Hacks (1 Thessalonians – part 4)

1 Thessalonians is like a training manual for a young church.  So far, we have thought about the impact of the gospel, giving ourselves to build up the body of Christ and praying for each other to thrive spiritually.  Chapter 4 is like a catalogue of Christian truth-hacks – things that will help people to thrive in a challenging world.  As pastors and preachers, we need to know these truths and share them with our churches:

1.  They can know God’s will.  Bruce Waltke made a fascinating point in his book about guidance.  He says that divine guidance is often treated as a bit of a conundrum.  However, he points out that in the ancient world, pagan religions were obsessed with finding some sort of guidance from the higher realm.  They would diligently study the ashes, entrails, or whatever other indication they could find in order to get a hint from beyond this world.  Sometimes Christians act like we are in an ancient superstitious religion trying to make something out of nothing.  In reality, we have an entire collection of books inspired by God.  In some churches the Bible is subtly (or not so subtly) pushed aside in favour of some kind of speculative new revelation and guidance from God.  People engage in a game of celestial hide and seek with a God who is never easy to pin down.  And yet, we have the Bible.  Properly read, it will not tell you which specific college to attend or person to marry.  But it will tell you the kind of wisdom needed to make such decisions.  It will reveal God’s values so that as you know him more and more, you can better reflect his values in the decisions you make.  And in chapter 4 of 1 Thessalonians, it does underline something that should be self-evident if you have spent time in God’s Word – his will for you is your sanctification.  You do not have to wrestle with whether or not God wants you to succeed in your sinful scheme.  He does not.  And if your goal is to please Him, then you already have the Spirit of God, so live holy.

2.  They can know a human shortcut for decision-making.  There is always complexity in making decisions, but sometimes the Bible gives us some simplicity too.  For the Thessalonians, they were loving one another, and they simply needed urging to do so more and more (see 1Thess.4:9-12).  It is a bit like Colossians 3:12-14, where Paul gives a list of instructions and then says, “above all these, put on love, which binds them together in perfect harmony.”  They should live in such a way that they are not making an unnecessary show of themselves, or being an unnecessary burden on others, or giving an unhelpful testimony to outsiders.  Do the loving thing.  I know there is complexity in that, but let’s be thankful for the simplicity too!

3.  They can know encouragement in the face of death.  This young church was introduced to the hope of Christ’s return during Paul’s brief visit to their town.  Bizarrely, we live in a time when secular reporters and political leaders might use the language of “disasters on a biblical scale,” “Armageddon,” “apocalyptic,” etc.. Yet, the church can be eerily quiet on our subject of eschatology.  The Thessalonians were not concerned with sinister global plots.  They were concerned because some of their fellow believers had died.  When death hits a congregation, the focus is understandably localised.  Did those who had died miss out on Christ’s return?  Paul wrote to encourage them, and to encourage them to encourage one another.  That’s what a biblical understanding of the end times will do for a church – it will stir hope and a heavenward, Christ-ward gaze.  Death is brimming with the pain of separation.  But we have a hope that answers that pain.  Those who have died will be brought “together with” Jesus when he comes (v14).  When Christ calls, we will be caught up “together with them” in the clouds.  Together, our forever state will be “together with the Lord” (v17).  Death, for believers, stirs anticipation of being together!  As death becomes a more prominent feature of your congregation’s experience in the coming years, let’s encourage one another with these words (v18).

Prepared (1 Thessalonians – part 3)

The letter of 1 Thessalonians is like a little manual for ministry. Chapter 1 presents the reverberating impact of the Gospel. Chapter 2 lays bare the motives and manner of Paul’s ministry in the city. Now let’s look at chapter 3.

