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. 

50 Summer Preaching Tweaks: 1-5

Summer50bAs we are all about to head into a new (school) year of preaching, how about a big collection of little tweaks for effective preaching?  In no particular order, here come the fifty summer tweaks to sift through and prayerfully consider:

1. Be mastered by a book.  Whether you regularly preach through whole books or not, make sure you spend enough time soaking in a book that it can truly grip you.  Be saturated so that when squeezed, you ooze the content of that book.  Then prepare a series to invite others into that blessing.

2. Invite others into the preparation process.  We all tend to go solo on preaching preparation.  Invite some folks to join you.  Perhaps in a group,  perhaps a series of conversations, perhaps ask for help on facebook or twitter.  Perhaps talk through the message, perhaps ask for help on support material, perhaps find out where others think the points of tension lie.  It will probably be better together.

3. Lean less on your notes.  If you are a manuscript reader, take only an outline. If you are a notes user, experiment with note-less.  Be as prepared as you can, but make the message simpler in structure, stick in a passage and run through it several times.  Going noteless is not as hard as you think, and the benefits might mean you never go back!

4. Stay put, dig deeper.  If you are a concordance freestyler, try preaching a message where you stay put.  You will find that you will tend to dig deeper in the passage and apply more fully in the present.  Both are good things!  Only cross-reference if there is a genuine need to do so.

5. Craft the main idea a little bit more.  Take an hour at some point and work on the main idea of the message for an hour more than you normally would.  How can it be more precise, more memorable, more relevant, more text specific, more encouraging, less wordy, less historic, less theologically phrased?

Preaching Myths #2 – Cool Preaching

myth2Here’s another idea that bounces around in various forms, but I think should be probed a bit:

“Cool preaching attracts people.”

This could be the thinking of church leaders who decide to go with a “cool preaching” option in order to seek growth.  Or it could be the critique of traditional church folks who are looking sideways at a different church which has a perceived “cool factor” and is growing faster than their church is.  When used as a critique, it tends to carry with it the implication that such a church must be dumbing down, softening, weakening, diluting or corrupting the gospel in some way.

Before critiquing the myth, I suppose both thoughts can be affirmed.  Some churches do make superficial style issues a driving factor in their growth strategies and in some cases it does seem to attract people (although any style may well put others off coming in the first place, even a contemporary style).

And indeed, some contemporary styled churches have weakened the gospel leading to shallow conversions and poor discipleship.  But let’s be fair here, some traditional styled churches have weakened the gospel leading to shallow conversions and poor discipleship too!  Sweeping generalizations about contemporary versus traditional are very naive.

So, does cool preaching attract people?  I would say that it might, but probably not.  The primary people who tend to be attracted to “cool Christianity” may well be Christians whose tradition store has become overstocked and they want to try something different.

Three thoughts:

1. Christ attracts people.  Re-read the gospels and notice how normal and broken people were so drawn to Jesus.

2. Christlike communities attract people.  If people are not drawn to Jesus today, it is probably because their exposure to his body is cluttered by other baggage and distraction.  A community being transformed by the love of God so that they love each other (like Christ) will spill outwards in love to the community (like Christ) and thereby be a magnet to broken people (like Christ).

3. Effective preaching engagingly communicates what matters.  Cool preaching without biblical substance is see through.  People may well see through “cool-empty” just as they may see through “traditional-empty” (although sadly there will be those who don’t see through one or the other).  So what then for our preaching?

 A. We must seek to get the substance right: the Bible offered engagingly, the gospel full and clear, and the presentation of God in Christ as clear as the incarnation requires.

B. We must seek to remove unnecessary obstacles: issues of delivery, packaging, presentation, and content need to be carefully evaluated to make sure that people are not choosing to walk away from the gospel because of something other than the gospel.

Being cool is not the goal in preaching, unless you are wanting to temporarily attract young disenchanted Christians.  Cool is really not the issue at all, but recognize that in your pursuit of best substance, obstacle-light preaching, you will probably be critiqued for being “cool” but shallow.  Make sure you’re not.

