Lockdowns & Online Church: Time to Evaluate?

There are few subjects as controversial as Covid-19.  Many churches are feeling the stretch of a full spectrum of views within the congregation. It certainly feels safer to not venture into writing about this subject, but I feel it is important that we evaluate what we do in church world – whatever our view of the actual issue may be.  Obviously, each context is different.  What my church was allowed to do will be different than the rules in your country or state.  What my church decided to do may have been inappropriate for another church in the same town because of different facilities, congregational demographic or local context.

At the beginning of the global crisis in early 2020, most churches saw the situation as a no-brainer.  We were confronted with a new virus and we did not know the extent of the risk (although early predictions were anticipating hundreds of millions of deaths globally).  What we did know was the importance of everyone pulling together to save lives. To illegally meet as a church during those early weeks could easily have been the talk of the town (and it would have made Jesus look very bad).  So for us, and probably for most churches, it was time to get creative and adapt to this unforeseen and temporary lockdown.

Now, 18 months later, we are in a better position to look back and do some evaluating.  In our context we had a long first lockdown, followed by a summer of restrictions, then a shorter lockdown in October/November.  The third lockdown, for the first half of 2021, did not apply to churches (although there were plenty of restrictions). 

Our church experienced the sudden move to “meeting” online without a budget for setting up a high tech studio.  When we were allowed to meet again, we experienced meeting in different venues because our normal venue would not rent to us during the pandemic.  We met in a place where our numbers had to be limited way below our congregation size.  We met in a field, actually two different fields, a large English garden, and as guests of a very kind Anglican church in our town.

Every church will have its own story.  Every church situation is unique.  I am not writing to criticize anyone.  But we should all evaluate.  We are so thankful for the way our congregation responded with flexibility and enthusiasm to the constant changes. As leaders I am sure we made mistakes during these months.  We probably all did.  None of us ever took a seminary class in how to do lead a church during a never-before-seen global health crisis!

So as we look back at online church under various levels of lockdown, let’s take stock of both the costs and the benefits.

There have been benefits – I have spoken with many church leaders and church members who have spoken of learning to be flexible.  Having to adapt to new technology and changing circumstances is probably healthy for all but the most fragile Christians.  Many of us are now as capable of hosting a Zoom call as a business executive, or as familiar with streaming live on YouTube and “speaking to camera” as a social influencer (even if we are still not as comfortable with it!)  Perhaps the reach of your church has extended to people who would never have stepped into your building.  Perhaps, moving forward, the blessing of your live-stream will also be felt by church members at home with a sick child or travelling for work.  

And it is not just about technology and livestreaming.  We have had to think through how to shepherd people that we don’t see in person multiple times each week.  We have had to think about unity more than ever before since Covid has scattered people across a spectrum of responses and perspectives.   We have possibly been given greater clarity on the spiritual condition of many in our churches than was obvious under “the old normal” of predictable church routine.  We have hopefully been pushed to our knees to recognize that we rely on God alone for the health of the flock and not that predictable structure of church life. It is right to recognize the benefits and thank God for His faithfulness during these challenging months of change.

There have been costs – Some people will only speak positively of the impact of lockdown on their church experience.  Perhaps there is something in the air these days that makes it feel forbidden to critique any aspect of Covid response?  But we must evaluate.  Our calling is too significant to do otherwise.  What has been the cost of the loss of fellowship?  What has been the cost of loneliness for believers living alone or as the only believer in their home?  Have people grown to see church as merely watching a sermon and perhaps singing?  What value does corporate worship have in the spiritual life of the believer? What about the relational dynamic at the heart of biblical Christianity?  What about discipleship?  What about serving others?  What about unplanned conversations, warm greetings, handshakes, smiles and hugs?

Have people thrived spiritually with online church, or have they just survived?  There is a cost to not meeting for weeks, or even months on end.  Remember how we would be very concerned pastorally about people who stopped participating in the life of the church for extended periods of time before Covid-19 came along?  That concern still applies.  As churches come out of existing online to meeting in person, they discover that they have lost people.  Some are lost to “pajama church” while others are lost to no church connection at all. Sundays have taken on new rhythms for them.

And what about the loss of opportunities?  We can and should celebrate the people that found church online, but what about guests that never came to church, never experienced believers worshipping together, never experienced the love of a community of God’s people welcoming them warmly?  What about the loss of in-person communion and group prayer?  What about the loss of other opportunities: childhood friendships and life transition moments, mission trips for teens at that key stage of transition to adulthood, youth group heart-to-heart conversations after youth group adventures, and so on?

