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.

Why Return to Church In Person?

I have friends in places where the church is now able to meet again.  Here we are able to have small groups gathering for home groups (limited in number, and only outdoors).  Eventually we will be able to meet on Sundays as a whole church.  But even then, there will be limitations and hassle – social distancing measures, some restrictions, some unable to meet because of heightened personal vulnerability.  It is going to feel complicated for quite a while!

So, after months of “meeting” online, or even just watching some elements of church services online, we have all grown accustomed to a much freer Sunday.  It has become normal to just tune in on a Sunday, or if anything else is going on, to not bother at all without anyone knowing.  And most churches will presumably continue to livestream in some way because some people can’t be there in person.  So why return to church and meet in person if possible?

I was thinking about this and then saw David Gundersen’s article on the Crossway site giving 10 reasons to return to church.  His reasons are: we’re embodied creatures, the church is one body, the Spirit is drawing us, we’re a spiritual family, preaching is a sacred moment, there’s nothing like singing together, we need baptisms and communion, you have a job to do, our worship is a witness, and greetings change lives.

Without repeating too many of those good reasons, here are 5 more reasons to meet, in person if possible, from me:

1. To let your shepherds shepherd you.  I think I can speak for most in church leadership when I say that we have been trying, but it is much harder to care for people you can’t meet.  So we have been praying for you, trying to stay in contact with you, and learning how to put elements of church online for you.  But we’ve also discovered even more keenly how hard it is to shepherd without the regular interactions of normal church life.  That is where little conversations and interactions allow people to notice when each other are struggling, or just “not themselves.”  Meeting in person if possible is key to knowing where to pour pastoral energy.

2. To play your part in building the body of Christ.  What is true for those in pastoral positions of responsibility is true for us all.  Your brothers and sisters at church need you to care, encourage, ask questions, greet, smile, check in, share life, and every other aspect of lively fellowship.  A normal Sunday may not seem spectacular, but just as others can make a difference in your life, so you make a difference in theirs.

3. To show yourself who you are.  I’m not sure how to write this one, but let me try.  You can say you belong to Jesus and are trusting Him for your salvation and with your eternity.  But if active in person participation in the body of Christ becomes an option again, but instead you would rather be less inconvenienced and just watch a bit of church online, or maybe not at all … what are you really declaring to yourself?  I’m trying not to move into guilt trip zone and twist your arm to be there because you should.  I just mean what are you saying to yourself?  We are all capable of self-justifying with the “I can worship God just as much on a walk in the woods or in my living room at home as I can at church” type of statements.  But do you?  Maybe it would be healthier to be honest with ourselves, “I love Jesus and his people a bit, but I love my own comfort and this TV show more.”

Drifting spiritually is a danger for us all and being honest about it is much more helpful.  The red hot coal soon cools off when separated from the fire.  Maybe you have decided you aren’t trusting Christ for salvation any more and don’t want to be part of his people after all – that is desperately sad, but say so, say it so you can hear it yourself and make sure you are settled on that course.  Don’t just drift and deny you are drifting – that is such a rubbish way to go.  And if you aren’t giving up on Christ, then jump back into in person church when you can – its actually only a small statement to yourself in the big scheme, but it is an important one.

4. To reconnect with family.  Your church may have handled the lockdown differently.  We have combined livestreaming with some Zoom gatherings.  But some people really struggle with Zoom for various reasons.  You may not have interacted with those choosing to only view the church service elements for months.  In person if possible will be a family reunion.  You are part of the family and it will be precious to be together.

5. Because the Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.  John Wesley said that and he was right.  As you read through Acts and the epistles you will see reference after reference that assume ‘in person if possible’ is the context for church life and health.  Lockdown hasn’t changed that.

7 Quick Ways To Improve Your Preaching

Sometimes a quick change can make a big difference.  Let’s say you drive your car with the handbrake only partially released.  Release it properly and your driving will immediately improve.  Here are 7 quick fixes to markedly improve your preaching.

1. Stop excessive cross-referencing.

There are lots of reasons we cross reference with other passages, but not many good reasons.  I tend to think that reinforcing a point as biblical when it seems unlikely, or clarifying the background of a text quoted in your text are two of the good reasons to jump out of your passage.  But some of the bad reasons?  To fill time.  Because that’s what other preachers do.  To show off knowledge.  Because older listeners expect it.  These are not good reasons.  I remember someone saying that too much cross-referencing confuses younger Christians because they can’t follow along, and it causes older Christians to sin because it feeds their pride.  There are reasons to cross-reference, but remove the excess and your preaching will improve.

2. Stop excessively quoting scholars.

Adept transitioning between the insights of various commentaries can be like good gear changes in driving.  Referencing every scholar along the way makes those gears crunch.  Generally, it is worth asking what is added by naming the scholar?  If you use particularly specific wording and the name of the scholar is helpful, then by all means name them.  Otherwise generally decide between preaching without any reference, and making a vague reference…”One book I was reading put it like this…” (Remember, people can always ask for your sources, even though they almost never do.)  There is no requirement that you identify three commentaries and include a Spurgeon quote in every sermon.

