The Power of an Applicational Phrase

mirror1bIt seems like a lot of people want to hear practical and applicable teaching.  This is understandable. If the alternative is impractical and irrelevant messages then by all means sign me up for the former option.  The problem is that application in preaching can so easily direct our gaze in the wrong direction.

Truly transformational preaching will always point us toward God for the transformation.  It is as we encounter God’s self-revelation that we will feel genuine conviction.  It is as we look to Christ that we will find genuine transformation.  Of course we are either responsive or unresponsive to the work of the Spirit in all of this, but if we are not careful we can easily leave God out and look to ourselves for change.

One phrase that I’ve heard Andy Stanley use a few times is potentially very powerful in this regard.  More than once I’ve heard him say that such and such a sin won’t be visible in the mirror.

Our fallen tendency will be to look at ourselves, self-evaluate with a liberal dose of self-justification and rationalization, and thereby skirt around any sense of conviction.  The whole process of conviction-repentance-transformation is thereby cut off before it even begins.

I have seen this in my own life and I am sure you have in yours too.  I have seen this in otherwise very mature believers.  Somehow we seem to be wired not to see certain issues in the mirror.  This means that we cannot simply rely on God for the transformational help at the end of the process.  Instead we have to look to God for the conviction to begin with.

Before we even preach to others lets be sure to ask God to help us see our own blindspots – those issues that we have been rationalizing and covering for too long.  As those who are genuinely learning, let us then preach to others, reminding them that their own self-evaluation will be flawed and blind, since certain sins “will never show up in the mirror.”

7 Ideas for Creativity in Series Planning

Number7bI believe in preaching series through books of the Bible.  I do it.  I teach others to do it.  But I think we could all do with some extra creativity when it comes to planning a series.

Andy Stanley makes the helpful point that many messages should in fact be series.  That is, we can try to cram too much into a single message.  This is only compounded when we try to preach a series through a whole book.  After all, we will typically end up with substantial length texts each week.  For the listener this can be both overwhelming and potentially repetitive.

But there are other potential issues too.  Think of preaching through Habakkuk for an example.  It naturally falls into three parts – a question with God’s answer, followed by another question with God’s answer, and then Habakkuk’s final declaration of trust.  But there is a possible problem here.  The first question and its answer is frighteningly negative.  It prompted Habakkuk to respond.  It will prompt us to respond as we hear it. So do we then sit and stew on this for a week before part two of the series?

Keeping with Habakkuk as a focus, how might we do a series with some creativity?

1. Preach the whole in one.  This can make a good introduction or conclusion to a series.  Help people to see the whole picture and not just the parts.

2. Dwell in a specific section.  In Habakkuk you could take the woes of chapter 2 and see them play out in several messages, always rooted in Habakkuk, but letting them probe our world as well as his with more penetration.

3. Chase the use.  Habakkuk is used in some key moments later in the canon of Scripture – not least the quotes of Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans, Galatians and Hebrews.  Why not take a message or two to chase how Habakkuk influenced the rest of the Bible?

4. Dig into the sources.  What earlier Old Testament texts form the “informing theology” of Habakkuk’s book?  Perhaps it is worth digging a bit and seeing what could be done with a chase upstream through the Bible to see what fed into his thinking?

5. Place the book in a broader biblical theology.  Habakkuk raises issues about suffering and divine providence.  Perhaps it is worth seeing where his contribution fits with the other key building blocks – the story of Joseph, Job, Romans 8, etc.  This could help listeners place the book in a larger framework.

6. Preach in first person.  Sometimes this is the best way to demonstrate how alive a text is.  Maybe take the audience back there to his world, or bring him to today to make careful commentary on ours.  First person preaching is not easy, but when done well it is also not easily forgotten.

7. Trace a theme or two.  As well as working through a book chunk by chunk, it may be helpful to trace a key theme through the book, and then another week trace another key theme.  Help people to see the beauty of single grains as in a plank, as well multiple grains in the cross-cut text.

With a prayed-through blend of creativity and traditional single passage exposition, Habakkuk could become a more compelling and effective 6 or 8-week series than it might have been as a traditional 3-week walk through.

What Are You Giving Away?

“The value of a life is always measured by how much of it is given away.” – Andy Stanley

Any preaching ministry involves giving.  You give of yourself in preparation.  You give of yourself in delivery.  And often you feel spent when you are done.  But the relationship between visible ministry and giving is a complex one.

The value of a lifePublic ministry is certainly demanding, but it can also come with its own rewards.  People see you.  People may respect and appreciate you.  People may even pay you.  Once there is reimbursement in the equation, then the giving nature of ministry can become murky.