What do you think? Personally, I believe that online church and lockdown has had far more costs than benefits.  If we had to do it again, what would we do differently?  And are we now happy to switch to online church whatever reason is given for future lockdowns?  Are we really settled with the idea that the authorities can mandate what we do as a church, who we meet with, what we wear, etc.? Is the plan to do what is commanded, or what is culturally popular, whatever the reason? Or are we making different plans to handle what may still lie ahead of us?  Whatever your perspective, it is vital that we all take stock and evaluate. 

I want to recognize that it has been a challenging season to be in church leadership. Thank you for all you have done where you are. It has not been easy. Hopefully, your congregation have expressed their gratitude for all that you have done to make it work in these strange times. Hopefully, you have seen God at work despite the challenges. Jesus promised to build his church!

Our contexts are different and rules seem to be constantly changing everywhere.  How vital it is to think it through, pray it through, and learn lessons in the late summer before another winter comes (whatever that may look like where you are).

(I have sought to gently provoke with questions in this post. I am not looking to stir a political debate, but prayerful reflection. Please do share in the comments anything that could be helpful for others.)

Great Work

In Luke 5, we see Jesus gathering his disciples.  He has already been doing impressive ministry before this point in the Gospel, but this is where we start to see the familiar faces being gathered into his inner circle.  When we look at two brief incidents, we can find real encouragement for today.  This is especially true if you don’t feel particularly impressive as a follower of Jesus.  (And if you do feel impressive, it would probably be good to pray about that!)

In the first verses of the chapter, we see Jesus call Simon Peter to follow him.  Jesus was teaching a crowd and ended up using Simon’s boat as a platform for his message.  Then he asked Simon to head back out to sea and to cast his nets again.  Simon and his friends had just worked all night and caught nothing.  That was not normal (if it were, they would have found alternative employment).   Now Jesus wanted the nets in the water in the middle of the day. Again, this was not a typical request, because everyone knew that fish go deeper when the sun is shining.  However, they did as Jesus asked, and soon their nets were so full they began to break – unusual.  Even their purpose-built fishing boats started to sink – very strange.

We all experience days interrupted by unusual or abnormal events.  It is not normal to have a flat tire on your car, but it does happen.  It is not normal to experience unusual weather, but we have a category for it.  However, this was different for Simon Peter.  This was not the typical kind of unusual event.  This was the kind of combination of strange things that suddenly sent a chill down his spine and caused the hairs to stand up on his neck.

Something bigger was happening, and Simon Peter sensed it.  This is what happens when you suddenly recognize that God is not just out there somewhere, aware of everything.  This is what happens when you realize that God is right here and he is looking specifically at you.

Simon Peter suddenly felt completely undone by Jesus’ presence, the weight of his sin overwhelming him.  “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”

Jesus knew that he was calling a sinner to be his disciple.  Jesus called that sinner to a greater work.  From now on, he would catch people instead of fish.  Simon Peter and his colleagues left their old life behind and followed Jesus to a new life.  Two thousand years later, we are still naming churches and places after them: from St Peter’s Basilica in Rome to St Andrew’s Church in Chippenham, from St James’ football stadium in Newcastle to St John’s in Newfoundland.  How many little boys have been named Peter, Andrew, James and John in the years since?   What an impressive legacy, especially when we remember that they were just sinful fishermen.

Jesus knows that the people he calls are great sinners.  And he still calls us to a greater work.

But then there is another incident later in the chapter.  Have a look at Luke 5:27-28:

27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.

There is no miracle story to set up this call, just a simple instruction.  And Levi left it all and followed Jesus.  But Luke tells us a little bit more – see verses 29-32:

29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

Notice how Pharisees and scribes are in the scene, adding tension to the meal?  Their complaint was simple: Jesus’ disciples should not eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners.  This little group was not living up to their sinless standards.  Take note of Jesus’ response.  Jesus knew full well that he was dealing with sinners and that they needed healing.  These were works in progress. 

To put it simply, in the first story, we see Jesus calling sinners to a greater work.  In the second story, we see that Jesus knows those he calls need his great work. 

What an encouragement for us!  Before we are anything else in the church world, we are disciples of Jesus.  Whatever ministry we may be involved in, whatever position we may hold, we are disciples of Jesus.  And he knows that we are sinful and broken people.  He knows that when he calls us.  He has a far greater work for us to do.  And he knows that he will need to do great work in us. 

We Need Each Other

Some years ago, I was chatting with my future in-laws about their experiences on the mission field.  They mentioned a couple that they were close to during a challenging season of missionary work.  I asked if their very different denominational backgrounds were an issue.  The response was so helpful: “Secondary things do not matter when you are in the trenches.”

Back in the first century, the Apostle Peter wrote a letter to some believers in the trenches.  They had probably been kicked out of Rome by Emperor Claudius and transplanted to five regions in what we would now call Turkey.  These people had been unwanted back in Rome (troublemakers or guilty by association with others), and they were now unwanted in their new locations.  So Peter wrote his epistle to help them.

