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?

Your Culture and Your Preaching – Part 3

So our culture tends to show in how we preach.  We may accept that premise, but so what?  In part 1 we introduced the subject, and in part 2 we listed five ways our culture will be showing.

What should we do about it?  Here is a six-step action plan…

1. Write an initial list of your assumptions.  What comes to mind when you think of a typical preacher from your culture?  It is good to have a starting point so that as you think and research further you will see what you have learned.  Maybe start without any real categories, just what seems obvious to you.

2. Start to analyze your culture using categories.  In the last post I listed five: self, authority, confidence, humour and emotion/passion.  You might also consider organizational style and clarity (in respect to sermon content), use of visuals and expectation of the audience to read during a presentation, body language, smile and facial expression, and more.

3. Triangulate a new vantage point.  This is especially hard if you have only lived and attended church in one culture.  But it is still possible.  Select a culture that is not your own, but you have some awareness of … for example, most British Christians have some exposure to podcasts and speakers from the USA.  Listen to some good examples (not the extreme stereotypes that people like to use to dismiss “everything American” but preachers that you can enjoy and appreciate), listen not only to benefit from their preaching, but also to try to identify what makes their preaching distinctly American (or whatever culture you select).  Obviously there are always caveats, three white conservative evangelical preachers will help you to spot some common traits, but you will have missed the massive tradition of African-American preaching, etc.  You are not doing this to generalize or to label, but rather to gain a vantage point for your own culture.

Do the same with a culture you are not familiar with.  For instance you might find a handful of examples of preachers from a third continent.  Be careful not to just watch a handful of preachers with a different ethnic background who also live, study and preach in the USA or the UK – the distinct differences will be reduced by their assimilated context.  A totally new culture can give you the culture shock of unfamiliarity that will help this process.

Once you’ve started to recognize some commonalities in these two other cultures, making notes for your own use, then try step 4:

4. Watch your own culture from the vantage point of step 3.  Maybe find a handful of preachers from your own culture and watch them.  How do they differ from what you observed in the two cultures of step 3?  Be careful not to just feel at home and simply affirm them as generically good preachers.  Recognize that they have strengths and weaknesses from their culture.  Maybe having had a dose of a different culture or two you can start to spot some idiosyncrasies that may not be so helpful after all?  If you only see positives in your own culture, then go back and repeat step 3!

5. Ask questions. Sometimes you can gain a lot of ground quickly by just asking someone who is from outside your culture but will be honest enough to answer your question.  This will be more helpful after doing some good thinking yourself.  If you just jump to this then the benefit will be reduced, but it is still worth doing, especially if that person is in your church and you are preaching to them regularly.

6. Evaluate and adjust.  The more thoroughly you do steps 1-5, the more likely you are to take stock and start to make some adjustments.  This will involve not only understanding more of what is stereotypical in your culture, but also evaluating what traits you personally reflect from that culture, and thinking through who your listeners are too.  If they are from different cultural backgrounds, then that creates some obvious opportunities for adjustment.  But even if everyone in your church is saturated in your own culture, there may still be cultural idiosyncrasies that you could choose not to reflect in order to strengthen your communication.

Maybe you have travelled and become more aware of your own culture? Maybe you are ministering outside of your home culture? What other categories might you add to what has been mention in this short series

7 Quick Ways to Improve Your Preaching – Part 3

So far we’ve mentioned cross-referencing, quoting scholars and meandering in part 1, then apologizing and illustrations in part 2.  Now, let’s finish this list of seven quick fixes with part 3 of the list:

6. Stop trying to be funny.

To put it bluntly, either you are funny or you are not funny.  But trying to be funny is not funny.  It is annoying.  That is not to say there can be no humour in our preaching, but let it be more natural.  Unless you are a great joke teller, don’t invest minutes of a sermon in telling a joke.  Trying to entertain or seek approval by laughs is not fulfilling your role as a preacher.  Instead let your demeanor be saturated with genuine gospel joy and enthusiasm that comes from living in the text you are preaching and walking closely with God.  It will be more sincere and people will appreciate it more.  If they want stand-up comedy then the internet is replete, ready and waiting.

