Prayer and Preaching

PrayingThe sermon is coming and the preacher is praying.  Sometimes this can be really passionate prayer.  Sometimes there can be a sense of a spiritual breakthrough.  Praying for the message, for the church, for the people, for the lost!  This can be a time of great excitement and great expectation.  And this can be a time of intense battle.  We fight not against flesh and blood, but against the forces of evil.  And in the intensity of battle the expectation for devil-destruction in the power of the glorious grace of the gospel can increase.

Then comes the sermon and it can all feel so, well, normal.  The sermon goes ok, and the listeners say nice things, but this wasn’t what you prayed for and longed for and hoped for.  It is just normal.

It is easy to let the normal-ness of ministry diminish our sense of expectation.  After a while it can become as if  we don’t really expect people to be transformed or the Spirit of God to be at work.  This is understandable, but it is wrong.  As Haddon Robinson once put it, “we’re handling dynamite, and we didn’t expect it to explode!”

The Spirit of God is at work, the Word of God is powerful, and whether we see it or not, we should prepare and pray with great expectation.  (What about the disappointments and struggles that come internally after we preach?  We pour them out to God and then press on, daring to dream again, daring to pray big and preach big for a big God!)

Preach the glorious gospel into the normal world of life and church.  Preach the wonder of God’s grace so that it connects with people in normal world.  But don’t preach as if preaching is just normal.  It is not.  It is a moment where the character of God is held forth in His self-revealing Word to draw hearts and lives into profound transformation.  This life changing process may feel normal all too often, but it is not normal.  It is supernatural.

Beware of Re-Assigned Language

ConversationLast night I led a discussion on the New Age and Eastern Mysticism.  It was fascinating to try to get a handle on what is sometimes described as a “meta-network” . . . a network of networks where the religious ingredients may have some commonality, but are essentially optional.  I suppose it was a bit like trying to grasp a jellyfish.

The real benefit of the discussion, though, was for people in the group to not only be alert to some of the core features of this movement, but also to recognize where they might misunderstand what others say to them.  For instance, coming from an evangelical church, it is easy for some to get confused when they meet someone who “believes in Jesus.”  That language carries certain meaning in church-world.  It carries different meaning in non-church world.

As preachers we must be alert to this.  We can’t hide in a church ghetto and preach Christian language without clarifying the meaning we are seeking to convey.  We will not even know if people in our church are understanding what we intend them to understand.

I suppose there are several dangers to be alert to.  People need to know what others mean in order to interact with them and know where the disconnects may be occurring in the conversation.  It is not good people thinking they’re on the same page as someone who means something entirely different by enlightened or saved or delivered or believe or whatever.

At the same time people need to know not only what is different with other understandings of reality, but also what is attractive about other understandings of reality.  It is easy in a church setting to look down on the silliness of other views, but that is not at all helpful.  There is a reason people are drawn into different philosophies and religions.  There is a reason why people who’ve grown up in good churches can be drawn into these other religions.  To simply mock or ridicule is to fail to engage meaningfully with what others hold dear.  At the same time it is to set up people from the church to be picked off when they discover a more compelling presentation of an alternative than they were led to believe is possible.

Bridge Protection 3

BridgeStream2Yesterday I pondered clutter from our current context.  But there is always another source of debris that will harm our bridge-building ministry – ourselves.  What are some of the personal clutter issues that could be dangerously weakening the bridge?  As I described on Wednesday, when the debris causes the bridge to do more than it is designed to do, it will be dangerously undermined.

Issues of Integrity – This seems obvious, but so important to keep in mind. Serious breakdowns in morality, sexuality, financial impropriety, etc., will totally undermine a preaching ministry.  But what about the small stuff?  A twig won’t destroy a bridge, but in combination with other twigs, and some time, the bridge could well be weakened.  As we dealt with the clogged footbridge the other day, it was mostly small stuff in combination that had caused the water to run up over the bridge and lead to potential gradual rotting of the wood.

What are the “smaller” branches and twigs?  Issues of self-control, inappropriate spending, low-grade anger, half-truths, gossip, selfishness, false spirituality, personal inflamed ego, contempt of others, competitiveness, power-brokering, self-elevation, not following through on commitments, inappropriate TV viewing, laziness, mental fantasy, procrastination, and on it goes.

Pursuit of Personal Burnout – Or to put it another way, ministry in the traditional model of a minister doing the work of the ministry while the church is filled with “lay people” who pay for the minister to, well, minister.  There is a reason that the New Testament presents the plurality of church leadership, and apostles typically working in teams, and gifts being given to all believers.  You can’t do it all.  You might try for a while, but it is not sustainable, nor is it healthy for your church, or your marriage, or your children, or yourself.