1. Young believers need to be prepared for suffering. Paul understood their context. They were in a city and a society that would react antagonistically to their newfound faith. So Paul had prepared them for suffering, and as time passed, Paul knew that they needed to be supported in their struggle. He knew the enemy would be on the attack against these new believers. Maybe we need 3:1-5 to direct our path more in our ministry? Do we understand our context? Our believers are in a culture that is increasingly antagonistic to their faith. The enemy is very much prowling around today seeking to pick off vulnerable believers. As much as ever, and perhaps more than ever, we need to prepare believers for suffering. There is the immediate and usually subtle antagonism of our time. And surely we can’t be so naive as to think that our cultures can undergo such radical shifts as we have seen in recent years, and yet remain essentially unchanged in the coming years? Are our people prepared for living in a society that may bear more resemblance to countries we used to pray for than the countries we used to live in?

2. Don’t just let vulnerable believers drift. Paul’s team adjusted to offer support to the Thessalonian believers. Timothy was sent back and returned with an encouraging report. Let Paul’s statement bounce around your heart for a moment, “For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord.” (3:8) For now we live . . . I wonder how often I hold back from this kind of concern for the sheep under my care? It is true that life change is God’s business and I can’t force it; and it is true that sometimes people need to drift in order to become sensitized to their need for Jesus; and it is true that with limited ministerial resources we will inevitably prioritize the sheep that are leaning in to be fed and cared for, etc. However, with all the practical wisdom of real-life ministry acknowledged, let us never grow calloused and comfortable with people drifting away from Christ.

3. Is there a more important ministry than prayer? Remember Acts 6:4 – the apostles didn’t want to get dragged into serving tables (which included negotiating inter-racial tensions within the new church: a significant and important role!) But what did they not want to be dragged away from? The ministry of the Word and prayer. And prayer! Is there a more important ministry than prayer? For many in ministry, it can appear that the priorities are preaching and leadership. Or preaching and organisation. Or preaching and publishing. May we all gain a secret reputation before God for the priority of prayer in our ministry. And somehow, let’s also encourage our whole church to be prayerful. Look at the Paul-team and how they prayed in 3:10-13. “Most earnestly night and day” and, “may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all,” and “that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God…” Earnest prayer for growing love and established holiness. What believer would not want to be the beneficiary of that kind of concern?

What would you add from chapter 3?

Legacy (1 Thessalonians – part 2)

Paul’s brief visit to Thessalonica and his follow-up letter makes for a goldmine of ministry insight for preachers. Last time I thought about the reverberating impact of the Gospel in chapter 1. Let’s look at chapter 2 and get a glimpse into the ministry dynamics of Paul and his team. There are some vivid lessons here for us:

1. Ministry motivation matters massively. They pushed through suffering in order to declare the gospel, selflessly seeking the best outcome for the people and to please God. I am sure we would all aspire to that in our settings too. But there are a host of alternative motives listed. Error, impurity, attempting to deceive, trying to please people, with flattery, greedy, glory-seeking, self-elevating…what a list that is in 2:1-6. Why do I preach? Knowing my fleshly tendency to self-deceive, perhaps it is wise to take a list like this to God and ask him “to search me and try and see if there be any wicked way in me.” And it would probably be wise to bring one or two others into that conversation too. Any hints of impure motivation in your ministry? It would be better to face it, rather than allow something bad to become established.

2. Godly ministry is just like godly parenting. We’ve all seen parenting navigated as if it is a distraction from more important personal pursuits. You can provide a home, food, resources and a bit of guidance, all the while watching the calendar until they leave home and your life becomes freer for your own hobbies and interests. Many do parent that way, but it feels like an imitation of the real thing. The real thing involves a selfless love that literally gives yourself away for them to thrive. The real thing requires labour and toil, setting a consistent example, and being willing to exhort, encourage and charge these blessings from God. The heart of a mother and a father are poured out in the ministry of parenting. So it is with godly church ministry too. Paul says so in 2:7-12. Paul, Silas and co were not insecure men competing to look tougher than each other. They were like a nursing mother in their giving to the new church, and they were like a father too. How is your church ministry in parenting terms? Is the congregation becoming a hindrance to your personal goals? Are you just throwing some food in front of them and hoping they will entertain themselves in front of a screen so you can get on with your own pursuits? Or are they like children you love dearly?

