Biggest Mistakes Preachers Make – pt 4

Slip2This is a series of big adjustments rather than fine tweaks.  We’ve thought about content and audience, but here is another big issue:

Mistake 4 – Starting Too Late

There is all sorts of mythology around about the hundreds of hours some preachers invest into a single sermon, and even about some who only prepare minimally.  Perhaps the bigger issue is not simply the total time invested, but the spread of the time invested.  Here is a simple and healthy guideline:

Before God, give as many hours as you can, over as long a period as you can, to prepare the best sermon you can.

1. Before God … that is, you answer to Him.  Don’t make decisions based on what others think (although people telling you your sermon seemed unprepared is a red flag to take onboard!)  Our ministry is ultimately a stewardship and God knows the balance that makes sense for us.  I could sacrifice the health of my marriage, my family, and other aspects of church life, as well as personal health and hygiene in order to give every conceivable moment to preparing a sermon.  I doubt God would be impressed.  It is before God that we make the value judgments on time.  Equally, if emergencies crowd lots of allotted preparation time, or if we step in at the last minute, then God knows that.  So before God…

2. Give as many hours as you can … that is, it takes time to do the work of preparing to preach.  It takes time to study a passage.  It takes time to properly pray for the people.  It takes time to wrestle with the wording of the main idea.  It takes time to thrash out the best sermon strategy.  It takes time to work out the best support material.  It takes time to get past logjams in our preparation.  It takes time to preach a message through out loud and make adjustments.  It takes time.  Wider reading, targeted reading, related research.  It takes time.  Don’t try to impress people by minimalist preparation.  And don’t appease your own conscience in some twisted way by giving minimal time and then saying you did the best you could.

3. Over as long a period as you can … here is the crux of the matter for this post.  If you start on Friday or Saturday, you might be able to technically do what is necessary, but only just, and probably not at all.  That is, only just in terms of reading, study and research.  Having longer allows you to stew on research, ask others and develop ideas in conversation, read commentaries and articles in a more considered way.  And secondly, you probably can’t do what is necessary at all in the sense of letting the passage do its work in your heart and life.  Deep appreciation of a biblical passage on a Saturday night may lead to a special moment of worship, but it doesn’t forge true conviction in the inner matrix of your heart and soul.

There are benefits to planning series months ahead to allow for drip feed study, prayer and research.  There are benefits to starting 10 days before a Sunday, rather than 5 days before on the Tuesday.  Starting unnecessarily late may be undermining the potential for God to work in you, and through you.

5 Radars Every Preacher Needs – #3

RadarScreen2So far we’ve pondered a radar needed in textual study, and another needed in considering our own theological assumptions.  As preachers we mustn’t go too far without thinking of the listeners, so here’s another early warning system to ask God to develop in you for your growth as a preacher:

Radar 3. Resistance Radar (in your listeners)

It is naïve to think that clearly explained and relevantly applied Bible passages will automatically result in changed lives.  More mature preachers prayerfully ponder where their listeners will resist what the biblical text is presenting.  This radar can only be fully developed by knowing the people you are preaching to each week.  Perhaps this radar has two tones of beep.

A. The first is a human nature beep (i.e. people everywhere tend to resist in this regard).  It doesn’t matter what the culture, or the education levels, or the demographics of the community, or the age of the listeners . . . some truths are universally resisted or twisted.  Grace is a prime example.  It is not a lack of understanding that makes us resist God’s grace, it is our fallenness.  We don’t want God to be God, and we want to be God.  But to receive God’s grace without some effort at payment or cooperation, that is to admit that I am not God and I need God.  We must not think that this does not apply to those who have received Christ and joined God’s family . . . our flesh still rebels and seeks to corrupt God’s grace into an exercise in shared effort.  It may be as illogical as a starving person turning down food, but in a post Genesis 3 world, it makes perfect sense for us to resist or twist grace.

B. The second is a specific humans beep (i.e. this congregation, or this individual, will resist this message because of such and such). When you know the people in your church, then you can better spot where the resistance will come.  Maybe it is not grace, the example I gave above, that is the point of resistance for some in your church.  Maybe it is the notion of close relationship with God.  Perhaps the notion of a loving father is frightening to some.  Maybe holiness has been perilously pickled in the perspective of some.  Perhaps legalism has turned some listeners into collectors of instruction, rather than seekers of wisdom.

Grow in understanding of humans in general, and people in your church in particular, so that this radar becomes well tuned and messages can more effectively hit home.

Resolved: Preach Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preaching Holiness – part 4

Holiness2This week we have been pondering the preacher and the theme of holiness.  There is so much more that could be said about each point, but hopefully we have had something to think and pray about.

