Subtlety – A Key in First-Person Preaching?

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

Let’s see this on a scale:

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

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

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

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

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

When the Gospel is All Past Tense

 

whiteclock5I grew up in a church tradition that diligently preached the Gospel every Sunday evening.  I heard faithful folks pray in prayer meetings that folks might “come under the sound of the Gospel” and I watched the weekly routine of preaching the Gospel message.  But something was typically missing.

Essentially the problem was that the Gospel message was preached in past tense.  That is, not only was it the preaching of a past event (which it is), but it was also past tense for most of the listeners.  They had heard it before, responded before and were saved already.

So more than once I asked what the point of this service was since guests were not a common feature?  I was told that it was right to preach the Gospel, and that those of us present who had already trusted Christ for salvation could use it as an opportunity to be thankful, and to pray for the unsaved who may or may not be present.  Essentially this meant that I was hearing a Gospel that was not for me.

Here’s the problem: it was for me.  Instead of simply being thankful and praying for others, I needed to learn that I needed the Gospel to live the Christian life too.  It is not just the way in – responding in trust to the Christ who gave himself for me is the way on too.  For years I sat and heard messages that seemed to be targeted at someone else (and often that someone else was not there).  What a wasted opportunity.

The Gospel is not just past tense, it is what I need present tense.  Why?  Because I need Christ and the grace of God that is offered in Christ – I didn’t just need that once.  I need that now.

5 Ways to be a Good Bible City Tour Guide

TourGuide2When you move to a new city it can be very overwhelming.  I remember moving to South London back in the days before my phone knew how to get me to my destination.  I had a huge book of street maps on the passenger seat and I gradually learned to navigate between key landmarks.  I would have loved a tour guide sitting there instead – as long as it was a good tour guide.

I would not have appreciated hearing meticulous details about the front of several houses in an obscure cul-de-sac.  “Turn right into Downing Close.  Pull over behind the white care.  Notice how houses 3, 5, and 7 all have a black gate, but different colour front doors?  Isn’t it intriguing to note how number 5 in particular does a good job keeping the side hedge trimmed and the roses look pretty good too?”

That kind of detail, presented with a dull lack of enthusiasm, would have quickly pushed me back to trusting in my book of maps.

What makes a good tour guide?  And what has this got to do with preaching?

We live in a time when very few people grow up with a good level of biblical awareness. Consequently our churches have a growing population of people who find themselves lost when they open the pages of the Bible.  They need help, and the preacher might be their main “tour guide” to help them get around.

Here are some thoughts to ponder:

1. Preacher Bible Guides should believe that their listeners need to journey in the Bible for themselves during the week – a sermon on a Sunday is not enough Bible for anyone.  We must realize how much people need to be in the Word when we aren’t there to preach it to them.

2. A good tour guide knows the big picture and the key landmarks.  It is not enough to know your way around a few key streets, you need to know how the whole fits together and what the significant landmarks are.  In Bible terms this means you need to know the big story, and understand the key landmarks: can you tell the Bible story by key characters (Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, Paul), or by key covenants (Abrahamic, Palestinian, Davidic, New), or by key events (creation, exodus, exile, cross, second coming), etc?

3. A good tour guide knows fascinating details that help to make sense of, and add colour to, the big picture.  It is important to be able to slow down and help someone see the significance of what is happening in a particular passage of Scripture, but not as a cul-de-sac in isolation.  The best tour guides can point to a detail, tell the story, and make the big picture make more sense.

4. A good tour guide knows when to go to a big landmark and when to go to a little detail.  The same is true for the preacher.  Learn how and when to give a sense of the whole, as well as how and when to make much of a detail.  You need to be able to do both, and you need to learn when to do each one.

5. A good tour guide genuinely loves the city.  Nothing worse than good knowledge offered dispassionately as if it actually doesn’t matter.  A good tour guide will help you fall more and more in love with the city and its story and its people and its charms.  How much more is this true for a Bible City Tour Guide?

Believe that your listeners should be discovering more for themselves all week long in Bible city.  Know the big picture and key landmarks, as well as the fascinating details that bring the big story to life, and know when to offer big picture or little detail.  Love the Bible city and the God revealed there.  Put that all together and you are the kind of Bible City Tour Guide that people in our churches are crying out for…

Don’t Fight the Wrong Battle

Battle2I wonder if sometimes we are fighting the wrong battles in our preaching.  For instance, ponder this quote from John Stott:

Many people are rejecting our gospel today not because they perceive it to be false but because they perceive it to be trivial.  People are looking for an integrated worldview which makes sense of all their experience.

