Navigating the Mess

Everything looks lovely down below when flying 10,000 meters above the earth. The land is green, the mountains look stunning, and the sea is bright blue. But real life is not lived from 10,000m up; it is lived down here in the mess of real life. We feel this messy reality, especially when it comes to relationships.

Every engaged couple looks forward to their wonderful married life to come. It is loving to help them prepare for marriage knee-deep in the mess of real-life challenges! The anticipation may be eighteen years of joy and giggles when the first baby comes along, but reality will be much more down to earth. The same is true of friendships, church fellowship, ministry teams, etc. Genuine relationships are much messier and need more guidance than a simple “love one another” or “be kind” (although these instructions are essential, of course).

If only God had given us a little note to offer some guidance in the messy confusion of real-life relationships. He did. For almost two millennia, God has placed a little personal note in his collection of inspired documents. It is a personal letter of twenty-five verses from Paul about a runaway household slave. We call the letter Philemon.

Paul’s Little Letter

Philemon was a relatively wealthy man from Colossae. We know this because his home was large enough to host a church, and he had slaves working for him. He had encountered Paul at some point in time – perhaps while visiting Ephesus. Paul had told him about the good news of Jesus, and Philemon was turned upside down on the inside. With this new fire burning within, he became a crucial person in the new church in Colossae.

At another point in time, Onesimus, a slave working in Philemon’s home, had decided to start a new and illegal life for himself. He stole whatever he could carry and travelled far away to Rome, hiding among the swirl of criminals and runaway slaves who wanted to hide their crimes there. Somehow, in God’s goodness, Onesimus was introduced to Paul. Paul had told him about the good news of Jesus, and Onesimus was turned upside down on the inside. With this new fire burning within, he became a crucial helper to Paul, living under the constraints of house arrest in Rome.

Eventually, the story came out. Onesimus had stolen and run away from Philemon, Paul’s old friend in Colossae. So, Paul urged Onesimus to return and make things right with his owner. Despite Onesimus’ fear of arrest and possible capital punishment, Paul wrote his short letter to Philemon. Onesimus would have guarded that letter closely, treasuring the truth it contained. We should do the same.

Why? For Onesimus, it made a way to do the right thing with hope. For us, the epistle to Philemon gives us hope as we try to navigate the messy realities of interpersonal relationships in the Christian community. Let’s consider briefly two critical realities and then three additional features revealed in this letter:

1. Such a great debt. Paul appealed on behalf of Onesimus, making it clear that Onesimus had become a follower of Jesus and a very useful companion to Paul (v8-11). But did Paul know about the crimes committed back in Colossae? Yes, he did. And he promised to pay that debt in full (v18-19).

When there is sin, there is always a debt. When someone hurts you, even if they did not steal something tangible, they leave behind a debt of hurt, shame, or whatever. Everything in us wants to make them pay. Everything in us wants that debt made up to us in some way. Onesimus’ debt could have cost him his life, but Paul charged it to his own account.

What Paul did for Onesimus, Jesus had done for Paul. Like every one of us, Paul had a debt with God’s eternal justice that he could never repay. But Jesus died to pay that debt in full. If Jesus has done that for us, then it makes sense that we will start to look for ways to do that for others. We can never make the atoning sacrifice Jesus made for us. Still, we can accept the cost of hurt and release others from our desires for revenge or our need for compensation. A Christian community navigates the mess of relationships with plenty of forgiveness – the acceptance of interpersonal pain costs that we no longer hold on the accounts of others.

2. Such a great welcome. Paul offered to pay the debts of Onesimus. He also urged Philemon to welcome his runaway slave as if he were his dear brother, Paul himself (v16-17). Suppose it had just been a promise of debt repayment. In that case, Onesimus could have headed back to the servants’ quarters or, in a non-slave setting, be free to walk away. But Paul asked Philemon to welcome Onesimus as if he were Paul himself. The guest room, the seat of honour at dinner, etc.

What Paul did for Onesimus, Jesus had done for Paul. Like every last one of us, Paul had no business being welcomed into God’s family and home. But Jesus makes it possible for us to be welcomed into God’s family, home, and table of feasting as if we were Jesus himself! Accepted in the beloved Son – what a privilege!

If Jesus has done that for us, then it makes sense that we will start to look for ways to do that for others. So the Christian community because a place that is uniquely welcoming in a world of simulated tolerance. Hurt and broken people can find the welcome of a true family when they meet Jesus and join a healthy local church. And it is not just at the moment of conversion, either. Continually we forgive one another, and we express genuine love and acceptance toward each other. We navigate the mess of relationships by remembering the Gospel – what has Jesus done for us? And then we look to spill that same goodness toward one another.

