Preaching in Troubled Times

“The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.” (Psalm 9:9)

Troubled times can be caused by global pandemics, national disasters, or more local challenges on a city or church level. In this world we will have trouble. And when trouble comes, the preacher gets to point people to God’s Word to find the comfort and to stir the response of faith that is needed. The problem is, we don’t do ministry in a case study. People don’t tend to respond in a textbook fashion when problems come. Just a few verses after the one above comes Psalm 10:1 – “Why, O LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” By definition, these seasons of ministry are not easy, but here are five important things to keep in mind:

1. The Preacher’s Relationship with God – Be Healthy. Maybe it is obvious, but it bears stating. You need to be in a healthy place to have the reserves to serve others effectively. Remember Martha. She was trying to do the right thing, but somehow she had gotten the two great commandments out of order. She was doing the classic evangelical mistake – “loving God by loving others.” It is unsustainable. Be sure to sit at Jesus’ feet and let him minister to you before you continue to minister to others. (And remember that being healthy is not just spiritual . . . what about sleep, exercise, diet? What about emotionally and relationally?)

2. The Preacher’s Relationship with Listeners – Be Sensitive. Remember that different people react in different ways to the same crisis. Listening to our culture it would be easy to only address the fear of dying in the current pandemic. But for some their concern is finance, employment, other vulnerable people, loneliness, mental health, etc. We need to know what is really going on with the people we preach to, and they need to know that we are real too. Be appropriately transparent. A crisis is a time to offer strength and stability, but don’t come across as Superman. You are allowed to struggle too, just invite others into a faithful response and share the journey together. When troubles hit, people tend to pull back. Be sure to pursue connections with people in your church. You may not see them on Sunday (or may not be allowed to meet in some strange circumstances), but you still have a phone. There are ways to stay connected. We need to do that if we are to preach effectively.

3. The Listener’s Relationship with Circumstances – Be Hopeful. In the midst of crisis people need to have perspective. It is not helpful to dismiss a crisis. I remember a lecturer on 9/11 being dismissive of the situation (it didn’t help!) But do offer perspective with gentleness. Remember also that people have troubles that are not “the trouble” too. I am waiting for someone to fix our hot water boiler right now . . . that is not a Covid-19 issue, but it is today’s issue in our house! People still have other health concerns during a pandemic, people still have marital struggles during a war, people still struggle with parenting during a natural disaster. In the midst of it all, cast a vision. Could God be teaching us to pray like we have never prayed before? Is God growing greater depth and dependence on him in our church? Maybe God is shaking the culture to wake it up to spiritual realities? (Don’t make prophetic pronouncements, just help people to look on their circumstances in light of Scripture.)

4. The Listener’s Relationship with God – Be “Evangelistic.” There will be people who are not yet believers and the crisis might be the perfect moment . . . point them to Jesus. There will be people who have been believers for years and they too need to be pointed to Jesus. Help people to know that God is who they need and he can be accessed through the Bible. That is, be biblical. Don’t jettison your biblical preaching in order to offer personal wisdom, or to drift into political proclamation, or to distract people with empty entertainment. You may need to preach from somewhere else in the Bible, but do preach the Bible.

5. The Preacher and Preaching – Be Adaptable. Your eight month series in Ezekiel may not be appropriate when a crisis hits. It is ok to suspend a series and be a bit more targeted when necessary. After 9/11 a significant proportion of preachers just continued their series. That was a big missed opportunity to show love, care and a word from God in a key moment. So you may need to adapt your content, and you may also need to adapt your approach. In the last year many of us have learned to use new technology, to preach to camera, to shift to a mixed setting with some people present and others watching at home. Crises, big and small, tend to invite adaptability. By all means do things differently, just don’t disappear.

What would you add? What things are helpful to ponder during challenging times?

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.

Seven Benefits of a Slow-Burn Project

A lot of ministry happens on fairly short notice. The weekly rhythm keeps ticking like a metronome, and it tends to get interrupted by emergencies. Church emergencies, outside ministry requests, family issues, as well as things going wrong in the house, etc., there is always something pressing. This is why sermon preparation tends to fit into the few days before Sunday. And sometimes it is like a game of Tetris making it fit!

If you don’t already have one, consider adding one more thing to your load. A slow-burn, no-pressure, long-term project. Something that motivates you biblically and theologically.

