Unique Passage

In the normal flow of church life, the passage you preach on Sunday will not be preached again for quite a while.  If it is in a series on a specific Bible book, how many years until you plan to preach from that book again?  If it is a seasonal text, like an advent passage, there is a chance you will preach it next year, but probably it will be a couple of years at least.

So, the passage you preach on Sunday will not be preached again for quite a while.  Here is something to ponder:

Will your preaching of that text really bring out the uniqueness of the passage for your listeners?  Will the message be text specific?  Will it make clear that passage’s main idea?  Will it draw out that passage’s implications?

It is so easy to start in a passage and end up preaching a generic message.  The problem with that is that you could preach a generic message from any passage, or from none.  Even if the truth you share is stunningly rich and wonderful, what about that passage?

If we have a high view of Scripture then surely we also need to have a high level of confidence that if you have selected a passage to preach, then the listeners should get that passage.  Just as every fingerprint, snowflake, dog’s nose is unique, so is every passage in the Bible.  Every passage is saying something about something in a unique way.  Will your listeners get that passage’s unique something this Sunday?

If not, if you just slide into a generic message, then it will be years before that passage has a chance to be preached into their hearts and lives again.  Don’t miss the opportunity!

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Pondering Pre-Sermon Position

Over the years I have been a visiting speaker many times in churches.   While there is no such thing as a typical church, there are some things that are common to many churches.  Take, for instance, the pre-sermon logistics for the visiting speaker:

Before the Service – Upon arrival the visiting speaker is typically greeted by one of the church leaders and then invited back into a small room to pray with that leader or the leadership team.  Thus most of the time before the service is spent in prayer.  This is a good thing, of course, as we need to declare our dependence on the one apart from whom we can do nothing.  It is good to sometimes be able to hear the heart of leaders for their church.  It is good to settle the heart and prepare to preach.

During the Service – Then just before the service begins, the preacher is often ushered to the front row, or even to sit on the platform facing the congregation.  The latter option will be more typical in more formal churches (sometimes with a more formal arrival to that position too).  Up front in one way or another just seems more practical.  It avoids a long walk down the aisle after the speaker introduction, for one thing.

A lot can be said, both practically and spiritually, for these two standard practices.  Maybe they should remain standard practice, but I just want to ponder them for a moment.

Before the Service – When the speaker arrives at a church, the minutes before the service begins are the prime opportunity to get to know the congregation that will be hearing the sermon.  While some people praying will reveal helpful insight into the congregation, many don’t.  But spend fifteen or twenty minutes chatting with the guy on the sound desk as you collect your microphone, and a handful of other people you can strike up a conversation with, and you tend to learn a lot about a church (especially if that is your goal).  Should we not pray?  Of course we should, and hopefully, we all have.  A lot.  But does an extended time of prayer right before a service outweigh the value of that interaction time?  Typically, I’m not convinced.

During the Service – Then what about the pre-sermon placement of the preacher?  Each to their own preference, I would say.  My preference?  I like to be at the back of a congregation.  It allows me to feel the temperature in the room.  Are people distracted?  Are they engaged?  Again, more opportunity to become aware of the listeners.  Are there some obviously awkward first-timers?  And what about the awkward walk up the aisle after the speaker introduction?  Not a problem.  It is relatively inconspicuous to move to the front row during the last song before the sermon.

I know this is my own preference, but I have found sitting on the front row you can feel watched, unable to properly look at your notes or the Bible, and unable to look around and observe the people.  And sitting on the platform facing everyone?  This feels like hard work because so many eyes could be inquisitive about every sip of water, look at the Bible, posture, facial expression, etc.  Maybe you can see everyone’s faces, but you lose all freedom to observe them, check notes, adjust radio microphone, or whatever.  It is the shortest walk to preaching position, but often you can feel the least prepared when you arrive!

This post is purely subjective ponderings.  I certainly wouldn’t want a church to change its practice just because I am preaching – I am very used to all the options and happy to serve in whatever pattern is preferred.  What do you find helpful when you are not in your own familiar church environment?

Planning for Christmas Now

The summer is over and the busy autumn schedule is in full swing.  Before you know it, it will be Christmas.  I know, this is where most people moan about consumerism and advertising, but for church leaders now is the time to be thinking beyond the shopping to the church plans.