This is why I think Andy Stanley’s quote is so important for those of us who are involved in visible ministries – whether that is preaching, or teaching, or leadership, etc.

What are you giving in secret?

Please don’t comment and answer that question!

Here are some quick thoughts to ponder:

1. If all your giving in ministry is public, then your giving is not secret.  There is something about giving of ourselves without attention that is so important.

2. If all your giving in ministry is public, then your giving is being rewarded.  There is something about rewarded giving that somehow undermines the reality of the giving.

3. Even if you ministry is public, there is plenty you could give that is not.  Obviously there is financial giving, but there is a lot more too.  What about mentoring other preachers and leaders?  What about leveraging your contacts and resources for the sake of others in ministry?  What about strategizing together with others about their ministry?  What about dreaming together with an individual and believing in them as they launch something you aren’t associated with?  What about encouraging folks by private message, personal phone calls, etc.?  What about praying – and not just for your own ministry and its multiplication?

The value of your life is not measured by the profile you achieve in ministry, but by the reality of how much of it is given away.

Andy Stanley’s 7 Guidelines part 6

411J3RGXsVL._SL500_So to finish off Andy Stanley’s list of seven guidelines for preaching to the unchurched, here is number 7…

Guideline 7: Don’t go mystical . . . unless you want a new car.

I have resisted the urge to quote too much, so I’ve earned some quoting credit.

If you are serious about your weekend service serving as a bridge for those who are returning to faith or exploring faith for the first time, stay away from the mystical.  Even if you are in a highly charismatic church, stay away from the mystical.  You don’t live that way.  Nonbelievers don’t live that way.  So don’t preach that way.  Mystical just puts distance between you and your audience.

Now, on the other hand, if you are into positioning yourself as “God’s man” or “God’s anointed mouthpiece” or other such nonsense, then mystical is the way to go.  Mystical communicates that you have an inside track; you are closer to God than the people in the audience could ever hope to be.  Mystical creates . . . mystery!  And with mystery comes fear!  And that puts you in the driver’s seat.  Once you get your people thinking you are something special, they will treat you special.  Throw in a little prosperity theology and in no time you will be driving in style, dressing in style, and the people close to you will never question your decisions.  How could they?  You are God’s man.  It’ll be awesome.

Now, your spouse and kids will know you are a poser and a phony.  But eventually your spouse will get so accustomed to the fortune and fame, he or she won’t say anything.  Your kids, on the other hand, well, they’ll be a mess.  But you’ll have the resources necessary to ensure they get the best treatment options available.  Wear contacts.  Avoid reading glasses.  Get yourself an entourage, an Escalade, and some armor-bearers, and you will be good to go.  Oh, one other thing.  Stay away from the Gospels.  Things didn’t go well for those guys.  Stick with the Old Testament.  The Gospels could be hazardous to your charade!

While many may not quite follow through to that extreme, there are many who offer a mystical charade as a means of multiplying the sense of authority in what they say.  We need a radar for this kind of stuff in our own hearts and lives.  Actually, we have a radar.  He’s called the Holy Spirit.  So while a false mystical approach can be so damaging, a humble walk with the One able to search us and know us is so important for communicators.

Andy Stanley’s 7 Guidelines part 3

411J3RGXsVL._SL500_Continuing a quick jaunt through Andy Stanley’s guidelines for preaching to unchurched people, from his chapter on preaching in Deep and Wide.

Guideline 4: Give ’em permission not to believe . . . or obey.

Since the New Testament addresses believers with instruction, we are accountable to each other.  But for some reason “Christians love to judge the behavior of non-Christians.”  (This is strange considering Paul addresses the issue in 1Cor.5:12-13.  So are we surprised when the world struggles to accept the judgment of people and a standard they have never acknowledged in the first place.  Ok, I need to quote a bit more, following Col.4:5-6…

Like you, I’ve heard way too many messages addressed at nonbelievers that were full of salt seasoned with grace.  That’s part of the reason so many unchurched people are just that: unchurched.  I think we would be wise to extend Paul’s advice to our preaching.  When addressing unbelievers, it should be all grace with just a pinch of salt.

So while there are expectations of believers, non-believers should be given an out.  They are welcome guests, but they are not the target of instruction.  And when they are given an out, then they may well lean in to discover more of how things work within this family they are visiting.  In fact, they may even respond to invitation.  But if they feel like they are being judged, critiqued, attacked or commanded, then there is a good chance their response will be less than favourable.

The next one will need more than the word count I have left, so I’ll keep you hanging until tomorrow, but it should provoke some thinking!