Over-commitment is so hard to avoid in church-based ministry, but we must be willing to say no to some things in order to be a good steward of the longer term ministry.  Even if some people will misunderstand?  Yes.  Even if some will criticize?  Indeed, expect it.  We can preach that the gospel is not something to be earned, then live a life of striving that undermines the very gospel we preach.  People don’t earn salvation by attending every single meeting, and the preacher’s don’t live in a separate category.  Guard your relationship with the Lord (which is not the same as an over-commitment to “serving Him”).

Dangerous Levels of Distraction – You know what draws you away from what you should be doing.  This may not be a sin issue at all.  Good interests, hobbies, social networking, etc.  Good things can become negatives if they undermine our primary calling.  Handling both well, with the Lord being with us in both work and leisure, will make for a genuinely healthy ministry.  Yes we need to be involved in things other than work and ministry, but that does not mean these things should become distractions that undermine our stewardship of the ministry.  Ask for wisdom and clear vision here too!

Bridge Protection 2

BridgeStream2Debris and clutter under the wooden footbridge had clogged it up and water was streaming across the bridge. A minor inconvenience for dog walkers, or a gradual destruction of the bridge?  Pulling out the debris showed just how weak soaked and rotten wood could become, and without addressing the needs of the bridge, it too would rot to danger point.

So what are the debris issues clogging up the bridge we build in preaching?  What seemingly unimportant encumbrances are putting a strain on our messages and gradually leading us toward a rottenness that could undermine everything we do?  I don’t know which way you’d take the analogy, but here are some of the logs I see clogging up the bridges of preaching today:

1. Entertainment.  Good preaching should be engaging, and at times the biblical narrative is both gripping and entertaining.  But too easily we can start to think our role is to compete with the various entertainments of our culture, and consequently we undermine our own preaching.  Witty comments combined with powerpoint images will never compete with contemporary media banter and highly produced action.  We lose if we compete on entertainment alone, but we lose multiple times more in terms of what is sacrificed in the process.  The spiritual impact of the genuine preaching of a living Christ far outweighs anything our culture has invented to fill the void.  But if we pursue entertainment as an end in itself, our bridge will rot to danger point very quickly.

2. Political Correctness.  Like the proverbial fish that can’t see the water it is in, so we are so easily shaped by what our culture perceives to be “PC.”  My grandparents would come out with an absolute faux pas to my generation, but then be highly careful with a total non-issue (to my generation).  Too much focus on the current standard of what is acceptable will leave us dangerously weak in terms of the substance of the revelation that we preach.

3. Worship of Culture.  Every era has had its enticements.  The refinements of sophisticated living and liberal-leaning theology was a draw in the 1700’s.  Today some preachers are still drawn away by an inordinate enamoring of contemporary culture.  Don’t get me wrong.  We need to engage with culture, and we need to understand culture to engage people effectively.  But under the banner of cultural engagement it seems that some are so captivated by what attracts them that their gaze on Christ seems to fade and become something of a justifier of their interest in some aspect of contemporary culture.  Christ sanctifies their interests, and this seems to dangerously weaken their ministry.  Let’s not go to the opposite extreme of reclusive disengagement, but let’s remember that we are with Christ as He engages culture…we mustn’t disengage from Him in order to forge links on our own terms.

Tomorrow I’ll take another angle, but please feel free to comment . . .

2012 Blog Review – Part 2

Podium Medals2On Friday I reviewed the year from several angles.  But there is one left to consider.  Since this was a year of weekly series, what were some of the highlights?  Which series stirred the most responses?  Which series stirred interest with the fewest post, and which went on the longest?  Here’s a quick look back:

They got into the final – Four series stirred enough interest (comments and likes, as well as in-person conversations) to warrant a mention here:

Beyond Guilt – is there a better way to motivate listeners to change than guilt?  Absolutely.  Part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.

Why Do We Preach – the year ending reflection on our own motivation in ministry.  Part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, summary.

Truth Through Personality – reflections on implications of Philips Brooks oft-quoted definition of preaching.  Part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6.

Overqualified! – how easy to over qualify important issues in our preaching and thereby undermine them.  Grace, Trinity, Go, Means, Heart & Head.

Agonizingly close to a podium finish – Just keeping up the Olympic theme since this has been such a great year for British sport!  These three almost sneaked into the top three:

Faint Not – the discouraged preacher is a title many of us carry regularly.  Part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.

Biggest Big Ideas – this was my favourite series of the year to write.  The biggest big ideas weaving through the canon. God, Creation, Sin, Grace, Faith, Redemption, Community, Spreading Goodness, Hope, Christ.

Interactive Bible Observation Preaching – this was the shortest series to make the review, with just two posts.  Post 1, post 2.