3. Church ministry is an invitation to profound enrichment. Paul was only in Thessalonica for a short time, but consider how he continually longed to be with these people (see 2:17-20). They were his hope, joy, crown of boasting, and glory. The logic is fairly simple, but let’s ponder it anyway. The nature of God’s character should flow into our ministry, which will then characterise our connection with the church. You can guarantee the enemy will try to disrupt that, but the invitation remains in place. We can easily view Paul’s description as challenging – “I should work harder at ministry because I’m not sharing his sentiment for the younger believers God has given to me.” Instead, let’s view Paul’s description as an invitation – “I get to give myself away for these people, and in the process gain the kind of connection that many in the world around us would give their left arm to experience with anyone.”

4. Gospel ministry can really hurt, love anyway. Paul wrote these words to the church because he was separated and wanted to be there for them. He felt the pain of a parent’s heart when they are forced apart from their children. You don’t need me to tell you that getting hurt in ministry is not at all unusual. And it would be totally understandable to grow calloused in order to cope with that pain. Maybe even in Paul’s separation and longing we can be reminded that ministry does hurt, but we can love others anyway. In the end, we will get to our forever home where there will be no pain, no separation, no hurt, no sin, no church splits, no backstabbing, no misunderstanding, no failing bodies, etc. I am not saying we should choose to burn ourselves out, there is selflessness in genuine self-care too. But let’s not choose the calloused coping approach. For this brief moment, let’s keep our eyes on our suffering Saviour as we prayerfully press on.

1 Thessalonians chapter 2 is like a ministry training manual, what would you add?

Running on Fumes

When a car has very little fuel in the tank, we say it is running on fumes.  It is moving forward, but warning signs indicate the vehicle is in trouble.  It won’t go very far unless something changes.  And the something is simple – it needs fuel.

The same thing happens with Christians too.  They give the impression of keeping on spiritually, engaging with the church, and so on.  But there are warning signs, and they won’t go very far unless something changes.  Again, the something that needs to change is relatively simple – they need fuel. Simply being around Christians and using Christian language is not enough. Without a vital personal relationship with Christ, they are merely running on the fumes of Christianity.

Warning Signs – In a car, you have warning lights on the dashboard to alert you to an issue before it becomes a problem.  If you proceed far enough, the engine will start to sputter and make unusual noises.  What are the warning signs when a Christian is running on the fumes of Christianity?

  1. Loss of Joy – There are many reasons for a loss of joy, so do not assume that the spiritual tank is always empty when joy fades.  However, any warning light is a reason to investigate.  Indeed, when someone’s tank lacks the fuel needed, delight in the things of God and church life will only come in fits and starts.  The classic biblical example is Martha in Luke 10:38-42 – she was doing the right thing, but the joy was gone.
  2. Alternate Fuels – Is work or a hobby suddenly becoming more significant?  Are they starting to find motivation and purpose in something other than Christ in a way that was not true earlier in their Christian journey?  Alternative fuels are attractive because someone struggling will see the alternative as more readily accessible and the goals more attainable.
  3. Blaming the Church – It is very rare to hear someone drifting from church life and being honest, “Oh, I am staying away because I am not fuelling my soul, and so I feel awkward being around other Christians right now.”  It is much easier to talk about how the church does not meet their needs, and they don’t fit, the programs are not helpful, the other people don’t like them, etc.  Not every person being critical of the church is in a bad place personally, but many are.
  4. Verbal Paper Cuts – Sometimes it is not the full force explosions that hurt, but the subtle paper cuts.  Someone in a low place spiritually will often make little paper cuts with their words.  Little bits of gossip.  Little criticisms.  Little digs.  Maybe nothing significant enough to confront or challenge, but enough to leave you feeling that sting of an open wound when they walk away.
  5. Emotional Outbursts – Sometimes, things do come out in full force explosions.  And, like a cornered animal, someone feeling spiritually empty can lash out and attack rather than admit their need and open themselves up to help from others.

