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.

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.

Redemptive Force

Imagine a scale from 1-10.  It measures the redemptive force of the content of your sermon.  10 is a full presentation of the Gospel: the full plan of God being worked out on the cross by Jesus’ death as our substitute, demonstrating God’s love, inviting us to trust in him and what he has done.  At the other end of the scale there is 1, which points towards the gracious heart of God toward sinners and sufferers, but does not make the journey to Jesus and the cross.  Let’s call this the Redemptive Force Scale.

Question: How far along the scale should you go in your sermon? 

Some would immediately say it has to always be a 10 – after all, Paul’s teaching in 1Corinthians 2:1-5 points to the need to preach Christ and him crucified.  But others might hesitate.  What if the preaching passage doesn’t naturally allow a 10?  Depending on our school of thought, we might feel another value has to be considered too.

Two great values – I feel there are two great values that have to be kept in view.  

(1) One is the value of preaching the Gospel – that is why we preach, it is critical for every listener. 

(2) The other is the value of preaching the text – we need to handle the text well, this is also critical for every listener.  I do not believe we should abandon good handling of the text in order to get to the good news.  It is not wise to imply God is not a good communicator by discarding the Bible in order to get to the Gospel.

Two common mistakes – I also feel there are two mistakes that are made much more than we’d like to believe. 

(1) One is not preaching the gospel at all.  Perhaps we think that the gospel is only for evangelism and there is a different type of preaching for believers.  Or perhaps we don’t realise how much our preaching is really pointing people back to their own resources and their own efforts.  We may not preach salvation by works, but too many of us inadvertently preach sanctification and spiritual maturity by works.

(2) The other mistake is when we sacrifice the integrity of the text in order to jump to Jesus.  A tenuous link, a stretched analogy, a missing stepping stone . . . it is too easy to slip from our passage straight into the shadow of the cross and leave our listeners wondering how we got there from this passage?  If we have to do preaching parkour to get to Calvary, perhaps we have pushed it too hard.

Seven suggestions to ponder:

  1. If the occasion is primarily evangelistic, pick an appropriate passage.  A message on John 3 or Ephesians 2 will naturally yield a Redemptive Force of  8, 9, or 10 without any need to compromise on textual handling in order to preach the gospel.  If the occasion is primarily evangelistic, don’t preach on Ezekiel 38-39 or Nehemiah 7.
  2. If you are preaching a regular church sermon, be sure to get on the scale.  Your listeners all need to feel the redemptive force of the text.  They do not need a moralistic coaching session that puts their focus back onto themselves.
  3. Every text allows a legitimate sermon with redemptive force.  Bryan Chapell points out that every text in the Bible was written after the fall of humanity, and every text was inspired after God had stated his plan to rescue humanity in Genesis 3:15.  Therefore, every text is, in some way, redemptive in what it reveals, what it points to, or how it works in its context.
  4. You can develop the hermeneutical and homiletical ability to move up the scale. To put this a different way, most texts are not just offering a 1 or a 2, but you need to learn how to handle the text well and move legitimately toward the other end of the scale.
  5. You will not be able to hit 10 every week.  Sometimes the text only yields a 6, or even a 3.  Sometimes a congregation is not able to track as you make a complicated link to level 8, but they will grasp the level 5 version (for example, when knowledge of the original language is required to see the level 8 connection, it may not be possible to effectively lead people that far).  Sometimes the sermon time is not long enough to give enough explanation to get to the 9, but a 7 works well.   The text, the congregation, the timing, as well as the occasion, and even the preacher, might limit where you can get to on the Redemptive Force scale without sacrificing good handling of the preaching text.
  6. A church diet with some variety of redemptive force will not hurt people at all, but generally get as far up the scale as you legitimately can.  If you consistently hit 10 in every single sermon, you might give the impression that every biblical text is only there as a launch point to get to the cross.  This may even diminish the rich revelation of God’s heart through the canon of Scripture, if people start to think that every text is only included to launch us to the same presentation of the gospel. 
  7. However you show the redemptive force of the text, let the text still be in charge. To put that in other words, each message should be shaped by the text you are preaching. You should not simply launch from the text and end up giving the same pre-packaged presentation of the gospel at the end of the message. The text you are preaching is the boss of the whole message. You want the gospel presentation to have the implicit authority of God’s Word driving it, not just the sense of authority that comes from your presentation.