Today we live in cultures that are increasingly hostile to Christians.  We can certainly take on board the instruction Peter gave to those first-century believers.  In chapter 4, after the main body of his argument, Peter urges believers to live in light of their situation. God’s great redemption plan is in its final stage; they need to live with disciplined thinking for the sake of their attentive prayerfulness.  But then he gives a not-to-be-missed “above all” point:

“Above all, love one another earnestly.” (1 Peter 4:8)

He is not referring to casual and comfortable fellowship.  The word Peter uses here, “earnestly,” implies a full and sustained effort.  Think of the muscles of a thoroughbred horse working at full capacity as the horse gallops.  Or think of the strenuous and sustained efforts of an athlete in competition.  Peter is not just asking Christians to be pleasant to one another; he is speaking of how much we need each other.

In this paragraph, Peter gives us three “one another” instructions to help us understand how much we need each other:

1. We need each other’s grace. In verse 8, he urges them to “love one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” Of course, some sins should not simply be covered over.  Sometimes the most loving thing to do is to graciously confront the sin of a fellow believer.  Sometimes a sin is so significant that you should inform the authorities.  But here, Peter is speaking about ongoing, every day, frequent annoyances. 

Think about a group of children gathering in a minibus for a day at the seaside.  They will be full of energy and excitement.  They will probably tolerate annoying pokes and name calling from their friends in this state – every comment will be met with laughter and joy.  But fast forward to the evening when they all clamber back into the minibus, exhausted and emotionally fraught.  Now the slightest poke in the ribs, a crossed word from a friend, or another tiny thing might provoke tears and tension.  As adults, we are often more drained by life than delighted.  How easily Christians can aggravate one another.  That is why we need one another’s grace.

Eugene Peterson translated the underlying thought in Proverbs 10:12 like this: “Hatred starts fights, but love pulls a quilt over the bickering.”

 2. We need each other’s generosity.  In verse 9, Peter goes on, “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.” We tend to think of hospitality in the New Testament as an essential support to the church’s missionary work.  Travel inns were expensive and dangerous, so finding a place to stay with fellow believers was a vital feature of the Gospel’s spread.  However, in this verse, Peter is speaking of hospitality to “one another.” Maybe this is less about helping travelling missionaries and more about supporting one another in the local community of believers.

After more than a year of restrictions and lockdowns, some of us are appreciating the blessing of being in each other’s homes more than ever.  Let us never take for granted the gift that it is to share a meal with fellow believers.  It is not about the performance of the chef or the presentation of a picture-perfect house.  We are not auditioning for a magazine.  We are a family that needs each other.

Sometimes, the gift of time, practical support, and fellowship can make the difference between making it through a challenging season and not making it through.  We need each other’s generosity.

3. We need each other’s gifting.  In verse 10, Peter adds one more “one another” to the paragraph: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” God designed the body of Christ to be interdependent.  We need the gifts that others have.  Some gifts are more visible and up-front, while others are more behind-the-scenes and play a support role.  We need each other.

The gifting may be different for one who preaches and one who sets up the facility, but both are intimately connected to God.  The speaker speaks the words of God.  The server works with the strength God supplies.  And whatever type of gift we have, God is at work amongst us as we benefit from one another’s spiritual gifts.

Whether we are living in a time of relative comfort and ease or a time of growing antagonism and complexity, the reality is that we all need each other.  It is an incredible blessing to be part of a local family of believers.  As we love one another earnestly, we will benefit from each other’s grace, generosity and gifting.  And the impact of all this will be a blessing for us, a powerful witness to a fragmented watching world, and glory to God.

What would it look like if you earnestly loved the people in your church family this week?

The Cost of Diversity

It is such a wonderful thing to look around a church and see the diversity of people that make up the body of Christ.  People from different backgrounds, with different stories.  Some seem to be likely participants in a church; others seem most unlikely! 

One person might say, “I was raised in a Christian home,” but next to them will be someone who might say, “I never went to church until recently.” Someone might say, “You would not believe what I used to be like,” while another will say, “I always thought I was a good person.” The church is a beautiful blend of backgrounds, personalities, cultures, and stories.

In Acts 16, Paul and Silas traveled through Turkey on the second missionary journey recorded in the book. Eventually, they arrived at the coast, and God directed them to cross over into Europe.  We are thankful they did!  Their first stop was Philippi.

In Philippi, we are introduced to three people who encountered the transformational power of the love of God.  In just these three people, we get a glimpse of the diversity to come as God builds the church in Europe. And there is also a challenge for us.

