Expectation and Preaching

Somebody has said that we tend to over-estimate what can be achieved by our next sermon, but we under-estimate what can be achieved through the next five years of faithful preaching.

Here are some thoughts on expectation and preaching:

1. If our confidence is in anything other than Jesus, then our expectations are too high.  It doesn’t matter how well you have prepared, how well you know the passage, how on target the message feels for people in the congregation, etc.  We all have to fight the perennial temptation to trust in something other than Christ for the fruit in our ministry.

2. High expectation tends to lead to disappointment, but maybe it is better to have high expectations anyway. There are nuances to these things, but generally speaking it seems to take a toll to preach with high expectations.  Gradually preachers settle into a safer zone of not expecting too much so that they don’t feel too drained by regular disappointment.  But if having high expectation comes from, or leads to, more prayer for the people and for the occasion, then maybe it is worth the negative cost involved.  Maybe climbing back up again each week and choosing to trust Christ and preach again is worth it.

3. Other factors will influence your internal levels of expectation.  You may be drained from interrupted nights, or pastoral crises, or criticsm, or spiritual warfare, etc.  And there will be seasons where you struggle to expect much at all.  At these times it may be the best you can offer to simply keep going by faith.  (Of course, there may also be a need to seek help, be vulnerable, take a sabbatical, adjust your diet, start exercising or whatever might be needed – simply plodding on is not always the faithful next step – ask God and others for wisdom.)

4. Praise God that it is his ministry and not yours.  There will be times when you are fired up to launch a revival and instead your sermon falls as flat as a paper plane in torrential rain.  God knows what he is doing when he humbles us.  There will also be times when we feel like we have nothing to give and are shocked to find out that God uses us mightily in those meager moments.  God is God and we are not, let’s be sure to be good with that!

What do you experience when it comes to levels of expectation relating to your preaching ministry?

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5 Aspects of Feeding the Flock

One of the main responsibilities of the shepherds of a local church is to feed the flock.  What does this involve?

1. A biblical diet, not a provision of pastoral personality – Some pulpits have degenerated into a weekly opportunity for the flock to enjoy the pastor’s eloquence or humour.  He may be a godly man, an inspiring man, a kind man, or whatever, but his job is to point the flock to the Word of God, not his own brand of pious oratory.

2. A consistent diet, not a sporadic scattering of random teaching – Some churches receive an incredibly inconsistent diet – some from the same preacher who shifts and changes with the wind, others from multiple speakers who visit to preach but can never lead.  It is good for a preacher to include variety and to keep learning.  It is good for guest speakers to be used judiciously by a church leadership.  But if the net effect of either approach is an inconsistent diet, then the flock will not be properly fed (and the flock will also not trust the church to be a safe place for bringing guests – an important side effect of inconsistency!)

3. A cumulative diet, not a hodge-podge of unordered repetition – Some churches get to digest a diet that has no cumulative structure.  That is, each Sunday the pastor or varied speakers offer whatever they feel led to bring on that Sunday.  Again, there is place for space in the schedule – buffer weeks to allow for teaching that was unplanned months before but is on target in the moment.  However, when churches lean too much into this approach what they end up getting is not a balanced diet, but an overload of certain favourite subjects and passages.  Repetition can become the name of the game.

4. A healthy diet, not a toxic overload of fast food entertainment – Listeners love to have itching ears scratched with entertainment, experience and surface level applicational teaching.  The shepherds of a church need to recognize that the sheep may not know what is best for their diet.  Too much sugar will poison a person, and too little healthy teaching will do profound damage to a church.

5. A Christ-focused diet, not a pseudo-Christian selection of self-help nibbles – Building on the previous point, people love to nibble on self-help top-tips wrapped in Bible stories and garnished with proof texts.  However, if the preacher is pointing listeners to themselves, to their efforts, to their application, to their discipline, then that preacher is not primarily pointing people to Christ.  The preaching may feel very churchy, but is it actually Christian?

Feeding the flock is an important responsibility.  Let’s look at our own preaching, as well as the preaching plan for our churches.  Let’s prayerfully consider whether we are offering health to our listeners.  Like a good parent you won’t be able to serve up a feast at every meal, but you will look to offer health at every opportunity.

Pride and the Preacher

One of the greatest problems for preachers is pride.  It is an insidious and relentless foe that will look to creep in at every stage of a life spent in ministry.  What might we be proud about?

