A Contagious Pulpit

I remember Haddon Robinson saying that a mist in the pulpit will result in a fog in the pew.  It seems so obvious to say it, but there is a strong connection between what is going on in the preacher and what will go on in the listeners.  This is true both positively and negatively.  Here are some examples with brief comment:

Negatively

1. Nerves & Stress.  If you are nervous, they will join you in that.  If you seem stressed, you will put them on edge.  Whatever your preparation has or has not been like, make sure you go into preaching by faith rather than self-reliance, or self-concerned stress.

2. Coldness & Distance.  A congregation is like a dog in this regard: they can always sense if you don’t care for them.  Pray until your heart beats with God’s heart for these people, especially when you sense that indifference and lack of love that so easily creeps in for all of us.

3. Boredom & Disinterest.  Nobody wants to listen to someone who is not particularly interested in the passage they are preaching or the God they are speaking about.  In fact, they won’t listen.  Your disinterest will transmit so that they mentally leave the venue long before you leave the pulpit.

Positively

4. Warmth & Connection.  Maybe you have met somebody so warm and congenial that you found yourself warming to them as the conversation progressed.  The same is true in preaching: your love for them and enthusiasm for the God you speak about will increase their temperature toward you and Him!

5. Clarity of Image.  Whether it is an illustration or the retelling of a narrative, this principle applies: if you can see it, so will they.  Be prepared enough to be able to see what you are describing and you will be surprised how much more your listeners feel like they are immersed in the movie, not just enduring a monologue.  Blow the fog away, describe what is vivid to your mind and it will be clear to theirs, and engaging to their hearts too.

6. Responsiveness & Worship.  This goes way beyond enthusiasm and even interpersonal warmth.  This is about response to God.  If you are moved by the passage and the message to worship and obedience birthed from stirred affection, then that will increasingly be the response of your listeners too.

There are many ways in which we  will infect our listeners as we preach.  What “diseases” do we want to carry to them?

7 Things Preachers Never Say – pt.4

Here is the fourth in our series of things preachers tend not to say:

4. I feel the force of real temptation, and I am not always victorious.

This is a tricky one, isn’t it?  We are told that people love to hear a preacher being vulnerable and authentic.  At the same time if the preacher simply lays it all out there, then credibility tends to fade through the floor.  One person suggested on this site that it is not good to be vulnerable about sin that is currently still in process.  Work it out and then share appropriately.  That is probably wise.

But whether we tell recent stories or not, there is a struggle with temptation that is current and that is real.  Some preachers may be struggling with their fleshly reaction to others.  Some preachers may feel like lust is in full attack mode.  Some preachers may feel like their victory over some private temptation is less than all-conquering.  That is not to say that the preacher is therefore living in sin.  They may be living in victory and yet still feel worn down by the constant temptation.

We tend to focus talk on sin in areas of overt misconduct – lust or theft or whatever.  But what about the more “sanctified” sins … the popular churchy ones.  It is not easy to talk about ongoing struggles with pride, or poor self-worth, or unresolved conflict, or temptation to gossip, or whatever.

The truth is that while there may be no disqualifying disaster sin lingering like a skeleton in your preacher’s closet, there is a daily and weekly battle with temptation that is wearying and real.  We may not be losing control and assaulting others in fits of drunken rage, but there may be some self-protective habits in life, and there may be some tensions in the home or the church that tempt us to lash out, or numb the pain, or escape, or whatever.

Sometimes people treat the preacher in such a way that the preacher is the only person in the church who feels unable to share their struggles.  After all, not only is the preacher potentially not being vulnerable, but in some churches there is nobody else creating hope of grace and love if the preacher were to express their own struggle or failure.

Preachers struggle with temptation too, and preachers sin too, and it would be really helpful to get some real conversations going.

7 Things Preachers Never Say – pt.3

What do preachers feel unable to say?  We’ve mentioned the burden of expectation, and the pain that can come from responses of criticism and apathy.  Here’s another to throw into the discussion:

3.  My family is not the picture perfect family you think it is or wish it were.

Real families have real struggles.  Preachers have real families.  Therefore our families struggle.  That means that sometimes there are real challenges in a preacher’s marriage.  I am not talking about the petty disputes over toilet seats that are easy to reference in the pulpit.  I am talking about the incredibly tense interchanges that you don’t mention in a sermon.  Husbands and wives can really clash, or really drift, or really struggle, and that is really true for preachers too.  It is easy to assume that a preacher’s marriage is healthy and easy, but healthy marriages are not usually easy.  If there is a healthy marriage then that is the fruit of God’s grace to overcome lots of sin, and it is the result of lots of difficult decisions along the way, including lots of forgiveness in both directions.  Only the most naïve can say, “you’re lucky, you have a good marriage.”  And sometimes they will say it.

