Preaching and Perspectives

When we preach, we present a perspective.  When we preach, we provoke a perspective.  Here are five perspective prompts to help us consider the perspective we give in our preaching:

1. God spoke vs God speaks

We need both perspectives.  We need to know that God has definitively revealed and communicated his very being through the incarnation and the work of the Holy Spirit in revelation that we can access with confidence in our Bibles.  That canonized revelation is priceless and people need to be confident that we can stake our life and eternity on what it says in The Book.  At the same time we do not have a God who is far away and unengaged.  As we engage with the Bible we are engaging with God in the present.  Some preachers speak only as if God spoke long ago and far away.  Others preach as if God’s voice is heard predominantly today apart from the Bible.  Both extremes are problematic.  God spoke and through that, God still speaks.  Our mission is to offer both to our listeners.

2. My World vs The World

Ever since the Fall we have all fallen inward like human-shaped black holes. We naturally think our world is the whole world, when actually there is a whole lot going on beyond me.  As a preacher you address both.  You speak God’s Word into a personal sphere that God does, in fact, care deeply about.  God’s personal love and concern for each of us is nothing short of astonishing.  At the same time we all need to have our horizon expanded beyond the sphere of self to see there is so much more beyond my life, my issues, my concerns, my comfort. The preacher speaks a message that is intensely personal, yet also expansively global in scope.

3. Past vs Future

People live in the bubble of their present concerns.  Preachers point outside of that bubble.  We point back to the world of the Bible and God’s definitive invasion in the person of His Son.  The incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection and the ascension are all definitive points in past history.  At the same time we point through preaching into the future to the historical moment when Christ will again enter into our world.  Past events, future events, all shaping our present lives.  Preachers point backwards and forwards and listeners need us to do both.
 
4. Under The Sun vs Under The Throne

We live our lives in light of what we can see, but there is more.  The preacher points to both.  As well as offering divine commentary and insight into the visible world around us, the preacher also pulls back the veil and shows the reality above.  Stephen lived, preached and died in a terrifying whir of political tensions and angry voices, but above the sky there was a reality that he got to glimpse before his death – the Son of Man standing at the right hand of the throne on high. Daniel 7 is such an important passage – while we live in the raging foment of kingdoms rising and falling, terrifying the saints and waging war against them, all the while there is a higher throne, God is on it, and judgment is given into the hands of a human who is there at the side of the throne.  We can live our lives and die our deaths in light of that reality … but preachers need to help people to see what is unseen.

5. Me vs Him

This may be the ultimate perspective issue in preaching.  People naturally focus on themselves and yet do not see clearly.  The preacher shines a light on the true self, and yet aims to draw the gaze of listeners away from self and to Christ.

In all of these ways preachers influence perspective through preaching.  Does your preaching lean one way and not the other in any of these categories?  Is there some perspective shift needed in you so that your preaching can bring about that good in others?

Rebuilding the Bridge to Life

bridge3Most of us have seen or used the bridge to life illustration at some point.  Maybe you have even preached your way through it.  On one side there is God and on the other there is humankind, and they are separated by a chasm (sin).  Perhaps God is represented by a throne or a crown. Try as we might we cannot leap across the chasm or build a bridge of good works, so God has to do the bridge-building.  The cross is interposed and we can walk across to God.  Many people have come to faith with this illustration, so please don’t see this post as a criticism of it.

It is good to think through what is being communicated and I do think there are some concerning features of the gospel offered here.  For instance, let’s ponder the assumed motivation.  Are people really trying to leap the chasm to get to God?  Are people longing for closeness with the throne/crown authority figure presented in this illustration?  I don’t remember talking to someone who was desperate to get to God and disappointed that they could not.  Furthermore, the relationship offered seems ambiguous – what sort of connection will we have with this throne/crown if we do choose to walk his way?

I’d like to offer another version.  Why? Because it is good to rethink the gospel presentations we use. Even if we end up rejecting my modification, the exercise will surely be helpful in thinking through how we present the gospel.