The first person we read about is Lydia.  She seems to have been a successful businesswoman from what we read of her home town and her trade (purple cloth).  Paul met her at the prayer gathering beside the river.  (If there weren’t ten Jewish men in the town, then there could not be a formal synagogue, so this gathering was the informal equivalent of a synagogue.)  We read that Lydia was already a worshipper of the Lord.  It is hard to imagine someone easier to reach with the Gospel!

In reality, even religious people who know the Bible are not easy to reach.  The text reminds us that it is always a miracle when someone accepts Christ because, we are told, “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.”  Lydia was a person with a successful life and a genuine interest in God.  What a blessing it is to have this kind of person before us in ministry.  Still, let us remember to pray that the Lord will open their hearts – otherwise, the story will always end very differently!

The second person we read about is the slave girl.  This girl must have had a horrible life.  She was a slave, used by her owners for her demonic powers.  The brief glimpse we get of her in this passage shows that she seemed to be a genuine inconvenience to Paul.  Thankfully, God delivered her from the evil spirit.  We don’t know what happened next, as the story swiftly moves on.  It doesn’t seem unreasonable to imagine believers like Lydia taking care of her.

Europe still has many people that we might find inconvenient, in comparison to the Lydias.  So many people in our continent bring with them a lifetime of brokenness and baggage.  Reaching them might feel more like a spiritual power encounter than a pleasant conversation about spiritual things over a cup of coffee.  And discipling them will always be more complicated for the church.  What a blessing it is to have this kind of person before us in ministry. Let’s pray for eyes to see the broken and the hurting around us. Let’s pray for God’s power to set them free and change their story!

The third person we read about is the jailer.  This man was probably a retired Roman soldier who had served his twenty years and was now responsible for the local prison in this colony.  He was perhaps a hardened man who had seen a lot and was now content to live with his family and experience as little trouble as possible.  This man would be hard to reach.  Thankfully, God knew how to get through this man’s hard exterior and capture his heart.

Reaching this jailer proved to be a costly experience for Paul and Silas.  They were seized, dragged before the authorities and tried by a mob.  They were stripped, humiliated and beaten with rods.  Then their wounded backs were probably pressed against a wall as their feet were put in stocks by the jailer—a horrible few hours, and perhaps a lifetime of scarring to show for it.  Perhaps the jailer heard the Gospel from them as he locked them up.  Maybe he lay in bed wondering what they had to sing about.  And perhaps he had just drifted off when the earthquake shook him awake! Sure that they would have escaped, he prepared to end his life to save the higher Roman authorities the task.  But then Paul called out and brought him into the jail.  They were all still there, after all.  And at that moment, the jailer was turned spiritually upside-down!

If God could release a slave girl from demonic oppression, why did God not do another mighty miracle in the town square and impress everyone with his power?  Why all this suffering for Paul and Silas?  God could have sent a bolt of lightning down during the day, but instead, he waited and sent the earthquake that night.  Why?  Because that hardened jailer perhaps would have joined the crowds and prostrated himself before a display of God’s power, in fear and trembling, grovelling before this foreign god.  Yet God’s goal was not to show his power but to demonstrate his love. 

As the jailer stood before Paul and Silas, he discovered that their suffering was not under compulsion.  They chose to stay in that cell.  Their suffering was somehow voluntary.  That blew the circuits of his hard old heart.  Maybe this is what they meant when they spoke and sang about Jesus willingly suffering for sinners like him!

We should praise God for the diversity of people brought together in the body of Christ.  The “successful” people like Lydia, the people with lots of baggage like the slave girl, and the hardened veterans like the jailer.  Some might seem easier to lead to Christ – praise God when they are!  Some are more inconvenient to rescue and disciple.  And some will cost us a great deal of suffering to reach.

There is an actual cost to make the diverse body of Christ possible.  But ultimately, that cost is not ours, but Christ’s.  He suffered voluntarily to reach the hardest of hearts.  If we keep our eyes on him as we walk whatever path God sets before us, then maybe we can be like Paul and Silas. Perhaps we will also sing hymns of praise as we get the opportunity to represent the voluntary suffering love of God’s heart.

Wanted: Expository Preaching Advocates

Expository preaching is a label that comes with baggage in many churches. And yet it is exactly what our churches need for health. And healthy Bible-preaching churches are what our culture needs for the gospel to spread. Personally I don’t care whether the label is used or not, but I care deeply whether expository preaching happens or not. And if you are willing to take on a role without a label for your LinkedIn profile, consider being an Expository Preaching Advocate.