And then there is parenting, another great arena for luck!  “You are lucky, you have easy children.”  Guess again.  Some children may be more compliant than others, but every child needs parenting.  And parenting involves heartache.  The preacher’s children throw tantrums, sin foolishly, and sometimes rebel along the way.  I think there are times when a preacher would do well to pull back from preaching ministry to give their energy to parenting ministry, but there is never a time when a preacher has an easy life as a parent.  Parenting includes heartache, and real fear, disappointments, concern, sleepless nights, and so on.

And it needs saying that the “problem” is not always with the non-preaching spouse or the children.  It could be, but it could also be the other way around too.  Sometimes a preacher may not be a good spouse or a good parent.  There may be times when the preacher vulnerably acknowledges their personal weakness or the challenges at home, but no congregation wants a weekly update on the preacher’s family soap opera.  And typically no preacher wants to expose their family so that everyone knows the struggles they face at home.

Am I saying that all you see is false?  Not at all.  What I am saying is that the preacher’s family is a real family, with real sin, real tension, real disagreements, real weaknesses, real discussions, real disciplining, real parenting and real inadequacy.  If the fruit that is visible is good, then praise God, not luck.  (If the fruit is obviously not good, maybe the preacher needs releasing from some burdens to be able to prioritise their ministry at home.  I can never fathom churches watching helplessly as their pastor’s marriage collapses or their child goes off the rails!)

The preacher’s family life is real, whether you get to see the inner workings or not!

7 Things Preachers Never Say – pt.2

This series looks at seven things preachers never say.  Last time we thought about the burden of expectation.  How about this for another:

2. Both sides of negative response can really sting, that is, both criticism and apathy.

As a preacher, there are hosts of factors at play in my ministry.  There are tangible and intangible costs to what I do.  There is the immediate and the long-term.  As a preacher, I may spend hours during the week praying for the people and preparing to preach to them.  As a preacher, I may be forfeiting a number of other paths I could have walked down in life.  At times I will see the positives that come from being in a preaching ministry.  Believe me when I say it is one of the greatest privileges imaginable.  At the same time, some negative responses really can sting.

It hurts to be criticized.  It hurts when people criticize your motives or lie about you to others.  It hurts when the preacher is being roasted more than the joint of beef during Sunday lunch in every household of a congregation.  It hurts when people throw stones and storm out of the door.  It hurts when people’s grievances seem to inevitably hit the most visible targets in the church, which tends to be those who lead and preach.

Sometimes criticism is justified.  But it still hurts when instead of coming to you, those with grievances decide to broadcast their complaints to others instead.  It hurts to have to always be the mature one when others are being profoundly immature.  When sheep go on the attack it can really hurt!

But there is another side to negative response:

Apathy also hurts.  When you pour out your heart in prayer and burn the candle at both ends in preparation, only to be met with polite apathy, it stings.  The polite comments that amount to “nice sermon” when you have just given everything you had to preach it can really sting.  When year after year of preaching is met with the expectation that you will just be ready to do it again next week, but without much gratitude or apparent responsiveness, that stings.

We don’t preach for human affirmation.  Preachers tend to be like parents – our goal is not to be liked, it is to lovingly give what is needed by the people we love.  But preachers are also like parents in that both criticism and apathy can really hurt.  We preach for our audience of One, but that doesn’t give us infinitely thick skin.

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?

Lessons From Mini-Biography – A.W.Tozer

Periodically I’m picking up 50 People Every Christian Should Know by Warren Wiersbe.  It’s refreshing to get a mini-biography in six or seven pages.  I just read Alva McClain the other day – a man who served faithfully despite ill-health.  Today I’m enjoying the A.W. Tozer entry.  I love this bit:

Tozer walked with God and knew him intimately.  To listen to Tozer preach was as safe as opening the door of a blast furnace!

Tozer wrote with the intent that the reader would yearn to go and learn for themselves, putting down Tozer and picking up Bible.  I long for that as a primary response to my preaching.

Tozer is described as a Christian mystic – a term generally spurned, and usually misunderstood, these days.  However, definitions are everything.  What if being a mystic means what Wiersbe says it meant for Tozer?  Being aware of the spiritual world, seeking to please God, cultivating close relationship with God, and relating that experience to daily life.  What if that were the definition.  Is that true of us?  What if mysticism goes deeper, or is defined differently?  Whatever we do with the term mysticism, we must face this question: is our Christian experience a set of definitions, a list of orthodox doctrines, or a living relationship with God?