If Philemon only pointed us to the beautiful truths of forgiveness and acceptance, it would already be a treasure. But there are at least three more features to notice as you read it. Three more ways that the Gospel shapes us to navigate the complexity of life knee-deep in the mess of relationships:

Connected – Meeting Jesus and joining his family gives us a sense of connectedness that we could never have outside the church. The world strives to achieve self-serving networking. We are brought into the extended family of God. Look at the connections described in verses 1-2 and 23-24. And be sure to pause on the level of connection described in verse 12 – Onesimus: “my very heart.”  We can mean so much to each other because we first mean so much to God!

Refreshing – Look at how Paul thanks God for Philemon’s faith in God and love for others in verses 4-7. As we grow in our relationship with Jesus, we almost imperceptibly grow in our impact on others. In a world of people who feel like their existence makes essentially no difference to anyone, we discover that our participation in the body of Christ is a source of refreshment to others!

Giving – Paul would have benefitted from keeping Onesimus with him in Rome. After all, “Useful” (the meaning of the name) had become very useful to Paul. But healthy Christians are marked by Christlike generosity. The Gospel makes us givers, not grabbers. In a world full of grabbing and self-serving, it is beautiful to become part of a family of givers.

How can we navigate the mess of human relationships in the church? None of us lives at theoretical heights of 10,000m. If we are involved in church life and ministry, it is messy. The answer to the question is not a pragmatic suggestion or a simple how-to guide. The answer flows from the reality of who God is and what he has done for us. Let’s allow the book of Philemon to become a treasure in our lives – treasured because it reminds us that the Gospel speaks of how we can be saved and how we can navigate the messy complexity of human relationships.

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Brief videos on the Psalms . . . a great book for the mess!

Resurrection Reverberations

We have recently celebrated another Easter. Almost two thousand of them have come and gone since the first one. Yet, the ongoing impact of Jesus’ explosion of life continues to reverberate in this world of death. 

Since Jesus is still alive today and still actively bringing people to faith, let’s go back to the first Easter and see the pattern and progression of his work. John’s account is fascinating. It also gives us some incredibly intimate and personal moments of transformation and teaching as people met the risen Jesus. This same Jesus is alive today and still leads many through this same pattern and progression.

1. Hearing a report: Peter and John (John 20:1-2)

After the devastating spectacle of Jesus’ brutal death on the Roman cross, the Sunday morning began quietly. Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early. She longed to show her devotion to the one who had made such a difference in her life. But the tomb was open and empty. Not understanding the significance of this, but knowing something was not right, she ran to report the missing body. The empty tomb should still unsettle people today – in a world of death and sadness, and something does not fit.

2. Checking the empty tomb (John 20:3-10)

Peter and John ran to the tomb, to the place of death, with John out in front. The competitive lifelong friends were aware of each other as they tried to make sense of Jesus’ death. But the tomb was, indeed, empty. It did not look like a crime scene with body wrappings strewn around the floor. It felt organized, orderly, and obviously, something highly unusual had happened. John saw and believed. Throughout the gospel, this disciple had been especially close to Jesus. It was no surprise that he would respond quickly with faith. But what about others? What about nobodies, doubters, and failures? Keep reading.

3. Meeting the gracious risen Jesus: new faith and family (John 20:11-18)

Mary Magdalene was the last person you would expect to have the honour of meeting the Risen Christ first – especially in that culture. She was a woman of no significance with a cartload of baggage from life. It is beautiful to recognize that Jesus came first to a woman, and a woman with question marks all over her reputation. If we wrote the story of Jesus’ return from the dead, we might have him knocking on Pilate’s door – “Remember me?”  Or perhaps we’d have his silhouette darkening the door of a Sanhedrin council meeting – “I’m back!”  Or maybe we would be less dramatic and have him come to the key leaders of the soon-to-launch church movement. But we didn’t write the story; eyewitnesses did. And the facts were clear: Jesus chose to make this insignificant and baggage-laden woman the first eyewitness!

Please take note of what this passage tells us about Jesus. First, and of utmost importance, she looks for the body lying but instead sees Jesus standing: he is very much alive! Even if we have read this account a thousand times, let us never lose the wonder of this moment and this truth! Second, as we have already underlined, he chose to meet with Mary Magdalene. Perhaps he knew how her tender heart would be breaking at his death after all he had done for her. (Still today, Jesus loves to meet with nobodies burdened by the baggage of life and feeling desperately small in a world of death!)

Third, notice his sensitivity to her: “Why are you weeping?”  And then, fourth, observe his personal connection with her; he spoke her name. (How beautiful it is to see hurting people discover that not only is Jesus alive as a historical fact. More than that, he is sensitive and personal in his desire for connection with them – he knows my name!)  This personal connection leads us to the fifth observation, and a critical one: in v17, Jesus has created a new family and invites his followers to join. For the first time in the gospel, he calls his followers “my brothers.”  He overtly extends his special relationship to them for the first time, “my Father and your Father, my God and your God.”  And Mary is launched with the privilege of reporting this to the others. Not only had she seen him alive, but he had “said these things to her!”

