Marginally Helpful Preacher Metaphors – Part 1

Perhaps you have read Between Two Worlds by John Stott?  It is a classic textbook for preachers.  In it, Stott lists the biblical metaphors for a preacher: a herald, a seed sower, etc.  Then he reverently adds his own – the preacher as a bridge-builder.  Well, this is not a classic textbook, this is a blog post.  And I am not John Stott.  So I am going to offer several only marginally helpful metaphors for the preacher.  They are probably helpful as far as they go, and it is also helpful to not go too far!

A Video Painter – When you are preaching biblical narrative it may be helpful to think of yourself as a video painter.  You might be thinking these metaphors are only marginally helpful because this is not a real thing, but hang in there.  Narratives are powerful.  They grip listeners with the tension of a plot.  They stir identification and association with the reality of the characters.  When a narrative does its work, it can really work in the heart and mind of a listener.  So what is the preacher to do?  Are we supposed to strip out those narrative features and perform an autopsy on a dissected and dead story?  Or are we supposed to preach that story in words that paint moving pictures on the internal video screen of our listeners’ imaginations?  A good preacher of narrative ignites the imagination, paints pictures that move, and allows the text to do what the text was inspired and designed to do.  There is more to preaching narrative than that, but there shouldn’t be less.

Next time we will add another!

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Faint Not: The Discouraged Preacher

Charles Spurgeon wrote about the minister’s “fainting fits” in his first series of lectures to his students.  He wrote, “Good men are promised tribulation in this world, and ministers may expect a larger share than others, that they may learn sympathy with the Lord’s suffering people, and so may be fitting shepherds for an ailing flock.”

The ministry of preaching seems to be fertile ground for discouragement.  It is so easy to feel deterred, disheartened or hindered in some way.  Sometimes it is only a feeling, but this doesn’t change its influence on us.

The New Testament has a lot to say about not fainting, growing weary or losing heart.  Paul writes of the perishing state of our outward man, while at the same time the inward man is being renewed.  But what about times when that doesn’t feel like the reality we are living in?

Tomorrow I’d like to ponder several factors that may be leading to discouragement.  Then by the end of the week we’ll ponder some pathways forward.

According to John Stott, “Discouragement is the occupational hazard of Christian ministry.”  

Let’s throw in a bit of Luther too, who apparently stated, “If I should write of the heavy burden of a godly preacher, which he must carry and endure, as I know from my own experience, I would scare every man from the office of preaching.”

Our experience agrees that these great preachers knew what they were talking about.  Let’s ponder together what the contributing factors may be, and what might be done about it.

And let’s pray for others too.  Perhaps you know a preacher who is facing discouragement in some form.  Maybe one who is unwell, or who’s context is particularly challenging.  Why not pray for their hearts to be encouraged this week? Maybe link to this post and tell them you prayed for them?  The battle we are in is too much for any of us to go on alone.

The Four Places of Preaching – 3

So the preaching process starts in the study, then the preacher needs to stop and pray (in an even less distracted place), but then comes the third location.

Place 3 – Starbucks.  Huh?

Let me clarify before I start into this that I personally don’t tend to pick Starbucks (or pray in a closet, for that matter), but the principle applies.  I have a good friend, and a preacher I highly respect, who does literally go to a coffee shop for this phase of his preparation.

He takes five 3×5 cards and puts names on the cards – the names of individuals in the church, a cross section, essentially.  With his five listeners spread out on the table, and surrounded by real life and culture, he is then able to prepare the message.  He can ask himself as he goes, “would this communicate to Jim?”  or “How would Kerry take that?

The goal in this place?  To prepare a message that will effectively communicate the prayed-through main idea of the passage to the particular listeners as an act of love for them and for the Lord.

The best biblical content will be wasted if it isn’t targeted appropriately.  Our task is not to make the Bible relevant.  It is.  Our task is to emphasize that relevance.  And by definition, something can only be relevant to specific people.  Relevant to this age.  Relevant to this culture.  Relevant to this community.  Relevant to this church.  Relevant to these individuals.

So John Stott was on target when he urged preachers to be at home not only in the world of the Bible, but also the world of the listener.  Haddon Robinson took the two worlds notion and expanded it to distinguish contemporary culture from the specific culture of the local church.  So we can misfire with  traditional presentations in a changing culture, as we can with postmodern engagements in a church that hasn’t gone there.

Whether we sit in Starbucks, or ponder the church’s phone list.  Wherever we spend time with church members and people from the community we seek to mark.  Somehow we need to make sure our messages are more than great biblical content.  They have to be on target, and to be on target, we must know the hearts we aim to reach.

Saturday Short Thought: Rooted Preaching

John Stott wrote about preaching as requiring a certain familiarity in two worlds – the world of the Bible and the world of the listener.

Haddon Robinson takes this a step further by adding two more “worlds.”  The world of the listeners is the world of the congregational culture, as well as the societal culture at large.  Then there is the world of the preacher’s inner life.