Preaching [Insert Word] Jesus

Jesus2Preaching Jesus.  This is the calling of the preacher.  It is an incredible calling.  We aren’t called to preach tips or suggestions, mere commands or philosophy, not even just ideas or concepts.  We get to preach a person.  When I met my wife-to-be, I was very capable of “preaching” her to any who cared to listen.  I didn’t struggle for motivation because I knew her, I liked her and I wanted to talk about her.  But over the years I’ve had to do some presentations I wasn’t thrilled about . . . ideas, subjects, topics.  These opportunities were very different.  The personal connection and consequent motivation is far different when we grasp that Christian preaching is primarily about preaching a person.

Preaching for Jesus.  And what a person we get to preach!  We get to represent the great object of the desire of all creation, the one who made it all and will bring it all to a close.  The one who brings eternal delight to the Father and who will reveal the delightful Father to all for all eternity.  This is not a political leader with tenuous temporary influence, or a new fad who will soon pass.  This is not preaching some hyped up celebrity, or some high achiever in one area or another . . . this is the wonderful counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting father, the prince of peace.  And we get to preach about him, and for him.  That means he cares, he takes interest, he wants it to go well.

Preaching with Jesus.  It just gets better.  We often think of our ministry being for Jesus, but can forget the great biblical theme of working with God.  He commissioned us to go and make disciples, but he did so with the promise of his presence!  What a privilege to not only speak of Christ and for Christ, but also with Christ.  As we preach to proclaim the gospel, we are doing so with him who is at work fishing for humanity.  As we preach to edify the church, we are doing so with him who is at work building his church.  As we preach to bring glory to God, we are doing so with the eternal Son who is well practiced and ever pleased to bring praise to His and our great Father.  Ministry with.  Seems like we don’t think about that enough!

Gospel Dimensions 2

TapeMeasuresYesterday we pondered how small thinking about God will negatively shape our preaching.  What about our dimension estimates of humanity?  Again, this can really make a difference to our preaching.

1. When we see humanity as too elevated.  I suspect everything I will write in this post about humanity will really be leaning toward tomorrow’s post about sin.  I’m convinced that we simply don’t grasp how profound our problems actually are.  We swim in the brine of a post-Genesis 3 world and we are saturated to the core of our being, but don’t realize it.  Consequently our view of humanity can easily get too elevated, while losing sight of how special we are.  The issue is God’s image.  What does it mean to be made in God’s image?  When we corrupt the image language of Genesis 1 with notions of autonomy, authority and rule apart from relationality, then we end up with a mis-measured humanity.  The wonder of humanity is that we are made in the image of a relational God and we are made for relationship with Him.  Too much of our gospel-vision lacks a real grasp of how deep that design goes.  Instead we fall for a mis-measured human vision of autonomy, rule and authority.  Suddenly the image of God is about god-like qualities of abstract thinking and self-definition and self-determination and dominion over others and rule over creation . . . and our thinking about Genesis 1 (image) sounds and smells like Genesis 3 (hiss).

2. When we see humanity too individually.  This is another way of saying essentially the same thing.  I suspect many of us are better at spotting individuality in our reading of the New Testament than we are at spotting it in our reading of humanity.  That is to say, I suspect many of us know that the “you” of the epistles is usually “you all” rather than “you and you and you and you.”  It makes a difference.  Especially for us English speakers who don’t distinguish you singular from you plural.  We are saved into a corporate entity called the church, not given separate and distinct individual memberships for our own benefit.  So we hopefully see that on a horizontal level, but I suspect we still fall into seeing humans as stand-alone creatures.  It is the world that measures life and success by the items listed on a curriculum vitae or resume.  Our identity does not consist in our collection of capacities (education, experience, skills, references), but rather in the fabric of relationships with which we are enriched.  If we don’t grasp the difference, we will preach a gospel that tends toward personal benefits and relational disconnection.