15. Every sliver of unholiness will be judged and purged.  We really have no clue of how good that will be!  (That includes the unholiness of “older brother” religiosity . . . which means more of our lives will get there “as through fire” than we probably realize.  Nevertheless, what an utter relief the purging of all sin will bring to ransomed souls.)

16. When we make holiness sound like sour pickled vegetables we don’t motivate anyone to think beyond this life.  The New Creation will be wonderful in many respects, not least because of the total absence of sin and pain and tears, as well as the presence of Christ Himself.  Too many in our churches still have lingering images of sterility and fun-free hymnathons.  The Bible gives a lot of future glimpses to motivate us in the present.

17. Jesus was holy and magnetic, often our version of holiness is anything but.  The truly holy person is fully alive.  At the same time that person will be profoundly attractive and deeply offensive.  (And if the Gospels are an indicator, then such Christlikeness will be attractive to needy people, and offensive to religious people.)

18. The great threat to holiness in the church is not just the worldliness of culture, but also the pseudo-holiness of church culture.  Just as a weekend of binge behavior in a degraded society is horribly empty, so too is a relationally empty performance devoid of meaningful engagement with God and others (sometimes polite conversation can be empty too).

19. Preaching for holiness cannot be restricted to applications of conduct, nor even of conforming the mind…it must seek to engage and stir the heart.  It is not what goes in from the outside that defiles a person (i.e. religious duties and traditions), but what spews forth from the heart.  So preach in such a way as to engage the heart.  Informing the mind and pressuring the conduct will never suffice when the heart of the problem is the, uh, heart.

20. The overwhelming use of the term “Holy” in the New Testament is in reference to the Spirit of God.  Let’s be sure that our preaching is pursued with a thoroughly biblical and growing understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit in respect to our sanctification.  Too much Christianity still ignores the Spirit or turns Him into some sort of battery pack (either highly visible or highly invisible).  It is by the Spirit that we are united to Christ.  True relationally rich holiness is our privilege in the Gospel!

21. If you long for greater holiness in the lives of people in your church, don’t preach for “holiness.”  Instead, pray and preach for spiritual vitality in their relationship with Christ.  If we, and they, will love God, then what we want to do will be profoundly holy.  The Gospel does a work on our wants!
So much more could be said, but let’s pray for the beauty of God’s holiness to pervade our lives, our ministry and our churches . . .

Preparing to Preach OT Narrative – 5

This week I have been getting my head and heart in gear to prepare messages from the book of Ruth.  I’ve pondered issues of contextual unawareness, perceived irrelevance and the challenges of application.  I am not saying any of this should come before issues of study and interpretation, but before the messages can be prepared, these issues have to be faced.  I’d like to raise one more issue:

What is my strategy for preaching through the book?I have four sessions to preach through Ruth.  Slam dunk, decision made, right?  Four weeks, four chapters.  Voila!  Perhaps.  But I’m not a fan of instant obvious decisions.  I want to think through it first.

1. Preaching a narrative means preaching multiple scenes, not multiple chapters.  It may be that there are four scenes in four chapters, but I need to check that first.  Going with chapter breaks is lazy and sometimes naive.

2. How do I keep the unity in mind?  Ruth wasn’t written to be read over four sittings in four weeks.  It was written to be heard in one sweep.  I have to ponder that.  Should I preach the whole narrative in one go?  I could do that week 1, but then what?  I could take three weeks to revisit the text and zero in on specific aspects of the story.  Or I could review the whole narrative at the end.  Or I could let it build week by week, as if people don’t know what is coming.

3. And what about other options given by four weeks?  Maybe I need to take a week on the opening verses and engage the complexity of divine providence, suffering and life as experienced by most people.  Perhaps there are a couple of chapters that could flow together.  Perhaps the ending that points forward to David is worthy of a wrap-up message on its own.  So many options.

Simply splitting it into four roughly equal chunks with a big number at the start does seem a bit too hasty at this point.  I need to spend some more time in the text of Ruth, and be prayerfully considering what would be most helpful to our congregation.

Preparing to Preach OT Narrative – 4

So I am preparing to preach Ruth.  I know that all preachers are tempted to overcome the perceived lack of relevance by multiplying applications from the details of the story.  Yesterday I suggested that the details are there for the sake of the plot, rather than as automatic teaching points. But there is more to be said on this matter of applying the text.

Furthermore, (2) I have to remember that narratives were not given to us merely to instruct our conduct.  It is not just conduct that matters in facing the horrors life can throw at us (Ruth 1), it is also truths applied at the level of personal belief, and even affection.  Ruth didn’t cling to Naomi, and give up everything to go with her, based on knowledge of “the right things to do in this situation.”  She did it all because of the God that had gripped her heart.