4. Hearing Christ’s commission (John 20:19-23)

The scene shifts from the garden that morning to a behind-closed-doors gathering of the disciples in Jerusalem that evening. The reports were swirling in the conversations and the hearts of the disciples, but then Jesus joined them. Again, notice how his character is not seething and bent on revenge. There is a tenderness and a purposefulness about him. He speaks peace to these troubled hearts. He shows his hands and side – Jesus is far more willing to share evidence of his death and resurrection than most humans are willing to pursue it! He lays out their commission – just as His Father sent him, so now he would be sending them out to spread the news to others. And they would be empowered by the Spirit of God, with forgiveness at the heart of their activity and message.

5. Checking the living evidence: faith and worship (John 20:24-31)

The account continues in the same room, but eight days later. Now is the moment for Thomas to receive the unfortunate label that has stuck ever since. The rest had seen Jesus’ hands and side, but Thomas had declared that his belief would need the same evidence. Notice how the chapter began with disciples running to check the evidence of an empty tomb. It ends with another disciple seeking proof of the resurrection – our faith is founded on fact. 

So, Jesus joined them again, and his focus settled on Thomas. Notice that Jesus did not rebuke the doubter; instead, he offered evidence. And Thomas’ response has echoed down through the centuries, “My Lord and my God!”  (I am glad that Thomas got to speak the punchline of the whole Gospel of John!)

Jesus offered evidence to Thomas. And Jesus also gave hope to all who would not have the same direct opportunity to reach out and feel the wounds. It is possible, even blessed, to believe based on eyewitness testimony and the preponderance of historical evidence. Actually, the whole of John’s gospel was written to invite people to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and by believing, to have life!

6. Meeting the gracious risen Jesus: commission reminder – what kind of fishing? (John 21:1-14)

The final chapter of John continues the expanded presentation of the Great Commission. Already we have seen Matthew’s “All authority . . . given to me . . . Go!” (In John, that sounds like “As the Father has sent me, even so, I send you…”)  We have seen the “I am with you always . . .” (In John: “Receive the Holy Spirit…”). But what about the specifics of what disciple-making will look like – the bringing people in and then building them up element of Matthew’s Great Commission? Here comes John 21, with Jesus tenderly and graciously meeting his followers again. This time, by the Sea of Galilee.

This passage is filled with gentle reminders of their commissioning. The adrenaline of those weeks in Jerusalem had faded. Now seven disciples were out in a boat trying to catch fish again. Jesus gently reminded them of his first encounter with some of them, back at the beginning, in Luke 5. He had called them to fish, not for fish, but people.

As they came to shore, he gently reminded them of another earlier lesson. As they worked with Jesus, he could provide necessary provisions by the Sea of Galilee. He had done it before: bread and fish for thousands. Even today, we need these reminders. If we have met the Risen Christ, then there is a calling on our lives, a calling to fish for people and join Jesus in his mission to draw people to himself out of this dark world.

But there was another reminder there, too: the charcoal fire strategically placed to cook the breakfast and pull Peter’s heart back to that night in Jerusalem.

7. Commission clarification for Peter (& John): feeding family and following faithfully (John 21:15-25)

We know from the other Gospels that Peter had already met with Jesus alone on Easter Sunday. But his failure to follow Jesus during the trials may still have echoed in his hurting heart. Or perhaps the echo was in the estimation of the others. In chapter 20, we see Jesus come to the nobody and the doubter, but what about the failure? If we fail, are we finished? Another tender conversation follows, with Jesus offering three opportunities to Peter to declare his devotion and three affirmations of his commission to feed the flock. Peter had declared his loyalty even unto death, but he had not made it through the night in his own strength. But now, Jesus offered Peter the privilege for which he longed – the opportunity to live for Jesus and, eventually, to die for Jesus.

Peter and John walked along the beach and, ultimately, towards their deaths, with Peter out in front. The competitive lifelong friends were aware of each other as Peter tried to make sense of Jesus’ words about their deaths. One would face martyrdom for his master. The other would suffer the challenges of growing old and dying. We are all on one path or the other. Some of us will be killed for Jesus. Others of us will grow old and die following Jesus. Either way, the instruction Jesus gave still stands. For now, we are to fish for people and feed the flock. And how can we follow faithfully to the end? “Follow me.”  Simple. Keep your eyes on the risen Christ.

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That same pattern and progression are still at work today. In a world of death, something does not fit. As people hear about Jesus, they are invited to check the empty tomb. Hopefully, as they gather evidence, they will meet the risen Lord personally. He still loves to come to nobodies, doubters, and failures. And as we meet him, we discover life in the relational bonds of the Trinity and find the purpose for our lives in this world. We are here to fish for lost people and feed God’s people. And as we keep our eyes on the living Christ, we are empowered to live for Him and eventually die for Him – confident that death is not the end of the story!

