7 Things Preachers Never Say – pt.2

This series looks at seven things preachers never say.  Last time we thought about the burden of expectation.  How about this for another:

2. Both sides of negative response can really sting, that is, both criticism and apathy.

As a preacher, there are hosts of factors at play in my ministry.  There are tangible and intangible costs to what I do.  There is the immediate and the long-term.  As a preacher, I may spend hours during the week praying for the people and preparing to preach to them.  As a preacher, I may be forfeiting a number of other paths I could have walked down in life.  At times I will see the positives that come from being in a preaching ministry.  Believe me when I say it is one of the greatest privileges imaginable.  At the same time, some negative responses really can sting.

It hurts to be criticized.  It hurts when people criticize your motives or lie about you to others.  It hurts when the preacher is being roasted more than the joint of beef during Sunday lunch in every household of a congregation.  It hurts when people throw stones and storm out of the door.  It hurts when people’s grievances seem to inevitably hit the most visible targets in the church, which tends to be those who lead and preach.

Sometimes criticism is justified.  But it still hurts when instead of coming to you, those with grievances decide to broadcast their complaints to others instead.  It hurts to have to always be the mature one when others are being profoundly immature.  When sheep go on the attack it can really hurt!

But there is another side to negative response:

Apathy also hurts.  When you pour out your heart in prayer and burn the candle at both ends in preparation, only to be met with polite apathy, it stings.  The polite comments that amount to “nice sermon” when you have just given everything you had to preach it can really sting.  When year after year of preaching is met with the expectation that you will just be ready to do it again next week, but without much gratitude or apparent responsiveness, that stings.

We don’t preach for human affirmation.  Preachers tend to be like parents – our goal is not to be liked, it is to lovingly give what is needed by the people we love.  But preachers are also like parents in that both criticism and apathy can really hurt.  We preach for our audience of One, but that doesn’t give us infinitely thick skin.

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We Are Not Church Sub-Culture Guardians

This morning I was sat in a coffee shop a few hundred miles from my home country.  Behind me there were six or seven elderly men in highly animated conversation.  By highly animated I mean literally shouting over each other and gesticulating wildly.  They were not in a conflict, they were in a normal Saturday morning conversation.

This would have been completely normal for a local observer, but for me as a foreigner it was highly fascinating.  Each culture has its own set of “normal” behaviours and values which will feel anything but normal to an outsider.

Another feature of this visit is the number of conversations I have been involved in that relate to church tensions. To the insiders, each conversation has reflected what they might call deeply held biblical convictions.  To my outsider ears, each conversation has reflected deeply held cultural values.  Of course, you can attach a Bible verse to such things, but at their core these issues have been much more about guarding the sub-culture of a church tradition than promoting the life-giving health of the gospel.

Just like the men shouting over each other in the coffee bar, so also the men shouting over each other in these church tensions … all are very much playing out their own cultural norms.  In the case of the church issues, some of those norms are cultural as per their country, while other norms are sub-cultural as per their denomination.

This presents a challenge for us all.  How can we know when instead of promoting the gospel in our context, we are merely reflecting the cultural and sub-cultural norms of our context?  How can we know when instead of being ambassadors for Christ in a needy world, we are instead being roadblocks to Christ that are getting in the way of people seeing His character displayed before them?

Here are seven questions to ask yourself that may help to identify where your Christianity has devolved into sub-culture promotion or protection.  Actually, it is very hard to see this in the mirror, so be sure to ask these questions in conversation with others, and especially with God – He certainly will want to help you see clearly where you are not effectively representing him.

1. Do people in your church feel comfortable bringing friends into the church community? While all might affirm the importance of inviting outsiders into the church, most will hold back if they sense that the environment is not welcoming and appropriate for their contacts.  One huge barrier will be when believers sense that their church is more about maintaining its own culture than reaching out to the lost.

2. Is there any expectation that certain issues preclude people from getting saved or hearing the gospel? It could be a lifestyle issue, an unacceptable habit, a certain look, or whatever.  Is the gospel for all, or only for those that fit in with us?

