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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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?

Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 4

In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus offers a second parable about prayer – we call it the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  Again, I am not going to write about how to preach the parable, but want to provoke some thoughts for us as preachers in light of this parable.

1. The Gospel is shocking.  The story of the two men going up to pray is not immediately understood because of cultural shifts and lack of biblical understanding. The Pharisee was not seen as “one of the bad guys that killed Jesus” and the Tax Collector was not someone looked at with a “soft spot … since another one gave us half our Christmas readings, and another one climbed trees to see Jesus.”  The Tax Collector was a hated traitor, and the Pharisee was the model citizen.  This makes the final verse shocking.  This man, and not the other!  We can so easily drift into a “nice” gospel where God’s benevolence is offered to decent people.  Not so!  We are all bankrupt before God and His offer of life is 100% undeserved.  Let’s never lose the shock of the gospel in our own hearts as we preach it to others.

2. Pride is frightening.  The Pharisee’s confidence was born out of his own performance.  We easily fall into that too.  A good week, a good sermon, a couple of encouragments and we can march boldly into prayer.  We should be bold, but never based on our personal right to be confident.  Our boast is all in Christ.  Yet, if we listen to our prayers, do we find traces of the Pharisee’s pride?  I am not like others…I do this and that…I go above and beyond what is required.  Pride is frightening and it is often not hard to find it in people that preach.  If anyone is a candidate to be a Pharisee today, it is probably you and me – educated, ethical, respected, maybe even impressive.

3. Brokenness is required.  The Tax Collector’s brokenness is key to the parable.  His posture, his clarity, his self-evaluation are all significant.  He knew he was absolutely sinful and called himself “the sinner.”  As such, he knew he brought nothing in his hands to God, but instead had to rely totally on the atoning mercy of God himself.  The same is true for us.  When we feel that in all its fullness, then maybe we are in a better place to preach a gospel that will not drift into evangelical pride and Pharisaism.  Furthermore, maybe our churches will have a bit more reality in them too – the church is the place where sinners should be open and real about their brokenness.  Is that true in the church culture your preaching has shaped?

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.

Not Every Exhortation is Necessary

Haddon Robinson uses an illustration to make this point. He imagines a friend borrowing his car and then finding they have a flat tire. They call for advice. So over the phone he tells them where the spare is, where the tools are, how to release the spare wheel from its cage, and so on. At the end of the explanation he suggests it is not necessary to finish with the exhortation, “Now I exhort you: change the tire!”

That friend is already motivated to put the instruction into practice, they just need the instruction to be clear. In the same way there are some things that are preached with great life impact simply through clarity of explanation. The listeners are already stirred and motivated to implement the teaching in their lives as soon as they understand it. If that is the case, the added exhortation may do more harm than good.

This is something for us to ponder not only in respect to the practical applications for believers, but also in respect to the offer of the Gospel. We should be persuasive and there will be times when an exhortation is exactly what is needed. But there will be others times when bringing clarity to the message will be all the motivation that is needed to bring about life change.

Let’s learn to sense when our exhortation is helpful and when it might only antagonize or patronize our listeners. Let’s also make sure that our explanation is so clear that people are really understanding what is being said. Let’s pray for sensitivity to people and to God so that we know when to exhort, when to invite, and when to let clarity do its deep work in souls.

7 Things Preachers Never Say – pt.5

We have come to the fifth in the series of seven things preachers never say.  So far we have touched on expectations, negative response, family, and temptation.  Here’s one we really can’t talk about: money.  We can preach about it, after all, the Bible has a lot to say.  But it is very awkward to talk about money for preachers.

5. As a preacher, I have bills to pay and the money I receive for preaching makes a difference.

There may be some preachers who are retired with a healthy pension, but the majority are not able to self-fund their life and ministry.  Some receive a salary from their church.  Some rely on honoraria received when preaching.  Almost all have a tale to tell, but no opportunity to tell it.

First and foremost there is a tale to tell of God’s provision and faithfulness.  I cannot put into words my gratitude for God’s care over the years.  When my wife and I were visiting churches to raise support to go into missions we got into the habit of praying to say thanks to God before we opened the envelope we had been given in each church – we wanted to be thankful for whatever it contained!

Sometimes the gifts given are slightly perplexing. I remember hearing from one friend who relied on gifts he received to be able to pay the bills.  He was invited by a church to speak during their church mission.  So every day for three weeks he drove a significant number of miles, preached at the evening event, and drove home.  Day after day he faithfully served this church.  On the final night, an elderly member of the church approached him and said, “thank you for all you have done, this is from us for the fuel,” and gave him £5 (about $7).  Incredible.

Of course, this friend, even though the story was being shared with other preachers, was quick to add that God has always provided even when some churches have been oblivious to the cost of living.  We do rely on God’s provision, whether it is through salary or gifts.  At the same time, I know many preachers who would like to be able to say something.

