned in the first weeks of preaching online?

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I have been recording some simple Bible reading highlights for my church. If these are helpful to you, please feel free to share them with others.

7 Spheres: Be Confident in God’s Word

We are living in unprecedented times.  Here in the UK the government is gradually locking down society to try to slow the spread of COVID-19.  Our situation is paralleled in some countries, while we watch other countries facing the greater storm that is just breaking here.

As pastors, ministers, church leaders and preachers, we need to be very confident in God’s Word as we plunge into a global crisis.  We need to be confident that it is God-breathed, useful/profitable, and thoroughly equipping (2Tim.3:16-17).  We need to be confident that it is able to comfort, to encourage, to challenge, to bring light in darkness, and so on.  We need to be confident that it mediates the presence of God, so that when the Bible speaks, God speaks (it is more than a record of what God has spoken).

Here are seven spheres for our confidence in God’s Word to show:

1. Be confident in God’s Word for restoring your soul – you can do ministry fuelled by adrenaline, but not for long enough, nor well enough.  Like Mary in Luke 10, let Jesus minister to you before you minister for Him.

2. Be confident in God’s Word for leading your family – many of us will be experiencing full-time life at home with the whole family.  A recipe for tension and struggle?  Possibly. But remember that your family needs your leadership, and your best leadership will involve bringing perspective, hope,  and stability from God’s Word.

3. Be confident in God’s Word for encouraging believers – the church is not a group of people that receive ministry from you.  The church is a gathering of ministers, a team of priests, each with their opportunities to influence, to lead, and to give to others.  Some will be facing grief.  Some will be overwhelmed by their work at the hospital.  Some will be facing massive financial loss.  Some will be struggling with “little stuff” like tensions at home over “nothing.”  All need to be encouraged by the best fuel for the soul – God’s Word.

4. Be confident in God’s Word for giving hope to the lost – unprecedented national and global crisis means a planet full of people with their standard complacency and confidence shaken.  This is an opportunity for people to realise and discover their need for something more than they can build for themselves in stable times. So of course we want to offer help and provide selfless and sacrificial service to our communities.  But what they need more than anything is for us to give reason for our hope, to pray for opportunities and then spell out the good news whenever we can.

5. Be confident in God’s Word for the health of your (now online) church – Many of us are learning very quickly how to do church services and home groups online, not to mention prayer gatherings, online devotionals, WhatsApp group chats, etc.  So we don’t have access to buildings, we can’t meet in person, we can’t visit people in their homes, and a whole host of other things we normally rely on.  All may be changing, but God’s Word is still the vital staple in your church’s diet.  Look for ways to share God’s Word with people, and encourage them to share it with each other.

6. Be confident in God’s Word in the midst of a crisis – It is tempting in a crisis to default to offering purely practical help, or to fall into personal tendencies (some will be very good at sharing despair, others are experts at making everything party political, still others seem to think the world needs their version of denial).  In a crisis people need God’s Word.  It is not chained.  Trust it.  Share it.

7. Be confident in God’s Word as you pray – We are facing unprecedented times (for us), but God is not new to times of pestilence, of plague, of grief, of fear, etc.  Trust God’s Word to help you find the words you need as you pray for yourself, your family, your church, your community, your nation and this world.

What would you add?  What passages are comforting and encouraging you?

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Here is a link to the latest short, no-frills, no sermonic polish, Bible reading highlight that I have started offering on YouTube. Please take a look at some of these short videos and if you find them helpful, please share with others.  Thanks.

 

Online Prayer Gathering: You Are Invited!

This Sunday will be the first Sunday that a lot of churches are not able to gather together.  In some places that has been the case for a few weeks.  You are invited to a prayer gathering by Zoom to pray together for our churches, for our communities, and even for our Sunday services as we grapple with unfamiliar technology!

Time: Saturday 21st March, 4-5pm (UK) … which is 5-6pm (Europe) … or noon (New York) … or 9am (West Coast, USA).

Format: Drop in at any time, share your church’s name and location in the chat box, share any specific prayer requests in the chat box, and keep prayers relatively short!

Will it work?  I don’t know, but it will be good to try it!  Depending on numbers we may need to turn off our videos, etc.

Link: Click here to join us anytime during the hour

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Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

Your Church Does Not Need a Superstar

In one sense preachers have always felt pressure.  In the past, the position of church minister was respected in the community, along with other leadership roles in society.  These days the pressure often feels more cynical, with a world ignoring us until they have some dirt to celebrate.

In another sense, there is an increasing pressure on preachers.  In the past people might hear a Billy Graham once every few years, and perhaps they would be exposed to other preachers a little more often.  Today people get to listen to some brilliant communicators, often in edited form, on podcasts throughout the week.  As preachers we can feel the pressure that comes from expectation built by podcast.

To use an analogy, the famous preacher is a bit like a fine chef in a restaurant (assuming the famous preacher is actually a good preacher!)  A periodic meal in a restaurant is a real treat.  However, these days, people effectively have the option of fine dining multiple times each day.  Then Sunday comes and it is back to normal food for a disappointing change.

Remember that children grow into healthy adults based on a continuing supply of reasonably healthy food.  I don’t know many families that offer haut cuisine day in and day out.  In the same way, if you are providing the regular diet for your church, know that the bar is not set impossibly high.

Preach messages that are solidly biblical, as clear as you can manage, as engaging as possible, with relevance underlined for your congregation.  Every now and again you might manage a stunning illustration, or a particularly satisfying turn of phrase.  But for the most part, just decent biblical preaching is the meat and vegetables your church needs to grow healthy and strong.  And if they like to listen to a brilliant podcast?  Great, encourage it.