Instead of having the human figure facing towards God and apparently motivated to move towards God throughout the illustration, let’s draw him or her facing away from God.  We were created for relationship with God but we have turned away.  Introduce the chasm (sin is our rebellion against both God and the love he has for us).  Now the illustration is ready to fill in.

A. On the God side, why don’t we represent God in a more Trinitarian way?  After all, the authority imagery is obviously incomplete, so let’s play with an alternative.  How about a house?  Verbally explain the context of the relationship of the Father and the Son by the Spirit – three persons united in love.  This relationship was the home, the family, the belonging that we were made for.  If it is explained well then the authority of God as creator and ruler can still be established fairly easily.  However this is not a God of conflicting realities. He is not “loving, but also just.”  Because of the perfect love within the Trinity, therefore God is just, etc.

B. In the chasm let’s draw a manger.  Why a manger?  Because God’s goal for us is not merely to change our location from the realm of sin to the realm of heaven.  God’s goal is union with us, which is why God the Son became one of us – the incarnation matters to the gospel!  He had to become one of us so that he could be one with us in marriage, which leads us to …

C. Behind the turned away person let’s draw the cross.  Why here? Because ultimately that is how far Jesus travelled for us.  It was the price that had to be paid, it was the revelation of what God is like that had to be made, and it was the proposal to win our hearts to entrust ourselves to God.  God’s proposal was not in nervousness on one-knee, but in agony with outstretched arms.

Why do I like this adaptation of the classic illustration?

  1. Because it speaks of the three great unions of Christianity – the union of God with God (Trinity), the union of God and man in Christ (incarnation), and the union of Christ with humanity (union with Christ).
  2. Because God is presented more relationally.
  3. Because mankind is not presented as motivated to seek and reach God.
  4. Because God, in Christ, came all the way to us.  (You could also explain that the Spirit points our hearts to the cross and invites us to be united to Christ.)
  5. Because it presents a loving God doing everything for a rebellious and dead-to-God creature like me.
  6. Because the gospel is about trusting in that love, rather than about making a personal commitment to travel to God.
  7. Because in the gospel we are brought back home by a loving spouse – it is not our solo trek on a God-made bridge to a nice place, in a very real sense he carries his bride over the threshold!

My goal is not to convince you of this illustration.  Perhaps you have another classic gospel explanation you have used – why not think through its weaknesses and modify it to better offer the richness of the good news?  (For example, the judge doesn’t simply pay our fine, he also approaches the stand and proposes…)

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This post was originally published on www.cordeo.org.uk

Dig Deeper

digdeeper2Perhaps the hardest thing to know is what you don’t know. One of the huge benefits of formal education is that it tends to open your eyes to what you don’t know. However, most of the time most of us remain blissfully unaware of riches with which we have not yet engaged. This post may be attempting the impossible, but I want to suggest some areas for further study that might be just what your ministry needs to develop to another level. I will not spell out everything, but rather offer some signposts that may nudge you in a healthy direction. Obviously, you may already know more than me about some of these, but that is beside the point. I believe these are fruitful avenues for prayerful study for any of us:

  1. The Fall.  I believe the Fall in Genesis 3 had a far more profound effect on us than we have ever realized. Too many Christians think of sin as being a list of sins. But what about the “non-sin” sins such as self-righteousness and autonomy? Too many Christians think of sin as something they did before salvation with the odd slip up now and again since. But the gravitational pull of fallenness is exerting a huge effect on us all the time.  I believe we would benefit as preachers to prayerfully pursue a full biblical answer to the question, “what is sin?”
  2. “In Christ.”  Far too many Christians, and dare I say it, preachers, see salvation as being essentially only about guilt and forgiveness.  The good news that is offered in too many pulpits is entirely too thin in comparison with the richness of what is actually offered in the New Testament – that is, in the New Covenant.  The context in which our sins are forgiven, and our shame is removed, and our deadness is transformed, and our enmity is reconciled, and so on, is the context of our union with Christ. Lloyd-Jones referred to this as the “ultimate doctrine” and I suspect none of us have been able to exhaust the richness of what it means to be “in Christ” – many perhaps have barely begun!
  3. The Spirit.  Many churches fall into one extreme or another on the Holy Spirit. For some, He is an end in himself, a source of power and a sensational goal to pursue.  For others, He is a reality that deserves a tip of the hat and then is generally ignored (all the while affirming his existence and importance).  Have we really grasped why and how the Spirit is so Christ-focused?  Have we really grasped why and how the Spirit is so concerned with communication and relationship?  Have we wrestled with the Spirit’s role in the Trinity?  Is he just another member of a divine committee of three, or is he uniquely involved in the union of the Father and Son? And what is that to us?