Here are seven benefits of this kind of approach:

  1. Redeem the time without stress. When people talk about redeeming the time, it sometimes becomes a frantic multi-tasking that ends up costing us sanity and productivity. Having a slow-burn project allows you to use ten minutes here and there in a way that feels enriching rather than annoying.
  2. Read different materials. I don’t tend to have the time to read journal articles when I am preparing a sermon. But with a slow-burn project I can accumulate and gradually engage with different types of materials.
  3. Get assistance in your research. It is rarely helpful to ask around for a resource when sermon prep is pressing (other than going to that friend who has a good commentary to borrow, of course). But with this kind of project I find that I ask more random people if anything comes to mind and sometimes get some very helpful things in return.
  4. Dig deeper into the text. When Sunday is coming, the sermon has to come sooner. But with a long-term project there is room to analyse the biblical text more thoroughly. If you have enough Greek or Hebrew you can really dig in and dwell in the text. You can become really familiar with a passage, its parsing, its logic, its nuances, its uniqueness. No pressure. No rush. (And if you are probing something theological or historical, you can probe so much deeper there too.)
  5. Find schedule-shifting motivation. When there isn’t a deadline pressing you on a project, there will be times when that project lies almost dormant. And other times when you feel that spark that motivates you to move other things out of the way in order to make progress on the project. That is always the best kind of pressure, the kind that builds up inside your soul to give attention to something that is motivating you.
  6. There may be a surprising ministry outcome. Don’t rush this part, but a slow project can yield surprising fruit. Obviously there may be a sermon or a series to be had, but don’t rush into that. Could there be a seminar or workshop that would help others? It could also be a magazine, or journal, article. Maybe it will move you into an academic season and become a thesis or dissertation. Perhaps a book.
  7. There will be a welcome personal outcome. Whether or not your slow-burn project yields an outcome in terms of specific ministry, it will yield all the great fruits of long-term pondering on and dwelling in God’s Word. It may be that it sparks an interest in another aspect of Scripture, or a writer from church history, or an aspect of theology, that becomes heart food for a future season of life and ministry. The slow-burn project may yield an outcome of real value for others, but it will almost certainly do something even deeper in you.

What slow-burn long-term project have you found has had a big impact in your life and ministry?

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.

Strange Authority Speakers: 12 Concerns

Some time ago I heard someone speaking that I had never heard of before. I watched with a growing sense of dismay. What bothered me so much? I have pondered this speaker as well as others I have heard in the past, and have concluded that the unifying thread in my concerns was this: the strange authority with which this person spoke.

I am thinking out loud in this post, trying to help myself figure it out. Here are some concerning features of that strange authority that may be helpful to ponder. If any of these are true of your ministry, I would urge you to honestly talk through this post with a church leader or two. If several of these are true of someone you listen to, maybe you shouldn’t be listening to them?

1. Having to declare their authority generally means they are not an authority. If you speak your subject well, then people will recognize your authority. But speak of your authority on a subject and people may feel that you are trying to make it so.

2. Factual errors do not belong in the pulpit. I scratched my head as one speaker declared something about my country that is simply not true. A factual error may be just a single sentence in passing, but it undermines credibility for every other statement that is made.

3. Poor handling of Scripture is an indication of immaturity at best. You may not know the technical hermeneutical or exegetical label for the error, but when statements about the Bible seem curiously unusual, unique, or novel, you do well to be suspicious. “Let me show you something you have never seen before…” or “God showed me a deeper meaning in this verse…” or “this doesn’t mean what it has always been understood to mean…” – all red flag statements that I have heard from “strange authority” speakers. A slight interpretation misfire here and there is probably true of us all (especially in our early days). Blatant lack of exegetical accuracy, however, should always fire a warning flare!

4. The Bible is stunningly relevant, but don’t make it sensationally so. When the Bible is used, out of context, to point to something so current and contemporary that people are supposed to gasp in appreciation, the discerning will raise an eyebrow of concern. When the Bible is carefully handled and presented appropriately, the relevance to the lives of even the most mature and discerning of listeners will be deeply felt and lastingly appreciated. Sadly, the undiscerning will praise sensational speakers enough to fan the flames of their ministry.

5. A speaker can’t assume knowledge, but please don’t assume ignorance. “If you study this subject like I have…” or “If you study the whole Bible you will see…” or “If you read John’s Gospel through 200 times you will start to notice…” (Again, three statements I have heard from “strange authority” speakers over the years.) We cannot assume knowledge in our listeners, or we will speak over their heads. But if we assume ignorance, we may sound patronizing or condescending.

6. Being condescending in tone does not mean the speaker is above their listeners. Tone is subjective and so someone who is confident may seem arrogant to someone else, or condescending to someone else. But if the listeners (plural) are feeling talked down to as a collective group, then something is not right. It indicates that a strange feeling of authority may be present in the mind of the speaker.

