One Improvement

Whatever ministry we are involved in, there are numerous ways we could pursue improvement.  Preaching, for example, is a combination of dozens of factors working together each time we preach.  Evangelism, likewise, is a combination of many many factors at work in each encounter.  Whatever our ministry, potential areas for improvement are manifold.

I want to suggest one improvement that should be right near the top of our list.  This will help if we preach, if we are an evangelist, an apologist, a parent, a teacher, a children’s worker, etc.

The improvement is connected to faith.  Not so much our faith, but theirs.  And not so much the amount of it, but its object.  Lots of Christian ministry is invested into encouraging people to have and exercise more faith.  But what people really need is to catch a better glimpse of the Christ who is worth believing in.  Let me put it like this:

Present the object of faith better, don’t just pressure people to have better faith.

It is easy to turn up the pressure.  Whether we are preaching to a church, witnessing to a non-believer, coaching our children, or whatever, we can easily put the burden on them to believe, to believe more, to believe better, etc.

Once we see that faith is a response to something, then the focus can shift.  Instead of the pressure being on them to work up more faith, the privilege is with us to better present Christ so that they might believe.  Don’t tell them to inflate their response, look for ways to offer a better something to respond to.

What might this involve?

1. You have to be infected to be infectious – do you love Jesus?  Since love, like faith, is a response, then the only way to increase your contagiousness is to spend time with him for yourself.  Like Mary, we need to sit at Jesus’ feet and let him minister to us before we try to minister for him.

2. Evaluate the content of your communication. In column A, notice all the content in what you say that presents Christ/God/Gospel, etc.  In column B, notice all the content that points listeners to themselves, their effort, their discipline etc.  Where are you investing your minutes as you preach, speak, teach, etc.?  Some preachers offer so little of Christ in what they say that it is shocking anyone ever walks away thinking about anything other than themselves.

3. Present the person, not just points of fact.  Perhaps you say a lot about Jesus, but what you say is somewhat impersonal.  Imagine I was telling you about my wife and all I ever mentioned was a list of facts: her height, her hair colour, her shoe size.  That would have far less impact than speaking of her character, her values, her worth in my eyes.  The same is true of Christ.  Some Christians only seem to speak of points of fact from the creed, but never speak of the person they are in relationship with.  People are more likely to respond with relational faith to a Christ that is more than mere data.

4. Pray about it.  This is not first and foremost an encouragement to pursue improvement as some sort of solo exercise.  Nobody cares more about presenting Christ well than the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Don’t just try to do better at this, but instead speak with God about your ministry.  This is an improvement that you can be confident is in line with God’s will for you!

There are hundreds of ways to improve every ministry we are involved in.  But it is hard to think of an improvement that has more than this one – to prayerfully ask God to help you present the object of faith more effectively for the sake of those who hear you.

Home for Christmas!

Christmas is a time when many people head home, or think of home, or long for home. For some it is a special time of great joy and satisfaction. For others it is a painfully empty season when memories of a home now broken by death or divorce come flooding back.

The Christmas story as it is told each year tends to include some reference to the wonder of God the Son leaving his heavenly home to come down to earth. His welcome? Humble shepherds. Animals by their trough. Not even any place in the inn, but just a lowly stable.

I am not wanting to tread on anyone’s nativity set, but things were slightly different than we tend to think. Luke 2 tells us that Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

What was it really like? The “inn” was not a reference to a public inn as in the story of the Good Samaritan, an ancient motel of questionable standards. Rather the word used by Luke refers to the guest room attached to the back or the top of a single room family home. Joseph, with his heritage would have received a welcome in the city of David, not to mention his pregnant Jewish young lady (and if they hadn’t, then Mary’s relatives not too far away would have been offended that they didn’t head there).

They didn’t get the guest room, because other visitors were already there. Instead they were probably brought into the single room residence of this humble family in Bethlehem. At the front end of the room there would have been a drop down to the area where the animals would be kept at night (for their security and for central heating). The sheep would have a wooden or stone manger, the family cow and the donkey would eat from the trough cut into the floor at the end of the human living space.

