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!

Preaching and Other Ministries

Cogs2Preaching may be the most visible ministry in the church, but it is certainly not the only ministry in the church.  How does your preaching relate to the other ministries?  Here are some possibilities:

1. Casting Vision – The big church together biblical preaching slot is probably the main time that most people are together during the week.  Consequently the leadership functions of the church can be offered in a unique and biblically grounded way during the preaching.  If your church divorces leadership from preaching, it will suffer for it.  But when a church feels led more by the Bible than by a personality, health can be generated.

2. Creating Atmosphere – Lots of other ministries are massively significant in the life of the church.  Small group ministries, age-specific ministries, one-to-one discipleship, mentoring and counseling ministries, evangelism in many forms, etc.  But all of these can happen more effectively in the space and atmosphere created by the Sunday preaching of the church.

3. Offering Gratitude – Lots of other ministries can easily go unnoticed.  Investing in children in the nursery or children’s programs, one-to-one ministries, practical work – setting up church, maintaining the building, etc.  The preaching is a good place to lift up other ministries of the church so that people know the preacher doesn’t buy the hype that can so easily be assumed of the pulpit ministry.

4. Providing Vocabulary – An effective illustration or thought through wording can become vocabulary for the church.  Recently I used an illustration of living in our thimble while Jesus has an ocean perspective – there may be some “thimble” conversations going on as a result.  Sometimes even just offering permission to start a conversation, for instance, “I may be completely misunderstanding this situation, but the preacher on Sunday encouraged us to use him as an excuse for coming and raising it with each other, so here’s my ‘help me understand you on this little thing’ . . .”  Big church preaching can prompt the one-to-one conversations that need to happen in a church community.

5. Building Unity – Churches are filled with humans and humans bring their lifelong saturation in the brine of Fallenness along with them.  So people distrust people.  Ministries will easily compete with ministries.  The preaching is an opportunity for the wise preacher to let God’s Word build unity and trust within a church by offering both vulnerability and vision.

6. Co-Labored Stirring – The preaching can and should co-labor with other ministries.  It may be that a sermon unlocks an apparently unresponsive individual, or offers new hope to an apparently committed-to-drift couple, etc.  Then it may be another ministry that continues the work toward fruitful life change.

7. Setting Example – Probably this is already covered implicitly, but let’s be overt: the preaching can set the tone for other ministries . . . i.e. submission to the Word, honoring others above ourselves, vulnerability, tenderness, courage, etc.  Can the church leadership ask others to minister in a way that the pulpit does not demonstrate?

Preaching is important, but it is not the only ministry of the church.  Does your preaching support and strengthen the ministries of the church?  Or does it inadvertently undermine and compete?

Overflow Leadership: 2 Vital Ingredients

coffeecup2The great temptation in any leadership is to think that my leadership is about me.  It isn’t.  True leadership will be more concerned with those that I lead than me as the leader.  And true leadership will always recognize that I can only give what I have first received.

As I write this we are about to start into the fifth year of the Cor Deo full-time training program here in England.  It is a small ministry focused on mentoring and training participants to multiply ministry that will make a profound impact.  What can we give to these participants that we did not first receive?  Nothing.

The best leadership, the best mentoring, and the best teaching, will always be overflow leadership, overflow mentoring, overflow teaching.  That is, as I have received, so I can overflow to others.  The great danger for any leader, mentor, or teacher, is to start to think that our ministry comes from our own capacity, our own ability, or our own accumulated knowledge.

How can we avoid the subtle shift from overflow ministry to stagnant self-absorbed ministry? Here are two vital ingredients to protect us from this dangerous (and natural) shift:

1. Personal Gratitude. It is not enough to be grateful when nudged to be grateful.  We need to continually return to a place of gratitude as we give ourselves away in ministry.  Let’s be thankful for all the training we have received, conferences we have attended, books we have read, and mentors we have been blessed to spend time with.  Thankfulness reorients our hearts to God’s kindness toward us.

Actually, it is not just the obviously good gifts that have brought us to this place in our ministry.  Great ministry is typically forged in the crucible of significant challenges.  But without thankfulness, challenges typically bring only bitterness.  Let’s be thankful for all the difficult situations, setbacks, apparently unanswered prayers, opposition and disappointments.

Good ministry comes from overflow, not personal capacity (where I have learned, and I have accumulated, and I have become . . . the gravitational pull of our flesh will always reorient our hearts to self-praise).  Gratitude is a vital ingredient to maintaining healthy overflow ministry.

2. Spiritual Integrity. God has invested a lot into each one of us over the past years.  The obvious blessings, the careful character sculpting, etc.  Gratitude protects us from believing that we have made ourselves somebody significant.  But there is another issue that I hinted at already – the danger of stagnancy.  Past blessings can quickly grow stagnant if there is not a present reality to my spiritual walk.

I cannot dispense teaching or leadership from a reservoir that was filled twenty years ago, or even last month.  For all of that to be fresh today, it must be stirred by the present reality of a personal walk with Christ.  The Bible uses language of God pouring out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom.5:5).  Elsewhere Paul uses the present tense to speak of being filled with the Spirit (Eph.5:18).

God pours out His love into my heart and consequently I can love in leadership, in mentoring, in teaching . . . but if the gaze of my heart shifts from Him to myself, then my reservoir starts to drain down and grow stagnant.  Without the present reality, all the past investment loses its present value.

As I head into another season of ministry, I want to be grateful for all I have received, and make sure there is a present dynamic reality of abiding in Christ’s love so that I can overflow to others.  We cannot give anything of value that we did not first receive.  Not just what we received in the past, but also what God wants to give us today.