Emergency Measures – What do you do when someone is running on empty and about to run out of fuel and grind to a halt? 

  1. Re-Fuel – To be blunt, they need to be in the Word of God and allow Him to minister to them.  But they may struggle to feed themselves if they have let their tank get too low.  Perhaps a friend can help them get into the Word and start back into a healthy pattern. 
  2. Recognize the Emergency – How often do we pridefully persist on our path, ignoring all the warning signs?  Many a stranded motorist thought they could go a little farther before stopping for fuel.  Part of solving the problem will be humbly admitting the problem.  As long as pride continues to stir excuses and explanations, the fuel cap remains in place.  They must humbly acknowledge how they have allowed themselves to drift, how they have arrogantly felt they did not need to be in the Word personally, or how another sin has built a blockage between them and God.  Whether that is a giant skeleton in the closet or the “respectable” sin of personal pride, confession will be like a doorway to help for the struggling believer.
  3. Reach out for Help – These are in the reverse order.  We need to be fuelled again, but often that won’t happen until the nature of the problem is recognized, and often that is hard to achieve without first calling out for help from another.  If you see the warning signs in a friend, encourage them to face the reality of their situation.  If you are desperate, you could point them to this post and ask if it resonates with them because you are concerned.  If you see warning signs in yourself, then get a friend immediately.  We tend to think that a renewed effort in my quiet times, or perhaps some alternative, will fix the issue.  A thimble of fuel won’t get you too far.  Call a friend and walk through it with someone. 

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Check out a Psalm from this week for your encouragement:

Burnout Warning

I was asked by a friend why so many people are burning out these days.  Whether it is a moral fall, a mental breakdown, or a ministry burnout, the frequency seems to be increasing.  Why? 

I remember speaking with several friends some years ago.  They had all gone through a ministry burnout in the previous years.  Their circumstances were different, but they had some things in common.  One spoke of two particularly stressful issues in the church that hit at the same time.  He said that one would have been hard, but survivable, however, the two together created a perfect storm that took its toll on him.

I suspect that right now many are living with half a perfect storm already raging.  This means that many are susceptible to the impact of another stressor that, if faced alone, might not be so damaging.

Let’s imagine that Pastor A was recently bereaved, or had a child with cancer, or some other significant emotional weight that was taking its toll.  He might seem to be handling a difficult situation well, but any friends with sensitivity to his situation would want to protect him from a second heavy load hitting at the same time.  Now would not be a good time for him to also face new and persistent criticism in his ministry, false accusation, a crisis in the church leadership team, or whatever.  We certainly cannot control circumstances and often the second or even third weighty stress factor will combine.  And sometimes we watch men and women serving God who somehow, by God’s grace, are able to weather the worst of seasons without some form of burnout.  But many do not.

I think we should be realistic about contributing factors, sensitive to underlying stressors, and proactive in our care for one another.

Contributing factors – people involved in ministry may well be more susceptible to burnout.  Why?  Because there is a unique pressure not to be.  After all, if Person B is hit by a perfect storm of stressors, they might go to the doctor, get a prescription for something, and get signed off from work.  When they recover, they can go back to their job.  If they lose their job, there is usually another similar one out there for them.  But for Pastor A, there are some unique pressures of ministry – the person in ministry is expected to have unique access to God’s sustaining power, plus they don’t want to let others down (often because they love the people they are serving), they feel they are not supposed to resort to medication, also that the church will suffer if they stop doing their job for a season because the church is not prepared for a sudden “sabbatical,” and if they do burnout there may be no way back into the vocation to which they have given their life – and then how can they provide for their family?  Plenty of people in ministry carry stresses in life that we humans are not created to carry alone.