3. Do certain issues dominate conversation about church more than the wonder of the gospel, the goodness of God, or the blessing of fellowship? Once you turn on the radar it soon becomes obvious what issues keep cropping up in conversation.  Perhaps if there is more talk acceptable and unacceptable behaviour than there is talk of Christ, then maybe your church or your family is more about the sub-culture of a pure church than the wonder of bride of Christ.

4. Would someone encountering your church community see you as representatives of Christ, or would they see you as guardians of a specific issue / the police for a specific sin? People will notice when they meet a love that is different from anything they have experienced before.  They will also sense when your church comes across with a guardians of purity (as defined by them).

5. Do people have thought-through biblical rationale for issues that come up a lot, or is the Bible brushed aside in conversation about that issue? If a church is dealing with specific issues repeatedly then it is not unreasonable to expect the leaders to have thought-through, biblically solid, but pastorally sensitive rationale for their position.  It is a clear indication of trouble if the Bible is dismissed when it is used to challenge a dogmatically held opinion.

 6. Does the manner of conversation and addressing difficult issues reflect the characteristics of the fruit of the Spirit? If the position that a person is taking is a godly position, then it won’t come across with venom and acrimony.  It will bear evidence of the fruit of the Spirit.  Divisive, critical, grace-less, argumentative or condemning attitudes are not evidence of the Spirit’s work in a person or church.

7. Are those who differ on a non-primary issue considered sub- or non-Christians?  Are their churches considered sub- or non-churches? The primary issues are required agreement for fellowship to exist – that is, the Trinity, the person and work of Christ, the inspiration of Scripture, salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.  No matter how important, we cannot make a non-primary issue into a primary one by simply declaring it as such ourselves.  Your view on clothing, on music, on certain hobbies, on smoking, on divorce, on tattoos, etc., does not make them primary issues.

It is good to prayerfully take stock and make sure that your church stands for, represents and smells of the beauty of the gospel, of the wonder of God’s saving grace, of the other-worldly fellowship of believers and so on.  It is so easy for our churches to become bastions of a sub-culture.  And the frightening thing is that we may not see it, even if we look in the mirror!

7 Things Preachers Never Say

Preachers speak, but we don’t talk about everything.  If you are a preacher you may read this series and find some encouragement that you are not alone.  If you know a preacher you may read this and find some understanding that you did not have before.

This series might prompt some communication … maybe it will give you conversation starters with any preachers you know.  And for the preachers?  This might give you some links you want to “accidentally” pass on to certain people in your church (please don’t do that. Instead pray about a more honest way to raise the subject!)

So let’s jump into the list with number 1, not because it is most important, but just because it starts the list.  You might want to let folks know about the series now so they don’t think you are particularly concerned about post 4 or whatever!

1. As a preacher, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the expectations of others.

Some preachers preach every week in their own church and find it incredibly draining.  They might enjoy the actual preaching, but the expectation can feel relentless.  I have a friend who preaches 9 Sundays out of every 10.  That feels relentless.  Is there room to breathe?  Preaching is not half an hour’s work.  In fact, preaching cannot be measured merely by hours spent in preparation and delivery.  Preaching takes something out of you, and the relentless rhythm of week after week can become a very heavy burden.

Visiting preachers can also feel the pressure of expectation.  Just as a pastor can be expected to lead every event that happens in a church, so can a guest feel that extra expectations just get dropped on them.  I was chatting with one speaker who said he would prepare for weeks for a big event, then when he arrived they would nonchalantly ask if he wouldn’t mind doing an extra seminar or two during the weekend.  Every preacher is different.  Some will thrive on unexpected opportunities and challenges, some will struggle massively, all will find it harder as the years pass to live up to this kind of request.

As well as the expectations to preach and lead, there are countless other expectations too.  You have to be positive.  Your family has to be picture perfect.  Your sermons have to be as good as each other, ideally as good as your best.  Your reaction to the challenges of life should be ideal in every way.  Your ministry should cope admirably when under-funded.  Your ministry should continue whatever crisis may be hitting in your extended family or private life.  You shouldn’t really have a private life.  You should always be available.  You should come around at no notice to help with a family crisis.  And you should still be ready to preach a slam dunk message come Sunday morning.

