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!

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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.

7 Things Preachers Never Say – pt.3

What do preachers feel unable to say?  We’ve mentioned the burden of expectation, and the pain that can come from responses of criticism and apathy.  Here’s another to throw into the discussion:

3.  My family is not the picture perfect family you think it is or wish it were.

Real families have real struggles.  Preachers have real families.  Therefore our families struggle.  That means that sometimes there are real challenges in a preacher’s marriage.  I am not talking about the petty disputes over toilet seats that are easy to reference in the pulpit.  I am talking about the incredibly tense interchanges that you don’t mention in a sermon.  Husbands and wives can really clash, or really drift, or really struggle, and that is really true for preachers too.  It is easy to assume that a preacher’s marriage is healthy and easy, but healthy marriages are not usually easy.  If there is a healthy marriage then that is the fruit of God’s grace to overcome lots of sin, and it is the result of lots of difficult decisions along the way, including lots of forgiveness in both directions.  Only the most naïve can say, “you’re lucky, you have a good marriage.”  And sometimes they will say it.

And then there is parenting, another great arena for luck!  “You are lucky, you have easy children.”  Guess again.  Some children may be more compliant than others, but every child needs parenting.  And parenting involves heartache.  The preacher’s children throw tantrums, sin foolishly, and sometimes rebel along the way.  I think there are times when a preacher would do well to pull back from preaching ministry to give their energy to parenting ministry, but there is never a time when a preacher has an easy life as a parent.  Parenting includes heartache, and real fear, disappointments, concern, sleepless nights, and so on.

And it needs saying that the “problem” is not always with the non-preaching spouse or the children.  It could be, but it could also be the other way around too.  Sometimes a preacher may not be a good spouse or a good parent.  There may be times when the preacher vulnerably acknowledges their personal weakness or the challenges at home, but no congregation wants a weekly update on the preacher’s family soap opera.  And typically no preacher wants to expose their family so that everyone knows the struggles they face at home.

Am I saying that all you see is false?  Not at all.  What I am saying is that the preacher’s family is a real family, with real sin, real tension, real disagreements, real weaknesses, real discussions, real disciplining, real parenting and real inadequacy.  If the fruit that is visible is good, then praise God, not luck.  (If the fruit is obviously not good, maybe the preacher needs releasing from some burdens to be able to prioritise their ministry at home.  I can never fathom churches watching helplessly as their pastor’s marriage collapses or their child goes off the rails!)

The preacher’s family life is real, whether you get to see the inner workings or not!

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.

Star Wars, The Force of Nostalgia Awakens (and Preaching)

Star_Wars_The_Force_Awakens**There are no spoilers here**

The Force of Nostalgia Awakens. I jumped at the chance to go to the cinema and see the new Star Wars. I won’t spoil the storyline in this post, but I do want to ponder the key ingredient of this film’s success.  Nostalgia.

It is a very good film. Decent story. Good acting. Well made. But what is making this movie probably one of the most profitable of all time is its effective use of nostalgia. There is something profoundly satisfying about seeing familiar characters, familiar scenery, familiar scenes,  and familiar storylines.  (If you haven’t seen Star Wars yet, think about Rocky revisiting the ice rink in Rocky Balboa, the first glimpse of The Shire in The Hobbit, etc.  Nostalgia seems to be a growing currency in Hollywood!)

Now I could suggest that if the many very satisfying moments of nostalgia were removed from Star Wars, then it might not be lauded so highly, but that would be both unwise and unfair. Unwise because I would probably face a host of fans wanting to fight me to the death with their light sabers. Unfair because this Star Wars never asked to be judged minus the nostalgia.  (Unlike the previous 3 episodes that tried to build the franchise with poor stories and disappointing characters, this one has good story, good characters, etc., and deliberate use of the force of nostalgia.)

So with a good thumbs up to the movie, let’s ponder what we can learn in respect to our preaching and “nostalgia.”  In reality nostalgia is only a small part of what I am describing here – it is really the force of relational connections, our identification with characters. For the sake of simplicity, I will go with the term “nostalgia” because that was the overriding emotion generated in Star Wars.