Underlying stressors – some stresses are more obvious.  When a church is filled with division and tensions, that can be obvious.  When a family member is suffering from a serious illness, people tend to be aware of that.  When an ageing parent has had to move into the family home or a difficult season is entered with a teenage child, or the person is diagnosed with a serious health condition, etc., then others tend to know.  Some stressors are more obvious and the person carrying that load might receive some extra support and help (although I am amazed how often churches expect ministry folks to just carry the extra load and press on!)

But there are also underlying stressors that tend to be less obvious.  Some have always been in the ministry mix: financial anxiety (who cares enough to ask the questions, because the person in ministry will tend to feel unable to raise it), marital tension (again, those in ministry can fear opening up about struggles because of multiplied consequences), private sin struggles (same again), ministry team tensions, chronic health concerns, parenting challenges, etc.  Any one of these can weigh on the soul of the minister and become half of a perfect storm, just waiting for another stressor to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, as it were.

And currently, there are new underlying stressors that we cannot ignore.  In the last five years or so, we are experiencing a hyper-fast change in our culture, as well as two years of Covid-19, of course.  Many are living with an ongoing, underlying weight of stress.  There is anxiety from a culture that no longer needs to wait for a mistake to pounce – the preacher is already on record over many years for believing things now considered “hate speech” that can lead to being cancelled retroactively.  There may be anger at the injustice of the new morality that is taking over society (academia, the media, social media, etc.) – a new morality that determines what can and cannot be believed, spoken and shared.  The loss of free speech and the death of healthy debate weighs heavily on some: if you disagree, then there are many ready to label you with the worst labels and who might also seek to eliminate your opportunity to express your opinion.  And when people in our own churches are trained to act in this destructive manner, more and more people will be carrying growing anxiety and/or anger within.

Covid-19 has been ongoing stress for those in ministry.  There was initial uncertainty about the virus. Then there was the government interference in church world that most of us have never experienced before.  Where we can work, what we must wear, whether we can gather to worship, if we can sing, even when we can walk outside and workout, what medical procedure we must receive, who we can welcome into our homes, etc – these are unprecedented measures.  We have had to adapt continually in ministry: going online, in person with restrictions, changing rules, etc. while trying to lead congregations that might hold very different views on what is happening, and what should be happening.  Many have lived in fear of the virus, others in fear of the government response, and far too often, in fear of each other. 

As we move forward we are now in a different and divided world.  Many in ministry are living with some combination of underlying anxiety and anger (at the injustices that are either flagged or suppressed, the lack of transparency over pandemic decision-making, the apparent disintegration of civil liberties in western countries, etc.)  We will be ministering in a context that is becoming increasingly antagonistic to the Christian faith, with increasing controls on information, communication, thought, etc.  Then there are new chronic illnesses that we are told have always been there.  And just to add to the stress – lots of people are ready to dismiss any concerns because they are reliably informed by the media that everything is normal, and every fear is irrational (apart from the officially sanctioned fears, of course). 

Be Proactive – What should we do to help prevent the rising levels of burnout, breakdown, and flame out in ministry (and other spheres too)?  This post is already far too long, so perhaps I will just say this: be proactive.  If you suspect your pastor is carrying underlying anxiety, tension, or even anger, then be proactive.  Pray for them, but also talk to them.  Make sure they are not carrying burdens alone.  They tend to be ever ready to draw alongside others in the challenges of life.  Make sure someone draws alongside them too. 

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Haddon Robinson’s Definition of Expository Preaching

I still look back with huge gratitude at the opportunity to have studied with Haddon Robinson in the mid 2000’s. Here is his oft-quoted definition:

“Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies to the hearers.”