1. It helps to understand the source of the negativity. A lot of people who are critical of expository preaching have never actually experienced a good example of it. Just like children who refuse something they’ve never tasted, they can be quite determined in their negativity. Especially when they are convinced that they have tried it before. They may be thinking of irrelevant historical lectures they heard in the past. Or perhaps tedious verse-by-verse explanations from a more studious visiting preacher. Whatever the source of negativity in their particular experience, it will help you to know what the issue is in your specific situation. Is it past experience, or present? Is it the perceived irrelevance, or the boredom of predictability, or a feeling of intellectualism?

2. It really helps to know what you are promoting. Expository preaching is not a specific style of preaching. It is not about length of passage, number of points, type of structure, or even tone of preaching. It is really a set of controlling values and commitments. It starts with recognising that God is a wonderfully effective communicator. It is built on the foundational thought that no matter how well you can communicate or how clever you are, you cannot make the Bible say something better than God made it say. Expository preaching is about a commitment to the effective communication of the true meaning and contemporary relevance of biblical text or texts.

If the label “expository preaching” carries too much baggage, why not switch over to “biblical preaching” – Haddon Robinson made that label switch, and I have tended to follow that same path.

3. It also helps to know to whom you are promoting it. Is there a general resistance in the congregation that can be won over by some effective preaching? Or is there a key person resisting change and maintaining the status quo? Maybe that resister is the current senior pastor, or perhaps it is a powerful and wealthy person of influence. You need to think carefully and pray much when you want to bring change to a church.

4. Prayerfully formulate a promotion plan. What goes into a plan to promote change in a church? Lots of prayer. You might think enthusiasm for your subject and in a sense, yes that is important. But many a good plan has been derailed by passion for a soapbox. Make sure you add in submission to those in authority, love and encouragement for those who preach, support for the wider ministry of the church, good example, etc. And then prayerfully consider the seeds you can plant: a carefully chosen book given as a gift, or recommended; a suggestion of a podcast; an invitation to attend a conference together; or a fully prayed through gracious suggestion, etc.

5. Be patient, but promote positively. Self-appointed church changers often blow their influence by pushing too hard and too fast. Don’t be negative. Criticism and complaining are easy, but they don’t fix things. Patiently and prayerfully implement a God-honouring plan. If you preach, humbly offer the very best example that you can. Look for opportunities to mentor and multiply others. Whether you preach or not, seek to promote biblical preaching – not a certain type of preaching, but a set of values and commitments that are desperately needed in our churches and in our world today.

What have you found helpful in promoting Biblical Preaching?

How Long to Prepare a Sermon?

A good sermon should leave people thinking about God rather than how long it took you to prepare it, but still, the question does arise. Some people have a very definite view on how long sermon preparation should take: a certain number of hours for a certain length of sermon. In reality, life is not so simple. Here are several factors to keep in mind:

A. A shorter sermon may take longer to prepare. We can’t just say it takes an hour for every minute of sermon, or whatever. In reality I can preach an hour long sermon fairly easily, but a twelve minute sermon takes much more effort to craft.

B. Every sermon is different. One passage may be effectively new ground for me to study, while another passage may be very familiar from previous teaching and preaching ministry. One congregation may feel straightforward, while another, or the same one on another week, may feel like a minefield of potential traps to carefully navigate.

C. It is impossible to measure the pre-study. I might take however many hours to work on a message for this Sunday. But what about the time I took on the same passage some years ago? What about the years of life experience and study of other related passages? What about the years I spent in the classroom laying a foundation of understanding? There really is a lifetime feeding into any sermon.

D. No preacher lives in a vacuum. Real life happens, which means preparation is never predictable. Even if you plan well, the realities and crises of church, family and home have a habit of crowding in anyway. There will be times when we all have to stand and preach with a profound sense of preparation deficit (and that is not something that it generally helps to broadcast in your introduction).

I suppose it is worth asking the question: who is asking the question?

If a listener has appreciated the sermon and is interested, figure out how to accept the encouragement of their appreciation and turn the focus back onto the object of your sermon. Don’t let your ego jump into the conversation and hold centre stage. It really isn’t about you, is it?

If a church is asking the question because they want to know what is appropriate to give by way of reimbursement for time invested, then perhaps ponder these quick thoughts: (1) Preaching has cost the preacher, so reimburse generously. (2) If you are unable to reimburse generously, rest assured that all good preachers are motivated by serving God rather than gaining income (but it might be kind to be honest with them ahead of time – they do have bills to pay too). (3) If the preacher is asking about how much they will receive, or setting a fee, usually this indicates something is not right. Be wary. (4) If you are worried about being too generous, remember that the preacher can always give excess funds away (and if you don’t trust them to be good stewards of money, why are you letting them near the pulpit anyway?) You probably don’t withhold business from an optometrist, a plumber, or a surgeon in case they end up with too much, so why hesitate to be generous with a preacher?