3. Stop meandering.

Listeners will listen gripped by well organized and well-presented material.  But listeners can also spot meandering and filler like a dog can sniff meat.  Don’t look at your notes and assume it will come out ok when you are preaching.  It is much better to preach it through and make sure it can come out of your mouth and not just look good on paper.  Meandering transitions, conclusions and even whole points are counterproductive.  And with decent preparation, they are really unnecessary.

I will continue the list tomorrow, but what would you add?

5 Post-Lockdown Regrets

The initial novelty of lockdown has worn off.  Now people are settling into this new normal and understandably longing for it to end.  Pastorally we are probably being drawn to people suffering with grief, loneliness, marital difficulties, financial hardship or mental health struggles.  But even those who seem to be doing well need to be shepherded.

What regrets can we all anticipate already and pre-empt with changes now?

Lockdown initially stirred feelings of concern and uncertainty at levels that are rare for most of us.  Some commented about how helpful this time could be, and how they don’t want to come out of lockdown without being changed in the process.  Now as we settle into the rhythm of it, that internal sense of having our world shaken may start to fade.

As I spoke with a good friend yesterday, we were pondering how lockdown does not create new spiritual or emotional issues for us.  It is the kind of pressure that merely reveals issues more blatantly.  So now is a good time to anticipate how we will feel coming out of lockdown.  Why?  Because now we still have time to make adjustments.

Some will emerge grieving.  The very nature of the pandemic means that many will lose loved ones during these weeks.  If you have not lost anyone yet, don’t just cross your fingers and hope you won’t.  As Christians we can do more than just avoid spreading the virus.  Be sure to get close to the One you will need when death does strike closer to home.

Some will miss the simplicity of lockdown.  I don’t think this is as simple as extroverts craving interaction while introverts love pottering around at home, although there may be some truth to be found there.  So much of life is stripped away right now that some people are discovering joy in time with family, or in time spent in the garden/yard, etc.  For some who emerge untouched by personal grief, the lockdown may well be remembered fondly.

But many will emerge saddened by missed opportunity.  I don’t mean the missed opportunities in “normal life” that we are missing by being at home.  I mean the unique opportunity this time is presenting to us, but that we may miss.  How much time are we not spending travelling, commuting, running errands, watching sport, participating in activities outside of work, church ministries, etc.?  And for those furloughed from work – how many hours a week does that add?  When does life ever present us with extra tens of hours in a week, for week after week?  How easily those cumulative hours have already filled with other things!

Here are five post-lockdown regrets to anticipate and act on now:

1. Bible time.  In the busy swirl of “normal” how often do we say, “I was just too busy to read my Bible”…?  Don’t emerge from lockdown saying “Actually, I regret to announce that I have discovered I just don’t have any real appetite for what God has to say.”

2. Prayer time. Again, normal life can so easily squeeze out times of extended prayer, or even any prayer at all.  But with hours added to our weeks, are we finding ourselves to be Daniels normally thwarted by the modern world, or actually just not very prayerful?  That too can be changed now.

3. Fears Revealed But Unaddressed. So much of “normal” life and busy activity insulates us against deeper feelings like fear – we are often simply too distracted.  Don’t emerge from lockdown simply having discovered a fear of death, or of change, or of financial lack, or whatever, but without having gone to God for help to process that fear.

4. Being a Taker More Than a Giver.  “Normal life” may have filled your week so full that one volunteer role at church felt like you were giving a lot.  Don’t emerge from lockdown and realize that you did even less during these weeks.  Inhaling multiple series of a show on Netflix is no achievement.  If you only consume, it will feel empty.  What can you do for others, now?  Practical help?  Prayerful support?  Personal encouragement?  Pastoral concern? (That also applies on social media – don’t just moan personally or politically, don’t simply purvey time-wasting opportunities, instead look for ways to build others up.)

5. Idols Still Standing.  God has stripped away so many things that may have stood as idols in our lives, even without us realising it.  Are you craving clothes shopping, or live sport, or travel, or hobbies, or socialising?  Maybe this lockdown is letting us see the flashing lights of warning on our personal dashboard.  When lockdown ends, will we hold these privileges with a looser grip and more gratitude toward God for every blessing?  Or will we rush to bow at the feet of our dear missed idols that could and should have been smashed during this unique time?

Feel free to add more to this list of anticipated regrets we can adjust now.  The bottom line is really this: Some will look back on lockdown with a deep sense of regret at having missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grow closer to God.

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Here is the latest video playlist … Bible highlights from 2 Corinthians:

And a short sermon highlight that may be encouraging (originally preached several weeks before lockdown began, but increasingly relevant)…