The Local Church and the Missionary

The relationship between the local church in the West and the missionary sent to a far-off land has always been unique.  In one respect, the roles in this relationship may soon be reversed.

In some cases, the local church has revered missionaries and almost idolized them.  When visiting their home country, they are honoured as they regale the congregation with tales of life in exotic far flung lands. 

In other cases, the local church has felt awkward around missionaries and almost ignored them.  When they visit they have a token opportunity to “show their slides” and they sometimes feel like fish out of water – trying to communicate in a culture that is no longer their own.

Cultural Awkwardness

Whether the missionaries are somewhat celebrated or generally forgotten, they will speak to one another of the cultural awkwardness they feel when they return to their sending country.  They arrive and hear passing questions like, “is it nice to be home?”  But often missionaries feel far from home and uncertain of how to fit into the culture that has moved on from the one they left years ago.

In contrast, the local church in the West has typically felt very much at home.  It has always been the missionary’s context that has seemed strange and hard to comprehend.  The church in the West might wonder about the missionary: How do you live in a culture dominated by that strange and zealous religion?  How do you communicate to people who see the world completely differently?  How can the church exist and grow in a culture that considers Christians to be a danger and a threat to society? 

Times are Changing!

In recent years, western cultures have been experiencing significant changes.  The shift feels very rapid.  Years of preparatory work in education, the media, and entertainment culture are now bearing fruit as a much more activist-driven cultural upheaval is quickly turning everything upside-down (or right-side up, depending on your perspective!).  This is no superficial shift.  The very foundations of Western society are being replaced so that we now face a totally different worldview and a whole new morality.  Our culture is radically different than it was even at the turn of the century.  Truths everybody knew until a few minutes ago are now dogmatically dismissed and everyone is increasingly required to agree with the new truths. No debate is permitted.

Times have changed and now the home church does not feel like it is at home.  Increasingly, it feels like our culture is strange and hard to comprehend.  In the next few years we will be asking ourselves, how are we supposed to live in a culture dominated by another ideology that feels almost religious and fundamentalist in its zeal?  How can we communicate with people who are conditioned by their education and media to see the world very differently than we do?  How can our church exist and grow in a culture that is increasingly antagonistic to its very existence and considers the church to be dangerous and a threat to the safety and unity of society?

Maybe if we are not already asking ourselves these questions, we will be asking them soon.  Perhaps we should think about asking our missionaries how they would answer them.  Their experience of life and ministry in some foreign countries may become more relevant to life in “the West” than it would have been forty, or even ten, years ago. 

In the past, we may have asked the missionary about the dominant religion in their mission field because we saw families with that same religion moving in locally.  This is still true.  But maybe there is much more we can learn from them now that our culture is moving so far away from its Judeo-Christian roots and worldview.  Our culture will increasingly feel like the ideologically dominated cultures we used to think of as foreign mission fields.  Maybe we should be asking the missionaries how we can effectively reach people here.

(Photo by Roman Denisenko on Unsplash)

Some Sermons Need More Preparation Time

Years ago I heard a preacher say that “a sermon prepared in the mind of the preacher only reaches the mind of the listeners. But a sermon prepared in the mind, and in the heart and life of the preacher reaches the heart and life of the listener too.”

This means that some sermons should probably wait. You may have prepared meticulously through the steps – you understand the text, you have accurately identified the main idea, your message helpfully presents the passage relevantly so that the main idea can be delivered to your listeners – in traditional terms, it is a well-prepared sermon that is ready to launch. But maybe it needs to wait.

Why might a sermon need to wait? The point I am making is fairly obvious. It is not enough to become informed in preparation for preaching. In some way that truth needs to soak into our lives and bring about some level of transformation. Perhaps you are working on a sermon on prayer, or on financial giving. The problem is, although you understand the biblical teaching on the subject, you are honestly not much of a pray-er or giver. Postpone the sermon for a year, and with God’s help, let those truths soak into your heart and change your life. Then preach it. Don’t preach yourself (always a temptation after a season of growth), but preach the sermon with genuine conviction.