An Incredibly Close Connection

In 1922, Howard Carter discovered and then entered the tomb of King Tutankhamun, the first tomb of a Pharaoh to be found.  It is hard to imagine the feeling of entering a tomb filled with priceless golden treasures that has been sealed for 3,300 years.  It is hard to imagine, but we have something greater.

Paul wrote to the church in Colossae, a church he had never visited, with a letter designed to point their hearts to Christ.  Whatever specific false teaching was influencing the church at Colossae, it faced the same great temptation found in every church: that is, to be busy with Christianity, but to let Christ drift from his position of preeminence.  We all face that temptation every day.  So, it is never a bad day to reread Colossians.

Christ Supreme In the first chapter, Paul offers a hymn of Christ’s supremacy that is about as high a Christology as can be found anywhere in Scripture.  Adolf Deissmann famously stated, “When I open the chapel door of the Epistle to the Colossians, it is as if Johann Sebastian himself sat at the organ.”  So, Paul celebrates the supremacy of Christ over all creation, and also over our salvation.

Servant Ministry – As he proceeds beyond the great hymn, he writes of his own ministry.  He was a servant of the gospel, that Christ might be proclaimed to every creature (v23).  And he was a servant of the church, to present all the Word of God (v25) and to present all God’s people fully mature (v28).

What was the message that Paul proclaimed to this church in ancient Turkey?  He proclaimed God’s glorious plan for them to enjoy an incredibly close connection to Christ.  Twice he writes about his own suffering in ministry, before proclaiming the wonder of the mystery.  In v24 he rejoices over his suffering as he participates in the mission of Christ (not because Christ’s suffering on the cross was insufficient; it clearly was), but because his servants get to participate in the afflictions necessary to the spreading of the gospel in this age.  In 1:28-2:1, he again returns to his ministry, this time writing about how he was strenuously contending for these believers whom he had never met.

Revealed Mystery Notice how after each of these ministry descriptions, we get a glorious glimpse into the mystery – God’s now-revealed plan.  (By the way, we tend to think of the word “mystery” like we do a murder mystery – that 50 minutes of being in the dark as to who committed the crime as we watch our favourite TV drama.  Instead, when Paul uses the word mystery in Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, etc., he is referring to something that is now revealed.  We are now living in the age of A-ha! at the end of that drama – only much better!)

Close Connection – The first part of that formerly hidden but now revealed mystery is just seven words long, but infinitely profound: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”  Notice three things. 

First, God’s plan, formerly hidden but now revealed, is not just for the Christ to be a king and a deliverer leading his people from the front.  It is for Christ to dwell in his people.  That is as close a connection as it is possible to have. 

Second, God’s plan, through the indwelling Christ, is for his people to have the hope of glory.  Whatever we may be facing right now, this is not the end of the story.  And if Christ would choose to live in us now, then we can be confident that he will want us with him in the future too. 

Third, this mystery is made known among the Gentiles, it is not just for the Jews.  “Race relations” is not a 21st-century invention; God was there way before any of us!  Gentiles equally brought into the body of Christ with Jews – a formerly hidden plan now revealed through Paul in Ephesians and Colossians!

Close Connection II – The second part of that formerly hidden but now revealed mystery is just one word long, but is the most profound statement of all. Just as Paul revealed God’s plan for Christ to find a home in you, so Paul also revealed God’s plan for you to find all you need in Christ.  His objective was for all God’s people to be presented fully mature in Christ (1:28).

So, they needed to realise that the full riches of complete understanding were theirs if they would know the mystery of God.  What is this infinite treasure trove of wisdom and knowledge?  Is it a training course, a degree program, an online seminar, a special edition book?  No, everything they could ever need was theirs in knowing God’s mystery now revealed – Christ! (See 2:2-3)

Conclusion – They would be assailed by impressive alternative versions of Christianity, but they should never allow the supremacy of Christ to diminish and drift in their faith.  Later in the second chapter, Paul would remind them of the supreme victory of Christ on the cross – they should never lose sight of that.  Neither should we.  What difference would it make to our confidence if we pondered anew the wonder of Christ in me, the hope of glory?  What difference would it make to our maturity if we investigated afresh the riches of knowledge and wisdom in Christ himself? 

God’s plan was for Christ to find a home in you, and for you to find all you need in Christ.  God’s plan was for an incredibly close connection between you and Christ.  Our union with Christ really is the chief of doctrines.  As Paul went on to write, “just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith (in him) as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness” (2:6-7).

What is God’s plan for each of us as we head into another new month, and another annual celebration of Easter?  It is that we would be continually more marked, shaped, stirred, and matured, as we fix the gaze of our hearts on the wonder that is Christ himself!

