6 Questions About Illustrations – part 2

Yesterday I gave four questions to get us thinking purposefully about what we are doing with an illustration and where we are getting it from.

Here are two more questions that we need to consider:

5. Even if it is a good illustration, is it self-destructive? You might have a great idea for an illustration, but beware of some that self-destruct. Here are some to watch out for:

  • The Overpowering Illustration. If the emotional impact is too great, then people won’t hear the point, or even the sermon. (Details of your car crash, your surgery, your pet dog’s death, etc.)
  • The Morally Questionable Illustration. If the morality of your illustration raises concerns, then people won’t hear your point, or even the sermon. (It doesn’t have to be sinful to trigger this outcome – referencing some movies, or hobbies, etc., might trigger a “sin!” reflex in some of your listeners.)
  • The Complicated to Explain Illustration. If the backstory or complexity is such that it takes too much effort, then people might forget your actual point. (Many movie illustrations trigger this outcome – unless literally everyone knows the film, or the set-up can be really swift, it may be worth looking for something else.)
  • The Tribal Illustration. If the story elevates a sports team where the listeners may be tribal (some don’t like that team), or where some listeners are tired of sports illustrations, or if you push a political perspective or person (and some aren’t onboard with your perspective), then people will likely remember their reaction to this rather than the point you were making.

6. Are you missing the value of the non-illustration? Sometimes we can be so in the habit of finding illustrations for our preaching that we forget the value of the non-illustration. I don’t mean speaking in a monotonous complicated and academic lecture. I mean recognizing that sometimes the explanation of the context of a passage, or the presentation of the passage itself, can be so vivid and engaging that it feels like you are illustrating when actually you are not. Narratives tend to offer us the potential for powerful storytelling. Poetry tends to offer vivid imagery. Even the epistles sometimes offer illustrations built into the passage. Don’t rush to your illustration file before checking if the text can engage the listeners with a vivid presentation and a sense of resonating relevance.

Illustrating a sermon is not easy, but hopefully these questions might help. What else would you add?

6 Questions About Illustrations

Good preachers make illustration look effortless, but for most of us it can be a real struggle. Here are a few questions that I find helpful:

1. What’s the purpose of your illustration? Too many preachers default to simply adding in illustrations because there hasn’t been one for a few paragraphs, or because they think they should. It works much better to define your purpose. At this point in the message will your listeners be needing explanation to clarify the point you are making? Or will they need support to prove the point? Or perhaps application to picture themselves applying the point? Generally it is better to identify what you are trying to achieve and you will probably achieve it more successfully. Explain, prove, apply . . . or perhaps give a break in the intensity to allow them to re-group. Decide what is needed and then you are more likely to find it.

2. Are you relying on their knowledge, or does it touch their experience? People will always connect more with what they have experienced than what they know. People are more likely to remember cross-country running at school than have experience of running in the Olympics. They know what it feels like to get stuck in traffic, but probably not what it feels like to step out of a spacecraft. Instead of going for the more exotic, consider if more mundane might connect better.

3.  Have they experienced it, or are they simply having to hear about yours? The best illustrative material tends to be experienced by both speaker and listener. It is easy for you to describe and easy for them to imagine. If this isn’t possible, then consider whether you can do the learning and speak of what they know personally, rather than always asking them to imagine what you have experienced personally. It won’t always be possible, but worth the effort when you can.

4. Are you falling into the laziest and weakest forms of illustration? There are plenty of illustrations that fall outside your experience and knowledge, and their experience and knowledge. The illustration anthologies are full of them. Obscure anecdotes and clever quotes from yesteryear. Wartime speeches, heroic moments, distant pithy quotes. Generally speaking these will seem far more effective on paper than they do in actual preaching. At the very least, can I suggest that if you love this kind of illustration then at least try to balance these with something more immediate and normal? (You may love your 1950’s football stories, or WWI trench poetry, but your listeners may not be so enthused.)