This was typical of the homes then, and culturally this would have been the situation. Perhaps not quite the quaint stable, but what a startling image nonetheless! The Messiah wasn’t born in a palace, but in a humble home. (This, incidentally, would have been important information in the message of the angels to motivate the shepherds to come for their visit. Furthermore, if he were born in a stable, the shepherds would have insisted on a transfer to their humble homes.) The young family didn’t even get the guest room, but the special little one came in the family home, with the women of the home helping Mary, then the men coming in to gaze in wonder at the new boy.

When we study the details of the first Christmas we may find ourselves correcting a few of the Christmas card images.  But far more importantly, we should find ourselves stirred to worship God more than ever.  The real first Christmas is not a fairytale or a myth, it is the remarkable launch of a rescue mission that changes human history.  We may be emotionally attached to the stable story, but let’s allow our hearts to be gripped by Christ’s move from heaven’s throne to a humble human home.  What a guest!

Let’s sing with renewed passion this Christmas:

Christ by highest heav’n adored, Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come, Offspring of a Virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

Christmas is a time when our thoughts turn toward home. What a truly glorious thought, that Christ left his home to come and be born in a humble human home. Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel. He is our God, with us!


For more on the wonder of the Incarnation, please check out Pleased to Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation (Christian Focus, 2014).


In Luke 11:5-7, Jesus drops a little parable in after teaching the disciples “the Lord’s Prayer” – it is one of those, “which of you…” type stories.  If your friend shows up in the middle of the night, you will go to your neighbour to get the food you need to show hospitality, right?  Right.  And your neighbour won’t be delighted at you waking up his household, but he will give you the bread you need because of your … persistence?  No, that is not the word here.  Impudence.  Temerity.  Shamelessness.  Audacity.

Some thoughts from this parable in its context and its application to us:

1. Father God.  This kind of audacious boldness would work with a friend next door.  But a far more familiar situation may be in view here.  After all, Jesus has just taught his disciples to call God, Father (v2).  He will conclude the section by underlining the graciousness of God the Father (v13).

Jesus did not teach us to call God, Boss.  When we talk to our boss we tend to negotiate, pointing out our good performance or avoiding the boss when we have failed to reach targets.  Our focus is on what we might gain, rather than the security we feel in the forever compassion of a good good father.

Jesus did not teach us to call God, Genie.  If we pray like God is a genie then we will focus on rubbing the lamp properly.  What is the right approach?  How can I say enough adoration, confession and thanksgiving to activate the mechanism and get what I want?  Again, the focus is on my technique and not God’s goodness.

Jesus told us to call God, Father.  Shamelessly.  Audaciously.

2. Bother God!  The friend in his house may say “do not bother me!”  But a good father does not.  My children will approach me at two a.m., shake me and tell me they have a need … “so and so is crying,” or “I feel sick,” or “I had a scary dream,” or whatever.  No respectful introduction, no box of chocolates, just an unhesitating boldness.  God is our Father, he wants us to bother him.  How easily do we drift into prayerlessness?  Or into a formulaic ritualistic prayer pattern that essentially denies the closeness of the relationship we have been given in Christ?

3. Giver God.  Jesus draws a comparison at the end of the passage – if you who are evil know how to give good gifts… we know what is coming, right?  How much more will your heavenly father give good gifts?  No, that is Matthew.  Here in Luke it says, “give the Holy Spirit.”  This probably feels disappointing to many in our churches, but is it disappointing?  Not at all!  Chase the wonder of what it means to have the Holy Spirit because of what Jesus did for us on the cross.  To have the Holy Spirit means to have profound, communicative, assured relationship with God.  It means that we get to participate in the very life of the Trinity.

As a preacher I am not immune to the human tendency toward autonomy any more than you are.  We drift that way all the time. Our tendency is to think that we can handle life, but autonomous life is a lie.  We are most alive, most human, when we pray.  When we are expressing our dependence on and need of God, then it is our prayer that makes us most human!

Apologies for Silence

I thought I should add a note to say sorry for the silence on this site during these weeks. We are currently visiting prayer and financial partners of our ministry for several weeks.  Obviously this needs to be our focus during this time, but I should be back blogging on here before too long.