I do not want to ask for sympathy for preachers.  I don’t know preachers that want that.  I do know preachers that wish people understood a bit more of the burdens that they feel.

Next time we will break out number 2 . . .

Pulpit Humour: Five Pointers

Some churches get very upset if the preacher uses any humour in the pulpit. I suspect heaven will be a shock to their system!  Other churches esteem humour above all else that comes from the pulpit.  This is also a problem position.  But what of the rest of us somewhere in the middle?  We know that humour is neither inherently sinful, nor the point of preaching, but it can be a minefield.

Here are some pointers:

1. Be authentic in your humour.  That is, don’t pretend to be something you are not.  If you are not a joke-teller in conversation, then don’t tell jokes in the pulpit (it won’t work).  As long as it is appropriate, go with your natural style of humour.

2. Be joyful rather than silly.  We have so much to celebrate and should be a people marked by “Easter joy.”  However, the dynamics of a responsive crowd can stir our flesh into looking for laughs.  Don’t make that your pursuit, you will be selling out on the great goals of preaching!

3. Be loving to all.  Don’t use humour that is critical, destructive, racist, sexist, etc.  Don’t use restrictive humour, that is, humour that only those on the “inside” will understand.  It can be okay to say something that some will find amusing, but it is not okay for those who don’t to feel like they are being left out.

4. Be selective.  Don’t always use the same kind of material.  For instance, it may be the cutest thing you ever heard, but not everyone in your congregation wants to hear what your child said this week at bedtime.  For some a continual diet of those comments can be like rubbing salt in an open wound.

5. Be humble. If it goes wrong, don’t hesitate to apologise.  I inadvertently mixed up two brands when giving an illustration and managed to reference something highly inappropriate … it certainly got a laugh, but I needed to both apologise and explain how I ended up saying what I did!

What would you add?  Any pointers you’ve found helpful?

Easter Does Not Fade

Easter has come and gone for another year.  But Easter will never fade for God’s people.  Think about the Apostle Peter, for instance.  He was a rugged fisherman called by Jesus to become one of his core followers.  He watched and experienced all that we read about in the Gospels.  He was at the heart of most of the action.  When it came down to it, he wanted to be there for Jesus.  When it came down to it, he couldn’t make it faithfully through the night.

Then things went from bad to worse.  Jesus was killed.  The disciples were in hiding.  Peter had not been able to say sorry for his denial of the man he so dearly loved.  Saturday passed.  Sunday morning came.  Women came to report that the tomb was empty.  Peter raced John to the tomb and that day he met the risen Christ more than once.  Surely in their private conversation, Peter would have expressed his heart to Jesus over what had happened?  Two weeks later, on a Galilean beach, Peter was given the chance to express publicly his love for Jesus.  He had failed, but he was not finished.

Every encounter with the risen Jesus must have thrilled their hearts, but before too many weeks had passed by Jesus returned to His Father and they waited in Jerusalem.  On Pentecost, it was Peter that boldly stood to declare what was going on.  Peter pronounced persuasively that the pangs of death could not keep hold of Jesus and he had risen from the dead!

Easter was very real for those who saw the real Easter.  And for a few weeks, their enthusiasm is to be expected. But surely the delight must fade?  Every event eventually fades, doesn’t it?  Not for Peter.

Fast forward over three decades and Peter writes a letter to some dispersed and discouraged Christians in Turkey.  As soon as he launches he is gushing about the reality of Easter again!  Thirty-plus years and his passion remains undimmed!  Peter could not help but write about the covenant mercy of God that led Him to cause us “to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead!”

Peter went on to write about that hope: an inheritance kept where it cannot die, be defiled, or disappear.  The heavenly hope was, for Peter, no “pie in the sky when we die” – it was a real and life defining certain expectation.  But the hope Peter spoke of was more than just the heavenly inheritance to come. It was also a present tense living hope.

