5 Aspects of Feeding the Flock

One of the main responsibilities of the shepherds of a local church is to feed the flock.  What does this involve?

1. A biblical diet, not a provision of pastoral personality – Some pulpits have degenerated into a weekly opportunity for the flock to enjoy the pastor’s eloquence or humour.  He may be a godly man, an inspiring man, a kind man, or whatever, but his job is to point the flock to the Word of God, not his own brand of pious oratory.

2. A consistent diet, not a sporadic scattering of random teaching – Some churches receive an incredibly inconsistent diet – some from the same preacher who shifts and changes with the wind, others from multiple speakers who visit to preach but can never lead.  It is good for a preacher to include variety and to keep learning.  It is good for guest speakers to be used judiciously by a church leadership.  But if the net effect of either approach is an inconsistent diet, then the flock will not be properly fed (and the flock will also not trust the church to be a safe place for bringing guests – an important side effect of inconsistency!)

3. A cumulative diet, not a hodge-podge of unordered repetition – Some churches get to digest a diet that has no cumulative structure.  That is, each Sunday the pastor or varied speakers offer whatever they feel led to bring on that Sunday.  Again, there is place for space in the schedule – buffer weeks to allow for teaching that was unplanned months before but is on target in the moment.  However, when churches lean too much into this approach what they end up getting is not a balanced diet, but an overload of certain favourite subjects and passages.  Repetition can become the name of the game.

4. A healthy diet, not a toxic overload of fast food entertainment – Listeners love to have itching ears scratched with entertainment, experience and surface level applicational teaching.  The shepherds of a church need to recognize that the sheep may not know what is best for their diet.  Too much sugar will poison a person, and too little healthy teaching will do profound damage to a church.

5. A Christ-focused diet, not a pseudo-Christian selection of self-help nibbles – Building on the previous point, people love to nibble on self-help top-tips wrapped in Bible stories and garnished with proof texts.  However, if the preacher is pointing listeners to themselves, to their efforts, to their application, to their discipline, then that preacher is not primarily pointing people to Christ.  The preaching may feel very churchy, but is it actually Christian?

Feeding the flock is an important responsibility.  Let’s look at our own preaching, as well as the preaching plan for our churches.  Let’s prayerfully consider whether we are offering health to our listeners.  Like a good parent you won’t be able to serve up a feast at every meal, but you will look to offer health at every opportunity.

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Preaching Myths – Part 3

The whole idea of a “good sermon” is a tricky one.  While some feel it is inappropriate to evaluate, others base that evaluation purely on positive fruit.  Here is another evaluation myth:

3. If a sermon is really good then listeners will not be offended

This is not so much the presence of positive fruit, but the absence of apparently negative fruit.  There are many conflict avoiders amongst us.  Probably most of us would rather not see people upset or offended in the church – it certainly makes ministry easier when everyone is smiling.  But we need to probe the premise here: is a sermon really failing if some get offended by it?

By that measure, Jesus’ ministry was incredibly ineffective.  Jesus knew what was going on inside people and therefore seemed very willing to offend by what he said and what he did.  We certainly do not have perfect insight into human hearts, but it would be utterly naïve to assume that everyone is in some sort of happy neutral state.  Good preaching should disturb the comfortable and not just comfort the disturbed.  There are people in our churches who should be profoundly bothered by the gospel.

But there are some important caveats to make explicit here:

A. Make sure that people are offended by the right things.  If people find the grace of God scandalous, or the glory of the gospel, or character of God, or the depth of their need, then it is probably a good offense.  But if people are being wound up by your personal ministry soapbox issues or legalistic preferences, if people are being upset by the promotion of a certain Christian sub-culture, then I would argue that the offense is not life-giving.

B. Make sure that people are offended by the right person.  If people find your tone objectionable, or your manner distasteful, or your character un-Christ-like, then they are being offended by the wrong person.  Good preaching will offend some, and they may well pin the blame on the preacher, but at the heart of the offense is the Holy Spirit’s work of conviction and shining a light into their hearts.  They may lash out at you, but the bothering is being done by God.  It is so hard to evaluate this as we have a seemingly infinite capacity to self-protect and justify what we do.  Ask God, and ask trusted others, and make sure that your ministry has a graciousness and gentleness befitting a spokesman for Christ (as well as the courage and boldness to speak the truth that His spokesperson should demonstrate too).

C. Make sure that offense is a text-response. If people are angry at your illustrations, your anecdotes, your explanations and your applications, then there may be an issue.  Ideally, the offense should be caused by the biblical text itself rather than your departure from it.

A positive-response-only expectation is not realistic for true biblical preaching.  We should be seeing some apparently negative-responses, but we need God’s help to make sure that what provokes these responses is life-giving biblical preaching rather than our personal rudeness, pastoral insensitivity, or whatever else we can manage as a misfire from the pulpit.

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.

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!

Biggest Mistakes Preachers Make – pt 3

Slip2In this series we aren’t looking to tweak at the fringes of preaching, but rather to get a big wrench to the major parts of the ministry.  We’ve thought about “harvesting imperatives” and “not preaching the passage.”  Here’s another:

Mistake 3 – Not Preaching to the People Present

Preaching is a pastoral role.  We are not being called to perform, but to shepherd.  We can, and must, do the role of a shepherd as we preach.  A shepherd feeds, leads, cares and protects his sheep.  In order to pastor through preaching, we need to know and love the people we are preaching to each Sunday.