The medal places – So here are the top three series of 2012:

Bronze – Preaching New Covenant . . . a core issue for truly Christian preaching.  Introduction, Sin, Heart, Trinity.

Silver – Technology, Bible Software and Preaching, the new reality for many of us.  Online research, Social Networks+, Disconnected, Bible Software,  Downside, Ajith Fernando’s Comment.

Gold – Preaching Story (also the longest, at 18 posts!): Theology, People, Plots, Power, Function, Adults, Reading, Telling, Mistakes, part 2, Thesaurus, Bible, OT, Gospels, Acts, Storying, Super-Genre, Artistry/Accuracy.

It has been a good year to ponder preaching together.  Thank you for visiting the site, for commenting and most of all, for faithfully serving a God worth proclaiming!


My Highlight Books of 2012

BookIt seems fashionable to offer a list of the best books of the year during these days.  I can only offer some of the highlights in terms of what I’ve read.  Consequently, not all these books were published in 2012, but they were read by me in 2012!  I won’t include any of the books I am currently reading, even though there are some real gems, with bookmarks in them, next to my reading chair.

To be effective preachers we need to be readers.  Readers for the sake of our preaching, our biblical studies, our theology, our cultural awareness, our personal spirituality and our growth in all aspects of ministry.  So here are some books I’d encourage you to get hold of if they weren’t in your stocking yesterday or on your shelf already:

Best Theological and Spiritually Stimulating Read of 2012: The Good God, by Michael Reeves.  This book is appearing on lists far more comprehensive and purposeful than mine.  Hopefully people will get the point – this delightful book is well worth reading! It is rich yet accessible, theological yet heart-stirring, historically alert yet relevant and enjoyable. (It was released in the UK in March 2012 by Paternoster, and in the US in the fall by IVP under the title, Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian FaithClick here to buy the book in the UK.)

Other Theologically Stimulating Reads in 2012.  These are not new, but worth grabbing if you get the chance.  Holmes Rolston’s John Calvin Versus the Westminster Confession is very thought provoking.  Janice Knight’s insightful analysis of the Antinomian Controversy in New England in the 1630’s is a golden piece of work (at a golden price, it must be said).  The contrast between a God obsessed with His own power and a God who gives of Himself in love is as fresh a discussion as any from all those centuries ago.  Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism buy or borrow if you can.  (To buy in the UK, click here.)

Best Freely Accessible Historical Document of 2012: I have thoroughly enjoyed time with both Luther and Edwards this year.  Edwards is not always the most accessible, and Luther is not always the most consistent, but both are worth some reading time!  For starters, why not try The Freedom of a Christian, by Luther (aka Concerning Christian Liberty – easy to find online, but why not get The Three Treatises on your shelf – to buy in the UK, click here.)

Biblical Studies Book of 2012: Jesus on Trial: A Study in the Fourth Gospel, by A.E.Harvey.  This is an older book, published in the 70’s, but worth its weight in gold.  This book helps make sense of the continual legal tension between Jesus and his accusers.  I will long remember reading this by flashlight in the sleepless nights after our youngest was born – she was worth being awake for, but this book only made it even better!

Not Overtly Christian But Well Worth Reading Book:  C.S.Lewis’ Experiment in Criticism is a delightful read on literature and how it engages people.   Instead of evaluating readers by what they read, what if we evaluate literature on how it is read?   This is well worth pondering on a spiritual, as well as on a literary level.  (To buy the book in the UK, click here.)

Insight Into Human Psyche Book of the Year: A New Name, by Emma Scrivener. – This was published this year.  It will make a mark on you if you read it.  Autobiographical, profoundly vulnerable and deeply gospel-centred.  This journey through the agony of anorexia gives insight into a world many of us know practically nothing about (but many in our congregation do).  (To buy in the UK, click here.)

So Why Do We Preach?

why preach2This week I’ve been pondering the motivations for a preaching ministry.  Here are the eight points, followed by a summative two:

1. We preach because God is a God who speaks, therefore we have something to say. 

2. We preach as an act of service to others.

3. Because the Gospel is thrillingly good news.

4. Because people need to hear the Gospel.

5. We preach to build God’s kingdom.

6. We preach to equip others for ministry.

7. Because we can’t help but speak of Someone so wonderful. 

8. Because we care about the people to whom we preach.

9. (Odd Numbers) – We preach because we love the Lord.  All of the odd numbered points have been different angles on the same issue.  I certainly haven’t exhausted the possibilities here.  Preaching as an act of devotion, an act of worship, and even preaching as obedience to God’s Word and as obedience to His calling on our lives – these could all be added.  But the bottom line surely is this: as we take stock of our own motivation in preaching, are we still gripped and driven by a vertical responsiveness?  This can so easily grow dull or become corrupted by a self-elevation and self-worship. Surely the best thing to do here is to spend time on our face before God and ask Him what our motivations are (ask yourself and you may respond with a lie!)