How does the resurrection of Jesus shape our lives today?  What do we have as well as the hope that lies ahead?  Peter writes that we have perspective in the midst of challenging trials.  The suffering that besets God’s people now has purpose – it proves the miracle of our faith.  The suffering we endure now with faith results in greater glory to the God we look to in the midst of the trials.

As well as perspective, Peter writes that believers have an unexplainable love for Jesus.  Because he rose from the dead, Jesus is not simply the object of our nostalgia, like a spiritual Elvis or JFK.  Jesus is alive and that means that while we do not see him, we do love him.  As hard as it is to explain the hope that characterizes God’s people, it is even more difficult to explain the love that we have for Jesus Christ.  It is a first-rate spiritual miracle for a self-absorbed and incurved human heart to be turned inside-out so that it doesn’t hate Jesus (our natural condition), but loves him from the heart!

Finally, as well as perspective and love, the believer also has inexpressible joy.  When we see Jesus our joy will overflow, of course, but now, even though we do not see him, we rejoice with a joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.  True believers suffer, true believers endure, but true believers are people of joy.  It comes from the perspective we have, it comes from the love that is birthed within us, it comes because Jesus has conquered the greatest enemy – death itself.

Since death is defeated we live, present tense, with a living hope, with victory-shaped perspective, with unexplainable love, and with inexpressible joy.  We live, present tense, because Jesus lives, present tense. Since death is defeated, Easter must not and cannot fade for us.

Preaching and Perspectives

When we preach, we present a perspective.  When we preach, we provoke a perspective.  Here are five perspective prompts to help us consider the perspective we give in our preaching:

1. God spoke vs God speaks

We need both perspectives.  We need to know that God has definitively revealed and communicated his very being through the incarnation and the work of the Holy Spirit in revelation that we can access with confidence in our Bibles.  That canonized revelation is priceless and people need to be confident that we can stake our life and eternity on what it says in The Book.  At the same time we do not have a God who is far away and unengaged.  As we engage with the Bible we are engaging with God in the present.  Some preachers speak only as if God spoke long ago and far away.  Others preach as if God’s voice is heard predominantly today apart from the Bible.  Both extremes are problematic.  God spoke and through that, God still speaks.  Our mission is to offer both to our listeners.

2. My World vs The World

Ever since the Fall we have all fallen inward like human-shaped black holes. We naturally think our world is the whole world, when actually there is a whole lot going on beyond me.  As a preacher you address both.  You speak God’s Word into a personal sphere that God does, in fact, care deeply about.  God’s personal love and concern for each of us is nothing short of astonishing.  At the same time we all need to have our horizon expanded beyond the sphere of self to see there is so much more beyond my life, my issues, my concerns, my comfort. The preacher speaks a message that is intensely personal, yet also expansively global in scope.

3. Past vs Future

People live in the bubble of their present concerns.  Preachers point outside of that bubble.  We point back to the world of the Bible and God’s definitive invasion in the person of His Son.  The incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection and the ascension are all definitive points in past history.  At the same time we point through preaching into the future to the historical moment when Christ will again enter into our world.  Past events, future events, all shaping our present lives.  Preachers point backwards and forwards and listeners need us to do both.
 
4. Under The Sun vs Under The Throne

We live our lives in light of what we can see, but there is more.  The preacher points to both.  As well as offering divine commentary and insight into the visible world around us, the preacher also pulls back the veil and shows the reality above.  Stephen lived, preached and died in a terrifying whir of political tensions and angry voices, but above the sky there was a reality that he got to glimpse before his death – the Son of Man standing at the right hand of the throne on high. Daniel 7 is such an important passage – while we live in the raging foment of kingdoms rising and falling, terrifying the saints and waging war against them, all the while there is a higher throne, God is on it, and judgment is given into the hands of a human who is there at the side of the throne.  We can live our lives and die our deaths in light of that reality … but preachers need to help people to see what is unseen.

5. Me vs Him

This may be the ultimate perspective issue in preaching.  People naturally focus on themselves and yet do not see clearly.  The preacher shines a light on the true self, and yet aims to draw the gaze of listeners away from self and to Christ.

In all of these ways preachers influence perspective through preaching.  Does your preaching lean one way and not the other in any of these categories?  Is there some perspective shift needed in you so that your preaching can bring about that good in others?