Christmas is a season that rolls around very quickly.  What will you do this year?  For some it is a festival of special events that require lots of planning.  For others it is a quieter season with the special carol service and maybe even a lighter load.  Whichever way you plan your church Christmas schedule, you do need to pray for sensitivity to a set of potential people present:

1. Seasonal visitors – some people will go to church because it is Christmas.  They typically are not expecting a life changing experience, but we can be praying for that. We also need to make sure the welcome, the experience of being at church, the message and so on are all conducive to motivating them to even consider coming again, finding out more, etc.

2. Family and friends – some people will go to your church because it is Christmas and they have a connection to someone in your church.  Maybe a family member visiting, or perhaps a friend from work.  They need everything the seasonal visitor needs, but it is good to also recognise what their experience means to the person who brings them – it can cost a lot to bring someone to church.

3. Church regulars – some people will go to your church because it is their church.  Don’t forget them.  It is easy to rely on them for extra manpower in a busy Christmas season, but pray that they will also be touched afresh by the wonder of the incarnation and God’s great rescue mission.

So as you think about the different categories of people, think also about these issues (all of which need planning before the tinsel is visible in the shops) …

Experience – The experience of visiting church begins with how people hear about the church (advertising, invitations, etc.), and continues in the car park, and into the building, etc.  Perhaps get a small group to think it through from the perspective of a first timer!

Message – Will you do an advent series?  How will you make each message work on its own?  How will you combine satisfaction of traditional expectations with fresh material for regulars and guests?  (Can I also suggest my book, Pleased to Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation (Christian Focus, 2014) … it contains a lot of potential message material!)

Follow-Up – With all the energy going into the Christmas events, it probably feels like a stretch to run a “just looking” course in January, but it may be ideal timing!

 

7 Ways to Stay Gospel Sharp – continued

Continuing yesterday’s list (I won’t repeat the explanation, please click here if you didn’t see it)…

2. Purposefully pray beyond your own sphere – be sure that you invest time in prayer that is not focused solely on your life, your ministry, your family, your church, your country. Pray for the lost. Name some.  Pray for the cross-focused mission of the church both locally and globally.  Pray for some people you will never meet in this life.

3. Sacrificially give to gospel-specific mission – recognize that many good causes can and do raise money from outside (and inside) the church, but who else will give to support evangelistic missions work, Bible translation, church planting, introducing the unreached to Jesus? Giving tends to focus our hearts. If you can, lead your church to give to something outside themselves that only spiritually alive Christians would give to.

4. Read something stimulating – as a preacher we can easily spend a lot of time reading commentaries, and perhaps we make sure we are reading in order to stay current and understand our culture. But what about a missionary biography like God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew, or Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot? You may even have a classic or two on your shelf (there are some great newer ones too, of course!)

5. Identify and persist with a gospel target – I have worked for years with Operation Mobilization, a missionary organization that traces it roots back to one elderly lady who prayed for years for the high school across the street. She could not reach those thousands of students with the good news about Jesus, but she knew who could, so she prayed to Him. She knew what they needed was more than a better school, so she prayed.  She sent a gospel of John to a notorious student, and he got saved and co-launched a global missions movement that has impacted millions of lives.

6. Exit your bubble – Prayerfully ask God to help you see the bubble that exists or is forming around your life and ministry. Can you go into the city-centre and see some genuine gospel mission in action? Can you stay in touch with a friend who is overseas telling people about Jesus?  Can you visit?  The mission of God required and requires the crossing of cultural and national borders … even if your ministry is local, look for ways to cross borders and boundaries so that your bubble does not become a cocoon.

7. Preach bigger than you can achieve – I have deliberately left preaching until the end of the list. If we are to stay gospel sharp it begins in our personal lives, not in our pulpit presentations. But when you preach, don’t settle for achievable goals (such as informing, educating, encouraging, leading, etc.)  Be sure that in some way you present Christ and him crucified such that listeners might be saved, and believers might be stirred.  True preaching must go beyond what our abilities can achieve and rely on the Spirit of God to bring new spiritual life and new spiritual fruit!

What else would you add?  What have you found helpful to avoid gospel drift in your life and ministry?

7 Ways to Stay Gospel Sharp

The history of the church as well as observation of the contemporary church show that God’s people always suffer from gospel drift.  That is, the church slowly but surely tends to move away from the gospel just as our bodies slowly but surely move away from health.