It takes work to illustrate well. Sometimes we have to go with something weaker than we’d prefer. That is preaching. But let’s try to do the best we can. (And tomorrow I will share the final two questions…)

Discernment Danger

You have probably heard the old adage: “bank staff learn to identify counterfeit money by handling the real thing.”

I suspect we have a growing problem today. Actually, several.

1. Too many of us don’t think counterfeit money exists. Actually, I am not thinking about money. I am referring to ideas and agendas. Too many of us are shockingly naive. We have a vague notion that there is sin in the world, but still we assume that nobody could have ulterior motives as they deal in words (at least, not ones that are not immediately obvious to me). If you question the standard media or cultural narrative on any issue then you run the risk of being dismissed for believing conspiracy theories or being classified as a bigot or nutcase. Hold on, assuming the media or culture has no motivation to push anti-God, anti-Christian, or anti-truth agendas is about as crazy as suggesting nobody has any motivation to make or use counterfeit money! This world is full of lies and it cannot be the job of Facebook or Twitter to guide us into all truth.

2. Too many of us spend too much time handling “funny money.” Again, I am not thinking about money. I am referring to social media, mainstream media, Hollywood/entertainment media, news, etc. If we believe it is all neutral and trustworthy, we will become eerily unaware when our values are molded into the shape of this world, rather than being transformed by the renewing of our minds. How easily we can give hours each day, tens of hours each week, to a cultural indoctrination program that we don’t really believe exists. Is it time to take stock and stop feeling so impervious and maybe even being so arrogant?

3. Too many of us spend too little time handling the real thing. You might prefer this post to be about handling money, but that is not at all what I am writing about! I suspect that one of the big problems in our world today is that too many of us who know God and the truth of His Word are too distracted by the communications of this world to really soak in God’s Word. What this world needs is not primarily for us to be constantly active on social media, thoroughly conversant with every news story or knowledgeable about every movie (all of these may have some value, of course). What this world needs is men and women who are strangely soaked in God’s Word, “divines” if you will.

I know which of these three points has convicted me. Which is on target for you? If you aren’t sure, start with number 1.

We Are Not Performers

Whenever we preach we will be tempted to perform – our flesh will see to it. We know it is not supposed to be a performance, and we may feel strongly opposed to any notion of entertainment, but still the temptation is always there.

We do not preach to fill time. We preach to stir people and see lives being transformed by God. And we will notice how dull presentation has less impact than enthusiastic, or passionate presentation. In fact, we may notice quite a number of things that seem to make a difference, and before we know it, performance can sneak into our ministry.

Here are three ways to protect the pulpit from you . . . I mean, three ways to avoid performing:

1. Let preparation marinade. Last minute preparation can lead to pre-sermon desperation. In that state we may start to believe that certain strategies and tactics are our only hope. (Last minute preparation is sometimes necessary, but how quickly we forget that God understands that and is so gloriously gracious!) As much as possible, give your preparation time to soak in. Generally plan your schedule so that you are not living in the desperation zone. Let your messages, and even your series, soak in so that they become part of who you are. Then instead of “lines through an actor” it has more opportunity to be “truth through personality.” Preach what you truly believe, not what you only latterly found or formulated.

2. Avoid the natural presenter’s fallacy. I just made up that label, but what do I mean? I mean the idea that if I prepare less then my presentation will come across more naturally. Fallacy. Prepare less and you will come across unprepared. Not preparing on purpose is a path that leads to meandering introductions, illogical transitions, incomplete thoughts, unhelpful illustrations, mistakes in explanation, missed objections, circling and looking for a landing spot, etc. Put in the work: craft your message, sweat during preparation, wrestle, pray, think, think more and talk it through with others. That kind of work does not lead to performance, it leads to better preaching. In fact, good preparation should lead to more genuine, from the heart, textually solid and sensitively targeted preaching.