Importance of the “concept” – the central role of the “big idea” is vital to coherent preaching.  Preaching is not the conveying of random details held together by their proximity in a biblical text.  It is easy to let a Bible text nudge you into your favourite theological themes, your anecdotes of choice, or even other disconnected biblical truths. This definition urges the preacher to study the passage in order to determine the big idea of the passage. What, specifically, is this passage saying?

Importance of the study method – among the expository definitions that I’ve read over the years, I think this one is unique in including a definition of the hermeneutical approach advocated.  In order to get to the biblical concept in a passage, the preacher is to use a historical, grammatical, literary study of the passage in context. What, accurately, is this passage saying?

Importance of the transmission – many people miss the two words “transmitted through” that come before the hermeneutical element.  Not only should a preacher use good hermeneutics in the study, but they should exemplify good hermeneutics in the presentation. After all, the preacher is modelling Bible handling before a crowd who will pick up habits from what they observe. How will they read their Bibles after listening to you preach?

Importance of the Holy Spirit – again, many definitions of preaching seem to omit any reference to the Holy Spirit.  This one recognizes the role of the Spirit in applying the biblical concept in the life of the preacher, then through the preacher in the listeners too. Apart from Him, we can do nothing.

Great Work

In Luke 5, we see Jesus gathering his disciples.  He has already been doing impressive ministry before this point in the Gospel, but this is where we start to see the familiar faces being gathered into his inner circle.  When we look at two brief incidents, we can find real encouragement for today.  This is especially true if you don’t feel particularly impressive as a follower of Jesus.  (And if you do feel impressive, it would probably be good to pray about that!)

In the first verses of the chapter, we see Jesus call Simon Peter to follow him.  Jesus was teaching a crowd and ended up using Simon’s boat as a platform for his message.  Then he asked Simon to head back out to sea and to cast his nets again.  Simon and his friends had just worked all night and caught nothing.  That was not normal (if it were, they would have found alternative employment).   Now Jesus wanted the nets in the water in the middle of the day. Again, this was not a typical request, because everyone knew that fish go deeper when the sun is shining.  However, they did as Jesus asked, and soon their nets were so full they began to break – unusual.  Even their purpose-built fishing boats started to sink – very strange.

We all experience days interrupted by unusual or abnormal events.  It is not normal to have a flat tire on your car, but it does happen.  It is not normal to experience unusual weather, but we have a category for it.  However, this was different for Simon Peter.  This was not the typical kind of unusual event.  This was the kind of combination of strange things that suddenly sent a chill down his spine and caused the hairs to stand up on his neck.

Something bigger was happening, and Simon Peter sensed it.  This is what happens when you suddenly recognize that God is not just out there somewhere, aware of everything.  This is what happens when you realize that God is right here and he is looking specifically at you.

Simon Peter suddenly felt completely undone by Jesus’ presence, the weight of his sin overwhelming him.  “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”

Jesus knew that he was calling a sinner to be his disciple.  Jesus called that sinner to a greater work.  From now on, he would catch people instead of fish.  Simon Peter and his colleagues left their old life behind and followed Jesus to a new life.  Two thousand years later, we are still naming churches and places after them: from St Peter’s Basilica in Rome to St Andrew’s Church in Chippenham, from St James’ football stadium in Newcastle to St John’s in Newfoundland.  How many little boys have been named Peter, Andrew, James and John in the years since?   What an impressive legacy, especially when we remember that they were just sinful fishermen.

Jesus knows that the people he calls are great sinners.  And he still calls us to a greater work.

But then there is another incident later in the chapter.  Have a look at Luke 5:27-28:

27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.

There is no miracle story to set up this call, just a simple instruction.  And Levi left it all and followed Jesus.  But Luke tells us a little bit more – see verses 29-32:

29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

Notice how Pharisees and scribes are in the scene, adding tension to the meal?  Their complaint was simple: Jesus’ disciples should not eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners.  This little group was not living up to their sinless standards.  Take note of Jesus’ response.  Jesus knew full well that he was dealing with sinners and that they needed healing.  These were works in progress. 