Practical implications of this truth – I am sure most people would agree with the previous paragraph, in principle. Theoretically that makes sense. But practically? What about the preaching calendar? How can I postpone a sermon mid-series? How can I prepare another sermon at potentially short notice? The lack of an obvious solution could perhaps be a spur to several partial solutions. Perhaps we need to pray through series of sermons more before we launch into them. Once in a series it is possible to give less energy to a section in order to come back to it more effectively later. Certainly we shouldn’t be starting our sermon planning on Saturday evening – that leaves no wiggle room for anything. Somehow we need to break patterns of urgency that leave us constantly playing catch-up and lacking in the buffer capacity to look ahead, to pray, to plan, to ponder.

Bottom line . . . it is easy when preaching regularly to lose sight of a fundamental reality of ministry. Busy ministry schedules can leave us scraping along from one deadline to the next. At its core, ministry involves the privilege of being first in line to be taught, rebuked, corrected and trained by the word of God. If that has gotten lost in the shuffle, it is time to confront your current version of the shuffle.

The “Sweetest Agony” of Ministry

Somebody has said that preaching is the sweetest agony.  It is sweet when lives are changed.  And it is agony the rest of the time! 

That is probably unfair, but whatever ministry we are involved in, it is good to pause and reflect on the sweeter parts of it.  After all, there is plenty to find discouraging!

There is nothing as rewarding as seeing lives changed.  Sometimes you preach a message or have a conversation and a life is changed completely.  More often, change occurs over a longer time frame.  It can be hard to measure when change occurs.  But occasionally, people may write a note that specifically lists the impact of your ministry. 

Since there is always a long list of reasons to become discouraged in ministry, it is a good idea to keep a log of some of these encouragements.  Keep a collection of those notes and let them sit there, ready for a day when you really need to be reminded of the sweeter aspects of ministry.  Keep an email folder of encouragements that you can go back to when the inbox is overwhelming and discouraging.

With all that is going on, and all the reasons for discouragement, why not take a moment to look back and list some of the lives that you have seen changed by the grace of God?  If you have some encouraging notes already collected, why not read a few and give God thanks for how he has worked in the lives of those you serve?

There is nothing as rewarding as seeing lives changed, but there is one other person to remember.  If the sweetness of ministry is changed lives, then don’t forget the one life that hears every sermon you preach, every conversation you participate in, etc.  By this, I mean you. 

Every time you prepare a sermon, you are involved.  Every time you plan a workshop, prepare a talk, anticipate a conversation, or schedule a one-on-one meeting, you are part of it.  This means that you get to go through the times of prayer, the low points, the spiritual highs, the wrestling with the biblical text, the struggle to figure out how to lead a session, the grappling with formulating your main idea, the prayerful decisions to omit material, and the practice runs of a sermon or speech with only you and the Lord listening.  You are there.

Much of ministry can feel like the agony of labour, striving to work through all that it takes to eventually bring to fruition something helpful for others.  It can seem like thankless toil.  People don’t understand the time you invest, nor the stress you often carry.  But let’s remember the good times too.  The times of sweet fellowship with the Lord.  Those moments where your desperate prayers give way to clarity on a way forward.  The times when study leads to deeper understanding of a text and greater worship in your heart.  These are times of blessing and encouragement in ministry.  Sweet times. 

Let’s find ways to mark these moments.  Maybe write a thank-you note to God and put it in your files.  Maybe a journal entry, highlighted to help you find it again.  Perhaps you have a collection of visual “memorial stones” on a shelf – markers of moments to help your memory.  You need some way to remind yourself of the sweetness of ministry: how good it has been, how good it can be, and how good it will be again.

Most ministries that are worth doing entail a whole lot of agony.  But there is a sweetness in serving God and his mission in this world.  There is a sweetness in the blessing that we receive as well as the blessing we offer to others.  And when ministry feels overwhelming and difficult, we need a way to remind ourselves of the sweeter parts of ministry, of the lives changed and blessed, including ours.

This year has started with all sorts of complexities and does not promise to be easy for any of us.  But God has promised to be with us through it all.  Let’s find ways to not let ministry drain play a decisive role in our life stories.  Yes, there will be agony in what we do, but let’s be sure we don’t miss the sweet moments too!

A Low Fence: Revisited

One of my early posts on this site was called “A Low Fence.” I have recalled that post many times, and since yesterday’s post related to the idea, I thought I’d give it a revamp:

When you have a single text for a sermon, you also need a fence.  The fence is there to keep you from wandering too far away from your focus.  

