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?

Pride and the Preacher

One of the greatest problems for preachers is pride.  It is an insidious and relentless foe that will look to creep in at every stage of a life spent in ministry.  What might we be proud about?

1. Knowledge.  The preacher is a public speaker who is seen as an expert.  Whether you have a PhD in theology or have simply studied a couple of resources, your listeners will tend to perceive you as an expert.  And while knowledge is not a bad thing, what does knowledge do?  It puffs up.

2. Ability.  Whether it is spiritual gifting, or natural charisma, or learned skill, preaching involves some ability in public speaking – something many people dread deeply.  Thus, there will be countless opportunities for pride as we speak to others.

3. Position.  It may be elevation on a 12-inch podium before less than a dozen listeners, or it may be a prized pulpit for years on end, but pride in position is always knocking at the door of our hearts.  Society may not revere the Reverend anymore, but many in our churches will certainly reinforce the honour of being a guest speaker, or a pastor, or a leader, etc.

4. Influence.  Whether there is position or not, preaching implies influence.  Preachers can influence lives and how they are lived.  Preachers can influence emotions and create all sorts of churning in the hearts of our listeners.  There are guilty folks convicted, there are vulnerable folks attracted, there is plenty of potential influence, both for good or for bad.  Pride seems to be a lingering smell where influence is involved.

As well as what might be a source of pride, there are also some occasions that may provoke it:

A. When preparing.  Do I need to invest the time in textual study?  Do I need to invest the time in preparation of the sermon?  Do I need to invest the time in prayer?  Maybe old notes, or old knowledge, will see me through?  Preparation should be a season of humble study and personal application, but it can easily drift into prideful self-trust instead.

B. When criticized.  How do you feel when someone pokes a hole in your message?  What if they aren’t particularly educated?  What if they are a younger believer than you?  What if their criticism is wrong?  What if they are right?

C. When praised.  This can be worse than criticism.  The best message they’ve ever heard?  Knowledge may puff up, but what then can praise do?  Just as we need to have a plan for criticism, we also need a plan for handling praise.  Both can stir profound pride problems within the preacher.

D. When ignored.  What if your listeners sit through your message and then don’t even begin to apply it?  What if their lives continue as normal?  What if your careful study and exegesis is considered merely your opinion?  What if the follow up conversation is still just about the weather or a TV show when you have poured your life out for their benefit?

What else may stir pride in the preacher?  When else might we be vulnerable to this great enemy?

Marginally Helpful Preacher Metaphors – Part 3

We have thought about the preacher as a video painter, and as a gallery guide.  Here’s the third in my list:

A Quirky Detective – When you are preaching epistles it may be helpful to think of yourself as a quirky detective.  You might be thinking that quirky is a strange qualifier to add, but hang in there, I have a paragraph to come up with a justification for that bit.  Epistles are powerful.  They offer a unique presentation of gospel truth and application of theology to a specific situation.  When an epistle does its work, it can really work in the heart and mind of a listener.  So what is the preacher to do?  Are we supposed to ignore the contextual features and offer sterilized theological argumentation using a blend of biblical and theologically loaded terminology?  Or are we supposed to hold out the epistle in all its uniqueness, helping listeners to see how the letter was designed to change lives then, and consequently, watch them feel the force of it now?  A good preacher of epistles ignites the imagination, clarifies the thinking of the writer, demonstrates its compelling relevance to today, and allows the text to do what the text was inspired and designed to do.  A detective holds up something as apparently insignificant as a piece of mail and shows how it unlocks and clarifies a real life (and death) situation.  And since people might expect an epistle to be just another boring letter, it probably doesn’t hurt to be a bit quirky too (all the best TV detectives are a little bit unique!)  There is more to preaching epistle than that, but there shouldn’t be less.

As before, feel free to add your own metaphors in the comments and I might develop some (giving credit).

Preach First and Last Sermons

I don’t know if you count.  My temperament tends to count.  I keep track of what I’ve preached, when, to whom, etc.  I keep records partially out of necessity and partially out of interest.  Whether or not you count sermons, take a guess, which one is today’s?  Is it number 15, or 100, or 1250, or 3500?

Let me encourage you today to preach as if it is your first. Preach with all the naivety of a new preacher.  Remember?  Back when you expected lives to be changed immediately by the sermon you preached.  Back when the spring in your step conveyed an excitement about what God is doing in your life and what He wants to do in their lives.  Forget the nerves, the mistakes, the unrefined skill, and so on.  But remember the enthusiastic expectation of that first sermon.  Preach like that today.

And preach as if it is your last. Imagine that today’s sermon had to count because there would be no more.  Imagine that all the weight of God’s work in your life had to be transferred with urgency today to those sitting before you.  Forget the slowness of mind that may come, or the feeble frame that you may have to carry up those steps.  But imagine how powerful the weight of matured passion and perspective will be in your last ever sermon.  Preach like that today.

Be You

There are many elements of style that can be studied and worked on.  But one thing that is really important is to be you.  Philips Brooks’ famous definition of preaching as “truth through personality” is important to remember.  It is truth through your personality!

Preaching, like much of Christian ministry, is incarnational in nature.  And the flesh the truth takes on is yours.  That means your strengths and your weaknesses.  Your personality.  Your humor.  Your mannerisms.  Your temperament.  You.

AJ Gordon referred to preachers taking on someone else’s personality as moral plagiarism.  The temptation is always there, but we must resist.  We can learn from others and even take onboard aspects of the style of others, but there is a fine line between that and taking on a personality that is not yours.

This is no excuse for poor communication.  There are aspects of our personal style that each of us could strive to improve for the sake of effective communication.  However, to merely introduce the personal style of another is not the solution.  It will not be you, and therefore, it will not be effective.

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.