3. Pray as if this matters. Over time we can grow really complacent. I’ve done this before and I can do it again. Really? Stop the “bless my sermon” prayers and pray as if you are actually reliant on God. Wrestle with God who is at work in you. Persist in wrestling for those who will be listening. There is a great spiritual battle raging around you and around them. Don’t step into the pulpit to fight a battle you have not first heavily engaged, and even won, in the prayer closet.

What would you add?

Spiritual Warfare and Pulpit Ministry

Spiritual warfare is a subject that stirs opposite responses. At one extreme we can become paranoid and give Satan credit for every little difficulty, whether the forces of evil were involved or not. At the other extreme we can easily become complacent and act as if the enemy is impotent around someone such as me. Both extremes are unhelpful.

If there is any arena in which spiritual warfare may be a factor, surely it will be in relation to pulpit ministry. The enemy would love to disrupt or damage the proclamation of God’s Word, the presentation of the Gospel, or the encouragement of believers. The worship of God really does get under the enemy’s skin.

So what tactics does the enemy use against us preachers? Here are a few to prayerfully consider:

  1. Pride. Visible, respected, influential . . . pride is an ever present trap for the preacher. Without fanfare it slips in, we start to believe our self-fanfare and before you know it, we live with a painful lack of dependency on God.
  2. Temptation. During preparation, perhaps during interactions at church, perhaps the day after. Waves of temptation can feel relentless. Pride, lust, anger, discouragement, etc.
  3. Distraction. Not every interruption is an overt spiritual attack, but it is amazing how often we can face a pastoral or family crisis at the most inopportune moment.
  4. Accusations. It doesn’t take much in the way of accusation or lies from the enemy to wear down our heaven-high prayers and lofty ambitions for a sermon.

What attacks do you recognize to be spiritual in nature? When do you often feel attacked?

New Year Resolute

Every New Year up to now seems to be the same.  People launch into new habits and patterns to try and bring about the changes they want to see in their lives. “This year will be different in what I eat, how I exercise, when I read my Bible, and so on.”  The New Year means new resolutions and it quickly becomes like every other year.

Maybe this New Year feels different.  COVID-19 and all kinds of political and cultural turmoil have launched us into a period of uncertainty that, for many of us, feels like uncharted territory.  This year will be different irrespective of what snack we avoid, what exercise regime we try, or what Bible reading plan we commit to follow.  This New Year we need to remember what is unchanging, so it can anchor us for the year ahead.

I would encourage you to spend some time with God and your Bible.  Make a list.  You could call it “Certainties in 2021.”  Or maybe “New Year’s Unchanged Truths.”  Or perhaps “Facts: 2021.”  Instead of a list of flawed resolutions, how about a list of Facts Resolute?

Here are a few facts that remain wonderfully unchanged, and you are welcome to add your own:

1. His Character – As you read the Bible you see not only an unfolding history, but also the heart of God being revealed.  His generosity in creation.  His power in deliverance.  His faithfulness in history.  His love in redemption.  His righteousness in judgment.  His character is there to be seen in one story after another, one era after another, one empire after another.  God’s character has always been a fountain of goodness in a dark and messy world.  That has not changed.

2. His Position – As you read the Bible it is clear that God is on the throne, even though that has been continually challenged by the forces of evil and sinful humanity.  Whatever 2021 may hold, it will not hold a threat to God’s rule. God is ultimately in charge.  There have been many times that humanity could not see that truth from down here, but nevertheless, it remains solidly true.

3. His Promises – As you read the Bible you will find threads of promise weaving their way through the epic stories of Israel and the Church.  Sometimes generations pass without a hint of fulfilment.  Sometimes threats loom large and the promises look to be trampled under the feet of invading armies.  Sometimes heaven seems shut off and silent.  But consistently God has, and God will, fulfil His promises.  That has not changed one bit. 