1. Nostalgia is powerful.  There is more narrative in the Bible than any other type of literature. Even non-narrative literature is part of the big narrative of the Bible. If we can tell the stories well, then nostalgia can become part of the force in preaching. This is not automatic, however. We need to think about preaching biblical material in such a way that people are engaged emotionally and not just cerebrally. Too much preaching rehearses old truths, but does not ignite the imagination of the listeners. Most people, in most of the world, for most of history, have had far more engaged imaginations than we do today. This means we need to pay attention to how we help listeners imagine and engage with the biblical story.

2. Nostalgia is never generated by facts alone. If Star Wars simply referenced facts from episodes 4-6, then we would not be discussing the force of nostalgia in this post. There is some traction in familiar scenery, scenes, score, and plotlines, but the force really awakens when characters are enfleshed. To see Han Solo and Chewbacca walk onto the screen is where viewers find themselves deeply stirred.  Why? Because we feel like we know them – old friends who we never thought we would see again, but they’re back!  The human heart engages with other persons in a unique and powerful way. When we preach, we too easily reduce characters to fact-lists. Nicodemus was a curious and maybe sympathetic Pharisee. Zaccheus was a diminutive rogue. Zechariah was a faithful priest. And even, God is a holy deity.  All very factual, but the person is not evident when the description is too flat. People’s hearts will respond to real people, but sadly many churchgoers encounter more “real person” in a brief encounter with a waiter at a restaurant than they did at church during the preaching of a biblical narrative.

3. Nostalgia is not universally forceful. While we would do well to ponder the potential impact of “nostalgia” in our preaching, this is no magic pill.  Nostalgia alone would not make Star Wars successful. In fact, for a first time viewer who doesn’t have a host of emotional ties to scenes from over three decades ago, this Star Wars would have to engage on a completely different level. In the same way, we can’t rely on “familiarity” or assumed character development from previous exposure when we preach. Let’s learn to preach so that listeners engage with characters and experience the stories so that there is opportunity to tap into the force of nostalgia, but good preaching has to be targeted at first-time hearers too. Be sure to preach in such a way that first-time hearers will encounter the Key Character in the Bible,  be drawn to Him and become candidates for nostalgic responses in future biblical preaching!

Resolved: Preach Christ

resolved2Here’s another resolution to throw into the mix as we head into another year.  How about making a prayerful determination to preach Christ, rather than the tempting alternatives?

Here are some tempting alternatives that are worth dumping in favour of Christ:

1. Don’t preach issues – It is tempting to be contemporary and to buy into the idea that what people really value above all else is contemporary relevance.  Of course the Bible is relevant and Christ is relevant, but that doesn’t mean your preaching should be salted with relevance like meat in a medieval barrel.  Some preachers are so concerned about being up-to-date that they lose sight of what they have to offer those sitting before them.  Relevance is important, but it is not the primary and central goal in preaching.

2. Don’t preach tips – Of course God’s way is the best way and lives gripped by the Gospel tend to work a whole lot better than lives lived according to the values of the world.  And yes, the Bible does include a lot of insight into living life, both legitimate and moralized.  But our job is not to be the weekly top tip provider for a people totally absorbed with successful living.  There should be a huge difference between our preaching and the self-help guru folks may pay a fortune to hear on Friday night.  The gospel will transform lives, but we are not called to be known as life coaches.

3. Don’t preach pressure – With all the best intentions we can easily undermine the work of the Gospel in the lives of those we preach to each week.  That is, we want them to be thriving spiritually and in life.  We know the damage sin can do.  So we will always be tempted to twist arms and pressure people to conform to an outward Christianity.  It makes church life easier if all messes are hidden and people act appropriately.  But pressure preaching assumes that listeners can fix themselves and that we can achieve God’s goals without any meaningful involvement from Him.  There will be moments where we seek to appropriately apply the pressure of God’s Word, but that is not what defines us as true Christian preachers.

4. Don’t preach yourself – Over the years our own flesh has this amazing ability to get used to being the centre of attention.  If you are naive enough to believe the polite comments you receive after preaching are objective evaluations of your ministry significance, then you can easily start to buy into your own hype.  Please don’t.

5. Do preach Christ – The Gospel is not a self-starting life-change program, it is good news that involves us introducing listeners to God in Christ.  Don’t preach self-help programs, or church programs, or Christian morality, or even Christianity . . . preach Christ.  Make 2015 a year marked by a weekly introduction to a heart-capturing Saviour!