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Recent short video in Psalms Today series:

Your Job is to Make Words Clear

When I used to live close to London I sometimes visited the British Library. There you can see some amazing treasures, such as Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus.  It is amazing to see such ancient books, but they are not the easiest things to read and understand. For one, they were written in uncials: ITISNOTEASYTOREADTEXTWITHOUTGAPSORPUNCTUATION.  Oh, and they are in Greek, just to add to the challenge.

Thankfully we don’t have to read Greek text written in uncials (unless we want to, then praise God that we can access so much!) We are blessed to have the Bible very accurately translated into our language and readily affordable (or free online). They even add in spaces, lower case letters, punctuation, etc. How blessed we are! I suppose I should also mention the chapter and verse divisions, which save a lot of time. And there are the somewhat and sometimes helpful section headings.

But remember that to many people in our churches today, the text feels as inaccessible as an ancient uncial codex! To many, it feels like a big block of text with thousands of words running into each other.

And so the preacher goes to work each week, diligently studying a passage in order to first understand it, and then to preach it. That work moves from the initial simplicity of familiar words, through the complexity of trying to grasp an author’s flow of thought, and out into the warm sunshine of studied simplicity. Hopefully, the preacher is then in a place to make sense of the flow of thought, to identify the major thoughts and to see the supporting role of each subordinate thought. The passage no longer feels like a random set of instructions and assertions.

When we preach our task includes the need to make a string of words clear.  We don’t have to start with an uncial script, but to all intents and purposes, we practically are.  Listeners hearing a string of verses often grasp very little during their first exposure. As we preach we look for ways to emphasize the main thoughts, we look for ways to demonstrate how the “support material” in the text explains, proves and/or applies the main thoughts.  Without technical jargon, our preaching needs to verbally achieve the formation of something like a clausal layout in the minds and hearts of our listeners.  Certainly, by the time we are done preaching, they should not see the text as a string of random words or thoughts . . . it should be much clearer than that!

Preaching goes way beyond clarification of the meaning of a string of words. But preaching won’t go anywhere good if it bypasses this critical element of the task.

Evaluating Exegetical Options

When you are making sense of a passage, you will often have to evaluate several options. Perhaps two or three possibilities quickly emerge to make sense of a detail in the text. Maybe different commentators offer different explanations. If you take biblical study seriously then you will face this frequently. How can we evaluate the options and weigh the evidence in support of each?

This feels like a preacher’s concern. Of course, it should be. I suspect too many preachers don’t wrestle with their passage enough to notice different exegetical possibilities. But it should not be just a preacher’s concern. What about the people in your church? Where will they get a taste for really wrestling with the biblical text and coming to thought through and informed conclusions?

The approach I use is not a formula guaranteeing results. It is not spreadsheet-based with automatic formulae. It is a guideline that helps me weigh evidence. If I have level 1 evidence then it will generally be given more weight than level 2 or level 3 evidence. At the same time, if I have evidence at several different levels, it may outweigh evidence at a higher level. This is a guide, not a formula. I still need to subjectively do the weighing, even when the guide gives me an indication of the relative weight.

So from most valuable down to the least valuable:

Level 1. Syntactical Evidence – this is support for an interpretational option that is found within the passage’s own structure or grammar.  This is the internal contextual support for an understanding of the passage.

Level 2. Contextual Evidence – this is support for an interpretational option found in the context of the passage.  The closer the context, the higher the value (immediate context is stronger than section context, which is stronger than book context, which is stronger than same writer context, etc.)

Level 3. Lexical Evidence – this is support for an interpretational option found in the specific meaning of words used.  Since the meaning of a word is determined by the company it keeps, this category actually overlaps with both syntactical and contextual evidence, but a lexical argument lacking in syntactical or contextual support can sit here at level three.

Level 4. Correlational Evidence – this is support for an interpretational option found in more distant biblical support where the same word or concept appears.  After all, a different writer may be using the term in a different way.  (Remember that a distant passage that directly influences your focus passage, such as an Old Testament section that is quoted, is highly significant and may be considered as a form of contextual or level 2 evidence.)

Level 5. Theological Evidence – this is support for an interpretational option found in theology, rather than elsewhere in the Bible.  This is like correlational evidence, but the correlation is with a theological creed or system.

Level 6. Verificational Evidence – this is support for a position found in “experts” (i.e. commentators, authors, sermons, etc.)  It is easy to fall into a false reliance on published books. Simply because a published name agrees with a position is of minimal value.  It is so much better to integrate their arguments into the five categories above. That way the commentary becomes a conversation partner rather than a shortcut that always determines your understanding. Much better to weigh the evidence and come to an informed conclusion, rather than reading a commentator and come to someone else’s conclusion.

Remember, this is a guideline, but I think it is helpful.  It pushes us to look for understanding within the text itself and within the context. 

I do see a lot of people who either don’t wrestle with the meaning of the text in any meaningful way or else are too quick to accept the conclusions of others – either their preferred system of theology or their favourite commentator or preacher. Looking up a passage in two or three commentaries does not equate to exegetical effort.