7. Ignorance is invisible in the mirror, but we all need to find out how much we don’t know. In one particular case I joined the message several minutes in, but within a minute it was evident that the speaker was not biblically educated. Another time I bought a book at a retreat, before returning it because it was filled with errors and typos. A seminary education is not a requirement for all. I have known some “self-taught” people that I respect very highly. But I have also heard some stunning ignorance and errors from speakers. Strangely, these people often have the greatest confidence in what they are saying. It isn’t easy, but it is helpful to try to find out what we don’t know.

8. Differentiate helpful and unhelpful credibility indicators. There is a credibility that comes from a position in a church or in a respected ministry, as well as degrees from respected institutions, or publications from respected publishers. But beware of echo chamber credibility. Years ago I heard a speaker who had a couple of travelling “fans” who came to our church retreat just to hear him speak. They were convinced he was the greatest Bible teacher around. After hearing him, many of us, including the church leadership, were not convinced. His ministry had a following. His ministry self-published his books. He was well known. But, something wasn’t right. Having a group of followers at conferences, or on social media, is not the same as having credibility and a genuine platform.

9. A strange authority speaker may try to sell their subject, instead of actually saying something. The best way to sell your bakery is to give people a taste of a perfect croissant, not a presentation on why baked goods are the most important food of all. In the same way, even if you are asked to motivate listeners for a specific subject, that doesn’t mean you have to just enthuse about the subject. Give them a taste of something good. Biblical teaching on family relations? On origins? On end-times? On spiritual gifts? On church growth? Whatever the subject, don’t just enthuse about the subject. Actually show what the Bible says on a particular aspect of the subject and how that makes a difference. Once people enjoy a croissant, they are likely to try the baguette or the custard slice.

10. Whatever the subject, evaluate the direction of gaze. At the end of the presentation, are listeners thinking about the speaker, about their ministry, about signing up for their mailing list? Are they thinking about themselves and how they need to learn more or try harder? Or do listeners have the gaze of their hearts fixed on Christ in a genuinely helpful and transformative way?

11. Where is the accountability? Strange authority speakers will tend to make much of God’s influence on their ministry. However, their human accountability will tend to be difficult to pin down. A handful of less informed fans forming a token board is not sufficient. Are there church leaders and people of real standing caring pastorally for this speaker? If someone had a concern, who would they go to? Would they be confident of being heard?

12. Does their ministry stir concerned prayer? God really uses some specialist speakers, and even some quite quirky speakers. Pray for people who have a speaking ministry. And when something doesn’t feel right, pray then too. Pray before you raise concerns with them, or their ministry. Pray before you talk about them to a church leader or responsible person. Pray for God to help them grow, or to help them go. In some cases God’s people would be better served without that person doing their ministry. God is more than able to answer that prayer. It may not be clear what you can do, or if you should do anything at all, but you can pray.

What would you add to this list?

5 Aspects of Natural Delivery

What makes for effective delivery in preaching? Gone are the days of appreciating the diction and power of a voice fit for the radio, or the grand gesturing and stage presence of yesteryear. Today effective delivery has to be natural.

People want to listen to preachers that are genuine, honest and real. People resist the polished sales patter of a car salesperson, the reading of a script in a phone conversation, or the phony demeanor of an average stage performer. People definitely do not appreciate the ranting and pontificating of old school preaching.

So how can a preacher be natural in delivery? A deep breath and determination to relax doesn’t cut it. Here are five aspects of natural delivery that might take some work:

1. Natural eye contact feels unnatural. It is almost impossible to overstate the value of eye contact in spoken communications. You would not buy from someone who wouldn’t look you in the eye. Our natural tendency will be to find security in our notes and when we dare to lift our heads out of our notes we will naturally look anywhere but the eyes of those who are judging us. It feels unnatural to learn to linger long enough to make meaningful eye contact with someone in the congregation, and then move on to make meaningful eye contact with someone else. It may only take a second or two, or sometimes it takes a few more, but it is worth it. (And the opportunity will only increase when our note-reliance decreases!)

2. Natural sized gestures feel unnatural: size of gesture. If you plan your gestures you will probably look like a puppet. I am not advocating for planned gestures at all. But it does take some work to make gestures appear natural to our congregation. Generally speaking, the bigger the congregation, the bigger the gesture. A little gesture in a conversation (or preaching to a camera) will look ridiculous from seven rows back in a large crowd.

3. Natural gestures feel unnatural: direction of progression. Logically we think from left to right (in our culture). So the past is logically to our left, and time moves towards the right. Gesture with that logic to a congregation and it just won’t feel natural to them. They will interpret, maybe subconsciously, but there is a slight jarring effect. Learn to present from right to left as your reference moves from past to future, or from your first point to your later points, and your listeners won’t skip a beat.

