Faint Not: The Discouraged Preacher 2

What are the causes of discouragement in life and ministry?  I suspect there may be many, but let me share just a few:

1. Frustration.  When we see things moving forward, when we see progress, we all tend to get encouraged.  The opposite is also true.  When things seem to slow to a snail’s pace, or when there seems to be an invisible blockade in our path, then frustration can set in.  It has been said that we over-estimate what can be achieved in a single sermon, but under-estimate the impact of five year’s of solid biblical teaching.  But sometimes it is the years of ministry without significant progress that wears us down.  It is easy to lose sight of the progress among some, even many, when our thoughts become dominated by one, or a few.

And when we start to feel that what we are giving ourselves to cannot be achieved, then we are very much in danger of burning out.  I remember, as a child, blocking the progress of a scalextric (slot) car on the track.  The engine made noise, but it wasn’t long before a smell of burning electrics started to exude.  Some preachers feel like that, and burnout is a very real and present danger.

2. Failure.  Sometimes it isn’t just a sense of frustration that builds in us.  A loss of the sense of progress.  Sometimes it is outright failure.  It can be the failure of others.  It can be our own failure.  A poorly aimed sermon or two, a misjudged application.  What about getting distracted, or failing to prepare properly?  Then what about personal struggles?  The moral failure of someone we esteem.  The moral vulnerability of our own inner struggles.  We don’t have to look far to see failure and feel discouraged.  Sometimes the mirror is far enough.

3. Fatigue.  In the toil of ministry, combined with family life, all in the context of intensified spiritual battle, fatigue is an ever-present danger.  But fatigue is a symptom, and it can be the symptom of many different issues.  I remember Bill Hybels referring to the warning lights on the dashboard of his life.  He assumed the warning light meant a spiritual problem (inadequacy of devotions, for instance), but found the issue was emotional, relational.  It could be physical.  Sleep.  Nutrition.  Exercise.  There are many factors underlying this one.

4. Fear.  Ministry is not always experienced on the mountain top.  Often it is in the valley.  A dark one.  Lots of threats.  Rumours of threats.  Unseen enemies and breaking twigs.  We minister in the context of spiritual warfare, and in the context of our own struggles and weaknesses.  Whether the enemy is directly attacking or not, we can so easily look away from the Lord to the perceived threat, into the darkness.  Faith is not a commodity we collect or an inner power we muster.  It is a fixed trusting gaze.  When that gaze shifts, fear can flood in.

Tomorrow we’ll think about responding to discouragement.

Spaces: Noise and Prayer

Yesterday we thought about the spaces in which we work – both office and study.  One of the key issues that I think we need to face in this generation, even more than ever before, is the issue of noise.  In a world filled with productivity gurus, we as preachers need to be more than productive.

1. It takes more than productivity to produce a profound ministry.  It is great to have such quick and easy access to information.  We can access so much online, some of it worth the minimal effort we put in.  We can order books and have them delivered next day (at least some of us can).  We can use software on our computers that instantly parses verbs, searches for the lexical root and finds all instances of whatever in wherever.  We are so blessed.  But profound ministry is not just about access to information.  It isn’t even just about knowing what to do with it.  We have educational opportunities like never before.  But it takes more than that.  Profound ministry also requires something that has become ever more difficult to find.  You can’t buy it online and you can’t use software to get there.  It is that old fashioned notion of spending time with the Lord, away from all the noise.

2. Noise may be the biggest threat to a substantial ministry.  Noise takes many forms.  It can be the ping of arriving emails, the tyranny of the urgent text message, the variable usefulness of social media updates streaming our way, the fascination of online bunny trails, the old fashioned but ever present junk mail, not to mention the important stuff of family life, church needs and a far more connected realm of extended friendships.  Some of this is good.  Too much of all this and you have a recipe for living in permanent noise.  I suspect it is worse now than when sunset meant reading by candlelight, conversation with those immediately present and hours of quiet to spend with God.

3. A noisy world means we must be proactive in pursing “sunset.”  The old idea of a prayer closet, an undistracted place for meeting with the Lord, shouldn’t be an old idea.  I have had some great times of prayer while driving, but also easily fill that time with noise.  I always find I pray better walking or pacing, but so easily fail to make the most of such simple insight.  How can you be proactive in pursuing “sunset” – a time when the noise grows distant and you can pursue and enjoy intimacy with the Almighty?  I fear that if we don’t do something, the profound ministry of those truly close to God might become a relic of history.