If you would like to receive our family and ministry email updates (there are typically less than a handful per year), please click this link and sign up – thank you!

Anointed Ministry: Myth & 7 Realities

Electricity2The language of anointing gets used in some circles more than others. Essentially it is pointing not to the practice of anointing a minister with oil, but to the experienced reality of a preacher being full of the Holy Spirit, resulting in tangibly powerful preaching.  While this will vary from one church tradition to another, there is a myth that flows from a theological error in thinking about anointed preaching in the church.

The error is that God is a distant source of power for the disciplined spiritual elite who do the work necessary to get close to Him.  It is a modified form of Dionysian Mysticism, although this post is not going to get into what that is.

The myth that sometimes grows up from that errant thinking about God is that the anointed preacher is in some way unapproachable, disconnected and elite.

Here are seven healthy realities to ponder:

1. Unapproachable, disconnected, elite … these are descriptions reflecting either a pagan religion or a sinful preacher’s ego, more than a Christlike ministry

2 Relational, loving, humble … these are some of the marks of genuinely Christlike ministry

3. Preparatory prayer is about humble dependence on God, loving stewardship of the privilege of ministry and care for the flock, it is not about super-charging the batteries for impressive performance

4. A preacher speaks with more impact if they know and love the listeners

5. A preacher speaks with more impact if they servant-lead the listeners

6. A preacher speaks with more impact if they honour the ministries of the church

7. A preacher speaks with more impact if they recognise the creative role of preaching – we are creating an environment in which the other word ministries in the church can thrive

Our understanding of anointed ministry should be rooted in a thoroughly biblical understanding of the work and person of the Holy Spirit.  He has no desire to feed your ego, divide clergy from laity, or promote neo-pagan mysticism.  The Spirit is concerned about Christ.  He wants your preaching, your character, your ministry, your relationships, and your church to really magnify Jesus.

The Bible Glows

glowingbible2Every Christian I know would affirm that the Bible is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.  Strangely, many seem to think it is as cold as one too.  How often the Bible is treated as a cold set of sharp propositions, a repository of truth statements that are precise and sharp, but cold as steel.

When talking about the Bible I have sometimes used the idea of a thermal imaging camera.  You sometimes see them used from Police helicopters as they track a living suspect who is on the run and hiding from the pursuing police on the ground.  Through these cameras everything else is a cold gray or blue, but the suspect who is hiding out of sight behind a shed or a bush is glowing red and orange.  To normal eyes that bush would look like any other, but through thermal imaging it becomes glowing and vivid.

I wonder what we see if we take a thermal imaging camera to look at the text of the Bible?  Is it gray or blue and cold, or is it living, glowing red and orange with life?

When we speak of the truths of the Bible to others do our words glow with life, or do we give off the vibe that there is nothing living to be found there?

Some preachers seem to turn the biblical text into a cold set of historic truths, and some seem determined to freeze the life out of their listeners too! But the key issue for all of us is not primarily about how we present the biblical truths in conversation or in a sermon, the key issue is what we see when we read it ourselves.  Are we alert to the red and orange life in the Bible?  To the normal eyes of others in our culture it will look as dead and cold as any other book, but through the eyes of a sensitized heart it will be living, glowing and vivid.

So why is the Bible not merely a store of cold truth statements?  Because human realities are reflected in both the content and the form.  On every page of the Bible we can feel the beating hearts of both the writers and the characters.  We see people fearing and hiding from God.  We see people passionately pursuing a life pleasing to Him.  We see real people, warts and all, not re-written glorified accounts of carefully spun historical records.  No, we see life in all its complexity and vivid reality.

As well as the content, the form of the writing also reveals this red/orange glow.  Narratives grip us with their tension and build toward the climax and resolution of that tension.  Poetry tends to be the type of writing chosen when the heart is full and overflowing (with praise or panic).  Even the direct discourse sections tend to be an impassioned plea of a speech or the warm expression or ardent imploring of a letter.  Both content and form speak of the human heart beating on every page of the Bible if only we have eyes to see.