If a preacher is asking the question about time, then I am hesitant to give a definitive answer. What if he simply can’t dedicate the time that I can? What if he needs to dedicate longer to be ready? Here is a simple two-part answer:

1. As much time as it takes – to prayerfully select a passage, study the passage in context, determine passage purpose and idea, then evaluate congregation, define message purpose, craft the message idea, design the preaching strategy (outline) and fill in the details, then also prayerfully preach through the message a few times.  Realistically that could add up to quite a bit of time.

2. As much time as you have – You must take into account the reality of life: ministry pressures, other responsibilities, leaking pipes, family illnesses, hospital visits with your injured child, late night crisis counseling with dear friends in marital meltdown, and so on.  God knows about these things and perhaps sometimes allows them to keep us from trusting in our preparation routine.  If you procrastinate preparation and only take a couple of hours, that’s between you and the Lord (in which case, repent and get things right before moving forward!)  But if life hits and you honestly only have limited time, God surely knows and will carry you through.

One thing that I know from many thousands of hours of sermon preparation over the years. It may be a struggle, even a battle at times, but every moment is a privilege.

Endurance

We all knew this would be a long and difficult winter.  The COVID-19 global crisis did not end quickly last spring, and so we knew this winter would be challenging.  The pandemic is discouraging, the various government lockdowns many of us are living under are draining, and even when we look beyond the health news, the rest of what is going on is not uplifting.  As it says in Hebrews 10:26 – “You have need of endurance.”

When I was in school, I enjoyed all of the sports except for cross-country running.  It was a miserable experience.  It was lonely, it was uncomfortable, and it was disheartening.  I could not understand anyone enjoying that weekly run around the perimeter of the school grounds.

Fast forward almost thirty years and I began to find myself enjoying the odd Park Run.  I am no runner, by any stretch of the imagination, but the Park Run event was different.  This weekly global event resulted in hundreds of people gathering together on a Saturday morning to run the standard 5km in my local park.  The community feel meant that everyone encouraged everyone else.  And at strategic locations on the course there were the Park Run marshals, smiling volunteers in high-visibility vests that would clap and encourage us to keep going.

In our church, we have said that we want this winter to feel more like a Park Run than my cross-country experience from school days.  It will be a difficult season either way, but it need not be miserable, lonely, and disheartening.  As believers we have each other, and we need each other, to encourage us to keep pressing on through a difficult season.  And as believers we also need the Park Run marshals: strategically placed personal encouragement for the race that is marked out for us.  So, each Sunday, our church has heard from a book of the Bible offering that special encouragement to keep on going, like a strategically located Park Run marshal.

Here are three quick encouragements to help us during this difficult time:

  1. God the Father understands our need for encouragement.  In Romans 15:5 he is called the God of endurance and encouragement.  Just before that, Paul refers to how God invests in our endurance through the encouragement of Scripture.  God is an active participant in the challenges we face and he wants to help us.
  1. God the Son knows exactly how we feel in tough times.  We are not asked to run a race that God has not run already.  So, in Hebrews 12:1-2 it says that we have a race marked out for us, but it also says we run it while looking to Jesus, who has already run his race and sat down at the right hand of the Father.  Our forerunner, our champion, is Jesus – the one who has first run and suffered for us.
  1. God the Spirit is given to us – exactly what we need when we are exhausted.  In John 14-16, Jesus speaks to his disciples at a time when they are discouraged, drained, fearful, and concerned for the future.  Jesus points them to knowing the Father and to their need to remain connected with the Son.  What’s more, Jesus makes it clear that they are to receive another Helper, the Holy Spirit, for their difficult days to come.  In Romans, when Paul talks about suffering and the need for hope, he then goes on to speak of the help and empowerment of the Spirit (see Romans 5:5; 8:26ff, 15:13, etc.)

The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are all active participants in our lives this winter.  The world will tell us to look within and to find in ourselves the resolute fortitude to keep pressing on.  This is simply not enough.  Maybe the world can give a taste of the mutual support that a community can offer in tough times.  But what the world cannot give is the unique reality of fellowship with the Trinity. 

Yes, in Romans 5, we are called to persevere in the midst of suffering, knowing that our suffering produces endurance, and character, and hope.  But this is not just a passage telling us to dig deeper and hang in there.  Immediately, in verse 5, Paul reinforces this endurance by referencing the active participation of the Spirit inside us.

In that upper room, in John 14-16, Jesus urges his disciples to obey him and live for him in the difficult days ahead.  But Jesus does not give a team talk that is full of enthusiasm and motivation, but with no practical help.  Jesus points them to the participation of the Trinity in their experience, and at the beginning, middle, and end of that section he urges them to do the most logical thing of all in turbulent times: to ask.  Ask God for help.  Ask God according to his will.  Ask God when the world hates you.  Ask.

