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?

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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Christmas Wonder

One of the greatest dangers we face in ministry is losing the wonder of what we speak about. The demands of ministry are always high, and this year, maybe even higher. There are the expectations of people, the burden of creativity (only two pairs of Gospel chapters to preach from!), the pastoral concerns that don’t lessen in the dark days of December, extra responsibilities and expectations at home, and so on. How easy it is to lose the wonder of Christmas!

I don’t want to try to prescribe how to keep the wonder of it all this Christmas. I just want to suggest that we do. What will it take? Time with family – proper time? Extra guarded time alone with God? Is there music that triggers your awe at the Incarnation? Or a good book? Whatever it takes.

As we head into this unusual Christmas season, there are definitely pressures building on us. Let’s look to be captured by the grace of God as he chose to step into our messy world. Let’s look to be gripped by the hope held out in the Christmas story for a dark hurting world full of sinners – sinners ruled by sinners, threatened by death, worried about issues local and global (true then as it is true now!) Let’s look to be stirred afresh by the history-hinge of the Incarnation.

Ponder the first Christmas in all its gritty reality. Ponder the Incarnation in all its theological wonder. Ponder the questions raised for the first characters as they watched it unfold. Ponder the answers given to any willing to probe the truths of biblical revelation. Ponder the journey Jesus took from Bethlehem to the Cross. Ponder the everlasting nature of Christ taking on flesh. Ponder the hope that we have of seeing him one day for ourselves. Ponder. Ignite the wonder. Whatever it takes.

3 Likely Outcomes of Bible-Lite Preaching

You can save a lot of sermon time if you simply summarize the passage, or only briefly touch on the text.  It allows you so many more precious minutes for application and relevance.   But at what cost?  What is lost by eliminating any extended explanation or retelling of narratives?  What is the cost to listeners of not really entering into the world of the passage being preached?  Here are 3 likely outcomes of Bible-lite preaching:

1. Biblical immaturity.  People shaped by Bible-lite preaching will not grow towards the kind of biblical maturity that they will need to thrive in this complex and difficult world.  Knowing a few popular proof texts and surface truths liberally mixed with applicational anecdotes and motivational missives will not be enough to weather the storms of life in this world.  To be mature believers they need the soul-reinforcement that comes from deep biblical-rootedness.

2.  Anemic Devotions.  For half an hour on Sunday our people observe a “mature Christian” handling the Bible.  They will copy what they see.  If you skim the surface in order to share superficial suggestions for life that aren’t deeply rooted in the Word, then guess what they will learn for the rest of the week?  Superficial engagement with the Bible on a personal level.  In fact, they are more likely to make some good worship music on the way to work their daily devotional content and leave the Bible on the shelf.  Why? Because your sermons don’t demonstrate that the Bible has any real weight, personal significance, genuine relevance or divine authority.

3. Godless Christianity.  What is Godless Christianity?  I don’t know, it is an oxymoron.  But I do know, sadly.  It is the kind of christian culture that reinforces itself week after week in many churches – the kind of nice and encouraging sub-culture that has a thin veneer of christian labeling attached to a set of behaviours and attitudes like a set of post-its … that is, not very solid under the slightest wind of difficulty or purposeful inspection.  Bible-lite preaching may encourage people to try to live out the Christian life, but without drawing them deeper into the source of that life – relationship with the Trinity.

As preachers we have a double-duty, or even a double delight: to enable people to encounter the God of the Bible as they enter into His Word, and to be changed by that encounter.  These two go together.  But don’t short-change the first by skipping to the second.  As the world seems to spin further and further away from the anchors of Biblical truth, people need to be more biblically literate and mature, not less.  Today, people need to have more exposure to God’s self-revelation in the Bible, not less.

Who Will Be There After Lockdown?

We don’t know how long we will be locked down, but it will be longer than any of us would prefer.  I think it is important for us to think and pray about the gaps that this unique season will create in our churches, as well as the new people that could be added.

For the first couple of weeks most churches have leapt into action learning how to livestream Sunday services and how to create some sort of face-to-face replacement for home groups.  Some have thought about offering extra resources for people stuck at home.  But as this situation wears on, we will become more and more aware that when we are allowed to come back together as a church, it will probably not be with the same people as before.  Let’s prayerfully ponder these two lists and consider what steps we can be taking now that will change the face of our regathering:

Gaps Created

  1. Some may be promoted to Christ’s presence.  Statistics tell us that this will most likely be the vulnerable through age or underlying medical conditions, but in human terms, nobody is as safe as we used to feel.  Let’s pray about how to support not only those who feel fear at this time, but also for those who may come to the end of their time here during this time, and also the families of any that are lost to this disease (or to any other cause during this time of separation).
  2. Some may drift and grow cold.  The burning coal, when separated from the other coals, will quickly cool down.  Pray about how to pursue, support, encourage and maintain the connection of younger or less-well-rooted believers who are more prone to drift.  We all know people who don’t have the same convictions about the need for fellowship, teaching, worship, community, etc.  The casual approach may seem to work in comfortable times, but it may be seen in its true light under these pressures.
  3. Some marriages may implode.  It would be naive to think that every Christian couple are thriving under lockdown.  We have a newly married couple living opposite us and it is fun to watch them learn to skate together and playing games, but this is no honeymoon for the vast majority of couples.  Some are desperately struggling already and don’t have the release valve of work or time apart with friends.  We have to pray about this and be proactive in supporting every couple in our churches.
  4. Some may grow embittered or lose heart.  The constant bombardment of negative news will overwhelm any of us.  I pray that people in my church will see God answering prayer in specific ways, but what if some don’t?  Pray for the people in your church who are more likely to dwell on the negative news than feast on the hope in God’s Word.  They are extra vulnerable without church fellowship to influence them.
  5. Some may be beaten down by circumstance or enemy attack.  Remember the parable of the soils.  If only everyone in our churches were good soil and now leaning into this crisis ready to bear multiplied fruit.  Sadly some will find this season is the time where the heat of the day, or the seed-theft of sinister birds will undo their apparent participation in the community of God’s people.  Perhaps it is helpful to reveal those who aren’t really truly receptive, but pastorally it is painful to see it happen.  Let’s pray for the spiritually vulnerable and pray about how to pursue the straying sheep – whether they are already saved or not, they need Jesus.

Gaps Filled

  1. Returning drifters need somewhere to land – There are people who used to be actively involved in the life of the church, but life took its toll and they drifted.  Whatever their state was spiritually, this shaking of their world may be God’s tool to draw them to Himself.  Pray about how your church can not only be church to each other during this crisis, but how can you be welcoming and inviting to others who may be looking to reintegrate into gospel community?
  2. The lost can be found – God is an expert at winning the hearts of those who have been hard to Him.  Again, pray about how your online church can reach people – not only the formal streaming (is that accessible?), but also evangelistic resources that your people can share with those who may be open in a new way.  We can’t just expect people to flock to church some months down the line when our doors open again, we need to be proactively welcoming and engaging with people now.  Wouldn’t it be awesome to look back on this as a season of wonderful evangelistic fruitfulness for our churches?!

Who else would you add to this list?  I am not offering answers, but my prayer is that this post can help us to pray and adjust for the sake of the people in and around our churches at this time.

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This Bible highlight from last week relates to this post:

7 Temptations During COVID-19 Isolation

The vast majority of us have no experience of living in these new and challenging circumstances, and as church leaders we have to figure out how to feed, lead, care and protect our flocks on the job.  To begin with there is a novelty element, and also the sense of focus that a crisis generates in us.  But there will be temptations and we would be wise to anticipate them for ourselves, as well as for others:

1. Despair – For many of us, words like, “give us this day our daily bread” have always been somewhat theoretical.  Suddenly our vulnerability as humans is vividly real.  For some the virus itself is a fear, for all of us the impact on society and life is challenging.  It is probably not good to develop an obsession with news updates and constantly refreshing the global death count.  Be informed, but be far more hungry to fill your heart with hope from God’s Word – you need that, and so do those around you.

2. Depression – Don’t let the initial social media enthusiasm for “time to do odd jobs” fool you.  Life on lockdown will quickly become very challenging.  Even with the blessings of video calls, the reduction in face-to-face human interaction is not something we are created to enjoy.  As Christians we may not realise how much meeting together each week matters until we can’t (and churches that plan to meet against government advice need to seriously consider the damage this will do to our shared witness!)  Carrying the weight of a crisis for yourself, your family, and others, will be more than you can bear and depression in its various forms will be a very real and present danger. We need to learn to find strength, hope, rest and wisdom in God.  And remember: technically depression is not a temptation because it is not a sin – be sure to seek help from other people too, God often works best through others.

3. Blame – When the personal comfort of humans is challenged, blame tends to spill out. We can see it already on social media. Remember that Churchill was widely criticised early on, but lauded for his leadership with hindsight. I don’t know if this generation will fully unite under crisis – the early signals are both yes and no. But let’s be sure that we don’t join in and make this about politics. Let’s set a different tone and show how good is the God who sits on the ultimate throne (and humbles himself to suffer life, with, and for us).