And since my self-imposed word count is more than used up, here is just one more bonus:

Covenant.  What kind of covenants does the Bible describe God to establish with us?  Are they the same as contracts, really?

Feel free to let any of these stir a chase in the Bible and in your study. I suspect any chasing you might do on these subjects will not be wasted, but will only enrich and deepen your preaching ministry!

Building Preacher-Listener Connection – Part 5

connections2So we have thought about the personal life of the preacher, the pastoral ministry of the preacher, the preacher’s content and the preacher’s delivery. There is another important side to this subject. The listener. Are they responsive to both the message and the messenger? What can you do about it? Actually, you can implement everything we have suggested in the last four posts and still find some people to be unresponsive.

18.    Some sheep are dead. I don’t mean to be unhelpfully blunt, but there are people in our churches who are not spiritually alive. They do not have the Spirit. It is not our place to judge whether someone is genuinely saved or not, but when we have concerns about the lack of the fruit of the Spirit, then we should be both evangelistic in our content and prayerful in our approach. We should not expect those who are still spiritually dead to respond and function like believers.  And yet we so easily do.

19.    Some sheep may determine not to connect with you.  Every human is complex,  believers included. A thousand factors are at play in any life at any time. Just as you find yourself drawn to or negative toward others, so others will differ in their response to you. You might do everything you can to connect with your listeners, but there may well be some that simply refuse to connect. Perhaps they have personal issues they are working through and you are an easy target.  Perhaps you have unintentionally touched a nerve with something you have said or done that has grown into a big thing in their minds. Perhaps an unhelpful “mutual friend” has a deliberate or unintended ministry of spreading negativity and poisoning relationships. It takes far less effort to do damage to relationships than to build them up and perhaps others have been at work to undermine your connection with this particular individual.

Even if others in the church have not been at work, the enemy has. He loves nothing more than to turn believers against each other.  And there are some people that are personally wounded or carrying enough baggage to be an easy target for his machinations.

How can this reality not cripple your ministry? That could be a series in its own right, but Romans 12:18 has to be in the mix – inasmuch as it depends on you, live at peace with everybody. Sometimes peace is not possible and the issue lies beyond your reach. Pray for God to show you what is going on in you, and pray for God to change hearts as necessary – both yours and theirs.  And press on in your ministry.

20.    Only one person can change hearts. Whether we are talking about unsaved individuals who are not yet transformed, or whether we are talking about believers functioning in a fleshly and immature way – the only person who can change hearts is God.  Therefore our ministry can never be just Word.  We must be people of the Word and prayer.  If you are like me this might be a helpful reminder. It is so easy to forget to pray for specific people while focusing all my attention on preaching what they need to hear.  For effective preacher-listener connection there are many factors as we have seen. None is more important than prayer.

That is the end of the series, but we have really just scratched the surface. What would you add? What has helped you connect?

Building Preacher-Listener Connection – Part 3

connections2We have thought about the personal life of the preacher and the pastoral ministry of the preacher. Let’s think about the actual content of the message.  Is it designed to connect?

9.    Really get to know the Bible and your text better. Preaching is not like a relaxed conversation between friends. It is a presentation. One person is presenting both truth and application to others. In every situation where one person is expected to speak with authority, they need to convey credibility. It is true in a sales transaction, in a doctor explaining a treatment plan to a patient, in an educational setting, and it is no less true in preaching. Not only do you need to know what you are talking about, but your listeners need to be able to sense that you know what you are talking about. As Bert Decker’s book title put it, you need to be believed to be heard. Do not try to shortcut to this by showing off knowledge. You need to carry knowledge with humility. The only way to achieve this is to genuinely know the Bible and your text as well as possible.