But again, let’s ask why is the Bible not merely a store of cold truth statements?  Because divine realities are reflected in both the content and the form.  On every page we see the beating heart of the God who inspired His word to be given to this world.  We see a God offering his heart to an undeserving humanity, pursuing them to woo them, jealous of their hearts in their unfaithfulness, and showing the passionate lengths to which He would go.   We see God in all His glorious others-centred love, not aloof and carefully distant, but showing His beating heart for any who dare to see what is being offered throughout the Bible.

As well as the content, there is the form of the writing which also reveals this red/orange glow.  God inspired the types of writing as well as the content.  He inspired the narratives filled with the tension of human lives lived in response to a loving God.  He inspired the poems filled with the pounding hearts of His people in their hopes, fears, dreams, faithlessness and faithfulness.  He inspired each letter, each speech, each prophetic pronouncement, each word.  Both content and form speak of the divine heart beating on every page of the Bible.

The Bible is not just words on a page.  It is not just truths in type.  It is a unique revelation that glows warm with the glow of life.  Let’s pray for eyes to see it when we read, and then share it as we can, living our lives in response to the revelation of our living God!

Flock Feeding

sheepeating2One of the primary responsibilities of pastoral ministry is the feeding of the flock.  Here are a few quick thoughts to keep in mind:

  1. Seek to give a consistent diet – it is not good to vary meals between a few scraps one time and gorging on overly rich fare another.  Seek to preach so that listeners have a consistency in their diet.
  2. Seek to give a cumulative diet – it is not possible to give everything that is needed in every meal, or in every message.  Seek to preach so that listeners experience a cumulative growth in their biblical awareness and their relational knowledge of God.
  3. Seek to give a healthy diet – no normal parent balances vegetables with poison.  Do not accept heretical content, even if it is wrapped up in the salad leaves of Gospel truth.  Don’t blend curving your listeners inward with drawing them out to Christ.  Preach Christ and him crucified.  Don’t preach Christ and effort intensified.
  4. Seek to give a timely diet – some fare fits in certain seasons and when it is missing something does not seem right.  In my culture we tend to expect Turkey and mince pies in December, and more salads in the summer.  Whether or not your church follows the church calendar, at least in some basic points, your listeners do.  Christmas and Easter at least deserve some appropriate messages, perhaps harvest or mother’s day is a must too?  Don’t disappoint, there’s nothing to be gained.

Communion Cups and Oceans

ocean2Almost twenty years ago I was serving on one of the Operation Mobilisation missionary ships.  During one month-long visit to a port I met a volunteer who later became my wife.  We had a few conversations and it was obvious that there was a genuine and mutual interest.  When I flew home from the ship my family wanted to know all about her.  I told them what I could, of course, but actually I didn’t know that much.

If we fast forward two decades the story is different.  After 17 years of marriage, 6 children, 5 homes, and lots of different shared experiences, I have more to say about her.  If someone genuinely wants to hear about my wife now, I can share a lot.  I can share facts, but I can also share what I appreciate about her character based on these years together.  And I imagine that if God gives us another few decades together then I will have even more to spill should anyone ever ask.

That’s the reality of close relationship. Over time the amount we have to say multiplies.

Lately I have been pondering this on the spiritual level too.  When we first respond to the Gospel we probably don’t know too much about Jesus.  Maybe as a young Christian we know a few facts that form the skeleton of Jesus’ story: He is the Son of God who came to Earth; He taught, healed, died, rose and returned to His Father in heaven; He is there now and will come back again.

Essentially this basic skeleton of the Jesus story, with some variation, will be the basics known by beginners in the faith.  These facts could be written on a piece of paper and stored in one of those tiny communion cups that some churches use.  These facts are amazing, and for many of us our lives and our eternities were transformed by trusting Christ based on this level of knowledge, so we should absolutely worship God in light of this.  Nevertheless, this is a very limited awareness of Christ the person.

