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?

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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!

The Discouraged Preacher – Part 4

We have looked at feedback, both immediate and long-term.  We have considered ministry drain and unhelpful comparisons.  Here are three more sources of discouragement:

8. Lack of Dream Schedule. Many preachers wish they had a better preparation schedule.  Many preachers work another job through the week and are restricted to time grabbed in the early morning, late at night, minutes snatched here and there.  If only I had more time to fully prepare!  But then “full-time” preachers have their time restricted too: pastoral emergencies, family crises, hospital visits, counseling appointments, committee meetings, etc.  We can all plan our schedule, and perhaps many of us could plan a little bit better than we do, but some things will mess with the best of plans.  Consider starting preparation earlier, tweak your time management skills, but remember that we preach to people in a less than ideal world.  We preach from experience, for our preparation is done in a less than ideal world too!

9. Spiritual Attack. We can’t blame the enemy for everything, but it would be naïve to not recognize a spiritual warfare element in any ministry.  The enemy would much rather have a discouraged preacher than a faith-filled, praying, passionate preacher!  Surely every category should drive us to prayer, but surely this one calls us to our knees so that we can stand firm and resist the devil.

10. Non-Preaching Issues. Perhaps work is tough, parenting is a struggle, marriage is tense, other ministry is hurting, health issues have emerged.  Non-preaching issues may improve your preaching in terms of empathy, relevance, vulnerability etc.  But non-preaching issues may add to discouragement in preaching – a time when you give of yourself and personal vulnerability comes to the surface.

Another post to come . . . all in honor of the discouraged preacher.

The Discouraged Preacher – Part 3

We’ve considered unhelpful “pseudo-feedback,” and lack of the best feedback of all (life change).  Here are a couple more categories to consider:

6. Ministry drain. This can sneak up on a preacher.  Preaching takes a lot out of you.  It uses up stores of energy.  Not only physically, but spiritually, mentally, emotionally and relationally too.  Many preachers point to the post-preaching lethargy they experience.  Most non-preachers are unaware of this phenomenon.  The danger is that we forget it and then misread the drained feeling for discouragement through failure or whatever.  Answers are as common as paperbacks in a bookstore – rest more, exercise more, eat better, drink water, pray longer, pray earlier, have dates with God, have dates with your spouse, wrestle with your children, take Mondays off, etc.  No easy answer, but don’t misread the source of the discouragement.

7. Unhelpful Comparison. Number 1 was comparing your preaching to what you imagined it would be like ahead of time.  This time it is comparing your preaching to others.  It’s good to learn from others.  But don’t beat yourself up because you are not Robinson, MacArthur, Piper, Stanley, Miller, Craddock, Swindoll, Kaiser or whoever your personal favorite might be.  Super-preachers are a blessing to many, perhaps even to us as we listen to them on the radio or at mega-events.  But the people that hear you on Sunday morning need you on Sunday morning.  You may not be super-smooth or super-polished or super-funny or even a super-scholar, but you are a super-blessing as you faithfully preach the Word out of love for God and for them!  Be careful not to get down through unhelpful comparison.

I don’t want to make a post too long, so instead I’ll extend the series.  Another post to follow.

The Discouraged Preacher – Part 2

In part 1 we saw how feedback can discourage us.  Typically this is not the carefully pursued constructive feedback – that is almost always helpful, and usually very encouraging (either reviewing your own preaching, or getting deliberate input from others).  It is the self-talk in the emotional aftermath of preaching, or the comments from others who perhaps haven’t fully thought through their criticism.  But discouragement can come from other feedback too:

3. Inanely positive feedback. While a critical comment not given carefully can steal joy and motivation, so can a wave of inane niceties.  How many handshakes and smiling “nice message!” comments does it take before discouragement sets in?  Hours of prayerful preparation, pleading at the throne of grace for life change and church renewal, personal sacrifices along the way and all you get is “nice message.”  We’re not entertainers!  Perhaps it is best to hold onto post-message comments very lightly.  Excessive criticism or excessive praise is best left at the throne of God.  The polite comments in between are not necessarily indicators of much at all, other than the listeners’ desire to be polite and appreciative.  You struggle with wording in the sermon, many listeners struggle with the wording of appreciation!

4. No feedback either way! It’s as if the preaching is just an expected element of the service, like notices or the start time.  This feels horrible for the preacher who has given so much.  It would probably be worth asking for feedback from certain people in order to show that you want to preach well, and to guarantee at least a few are listening purposefully!

5. Lack of real change. This is a biggie!  It’s the ultimate feedback on your preaching.  You pour yourself into ministry, believing God uses preaching to transform lives.  Over time you see the same old problems, the same old lack of motivation, the same old squabbles.  The church seems to be standing still or moving backwards.  Many experience this.  Perhaps it points to the need for reinforcement ministry outside the pulpit (discussion groups, Q&A times, personal mentoring, training sessions, etc.)  Perhaps it points to the need for more direct and specific application in the preaching.  Perhaps it simply points to the need to trust God and hang in there . . . sometimes it can take a lot of chipping away before the first cracks in the dam appear.  Preaching is a critical ministry, but it is not the complete answer to the needs of individuals or the church as a whole.  Nevertheless, we preach by faith!

That’s three more.  I’ll add more in part 3.  Feel free to pre-empt that post, or to suggest other categories of discouragement.