10.    Internalize your message. If you met someone for the first time and were making conversation, you would feel nervous if they had to check their notes for what their job was, or where they met their spouse. It is hard to trust truth that is not fully owned. So in preaching you need to get the content of your message into you before it can convincingly come out. We will come back to this one tomorrow.

11.    Reflect on personal response and application before preaching. It is not enough to know the content of your message. That content needs to have been filtered through your own life in some way so that you speak not only the truth, but you also speak from the impact of that truth.  This means we would do well to …

12.    Extend lead time before preaching a message. It is difficult if you are preaching at least once per week to have anything more than five days of lead time before preaching a message. Some of us end up with just a couple of days to prepare messages, which is far from ideal. The ideal plan would be to extend the lead time by bringing preliminary study forward before your previous message. If you cannot do a good chunk of initial study well ahead of time, then at least try to give some thought and prayer to forthcoming messages in advance so they can percolate in the background. Unless the speaker has fallen ill and you are stepping in at the last minute, it is not good to start from scratch the day before you preach.

13.    Connection between humans is a heart to heart phenomena. It is easy to present information to inform. It can also be easy to pressure your listeners to perform. But good preaching will always present Christ in such a way that listeners might be drawn to him, stirred by him, motivated to love and trust him. Preaching to the heart is primarily about content, not manner. Evaluate whether your content is offering a God that listeners may find delightful, and whether it is proclaiming a present tense invitation to that God rather than merely giving a historical lecture.

We need listeners to connect with the message, not just the messenger. That is why the content is important. Tomorrow we will think about the delivery.

Building Preacher-Listener Connection – Part 2

connections2What can you do to build the connection with listeners? Let’s think about the wider pastoral ministry of the preacher.

8.    Pray for the listeners.  Never forget Acts 6:4. It was when the apostles determined not to be distracted by the business of running the church organization so that they could focus on two things: the word of God and prayer. Many of us today short change both. We can easily think that instant communication means we are the first generation to face the temptation to short change our two primary responsibilities. And how easy it is to focus only on one of them – typically that is not prayer. Our prayer matters. The enemy knows that. We need to believe it. Our churches need to want it (not just tolerate it as they wait patiently for us to be available and leading meetings, but they need to actually want it). It is not easy to promote the value of your own prayer life since there is a need for some secrecy, but I suspect if you just go for it, people will somehow sense it.

9.    Connect with the listeners. I don’t have the stats to prove this, but my sense is that the slight majority of preachers are introverts. Most would expect the opposite to be true, but introverts are able to gain energy in the long hours of solitary preparation, and they are typically more comfortable in a controlled environment (i.e. preaching) than an uncontrolled one (i.e. a party). Anyway, all that to say that you need to connect with your listeners. Model the increasingly rare skill of generating conversation by asking questions, be the leader in not turning every conversation back to yourself, and pray for ways to connect with people. You will be tempted to pull back, especially once people have bruised you a few times. It is hard, but it is important, connect anyway.

10.    Lovingly study the lives of the listeners. As a preacher you have some level of skill in studying the Bible and understanding the culture. Be sure to put in some effort to study your congregation too. If you are a visiting preacher then you have only very limited opportunities to learn about the people who will be listening. But if it is your own church, then by all means make it a goal to understand their lives, their struggles, their fears, their work situations, their family situations, etc. People will feel loved when they feel known – as long as you actually love them.

So much more could be said about the pastoral ministry of the preacher.  What would you add? Tomorrow we will focus on another factor in building preacher-listener connection.