4. Distraction – For decades our western culture has increasingly found sophisticated ways of distracting itself and numbing the routine of a dull reality.  This crisis will initially flag the insignificance of much of that distraction.  There may be a sense of relief at the sudden lack of appetite for unimportant things that felt too important a month ago.  But our human nature will crave distraction … binge watching TV series and sports highlights, numbing fear and loss through alcohol and substance abuse, and the temptations that we struggled with before all this are not yet gone for good.  Don’t run from the situation before us, run to the throne of grace to find help, and be sure to be open with your sympathetic high priest about your own struggle with distraction – whatever form it may take under pressure.

5. Compromise – The added pressure of isolation, or of extra time with your family (which can also be really difficult), or of grief, fear, uncertainty, loss of income, etc., will potentially cause us to consider compromises that we would not have considered when life was the old normal.  Typically civil people have become aggressive in supermarkets.  Typically honest people are out there trying to make dishonest gain by selling their vast stocks of toilet rolls online at a high mark-up.  Typically kind people are and will be tempted to steal, to lie, to cheat and to look out for their own interests as their top priority.  And before we simply condemn sin in others, let’s be sure to recognize that we may feel a pressure to compromise that we have never felt before.  Again, read the Bible with open eyes and an open heart – seek the Lord before the pressures ramp up higher.

6. Burnout – Most of us are used to a certain level of stress from family and ministry life.  But doing family and ministry in an ongoing crisis situation is a whole new level of pressure.  You will be tempted to burnout by giving, giving, giving and not letting God refill your tanks, not looking after yourself with rest, sensible food, etc.  Our inner Martha will rear its head in this time.   That putting others first mentality that is so needed for the church to exist and for ministry to happen.  But when our attitude starts to reveal an empty tank, then it is clear that we have not heeded the Mary example: be sure to sit at Jesus’ feet and let him minister to you before you then pour out to others.  Martha service will prove to be important, but lest we let that Martha tension undo the good, let’s be sure to keep the Mary style devotion as a first priority.

7. Retreat – When everyone is socially withdrawing, it will be tempting to retreat into our own homes and look out for family and church family.  Remember the rest of the world needs Jesus, and many of them have never been this close to realising it!

What else would you add to this list? What other suggestions would you offer?

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Youtube – I have decided to use Youtube for no-frills video versions of some blog posts.  I don’t read the post, but follow the same structure and offer it in spoken form.  To take a look at the video, please click here (and thank you for engaging with either the blog post here or the video there … and I appreciate any sharing of either format to help others find the content.)

Unique Passage

In the normal flow of church life, the passage you preach on Sunday will not be preached again for quite a while.  If it is in a series on a specific Bible book, how many years until you plan to preach from that book again?  If it is a seasonal text, like an advent passage, there is a chance you will preach it next year, but probably it will be a couple of years at least.

So, the passage you preach on Sunday will not be preached again for quite a while.  Here is something to ponder:

Will your preaching of that text really bring out the uniqueness of the passage for your listeners?  Will the message be text specific?  Will it make clear that passage’s main idea?  Will it draw out that passage’s implications?

It is so easy to start in a passage and end up preaching a generic message.  The problem with that is that you could preach a generic message from any passage, or from none.  Even if the truth you share is stunningly rich and wonderful, what about that passage?

If we have a high view of Scripture then surely we also need to have a high level of confidence that if you have selected a passage to preach, then the listeners should get that passage.  Just as every fingerprint, snowflake, dog’s nose is unique, so is every passage in the Bible.  Every passage is saying something about something in a unique way.  Will your listeners get that passage’s unique something this Sunday?

If not, if you just slide into a generic message, then it will be years before that passage has a chance to be preached into their hearts and lives again.  Don’t miss the opportunity!

Preaching Myths – Part 3

The whole idea of a “good sermon” is a tricky one.  While some feel it is inappropriate to evaluate, others base that evaluation purely on positive fruit.  Here is another evaluation myth:

3. If a sermon is really good then listeners will not be offended

This is not so much the presence of positive fruit, but the absence of apparently negative fruit.  There are many conflict avoiders amongst us.  Probably most of us would rather not see people upset or offended in the church – it certainly makes ministry easier when everyone is smiling.  But we need to probe the premise here: is a sermon really failing if some get offended by it?

By that measure, Jesus’ ministry was incredibly ineffective.  Jesus knew what was going on inside people and therefore seemed very willing to offend by what he said and what he did.  We certainly do not have perfect insight into human hearts, but it would be utterly naïve to assume that everyone is in some sort of happy neutral state.  Good preaching should disturb the comfortable and not just comfort the disturbed.  There are people in our churches who should be profoundly bothered by the gospel.

But there are some important caveats to make explicit here:

A. Make sure that people are offended by the right things.  If people find the grace of God scandalous, or the glory of the gospel, or character of God, or the depth of their need, then it is probably a good offense.  But if people are being wound up by your personal ministry soapbox issues or legalistic preferences, if people are being upset by the promotion of a certain Christian sub-culture, then I would argue that the offense is not life-giving.