This quote is from many years ago, but I suspect it still has a resonance for many.  Some of us get excited about proving the truths of Christianity, perhaps more excited than our listeners are concerned about those issues?  Some will need proof of truth, others will need ring of relevance, and I would suggest that all need to encounter Christ.

That is to say, many preachers present truth without offering the person.  God is not a statement of faith, He is a personal God.  Be sure that however you preach, you make sure to introduce people to the God we know and love.  It is in encountering Him that lives will be transformed.

Legalism and Preaching – part 2

Legalism2I remember the look on his face. An elder in a church genuinely believed what he said, “we may have problems here, but legalism is not one of them. We certainly don’t have legalism here.”  I couldn’t believe it. You could smell the legalism before you entered the door.

Why do we feel immune? I suspect it is because we excessively overlap our legalism definition with the idea of works-salvation.  It is not just about seeking salvation through obedience. Legalism is also about seeking God’s ongoing favour through obedience. It is about trying to perform in order to stay loved, as well as to get loved.

But why do Christians slide into legalism?  In Paul’s writings he sets out the fight between our flesh and the Spirit.  As Christians we have the Spirit of God united with our spirit, and so we long to please Him. At the same time we are still in the flesh with all its pre-programmed rebellion against God’s good rule in our lives. So we feel a tension within. But to avoid legalism we have to make sure we understand what it means to live in the flesh.

Too easily we can view “fleshly living” as the pursuit of licentious decadence, the kind of wild and lust-charged living we see in certain places and on certain TV shows.  But if we think the flesh is just about wild living, then we are set up for the trap of legalism.  Why? Because we feel safe if we don’t live like “those people,” if we can resist the urge to let loose and do crazy things, then we are obviously living in accordance with the Spirit.  Or are we?

The flesh is defined primarily not by a certain lifestyle, but by an orientation. The flesh is all about me.  It is about autonomy. It is about living my way in my strength.  And that is where we can be sucked into a very fleshly lifestyle that looks very holy.  In my strength, in my own autonomy, I can be a “good” person. I can attend church, avoid unacceptable sins, dress well and look holy.  Instead of living a wild and extravagant overt rebellion, I can live a hidden and self-sufficient religious rebellion.  I can be entirely fleshly, and look very very Christian.

Once we recognize that the core issue in the flesh is not licentiousness, but autonomy, we can start to avoid the legalism trap.  Galatians 2:20-3:3 can start to make sense to us.

Sinclair Ferguson makes the helpful point that both legalism and licentiousness are related in this way: they separate God’s Law from God Himself. Thus they both reveal the human tendency to prefer autonomy. Rather than dealing with God Himself, we can keep God at arm’s length and live in essential separation from Him, precisely by looking to a disconnected Law and give it our self-concerned obedience.

Legalism is not only possible for Christians, it is the default of our flesh in one form or another. Let’s pray for God to sensitize us to the subtle slide to legalism that stirs within all of us.  It’s a slide away from Him and back towards self.

Legalism and Preaching

Legalism2Legalism is an easy word to throw around, but a challenging term to define. For many of us, legalism seems to refer to whatever restrictions others might feel that I personally do not feel. But defining legalism carefully is vitally important.

It is important for each follower of Christ. It is a serious business to discount a restriction as legalism when it actually is displeasing to the One who loved us and gave Himself for us. Equally it can be stifling to the life He has given us to overlay unnecessary restrictions and thereby misrepresent Him to ourselves and others.

The issue of representing Christ to others means that defining legalism accurately should be a concern for every preacher. People look to us for guidance, both in clarification of the Gospel and in instruction for living. Every preacher treads a minefield in every sermon – preach legalism, or preach license, and damage will be done.

However, many of us never really think about the definition of legalism. I think part of the reason for this is that we have been lulled into a false sense of security by an inadequate definition.

Many definitions are essentially similar to this:

“Legalism is about trying to merit salvation by obedience.”

But there is a significant problem with this definition. Too easily we will hear this to be referring to the heresy of salvation by works. That is, the idea that we have to behave in order to be saved. And the problem with that understanding of legalism is that once we are saved (by grace, not works), then we are effectively immune from any charge of legalism. After all, doesn’t every born again believer in Jesus know that salvation is based on grace, not works?