We have to recognize the spiritual gravitas and countless other personal and ministry benefits that only come from diligent exegetical labour.

You Preach to Ordinary People

It is good to remember that your church is not a unique collection of hyper-spiritual elite super saints. Nor is it the strangest and most bizarre collection of people either. You preach to ordinary people.

Ordinary people have doubts that they don’t think they’re supposed to have.

Ordinary people generally feel tired and short on motivation.

Ordinary people often have fears that may be unfounded but still feel ever so real when they lie awake at night.

Ordinary people are anxious about “little things” and distracted.

Ordinary people think they struggle, but assume that everyone else has it all together in life.

Ordinary people don’t think they are particularly significant, or influential.

Ordinary people sin.

Ordinary people are oblivious to some of their sin, but painfully burdened by other aspects of it.

Ordinary people, even after responding to the gospel of grace, still feel that their standing before God depends on their own effort and spiritual “success.”

Ordinary people already feel guilty about several things, not least their lack of proactive witnessing.

Ordinary people are very ordinary.

You preach to ordinary people. You are also one of them. It would probably be good to prayerfully consider what this might mean for how you present yourself, how you present the message, and how the message is supposed to intersect with their lives.

A Random Series of One-Off Appearances

I recently wrote about preaching series that work their way through a Bible book, or a section of a Bible book. A comment, from Anthony Douglas, made an excellent point. He wrote, “They also normalise what used to be an uncontested idea – that God’s people are meant to turn up week after week, rather than in a random series of one-off appearances.”

This puts a finger on a very clear cultural shift that has taken place over the years.

Is it because the rhythms of society have changed? Sunday used to be a noticeably different day when I was growing up. But then, once it became a seventh shopping day, it quickly became the pre-eminent shopping day. Going to church was dethroned as the primary activity of the day. Add in sports, split families doing child transfers, etc. and Sunday is not what it used to be.

Is it because the variety of alternatives has grown? It is not just shopping and sport that offer an invitation to people on a Sunday. More TV channels, more entertainment options, greater local travel, and until Covid and cost of living challenges, even quick foreign travel became a much more common option.

Is it because family traditions have shifted? I grew up in what was a more traditional set of family values. Going to church on Sunday was not top of the list of things we might do. Rather, it was first on the list of things we always do, along with going to bed at night, and going to school or work each day. Most people today do not live life with that rhythm instilled.

Whatever the reason, we are living in an age where diligent church attendance is not normal. A good percentage of church folks are prone to what Anthony described as “a random series of one-off appearances.” It does feel like a good number of people come to church on Sundays when they have nothing else planned.

The challenge for us, as church leaders, is to think carefully about how we respond to this. It is always tempting to simply dial up the pressure. We can put attendance in church membership covenants, we can declare the importance of diligent attendance, we can chase people when they are absent, etc. Let’s be careful of an outside-to-in approach that pressures without stirring motivation. It is easy to slip over the line into creating a legalistic culture that contradicts the gospel we preach.

What does an inside-to-out approach look like? In one sense, we can aim for making church on a Sunday, or a midweek home group, or youth group, so good that people don’t want to miss it. Whether it is the quality of the preaching and worship, or the warmth of the fellowship, why wouldn’t we want to make church as good as it can possibly be – both for believers and guests?

Then there are other details. It is totally appropriate to pastorally care for people. Their absence is an indicator of concern, so checking in is not wrong (but the tone can convey more legalism than care). Teaching the benefits of full participation in the church community, and involving people on the various teams to help ministry happen is appropriate (but always being careful not to fall foul of the outside-to-in evaluation ourselves – just because someone is present is not automatically a positive indicator of spiritual health).

This is where Anthony’s point comes in – sermon series helpfully support the idea of attendance. Preaching in series normalises the idea that church is not a random collection of one-off sermons for a random set of one-off appearances. Now, that does not mean we can make each sermon fully dependent on full attendance at the series – remember that guests always begin by being first-time attendees. They need to be able to fully engage the message, even if it is part 7 in a 10-part series. Even so, a well-crafted series subtly communicates the expectation of regular attendance, and if done well, will motivate it too.

As Anthony put it in his comment, “series preaching better accords with God’s not-so-subtle decision to supply his word to us in rather large chunks sometimes.” We need the whole of John, and Acts, and Romans, and Habakkuk, and Isaiah, and Genesis, etc. The Christian life is not covered by a one-day seminar, it is a lifelong journey of preparation for eternity to come. So just preaching our favourite fifteen passages simply won’t suffice!

Preaching Series: Six Suggestions

Last time I shared a few reasons why I think sermon series should be a key part of the preaching schedule in a church. Here are some suggestions to help them work well:

1. Spirit – Does a series quench the Holy Spirit?  Does preparing a sermon quench the Spirit?  It is amazing how a series can be scheduled many months ahead of time, then when a particular Sunday comes, the text and its application fit as if the Spirit Himself had made the plan.  Nevertheless, we still need to allow flexibility in our schedules.