I think this Redemptive Force scale could be helpful to us.  Let’s always be sure to get on the scale, and let’s preach with as much redemptive force as the text, the occasion, the listeners, and our communicative ability will allow.  Let us preach the Gospel clearly as we carefully handle God’s inspired Scriptures with precision and integrity.  And let us always remember that only God can give spiritual life to those that hear!

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7 Good Thoughts, 1 Ultimate Thought

Effective preaching should stir lots of thoughts. But it is important to distinguish good thoughts from ultimate thoughts. Any of these good thoughts become a problem when they linger as the ultimate thought from a sermon:

1. Thoughts About Self (Application). When we preach the Bible, we should preach with relevance to life that manifests in application. The problem comes when listeners are left thinking about themselves as the ultimate thought of the sermon. I should try harder to . . . I must change in regards to . . . I need more discipline in my life . . . etc. Be applicational, but don’t make application the ultimate goal so that listeners go away thinking about themselves.

2. Thoughts About the Text (Education/Fascination). When we preach the Bible, we should enthusiastically invite people into the world of the text. Good preaching will stir good thoughts about the meaning of the text. People will learn, and they may find that the biblical text is genuinely fascinating. The problem comes when listeners are left thinking about their fascinating new insights into the text as the ultimate thought of the sermon. Educate, fascinate, enthuse people for the Word of God, but don’t make this instruction the ultimate goal so that listeners go away thinking about the text as an end in itself.

3. Thoughts About Gratitude for Sermon (Appreciation). When we preach the Bible, we might inadvertently stir appreciation for our ministry. Good preaching should stir good thoughts of gratitude. The problem comes when listeners are left thinking about how much they appreciate the preacher as the ultimate thought of the sermon. By all means, be thankful for expressed gratitude; it is a real encouragement that we all need. Never let that become the ultimate goal.

4. Thoughts About Preacher – Positive (Admiration).  The last one can easily morph into this one. When we preach the Bible, we might accidentally or deliberately impress our listeners so that their thoughts are those of admiration. It could be our knowledge of Scripture, our ability to communicate, our sense of humour, our picture-perfect family life, etc. I hope it is obvious what the problem is here: some may be true, some may be a half-truth, some may be fake veneer – the concerns are mounting. You cannot always avoid a bit of admiration, attraction or affect in your preaching. You are standing up before a crowd and speaking, which is already something some of your listeners greatly fear. Of course, they may be impressed. But ask the Lord to search your heart and flag any deliberate impulses to impress. You don’t want to be the ultimate thought from your sermon.

5. Thoughts About Preacher – Negative (Aggravation).  You also don’t want to be the ultimate thought from your sermon because of negative reasons. Good preaching may convict and stir an adverse reaction to you as the messenger. That happens and maybe God’s plan. But the problem comes when listeners are left thinking about how much the preacher aggravates them because of tangible pride (see #4), annoying delivery habits, unhelpful content, antagonistic tone, etc.

6. Thoughts About Illustration (Illumination). When we are preaching, we will sometimes use illustrative material to help explain, support or apply what we are saying. Sometimes an illustration will capture the imagination of your listeners and achieve your goal in using that illustration perfectly. This is good. But it is not good when an illustration is so overwhelming that it becomes the ultimate thought. Don’t leave listeners thinking about that movie, that scientific anecdote, that witty response, or that poor little boy at the sports event.

7. Thoughts About the World (Consternation).  When we preach, we do not simply offer biblical truth. We provide biblical truth that speaks into the realities of our current context. In the process, we will need to help people see what is going on in our hearts, our community, our culture, our media, etc. As uncomfortable as it may seem, the pulpit does have a role to play in speaking truth into the bubble of contemporary cultural narratives. It is good to help people think, discern, and even react to injustice and corruption in our world. But it is not good when our cultural commentary becomes the ultimate thought in our listeners.