God so loved the world that he sent his Son on a rescue mission to lead people from death to spiritual life.  His mission required a flint-like focus on destination Calvary.  Yes, there are many other aspects and facets to that mission, but if you lose the cross you lose the mission.  As the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus sent his followers … into the same spiritually dead world, with a message to speak that souls might be rescued, disciples made and multiplication of the mission maintained.  But the church drifts.

We drift into lesser projects and, if we are not careful, we start to call them the mission.  After all, it always feels better to be successful at something we can do, rather than keeping focused on something we struggle to do.  The lesser projects are often not unimportant.  The lesser projects should be supportive of the great mission. But when they become identified with the mission, that is a sure sign that drift is occurring.

How often do churches become so consumed with a building project that they lose sight of the greater mission?  What about making the church program the best it can be? What about trying to live good lives as a silent witness (and therefore, eventually, no witness at all)?  What about improve-human-life projects so that the poor can be less poor?  What about political activism that seeks to right wrongs somewhere?  Every one of these things is important, and hopefully Jesus would be central to our motivation for each one, but if we are not careful, we will lose Christ’s flint-focus on the mission.

As preachers, we lead and influence.  So here are 7 quick ideas to stay gospel sharp in your ministry:

1. Restore your gospel focus in your Bible reading – if you are in the Old Testament, watch the gospel trajectories that lead to Christ; if you are in the Gospels, watch Christ’s mission unfold; if you are in Acts, watch the message spreading; if you are in the epistles, watch the application of the gospel to the challenges facing the church.

Tomorrow I will complete the list…

Preaching Interview

I recently had the joy of meeting Chris Castaldo and his family in Naperville, IL.  I also preached in his church, Naperville New Covenant Church.  It was a really enjoyable day.  After visiting, Chris asked me for a blog interview for his blog: ChrisCastaldo.com (which is well worth checking out, along with his books). This is the link to the original interview, and the text is below:

1. Peter, what would you say is your driving passion in ministry?

I think the consistent thread in the ministries I’ve been involved in has been the desire to help people enjoy the Bible, and then from that, to enjoy relationship with Christ and spill that love to others.  So, if I am preaching a sermon, or teaching in a seminar, or training preachers, I always want to help people catch that delight in God’s Word.  I am convinced that God is a great communicator, and we just need to help people to see that.

2. That sounds great, but isn’t that what every Christian wants?

Maybe, but it doesn’t always appear to be the case.  There certainly are many people whose ministry passion overlaps and complements what I have described.  Sometimes people have a passion for a particular doctrine, or for a particular ministry or people group.  But I have seen that in some circles the God that is preached is a scaled down version of the real God, and what results from that is effectively a thin gospel.

3. You mentioned the idea of a “thin gospel” in conversation before; can you say more on that?

Sure, when I refer to a “thin gospel” I am referring to a presentation of the good news of Jesus that may be technically true, but substantially lacking at the same time.  Sometimes the gospel sounds like a 2-dimensional statement of truths, when it should be a 3-dimensional presentation of a person.  The truths are true, but the person is largely missing.  Or perhaps the truths are true, but several truths are missing.

For instance, I’ve often heard the gospel presented as being essentially a matter of sins forgiven because of what Christ did on the cross.  True.  And the rest?   Don’t hear me wrong, if having our sins forgiven was the entire gospel then it would be reason enough to worship God for eternity with utter amazement – we do not deserve to have our sins forgiven through what Christ did at Calvary.  However, the New Covenant promises we read about in the Old Testament, and repeatedly in the New Testament (New Covenant), are not restricted to having sins forgiven.  God also promised to do a work in our hearts – living hearts replacing dead hearts, the law written on our hearts … a new affection for God and for good.  And the Holy Spirit is given to each one of us, giving us eternal life as we experience genuine union with Christ and therefore fellowship with the Father.  The New Covenant that we are brought into is not simply a matter of having our sins forgiven, it also involves the beginning of our transformation from the inside-out, all wrapped up in our fellowship with the Trinity.  When that gets stripped back, then we end up with a thin gospel.

4. As well as preaching and offering seminars for believers, you also do a lot of training with preachers – what would you want to teach preachers in terms of countering this “thin gospel” concern?