Where’s Your Drain?

This week I’ve written about things that make us tempted to half quit.  Some things make us want to totally quit.  Other things just drain energy away without us really noticing.  I have to be honest, I am kind of glad I am not preaching this week.

It is just a stubbed toe (swollen, painful, etc.)  But that is enough to be a distraction and make concentrating a challenge.  At the same time I am looking forward to preaching next week.  What is draining you?  It could be something physical, it could be a family relationship, or a soured friendship, or an ongoing challenge in the church, or, or, or…

There are any number of potential energy drains.  Maybe it is just me, but there’s this weird inconsistency.  Sometimes something is going on that drains energy and becomes the central focus of my prayer life.  Other times I seem to just try to cope.  What is that all about?  I haven’t really prayed much about the toe, I suppose it doesn’t seem important enough.  But what if my energy is sapped, my concentration is broken, perhaps my attitude is a bit more negative, etc.?

I suppose this isn’t too profound a thought, but I wonder if something is draining you, and I wonder if you are trying to cope in your own strength?  Let’s be sure to be fully abiding in the vine as we head into another Sunday, whether we’re preaching or not.

Speech: More Than Pragmatic

I wonder if some of us are missing something deeply significant?  Preaching involves spoken communication, but what is that spoken communication?  Is it a tool we use to transfer the information that we need to get across?  Or is it profoundly more than that?

I’ve heard preachers who preach as if their speaking is about the information transfer, but little more.  So that sense of personal detachment, or coldness, or distance . . . is that just a matter of poor delivery, or is there something more going on?

What I want to scratch the surface of is the nature of speech itself.  Here are some quick thoughts on why speech itself is more than a pragmatic tool:

1. The Bible doesn’t treat human speech as just a tool.  There is a massive emphasis on hearing God’s Word.  Our response to what we hear defines us.  Our integrity of action to what we confess is critical.  The tongue is a powerful organ in the body.

2. The Bible is a story of “did God say?”  The serpent offered humanity an autonomous alternative to trusting dependence on God.  We can be our own gods.  Why would we want that?  Because of a distrust in God’s spoken word, which is a distrust of His gracious character.  Ever since then the hiss of the lie has been an ever-present.  And the question has always been, who will trust the word of God’s promise?

3. The Bible presents us with a God who speaks.  Why don’t we see more from heaven?  We can’t fathom that perhaps our eyes are not the senior sense.  We fell by distrust of speech, we are invited to trust based on God’s Word (and He even made His Word visible to us in a Person!)  But this isn’t some pragmatic condescension of God for our sake, He is eternally a speaking God.  What constitutes the reality of the Trinity?  We would do well to let go a little of a metaphysical conversation of substance, and ponder more the biblical revelation of a God in eternal communion.

4. The Bible seems to see speech as central to what it is to be a person.  Now we’re probing a bit more.  For centuries we’ve been caught up in the idea of personhood as being about rationality, will-power and individualism.  We’ve seen it as an issue of separation, of hierarchy, of a will to power.  What if what we are is not best defined by our CV/resume (skills, capacities, education, even references from the most impressive people we know)?  What if what we are is defined by who we have true relationship with?  We inherently sense that reality, but our world denies it.  And what if relationship is, at its core, a matter of speaking and hearing, of a mutual indwelling through communication?

Okay, enough for today, but here’s the thought I’m nudging us toward.  What if preaching is profoundly more about speech than we’ve ever realised?  Our God is a God who speaks.  A God who has spoken.  And at the centre of Christianity is our heart response to what He says?

Preaching to the Whole Person and the Whole Congregation

In his chapter entitled “Powerful Preaching,” in The Preacher and Preaching, Geoff Thomas writes:

“One of the great perils that face preachers…is the problem of hyper-intellectualism, that is, the constant danger of lapsing into a purely cerebral form of proclamation, which falls exclusively upon the intellect.  Men become obsessed with doctrine and end up as brain-oriented preachers.  There is consequently a fearful impoverishment in their hearers emotionally, devotionally, and practically.  Such pastors are men of books and not men of people; they know the doctrines, but they know nothing of the emotional side of religion.  They set little store upon experience or upon constant fellowship and interaction with almighty God.  It is one thing to explain the truth of Christianity to men and women; it is another thing to feel the overwhelming power of the sheer loveliness and enthrallment of Jesus Christ and to communicate that dynamically to the whole person who listens so that there is a change of such dimensions that he loves Him with all his heart and soul and mind and strength.”