2. Scheduling – It is unhelpful to pack the schedule so tight that the preacher feels under pressure from the schedule.  Consider leaving “buffer weeks” in the schedule between series.  You will have no problem filling them when the time arrives, either with a visiting missionary, a one-off message on a text you’re dying to preach, or addressing an issue that comes up, or a one-off for one of the preachers you are mentoring in the church.  You might also need to extend a series by a week. Buffer weeks are never a problem. No buffer weeks can create a headache.

3. Variety – A long series in the same book can get old.  There are several ways to avoid this.  Vary the message structure (include a first-person sermon, a more narrative sermon, a more interactive sermon, etc.)  Vary the text length (some weeks you may choose to cover only a few verses, but other weeks it would be possible to cover a chapter or two).  Perhaps sameness can be avoided by having another speaker involved (see below).  And, of course, a long series in the same book can get old, so . . .

4. Length – Think through the length of the series.  The old days of seven years verse-by-verse through one book really are the old days.  Today some advocate that a series should not go longer than 8 weeks.  Others say  4 or 5.  I say you have to think through the situation – who is preaching, to whom, what are they used to, what is the preacher capable of doing effectively, what is the subject matter, etc.  No hard and fast rules, but several months will probably get old for some.  Cover ground more quickly, or break the series and then return to it. Remember that a new series is a moment for new energy, new invitations to guests, etc.

5. Preachers – A series with more than one preacher can work well, but it takes some coordination. Make sure you are on the same page about the book’s structure, main idea, relevance to your church, etc. Probably don’t go higher than 2 or 3 preachers in a single series. If you are blessed with more, save them for the next series. Be sure to communicate and take advantage of the team ethos.

6. Series – Remember to balance your series too. If you have just been in Colossians, probably don’t follow up with a series from Ephesians (or any epistle, for that matter). Mix up sections or whole books across the whole canon, always prayerfully considering what book or section should leave its mark on your congregation.

What else do you find helpful as you plan series?

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Preaching Series: Six Strengths

Some churches always preach sermons in a series. Some churches never do. Here are six strengths of well-planned series:

1. Greater Leverage. By reinforcing and reviewing a Bible book, the series allows for the teaching to sink in and be applied more effectively than a stand-alone sermon. We often expect too much from a single sermon but underestimate what can be achieved over time with cumulative preaching.

2. Greater Coverage. When a church is preaching through a Bible book for a season, it allows other access points for people to benefit from immersion into that Bible book. For instance, people can be encouraged to read and study it at home. Midweek groups can probe the application of the passage preached on Sunday. Maybe even youth and other age groups can be in the book to encourage family conversations at home. Visual presentation does not require weekly creative energy (series title, series image, social media visuals, etc.)

3. Greater Momentum. The preacher can look back and build on what has gone before, but the listeners can also look forward and anticipate what is coming. With some encouragement, they might even read ahead and be more prepared for what is coming.

4. Greater Balance. If a message stands alone, then its distinctive thrusts will often need to be balanced within the message. This can sometimes reduce the applicational impact of a message. When you know (and if helpful, state) that a future sermon will present another side of this particular issue, this present message can be preached without too much energy for balancing it. Also, when a message has been preached and weaknesses were noted, coming weeks allow for easy correction of those weaknesses.

5. Greater Preparation. Knowing what is coming several weeks from now allows the preacher to prepare for more than just this coming Sunday’s message. This means that a book can be working in the preacher before the preacher comes to work through each passage of that book.

6. Greater Depth. When you are preaching through a book, you can overlap some exegetical work and go deeper in each passage as you prepare. For example, this week, I am preaching from Colossians 1:24-2:7. If it was a stand-alone, I would also need to get to grips with the hymn of 1:15-23, thus using up study time. Since I’ve been there already, I can build on that and focus on the preaching passage for this Sunday’s message.

There is a place for stand-alone messages in the preaching schedule – they have a definite strategic purpose. And just because you have a series, that does not mean it is effective or that the strengths are maximised. But I do recommend using carefully planned single-Bible-book series as a significant ingredient in your preaching planning.

Burnout Warning

I was asked by a friend why so many people are burning out these days.  Whether it is a moral fall, a mental breakdown, or a ministry burnout, the frequency seems to be increasing.  Why? 

I remember speaking with several friends some years ago.  They had all gone through a ministry burnout in the previous years.  Their circumstances were different, but they had some things in common.  One spoke of two particularly stressful issues in the church that hit at the same time.  He said that one would have been hard, but survivable, however, the two together created a perfect storm that took its toll on him.

I suspect that right now many are living with half a perfect storm already raging.  This means that many are susceptible to the impact of another stressor that, if faced alone, might not be so damaging.