It isn’t easy to live in multiple worlds at once.  There is always a danger that we will give diminished attention to one of these worlds.  That was a point Stott made.  Instead of building a bridge from one world to the other, there is always a tendency to build heavily on one side only – either being in this world only or building a tower from the Bible straight to heaven.

How do we measure our engagement with each world?

The world of the listener – prayerful concern for specific people and watchful awareness of the cultural influences, local and national?

The world of the Bible – prayerful fascination with the text, the culture, the people, the politics, the geography, the history, etc?

I was struck by this quote from John Smith, in The History of Virginia.  A nudge to keep history and geography tied together:

As geography without history seemeth a carcus without motion, so history without geography wandereth as a vagrant without certain habitation.

Preaching isn’t a simple task, but what a privilege!

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Saturday Short Thought – Preaching to Listeners

This week I have blogged about listeners.  I was preaching at a Christian Union gathering again this week, this time in Northampton.  I preached from Matthew’s gospel to a gathering of missions agency reps and students.  Since numbers were down on last week, it was more tempting to try and please the reps, rather than speak specifically to the students.  I hope I managed to keep the message on target for the listeners that were the focus of the message.

I’m reminded of John Stott’s great book on preaching – Between Two Worlds.  In it he introduces the metaphor of the preacher as bridge-builder.  I often come back to his thought that we have to land the message on both sides.

Some preachers start in the Bible text and build straight up to heaven, without landing the world of the listener.

Other preachers start in the world of the listener and never make any real connection in the world of the Bible text.

True biblical preachers have to be at home in both worlds and make sure their messages are firmly planted in the text, and land solidly in the realm of the listener.

Simple thought, but so important.  As you preach tomorrow, are you well-rooted in the text?  Good, but don’t forget to land very clearly and relevantly in the experience of the listeners too.

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Next week – Preparing to Preach Christmas Messages

Phones and Bibles

“My main word is, as Stephen F. Olford has often said, that ‘we belong in the study not in the office.’ The symbol of our ministry is a Bible, not a telephone. We are ministers of the Word, not administrators, and we need to relearn the question of priority in every generation.”

These words are attributed to John Stott, who recently went home to be with the Lord.  How true these words are.

Where the clergyman once held a position of honour in the community, we now find ourselves tempted to grasp for respectability and credibility.  So there is a temptation to try to look like the respected folks of the community.  They have increasing education, so we are tempted to flaunt ours, or get extra degrees for the wrong reasons.  They have manic lives, so we are tempted to run around like mad folks looking for an ulcer (who would respect a preacher who is able to choose serenity over stress?)  They have offices, mobile phones and permanent contactability, so we feel we can do no other.

What difference would it make if we stopped playing the busy professional and renewed our commitment to a different calling, to the ministry of the Word and prayer?  If our gut reaction to this idea is to fear loss of credibility, or loss of income, or loss of support from those who think they hold us accountable . . . then we are making decisions out of fear rather than faith.  What does God want of us?  Acts 6:4 is worth pondering in prayer.  Let’s ask Him what He thinks.

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Projected Perspectives

I think most preachers who have some level of commitment to an expository approach to preaching are fairly clear on the importance of understanding the Bible and their listeners.  It is the two worlds that John Stott referred to in his great book on the subject.  I suspect most preachers are less aware of the inner world that Haddon Robinson refers to – the inner world of the preacher.

It is easy to assume that I know more about me than anyone does, except God, of course.  To a certain extent that is true.  The problem is in the blind spots.  We all have them.  We all struggle to spot them or recognise their influence on our preaching.  Let me suggest a few aspects of the inner world of the preacher and how such things will influence our preaching.

The Value System We Assimilated Growing Up – Perhaps you grew up in a family situation where some things were valued higher than others.  Actually, you did grow up in such a situation, for good or bad.  Perhaps a strong work ethic, or a weak one.  Perhaps a high concern for what others think.  Perhaps task over people.  Perhaps a view of the class structure of society.  Perhaps a skewed definition of success.  Perhaps under the pressure of perfectionism.  Perhaps in an atmosphere of racism, or sexism, or any other -ism.  Whatever value system you absorbed, it is influencing you.  Even if you think you’ve processed, rejected, reacted, or adjusted, it is still important to be aware of the grid through which your value system may process information, situations, biblical texts, and applications thereof.

The Emotional Baggage We Carry From The Past – Some of the items listed above result in emotional baggage.  So too does past trauma, relational breakdown, personal sin, the sin of others, abuse, grief, loss, etc.  While some of us have been spared the agony that others have had to face, and the burden they’ve secretly carried, none of us are free of emotional baggage.  Guilt, pressure, failure, pain, loneliness, grief, hurt, etc., will all influence our preaching imperceptibly (to us, but listeners will pick up a vibe at some point).  It is easy to project hidden issues onto texts and application.  We need to prayerfully and conversationally process these things in order to know the inner world of ourselves as preachers.