We cannot get through 2021 alone, but God does not ask us to get through it alone.  Instead, we are encouraged to get through it together: together with other believers, and together with God. 

Maybe 2021 will be a year that stretches some of us in ways we have never been stretched before.  Let’s pray that the challenges of 2021 will push us up close against God.  May this be a year when we learn to lean on God as never before.  May this be a year when we learn to pray to God as never before.  And may this be a year when our strength to endure obviously comes not from within us, but from someone who is at work in and through us.

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Here is a clip from an interview with Neil Todman, pastor of Headley Park Church in Bristol. See video description for information on how to access the full interview.

6 Questions About Illustrations

Good preachers make illustration look effortless, but for most of us it can be a real struggle. Here are a few questions that I find helpful:

1. What’s the purpose of your illustration? Too many preachers default to simply adding in illustrations because there hasn’t been one for a few paragraphs, or because they think they should. It works much better to define your purpose. At this point in the message will your listeners be needing explanation to clarify the point you are making? Or will they need support to prove the point? Or perhaps application to picture themselves applying the point? Generally it is better to identify what you are trying to achieve and you will probably achieve it more successfully. Explain, prove, apply . . . or perhaps give a break in the intensity to allow them to re-group. Decide what is needed and then you are more likely to find it.

2. Are you relying on their knowledge, or does it touch their experience? People will always connect more with what they have experienced than what they know. People are more likely to remember cross-country running at school than have experience of running in the Olympics. They know what it feels like to get stuck in traffic, but probably not what it feels like to step out of a spacecraft. Instead of going for the more exotic, consider if more mundane might connect better.

3.  Have they experienced it, or are they simply having to hear about yours? The best illustrative material tends to be experienced by both speaker and listener. It is easy for you to describe and easy for them to imagine. If this isn’t possible, then consider whether you can do the learning and speak of what they know personally, rather than always asking them to imagine what you have experienced personally. It won’t always be possible, but worth the effort when you can.

4. Are you falling into the laziest and weakest forms of illustration? There are plenty of illustrations that fall outside your experience and knowledge, and their experience and knowledge. The illustration anthologies are full of them. Obscure anecdotes and clever quotes from yesteryear. Wartime speeches, heroic moments, distant pithy quotes. Generally speaking these will seem far more effective on paper than they do in actual preaching. At the very least, can I suggest that if you love this kind of illustration then at least try to balance these with something more immediate and normal? (You may love your 1950’s football stories, or WWI trench poetry, but your listeners may not be so enthused.)

It takes work to illustrate well. Sometimes we have to go with something weaker than we’d prefer. That is preaching. But let’s try to do the best we can. (And tomorrow I will share the final two questions…)

Asking Better Questions

As preachers we often think in terms of giving answers. After all, we are the ones who need to study for hours in order to communicate God’s Word in a way that emphasizes its relevance to the people in front of us. Here are a few quick thoughts, not about answers, but about questions.

1. Every unit of thought in the Bible is answering a discernible question. In preaching terms, this would be the Subject-Question – that is, what is the passage about? We need to discern that question in order to then identify the answer being given – the Complement-Answer, that is, what is it saying about that? We will always help people with our preaching more effectively if we discern the implicit question being answered by the text we are preaching.

2. Every listener of a sermon has questions. Some may be technical theological questions stirred by hearing the Bible passage read. Most will be more mundane, but critical: why should I listen to you? Is this message relevant to my life? Is there any hope for someone like me? We need to make sure we are not so soaked in academic thinking that we preach only answers to questions that most will not be asking.

3. Our culture is training us to be controlled by certain questions. Take the situation we find ourselves in today. Our culture has proactively shaped the question that dominates our thinking and therefore our lives. Where the question maybe used to be, “how can I be happy?” or “what will satisfy me?” or whatever variation of self-concerned worldviews were dominant, now the question seems to be: “what must we do to stay safe?” In just a few months our culture has made this question absolutely dominate the thoughts of the people in our church.

4. The questions controlling our minds must be questioned. Identify what is driving the people you speak to each Sunday. Then question it. Overtly. In fact, let the Bible’s values offer a transformative interrogation of assumptions that nobody dares to question in our culture. For example, how many biblical passages would support something different driving us in these days? Surely there is more to life than just trying to stay alive? Merely articulating that query could stir significant change in people. Yesterday I preached the final message in our Christmas series and we landed on Simeon and his “Now dismiss me…” prayer. His eyes had seen God’s incarnate, controversial, global salvation and he was ready to die. In a time when all are overwhelmingly concerned about staying alive, it was very timely to ask a Simeon-shaped question: “are you ready to die?” and the other side of that same coin: “what does it mean to really live?”