I don’t want my listeners to have lists of behavioural applications, but untouched hearts.  That would make a mockery of the force of Ruth.  Relevance doesn’t have to be just a to-do list.  Relevance is more to do with the impact of the text on the heart of the listener so that they leave the service as a changed person.

Finally (although not definitively), (3) I need to recognize that the relevance in the text is not on a merely human level.  It is tempting to look at people interacting with people and consider applications that can come straight over into our seen world.  But all biblical narratives are about the seen intersecting with the unseen.  There is a God alive and yet often not seen.  The narrative is about lives lived under the constant question of trust or non-trust in the Word of God.  If my listeners finish with great insight into an ancient narrative, but without a greater sense of God (both then and now), then I have failed to be truly relevant.

Tomorrow I’ll ponder another practical issue in preparation…

Saturday’s Thought: Preaching for Response

No preacher would admit to preaching in order to fill time, or to fulfill an obligation, or to fill a pulpit.  We say we preach for response.  After all, what other motivation could we cite?  I know, some will quickly rush to language of glorifying God.  But God isn’t pleased by time filling or untouched listeners.  So what do we mean?

Do we mean that preaching should get more than a polite thank you from the gathered listeners?  Sure.  Do we mean that preaching should get a positive or exuberant statement of reception from the listeners?  I don’t think so.  The Lord’s preaching certainly seemed to polarize rather than please all.  Some will be stirred and drawn, others will be offended and withdraw.

This is where it gets interesting for me, and here’s the thought for the day.  What is the division or polarization created by our preaching?  Simplistically we might assume that it is a sorting of sinners and saints.  You know, those in sin pushed away by how seriously we address sin and the godly encouraged; the culture upset and absent while the churchy folks pleased and present.  But that didn’t seem to be the result of Jesus’ preaching, did it?

What if we realize that the gospel is not about preaching a message of pressuring responsibility?  That is, what if we preach the glorious loving grace of God that stirs and warms and draws hearts to Christ?  Instead of whipping our listeners with burdens, what if we preach the One who was whipped for them?

This kind of preaching typically offends the religious who feel responsible for their own goodness.  These are the people who don’t see their own efforts and diligence and pride and self-centredness as being at all sin-stained.  This kind of preaching typically draws the broken and hurting and weak.

When we switch from preaching responsibility to actually preaching for a response we may find that the polarization both switches and increases.  When we recognize the difference between responsibility and response, then certainly our preaching will change.  It is so easy to preach to pressure people to be good.  It takes something more to preach how good Christ is, so that listeners might be drawn to Him.  What is the something more?

I suppose it comes down to me on my own with my Bible and my Lord.  Is it all about me?  Or about Him?  Is it about what I must do (responsibility)?  Or about what He is like (response)?

Preaching for response requires clarity on the distinction between response and responsibility.

Word Studies 2 – Identifying Key Terms

This week we are pondering the specific skill of word study in preaching.  Today I’ll focus on identifying key terms, then tomorrow we can consider the actual processes involved.

So how do you identify words to define more carefully?

1. Prayerfully read and study the passage.  Sounds silly, but until you get some decent familiarity with the passage, you can’t start identifying words.

2. Recognize that not every word is equal.  All words are equally inspired, but not all words are equal in a passage.  You might assume this is obvious.  After all, a weighty word like justified or righteous must be worth studying, while a normal word like in or of is obvious, right?  Sometimes wrong.  A “weighty” word may not be a key term in a particular passage (it may be given in the build up to the point of a prayer, for instance), while an obvious word may be the key to the whole section.

3. Recognize that your time is restricted.  It would be great to do a full chase on every term in a passage.  Actually, hypothetically it might be great in your study phase, if you had infinite time.  But in reality studying every word equally will distract you from the force of the passage in your study, and it will certainly confuse people in your preaching.  For instance, in Ephesians 1:15-23, I would cover the first 47 words fairly briefly.  Why?  Because I want the focus to be on the point of the passage, which is what Paul is actually praying from the end of v17 onwards.  If I give detailed explanations of faith, Lord, love, saints, prayers, God, Father and glory in my sermon, people will be numb by the time I get to Paul’s actual request.

So how to identify key terms?

A. Look for repeated terms.  In Ephesians 3:1-13, the term mystery is repeated and seems important. (Dynamic equivalent translations may hide repetition of terms, prefer formal equivalence for focused study.)

B. Look for structurally important terms.  Down in verse 8, grace was given to Paul with the results being the rest of verses 8-10.

C. Look for key connections or little words.  In this passage, the as, of verse 5 feels significant when the passage is read carefully (even better, when the passage is broken down to a phrase by phrase structural outline, or disagrammed if you have that skill from Greek).  Incidentally, once you start looking at the structure of epistle text like this, a good formal translation needs to be the working text, not a dynamic equivalent text.