Andy Stanley 7 Guidelines

DeepWideI am reading, and enjoying, Andy Stanley’s Deep and Wide.  It is typical Andy Stanley writing.  That is, it reads like he has dictated it (and not in a dull dictation mode, but in a page-turning high energy presentation).  The story of North Point Community Church is fascinating, and the advice that pours through every page is thought-provoking.  You may not see church quite as he does, I have my differences too, but I think it is foolish to dismiss the advice without pondering it.

So I thought I’d ponder a bit through his seven guidelines for preaching to unchurched people.  This is one part of one chapter, but since the chapter is on preaching, it got me thinking.  I won’t quote too much, but just a taste:

Ultimately, I want people to fall in love with the Author of the Scriptures and his Son.  But I don’t have any control over that.  So my best option is to arrange the fate.  I figure if I do a good job, even if they don’t fall in love on the first date, there is always the possibility that something will happen on the second or third date. . . . I meet people who’ve been attending our churches for several years that say they aren’t there yet.  Nothing I can do about that except to continue arranging dates.  As long as they are sitting under the proclamation of the gospel, there’s hope!

So let’s meander our way through his seven guidelines for preaching to unchurched people, something that many admire in his preaching:

Guideline 1: Let ’em know you know they’re out there . . . and you’re happy about it.  

People who have not been to church in a long time feel like the odd one out.  “In many churches, they feel like guests who snuck into someone’s home.  They are not sure you are happy they are there.”  Stanley goes on to suggest that if you never reference them in your message then it will only confirm their suspicions.  He is pushing for more than a “if you are here for the first time…” reference.  He is suggesting comments that demonstrate recognition of discomfort, but seek to overcome it.

As early as possible, he suggests making it clear that you know they are present and that you understand where they are at.  Not every visitor is a “spiritual seeker.”  Some are resistant, some are there under duress, some feel profoundly awkward.  Lovingly addressing the congregation as if it is not all “insiders” is important.  Not only for the guests present, but also for the congregation who are considering inviting someone next week.

We’ll press on through the list tomorrow.

Overqualified! Grace, But.

Here’s a quote to start the week.  It’s a quote I found very encouraging last night.  Yesterday morning I preached the first message in a series on Galatians.  Paul pulled no punches and I reflected that somewhat in my message.  So this morning I’ve woken up pondering this quote from Andy Stanley:

“The church, or I should say, church people, must quit adding the word “but” to the end of our sentences about grace. Grace plus is no longer grace. Grace minus is no longer grace. We are afraid people will abuse grace if presented in its purest form. We need not fear that, we should assume that. Religious people crucified grace personified. Of course grace will be abused. But grace is a powerful dynamic. Grace wins out in the end. It is not our responsibility to qualify it. It is our responsibility to proclaim it and model it.”

I wonder what proportion of gospel preachers really preach the radical message of God’s grace, and how many feel the need to qualify it and augment it and protect it?  How do we over-qualify grace?

1. We preach grace, but insist on human commitment and responsibility in our gospel preaching.  It’s so easy to preach of God’s wonderful, amazing, life-transforming, gaze-transfixing, heart-captivating grace.  And then in the same breath speak of our need to make a personal commitment, to be diligent, to conform to standards, etc.  Either God’s grace is as good as we say it is, or it is lacking and needs human supply.

2. We preach grace, but quickly shift to focusing on our legal obligations as humans.  Grace plus works is not grace.  Grace minus relational freedom and delight is not grace.  Grace with a good dose of law is not more, but less.  People might abuse grace?  Indeed, so let’s put more effort into communicating how good God’s grace is, rather than feeling obliged to supply qualifiers that are somehow meant to stop people gratuitously sinning in light of the message of the gospel.  When a heart is truly gripped by God’s grace, then it is truly free to live a life of love for God and others – will such preaching lead to licentiousness and abuse?   Certainly not as much as preaching law will lead to rebellion and the fruit of the flesh.

All that I say here applies to both evangelistic and to edificatory preaching.  If the text speaks of our response in some way, or offers guidance on the difference this gospel will make, then of course we must preach the text.  But let’s not automatically feel the need to over qualify and potentially lose the impact of the message if the inspired author didn’t add qualification.

Preaching grace is dangerous.  It is dangerous because unlike overqualified human-centred preaching, it might actually stir a heart to be captivated by the abundant grace of God and lead to radical transformation!

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One Simple Truth

Last time we thought about ways to trim the message.  This is not to appease the unsubstantiated claims that people cannot concentrate like they used to (evidence suggests otherwise).  Rather it is to enable the central truth of the message to come across more clearly, rather than being hidden by excessive padding.