The Personality Preferences and Tendencies We Assume To Be Normal or Right – Everyone else has issues.  I’m normal.  You probably are too.  But actually we need to be aware of our own quirks in order that we don’t press them onto others.  Introvert or extrovert.  A way of thinking.  A sense of humour.  A view of the world.  An inner wiring to desire to be liked, or to be right, or to be accepted.  An approach to interpersonal communication.  A preferred conflict resolution style.  A level of energy or enthusiasm for certain things.

I don’t want to advocate for self-absorption or self-obsession.  We need to keep our gaze fixed on Christ.  Nevertheless, as we look to Him, let’s be honest with Him and ask Him to help us be aware of how the inner landscape of our lives might be influencing how we handle the text, how we preach it, how we live it.

Praise God for Influential Preachers

I just read an article from Preaching magazine –25 Most Influential Pastors of the Past 25 Years. The title should be “preachers” rather than “pastors” in any strict sense of the term’s current usage. Anyway, it is worth reading.  I’m sure some would be quick to criticise how American the list is, but that is always a cheap and easy critique.  What struck me was how many of these preachers have blessed me in recent years (and I don’t spend much time listing to famous preachers).

I would encourage you to read the article and give thanks for these and other well-known preachers who have faithfully sought to serve God through their ministries.  It is easy to critique the famous, but actually it must be hard to be in their positions, perhaps facing some unique stresses that most of us don’t face.

Perhaps the list might suggest some names that you haven’t heard before, leading you to trawl the web for a sermon by E.K.Bailey, or W.A.Criswell, or Fred Craddock.  Or someone who doesn’t fit in your theological or ecclesiological comfort zone . . . anyone from Adrian Rogers, to Bill Hybels, to William Willimon, to Stephen Olford, to Warren Wiersbe, to Rick Warren, to Jack Hayford, to Tim Keller, etc.  Have you observed Andy Stanley preach?  Have you

Maybe this kind of list has a handful of preachers that you have really been blessed by over the years – stop and give thanks for them.  I’m delighted to see Haddon Robinson on there, I know many who would give thanks for the influence of John Piper in their lives, I have friends who have been so blessed by John Stott, and other friends who have faithfully tuned in to Chuck Swindoll, and of course, there are numerous people I know who would count Billy Graham as the preacher God used to reach them with the gospel.

As with all lists, we could add others who would be on our personal list. Famous, or not, we do well to pause and give thanks for preachers God has used in our lives over the years.  I fondly remember the hours I spent listening to George Verwer messages while going through university – how making a quick meal of pasta could stretch into the afternoon as God dealt with and encouraged me through George’s preaching.  Or the Calvary Chapel preacher whose tapes I would rewind incessantly as I took copious notes in my black chair with my feet on the bed.  Or the seminary prof who preached in class every morning at 8am . . . Bruce Fong it was a pleasure to study God’s Word with you, man O man, what a privilege!

A Classic Contrast Revisited

In Between Two Worlds (I Believe in Preaching), John Stott contrasted the typical weakness in more liberal churches from the weakness in the preaching in more conservative churches.  One connected with the audience, but had no rooting in Scripture.  The other started with Scripture and built straight up to heaven, without ever touching down.  Timothy Ward’s book Words of Life revisits this contrast.  Allow me to paraphrase:

Some churches aim to give hope and inspire faith, but do so by proclaiming a Christ different from the Christ presented in the New Testament.  This is achieved by honouring the purpose of a text without being shaped fully by the content.  (Incidentally, this also happens in more conservative churches where a particularly elevated value is given to passion and emotion.)

On the other hand, some churches are driven by content, but seemingly unaware of the purpose for which that content was communicated.  In the more conservative churches there is a tendency to see the preacher as primarily a “Bible teacher.”  True biblical preaching should neither by-pass, nor settle for, faithful exegetical and doctrinal instruction.

Let me quote Ward’s conclusion to the section: “Properly faithful biblical preaching involves the preacher deliberately seeking to fashion every verbal (and indeed physical) aspect of his preaching in such a way that the Spirit may act through his words in the lives of his hearers, ministering the content of Scripture in accordance with the purpose of Scripture.” (p165)

Without wanting to critique Stott’s great book in any way, I have to admit I am really excited by what Ward has done here.  Scripture is not just a repository of truth which the preacher must purposefully land in the lives of the listeners.  The preacher’s task includes sensitivity to the original author’s purpose (or intent) as well as content, which must be effectively and sensitively communicated to the contemporary listeners.  What Stott would probably affirm (and I’m not checking the book, so he may overtly state this), Ward does overtly state.  Preacher, in your passage study, be sure to recognize the author’s intent as well as content.  Then preach so as to appropriately do what the passage did, as well as saying what the passage said.

“The Spirit is again graciously present in the preached message, if what is preached now is faithful in purpose and content to what he once inspired.” (p.165, italics original)