7. Stop scratching at your passage.

Ok, this is probably not a quick fix, but it is significant.  A lot of preaching barely scratches the surface of the preaching text.  No matter how much you add careful illustration and clear structure, you can’t overcome the lack of biblical rootedness in this kind of preaching.  Instead of adding filler, or jumping around the canon, or whatever else you might do, dig down into the text you are preaching and make sure the message has the fingerprints of this specific passage all over it.

That was quite a random list, but maybe one of two of these quick fixes fit for you?  Feel free to comment with other things you have tweaked that helped you, or what you need to do next!

7 Quick Ways to Improve Your Preaching – Part 2

Sometimes a little tweak can make a big difference.  Yesterday I started the list with stop excessive cross-referencing, excessively quoting scholars and meandering (click here if you missed it).  Here is the next installment of the list.  Do any of these quick fixes fit for you?

4. Stop apologizing.

I don’t know if you do this, but if you do, don’t.  Apologies for lack of preparation, or for complexity of subject, or for lack of illustration, or for lack of time to do justice to the subject (you’d have had more if you didn’t apologise for not having enough!) … there are probably a dozen opportunities to apologize in every sermon.  Generally speaking, don’t.  I apologized the first time I was up front at church.  The visiting missionary thanked me afterwards and told me not to apologize because everyone else was encouraged to see me up there.  Then the first time I took a lecture for one of my profs at seminary I apologized for not covering every aspect of my subject.  He firmly told me to let people think they have the full meal deal.  Generally speaking, with some careful exceptions, don’t apologize.

5. Stop using illustrations that don’t work for most listeners.

Illustrative material generally should either work for all, or be combined with parallel illustrations that together will cover the congregation.  For example, I have some teens in my house.  If I talk about parenting teens then what about parents with smaller children, or those who couldn’t have children, or empty-nesters whose memory has faded?  (Plus, what about my teens who have to sit through the illustration – maybe your own family isn’t as good a source of illustrations as you might think!)  Then there are my hobbies, or my film choices, or my life experiences…all of which are quite specific to me.  Actually, finding illustration material that most can relate to is not easy.  But being irrelevant to a group of people for too long in a message is too damaging.

I will finish the list tomorrow…watch this space!

7 Quick Ways To Improve Your Preaching

Sometimes a quick change can make a big difference.  Let’s say you drive your car with the handbrake only partially released.  Release it properly and your driving will immediately improve.  Here are 7 quick fixes to markedly improve your preaching.

1. Stop excessive cross-referencing.

There are lots of reasons we cross reference with other passages, but not many good reasons.  I tend to think that reinforcing a point as biblical when it seems unlikely, or clarifying the background of a text quoted in your text are two of the good reasons to jump out of your passage.  But some of the bad reasons?  To fill time.  Because that’s what other preachers do.  To show off knowledge.  Because older listeners expect it.  These are not good reasons.  I remember someone saying that too much cross-referencing confuses younger Christians because they can’t follow along, and it causes older Christians to sin because it feeds their pride.  There are reasons to cross-reference, but remove the excess and your preaching will improve.

2. Stop excessively quoting scholars.

Adept transitioning between the insights of various commentaries can be like good gear changes in driving.  Referencing every scholar along the way makes those gears crunch.  Generally, it is worth asking what is added by naming the scholar?  If you use particularly specific wording and the name of the scholar is helpful, then by all means name them.  Otherwise generally decide between preaching without any reference, and making a vague reference…”One book I was reading put it like this…” (Remember, people can always ask for your sources, even though they almost never do.)  There is no requirement that you identify three commentaries and include a Spurgeon quote in every sermon.