4. His Plan – As you read the Bible it becomes clear that God has a plan.  On one page you might see the rise and fall of empires, one after another, until God’s kingdom comes to establish something radically different and better.  On another page you might see God’s plan quietly working itself out as a young Moabite widow chooses to cling closely to her elderly widowed mother-in-law.  God has a plan that is both global and personal, yet always unthwarted.

5. His Presence – As you read the Bible you find that God’s heart is to draw close to His people.  He walked in the garden with Adam.  He met with His people.  His glorious presence dwelt in a tent in the midst of His people.  Then there was the temple.  Later, little Jesus was carried into the temple.  Now we are the temple.  One day we will be in a place that needs no sun because God’s dwelling will be with us.  His presence with His people has always been, and forever will be, a key feature of God’s great story.  2021 is part of that story.

6. His Purposes – As you read the Bible it becomes clear that God’s people often don’t know what is going on.  God can declare His plans and sometimes He does, but so often we are invited to walk by faith rather than by sight.  We are to trust His character and His purposes even when everything seems to drive us in the opposite direction.  We know He wants us to walk in step with His Spirit in purity and by faith, looking to offer Jesus to a dying world and seeking to build up His Church, provoking one another to love and good deeds.  Those purposes have not changed.

7. His Timing – As you read the Bible you will find that God is as much God over the end of the story as He is over details in the story.  We can trust Him with the timing of our own death, or the timing of the Son’s return.  We don’t have any certainty that we will even see the end of 2021, but we know that we will see Christ one day.  In a world of disease, death, disaster, and destruction, we can live with the certainty that death will not be the end of our story.  It will just be a doorway.  And if we do not fear even death, then there is no limit to what God can do in and through us in this next year.

New Year’s Resolutions are all about me and my circumstances.  That is why they feel so flimsy and generally achieve so little.  Let’s instead be New Year Resolute – confident in the things that never change, even if the world all around us, local or global, should spiral into chaos.  Some things remain unchanged, certain, absolute . . . and they are all things about our God!

Books: 10 Ideas

This week is a great time to pay some attention to your books. Whether you have books for ministry or for personal benefit, it doesn’t matter. Here are 10 quick ideas about books that might be helpful if you get an hour or two to consider your books (and your reading in the coming months!)

1. Books are a blessing – thank God for what you have! You probably know someone with a more impressive library than yours. Great, now get back to saying thank you for what you have! If we aren’t thankful, then we will tend to take them for granted and whether you have 20 books or 20,000 books, they will most likely sit dormant on your shelf.

2. Books are a blessing – join the elite club of book givers! It seems like there are fewer and fewer book givers left in the world. But what a strategic ministry they have! What was the book that helped you most in 2020? Perhaps it was Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund. Why not buy five or ten copies and pray about who to give them to in the next couple of months. Then do it again with another book that you have appreciated. You might change some lives and you will enjoy the prayer and the process. (And since you’re being generous, feel free to use our affiliate link with 10ofthose to order your books in the UK or in the USA – thanks!)

3. Books are a blessing – but they don’t have to fill your shelves forever. It is usually possible to find another cheap bookcase on Facebook Marketplace, but even if you have maxed out your space for adding shelves, that should not stop you adding books. Why not do a purge? Maybe some books could be sold. Others could be given away. Perhaps some would really be best dedicated to recycling. If you haven’t touched it in years and can’t imagine touching it in the future, why is it still there?

4. Books are a blessing – but an unfinished book should never make you feel guilty. I have lost count of the number of people who say, “I love the look of this book, but I must not buy it because I have too many I haven’t finished yet.” We need to dismiss this crazy thinking once and for all. If you aren’t motivated to finish a book you’ve started, you almost certainly won’t. If you are motivated to read something else, you should get hold of it. My approach is to treat an unfinished book not as a burden, but a book that I was glad to read part of. Perhaps I paid £5 or £10 for chapters 1-3. Chapters 4-8 were free and I might read them later! Read what you want to read in a book, don’t let the dead weight of unfinished sections hinder your spiritual life, your ministry or your joy!