1. Erect a fence for the passage – If you are preaching John 3, put your fence around John (or maybe the section of John 1-4). If you are preaching Colossians 1, put a perimeter around Colossians. That fence means you try to keep your study, and your presentation, within John, or Colossians.

2. Study inside the fence – As you try to make sense of details within your passage, try not to spend all your time visiting other writers and other eras of biblical history. By staying within the writing of that author, or if possible, within this writing of that author, you will put your energy into the best evidence to find authorial intent within your passage. The fence marks off the best context for your study. Staying there will help you to spot the flow of thought within the passage, as well as the way the author is using a word or concept.

3. Preach inside the fence – As we thought about in the last post, it is often tempting to present a sermon in our own preferred terms (or preferred texts, cross-references, etc.) A couple of things can be said of cross-references. (1) Listeners don’t love a biblical “sword drill” and tend to switch off when a message becomes too textually complicated, and yet (2) Listeners seem to praise the preacher for being “deep” or some such non-compliment often misunderstood as endorsement. But it isn’t just about jumping around the canon. How easily we will preach a Resurrection passage in a Gospel using Paul’s terminology from 1 Corinthians 15. Or how easily our standard Christian terms get painted on every text so that the distinctive vocabulary of Luke or John or Hebrews or Peter is lost.

4. It only needs to be a low fence – I am not suggesting that you study, or preach, a biblical book in isolation from other inspired texts.  I am suggesting that you honour the author of the book both in your study and in your preaching.  With a low fence you can step back into the Old Testament to look at a passage that informs your preaching passage, or you can step over to other writings by the same author for a more complete word study.  With a low fence you can choose to step beyond the book for a quick presentation of how this apparently unusual idea is actually very biblical.  With a low fence you can choose to step forward to see the culmination of momentum found in your text.

These are the three reasons I tend to step over the fence –

A. For the informing texts that help me understand my preaching text,

B. For the supporting texts that help others accept my preaching text, or

C. For a culminating passage that helps to conclude a trajectory in my preaching text. 

Otherwise, I’d say it is generally best to stay where you are.  I certainly don’t think we should spend much time going elsewhere just because other passages have similar wording, nor to offer “illustration” for the truth of our passage, and definitely not to fill time.  Dig in the text you have, honour the author by doing so, and give your listeners the best you can from this passage.  Next week it will be a different one.

(To see the original post with worked example from Hebrews 13:20-21 – click here.)

7 Ways to Not Really Preach a Passage

Here are seven ways to not really preach the text you claim to be preaching. You may notice that I will say nothing about heresy. I will assume that what is said in each type of sermon is biblically and theologically true. Nevertheless, in each case the preacher is not really preaching the text they claim to be preaching. After the list, I will suggest three reasons why this is a problem.

1. Springboard Preaching – This is where you read the text at the beginning and then leave it behind. You may go to some wonderful places in the thoughts that follow, but the actual text is long forgotten.

2. Trigger Word Preaching – This is where you allow words in your text to sequentially trigger you to preach other things. This is like a sequence of mini-springboards. Again, you may go to good places in what you say, but you aren’t saying what this passage says.

3. Cross-Reference Preaching – This is a variation where keywords in the preaching text trigger travel via the concordance to other, probably preferred preaching passages. I presume they are great passages, but this one is getting short shrift.

4. Preferred Text Preaching – This is similar to the previous one, but all the triggers take you to the same place. I once took a course in Pastoral Epistles, but the teacher seemed determined to spend as much time in Romans as possible. Wasted opportunity.

5. Meaning-Lite or Intention-Lite Preaching – This is harder to spot. It appears to be preaching in the preaching text, but the preacher has not wrestled with the text in context, or with the original intention of the author, so the text has become a superficial and context-less set of abstract thoughts for the preacher to play with. The preacher may say good things, but is the preacher saying what the author intended to communicate?

6. Theological Overlay Preaching – This is a variation on number 5, but it is harder to critique. After all, the preacher might be presenting an amazing theological lecture, but the issue is that if it isn’t the intention of the passage, then it is an overlay being imposed rather than having the credibility of coming out of the text.