5. As preachers we must continually grow in our ability to ask questions. We need to question the biblical text. We must question the values and thoughts of our listeners. We should be asking lots of questions about the paradigms and agenda driving our culture. We would do well to question our own assumptions, influences, etc. And when we preach, let’s look to not only prepare using better questions ourselves, but also help our listeners to also ask better questions too.

7 Truths To Stir Prayer in Challenging Times

This year has been a year of changes and challenges for us all.  It certainly isn’t the year we were expecting as we headed into a new decade just a few months ago.  As church leaders we are having to face situations that we haven’t faced before and make decisions in a continually changing set of circumstances.  Wouldn’t it be great if God could give us some kind of blueprint for when traditional church is not possible, during a time when our society is rocked by racial tensions, by political division and by a constant fear of death?  Actually, God has given us exactly that – the book of Acts.

When the church began they could not follow what would later become normal church traditions.  In addition, the Roman Empire was a place of racial tension, political divisions and death was never far away.  How did the church thrive then?  And how can the church thrive now?  We could look at the way the church responded to authority, or how they cared for one another, or how they were evangelistically effective wherever they went, or how they were willing to face changes to their own traditions, etc.  But for now, let’s think about prayer.

When Peter was miraculously rescued from Herod’s prison in Acts 12, he immediately went to the gathering of believers that he knew would be praying for him.  Eventually he got let in.  Imagine their joy at this immediate answer to prayer standing in their midst!  Wouldn’t it be great to know what they had been praying?  We are not given that information in Acts 12.  But back in Acts 4, when Peter and John returned to the believers after another bruising encounter with the authorities, we are given their prayer.  In Acts 4:23-31 we can find seven truths that gripped them.  And if these truths will grip us, then we too will be stirred to pray in these difficult times:

1. God is in charge (v24)– “Sovereign Lord!”  That is a great way to start a prayer in troubled times.  They are praying to the One who is in charge of everything.  The term used here is only used three times in the New Testament, but on each occasion it is crying out to God in the context of monumental or trying circumstances.  God is in charge, the Master, the Boss.  The best person to speak to about what we are facing.

2. God created everything (v24b)– If God made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, that really does mean something for our prayer life.  We are not praying to one local and restricted deity among many.  We are praying to the God who made absolutely everything.  That means that absolutely anything we are facing is a challenge from within that creation.  A disease, a financial challenge, enemy armies, global political crises … they are all very much within this creation.  He made it all. Pray to Him.

3. God can predict history (v25-27)– In their case they knew that what was described by David a thousand years before in Psalm 2 had come to pass before their eyes.  David anticipated the future gathering of nations to oppose the Lord and the Messiah.  The ultimate fulfillment may still be in the future, of course, but they had watched Herod and Pontius Pilate and Gentile soldiers and Jewish people uniting in their opposition to Jesus.  But God is God, so it was no surprise.  Pray to Him about the challenges facing you – they are no surprise to God.

4. God planned this history we now live (v28)– Not only had God predicted it, but what they had watched was actually God’s plan.  God is working His great purposes out and that includes 2020.  Not only is all of this no surprise to God, but it is part of God’s greater plan that is being worked out.  We can be excited to participate in the history God is writing, and we should certainly pray to Him about it all!

5. God sees our specific challenges (v29)– Just minutes earlier they had been threatened by the authorities.  Now they are praying to a God who looks on those threats and cares about His people.  This was the revelation that Hagar received years before.  God actually sees me and the challenges before me.  We are not invisible pawns in a great chess game being played at a higher level.  God actually knows the specific challenges we face.  That truth should make us want to pray!

6. God is working today (v30)– For that group in Acts 4 it was important to recognize that God was at work all around them with healings and miracles.  None of that was taken away because Peter and John had been threatened.  It is important in a time of crisis to not lose sight of all that God is doing around us.  We may not see the miraculous signs described in this verse, but the miracle of regeneration is taking place across the world today.  As we pray for our local context, the church is being built and the gospel is continuing to spread in this world.

7. God answers prayer (v31)– Notice that when they had prayed the place was shaken.  Impressive!  But that wasn’t the answer to the prayer.  Actually, the final line should grab us – “they continued to speak the word with boldness.”  That was the very thing they had requested.  Actually it was the only thing they had requested.  They didn’t ask for circumstances to change (although they probably did when Peter was imprisoned in Acts 12); instead they prayed for boldness in the midst of their fear.

Let’s make sure we are gripped by these same seven truths so that as we face real challenges, we too can pray with confidence to the God who is in charge, who made everything, who predicts the future, whose plans are being worked out, who sees our specific situation, who is at work today and who answers our prayers.