To put it simply, in the first story, we see Jesus calling sinners to a greater work.  In the second story, we see that Jesus knows those he calls need his great work. 

What an encouragement for us!  Before we are anything else in the church world, we are disciples of Jesus.  Whatever ministry we may be involved in, whatever position we may hold, we are disciples of Jesus.  And he knows that we are sinful and broken people.  He knows that when he calls us.  He has a far greater work for us to do.  And he knows that he will need to do great work in us. 

7 Good Thoughts, 1 Ultimate Thought

Effective preaching should stir lots of thoughts. But it is important to distinguish good thoughts from ultimate thoughts. Any of these good thoughts become a problem when they linger as the ultimate thought from a sermon:

1. Thoughts About Self (Application). When we preach the Bible, we should preach with relevance to life that manifests in application. The problem comes when listeners are left thinking about themselves as the ultimate thought of the sermon. I should try harder to . . . I must change in regards to . . . I need more discipline in my life . . . etc. Be applicational, but don’t make application the ultimate goal so that listeners go away thinking about themselves.

2. Thoughts About the Text (Education/Fascination). When we preach the Bible, we should enthusiastically invite people into the world of the text. Good preaching will stir good thoughts about the meaning of the text. People will learn, and they may find that the biblical text is genuinely fascinating. The problem comes when listeners are left thinking about their fascinating new insights into the text as the ultimate thought of the sermon. Educate, fascinate, enthuse people for the Word of God, but don’t make this instruction the ultimate goal so that listeners go away thinking about the text as an end in itself.

3. Thoughts About Gratitude for Sermon (Appreciation). When we preach the Bible, we might inadvertently stir appreciation for our ministry. Good preaching should stir good thoughts of gratitude. The problem comes when listeners are left thinking about how much they appreciate the preacher as the ultimate thought of the sermon. By all means, be thankful for expressed gratitude; it is a real encouragement that we all need. Never let that become the ultimate goal.

4. Thoughts About Preacher – Positive (Admiration).  The last one can easily morph into this one. When we preach the Bible, we might accidentally or deliberately impress our listeners so that their thoughts are those of admiration. It could be our knowledge of Scripture, our ability to communicate, our sense of humour, our picture-perfect family life, etc. I hope it is obvious what the problem is here: some may be true, some may be a half-truth, some may be fake veneer – the concerns are mounting. You cannot always avoid a bit of admiration, attraction or affect in your preaching. You are standing up before a crowd and speaking, which is already something some of your listeners greatly fear. Of course, they may be impressed. But ask the Lord to search your heart and flag any deliberate impulses to impress. You don’t want to be the ultimate thought from your sermon.

5. Thoughts About Preacher – Negative (Aggravation).  You also don’t want to be the ultimate thought from your sermon because of negative reasons. Good preaching may convict and stir an adverse reaction to you as the messenger. That happens and maybe God’s plan. But the problem comes when listeners are left thinking about how much the preacher aggravates them because of tangible pride (see #4), annoying delivery habits, unhelpful content, antagonistic tone, etc.

6. Thoughts About Illustration (Illumination). When we are preaching, we will sometimes use illustrative material to help explain, support or apply what we are saying. Sometimes an illustration will capture the imagination of your listeners and achieve your goal in using that illustration perfectly. This is good. But it is not good when an illustration is so overwhelming that it becomes the ultimate thought. Don’t leave listeners thinking about that movie, that scientific anecdote, that witty response, or that poor little boy at the sports event.

7. Thoughts About the World (Consternation).  When we preach, we do not simply offer biblical truth. We provide biblical truth that speaks into the realities of our current context. In the process, we will need to help people see what is going on in our hearts, our community, our culture, our media, etc. As uncomfortable as it may seem, the pulpit does have a role to play in speaking truth into the bubble of contemporary cultural narratives. It is good to help people think, discern, and even react to injustice and corruption in our world. But it is not good when our cultural commentary becomes the ultimate thought in our listeners.