Surely a definition of legalism that rules out any Christian from being a legalist must be flawed.  It concerns me because I am sure I have met a few legalists.  I have probably been one too.

So perhaps it would be better to define legalism as “trying to merit God’s favour by obedience.” After all, God’s favour is not just about getting into the family in the first place, we also value God’s favour in our ongoing relationship with Him.

Next time I would like to wrestle with this idea more and identify one big reason why believers can fall into legalism so easily.

Preaching Christ Reveals the Father

crucifix2Too much preaching presents a false division between Father and Son.  That is, the Father can sound like an angry and distant despot who is grudgingly appeased by the Son’s sacrifice on behalf of sinners.  That is exactly wrong.

Jesus came not only to fulfil the mission of sacrifice, but also to fulfil the mission of revelation. If you have seen Jesus then you have seen the Father.  What does that mean? It means that Jesus died on the cross in our place in total humiliation because that is the heart of the Father for us. It means that in Christ we come to the Father as loved as the Son, not tolerated because of the Son. It means that the Father Himself loves us and hears our prayers.

Let’s not fall into the confusion of negative Father and friendly Son. Jesus reveals the Father to us, His humility, His love, His selflessness.

Mishandling Old Testament Quotes in Preaching

Two scrolls3Yesterday we saw three big mistakes that are common in explaining OT material in the NT (click here to go there).  Here are some more to ponder:

4. Obliviousness to New Covenant allusions.  This is a huge problem in Christian preaching today.  Too many people read the New Testament and seem to miss the multiple New Covenant allusions that permeate practically every section of the New Testament. The work of the Spirit, intimacy with God, transformed hearts, life, and so on . . . there is so much more to the New Covenant than simply the forgiveness of sins.  Sadly, too many in our churches seem to think that Christianity is an offer of forgiveness combined with a repackaging of Old Covenant guidelines for living.  I suspect Paul would get sharp with some contemporary preaching!

5. Obliviousness to Old Testament portrayal of God.  Too easily we make a similar mistake with the Old Testament.  We can easily view it as largely a presentation of life under the rule of an angry and distant God.  When we read the New Testament as the arrival of gentle Jesus to rescue us from a hard-to-please God, then naturally we will fail to grasp the richness of the Old Testament background to the New.  It was not Law back then, but grace and truth now only.  John 1:14-18 is speaking of the LORD who pitches His tent near the people and whose glory can be beheld, whose character is abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (grace and truth).  The Jesus of the New Testament is not absent from the Old Testament – it was about Him, and He was there.  They did not simply trust in a good promise, but they also encountered the Promiser Himself . . . and now we can meet Him fully!  There are discontinuities between the Old and New Testament, but the character of God the Father revealed in God the Son is not one of them.

How else have you heard OT quotes and allusions mishandled in preaching the NT?

 

Handling Old Testament Quotes in Preaching – Part 3

Two scrolls2So far we have thought about the need to read the Old Testament and to go back to study the source of a quotation. We looked at a specific example (Psalm 82:6 in John 10:34).  What do we do when we have limited time in the sermon?

1. Do the study yourself, even if you don’t plan to preach about it.  Taking the time to study an OT quote, reference, allusion or whatever will always benefit you. You need to be studying the Bible at a deeper level than you are communicating it to others. Too many preachers try to sound more informed than they are – that is dangerously thin ice to skate on.  Study deeper than you preach.

2. Evaluate how significant a full explanation of the quote will be in communicating the main idea of your preaching passage.  Perhaps you have a passage that is built on a single Old Testament quote and it would be worth taking the listeners back to the quote (you could project it so they don’t get lost flipping pages). It may be worth taking them through a simplified process of pondering the context, the meaning back there, how that carries over and informs the NT passage, etc.  It may be appropriate to be interactive in this process, inviting them to think out loud with you.  There are lots of possibilities, however, this will not be possible or helpful with every OT quote you preach.

3. Recognize that there are multiple levels of explanation.  Sometimes it is possible and helpful to go back and look at the quote in its context. Sometimes that would take too much time, or it would take away too much focus from the passage you are preaching.  It is possible to explain an Old Testament quote verbally in 10 seconds, or 30 seconds, or two minutes, etc.  It is possible to give the bottom line of your study, such as, “if we were to take the time to go back and look at that quote, we would see that the whole section in Ezekiel is a rebuke of Israel’s failed leadership . . . which is what Jesus is critiquing here as he points to himself as the Good Shepherd, etc.”  (This is thinking more of early John 10 and the Ezekiel 34 background.)  You have lots of options, from not even noticing it is a quote or allusion, to doing the full process with your listeners.  Choose appropriately.