The other side of this matter is that central truth.  Is it too “big?”  Sometimes we simply try to cram in too much information.  Our main idea takes forty-eight words to summarize.  This is a problem.  I think it is important to realize the value of the cumulative effect of effective communication.  Communicate effectively a biblical truth this Sunday, then another next Sunday, let them build.  This is so much more helpful than trying to achieve everything in every message and effectively achieving very little because it was all just too much!

I suppose it is harder to put it more clearly than Andy Stanley (which is often the case, to be honest!) . . . just preach one simple truth.

I’m tempted to make some analogy along the lines of comparing the ineffective feast people offer to someone who has been starving, when actually what they can effectively assimilate is a small dose of something specific (but the feast feels like you’re feeding them, even if they do end up with no benefit from the overdose) . . . I’m tempted to do that, but that might be unnecessary elongation of this post.

One simple truth.

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Preacher, Use Strategy

I typically teach with reference to the arrow and the target (i.e. the main idea and the message purpose respectively).  In order to deliver the arrow to hit the target, strategy is necessary.  This might mean preaching in the clear and logical manner of a deductive message, or it might choosing the slightly trickier, but when effective, very effective, inductive message.  A preacher needs to think through how to preach the text as effectively as possible.  This is strategy.

It encourages me to see this type of language used by Spurgeon.  Let’s taste a bit of that:

Again, brethren, if you wish to see souls saved, we must be wise as to the times when we address the unconverted.  Very little common sense is spent over this matter.  Under certain e there is a set time for speaking to sinners, and this comes as regularly as the hour of noon. . . . Why should the warning word be alway at the hinder end of the discourse when hearers are most likely to be weary? . . . When their interest is excited, and they are least upon the defensive, then let fly a shaft at the careless, and it will frequently be more effectual than a whole flight of arrows shot against them at a time when they are thoroughly encased in armor of proof.  Surprise is a great element in gaining attention and fixing a remark upon the memory, and times for addressing the careless should be chosen with an eye to that fact.

Spurgeon here raises an interesting thought.  Not only should strategy influence our choice of sermon shape and content, it should also influence our decision about timing and target within the group who are listening.  I know I tend to address the unsaved near the end.  Why?  I’ve been impressed with Andy Stanley’s direct approach in introductions on several occasions.

When will you target the unsaved this Sunday?  What about the saved by lethargic?  The excited and passionate?  The naturally skeptical?  The comfortable?  We often think through messages from all angles of the text, but why not think through all angles of those listening.  There is diversity there, a good military campaign would think through that variety.  So would a sporting gameplan.  Why not in the most important battle of all?


Praise God for Influential Preachers

I just read an article from Preaching magazine –25 Most Influential Pastors of the Past 25 Years. The title should be “preachers” rather than “pastors” in any strict sense of the term’s current usage. Anyway, it is worth reading.  I’m sure some would be quick to criticise how American the list is, but that is always a cheap and easy critique.  What struck me was how many of these preachers have blessed me in recent years (and I don’t spend much time listing to famous preachers).

I would encourage you to read the article and give thanks for these and other well-known preachers who have faithfully sought to serve God through their ministries.  It is easy to critique the famous, but actually it must be hard to be in their positions, perhaps facing some unique stresses that most of us don’t face.

Perhaps the list might suggest some names that you haven’t heard before, leading you to trawl the web for a sermon by E.K.Bailey, or W.A.Criswell, or Fred Craddock.  Or someone who doesn’t fit in your theological or ecclesiological comfort zone . . . anyone from Adrian Rogers, to Bill Hybels, to William Willimon, to Stephen Olford, to Warren Wiersbe, to Rick Warren, to Jack Hayford, to Tim Keller, etc.  Have you observed Andy Stanley preach?  Have you

Maybe this kind of list has a handful of preachers that you have really been blessed by over the years – stop and give thanks for them.  I’m delighted to see Haddon Robinson on there, I know many who would give thanks for the influence of John Piper in their lives, I have friends who have been so blessed by John Stott, and other friends who have faithfully tuned in to Chuck Swindoll, and of course, there are numerous people I know who would count Billy Graham as the preacher God used to reach them with the gospel.

As with all lists, we could add others who would be on our personal list. Famous, or not, we do well to pause and give thanks for preachers God has used in our lives over the years.  I fondly remember the hours I spent listening to George Verwer messages while going through university – how making a quick meal of pasta could stretch into the afternoon as God dealt with and encouraged me through George’s preaching.  Or the Calvary Chapel preacher whose tapes I would rewind incessantly as I took copious notes in my black chair with my feet on the bed.  Or the seminary prof who preached in class every morning at 8am . . . Bruce Fong it was a pleasure to study God’s Word with you, man O man, what a privilege!