Let’s imagine that Pastor A was recently bereaved, or had a child with cancer, or some other significant emotional weight that was taking its toll.  He might seem to be handling a difficult situation well, but any friends with sensitivity to his situation would want to protect him from a second heavy load hitting at the same time.  Now would not be a good time for him to also face new and persistent criticism in his ministry, false accusation, a crisis in the church leadership team, or whatever.  We certainly cannot control circumstances and often the second or even third weighty stress factor will combine.  And sometimes we watch men and women serving God who somehow, by God’s grace, are able to weather the worst of seasons without some form of burnout.  But many do not.

I think we should be realistic about contributing factors, sensitive to underlying stressors, and proactive in our care for one another.

Contributing factors – people involved in ministry may well be more susceptible to burnout.  Why?  Because there is a unique pressure not to be.  After all, if Person B is hit by a perfect storm of stressors, they might go to the doctor, get a prescription for something, and get signed off from work.  When they recover, they can go back to their job.  If they lose their job, there is usually another similar one out there for them.  But for Pastor A, there are some unique pressures of ministry – the person in ministry is expected to have unique access to God’s sustaining power, plus they don’t want to let others down (often because they love the people they are serving), they feel they are not supposed to resort to medication, also that the church will suffer if they stop doing their job for a season because the church is not prepared for a sudden “sabbatical,” and if they do burnout there may be no way back into the vocation to which they have given their life – and then how can they provide for their family?  Plenty of people in ministry carry stresses in life that we humans are not created to carry alone.

Underlying stressors – some stresses are more obvious.  When a church is filled with division and tensions, that can be obvious.  When a family member is suffering from a serious illness, people tend to be aware of that.  When an ageing parent has had to move into the family home or a difficult season is entered with a teenage child, or the person is diagnosed with a serious health condition, etc., then others tend to know.  Some stressors are more obvious and the person carrying that load might receive some extra support and help (although I am amazed how often churches expect ministry folks to just carry the extra load and press on!)

But there are also underlying stressors that tend to be less obvious.  Some have always been in the ministry mix: financial anxiety (who cares enough to ask the questions, because the person in ministry will tend to feel unable to raise it), marital tension (again, those in ministry can fear opening up about struggles because of multiplied consequences), private sin struggles (same again), ministry team tensions, chronic health concerns, parenting challenges, etc.  Any one of these can weigh on the soul of the minister and become half of a perfect storm, just waiting for another stressor to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, as it were.

And currently, there are new underlying stressors that we cannot ignore.  In the last five years or so, we are experiencing a hyper-fast change in our culture, as well as two years of Covid-19, of course.  Many are living with an ongoing, underlying weight of stress.  There is anxiety from a culture that no longer needs to wait for a mistake to pounce – the preacher is already on record over many years for believing things now considered “hate speech” that can lead to being cancelled retroactively.  There may be anger at the injustice of the new morality that is taking over society (academia, the media, social media, etc.) – a new morality that determines what can and cannot be believed, spoken and shared.  The loss of free speech and the death of healthy debate weighs heavily on some: if you disagree, then there are many ready to label you with the worst labels and who might also seek to eliminate your opportunity to express your opinion.  And when people in our own churches are trained to act in this destructive manner, more and more people will be carrying growing anxiety and/or anger within.

Covid-19 has been ongoing stress for those in ministry.  There was initial uncertainty about the virus. Then there was the government interference in church world that most of us have never experienced before.  Where we can work, what we must wear, whether we can gather to worship, if we can sing, even when we can walk outside and workout, what medical procedure we must receive, who we can welcome into our homes, etc – these are unprecedented measures.  We have had to adapt continually in ministry: going online, in person with restrictions, changing rules, etc. while trying to lead congregations that might hold very different views on what is happening, and what should be happening.  Many have lived in fear of the virus, others in fear of the government response, and far too often, in fear of each other. 

As we move forward we are now in a different and divided world.  Many in ministry are living with some combination of underlying anxiety and anger (at the injustices that are either flagged or suppressed, the lack of transparency over pandemic decision-making, the apparent disintegration of civil liberties in western countries, etc.)  We will be ministering in a context that is becoming increasingly antagonistic to the Christian faith, with increasing controls on information, communication, thought, etc.  Then there are new chronic illnesses that we are told have always been there.  And just to add to the stress – lots of people are ready to dismiss any concerns because they are reliably informed by the media that everything is normal, and every fear is irrational (apart from the officially sanctioned fears, of course). 

Be Proactive – What should we do to help prevent the rising levels of burnout, breakdown, and flame out in ministry (and other spheres too)?  This post is already far too long, so perhaps I will just say this: be proactive.  If you suspect your pastor is carrying underlying anxiety, tension, or even anger, then be proactive.  Pray for them, but also talk to them.  Make sure they are not carrying burdens alone.  They tend to be ever ready to draw alongside others in the challenges of life.  Make sure someone draws alongside them too. 

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