3. When we see humanity as inherently good, but hindered.  I am out of words, but this can lead into tomorrow.  How bad is our problem?  Do we have a broken will that needs enabling?  Do we have a clouded mind that needs clearing?  Or is the problem much deeper and more devastating?

Gospel Dimensions

TapeMeasuresWhen our view of the gospel is too small, then our preaching will always fall short.  Here are some gospel dimensions to pursue:

1. How good is your God?

2. How needy are your listeners?

3. How bad is our sin?

4. How transformative is God’s grace?

When our view of God is too small, our view of humanity is too elevated, our view of our sin is too shallow and our view of God’s grace as too weak, then our preaching of the Bible will always be inadequate.  Let me take the first one and suggest a couple of ways our view of God can fall short of the biblical teaching:

1. When we see God as a split personality held in internal dynamic tension.  You know how this one goes, God is loving, but he is also something else.  It is sort of an endorsement of love, but balanced with holiness, or power, or something.  Where does the Bible promote a 50:50 balance in God?  I would suggest that we need to read our Bibles more and start to see how God’s “balancing” attributes actually only make sense in the context of who He is.  God is not holy in an isolated separation.  God is set apart in the perfection of His intra-trinitarian perfect love.  This is not to say that God is somehow pro-sin, of course He isn’t.  Our minds go there because we have not grasped how relational reality actually is.  When justice and love become conflicted perspectives, then we will always hold back slightly on our belief in and presentation of the good news that God so loved that He gave . . .

2. When we see God as a powerful benefactor/butler who needs convincing to act.  This is another common perspective.  It is about taking a shallow awareness of God’s goodness and combining it with a self-centred perspective on reality.  Unless the sin issue is engaged and addressed, then God’s goodness can become corrupted by our preaching into a celestial vending machine for which we need the magic technique.  Put the money in the slot, request A7, then smack it on the side and give it a bump.  Voila – blessings.  This view of God is a corruption of His self-giving goodness . . . it was never intended so that we can be better served in our self-absorption!

3. When we see God as essentially selfish.  This is also a common perspective.  When our view of God’s glory is not framed in the relational wonder of the self-giving Trinity, then God can become inherently selfish.  An inherently selfish God may demand glory from us, but no matter how we dress it up and mix in the fanfare, this will always fall short of the radically different God who gives Himself to us in His Word.  We don’t want a sanctified version of all the other gods, we need to know God as He really is.

Mixing the Matters

Proud2You matter.  Preaching matters.  Your preaching matters.  But don’t mix these up.

You matter – you are a person for whom Christ died, a person who has been bought with a price and baptised into the body of Christ to participate in the fellowship and life of God himself.  Just like the people you preach to, your worth and value are to be found in Christ.

Preaching matters – what God has done in Christ for your listeners and you is truly worth sharing boldly and openly.  Preaching matters because God is an incarnationally-minded communicator and as a result, we have something to say.  Preaching the word of God has always been a key part of God’s mission in this world, for there is a revelation and a proclamation at the core of that mission.

Your preaching matters – you may not be so-and-so famous preacher who draws huge crowds, but you are more than just the person scheduled to preach this next time.  The people gathered have a divine appointment with the word of the gospel, so you will want to give your very best for their sake, and for His.  The famous preacher is not scheduled to be there, by God’s providence, you are.

Don’t mix these up – one of the ways we can get into trouble as preachers is to start to confuse these truths.  Since preaching matters, I matter because of my preaching?  Careful!  The moment we confuse our identity in Christ with our role in ministry, we are set for trouble.  I recently heard of a visiting preacher who marred his reputation by his reaction to a circumstance that thwarted his opportunity to preach.  It is good to take your preaching seriously, but never think you are indispensable.  It is good to serve God in preaching, but never let your identity be determined by it.  Your preaching matters, but God can, and does, work apart from your ministry.