The bottom line is relatively simple, but it bears stating and pondering for us all. It is good to preach in such a way that people feel the force of the text in their daily lives, grow in their appreciation of the beauty of God’s revelation, feel thankful for good preaching, look up to a Christlike example, feel discomforted appropriately, gain insight through a powerful illustration and grow in their awareness of the state of society. These are all good thoughts. But these should not be ultimate thoughts. 

The ultimate thought that we want our listeners to linger longer in the hearts and minds of our listeners is simple: it is Him. May we preach so that our listeners walk away pondering the character, the heart, the goodness, the grace of God. Preach that they would see Jesus.

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?

Learning to Preach in Changing Contexts – Jonathan Thomas

Here is another clip from my interview with Jonathan Thomas, pastor of Cornerstone Church, Abergavenny.  I appreciate Jonathan as a friend and as a preacher.

In this clip he talks about what he has learned from preaching during lockdown – a lesson that we all need to keep learning whatever the circumstances we find ourselves in.

To see the full interview, you just need to sign-up to the Cor Deo mailing list and we will make the full interview available to you!  Click here to sign-up – http://eepurl.com/drPqj1

What have you learned in recent months, or what challenges do you anticipate in the coming months?

Weight of Evidence Preaching: 5 Lessons Learned

Generally my default approach to preaching is to preach a single passage.  Sometimes I will preach a more topical message where each point is the idea of a text and the points together make up the main idea.  But there is a variation that might be called a weight of evidence sermon.

This is where the main idea of the message is repeated multiple times in the Bible.  So while you may use multiple texts, it is not primarily to build the main idea, but rather to reinforce the main idea.  For example, this past Sunday I essentially preached Isaiah 41:10, “Fear not, for I am with you.”

In one part of the message I quoted Genesis 26:24; Deuteronomy 31:8; Joshua 1:9 and Jeremiah 1:8 – all of which say the same thing in a variety of ways.  I anticipated that I would be able to find examples of the main idea that addressed different circumstances in life, but then in my study found that the “fear not” part of the phrase was either overt or in the context of almost every text I found with “I am with you” or similar phrasing.  So since over 90% of the 30+ passages I looked at had that fear context, I focused the message on God being with us, so we should not be afraid.

I touched down briefly in Hebrews 13:5-6, Psalm 23:4 and Matthew 28:20.  He is with us when threatened by people, when facing death, and in our service for Him – all contexts in which we feel fear.

Here are 5 lessons learned on weight of evidence preaching:

1. This should not be the default.  Typically our goal should not be to touch down in as many different verses as possible.  Padding sermons with unnecessary cross-references is very common and often a detriment to healthy preaching.

2. Be very focused. If the message uses multiple texts, then the main point needs to be very clear and obvious.  Otherwise the multiplied verses will confuse and lose listeners. For instance, there were verses in my list where the world noticed God being with his people and it causing them to fear, or verses that spoke of believers loving one another as the context of God’s dwelling with them.  This message could have lost focus and therefore lost its force.  Be selective in what you preach.

3. Keep their finger on one text.  Preaching is not a Bible sword drill where we try to make people find multiple references.  So I encouraged people to open to Isaiah 41:10, but I projected the text of the other verses used.

4. Feel the force of the frequency.  The point of a weight of evidence message is to help listeners feel the force of the frequency.  Time and again God’s word says this, so we should be sure to hear it!

5. Make follow up study possible. People may respond positively, but make sure the list of passages is available to any who want to study it for themselves.  There is the benefit of the main idea punched home in the sermon, but there is also the possibility of people enjoying the Bible study chase for themselves, if they have the references.

I’d be interested to hear any more thoughts on this approach – both the pros and the cons.

A Contagious Pulpit

I remember Haddon Robinson saying that a mist in the pulpit will result in a fog in the pew.  It seems so obvious to say it, but there is a strong connection between what is going on in the preacher and what will go on in the listeners.  This is true both positively and negatively.  Here are some examples with brief comment:

Negatively

1. Nerves & Stress.  If you are nervous, they will join you in that.  If you seem stressed, you will put them on edge.  Whatever your preparation has or has not been like, make sure you go into preaching by faith rather than self-reliance, or self-concerned stress.

2. Coldness & Distance.  A congregation is like a dog in this regard: they can always sense if you don’t care for them.  Pray until your heart beats with God’s heart for these people, especially when you sense that indifference and lack of love that so easily creeps in for all of us.