Not only do we need to address the whole person before us, but also all the persons before us.  Ramesh Richard lists three attitudes that will be listening during a message:

1. The I Don’t Cares! These are not hostile, they just don’t feel they should be there. They are there out of a sense of duty to friends or family, or habitual routine. For this attitude the need raised at the beginning of the message is critical. Without it, they are free to continue their inner stance of not caring.

2. The I Don’t Knows! They lack the background awareness that others may have regarding God, the Bible, Christianity and church life. These people need good biblical content clearly explained.

3. The I Don’t Believes! These people are doubtful about the truth of what is said, or the applicability of it to real life. They are likely to test what is said with questions such as, “Is this truth coherent?” or “Is the sermon consistent?” or “Is this truth practical?” and especially, “Will this work?” For this attitude you must demonstrate a coherent consistency as well as practical relevance.

Before preaching it is worth prayerfully considering whether the sermon is merely cerebral or emotional, and whether it will engage these three attitudes.  Is a clear and valuable need raised? Is there sufficient accessible explanation? Is the message relevant and life engaging? We preach not to get our study into the public domain, but to see the lives, the hearts, the attitudes of our listeners changed by exposure to God’s Word.

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Beyond Guilt

A friend asked me how we can preach to encourage listeners apart from making them feel guilty.  He and I would both recognize the need for genuine conviction of sin, a work of the Spirit and a feature of some texts (and therefore some messages).  But I understand the need for the question – too much preaching relies too much on guilt as the primary, or even the only, change mechanism.

Guilt is a poor motivator.  The Spirit of God certainly does bring conviction to people, to me.  An absence of conviction of sin in a life is an indication of a real problem.  But there is much more to the Spirit’s work than just conviction of sin.  There is much more to life transformation than guilt.

As I read the Bible I find myself convicted, yes, but also stirred, inspired, encouraged, enlightened, intrigued, reassured, enlivened, thrilled, calmed, galvanized, spurred, moved, attracted, delighted, renewed, transformed, changed.

God uses the Bible to change lives, and He changes lives by more than just guilt.  So how, as a preacher of God’s Word, can I beneficially engage the lives of listeners with more than just a guilt session?

This week I’d like to offer several elements of an answer to this question.

1. The Preacher’s Stance.  Where do we stand?  Guilt-only approaches tend to take a domineering and confrontational stance.  This comes through sometimes before a word is even spoken.  It shows in demeanour, in expression, in attitude.  It may be justified in terms of the authority of God’s Word, etc., but it is worth rethinking.

I would suggest a stance that is empathetic rather than confrontational, although there is a place for the latter.  I am not suggesting the preacher stands amongst the listeners as a sympathetic fellow-struggler with nothing more than shared struggle.  We do stand with God’s Word and so do have something very profound to offer.  But we also stand as recipients of that Word.

Sometimes our talk of authority can lead us to authoritarian approaches.  Yes, God’s Word has authority and as I preach God’s Word there is a “thus saith the Lord” aspect.  But it is right here that some betray their narrow view of God and come right back to a guilt-only approach.  That is, they see God as being purely authoritarian and a guilt-approach-only Deity.

Thus saith the Lord.  We represent Him.  How did God reveal His own character, personality, values, etc.?  On Sinai, through the prophets, in Christ?  God didn’t just come as a pounding fist.

We should consider the stance we take as one standing and speaking God’s Word, while at the same time being one standing as a recipient of God’s Word.  If our stance is simply a “lording it over” stance then we betray a worldly passion for power that reflects a twisted view of God Himself.

Tomorrow I’ll add another element to consider in pursuing how to preach with more than just guilt.

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Profound Preparation

This week I’d like to ponder what it might look like to pursue a more profound preaching ministry.  While most would acknowledge that preaching should neither be dense nor inaccessible, this does not mean that shallowness and dumbing down are the order of the day.