3. Stop meandering.

Listeners will listen gripped by well organized and well-presented material.  But listeners can also spot meandering and filler like a dog can sniff meat.  Don’t look at your notes and assume it will come out ok when you are preaching.  It is much better to preach it through and make sure it can come out of your mouth and not just look good on paper.  Meandering transitions, conclusions and even whole points are counterproductive.  And with decent preparation, they are really unnecessary.

I will continue the list tomorrow, but what would you add?

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?

Sanctified Imagination

Some people are very hesitant to ever say anything that is not asserted by the preaching text.  I understand the hesitation and appreciate the desire to honour the inspired text.  However, I think that with care and clarity, there is a place for some sanctified imagination.

Years ago I was preaching Psalm 73 and made a passing remark about Asaph at the transition point in the middle of the Psalm.  I said, “I can imagine him weighed down by the weight of his struggle and kicking a coke can along the street, mentally miles away, until it hit the curtain of the tabernacle fence and he realised where he was…”  It was, to my mind, an obviously contemporary (and therefore anachronistic) way to illustrate the struggle and to set up the transition of coming to the sanctuary and finding a whole new perspective.

After the sermon a lady approached me and helpfully pointed out that Coca Cola hadn’t been invented yet.  I thought she was joking, but actually she was concerned about my adding to Scripture.  When we do add a detail …

1. Make sure it is historically, culturally, and biblically accurate.

2. If it is “just colour,” a little flourish in storytelling for contemporary relevance, then make sure it is obvious that you added it (either say so, or make some kind of visual gesture that will help listeners to get what you are doing).

This Sunday I was preaching John 9 and the story of the man born blind.  At the end of the chapter he is stood before the Jewish authorities with a boldness that stands in stark contrast to the healed paralytic in John 5, or even his own parents.  He is declaring the wonder of what has happened to him, noting that nobody had ever healed a person blind from birth in all of history until that day.

As I told the story I said something like, “I wonder, and this is pure speculation, but I wonder if perhaps he had learned that from the very people he was now speaking to?  Perhaps as a blind beggar he had dared to ask some passing Pharisees, ‘excuse me, sorry to bother you, is there any hope for me?  Has anybody blind from birth ever been healed before?’  And maybe they had lifted their noses in the air and flippantly educated him, ‘Never!’  I don’t know if that had happened, but it could have.  And now he may be quoting their fact back to them! …”

When our speculation is substantial rather than a flippant anachronism:

3. Make sure it makes sense in light of the context and detail given.

4. Be overt and clear that it is speculation.  Don’t give the impression that you have some sort of secret knowledge when you don’t.

These are two examples of the use of sanctified imagination used in preaching a biblical text.  There are other ways, both good and bad, to add colour to the text we are preaching.  Whatever you do, make sure any flourishes work to support the preaching of the text, not to steal the spotlight away from it.

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.

Both Bible & Gospel

As I think about preaching I am increasingly convinced that we need to communicate the redemptive relevance of the biblical text.  I am sure that seems obvious, but many fall into one of the following errors and half-measures:

1. Preaching the details and history of the text, without making the redemptive relevance clear.  This could be preaching a text as if it were a historical lecture, or it could be applying a text as if what we need is example to follow and instruction to implement.

2. Preaching the good news using a biblical text, without demonstrating clearly how the message comes from that text.  This could be a theologically brilliant presentation, but if it is unclear how you got there from the passage presented, then you are not honouring the theology of the gospel brilliantly.  You might be a good communicator, your message might be technically accurate in every detail, but if there is a leap from text to message, then you are undermining the foundational reality that God is a good communicator.

3. Preaching our own message with only token reference to the text.  This is the neither/or option.  It uses the text as  launch pad, or as a curiosity, or as a source of wording, but we preach what we want to say, and it is not the message of the text.  If what we want to say is redemptive rather than merely therapeutic or pressuring, then maybe we drift up into option 2.

I think we will tend to drift into one of these options by default.  Let’s be prayerful and careful to preach the redemptive relevance of the biblical text instead.