Building Preacher-Listener Connection – Part 1

connections2In this post let’s think a bit about the personal life of the preacher. People can usually sense if you are not being genuine. So here are some suggestions to consider:

1.    Be genuine.  Maybe we are starting with an obvious one, but it is impossible to be genuine without actually being genuine. You can try to fake it, but why do that? The Gospel screams out that God’s grace is for you and so why choose to live inauthentically? And yet every preacher knows there is a temptation to hide yourself when preaching. You can do this by trying to be impressive. You can do this by trying to make your humility or vulnerability impressive. But if this is not genuine then it will show somewhere. People will sense it when they talk to you and find you are only vulnerable on your own terms. Or they will sense it when they find you to be less approachable, humble, personable, etc., in person than you seem to be when preaching. The best solution is not to try harder to pretend, but to instead be genuine. I will offer more suggestions, but this one surely should stir us to pray and lay ourselves out before our good God who sees everything and loves us still!

2.    Confess your sin. I could offer a list of possible sins that are choking some life out of you, such as unkindness to your spouse, harshness with your children, self-absorption, bitterness toward an individual, self-indulgence, private addiction to drink, to a food, to alcohol, or to porn (you may have your own “sanctified” version of porn too – a TV show, facebook surfing, or whatever). I could give a list, but actually, when you read the words “confess your sin” you may have had something immediately come to mind. Start there. Talk to God about it. If it is clinging on, talk to someone else about it too. When God’s grace cleanses another corner of our inner life our listeners will benefit, even if they are not sure what has changed.

3.    Develop honest relationships. Christian ministry presses us into isolation. Do not let that happen. You need people that are concerned for you heart. You need close friends who will tell you when you are out of line. You need other ministry people who will understand when you just need to vent. You cannot go it alone!

4.    Fan the flames of your love for God and His Word. Listeners sense when something is wrong, but they also will be drawn to someone who loves God. Fan the flames of your love for God and your delight in His Word. You will be infectious if you have a strong case of the disease! The blessed preacher delights in the law of the LORD and on his law he meditates day and night. Soak your heart in God’s Word so that God’s heart oozes out of your life.

5.    Be growing. It is so easy to stagnate. We can stagnate right after Bible school, or in our middle years, or as we grow older. Be growing. Read books. Read books in different areas. Take a class. Ask someone to teach you a new skill. Stretch yourself. The day you stop learning is the day you stop effectively teaching.

In part 2 we will think about the pastoral ministry of the preacher as we ponder how to promote preacher-listener connection.

The 5 Dynamics of Preacher-Listener Connection

connections2Preaching is a complex art. It requires the weaving together of exegetical skill, theological awareness, congregational insight, clarity of thought, structuring of material for the ear, etc. And yet even though the list of necessary skills  can seem endless, preaching takes more than technical skill. There is also the need for listeners to feel connection, to both feel and sense empathy. What is it that forges that connection between preacher and listener?

Over the next few posts I would like to offer small suggestions to generate big gains in this preacher-listener connection.

That there needs to be such a connection is lost on some who seem to assume their role is merely to inform, or to proclaim, or to pressure, or even to fill the time allocated for the preaching of a sermon. But I suspect there are many preachers who innately know that there should be something of a connection, but are not sure how to strengthen it.

So what dynamics work together for preacher-listener connection?

Here are the five dynamics that we will explore in the next few days :

1. There is the personal life of the preacher – this means looking at issues of authenticity and spiritual integrity.

2. There is the pastoral ministry of the preacher – is there an investment of loving prayer behind the scenes for those who will be listening, and is there interpersonal connection outside of the pulpit?
 
3. There is the content of the message – is it designed to engage the listener at the heart level? Is it marked by a contemporary focus and sense of purpose?
 
4. There is the presentational dynamic of sermon delivery – is the preacher communicating in the most effective way possible to achieve preacher-listener connection?

5. And there is the heart of the listener – is there a responsiveness to both the message and to the messenger?

Stay tuned for a series of suggestions to help build your preacher-listener connection. It is my hope that implementing some of these suggestions, combined with prayer, will lead you to a greater level of connection with your listeners in the coming weeks.

Share Scars Not Wounds

scar2Knowing how much to share of ourselves is a challenge for preachers.  Some tend toward over-sharing, others veer the opposite way.  When we share nothing we can give the impression that our lives are perfect, or that we don’t care about listeners because we treat them as recipients of our education efforts rather than the richer fullness of our preaching.