Profound preaching must surely start with profound preparation.  Four suggestions to get a week-long list going:

1. Begin with humble recognition that you yourself need to be changed by God.  It is too easy to think of preaching preparation as being about you the preacher pursuing a message to preach to them, the needy recipients.  At this point in the process you stand very much in their shoes, needing to hear from God.  You need to encounter His heart in His Word.  You need to be marked deeply and changed by a God who communicates, who cares, who challenges and who changes.  It makes no sense to have profound faith for the sake of others, but not an openness and humility in yourself.  The preparation of a sermon will be a privilege, an opportunity for God to mark your life profoundly.

2. Study the passage to know God, not just the facts.  It is easy to treat Bible study as a pursuit of non-trivial trivia.  Don’t.  Study the passage in order to know God better.  What is His self-revelation saying of Him?  How are the characters responding to Him?  Wherever you are in the canon, the passage is theocentric, so make sure that your heart is too.

3. Don’t mix your message preparation with your Bible study.  As a preacher who cares about the congregation, or as a preacher desperate to be ready on time, it is tempting to blend passage study with message formation.  Keep the stages separate.  You have the privilege of doing some in-depth Bible study, take advantage of that!  You may not be able to help thinking of who you will be preaching to, but try to keep those thoughts until you’ve really gotten to grips with the passage (or better, until God has gotten to grips with you through the passage).

4. Saturate your preparation in prayer.  This should go without saying, but it can’t, so it won’t.  The entire preparation process should be absolutely pickled in prayer.  Prayer in passage study, prayer in personal response, prayer in “audience analysis,” prayer in message formation, prayer for delivery, prayer for life change, prayer for immediate impact, prayer for long-term fruit, etc.

Tomorrow I’ll offer a few more thoughts, this time on profound explanation in preaching.  Feel free to comment any time.

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Preaching Triangle & Touching a Nerve

This week in Cor Deo I had the chance to give an hour’s introduction to Ezekiel.  A brief look at chapter 28 in our sweeping overview allowed a glimpse of the message to the “King of Tyre” and a chance to ponder the fall of Lucifer through a heart corrupted by a self-ward gaze.

I suspect the enemy isn’t overly concerned by some Christian preaching.  You know, the kind that offers a sanctified version of Genesis 3.  You can be independent, you can be successful, you can be like your own god, you can be equipped for a self-concerned life.  Whether it is evangelistic (you can get yourself the best future for you, here’s a ticket to a nice heaven password) or edificatory (you can be an independent success story, just look to yourself and do these things)…I suspect the enemy isn’t too bothered.

But what if a preacher catches on to the Preaching Triangle reality of interdependence?  The preacher’s own dependence on God in a love relationship, then a shared concern for the listeners to become reliant on God in a love relationship, manifesting in preaching that seeks to forge connections between listeners and preacher, and more importantly, God.  This be fighting talk from the perspective of the enemy of our souls!

Interesting how the verses that jump to mind seem to support this post.  Resist the devil and persist in being right and doing good?  No, resist the devil and draw near to God (in the context of broken relationships, friendship with the world, the jealousy of God over the Spirit made to dwell in us, humble dependence on God).  The devil prowls around like a roaring lion, so resist him and do right in yourself?  No, resist, recognize the experience of your brothers around the world, look to God to restore, confirm, strengthen, etc., which is why in humility we should cast our cares on the God who cares for us.

But what about the armour of God, that is all about individual response isn’t it?  Oh hang on, a key part is praying at all times in the Spirit, and they were to be praying for Paul too.  Never mind.  One more?  The god of this age has blinded the minds to keep folks from seeing the light of the good news of the glory of Christ, the image of God, so how did Paul preach?  Take a look at 2Cor.4 and see his dependence on God and self-giving for them . . . preaching triangle in the context of a great spiritual battle.

Do not lose heart.  Real relationally driven preaching will touch a nerve with the enemy, but the solution can never be a retreat into non-relational solitude, that’s just his way.

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What is Preaching Primarily About?

Just a short teaser of a post today, then a break tomorrow (because you really shouldn’t be reading about preaching on Christmas day!)  I’ve just been writing a longer article for another blog.  I’ll link to it once it is posted there.  But in it I address the real foundation of homiletics. While some may consider the field of homiletics to be all about communication techniques – “mere rhetoric” if you like, this is missing the point.

Preaching is a complex subject with many vital tributaries.  I would suggest that the technical stuff has to be built on a solid foundation of the hermeneutics and the spirituality of the preacher.  There are other critical foundational elements too . . . but the article is already too long!

Have a great Christmas!