Doctrine, devotion, intimacy with God and spiritual service.  Not bad nudges from six brief pages of mini-biography!

The Tone of the Shepherd

One of the central roles of a church leader is to protect the flock from false teaching.  It is a responsibility to take seriously.  However, without very deliberate thought it is easy to fall into one of two extremes.

Extreme 1 – Just Really Nice Shepherd. Your desire to be liked drives you to avoid any controversy and confrontation, leaving your preaching as a parade of niceness.  I’ve heard plenty of this in my time.  It is the kind of preaching that seems to skirt any issue that might offend.  The desire is unity at all costs.  I sense that where this kind of preaching prevails, it reflects a situation where Evangelical Christians are perceived to be irrelevant, unaware and standing for nothing.  Let us not set that tone from the pulpit.

Extreme 2 – Angry Bashing Shepherd. Your desire to be right drives you to bash freely at every person, idea or stream of Christianity you disagree with.  I remember sitting through a very painful retreat where the famous speaker seemed to take every opportunity to have a go at top Christian evangelists and ministry leaders.  It was unhelpful for the immature believers confused by it all and would have been offensive to any unbelievers present.  We must be aware of how we are perceived.  Non-christians see us as very angry people who just can’t get along with each other.  Let us not reinforce that from the pulpit.

Why do we fall into one extreme or the other?  I think our personality will influence it.  I think our culture will influence it (in my experience I see the English church often falling into the former extreme, whereas the North American church often tends toward the latter extreme – obviously there are exceptions in both cultures).  I think fear drives both extremes – fear of any confrontation or discord on the one hand, and fear of not having all the answers in our personal theology and philosophy of ministry on the other.  I think a lack of thought leaves us at one extreme or the other.

As preachers we must think carefully about our role as shepherds.  Sheep want neither a nice shepherd too polite to offend the prowling mountain lion, nor an angry shepherd lashing out at every bush, shepherd or other sheep that crosses their path.

Feeling Down in the Ministry

Non-preachers often don’t realize the roller-coaster of ministry.  Due to the exacting nature of ministry – giving out, being buffeted spiritually, etc. – we are all prone to repeated discouragement.  Today as you press on through another Sunday, take stock of the realities of ministry:

Discouragements are par for the course.  A preacher facing discouragement is normal.  One who claims to never get discouraged is a cause for concern.  Remember that if you’re feeling down today, or tomorrow, so are hundreds, maybe thousands of other preachers around the globe.  You are not alone.

God has gifted, prepared and used you.  Look back and spiritually reminisce over those times when God’s gifts have been clear.  Remember the blessing of training received, both formally and informally.  Thank God for the example of past mentors, prayer partners, etc.  Review your file of encouraging notes and emails.

Remember the standard.  It is tempting to try to, or to feel pressured to, live up to the standards of someone else.  Perhaps the previous pastor, or a famous preacher, or a personal ministry hero of yours.  God wants each of us to trust Him and give the best that we can.  Let others inspire, but not pressure.

Remember who to please.  It is not possible to keep everyone happy all the time.  You may preach sensitively and yet tread on toes nonetheless.  We are not called to a ministry of plate spinning where each plate is the emotional happiness of each person around us.  We are called to live a life of radical love for the Lord, where our desire is to please Him in what we do and why we do it.

What else would you add for the sake of fellow preachers who may be feeling discouraged today?

The Wonder of Christmas

One of the great occupational hazards of ministry is that we can so easily lose the wonder of what we are dealing with.  With the demands of the schedule, the expectations of people, the burden of creativity in a season that comes every twelfth month (but is only fully reported in two gospels), the ongoing reality of messy lives (people still get in trouble, marriages still fail, loneliness still bites, folks still sin), and so on, we can easily lose the wonder of Christmas.

In this post I don’t want to prescribe how to keep the wonder of it all, I just want to suggest we do.  Whatever it takes.  Perhaps time with family.  Perhaps some extra guarded time alone with God.  Perhaps a special treat carol concert. Perhaps a brief journey to a sentimental place.  Perhaps read one of those booklets the church is offering to visitors over Christmas.  Whatever it takes.

Let us make sure that we don’t go through Christmas feeling the pressure and the burden of it all, without also renewing the wonder in our hearts.  Let us be captured by the grace of God that He would step into this world.  Let us be gripped by the hope inherent in the Christmas story for a world of sinners – for Christ came into the world to save sinners!  Let us be stirred afresh by the history-changing event of the incarnation.  Ponder the first Christmas, ponder the reality of the incarnation, ponder the journey from Bethlehem to Calvary, ponder the everlasting nature of the incarnation.  Ponder.  Ignite the wonder again.  Whatever it takes.