Preaching is so much more than education.  It is an incarnational ministry that involves not only the words we communicate but the fullness of our communication.  That is, we give of ourselves when we preach.  We should do so because we are speaking not only as information transmitters but as ambassadors of Christ.  How would he preach?  At arm’s length?  Dispassionately?  Surely not.

So when we speak for Him and of Him, we need to represent Him.  Part of that is to be real and give of ourselves so that when we have served in preaching we have expended more than the energy needed to simply stand and speak the words.

But when we decide to share from our own lives, how can we know what to share?  Here is one way to evaluate whether something is appropriate or not (the idea was shared by a friend, but it may well come from a book that I do not know)…

Is it a scar or a wound?

A scar is evidence not only of failure but also of healing.  Scars speak of the difficulty of life, but also of hope when life hurts.  Maybe the scars are from personal failure, or from personal suffering, or from opposition we have faced.  Every scar can be a source of hope and help to others as we speak with the credibility of the hope that they can find in Christ in the midst of their current challenges.

However, a wound is different.  A wound can be very small but will result in a strong reaction if it is poked.  Maybe someone is opposing you at the moment.  Maybe you are struggling in the aftermath of personal sin or failure.  Maybe you are facing a physical trial right now.  It may be possible to share from this as you preach, but be very careful that what is shared is not excessive or inappropriate.  If someone is making your life difficult at this time you may describe the situation unhelpfully or say something that you would better keep to yourself.  If you are in process in regards to some failure then you may not yet have the credibility to speak of hope for others in that struggle.

This is not a hard and fast rule.  Rather it is a helpful guideline.  What clarifications would you add?  Scars can be powerful preaching aids, but open wounds rarely are.

Subtlety – A Key in First-Person Preaching?

stones2Recently I enjoyed a first-person sermon from a student in class.  He preached as an observer of Jesus’ healing the paralytic in Mark 2.  What he did well made me think about effective first-person preaching.  Specifically, he managed to make the first person details subtle.

Let’s see this on a scale:

Zero “Experienced” Detail – This is where the preacher tells the story from an eyewitness perspective, but essentially it is just a grammatical change.  Instead of third person, now it is told in first person.  Imagine preparing a message normally, then switching to first person at the last minute.  Your mind can make the grammatical shift, but there is no added detail.  There is essentially nothing that makes this sermon have to be first person.  It may add some interest, but the listeners may end up wondering why you did it that way.

Excessive “Experienced” Detail – This is where the preacher tells the story from an eyewitness perspective, but ends up overdoing the added detail.  Suddenly we get quotes from all sorts of added characters, extra biblical elements abound, and the listeners are led merrily further and further away from the main point of the text into a fanciful demonstration of historical imagination.  This will be intriguing, but the listeners will hopefully end up wondering why you felt the Bible had nothing to say.

Subtle “Experienced” Detail – This is where the preacher tells the story from an eyewitness perspective, but carefully selects only limited experienced detail.  In the case of the student I heard, he made an early and late reference to his annoyance at the mud falling on his cloak as the roof was dismantled.  That was enough.  He didn’t need to pile up layer upon layer of complex imaginations.  This made the sermon engaging, and the listeners ended up gripped by the passage that was being preached.

I would suggest that we should aim for subtle rather than zero or excessive experienced detail in a first-person sermon.  This is the content equivalent to a similar dynamic in respect to “costume.”  If you are telling David’s story with Goliath, much better to have a stone in your hand than to be wearing authentic shepherding garb from 1000BC.  If you are telling the Christmas story as a shepherd, much better to just have a crook than to wear full curtains and false beard.

First-person or in character preaching takes a lot of extra effort.  It involves studying a passage fully, but then probing further into geographical and cultural background issues to make sure that you can speak of the biblical text with eyewitness accuracy.  Put that extra effort into your study for the message.  Don’t put that extra effort into fanciful and unrestrained imagination (or an all-out quest for total costume!)