4. Natural explanation can feel unnatural. In a conversation you can often say something once and assume it has been heard, registered and even imagined. Not so with a group. It is not about their individual capacity to comprehend, it is about the distracting effect of being in a group setting. For concepts to formulate in their consciousness, a group of people typically will need more repetition and restatement. Don’t fire off a concept and march on. Make sure you give it the words, and the time, needed for the concept to be heard, registered and grasped. Don’t hurl an illustration past your listeners. Do what it takes for the image to project on their internal screens with clarity.

5. Natural delivery takes unnatural attention. If you just do what you naturally do, how do you know how you come across? It takes effort to pray about your life and your delivery co-existing in a natural and spiritually healthy congruence. It takes effort to ask for specific feedback from a variety of listeners, prompting them to be really honest, so that you can actually know how effective your delivery is. It takes effort to get yourself preaching on video and take stock of your presentation.

I am not saying we should perform. I am saying that it takes some effort to communicate naturally and effectively. There is probably something for every one of us to improve. Just taking a deep breath and trying to relax will not make you communicate well (although it may help a bit).

Some comedians are hilarious on stage and then angry drunks in the dressing room. Are you the same you in conversation after church? Are you the same you when you close the front door at home? Performance is unsustainable. At the same time, effective communication is worth some conscious and prayerful attention.

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Here is a resource you might enjoy:

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.

Christmas Wonder

One of the greatest dangers we face in ministry is losing the wonder of what we speak about. The demands of ministry are always high, and this year, maybe even higher. There are the expectations of people, the burden of creativity (only two pairs of Gospel chapters to preach from!), the pastoral concerns that don’t lessen in the dark days of December, extra responsibilities and expectations at home, and so on. How easy it is to lose the wonder of Christmas!

I don’t want to try to prescribe how to keep the wonder of it all this Christmas. I just want to suggest that we do. What will it take? Time with family – proper time? Extra guarded time alone with God? Is there music that triggers your awe at the Incarnation? Or a good book? Whatever it takes.

As we head into this unusual Christmas season, there are definitely pressures building on us. Let’s look to be captured by the grace of God as he chose to step into our messy world. Let’s look to be gripped by the hope held out in the Christmas story for a dark hurting world full of sinners – sinners ruled by sinners, threatened by death, worried about issues local and global (true then as it is true now!) Let’s look to be stirred afresh by the history-hinge of the Incarnation.

Ponder the first Christmas in all its gritty reality. Ponder the Incarnation in all its theological wonder. Ponder the questions raised for the first characters as they watched it unfold. Ponder the answers given to any willing to probe the truths of biblical revelation. Ponder the journey Jesus took from Bethlehem to the Cross. Ponder the everlasting nature of Christ taking on flesh. Ponder the hope that we have of seeing him one day for ourselves. Ponder. Ignite the wonder. Whatever it takes.

When Preaching Is Restricted

This year has thrown up all sorts of challenges for the ministry of preaching. Many of us have been learning quickly how to adjust to preaching to a camera, taking church online, etc. But still, something is missing. Maybe we can’t gather, or maybe the gathering is restricted. Is this restriction actually curtailing the work of God?

The Book of Acts offers us an encouraging section to read when we feel our preaching is restricted. As you know, Acts shows the progress of the witness of the Apostles from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, to the ends of the earth (see 1:8).

The Jerusalem section, chapters 1-7, is thrilling. We see the church birthed and growing rapidly. We get to enjoy the boldness of Peter’s preaching, Peter and John before the authorities, even Stephen’s courageous final proclamation. It feels like preaching to crowds is central to the growth of the church. But opposition is building along the way. The apostles are warned in chapter 4, beaten in chapter 5 and then there is the execution of Stephen in chapter 7.

This brings us to the middle section of Acts, the Judea/Samaria section, if you like. It stretches from Acts 8 to Acts 12, where the summary statement is found in v24: “the word of God increased and multiplied.”

So what do we find in Acts 8-12? We see the gospel spreading to Samaritans and then Gentiles – a massively significant step of progression. But we also see a change of ministry opportunity. After the stoning of Stephen, we read this: “…there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles . . . Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” (8:1,4)

They went about evangelising – that’s what it is saying here.  They couldn’t bring friends to big gatherings in Jerusalem to listen to a great apostle preaching.  They were scattered.  Challenging circumstances, scattered believers, speaking about Jesus.