Here is my point in this article, and one of my greatest concerns in life: I have sat through too many sermons and presentations where it feels like the preacher is drawing from not much more than a communion cup full of information about Christ.  Sometimes it has been preachers who have preached for decades, but still seem to have very little to say about Christ Himself.  Sometimes it has been ministry leaders who are significant in their own area of expertise, but still seem to have very little to say about Christ.  This concerns me for them, and it concerns me for me.

If Christianity is about having a relationship with Christ, then it seems reasonable to expect that over time that relationship will result in an increased reservoir to draw from as we speak of the person we love.  Years of communication and of shared experiences should significantly increase what we have to say about our spouse – both in a human marriage, and in our relationship with Christ.

A while ago I was reading one of the Puritans and I was struck by how he could go on for page after page about the character of Christ.  He was prompted by some detail in John 14-16 as Jesus cared for his disciples, but he obviously had pondered long over the character of Christ as revealed in the Gospel stories.  Suddenly I was struck by how little so many preachers actually have to say about Christ the person.  Surely as life progresses we should have more and more to share about Him?

Was it Spurgeon who asked, “Where are all the divines?”  That is, where are the men and women who are so close to God that it really shows?  If that was a concern in the 19th century, are things any better in the 21st century?

Here are a few quick thoughts that may provoke some prayerful pondering on this issue:

1. It is possible to take the benefits Christ offers us, but not realize that He genuinely wants a two-way relationship with us.

2. If we can talk long about a dear friend or spouse we have known for years, how much should this be true of us when we have walked with Christ for years?

3. Christian ministry will always be limited when our relationship with Christ is limited.

4. We will grow in our knowledge of Him as we communicate with Him over the years – years of reading the Bible, years of prayer.

5. We will grow in our knowledge of Him as we share life’s experiences together – praying our way through the exciting, the exhausting, the painful, and even the boring bits of life.

6. There is more to Jesus than just a set of facts: born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth, “son” of a carpenter, etc.  We can know Him personally: His character, His values, His heart.

For me, one last thought reveals both a great fear, and a great thrill as I move forward in life:

7. Christ has, for all eternity, thrilled the infinite heart of His Father.  What we can say about Christ should not be limited to what can fit in a communion cup.  By the time the years have passed, surely we should have much much more to say of Him who is really more than an ocean full of wonder?  My prayer is that we all will.


Could we with ink, the ocean fill,

And were the skies of parchment made,

Were every stalk on earth a quill,

And every man a scribe by trade,

To write the love of God above,

Would drain the oceans dry,

Nor could the scroll contain the whole,

Though stretched from sky to sky.

(The Love of God, by Frederick Lehmen)

Advent – a Season of All Tenses!

During Advent I will be posting some brief articles on this site. I may link to some of them, but not all. So if you’d like to see them, be sure to bookmark this site. Thanks!

Lost in Wonder

pleased-to-dwellv5During the early centuries after Christ the church developed the advent season.  It is a season to prepare our hearts to welcome Christ.  It used to be a season of fasting in some quarters, but now is probably needed more as a perspective check in the midst of consumer feasting.

Think about the tenses.  It would be easy to put advent in past tense – a season to remind our hearts of the coming of Christ.  That would be amazing.  God become flesh and dwelling amongst us, come to die in our place, to reconcile us to God, etc.  A past tense advent would be wonderful, but we have more.

Advent has future tense – it is a season to prepare our hearts to see Christ.  It is not only to celebrate his birth in Bethlehem, but to stir our hearts with the hope that one day we will see…

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Michael Ots: What Does It Mean to be Human?


michael2Michael Ots is an evangelist who regularly speaks at events in universities across Europe. His first book, What Kind of God? is translated into Russian, Serbian, Romanian and Spanish.  To find out more, please visit


‘Man is a crumpled piece of paper in the rain whose only liberation is death’ – this was the conclusion of the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. Most of us would not share his bleak conclusion about humanity. However, his was the logical conclusion to come to if at the end of the day we live in a materialistic universe where there is nothing more than matter. The scientist Francis Crick said ‘You, your joys and sorrows, memories, ambitions, sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the massive assembly of nerve cells… Who you are is noting but a load of neurons.’

The problem with such views…

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