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!

Patient Expectation

Preaching ministry requires patience, not just passion.  It requires prayer, not just power.  It is about long-term faithfulness, not just fireworks.  As we head into another Sunday, let’s keep our thinking straight.  God is at work in the lives of His people, Christ is building His church, the Spirit is working all week in all manner of ways.  We stand to preach and we do so as part of God’s greater work in and through the church.

We should preach with prayer-fueled passion and faith-filled expectation.  Yet we must also preach with patient trust in God’s timing.  We preach for the small step forward unheralded during the handshakes and not just the dramatic outbreak of revival heralded in the Christian press.  We preach for small pieces of an invisible puzzle to move into place, for links to be added to a private chain, for unannounced questions to be answered in the quiet of a struggling heart.  Every Sunday cannot be earth-shaking, but every Sunday can be eternity-shaping.

We preach not for the glory of man, but for the glory of God.  So often His glory is tied to his loving patience and not just to His dramatic outpourings for the content of another bestselling paperback.  As we’ve said before, so we must say again this Sunday – we preach by faith.  By faith trusting that the God who is the same yesterday, today and forever, will as always be working out His purposes in far too many ways for us to realize.  We know the end of the story, so let’s not lose heart during the quieter chapters when so much is achieved behind the scenes, in the hearts, in private struggles, in personal journeys.  Let’s preach today with prayerful, faith-filled, passionate, and indeed, patient expectation.

The Discouraged Preacher – Conclusion

We have considered a lot of possible causes of discouragement over the past week.  David Wilson commented on some of these posts and also sent me some notes from a message he gave on discouragement.  To conclude this series I would like to quote the three simple but critical pieces of advice with which he concluded that message, and then a quote to finish.

How can we avoid discouragement in ministry?

1. Determine to please God alone. We can easily be tempted to pursue the applause of others, or even from ourselves, but the central issue has to be pleasing God only.  Our audience of One.  (See John 8:29, 2Cor.5:9 and Gal.1:10)

2. Spend time alone with God. Just as Jesus spent time alone with the Father, so must we.  Intimacy with Him must come before ministry for Him.

3. Set realistic goals. Some goals are out of our hands, and so can be a source of real discouragement.  Evaluate goals in ministry and make sure they are achievable as we lean on Him for strength and help.

Here’s a closing quote from Warren Wiersbe’s Walking With Giants (p268):

Discouragement is an enemy we must learn to expect, face honestly, and fight with all our strength. No man can preach the good news effectively if he himself is discouraged. We must try to understand the causes of our despair and, above all else, never yield to the expensive luxury of self-pity. The “I-only-am-left” complex can only lead to defeat. There are yet seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal. It would be nice if one of them would step out and stand by our side, but until then, let us dare to believe God’s Word and keep on going.

The Discouraged Preacher – Part 6

One last category to consider:

13. When we feel alone as a preacher. When you stand to preach today, you are not alone.  Even in a church with several preachers, it can feel so lonely to sense that others view preaching differently.  Perhaps you are committed to expository preaching, while others persist in another approach.  Perhaps you are the only preacher.  Perhaps you’ve tried to influence other preachers, but they have not responded and your motivation is drained.  Feeling like you’re the only one committed to expository preaching is a tough place to be.  And it can be hard to talk about because it sounds like condemnation of other preachers, or arrogance.  But remember this, you are not alone in your commitment to expository preaching.  As you stand and try to present the true meaning of the text with effective communication and applied relevance to your listeners, you are one of many preachers doing the same.  Obviously it would be better if there were more, but don’t despair and fail to recognize that there are many training institutions teaching expository preaching, there are many organisations advocating for expository preaching, there are many expositors seeking to do the same as you.  We may not be the majority, we may not feel the camaraderie or support where we stand and serve, but we are not alone.

Pray for other expository preachers who you know will be preaching the Word today.

The Discouraged Preacher – Part 5

We’ve covered ten categories already.  But there are still others, perhaps ones which we tend not to mention:

11. When numbers don’t matter, but it seems like they do. Hopefully we’d all agree that it doesn’t matter how many you preach to each week.  We don’t want to be caught up in finding self-worth from large numbers or fleshly fame.  But at the same time, numbers can discourage.  Why is it still just a couple of dozen (four of whom can’t hear anyway)?  Why is the church not growing?  It would feel better if a couple of hundred could be helped by my ministry, or a couple of thousand.  This is a real issue that often goes unstated.  It seems unspiritual to mention it.  But it is a category nonetheless.  There is a fine line between a well motivated desire for church growth and wrongly motivated desire for personal accolades.  We can only wrestle this through before God and allow His Spirit to convict that part of our mixed motives that is not pleasing to Him.

12. When we feel so cold spiritually. None of us want to preach when our own walk with the Lord is weak, but Sunday comes ready or not.  People pedestal preachers and we struggle to admit struggle.  But there are times when the heavens seem to be brass and your spiritual fire is more of a smoldering wick.  Times when the best you can hope for is that God has pulled back slightly to work in your character, but fears flash across the mind that it is worse than that – something about candlesticks being taken away, or to be more accurate on an individual level, that the Spirit is grieved.  Or there are times when a sin has a foothold in your life and while you may be repentant, you know the problem persists.  These are very real issues for us, whether we talk about them openly or more likely, not.  Obviously we need God for these things, we pray for that.  But perhaps it’s time to stop resisting the help of others too?  Perhaps God will answer our prayers through other believers, but we need to let them in.

Discouragement may come with the territory, but let’s seek to be discerning as to its source.  Then we can at least pray intelligently about a way to overcome it!