We immediately get the example of Philip who took the challenging circumstances as sovereign appointment and proclaimed Christ in Samaria.  He spoke to crowds, but he also spoke to an individual in a chariot.  Normal followers of Jesus speaking to people about Jesus wherever they found themselves.

In these chapters we see the conversion and commissioning of Saul to carry the message to the nations, and we see Peter being coached by God to understand how the gospel had to move beyond traditional Jewish boundaries in order to spread.  But we also see normal believers representing Jesus.  People like Tabitha/Dorcas, who was full of good works and acts of charity.  In their words and in their deeds, they evangelised wherever God put them.

We know from Acts 12:24 that the word of God increased and multiplied, even away from Jerusalem, away from the big preaching events, away from the primarily apostolic pulpit.  But there is one thing we have to recognize to really grasp what was going on then, and what is going on today. Challenging circumstances that scattered believers who then spoke about Jesus. 

It sounds like a fruitful formula.  None of us want the challenging circumstances, but when they come we see how believers find themselves in unique situations to speak of Jesus.  So why do we hesitate today?  Why aren’t we confident that our congregations will all gossip the gospel enthusiastically in these challenging times?  Is it a matter of training, of example, of spiritual gifting? Perhaps, but not primarily. 

Perhaps it is more to do with Acts 8-12’s truth not gripping us as it should. Luke returns for a summary of the ministry of the scattered believers in Acts 11:19-27.  It tells us that the post-Stephen persecution scatterees travelled to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch.  It tells us that they spoke the word.  It tells us that the message of Jesus spread to Greek speakers as well as Jews. But notice verse 21:

“And the hand of the Lord was with them.”

That is massive. They needed that. They were witnesses in Judea and Samaria because they had received power when the Spirit came upon them (Acts 1:8). They were able to effectively do their part, not because they were really good at it, but because God did his part.

The same is true today. You may not be able to preach to a normal sized crowd this Sunday or next month. The typical autumn and winter events at the church may not be possible this year due to Covid-19. God’s plan may be to place you and me, and the people in our churches, into divinely ordained one-on-one situations where we can speak of Jesus.

Challenging circumstances that scatter believers who then speak of Jesus to anyone that crosses our path. And we can do so with confidence because the hand of the Lord is with us!

If you and your church folks are convinced that the hand of the Lord is with us this week, what difference will that make? Maybe we will discover that God’s plans are not on pause. And even if the pulpit is partially paused, God’s great plan to reach this world for Jesus is marching forwards, even in October 2020!

3 Likely Outcomes of Bible-Lite Preaching

You can save a lot of sermon time if you simply summarize the passage, or only briefly touch on the text.  It allows you so many more precious minutes for application and relevance.   But at what cost?  What is lost by eliminating any extended explanation or retelling of narratives?  What is the cost to listeners of not really entering into the world of the passage being preached?  Here are 3 likely outcomes of Bible-lite preaching:

1. Biblical immaturity.  People shaped by Bible-lite preaching will not grow towards the kind of biblical maturity that they will need to thrive in this complex and difficult world.  Knowing a few popular proof texts and surface truths liberally mixed with applicational anecdotes and motivational missives will not be enough to weather the storms of life in this world.  To be mature believers they need the soul-reinforcement that comes from deep biblical-rootedness.

2.  Anemic Devotions.  For half an hour on Sunday our people observe a “mature Christian” handling the Bible.  They will copy what they see.  If you skim the surface in order to share superficial suggestions for life that aren’t deeply rooted in the Word, then guess what they will learn for the rest of the week?  Superficial engagement with the Bible on a personal level.  In fact, they are more likely to make some good worship music on the way to work their daily devotional content and leave the Bible on the shelf.  Why? Because your sermons don’t demonstrate that the Bible has any real weight, personal significance, genuine relevance or divine authority.

3. Godless Christianity.  What is Godless Christianity?  I don’t know, it is an oxymoron.  But I do know, sadly.  It is the kind of christian culture that reinforces itself week after week in many churches – the kind of nice and encouraging sub-culture that has a thin veneer of christian labeling attached to a set of behaviours and attitudes like a set of post-its … that is, not very solid under the slightest wind of difficulty or purposeful inspection.  Bible-lite preaching may encourage people to try to live out the Christian life, but without drawing them deeper into the source of that life – relationship with the Trinity.

As preachers we have a double-duty, or even a double delight: to enable people to encounter the God of the Bible as they enter into His Word, and to be changed by that encounter.  These two go together.  But don’t short-change the first by skipping to the second.  As the world seems to spin further and further away from the anchors of Biblical truth, people need to be more biblically literate and mature, not less.  Today, people need to have more exposure to God’s self-revelation in the Bible, not less.