5. Books are a blessing – but if they are disorganised . . . not so much. If you can’t find a book when you need it, why have it?

6. Books are a blessing – but some are worth less than others. C.S.Lewis wrote that the test of good literature comes when you pick it up, start reading and realise you’ve read it before. If it is junk literature, you will feel like putting it down. If it is good literature, then you will want to keep going. That might be helpful. Some books are reference tools that are worth their weight in gold. Others are one-exposure pieces that, once read, are not worth the investment of shelf space (lots of bestsellers are really disposable!) Discern the difference. Discard or deliberately shelve accordingly.

7. Books are a blessing – make time to read. We live in a time when the urgent pressures of email, social media, internet news, etc., are all conspiring to get us away from books. I find an hour with a book is always an investment, even when compared to spending an hour reading the same author online – and the time with a book is always more enriching than frittering time on YouTube or wherever. If we are going to read, we need to make plans and carve out the time.

8. Books are a blessing – plan how to use each book. If it is an immersive page turner, great, grab a drink and curl up with the book. But if it is not a novel, but rather a book on a specific subject, what should you do? Take a few moments to plan your approach. Time spent on the table of contents, reading conclusions, etc., will make the rest of your time so much more productive. Perhaps you really need to jump into section 2, or maybe one chapter is all you need in this visit?

9. Books are a blessing – plan what kinds of books you need to spend time in. As a preacher I need to read directly related biblical and theological books, but I also need to read for cultural insight (The Madness of Crowds by Douglas Murray has been disturbing but so helpful recently, for instance). I also benefit from investing indirectly in my ministry by reading someone from church history (Henry Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man is due another read) or a book about Greek Grammar. And then there is the purely relaxing (I am enjoying The Body by Bill Bryson at the moment, when I choose to take a few minutes.)

10. Books are a blessing – who can you share the journey with? It is great to give a book away, but it is also great to read a book with a friend and meet up to chat about it. I have had some wonderful conversations with a good friend this past year as we read through a John Eldredge book, and then Dane Ortlund’s Gentle & Lowly.

I want to make more of my time as far as reading is concerned in the coming year. A lot of that motivation has come from taking a couple of hours to organise my shelves over the Christmas break. Go for it, while you have the chance!

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And since we are talking about books: here is one you can easily add to your shelves (or give away!)

Asking Better Questions

As preachers we often think in terms of giving answers. After all, we are the ones who need to study for hours in order to communicate God’s Word in a way that emphasizes its relevance to the people in front of us. Here are a few quick thoughts, not about answers, but about questions.

1. Every unit of thought in the Bible is answering a discernible question. In preaching terms, this would be the Subject-Question – that is, what is the passage about? We need to discern that question in order to then identify the answer being given – the Complement-Answer, that is, what is it saying about that? We will always help people with our preaching more effectively if we discern the implicit question being answered by the text we are preaching.

2. Every listener of a sermon has questions. Some may be technical theological questions stirred by hearing the Bible passage read. Most will be more mundane, but critical: why should I listen to you? Is this message relevant to my life? Is there any hope for someone like me? We need to make sure we are not so soaked in academic thinking that we preach only answers to questions that most will not be asking.

3. Our culture is training us to be controlled by certain questions. Take the situation we find ourselves in today. Our culture has proactively shaped the question that dominates our thinking and therefore our lives. Where the question maybe used to be, “how can I be happy?” or “what will satisfy me?” or whatever variation of self-concerned worldviews were dominant, now the question seems to be: “what must we do to stay safe?” In just a few months our culture has made this question absolutely dominate the thoughts of the people in our church.