Rebuilding the Bridge to Life

bridge3Most of us have seen or used the bridge to life illustration at some point.  Maybe you have even preached your way through it.  On one side there is God and on the other there is humankind, and they are separated by a chasm (sin).  Perhaps God is represented by a throne or a crown. Try as we might we cannot leap across the chasm or build a bridge of good works, so God has to do the bridge-building.  The cross is interposed and we can walk across to God.  Many people have come to faith with this illustration, so please don’t see this post as a criticism of it.

It is good to think through what is being communicated and I do think there are some concerning features of the gospel offered here.  For instance, let’s ponder the assumed motivation.  Are people really trying to leap the chasm to get to God?  Are people longing for closeness with the throne/crown authority figure presented in this illustration?  I don’t remember talking to someone who was desperate to get to God and disappointed that they could not.  Furthermore, the relationship offered seems ambiguous – what sort of connection will we have with this throne/crown if we do choose to walk his way?

I’d like to offer another version.  Why? Because it is good to rethink the gospel presentations we use. Even if we end up rejecting my modification, the exercise will surely be helpful in thinking through how we present the gospel.

Instead of having the human figure facing towards God and apparently motivated to move towards God throughout the illustration, let’s draw him or her facing away from God.  We were created for relationship with God but we have turned away.  Introduce the chasm (sin is our rebellion against both God and the love he has for us).  Now the illustration is ready to fill in.

A. On the God side, why don’t we represent God in a more Trinitarian way?  After all, the authority imagery is obviously incomplete, so let’s play with an alternative.  How about a house?  Verbally explain the context of the relationship of the Father and the Son by the Spirit – three persons united in love.  This relationship was the home, the family, the belonging that we were made for.  If it is explained well then the authority of God as creator and ruler can still be established fairly easily.  However this is not a God of conflicting realities. He is not “loving, but also just.”  Because of the perfect love within the Trinity, therefore God is just, etc.

B. In the chasm let’s draw a manger.  Why a manger?  Because God’s goal for us is not merely to change our location from the realm of sin to the realm of heaven.  God’s goal is union with us, which is why God the Son became one of us – the incarnation matters to the gospel!  He had to become one of us so that he could be one with us in marriage, which leads us to …

C. Behind the turned away person let’s draw the cross.  Why here? Because ultimately that is how far Jesus travelled for us.  It was the price that had to be paid, it was the revelation of what God is like that had to be made, and it was the proposal to win our hearts to entrust ourselves to God.  God’s proposal was not in nervousness on one-knee, but in agony with outstretched arms.

Why do I like this adaptation of the classic illustration?

  1. Because it speaks of the three great unions of Christianity – the union of God with God (Trinity), the union of God and man in Christ (incarnation), and the union of Christ with humanity (union with Christ).
  2. Because God is presented more relationally.
  3. Because mankind is not presented as motivated to seek and reach God.
  4. Because God, in Christ, came all the way to us.  (You could also explain that the Spirit points our hearts to the cross and invites us to be united to Christ.)
  5. Because it presents a loving God doing everything for a rebellious and dead-to-God creature like me.
  6. Because the gospel is about trusting in that love, rather than about making a personal commitment to travel to God.
  7. Because in the gospel we are brought back home by a loving spouse – it is not our solo trek on a God-made bridge to a nice place, in a very real sense he carries his bride over the threshold!

My goal is not to convince you of this illustration.  Perhaps you have another classic gospel explanation you have used – why not think through its weaknesses and modify it to better offer the richness of the good news?  (For example, the judge doesn’t simply pay our fine, he also approaches the stand and proposes…)

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This post was originally published on www.cordeo.org.uk

Diagnosing Sheep

sicksheep2In pastoral ministry, there is a great need for the right diagnosis of sheep. Just as a medical doctor cannot ignore the person in front of them and assume the same treatment will be equally effective for all, so the pastoral worker cannot assume all need the same type of care.