Obviously if you are visiting a church, or speaking at a special event, then you may only have half an hour to get to know the specific group of people present.  Do what you can.  It is also important to know people in general, so that you can preach to people in particular, but always seek to preach to those who are present.

Here are some alternative listener profiles to root out of our preaching.

Don’t preach to people who are missing.  Some preachers seem to have allowed the richness of the gospel to evaporate into a duty of church attendance. These preachers are then liable to preach frustration toward those who “should” be present, but aren’t.

Don’t preach to an audience your favourite preacher attracts.  You might have a favourite preacher who preaches to a cool crowd in some other city in America or somewhere, but if your listeners are from rural Somerset, they aren’t a “Seattle” crowd.

Don’t preach to a culture that isn’t in your church.  The culture may be increasingly postmodern, but lots of church congregations aren’t.  Don’t seek to overcome issues that your listeners aren’t facing in any meaningful way.

Don’t preach to land another job.  I hate to say it, but there are some preachers who are preaching so that their sermon is attractive to a “better” church they’d like to get a call from.  Be faithful to your congregation and God will help you adapt if you need to move church for some reason.

Don’t preach to spar with foes.  It is very possible to preach targeted comments toward people acting likes foes in your congregation, so technically they are present, but still this isn’t wise.  But don’t waste energy preaching to foes not present.  Having a go at a high profile atheist doesn’t achieve much.  By all means equip your listeners to handle what they are hearing in the media, but that would mean preaching to them.  Taking pot shots at people not present isn’t impressive.

Get to know and pray for the people you are preaching to each Sunday. Then your preaching can pastor their souls. If you don’t care about them, don’t preach to them.

 

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?

But They Know Actual People

It seems inevitable that a biblical ministry that brings the message of the Bible to people in this world will frequently have to engage with sin.  If you have figured out how to preach only positive messages, then you probably should preach from more than the first couple and last couple of chapters!  So as we preach we address sin.  Here’s my one point for this post, although much more could be said on numerous levels, of course: sometimes we can make reference to certain sins in the abstract, but f0r some listeners these things are not abstract.  We may speak about the sin, but they know actual people who engage in that sin.

For example, it is easy to zoom in on the sin of a certain addiction or behaviour.  From your perspective what you say is fine.  You are looking out at a broken world and speaking about it, hopefully using biblical support for what you say.  But some of the people listening aren’t working in the abstract.  They are wrestling with the issue themselves.  Or they have a friend or relative who is caught up in it.  They know the back story.  They don’t want to excuse the sin, but they feel for the person entangled in it.

What to do?  One approach would be to tread softly around all issues, never get specific, always speak happy thoughts in abstract and vague ways.  Doesn’t sound like the best approach when you’re reading the Bible and seeing God’s spokesmen in action, does it?  Perhaps the better approach is to address whatever issue and instead of saying less, say slightly more.  Sometimes just including an acknowledgment of listeners’ feelings and the complexity of sin makes all the difference.  For example, avoiding the obvious ones so we don’t get distracted from the point of the post, perhaps you are addressing the sin of eating peanuts (and have biblical support for your position!)  You might have said some things already about the prevalence of this addiction, but then maybe you include something like this:

“Perhaps you know someone who struggles with this.  You know what the Bible says, but you also know them and you care about them.  You know what they’ve gone through in recent years, or how they were hurt by that failed relationship, or the scar left by their absent father.  This is not some sort of abstract issue for you because as soon as it is mentioned you see their face.  I understand that.  We live in a broken and hurting world filled with real people with real stories.  Sin is real and it hurts.”

Then you continue with your point.  If the transition to this content and from this content is smooth, it won’t jar, but it will keep listeners with you as you touch on a subject that hits a nerve. Sin is always viewed differently when it touches close to home.  When you preach to a decent sized and diverse congregation, sin issues are always touching close to home for someone.  Be sensitive to them.  Win an audience for the Word.

What Should You Be Delegating?

In calling for pastors and preachers to take up their apologetic mantle as theologians for the church, Loscalzo makes a passing comment that I agree with wholeheartedly.  Let me quote first, comment second.

Whether by intentional design or by default we pastors have relegated our task of being a theologian to some unknown entity while we spend our energy on matters that someone else in the church could better handle.  In other words, too many pastors spend their time organizing vacation Bible school while neglecting Karl Barth [ed. insert your theologians of choice here].  Too many ministers aspire to be better managers of church programs.  Many pastors have their hands in every administrative pot in the church.  Every committee action must have their stamp of approval.  These pastors micromanage everything from the church’s budget to Wednesday night suppers to the selection of wallpaper for the nursery.  No wonder churches languish from theological malnutrition.  The one charged with feeding them persists in obsessing over matters that they could delegate to abler hands.

What is true in terms of theological reading, reflection and output is equally and overlappingly true of Bible study, reflection and output.  I remember one pastor I was influenced by encouraging me to always break what I do into four categories, and then delegate one of them.  Probably sound advice.  What do you do?  Whether or not you’re a pastor, or in full-time ministry, or in secular employment . . .  considering the work you do in the church, what do you do?  Four categories?  Which one can go?  What can and should you delegate?  Squeezing bible, theology, apologetics, etc., is too great a price to pay to keep your finger in all those pies.