I remember being in a church business meeting where the subject of how much the church gives to visiting preachers came up.  I appreciated the perspective of one younger man who suggested that the church should be really generous because it is not easy to preach and he is thankful others are doing something for his benefit that he wouldn’t personally want to be doing.  I didn’t appreciate the comment from another that we should err on the side of frugal because “having too much money is not good for preachers, they might start living lavishly.”  I had tried to stay quiet, but this stirred me to point out that if we don’t trust preachers with a slightly generous gift, then why are we trusting them to present matters of life and death to us?

Preachers I know personally would re-invest excessive funds in God’s work.  Preachers I know personally rarely have that problem.

But what do we say when the subject comes up?  Once in a while, someone might ask what we charge for preaching if we were to come to them.  The best answer I’ve heard went along these lines, “If you were a university or business asking me to come and offer a training session for them, then I would charge a professional rate.  It would reflect the investment I made in formal education, my years of experience in this work and the hours of preparation as well as travel for this particular event.  It would reflect the charges made by similar professions in our culture.  But I don’t charge for ministry.  I trust God to provide and will be very grateful for any gift you feel able to give and feel is appropriate for the ministry I offer.”  

The truth is that most preachers don’t say something like this, but perhaps if we did it might help churches and ministries to think more realistically about what they give to preachers.

When it comes to a pastor’s salary, that is another whole set of complex issues.  It is awkward for a pastor to have their salary published and discussed in church finance meetings.  Nobody else has their income scrutinized and discussed in a public meeting of the church.  I suspect every pastor deeply appreciates those who are willing to raise their voices and advocate for the pastor when others are seeking to require the pastor to need miraculous provision to survive another year on out-of-date salary levels.

I was intrigued to see a written answer to the honorarium question.  If you click here and scroll down past the form you will see an example of what a lot of preachers would like churches and event organisers to see.  The truth is, most of us will continue to remain quiet on this issue.  We understand that some may give very little and yet actually giving incredibly generously for their situation.  We understand that we are trusting God to provide.  And we understand that the moment we raise this issue, it can look like we are trying to pursue a lavish lifestyle like some on TV who do not represent the real preachers willing to serve God irrespective of income.

Next time, number 6…

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.

10 Pointers for “Untrained” Preachers

10 target nonsemLast time we looked at some pointers for preachers who have had formal theological training.  This time let’s ponder the situation for those that haven’t.  There are many, many preachers, in many denominations, in many cultures, that are doing wonderful ministry without ever having had the privilege of formal training.  Here are 10 pointers for the “formally untrained” preacher:

1. Don’t wallow in insecurity because of a lack of formal training – Most of the “formally untrained” preachers I have met would love to be able to study in a Bible College or Seminary.  There are undoubtedly great benefits from being able to do so.  However, God knows the circumstances of your life and He is thoroughly committed to developing your character and ministry.  There is no need for insecurity because of a training path you have not been able to take.

2. Don’t be proud of your lack of a degree – Some of the strongest critiques of the arrogance that can result from formal training have come from people who reek of pride.  Why the pride?  Because they haven’t been “formally trained.”  They are self-taught.  They are self-made.  Sadly, they are often also self-absorbed and self-deceived too.  The “formally untrained” preacher can be wonderfully godly, but this person can also be horribly arrogant and painfully unaware of what they don’t know.

3. Recognise the first of two big weaknesses of “self-taught” ministry: a lack of exposure – It is hard to know what you don’t know if you have always chosen what you have read and studied.  A formal curriculum helps to force exposure in areas you might never choose otherwise.  I remember a conversation with a man who claimed all he needed was his “library of 66 books” (i.e. just his Bible).  In the same conversation he revealed his commitment to a major heresy, but he had no idea.

4. And note the second of two big weaknesses: a lack of critique – While there are a lot of problems with Bible schools, there are some great benefits.  One is to have your thoughts challenged.  You have to express your thinking on paper, and you then get those thoughts shot at by someone who knows a lot more than you.  You get to discuss with fellow students over lunch, who also are happy to test your thinking with alternative viewpoints.  A “self-taught” preacher is in real danger of carrying untested thinking through life, into the pulpit, and straying theologically as a result.

5. Beware of trying to sound educated in ways you are not – Actually, this could have gone in the list for the seminary trained preachers too.  It is tempting to try to sound more knowledgable than we actually are.  For instance, having read some commentaries, it is tempting to drop a Greek term and its definition into the message.  Please don’t.  Anyone who has studied Greek will spot a lack of awareness, anyone who hasn’t might be impressed by your knowledge and there is a chance you will preach error.  The goal in preaching ministry is simplicity that communicates truth and serves the listener, rather than complexity that communicates nothing and serves the preacher’s ego.

6. General critiques of people with training are unbecoming – Some trained folks are worthy of great critique, but don’t generalise (and typically, don’t verbalise either).  I remember one preacher I used to enjoy who suggested that everyone with a PhD is insecure and gave a harsh alternative for what the three letters stand for.  I am not sure what benefit his listeners derived from this critical spirit, but I know his shelves were full of the fruit of the labour of numerous PhD’s.  Tearing others down to strengthen your own position will always come across poorly.