I think one of the tensions that preachers should be feeling is the tension between the big idea and the big story.  That is, the big idea is all about understanding the text you are preaching and making sure that you communicate what the text is actually saying.  The big story is the whole Bible redemptive plan of God that every individual text is serving in some way.  The tension preachers should be feeling is how can I make the good news of Jesus clear without abandoning my commitment to showing the right meaning of this particular text that I am preaching.  Too often we start in a text, handle it fairly well, but then abandon that project to switch over to some gospel statements in order to make sure we have done that part of our job too.  Often the gospel that gets tacked on is very thin.  Sometimes we may even get creative to make a link that really isn’t there – thus undermining trust in our handling of the text for the sake of proving our gospel-integrity.

One of the things I like to teach is that preachers not only can preach both the big idea and the big story with integrity, but that they should do both well.  It’s back to that initial thought that God is a good communicator and we get to show that to people!  I want to help preachers understand and show how the text they are preaching offers genuine redemptive hope to their listeners, and to do so in a way that stirs their listeners not only to enjoy their Bibles, but to really enjoy Christ!

5. If a reader is interested in finding out more about your ministry, where should they go?

Thank you. If anyone wants to receive our family and ministry updates, then they can sign up via this link – http://eepurl.com/bpH9b   My blog may be helpful: www.BiblicalPreaching.net and my books should be easy to find on your book retail website of choice – look for Pleased to Dwell, Lost in Wonder, Foundations, as well as two devotional guides to Galatians and John’s Letters.

Pride and the Preacher

One of the greatest problems for preachers is pride.  It is an insidious and relentless foe that will look to creep in at every stage of a life spent in ministry.  What might we be proud about?

1. Knowledge.  The preacher is a public speaker who is seen as an expert.  Whether you have a PhD in theology or have simply studied a couple of resources, your listeners will tend to perceive you as an expert.  And while knowledge is not a bad thing, what does knowledge do?  It puffs up.

2. Ability.  Whether it is spiritual gifting, or natural charisma, or learned skill, preaching involves some ability in public speaking – something many people dread deeply.  Thus, there will be countless opportunities for pride as we speak to others.

3. Position.  It may be elevation on a 12-inch podium before less than a dozen listeners, or it may be a prized pulpit for years on end, but pride in position is always knocking at the door of our hearts.  Society may not revere the Reverend anymore, but many in our churches will certainly reinforce the honour of being a guest speaker, or a pastor, or a leader, etc.

4. Influence.  Whether there is position or not, preaching implies influence.  Preachers can influence lives and how they are lived.  Preachers can influence emotions and create all sorts of churning in the hearts of our listeners.  There are guilty folks convicted, there are vulnerable folks attracted, there is plenty of potential influence, both for good or for bad.  Pride seems to be a lingering smell where influence is involved.

As well as what might be a source of pride, there are also some occasions that may provoke it:

A. When preparing.  Do I need to invest the time in textual study?  Do I need to invest the time in preparation of the sermon?  Do I need to invest the time in prayer?  Maybe old notes, or old knowledge, will see me through?  Preparation should be a season of humble study and personal application, but it can easily drift into prideful self-trust instead.

B. When criticized.  How do you feel when someone pokes a hole in your message?  What if they aren’t particularly educated?  What if they are a younger believer than you?  What if their criticism is wrong?  What if they are right?

C. When praised.  This can be worse than criticism.  The best message they’ve ever heard?  Knowledge may puff up, but what then can praise do?  Just as we need to have a plan for criticism, we also need a plan for handling praise.  Both can stir profound pride problems within the preacher.

D. When ignored.  What if your listeners sit through your message and then don’t even begin to apply it?  What if their lives continue as normal?  What if your careful study and exegesis is considered merely your opinion?  What if the follow up conversation is still just about the weather or a TV show when you have poured your life out for their benefit?

What else may stir pride in the preacher?  When else might we be vulnerable to this great enemy?

Is Our Goal Transformation?

It depends on the point of contrast.  That is, if transformation is contrasted with education, then yes, it is certainly closer to our aim as preachers.  We don’t want to merely inform, we want to see transformation.

If the contrast point is conformation, then I would argue that transformation is a better goal than simply pressuring people to conform to certain behaviours.

But what if the contrast point is relationship?  I have suggested on here before that preaching is about three relationships: the first being the preacher’s relationship with God, the second being the preacher’s relationship with the listeners, and the third is the goal: the listeners’ relationship with God.  In this context I would argue that our goal should be relationship and not just transformation.