4. The questions controlling our minds must be questioned. Identify what is driving the people you speak to each Sunday. Then question it. Overtly. In fact, let the Bible’s values offer a transformative interrogation of assumptions that nobody dares to question in our culture. For example, how many biblical passages would support something different driving us in these days? Surely there is more to life than just trying to stay alive? Merely articulating that query could stir significant change in people. Yesterday I preached the final message in our Christmas series and we landed on Simeon and his “Now dismiss me…” prayer. His eyes had seen God’s incarnate, controversial, global salvation and he was ready to die. In a time when all are overwhelmingly concerned about staying alive, it was very timely to ask a Simeon-shaped question: “are you ready to die?” and the other side of that same coin: “what does it mean to really live?”

5. As preachers we must continually grow in our ability to ask questions. We need to question the biblical text. We must question the values and thoughts of our listeners. We should be asking lots of questions about the paradigms and agenda driving our culture. We would do well to question our own assumptions, influences, etc. And when we preach, let’s look to not only prepare using better questions ourselves, but also help our listeners to also ask better questions too.

Preparing to Preach in 2021

We don’t know what 2021 will bring, but we can guess. We can guess there will be more to the COVID story. We can guess there will be further political and social tensions in various parts of the world. We can guess that it won’t feel like preaching during a honeymoon period of stability and global contentment.

As we leave Christmas behind and start to move towards a new year that we know won’t be simple, what can we do to prepare? The simple answer would be to pray, but what should we pray about, specifically related to preaching? Here are seven things to pray about, just to get you started:

1. Love. Pray that your love for God and your love for your listeners will not be neglected in the coming months. Difficult times can helpfully toughen us, but they can also unhelpfully distract us from ultimate priorities. Pray for the love of God poured into your heart to flow out in devotion to Him, and Christlike selflessness towards others – including in your preaching.

2. Wisdom. Pray that your ministry will be marked by a profoundly biblical discernment in the coming months. We live in a swirl of contradictory information and sometimes the most affirmed realities are the most worthy of profound questioning. We cannot minister with our heads only in our Bibles, we also need to spend some time in the “newspapers” too – but be wary of simply parroting cultural values driven by the media of our time. It is easy to offer a slightly sanctified culture-shaped spin. Pray for wisdom to be able to know and speak God’s truth clearly in a time of great confusion.

3. Courage. Pray for courage in your ministry. It will be harder to speak the truth boldly in this decade than in the last. We may be able to anticipate where the pressures will be coming from, but we do not yet know how great those pressures will become. Your church does not need a bulldog in the pulpit, but neither does it need a wimp being pushed around by the increasingly brazen demands of the world. Pray for courage to speak God’s truth incisively in the coming year.

4. Patience. Pray for patience in your ministry. Someone said we can easily over-estimate what can be achieved in a single sermon, but should never under-estimate what can be achieved through a steady diet of solid biblical preaching. Pray for patience to keep on in your biblical ministry.

5. Endurance. Pray for the endurance that you will need in your preaching in the next year. This year has been draining. Take COVID – it is tiring to minister during uncertainty, with continual changes of government rules and guidelines, with uncertainty hanging over everyone, with different perspectives on the situation throughout the congregation, with the need to continually adapt and re-create church momentum, etc. Take a deep breath. Acknowledge that 2020 was difficult and tiring. And pray for endurance as we head into 2021.

6. Growth. Of course we should pray for the growth of our listeners, but pray for your own growth too. Pray for God to help you grow in your handling of Scripture, your theological insight, your pastoral sensitivity, your communicative ability, etc. Pray that you will become a better preacher this year.

7. Fruit. Don’t forget to pray for fruit. It would be easy to allow global events, national lockdowns, family struggles or even personal issues to distract you from the obvious. Pray for fruit in your ministry. Pray that people will come to faith in Christ this year. Pray that believers will grow closer to Christ this year. Pray for marriages to be healed this year. Pray for lives to be transformed deeper and further this year. Fruit doesn’t ultimately depend on your love, your wisdom, your courage, your patience or even your growth. Fruit depends on God’s kindness, so pray for Him to be powerfully at work whether you are “preaching well” or not, whether your church is meeting in person or not, whether your country is falling apart or not.

What would you add to the list?

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