D. Look for key terms in the wider context.  A term may only be used once in the passage, but be critical in the flow of the book.  For example, stewardship in verse 2 is important in the flow of Ephesians 1-3.

E. Look for key terms that are missed by the other guidelines.  Here’s the catch all.  It forces you to keep looking and observing the text.  In this case, it allows you to notice that glory in verse 13 is massively significant.  Doesn’t look it structurally, but actually Paul digressed in verse 1, so completing that thought in v13 is a big deal here.

Heartfelt Explanation – Preaching to the Heart

A common mistake is to assume that the explanation of the text will be dull, but the application should make up for this by riveting relevance and powerful personal punch.  An alternative, but sibling error, is to think that the illustrations will be the source of heartfelt energy, while the text explained remains dull.

Some preliminary thoughts on preaching to the heart:

1. The text is a heartfelt composition, it makes no sense to sterilize it.  Sometimes we need to re-tune our theological ears so that we hear inspired human communication, rather than just theological proposition transfer embedded in inspired packaging.  If you don’t hear a heart beating in the Psalms you are really in trouble.  And what about narratives written by someone who cares deeply that the story be heard?  And even the epistles are far more rich in tone than we tend to make them sound.

2. The text communicates to the heart, don’t neutralize it.  Epistles don’t just inform, they were written to stir, to encourage, to rebuke, etc.  Poetry, almost by definition, is meant for pondering and heartfelt response.  Narratives, by nature, will captivate, characters drawing us in to identify, or causing us to disassociate, tension in the plot gripping the listener for more than just a statement of truth, but for truth dressed up in real life.  We have a habit of disengaging truths from the packaging in which they come.  This is not to minimize the importance of truth, but to recognize that God’s choice of genre packaging was intentional and effective for life transformation.

3. God reveals His heart in the Word, don’t hide it.  The Bible is, supremely, God’s self-revelation.  But we’re often too quick to cover over that self-revelation.  Oh, that’s just an anthropomorphism (using human form descriptors to communicate about God who is Spirit and absolutely nothing at all like us), or worse, an anthropopathism (same again, this time removing any possibility that God might have any passions at all)!  Really?  God only pretending to have emotion?  Our theological assumptions can quickly override the plain truth of Scripture and leave us with a God so distant and uncaring that he might as well be the god of the Greek philosophers, and a Jesus only feeling and loving and dying “in his humanity,” and other such confusion.

Preaching to the heart is not primarily a matter of homiletical technique.  It is an issue of our theological assumptions and the accuracy of our exegesis.  Tomorrow I’ll add another three thoughts.

The Four Places of Preaching – 2

After spending significant time in the study, without company, yet not alone, the preacher needs to move to the second location.  What comes out of the study is a deep awareness of the passage, its meaning, its intent, its contours and details, all summed up in a single sentence summary, and all held as a treasure in the heart because of the work of God during the time in the study.  Now to the next place:

Place 2 – Stop and Pray (The Prayer Closet)

In his very helpful book, Deep Preaching, J. Kent Edwards urges the preacher to take God’s Big Idea into the closet and allow the Spirit to work there for the sake of deeper preaching.  So true.

This place doesn’t need to be a closet (it’s hard to find one humans can fit in in some cultures!)  It does need to be a place without study resources and Bible software and shelves of books, not to mention phones and email and satellite whatevers.  It might be an extended walk in the woods, or a chair in the lounge, or even, one of my favourites, the empty church where the message will be preached.

What is the goal here?  The goal is to spend focused time in fellowship with God concerning the preacher, God, the passage and the listeners, in order to be able to then prepare a targeted message for them from that passage.

Where is the focus?  God was certainly involved in the study, at least, He should have been.  But it is important to recognize that the preacher is not primarily a purveyor of ancient wisdom.  The preacher is, or should be, in fellowship with the Living God.  So the step isn’t from commentary to outline, but from study to focused prayer.

1.  Preaching should involve enthusiasm for the text and what you have discovered, but it should be driven by who, rather than what.  Prayer closet time allows that personal connection and responsiveness to the God who reveals Himself in the Word to develop and drive the preaching.

2. Preaching should involve awareness of the meaning and impact of the text, but it should be sealed on the heart and experience of the preacher, not just held at arms length as new discovery.  Time in prayer allows God’s Word to be driven deep into our hearts.

3. Preaching should involve a message carefully crafted to communicate effectively to a specific audience, but for that to be an act of real love, then God’s heart for the people needs to be our heart for the people.  Bringing the people before God, alongside the passage, is thus critical to forming and delivering a message as an overflow of God’s love for them.

More could be written, but let’s leave it there.  Study.  Then stop and pray.  Then?  Some people will be very excited by the next location!