The bottom line is relatively simple, but it bears stating and pondering for us all. It is good to preach in such a way that people feel the force of the text in their daily lives, grow in their appreciation of the beauty of God’s revelation, feel thankful for good preaching, look up to a Christlike example, feel discomforted appropriately, gain insight through a powerful illustration and grow in their awareness of the state of society. These are all good thoughts. But these should not be ultimate thoughts. 

The ultimate thought that we want our listeners to linger longer in the hearts and minds of our listeners is simple: it is Him. May we preach so that our listeners walk away pondering the character, the heart, the goodness, the grace of God. Preach that they would see Jesus.

The “Sweetest Agony” of Ministry

Somebody has said that preaching is the sweetest agony.  It is sweet when lives are changed.  And it is agony the rest of the time! 

That is probably unfair, but whatever ministry we are involved in, it is good to pause and reflect on the sweeter parts of it.  After all, there is plenty to find discouraging!

There is nothing as rewarding as seeing lives changed.  Sometimes you preach a message or have a conversation and a life is changed completely.  More often, change occurs over a longer time frame.  It can be hard to measure when change occurs.  But occasionally, people may write a note that specifically lists the impact of your ministry. 

Since there is always a long list of reasons to become discouraged in ministry, it is a good idea to keep a log of some of these encouragements.  Keep a collection of those notes and let them sit there, ready for a day when you really need to be reminded of the sweeter aspects of ministry.  Keep an email folder of encouragements that you can go back to when the inbox is overwhelming and discouraging.

With all that is going on, and all the reasons for discouragement, why not take a moment to look back and list some of the lives that you have seen changed by the grace of God?  If you have some encouraging notes already collected, why not read a few and give God thanks for how he has worked in the lives of those you serve?

There is nothing as rewarding as seeing lives changed, but there is one other person to remember.  If the sweetness of ministry is changed lives, then don’t forget the one life that hears every sermon you preach, every conversation you participate in, etc.  By this, I mean you. 

Every time you prepare a sermon, you are involved.  Every time you plan a workshop, prepare a talk, anticipate a conversation, or schedule a one-on-one meeting, you are part of it.  This means that you get to go through the times of prayer, the low points, the spiritual highs, the wrestling with the biblical text, the struggle to figure out how to lead a session, the grappling with formulating your main idea, the prayerful decisions to omit material, and the practice runs of a sermon or speech with only you and the Lord listening.  You are there.

Much of ministry can feel like the agony of labour, striving to work through all that it takes to eventually bring to fruition something helpful for others.  It can seem like thankless toil.  People don’t understand the time you invest, nor the stress you often carry.  But let’s remember the good times too.  The times of sweet fellowship with the Lord.  Those moments where your desperate prayers give way to clarity on a way forward.  The times when study leads to deeper understanding of a text and greater worship in your heart.  These are times of blessing and encouragement in ministry.  Sweet times. 

Let’s find ways to mark these moments.  Maybe write a thank-you note to God and put it in your files.  Maybe a journal entry, highlighted to help you find it again.  Perhaps you have a collection of visual “memorial stones” on a shelf – markers of moments to help your memory.  You need some way to remind yourself of the sweetness of ministry: how good it has been, how good it can be, and how good it will be again.

Most ministries that are worth doing entail a whole lot of agony.  But there is a sweetness in serving God and his mission in this world.  There is a sweetness in the blessing that we receive as well as the blessing we offer to others.  And when ministry feels overwhelming and difficult, we need a way to remind ourselves of the sweeter parts of ministry, of the lives changed and blessed, including ours.

This year has started with all sorts of complexities and does not promise to be easy for any of us.  But God has promised to be with us through it all.  Let’s find ways to not let ministry drain play a decisive role in our life stories.  Yes, there will be agony in what we do, but let’s be sure we don’t miss the sweet moments too!

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?