3. Boredom & Disinterest.  Nobody wants to listen to someone who is not particularly interested in the passage they are preaching or the God they are speaking about.  In fact, they won’t listen.  Your disinterest will transmit so that they mentally leave the venue long before you leave the pulpit.

Positively

4. Warmth & Connection.  Maybe you have met somebody so warm and congenial that you found yourself warming to them as the conversation progressed.  The same is true in preaching: your love for them and enthusiasm for the God you speak about will increase their temperature toward you and Him!

5. Clarity of Image.  Whether it is an illustration or the retelling of a narrative, this principle applies: if you can see it, so will they.  Be prepared enough to be able to see what you are describing and you will be surprised how much more your listeners feel like they are immersed in the movie, not just enduring a monologue.  Blow the fog away, describe what is vivid to your mind and it will be clear to theirs, and engaging to their hearts too.

6. Responsiveness & Worship.  This goes way beyond enthusiasm and even interpersonal warmth.  This is about response to God.  If you are moved by the passage and the message to worship and obedience birthed from stirred affection, then that will increasingly be the response of your listeners too.

There are many ways in which we  will infect our listeners as we preach.  What “diseases” do we want to carry to them?

Simple Encouragement

Earlier this year I heard a quote from JRR Tolkien.  After having the completed manuscript of The Lord of the Rings in his office for several years, he finally had it published.  Why?  Tolkien replied along these lines: “It would not have been finished, let alone published, if it were not for the simple encouragement of my good friend, CS Lewis.”

In Ephesians 4:25, Paul urges the believers to be truthful with one another, rather than living on in the falsehood that pervades our fallen world.  The community of God’s people are members of one another in a unique way, and so their mouths should be used to unify through the truth rather than the lie.  A few verses later, he returns to the subject of the mouth.  In verse 29 he urges them not to spray rottenness from their mouths, but rather to only speak words that build up and give grace.  Speaking the truth may be challenging, but building up takes it to a higher level again!

If this is true for believers in general, then how much more should we heed this as preachers.  Preacher, do you encourage?  It is strange to take note of how  encouragement is missing in a lot of preaching these days.

Exhortation is not the same as encouragement.  Yes, there is a need for exhortation, especially when the text calls the original hearers to action and that call remains applicable in the same way to our listeners today.  But exhortation tends to include persuasion with a dash of rebuke.  This may be needed, but it is not encouragement (with its recipe of hope, confidence and life).  Exhortation aims toward the listener, but tends to fire provocation rather than the relational fuel that we humans need in abundance.

Guilt is not the same as encouragement.  It really isn’t the same thing at all, just as a fish knife is not a butter knife.  It may seem like it will achieve the same goal, but generally it is sharper and more likely to provoke instinctive withdrawal rather than the desired goal.  Guilt dresses up as a shortcut to achieving conformity, but the results tend to be short-lived and shallow.  By all means pray for the Spirit to convict your listeners of guilt, He is very capable of that, but don’t go adding guilt into your primary repertoire – you will soon be slipping into legalism when you do.  Guilt aims at the listener, but it does so in an essentially negative way.

Enthusiasm is not the same as encouragement.  Yes, enthusiasm can indeed be contagious.  At the same time, it can merely impress others with your passoin while leaving them unencouraged in their own hearts.  Your enthusiasm does matter, but it is really a heartiness toward a subject or topic, rather than the life-giving heartiness toward your listeners that they need.

Application is not the same as encouragement.  By all means demonstrate how a biblical truth can translate into the nitty gritty situations of life.  People do need that to a certain extent.  But simply applying a text will point listeners to the steps they might take.  They also need heartfelt encouragement to feel warmed toward motivation in that direction.

Your words can urge, convict, enthuse, or offer clarification of application.  But let’s make sure our words build up, giving grace to those who hear, so that they feel our hearty encouragement.  They need it.  We all do.

Think back to someone who has been a real encouragement to you.  How did they do it?  Who can you offer encouragement to personally?  What about other people in ministry like you – is there another preacher or pastor that you can build up with some words today?

Perhaps before you preach again you need to look at the passage and ask yourself, “how is God encouraging me in this passage?”  Pass that on.