1. Knowledge.  The preacher is a public speaker who is seen as an expert.  Whether you have a PhD in theology or have simply studied a couple of resources, your listeners will tend to perceive you as an expert.  And while knowledge is not a bad thing, what does knowledge do?  It puffs up.

2. Ability.  Whether it is spiritual gifting, or natural charisma, or learned skill, preaching involves some ability in public speaking – something many people dread deeply.  Thus, there will be countless opportunities for pride as we speak to others.

3. Position.  It may be elevation on a 12-inch podium before less than a dozen listeners, or it may be a prized pulpit for years on end, but pride in position is always knocking at the door of our hearts.  Society may not revere the Reverend anymore, but many in our churches will certainly reinforce the honour of being a guest speaker, or a pastor, or a leader, etc.

4. Influence.  Whether there is position or not, preaching implies influence.  Preachers can influence lives and how they are lived.  Preachers can influence emotions and create all sorts of churning in the hearts of our listeners.  There are guilty folks convicted, there are vulnerable folks attracted, there is plenty of potential influence, both for good or for bad.  Pride seems to be a lingering smell where influence is involved.

As well as what might be a source of pride, there are also some occasions that may provoke it:

A. When preparing.  Do I need to invest the time in textual study?  Do I need to invest the time in preparation of the sermon?  Do I need to invest the time in prayer?  Maybe old notes, or old knowledge, will see me through?  Preparation should be a season of humble study and personal application, but it can easily drift into prideful self-trust instead.

B. When criticized.  How do you feel when someone pokes a hole in your message?  What if they aren’t particularly educated?  What if they are a younger believer than you?  What if their criticism is wrong?  What if they are right?

C. When praised.  This can be worse than criticism.  The best message they’ve ever heard?  Knowledge may puff up, but what then can praise do?  Just as we need to have a plan for criticism, we also need a plan for handling praise.  Both can stir profound pride problems within the preacher.

D. When ignored.  What if your listeners sit through your message and then don’t even begin to apply it?  What if their lives continue as normal?  What if your careful study and exegesis is considered merely your opinion?  What if the follow up conversation is still just about the weather or a TV show when you have poured your life out for their benefit?

What else may stir pride in the preacher?  When else might we be vulnerable to this great enemy?

Preaching: A Platform for Ministries

When we preach we tend to think about the people sitting in front of us.  Rightly so.  Whatever the size or apparent significance of this group of listeners, they are the ones God has prepared and convened for the public preaching of His Word, and so this is a key moment.

However, that Sunday sermon is also a platform for other ministries.  Let’s consider three:

1. Your other ministries.  While we don’t want to develop prideful delusions of grandeur, it is good to consider how to be a steward of your ministry.  The best thing you could do might be to put all your energy into improving what you do as a preacher.  But you might also consider whether the work that went into that sermon might feed into a shortened recorded summary for a different audience, or a blog post, or an article, or a book chapter, or a set of tweets, or whatever.  You may not have the global reach of some famous author/speakers, but if there are some people that would benefit, why not make best use of the work you have already invested in a message?

2. Your listeners’ ministries.  The people listening to you are not just there to be blessed.  They are also there to be developed and launched in their own ministries.  How is your preaching shaping the way they handle the Bible, communicate gospel truth, trust God in their spheres of service?  While every sermon will have its primary goals that you prayerfully hope to achieve which tend to be unique to each sermon, don’t forget that there are some secondary effects that also matter – how your listeners are motivating and trained to handle the Bible, how your listeners are equipped for ministry, etc.

3. Your church’s ministries.  The sermon you preach on Sunday is not just about that slice of time and those people in their response to it.  It also sets the tone for all the other word ministries of the church.  How is the Bible treated in small groups, or taught in Sunday School, or trusted in youth ministry, or seen as relevant in counseling, or birthing spiritual conversations, etc.  Sunday’s sermon will, especially over time, set the tone for the word-based ministries of the church throughout the week – both formal and informal.

Preach to the people in front of you, but prayerfully ponder how the Sunday sermon can shape more than just that moment.