4. Remember that your listeners need encouragement to enjoy the Bible for themselves.  While you may not have the time to go back and look, it doesn’t hurt to suggest that people do that themselves. Too often listeners feel the Bible is out of their reach and only the preacher can dispense the goods.  Too often listeners feel there is some kind of subjectivity and magic worked when preachers explain passages.  Encourage your listeners to go digging.  Encouragement combined with some good examples may motivate them to go back into the Old Testament for themselves!

4 Reasons to Handle the Bible Well

designAny Christian leader will have opportunity to communicate biblical truth to others. It may be a sermon, or it may be in conversation; it may be to a group of Christians, or it may be an evangelistic setting, but we will all communicate the Bible to others. Let’s be sure to handle the Bible well.

What do I mean by that? I mean good basic biblical interpretation. Understand meaning in its immediate context, as the author intended, following the grammar of the text, making sure we see what it actually says, recognizing something of the historical and cultural setting, etc. I mean not imposing fanciful interpretations that make you appear either extra clever, or excessively creative or even downright oblivious to the plain meaning of the text itself. I am not saying we all have to have high level degrees in biblical exegesis before we can speak to others. I am saying we can all do our best to handle the Bible well.

So why is it important to pay attention to how we handle the Bible, whether in preaching or conversation? Here are four reasons:

1. Because of God. A basic assumption that would help all of us is to trust that God is a good communicator. That means that if God chose to inspire a collection of documents, then He would do a very good job. He did. So a personal commitment to handling the Bible as well as possible is an expression of my trust in God’s ability to communicate well. He did not inspire a poor Bible that needs our cleverness, our fanciful ideas, or our creative shortcuts. When we try to improve God’s communication by our own sophistication we insult our God. When we handle the Bible carelessly we demonstrate a lack of value for our God’s communicative nature. Let’s handle the Bible well because of God.

2. Because of the unsaved. Another important point to remember is that people who do not yet know Christ will come to know Christ because of the Spirit drawing them to Him, not because of our brilliant presentations. However, they are evaluating our presentations. If we claim that the Bible was given by inspiration of God, but then proceed to read it carelessly, or elevate our own “codebreaking genius” above a text we claim was given to us by God, then we should not be surprised if some do not take the gospel seriously and view us as being duped by an unthinking religion. When the Bible plays a secondary role to our communicative sophistication (or our sloppiness), those who are trying to evaluate the claims of Christ may be led to feel that it can’t be worth much if we appear to not take God’s revelation seriously. Let’s handle the Bible well because those who don’t know Christ are watching us.

3. Because of believers. Periodically I get to go to the doctor’s office and see the medical expert in action. I might get seven minutes, and I cannot see the screen they spend so much time looking at. I don’t learn much. Periodically I take my car to the mechanic and I might stick around and watch an expert in action. I might get to spend a little time, but I typically won’t see much. I don’t learn much. But every week I sit in a church and watch a Bible expert in action. I might get half an hour, or even more. Sadly, in many cases I would not learn much that would help me handle the Bible well. When we handle the Bible before people, they are looking to our example as well as our message. How we handle the Bible will make a mark on them. Are we setting a good example of observing the passage closely, interpreting accurately, and applying appropriately? Are we demonstrating an attitude to the Bible, and an approach to handling the Bible, that we are happy for our listeners to copy all week long? Let’s handle the Bible well because those who think we know what we are doing are watching us.

4. Because of me. I want to handle the Bible well for my own sake too. I want you to handle the Bible well for your own sake. How silly we must seem when we treat the Bible as if it has limited value, but believe that our clever communication is what people need. The truth is, when we short circuit the process and offer personal proof texts and hobby horses, we steal from ourselves the riches that come from having our nose in the text and our hearts open to the God who wants to meet us there. Maybe my message to others will be limited in value for some reason, but my own time in the Bible seeking to understand it and respond to God will be invaluable for me. Let’s handle the Bible well because even if our communication were to fail, our own time with God in His Word is eternally priceless.

Prayerfully ask God to search you and try you in this area. How are you handling the Bible when you preach? What about in conversation? Attention given in this area will never be wasted effort for those that love God!