7. Anecdotally Dominated Preaching – This is where there is a tip of the hat to the text, but the real energy is invested in anecdotes and illustrations. These don’t serve the preaching of the passage, they swamp it. Now, they might be theologically brilliant quotes, stories and examples, but what about the passage?

That is a quick menu of seven ways to not really preach the text you purport to proclaim. But if these sermons are biblically and theologically accurate, is it a problem? Here are three reasons why it is a problem:

A. Your preaching text is good, why miss it? The alternative may be attractive, it may be more preachable, and it may even be what they need. If it is, preach that text. But why pretend to preach this passage and then not really preach it? In your preaching calendar it will say that you preached it, so it won’t get another opportunity for several years. Why not let them have this particular passage’s truth – it is unique, it is God-breathed, and it is profitable.

B. You are shrinking the canon, why do that? When your preaching text does not control your content, then you will naturally move to easier texts, to pet ideas, to personal soapboxes. Even if these are all true, they are also too few. God gave us a whole Bible of self-revelation. When we reduce that to the extent of our preferences, that will always make for a much smaller canon. What you want to say will never be as rich, diverse, interesting and helpful as what God has said and wants to say through the preaching of the Bible.

C. You are undermining God’s credibility as a communicator, why teach that? What example are you giving your listeners, especially the more discerning ones? When they look at a text and sense that what you have said isn’t really what that text is saying . . . but you imply that it is . . . what do they learn? The Bible is not good communication? This preacher does not believe God to be a good communicator? I should let the text trigger disconnected thoughts when I read it too?

Please add more ways this happens and more reasons it is a problem in the comments. And let’s resolve, prayerfully and passionately, to always seek to really preach the passage we claim to be preaching!

________________________________________________

8 Variations of Selfish Preaching

We all minister with mixed motives.  It is important to be aware of that, and to prayerfully stay before the only One who can really know what is going on inside of us.  Sometimes it can be helpful to delineate some of the unhelpful or sinful motivations that can sabotage a ministry.  It is not possible to avoid every negative motive all the time, but we must beware lest any of these start to fester within and then characterise our ministry.

1. Preaching to impress.  The inner child may not be as gone as we think, and it can so easily creep out and we then start to show off.

Selfish

2. Preaching to be liked.  The insecure self can manifest in public ministry and we can start to crave affirmation.

3. Preaching to be needed.  The shepherds of a flock do make a difference to the lives of the sheep, but something is off if the need to be needed starts to grow.  You are replaceable.

4. Preaching to validate our worth.  The unsettled soul can seek validation for our education, our calling, our sense of identity, etc., through the medium of ministry.  If your worth is not firmly rooted in Christ (as just you, minus all trappings of ministry position), then you have a problem and you may well become a problem.

5. Preaching to control behaviour.  This may be more common than we think.  Instead of patient ministry trusting God’s Word and God’s Spirit, we can shortcut the process and start to pressure conformity in our listeners.  Quite simply, our life is easier if they will just behave like Christians.

6. Preaching to build a mini-kingdom.  Again, too common to count, and probably involves a combination of the above issues … but it happens when we preach in order to have a little empire where our influence, our voice, our significance, and our ego get propped up.

7. Preaching to be paid.  It is absolutely appropriate that churches recompense preachers and do so properly.  It is shocking the way some churches do not care for their preachers.  However, if I am preaching in order to get the paycheck, then my ministry motivation is broken.

8. Preaching because it is all I can do.  The fires within will not always burn bright in perpetual personal revival.  At the same time, if the fire has really gone out, please don’t just preach because you have no option.  You do.  Trust God, ask others for help, and choose not to preach until you can stand with a fire for Him again.  By faith hold back from doing damage and trust God to carry you through it.

There are plenty of other mis-motives that could be listed.  What have you seen in others (no names please), or in yourself?

8 Benefits of Effective Transitions

It is easy to put a lot of energy into explaining the passage, applying the message, adding interesting illustrations, and so on. But what about the transitions? These little moments can be treated as automatic, but by neglecting them we miss a vital part of sermonic effectiveness.

What potential benefits do the transitions have as tools in our preaching arsenal?