7. Grow – Lean into your walk with Christ with an inquisitive spirit, a disciplined reading schedule, a passion for ministry and you will grow.  Do that for a decade and your ministry impact will add up to much more than a highly educated, but spiritually stagnant minister down the road.  (And if the highly educated individual is not stagnant, but is also growing and thriving?  Then praise God and press on!)

8. It is hard to know what you don’t know – I’ve met many people who assume seminary is a place to learn obscure theological trivia.  Actually, the best theological training is not about probing the frontiers of obscure theoretical theology.  Rather, it is about probing the very foundations of our faith and discovering the richness of the Gospel.  There are a lot of people with a very “thin” Christianity who are convinced they know all there is to know (that is worth knowing).  They are wrong.  There is a rich Christianity that standard fare evangelical preaching knows all too little about.  Perhaps you could get a taster in Mike Reeves’ The Good God, for instance.

9. Get training – Don’t miss opportunities to attend training courses, seminars, workshops, etc.  Is there a Bible school where you could take a single course?  Diligently hunt the best books to read, as well as well-informed people to engage with in conversation.  Pray about finding someone who can mentor you in some way.  Not going to Bible school is not a commitment to solitary learning – look for conversation partners who can help you think, and nudge you to read things you never would otherwise (Luther, Sibbes, Edwards, etc. or maybe a book about early church history like JND Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines).

10. Being in a seminary is a privilege, so is being in God’s school – But taking pride in either is dangerous.  Be sure to keep up your conversation with the ultimate conversation partner – God himself.  Ask him questions, write them down, see how you learn and grow.  Pride always manifests in an “I don’t need you” attitude.  It is ugly irrespective of educational opportunity or lack of it.  Humbly walk with Christ, prayerfully engage with him through your study of the Bible and he will equip you for every good work.

What would you add to this list of pointers for preachers who have not been “formally trained?”

How Do You Pray for Fellow Believers?

PrayingHands2There is a strange phenomena in the church when it comes to praying for people.  Obviously this is a generalisation, but I have observed it enough to suggest that it may be a pattern.

When people become followers of Jesus our prayers for them seem to change.  Before they are saved we pray for God to work in their lives and circumstances, for their hearts to be drawn to Christ, for the spiritual blindness to be taken away, etc.  Once they trust Christ and are in the family, then what do we pray for? Often it seems to shift to the more mundane matters of health and career.

This is not just the case in church prayer meetings, but also among leaders too.  I know that I am tempted to pray more fervently and more “spiritually” for those who are outside God’s family, or for those who are on the fringes.  But for those who seem to be doing well in human terms?  It is tempting to assume all is well.

Take a look at Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians in 1:15-23.  He begins by referencing how thankful he is for their faith in Christ and love for the saints.  These are healthy believers – they have a vertical relationship that is spilling into their horizontal relationships.  These are the kind of people I am tempted to bypass as I pray.  Not so for Paul!

The One Thing – He goes on to make clear the one thing that he prays for them: that the Father might give them the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him!  That is, Paul prays for these believers to know God.  Simple.  Or is it profound?

Clearly he doesn’t mean that he wants them to “come to know” God, but to grow in their knowing Him.  He wants their relationship with God to go deeper, that the union they have with Christ should become more vibrant and developed.  (Remember that “in Christ” occurs almost forty times in Ephesians – union with Christ is a massive theme in the letter.)

I suspect many of us who have a passion to see the lost brought to salvation may fall into the trap of then missing the growth potential that exists for a believer.  There is so much more than just getting saved and then telling others, there is massive potential for spiritual growth and maturity.

The Three Things – Paul spells out this one prayer request with three specifics.  He wants God to enlighten the eyes of their hearts to know three things.

First, he wants them to know the absolute certainty of their calling in Christ.  We have churches filled with people who carry the label of Christian, and yet have all manner of uncertainty and confusion over God’s calling on their lives.

Second, he wants them to know that they are God’s inheritance – an inheritance He considers to be gloriously rich!  This is not something new believers readily grasp.  Just as it takes a wife many years to truly believe that her husband really loves her, so it is with God’s people.

Third, he wants them to know how much power there is toward them as they trust God for it.  That is, is there enough power for a life like mine to be truly transformed by the gospel?  Is there enough power for me to be raised from my sinful state of death to do the works God has prepared for me to do?  There is if that power is the same power that raised Christ from the dead, seated him in glory, put all enemies under his feet and made him head over the church!

Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians is incredibly encouraging for us to read.  More than that, it is deeply challenging to recognize that this prayer was prayed for those who were already faithful and loving.  Let’s not bypass those that seem healthy and established in our churches and in our ministry spheres.  Let’s pray for them, and for ourselves too, to be growing in our relationship with God, knowing more profoundly the reality of our hope, his inheritance and the abundance of power available!