In John 11 Jesus arrived at Bethany after Lazarus had died.  Martha and Mary both approached Jesus with exactly the same words, “If you had been here my brother would not have died.”  Jesus did not reply with identical statements. He gave Martha practical hope, but Mary emotional empathy. Jesus knew the people he was caring for and treated them as individuals.

In 1Thessalonians 5:12-14, Paul gives instructions to the church, that they should respect and esteem the leadership. And he gives instructions to the leadership.  There are people who are idle – they need admonishing or exhorting.  There are those who are fainthearted and discouraged – they need encouraging and comforting.  There are those who are weak – they will need your devotion and help.  And every one of them will need patience.

It would be profoundly ineffective to admonish the fainthearted, help the idle, or to encourage the weak.  The fainthearted need care not rebuke. The idle need a change of perspective, not help to carry on as they are.  The weak need practical help, not words.

This is one of the great challenges of pastoral ministry, and therefore, of preaching too.  We need to grow in sensitivity to the people we care for, and we need to grow in discernment too.  Some of us will tend toward a harshness with others that will bruise and harm many of the sheep.  Some of us will tend toward a tenderness toward everyone that will actually be unhelpful to some.

We need to listen well, watch carefully, pray diligently, and keep in mind that in pastoral care situations there will be multiplied factors at play – the circumstances of the person, their relational dynamics, their own sinful responses, their triggered responses from previous hurts, their understanding and ability to think through life clearly, their underlying health issues or hidden fears, insecurities, etc.

The truth is that there is not one of us who can see even themselves clearly and fully, let alone others.  We are severely restricted in our ability to really understand others. Make sure that pastoral ministry drives you to your knees.  Any other position is too elevated.

Dig Deeper

digdeeper2Perhaps the hardest thing to know is what you don’t know. One of the huge benefits of formal education is that it tends to open your eyes to what you don’t know. However, most of the time most of us remain blissfully unaware of riches with which we have not yet engaged. This post may be attempting the impossible, but I want to suggest some areas for further study that might be just what your ministry needs to develop to another level. I will not spell out everything, but rather offer some signposts that may nudge you in a healthy direction. Obviously, you may already know more than me about some of these, but that is beside the point. I believe these are fruitful avenues for prayerful study for any of us:

  1. The Fall.  I believe the Fall in Genesis 3 had a far more profound effect on us than we have ever realized. Too many Christians think of sin as being a list of sins. But what about the “non-sin” sins such as self-righteousness and autonomy? Too many Christians think of sin as something they did before salvation with the odd slip up now and again since. But the gravitational pull of fallenness is exerting a huge effect on us all the time.  I believe we would benefit as preachers to prayerfully pursue a full biblical answer to the question, “what is sin?”
  2. “In Christ.”  Far too many Christians, and dare I say it, preachers, see salvation as being essentially only about guilt and forgiveness.  The good news that is offered in too many pulpits is entirely too thin in comparison with the richness of what is actually offered in the New Testament – that is, in the New Covenant.  The context in which our sins are forgiven, and our shame is removed, and our deadness is transformed, and our enmity is reconciled, and so on, is the context of our union with Christ. Lloyd-Jones referred to this as the “ultimate doctrine” and I suspect none of us have been able to exhaust the richness of what it means to be “in Christ” – many perhaps have barely begun!
  3. The Spirit.  Many churches fall into one extreme or another on the Holy Spirit. For some, He is an end in himself, a source of power and a sensational goal to pursue.  For others, He is a reality that deserves a tip of the hat and then is generally ignored (all the while affirming his existence and importance).  Have we really grasped why and how the Spirit is so Christ-focused?  Have we really grasped why and how the Spirit is so concerned with communication and relationship?  Have we wrestled with the Spirit’s role in the Trinity?  Is he just another member of a divine committee of three, or is he uniquely involved in the union of the Father and Son? And what is that to us?

And since my self-imposed word count is more than used up, here is just one more bonus:

Covenant.  What kind of covenants does the Bible describe God to establish with us?  Are they the same as contracts, really?

Feel free to let any of these stir a chase in the Bible and in your study. I suspect any chasing you might do on these subjects will not be wasted, but will only enrich and deepen your preaching ministry!