The Power of Testimony

Hearing how God has worked in a life can be very powerful.  Having someone “give their testimony” can also backfire.  Before I explain how we do testimonies in our church, here are a few of the problems that can create the tension:

1. Nerves.  Public speaking is a frightening prospect for most people.  Talking about self so overtly should be a challenge for believers.  Therefore nerves are normal.  While everyone in the audience will understand that the person feels nervous, this doesn’t change the fact that nerves can lead to losing track of the story, or saying something that is not intended, or to shifting into teaching rather than giving testimony, or to losing all awareness of time.  To stand and give a crafted testimony in a set time without reading a script takes the skill of a preacher.

2. Timekeeping.  Some will rattle through their story and be done in a fraction of the time available.  Others will barely be out of their childhood before the time is done and threaten to drift into the work week unless someone steps in.  Keeping to time is a real challenge (even preachers can struggle with this!)

3. Instructing.  So many good testimonies become awkward because the person feels some compulsion to instruct the listeners.  Where the story of God at work is so powerful, the pointed finger and some generalized imperatives are awkwardly blunt.  Once someone drifts into unplanned teaching they can make theological errors, assume something they don’t understand yet is unexplainable, make promises that their experience is how God always works, or whatever.  It can be a minefield.

And yet, despite all that can go wrong, testimonies can be so powerful.  Why?

1. They can stir worship.  Isn’t God amazing?  What a wonderful story of His faithfulness and persistent love!

2. They can generate hope.  I am not the only one who struggles like that, and they have seen God bring change, maybe there is hope for me?

3. They can foster understanding.  I had no idea they had gone through all that.  I am so glad they are now part of the family and God is still at work.

4. They can unite the church family.  I used to struggle with that person, but now I know their story I can actually celebrate God’s goodness instead of feeling so bothered by their quirks.

5. They can convict unbelievers.  Where you were, that is where I am … I need to respond to God’s convicting work in my life.

And so much more.  Testimonies can have such impact, either positively, or negatively!  Next time I will explain how we incorporate testimonies in our church – it might be helpful.

We Are Not Church Sub-Culture Guardians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why We Pray

PrayingHands5The church is the greatest news story, even though it is never reported.  Lives are changed, peoples are united, society is helped, and preaching is at the heart of all of it.  But preaching is not inherently powerful.

The church is not a society generated by, united through, and stirred to give of itself by human social engineering.  It is possible to produce something by the skill of natural man as we exhort, encourage, celebrate and direct from the front.  But ultimately preaching is not the true story because the church is not about sales technique, social engineering, or motivational speech.

The true church is supernatural and therefore the true story of the church is the story of God at work. God opens blind hearts to see the glory of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  God unites believers as the Spirit unites their spirits with Christ and with each other.  God’s love spills over from churches that are loved by Him so that His love can make a mark in society through social care and moral influence.

Preaching the Word of God is at the heart of the life of the church, but preaching in and of itself is not powerful.  And that is why we pray.

A Bible Soaking

BibleMug2Yesterday evening a group of us enjoyed four and a half hours of Bible reading together.  No preaching, just reading.  We read John’s Gospel, and then from James through to Revelation.  We paused briefly to share reflections three or four times, followed by brief comfort breaks, but otherwise kept reading.

Here are a few reasons why I think mini-marathons like this one, or even longer Bible reading marathons are a great idea for your church:

1. It is good to experience Bible books as a whole, instead of only ever hearing them in shorter sections.  For example, the letters were written to be heard in one go.  We can easily lose the overall flow when we only ever focus on one section at a time.

2. It is good for people to experience Bible reading “in the zone.”  To put it another way, even the most diligent Bible in a year reader may only ever experience reading the Bible during the relatively noisy first 10-15 minutes.  A Bible marathon is a group experience of reading beyond that noise and enjoying the feast that comes when you are reading “in the zone” (i.e. focused).

3. It is good to have a proper soaking.  Most people live in a noisy and busy world these days. This means it is difficult to carve out longer chunks of time to pursue God in His Word.  A Bible marathon like this is like a spiritual spa, allowing the washing with the water of the Word to cleanse at a deeper level.

4. It is good to enjoy God together.  Too often Bible reading is treated as a lone ranger experience, but it is good to have the gentle spur to focus of being in the group.  Last night our group included an 11-year-old, as well as a student who is rarely home.  Another time maybe we will get someone who struggles to read (and can therefore enjoy listening), or a brand new Christian, or someone in a highly pressurized career, or whatever . . . every group will be special because of the individuals involved, because of the group dynamic, and mostly because of the God we are encountering in His Word!