And what if motivations aren’t good here?  Chase Him.  Seek Him.  Recognize that you cannot fix your own spirituality through personal resolutions and effort.  The solution must always be a fresh vision of who God is.  Open the Word, open your heart and here I come, ready or not!

10. (Even Numbers) – We preach because we love our neighbour.  All of the even numbered points have been different angles on the same issue.  Again I have by no means exhausted the possibilities.  We could add preaching to strengthen the relationships of others (both vertically and horizontally), or preaching to influence society, or preaching to mark eternity.

Again, the bottom line is whether we have a horizontal outgoing motivation, or whether we have been corrupted by our flesh into a self-serving ministry that uses others to pursue our own goals and agenda.  I find that the vertical spills into the horizontal.  When I am the god of my life, then others become servants in my subconscious motivations.  When God is clearly God from the perspective of the eyes of my heart, then I gladly reach out to serve others.  Love the Lord, love your neighbour . . . always in that order.

Why Do We Preach 4

why preach2Here are another pair of thoughts as we reflect on the why? behind the ministry.  Perhaps these two should give more pause for thought than the others already posted?

7. Because we can’t help but speak of Someone so wonderful.  This should be the case.  Sadly, over time, it can easily cease being the case.  We can end up in a role, in a ritual, in a rut.  We end up preaching because that is what we do, or that is how we pay bills, or that is how we get respect.  We feel we should.  We feel it is expected.  We know it is needed.  And somewhere along the way we fail to notice the fog gathering between our hearts and heaven.

A growing spiritual complacency is the proverbial frog in boiling water syndrome for preachers.  God can become familiar and distant at the same time.  He can become a concept, a set of truths, a source of identity for us, but somehow fade from being the captivating One who so fills our hearts and lives that we can’t help but speak of Him.  May we all have a constant stream of newly engaged folks in our churches – constant reminders of the simple reality that a captivated heart can’t help but spill out.

8. Because we care about the people to whom we preach.  Again, this should be the case.  Sadly, over time, our flesh can easily co-opt the other centredness of ministry and turn it to a self-serving project.  We can become preachers doing so to gain respect, to gain credibility, to gain attention, to gain a following, to gain influence.  The gain increases and the give becomes token.  Of course we can talk about giving – we can frame the ministry in self-sacrificial and spiritual terms.  But really?

Just as spiritual fog can go undetected for too long, so a growing self-absorption is hard to spot in the mirror.  Our flesh will always justify a subtle pursuit of godlike status.  So we must keep walking with the Lord and ask Him to search us and know us.  Ask Him to underline the motivations that drive what may look like a gloriously giving ministry.  The true biblical preacher is shaped by the Word they preach, and they join God in giving of themselves as they preach it to others.  The blessings are hard to quantify, but they must be the by-product, not the goal.

Why Do We Preach 2

why preach2As an end of year pause for reflection, we are considering why it is that we preach.  Yesterday we looked at the fact that God is a God who speaks, and that our preaching is not for our own sake, but as an act of service to others.  From a slightly different angle:

3. Because the Gospel is thrillingly good news.  The mission of the preacher is not merely to communicate ancient truths relevantly.  God has given us a message.  And that message is labelled as good news for a reason.  The great sweep of redemption history involves the intra-trinitarian mission to rescue fallen creatures and restore them to full glorious fellowship with a loving and giving God.

It is not some sort of heavenly plan B to make the best of a bad situation and try to restore some semblance of respectability to a God who is on the throne but attacked on every side.  When  time is wrapped up and we have the benefit of both hindsight and eternal perspective, we will be gasping at the multi-coloured and multi-faceted dazzling beauty of what God has done in Christ.

We get to proclaim that now!

4. Because people need to hear the Gospel.  There are only two types of people in the world.  Those who need to hear the gospel and be saved, and those who need to hear the gospel as they are being saved.  While we may get beyond simplistic and trite presentations of some scaled down version of the good news to some sort of legal loophole, we never move beyond the gospel in its glorious richness.

What God is like, what He has done for us in Christ, how much we need Him, redeclaration of total dependence – justification, regeneration, reconciliation, adoption, fellowship.  Preaching Christ so that people will trust in Him.  This is something our people can’t hear enough about.  They need the hope, the faith and the love that is only found in the gospel.  We are not called to give tips for successful independent living, or to offer life coaching team talks.  We are called to preach Christ and Him crucified, that all may trust in Him, know Him, enjoy Him.

Gospel preaching, why wouldn’t we want to do that?