  1. Clarity of Sermon Structure – You may have a very clear, balanced and organised outline, but without good transitions, your listeners won’t know! The transition is the cleared air that allows for the structure of the message to be clear. And when the structure is clear, the listeners get all the benefit of organised thought.
  2. At Pace: Breathing Space – After a few minutes of your preaching point, especially if it has been growing in intensity or pace, the transition allows everyone to take a breath. Some preachers may be ponderous, but others like to charge ahead at full steam. Listeners may appreciate energy and enthusiasm, but they also love to take a breath.
  3. Slower? Evidence of Progress – If your style is more ponderous, don’t underestimate the value of giving listeners a sense of progress. Maybe you tell them at the start that you have three points . . . the transition and its focus on moving to the next point may be exactly what some listeners need to hang in there!
  4. Re-entry Points for Listeners – Whatever your pace, listeners do get lost during the progression of a sermon. Someone drops something, a phone buzzes, a thought occurs, a helper from the childcare taps a shoulder, a siren passes . . . and people lose track of the message. The transition is a great moment to mention the main idea, review progress, and invite listeners back into the message.
  5. Restatement of Main Idea – Any opportunity to reinforce the main idea is worth considering. A handful of transitions in a message are as good a set of opportunities as you could ask for!
  6. Change of Pace – Sometimes you have a point that takes a fair amount of background or explanation, but the message needs to speed up. The transition allows for a deliberate change of pace and injection of momentum.
  7. Review of Message – As a message progresses the transitions allow you to review what has been said so far. This can really help the listeners to be ready for the later points and conclusion of the message.
  8. The Next Point – Maybe this is the most obvious benefit of all, but I have saved it for last. A transition allows you to take your listeners from your previous point into your next. It is like having a passenger behind you on a motorcycle. Take the turn too quickly and you lose them. Slow down, transition well, and they come right along with you into the next point!

Transitions are underrated. Focus on them and your preaching will improve!

Coming Soon: The Little Him Book

It is now just four weeks until The Little Him Book releases in the UK (early 2021 in the USA – click here to pre-order the book in the UK). My hope is that this little book that makes much of Him will be a helpful tool for many. Who might appreciate it?

  1. Christians wanting a brief and refreshing read about Jesus to stir their hearts to worship again. It could be used as a prompt for personal devotions, grab a quick chapter at lunchtime or as a light bedtime read.
  2. Young Christians wanting a brief and engaging introduction to what the Bible teaches about Jesus. They need to know about him, and the right response is a life of worship. This little book can help with both of these goals!
  3. People asking questions about Jesus. This may be a helpful evangelistic tool for people who may have some exposure to church, but have not yet grasped the significance of Jesus. As with any evangelistic tool, read it yourself to decide who it might be suitable for as a gift.
  4. Preachers wanting ideas for a series about Jesus. Don’t just preach this book, the Bible is better, but maybe this book can give you a jump start on an engaging series for your church.
  5. Youth Leaders wanting the bones of a series of short talks. Don’t just read the book out, but use it to help you formulate 10 brief talks for your youth group (and why not give everyone a copy of the book too?)
  6. Parents wanting an engaging read for family devotions. You could read each chapter out loud in a few minutes – they are easy to read and non-technical. And if you like to sing together, there is a suggestion at the end of each chapter!
  7. Book givers! You may be a dying breed, but if you love giving books to others, then this could be a great book to stock up on. Buy a stack and give away at Christmas, at special events, as an encouragement to a struggling friend, or to someone getting baptised, or to your pastor to thank him for his ministry.

Thank you to everyone who helps get the word out about this book release. Your RT’s, likes, shares, etc. on social media are all appreciated. And thank you to everyone who buys a copy or copies to pass on to others. I really appreciate your help.

Preaching to Students in a Pandemic

[Thank you to Peter Dray of UCCF for asking me to write this post, which he included in Connect, September 2020.]

Preaching to students is one of the very best ministries. But what about preaching during an unprecedented pandemic when many of our teaching opportunities are virtual?

Here are six quick thoughts that may be helpful – three on what they need to hear, and three on communicating online.

1. What is true now is always true, so the message does not change.

2020 does not feel normal at all! There is uncertainty all around us, political turmoil, people divided against each other, and a world living in fear of dying. But that description was also true last year and will be true five years from now. 2020 has just made some things feel more vivid.