If you want to know how long books take to read out loud, here is a helpful list.  Dr Garry Friesen has some helpful guidelines here.

Preaching and Other Ministries

Cogs2Preaching may be the most visible ministry in the church, but it is certainly not the only ministry in the church.  How does your preaching relate to the other ministries?  Here are some possibilities:

1. Casting Vision – The big church together biblical preaching slot is probably the main time that most people are together during the week.  Consequently the leadership functions of the church can be offered in a unique and biblically grounded way during the preaching.  If your church divorces leadership from preaching, it will suffer for it.  But when a church feels led more by the Bible than by a personality, health can be generated.

2. Creating Atmosphere – Lots of other ministries are massively significant in the life of the church.  Small group ministries, age-specific ministries, one-to-one discipleship, mentoring and counseling ministries, evangelism in many forms, etc.  But all of these can happen more effectively in the space and atmosphere created by the Sunday preaching of the church.

3. Offering Gratitude – Lots of other ministries can easily go unnoticed.  Investing in children in the nursery or children’s programs, one-to-one ministries, practical work – setting up church, maintaining the building, etc.  The preaching is a good place to lift up other ministries of the church so that people know the preacher doesn’t buy the hype that can so easily be assumed of the pulpit ministry.

4. Providing Vocabulary – An effective illustration or thought through wording can become vocabulary for the church.  Recently I used an illustration of living in our thimble while Jesus has an ocean perspective – there may be some “thimble” conversations going on as a result.  Sometimes even just offering permission to start a conversation, for instance, “I may be completely misunderstanding this situation, but the preacher on Sunday encouraged us to use him as an excuse for coming and raising it with each other, so here’s my ‘help me understand you on this little thing’ . . .”  Big church preaching can prompt the one-to-one conversations that need to happen in a church community.

5. Building Unity – Churches are filled with humans and humans bring their lifelong saturation in the brine of Fallenness along with them.  So people distrust people.  Ministries will easily compete with ministries.  The preaching is an opportunity for the wise preacher to let God’s Word build unity and trust within a church by offering both vulnerability and vision.

6. Co-Labored Stirring – The preaching can and should co-labor with other ministries.  It may be that a sermon unlocks an apparently unresponsive individual, or offers new hope to an apparently committed-to-drift couple, etc.  Then it may be another ministry that continues the work toward fruitful life change.

7. Setting Example – Probably this is already covered implicitly, but let’s be overt: the preaching can set the tone for other ministries . . . i.e. submission to the Word, honoring others above ourselves, vulnerability, tenderness, courage, etc.  Can the church leadership ask others to minister in a way that the pulpit does not demonstrate?

Preaching is important, but it is not the only ministry of the church.  Does your preaching support and strengthen the ministries of the church?  Or does it inadvertently undermine and compete?

50 Summer Preaching Tweaks: 1-5

Summer50bAs we are all about to head into a new (school) year of preaching, how about a big collection of little tweaks for effective preaching?  In no particular order, here come the fifty summer tweaks to sift through and prayerfully consider:

1. Be mastered by a book.  Whether you regularly preach through whole books or not, make sure you spend enough time soaking in a book that it can truly grip you.  Be saturated so that when squeezed, you ooze the content of that book.  Then prepare a series to invite others into that blessing.

2. Invite others into the preparation process.  We all tend to go solo on preaching preparation.  Invite some folks to join you.  Perhaps in a group,  perhaps a series of conversations, perhaps ask for help on facebook or twitter.  Perhaps talk through the message, perhaps ask for help on support material, perhaps find out where others think the points of tension lie.  It will probably be better together.

3. Lean less on your notes.  If you are a manuscript reader, take only an outline. If you are a notes user, experiment with note-less.  Be as prepared as you can, but make the message simpler in structure, stick in a passage and run through it several times.  Going noteless is not as hard as you think, and the benefits might mean you never go back!

4. Stay put, dig deeper.  If you are a concordance freestyler, try preaching a message where you stay put.  You will find that you will tend to dig deeper in the passage and apply more fully in the present.  Both are good things!  Only cross-reference if there is a genuine need to do so.

5. Craft the main idea a little bit more.  Take an hour at some point and work on the main idea of the message for an hour more than you normally would.  How can it be more precise, more memorable, more relevant, more text specific, more encouraging, less wordy, less historic, less theologically phrased?