Here is the potential problem with transformation language.  If we don’t include the key concept of relationship, then we can drift towards settling for behavioural change or lifestyle change.  The reality is that being in relationship with Jesus is not just the end goal of ministry, but it is also the means by which genuine transformation occurs – or perhaps we could say the intermediate goal as well as the ultimate goal.

True transformation in gospel ministry is a matter of relationship.  But in our fallen world, we naturally believe that an individual can be transformed simply by a change in how they think or what they choose.  It is this fallenness that makes me suggest we be careful with the language of transformation.  Too many in our churches settle for life tweaks without the heart-changing transformation that comes in the context of genuine relationship with the Father through Christ and by the Spirit.

Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 2c

This week I’ve been thinking about implications of the parable of the sower for us preachers.  So far we have had this post, and then this post, but now we’ll finish the list with this post:

6. The same message can do two things.  Obviously we all want to see a good crop showing evidence of seed penetrating good soil and bringing abundant life.  But we should not be surprised when the same message brings two different responses.  Remember that the same presentation of loving grace both won the hearts of some, and hardened the heart of one in John 13.  It is like popcorn in a sizzling pot of oil: the same heat will bring one of two results – if the heat moves the heart of the kernel then the whole thing will turn inside out into beautiful tasty popcorn.  If the same heat only has effect on the outside, then that kernel will turn into a tooth-breaking ball harder than iron, harder even than lego.  Same heat, different result.  The preaching of God’s grace in Jesus will bear these same results with people.  (Click here for an earlier article on the subject of popcorn!)

7. Don’t be discouraged by lost seed.  We should be saddened whenever anyone does not respond to the word of God, but don’t let it halt your ministry.  We can dream of, and long for, and pray for a gloriously responsive crowd before each message we preach.  But when you drive home after church and it was not quite what you had prayed for … don’t be discouraged.  The kingdom spreads by the weakness of the word and that weakness will often be felt by the preacher in the weakness of their preaching.

8. Be thrilled by divine transformation.  We should also not grow familiar with the gradual miracle of life transformation.  Don’t lose sight of where someone was and what they are becoming now.  Hopefully you have some people in your church that you can continue to be amazed at as you see the transforming power of the penetrated word in their lives.  Jesus’ audience would have understood the three “failed” seed categories, but they would have been amazed at the idea of a hundredfold crop.  Let’s be the same in word ministry – amazed in the right direction!

A Spurgeon Preaching Thought: Bible

“Love your Bibles. Keep close to your Bibles.” 

Perhaps one of the greatest privileges of the preacher is also one of the greatest dangers: time with the Bible.  We have to go above and beyond a casual reading of Scripture in order to speak it out to others.  The risk is that it become a professional tool, rather than a life-giving gift from God himself.

One area where this can show is in that of our confidence in Scripture.  We need to be confident in the Bible, but where does that confidence come from?  It is easy to settle for an academic confidence, birthed out of knowing the facts that build a presentation on the authenticity and authority of the Bible.  But as John Piper has helpfully challenged us in recent years, our confidence should not be built on something that is external to Scripture itself.  Here’s Spurgeon on this matter:

We accept it as the very word of the living God, every jot and tittle of it, not so much because there are any external evidences which go to show its authenticity, — a great many of us do not know anything about those evidences, and probably never shall,– but because we discern an inward evidence in the words themselves. They have come to us with a power that no other words ever had in them, and we cannot be argued out of our conviction of their superlative excellence and divine authority. (Quoted p41 of Reeves.)

Rather than gradually learning a convincing argument for the Bible’s reliability, we need to be meeting Christ there so that our confidence is birthed by the Spirit himself at work in us.  What would Piper say, quoting Edwards, that we “ascend to the truth of the gospel in a single step, which is its divine glory…” there is more to chase there, but for now, let’s finish with a paragraph that we could well pray with Spurgeon:

O living Christ, make this a living word to me. Thy word is life, but not without the Holy Spirit. I may know this book from beginning to end, and repeat it all from Genesis to Revelation, and yet it may be a dead book, and I may be a dead soul. But, Lord, be present here; then will I look up from the book to the Lord; from the precept to him who fulfilled it; from the law to him who honoured it; from the threatening to his who has borne it for me, and from the promise to him in whom it is “Yea and amen.” (quoted on p48 in Reeves.)

[Be sure to get a copy of Mike Reeves’ excellent book on Spurgeon.]