God loves this broken and hurting world. He loves it so much that he sent his Son on the greatest ever rescue mission. He loves it so much that He has sent His people out, empowered by the Spirit, to proclaim the glorious news of Jesus. So, since the need is as great as ever, our message does not change.

2. What is felt now is far more vivid than before, so speak from God’s heart to theirs.

Since the comfortable culture bubble has been burst, people are potentially more prepared for a message of life and hope. They are feeling concerned, fearful, confused, upset, and vulnerable. When people are feeling more intensely, we can’t simply present cold hard facts and expect them to connect. Yes, our message is a set of truths, but those truths come from the loving heart of God. Seek to speak from God’s heart to theirs: sensitively, passionately, directly, and clearly.

3. What is needed is today’s good news, so speak the truth with targeted relevance.

Don’t just preach a message from last year. The gospel is, by definition, highly relevant – that is why Jesus became a human in the first place! Let’s look for ways to speak into the lives of our listeners with the highly relevant message of what God’s love has done for us in Christ.

4. Anticipate the difference of preaching without hearers in the room.

When you speak to a group of students there is energy in the room, sometimes distraction, often responsiveness. When you speak to the back of your phone or a webcam, the room feels really dead! Know that you will find the experience more draining than normal preaching and be sure to go to God as a top priority to make sure you let Him minister to you before you try to minister to others (like Mary in Luke 10:38-42).

5. Adjust your content to consider two crowds.

The students listening to you may be the same as before, but there is a difference: they’re no longer sitting together in a big group. Your style needs to be more personal and direct. Focus less on addressing the student group as a crowd, and more on speaking directly to your hearers as individuals.

At the same time, given that whatever is put online can be seen by anyone, remember another crowd too. You probably won’t go viral and be watched by millions, but you still need to be careful. Do not to speak carelessly, even in humour, in a way that could be clipped or misappropriated by antagonists to our faith.

6. Apply some basic principles to communicate effectively to camera.

Try to get your camera at eye level, beware of a distracting background, and get as much natural light as possible. Get closer to the camera as if you are on a Skype call with a friend, not standing several metres away as you might in a meeting. Learn to make eye contact in a single lens (not easy).

Test your setup before you preach. Trim content and get to the point quicker. Your viewers have just a screen, rather than the energy of a room full of people. It’s harder to concentrate on a preacher on screen, so do anything you can to help them listen.

And one bonus thought – be sure to get helpful feedback from others and watch what you are expecting others to watch… we are all on a steep learning curve this year, but what we have to share is so worth sharing!

Evaluate Before You Preach

EvaluateIt is super helpful to evaluate your sermon after you preach it.  But it is also vital to evaluate it before you preach.  Here is a partial checklist that may be helpful:

  1. Think about the biblical text – have you answered the questions that the text raises as your listeners read it (for maybe the first time)?  Does your message still have the authority of the biblical text or has your message preparation led to any drifting from the meaning of the passage?  Is your main idea the main idea of the passage?  And is your main idea going to engage your listeners?
  2. Think about your listeners – is your message going to communicate the relevance of the passage to your specific listeners?  Is your support material going to connect with different demographics in the congregation (or do you only use sporting illustrations throughout?)  Does your message only communicate to the in-crowd in Church language, or will it communicate to any guests present?  Are there any points of connection between message and congregation that require extra sensitivity?  It is better to think that through before, rather than trying to fix damage later.
  3. Think about the communicator – how are you doing spiritually?  And relationally?  And physically?  Is there anything you need to put right or address in the time between now and when you have to preach?  Do you need to ask someone for help with a pre-preaching responsibility so that you can be in the best place personally to preach?  (Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and admit to a trusted friend if that is the case.)
  4. Think about the Spirit of God – apart from God working through this sermon, it will achieve nothing.  Have you prepared prayerfully?  Do you need to seek forgiveness for self-reliance or distraction and bring the congregation and the message to the Throne of Grace now?   

There is plenty more that can be evaluated before you preach.  Are you anticipating the need to rush because of too much content?  Are you still unclear how you will land the message?  Would you want to hear this message?  Does your message point people to themselves or to Christ?

Remember, you will never have a perfect message, but prayerfully do what you can.  In fact, prayerfully evaluate the message and you will probably have a sense of where to put your energies in the time you have left!