Losing our Youth by Dangerous Superficiality

123Last night I was chatting with my eldest about her maths homework.  As I looked at her workbook I recognized that eventually she will be doing things I can no longer do.  For a child there is a progression from basic numeracy, through addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, long division, etc.  I expect most parents can cope with these (except long division!)  But once the child is working through algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus, there is typically the crossing of a threshold in respect to what the parent can readily understand.

So what should the parent do at that point?  Hopefully you will start to see the relevance to this site here . . .

1. Become suspicious of the questions and insist that the child go back to basic numeracy.

2. Warn the child of the dangers of sophisticated mathematics and reassert that basic numeracy is all anyone ever needs.

Imagine the child decides they like the subject and wants to chase mathematics to degree level?  Uh oh.

Hang on, this makes no sense.  No parent that I know would function this way.  They would at least cheer the child on, and possibly put some effort in to understanding the subject again or for the first time.

So what do we do in church?  Let’s change the subject from mathematics to Christianity.  There is a progression.  Typically the progression is simple . . . (1) before age 11 tell lots of disconnected stories with a moral sting in the tail, (2) during teenage years speak about issues and hope the youth connect the issues to the disconnected stories, (3) watch them drift away in the sophisticated and heady world of university (if not before).

If a child is progressing to calculus in mathematics, won’t they also be asking very heavy questions in respect to life and faith and eternity?  Too often parents, youth leaders and even preachers, are scared by the good questions.  Too easily church people retreat into such nonsense as, “you shouldn’t ask questions like that, you will offend God!”  or “be careful with your questioning, it could lead you astray!”  And these unhelpful comments are sometimes topped off with thoughts like, “the Bible says it, that settles it, we don’t question it, blindly believe it!”  Throwing the same few proof texts at good questions will not achieve anything good.

Let’s prayerfully question the children’s and youth ministry in our churches.  Let’s prayerfully ponder the preaching in our churches.  Are we losing our younger folk by never engaging them properly?  Simplistic faith formulae may have worked for you, but they probably won’t for the next generation coming through.  If all they see is simplistic “blind faith” and never meet Christians willing to think, to study, to learn, to question, to ponder, to wrestle and to take God seriously, why shouldn’t they be drawn away when they meet a thinking, studying, learning, questioning, pondering, wrestling sophisticated atheist?

Why God Still Works Through Poor Preaching

Last time we noted how Paul preached Christ and Him crucified.  Paul understood that people are fully subject to their heart-level desires.  They will only ever “choose” what they want to choose, but cannot choose what it is they want.  The heart is the issue and the gospel preached must offer a love so compelling that people will be drawn out of the deathly prison of their self-love.

However, a lot of preaching looks like this:


The preacher feels the need to twist the arm and will of the listener into conformity to some set of Christian values.  After all, if only people and society were more responsible, then we’d be in a better place!  The emphasis on duty and morality and law all add up to a big dose of pressure.  If you’ve really tasted of the gospel, this has a very empty feel to it.  Yet many of us are so used to this kind of preaching that we assume this is proper Christian preaching.  Bible texts become launch points for moralistic tirades.

Somewhere in the mix, however, the preacher inserts a “Jesus bit” . . . typically with some reference to the cross.  In terms of the biblical portrayal of the triune God and His mission in sending His Son, it is sometimes paper thin and desperately under-developed.

So let’s say that a life is marked by this kind of preaching…what happened?  Actually, many lives will be marked by this kind of preaching.  They will be marked by confusion over the gospel, external conformity to legalistic pressure, and there will be significant inoculation against the transformative power of grace.  Yet there will be genuine fruit.  Why?  Because of the pressure and arm-twisting and guilt trips?  No.  Because “Christ and Him crucified” was preached.  God works despite us and our preaching (and we need to be thankful for that!)

But surely this should make us want to undilute our preaching?  Why mix the good stuff in with a poisonous and distracting set of added ingredients?  Why play into the hands of the fallen condition by promoting self-reliance and self-righteousness?  Wouldn’t it be better to preach Christ and Him crucified, spelling out the implications by way of invitation to those changed by the transformative grip of God’s grace?