How Would Jesus Teach Us To Preach?

If Jesus was offering a seminar on preaching, I am sure we would all sign up.  The full course would probably include matters of authoritative preaching (unlike the scribes), crafting compelling images, plotting effective stories, and so on.  But a brief seminar?  Perhaps it would cover two points.

When Jesus was asked about prayer he answered with his two-part variation on the greatest commandment.  Since he did the two-part answer repeatedly, let me speculate about how the “how should we preach?” answer might go…

1. Love God.  The starting point is always fellowship with the Father. We cannot give what we are not first receiving.  Allow him to minister to you, before you minister for him.  Seek the Lord and find him, then share him.  Seek the Lord in His Word, then share the person you meet there.  Diligently study and wrestle with the text, not to gain cold knowledge, but to have your heart melted by the God who reveals himself there.  Before you speak to others, love God yourself in response to his love for you.

2. Love your neighbour (i.e. your Sunday morning listener) Be sure you are praying for the people you will be speaking to and spend time with God concerning their lives and their hearts.  Plan your message prayefully as an act of love driven by deep concern for their lives. Work so that they can understand, stay engaged, follow along, feel the importance and the impact of God’s Word to them from his Word. Preach with the winsomeness and grace of God’s heart flowing out from yours, because God is passionately committed to incarnating his message.

What do you think Jesus would teach in a preaching seminar?

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By the way, I have a little book about the Jesus we preach coming out soon … more information to follow – watch this space.

5 Preaching Paradoxes

John Stott listed five paradoxes in preaching.  This is his list, but the comments are mine:

1. Authentic Christian preaching is both biblical and contemporary – We will tend to incline one way or the other.  Are you strong on biblical studies but not so in touch with the world of your listeners?  Or are you in touch today, but weak on the biblical side of this?  The solution is not a 50:50 formula for study time.  However, it would be wise to prayerfully take stock every so often.

2. Authentic Christian preaching is both authoritative and tentative – What is your dominant tone?  Some have learned to speak everything with unsupportable authority. Others seem hesitant to suggest anything for fear of coming across too strongly.  Listen to a recent sermon and take stock of your tone – there should be both authority and humility.

3. Authentic Christian preaching is both prophetic and pastoral – Preaching should speak into the world of your listeners with declarative and incisive authority, like a prophet of old.  At the same time, these sheep really need the tenderness of a self-sacrificing shepherd.  Perhaps it is worth asking some listeners how they feel when you preach?  Is it helpful confrontation by the truth of God’s Word, or is it the tender care of God’s shepherd heart?  Remember, they need both.

4. Authentic Christian preaching is both gifted and studied -I was always impressed by my teacher’s ability to both preach and teach preaching.  He was clearly gifted, but he also really knew his stuff.  Some good preachers are poor teachers of preaching.  But that double dynamic is at work in preaching too – we need the gifting God has given us (personality, ability, strengths, etc.), and we need to do the work in our study to be able to preach well.  Have you started to lean on your gifting to the detriment of study?

5. Authentic Christian preaching is both thoughtful and passionate – Just thoughtful becomes ponderous and sends you to sleep.  Just passionate can get very loud and annoying when the absence of substance becomes obvious.  Learn what you need to learn, but make sure that study, prayer and life work together in you to generate a passion for what you preach.  They can’t catch the disease unless you are properly contagious.

I am not a fan of balance as a default, but in these five areas, I think Stott’s list is really helpful.

5 Rubbish Reasons to Preach

I was with a group of preachers last week and we had a conversation about good reasons to preach.  Along the way we generated a few not so good reasons to preach … actually, five downright rubbish reasons to preach (for non-England English speakers, “5 Bad Reasons”).  Just in case this is helpful:

1. To keep my job – I understand that both ministry and life are often challenging.  I also understand that we at times will find ourselves preaching without the fire we know we should feel inside.  But when it gets to the stage of simply trying to keep your job, you are long overdue a conversation with some trusted friends.

2. To make them laugh – There are probably a million variations of this.  Essentially the goal is to make people respond to you.  Maybe it is to make them appreciate you.  Maybe it is to show off your intellect rather than your wit.  Whatever the case, if the motivation in your heart is for them to be appreciating you, then your ministry is misfiring.

3. To get the petrol money – Whether it is official honorarium, or a kind gift to cover travel expenses, or even your salary … the chances are that you are not being adequately remunerated for the time spent in study, in ministry experience, and in message preparation.  We are far better off trusting God for our support and serving wholeheartedly, rather than worrying about the gift.  Once we start directly equating our effort for whatever may come back in return, we are probably better off looking at most regular jobs – not just because of the money, but also because of the state of our hearts!

4. To arrive at the end of the service – Sometimes you aren’t thinking about job security, or the response of the people to you, or even the money you might receive, but you are simply longing for the minute hand to reach the appropriate ending point for the sermon.  If you are new to preaching, don’t worry, this feeling won’t last long and you will soon be wondering how your time disappears so quickly.  If you are just going through a really low time, prayerfully make it to the end and sit down with someone safe who can listen and pray with you.

5. To get invited back – This is a weird one in preaching world.  Whether you are a visiting speaker hoping to not offend enough to get another invitation, or whether you are “preaching with a view” and hoping for a pastoral call, the motivation seems off here too.  In every situation we should be trusting God and saying what we believe is appropriate for the text, the listeners and the occasion.  Too many “pulpit dating” sermons and the church won’t be getting a healthy diet, even if they are getting “your best sermons.”

There are plenty of reasons why we should preach, but what would you add to this list of rubbish reasons?