B. Make sure that people are offended by the right person.  If people find your tone objectionable, or your manner distasteful, or your character un-Christ-like, then they are being offended by the wrong person.  Good preaching will offend some, and they may well pin the blame on the preacher, but at the heart of the offense is the Holy Spirit’s work of conviction and shining a light into their hearts.  They may lash out at you, but the bothering is being done by God.  It is so hard to evaluate this as we have a seemingly infinite capacity to self-protect and justify what we do.  Ask God, and ask trusted others, and make sure that your ministry has a graciousness and gentleness befitting a spokesman for Christ (as well as the courage and boldness to speak the truth that His spokesperson should demonstrate too).

C. Make sure that offense is a text-response. If people are angry at your illustrations, your anecdotes, your explanations and your applications, then there may be an issue.  Ideally, the offense should be caused by the biblical text itself rather than your departure from it.

A positive-response-only expectation is not realistic for true biblical preaching.  We should be seeing some apparently negative-responses, but we need God’s help to make sure that what provokes these responses is life-giving biblical preaching rather than our personal rudeness, pastoral insensitivity, or whatever else we can manage as a misfire from the pulpit.

Preaching Myths – Part 2

Last time we thought about the idea that godly preparation precludes the possibility of evaluation.  This time let’s take an idea that is related to that:

2. If it bears good fruit then it is a good sermon.

This is a good follow up to the previous myth.  Maybe you’ve had the experience of struggling through a sermon only to discover that someone else loved it.  Fair enough, there is certainly subjectivity involved in hearing a message.  But what about when the sermon you hear is not just not to your taste, but actually contains error, and then … someone trusts in Christ at the end.  That can be perplexing!

So many things need to be taken into account here.  You could have misheard the preacher.  You could have been biased in your critical view of the message.  Your evaluation criteria may be completely off.  At the same time, the fruit that seems so surprising could be the fruit of other ministry rather than this particular message.  Or the fruit could not be genuine.  Or the fruit could be the glorious grace of God working despite a weak or flawed sermon (praise God for that if you are a preacher, you’ve probably preached some shockers too!)  There are so many unknowns in this.

However, accepting all the multiple layers of complexity, there seems to be a double-edged bottom line here.  On the one hand ministry will be judged by its fruits and this is right.  Good, faithful, Christ-centred, biblically-driven, Spirit-dependent ministry will bring genuine and eternity-changing fruit over the course of time.  On the other hand, there is not a one-for-one correspondence here: apparently positive fruit (conversions, feedback, etc.) does not mean this particular sermon was solid, neither does apparently negative fruit (no response, negative feedback, etc.) mean this particular sermon fell short.  God does a lot of unseen work through messages while preachers press on in faith without knowing if it is making the slightest bit of difference.

How have you experienced this tension?

7 Things Preachers Never Say – pt.4

Here is the fourth in our series of things preachers tend not to say:

4. I feel the force of real temptation, and I am not always victorious.

This is a tricky one, isn’t it?  We are told that people love to hear a preacher being vulnerable and authentic.  At the same time if the preacher simply lays it all out there, then credibility tends to fade through the floor.  One person suggested on this site that it is not good to be vulnerable about sin that is currently still in process.  Work it out and then share appropriately.  That is probably wise.

But whether we tell recent stories or not, there is a struggle with temptation that is current and that is real.  Some preachers may be struggling with their fleshly reaction to others.  Some preachers may feel like lust is in full attack mode.  Some preachers may feel like their victory over some private temptation is less than all-conquering.  That is not to say that the preacher is therefore living in sin.  They may be living in victory and yet still feel worn down by the constant temptation.

We tend to focus talk on sin in areas of overt misconduct – lust or theft or whatever.  But what about the more “sanctified” sins … the popular churchy ones.  It is not easy to talk about ongoing struggles with pride, or poor self-worth, or unresolved conflict, or temptation to gossip, or whatever.

The truth is that while there may be no disqualifying disaster sin lingering like a skeleton in your preacher’s closet, there is a daily and weekly battle with temptation that is wearying and real.  We may not be losing control and assaulting others in fits of drunken rage, but there may be some self-protective habits in life, and there may be some tensions in the home or the church that tempt us to lash out, or numb the pain, or escape, or whatever.

Sometimes people treat the preacher in such a way that the preacher is the only person in the church who feels unable to share their struggles.  After all, not only is the preacher potentially not being vulnerable, but in some churches there is nobody else creating hope of grace and love if the preacher were to express their own struggle or failure.

Preachers struggle with temptation too, and preachers sin too, and it would be really helpful to get some real conversations going.