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(This is a follow-on from my previous post “What I Learned About Preaching THIS Sunday – Oct 27th”)

OK, when I put it like that, it seems terrible!…Doesn’t it?

To me this raises two important and related issues:

I. What Makes a Sermon a Christian Sermon?

II. What Does One Do If One’s Exegesis Doesn’t Get One to Jesus

Let me deal with these, over several posts,  one at a time.

I. What Makes a Christian Sermon a Christian Sermon?

There is a line of thinking that says that Jesus must be the focus and subject of every sermon.

I have heard this put in various ways…

“Whatever the text is, make a bee-line from it to the Cross” (after CH Spurgeon)

“If you preach a sermon from the Old Testament that a Jewish person would preach, then you have preached it wrong.”

“Every sermon should reveal the gospel.”

I am sympathetic to these approaches. If a preacher is proclaiming a text and  there is no mention of Jesus or the Cross or the Gospel, one may well wonder if that is indeed a Christian message. But… I am also uneasy.

The underlying principle here seems to be that every true Christian sermon will take a text and then show how it fits in to the wider, broader, Christio-centric meaning of Scripture as a whole. Now that is surely a good thing, a right thing, a necessary thing. But,

  • EVERY message, on
  • EVERY text

1. Is this preaching or theology?

This seems to be more a practice of biblical or even systematic theology. What about actual exegesis? What about what the text actually says? What about what it actually meant in its original context?

I accept that no Biblical text can be viewed in its original context alone. If we hold to a high view of Scripture, then every text began originally in the heart of God, where Christ has dwelt since before eternity. Therefore from God’s perspective, every text’s original context was in some way Christ.

2. Do we take context seriously enough?

However, God also chose to unveil His full revelation slowly and in stages. He chose to reveal Himself in and through history–real people and real events in specific historical and cultural contexts. Therefore, if preaching a text without placing it in its wider gospel/Christ context is to not fully preach the text, then to preach its Christ dimension without also preaching its specific historical and cultural context is to not fully preach the text as well.

To take my dilemma as an example, Jonah chapter 1 meant something specific to its original audience, not just in the light of Christ. To fully understand and expound the text, I must do both. I must show how it fits into the Christ context, but also how it fits into it’s specific ‘there and then’ context too.

3. From Christian sermon to Christian series?

The thing is, I’m not convinced you can always do that in one sermon. If you have 50 minutes, maybe. But 20 or 25? And what about the idea of each sermon having one specific proposition or thesis? (This is the idea that one of the things that makes a sermon a sermon, as opposed to a talk or a lecture, is that it has a very focused message and purpose. It is like a nail or an arrow, a singular message designed to penetrate a specific target.) What does one do if one finds one dominant theme or message from the Christo-centric context, and a different one from its specific historical/cultural context?

In other words, one sermon may not be enough to legitimately expound the different meanings of a text, and not every one of those meanings may explicitly be Jesus. Hence, a sermon that is not explicitly about Jesus or the Cross.

Perhaps we need to say that a sermon series may or may not be fully Christian, given its overall emphasis of different truths. But that within any given series, individual messages may not talk about the Cross or the Gospel.

[…to be continued.]

A heavy cold and cough threatened disaster. My voice nearly gave out during the prayers. So I had to improvise a little. It was the first in a new series on the Book of Jonah, and “stand-up & preach” had to become “sit-down & talk”. Here’s what I think I learned….

1. Sometimes a Change is As Good As a Change!

What do I mean? My church normally gets a change by me being away and a different preacher takes the pulpit. A different voice, a different style, it’s refreshing for them. They appreciate the quest speaker, and they appreciate having me back too. Well it seems that a radical change of presentation by the same preacher can work just as well.

I sat down on a stool, rather than standing behind the pulpit.

I spoke much more conversationally, rather than a preaching/declaration style

I shared something of my thought processes of how I had explored the text, not just the conclusions/points arising from that thinking.

All in all, it made for a very different sermon experience. People found it a refreshing change.

I would not do it every week. But it has made me wonder whether I need to be a bit more deliberate and varied in choosing my preaching style. I have a preferred style. But it is not my only one.  Selecting a different option at least once a month might be a good idea.

2. I Didn’t Preach All My Material

I had four points. The first two seemed to go really well. I had already preached for 25 min. So maybe more is less…and less is more. I stopped at two points. Had I gone on, I may have finished my material, but lessened my impact. As John Maxwell would say, “it’s just a thought…”

3. I Didn’t Mention Jesus.

Wha-? Really? Yes, really. And as someone who believes in a (gentle) Christocentric approach to the interpretation of Scripture, that bothers me. But, Jonah chapter 1 didn’t seem to lead naturally to Jesus. Should I force a link when I honestly can’t see one? That would have bothered me too. My exegesis may have been weak, but is that any excuse for isagesis? Ummm…another post for another day I think.

I thought I would start a new weekly series.  A few minutes reflection upon my own preaching experience week by week, with one simple question: “What have I learned about preaching, by preaching, this particular Sunday?”

So here is my first venture…

This Sunday I broke from my current series and did a one-off on a subject that has been occupying my mind a lot of late: how do we cope with life’s storms? I took the four classic storm stories of the Bible–Jonah, Jesus calming the storm, Jesus walking on water, and Paul’s Shipwreck–and offered a simple reflection on each.  It was amazingly well received for what was a rather simple and straightforward message. Here is what I think I learned.

1. Make God BIG and CENTRAL

Although it was a message about coping with life’s storms, I focused a lot on God. Which if you think about it, is so obvious it shouldn’t need saying. But it seems that when the chips are down, people don’t want “four easy steps to survive your storm”. What they want is to be reminded of how great God is, and particularly of such things as His sovereign power, His great compassion, the unstoppable nature of His purposes, and His faithfulness to His people.

2. Be Honest About the Christian Life

Within the context of a BIG God, and a faithful and merciful one too, it’s ok to be honest about the Christian life. If we make God big and central, it doesn’t matter that we don’t have all the answers and that not everything seems to make sense.

3. Use Pictures.

A new use for the much maligned powerpoint. For each point/storm, I had a picture of the relevant Biblical story. One was a famous Turner painting, one was a modern collage, one was a Sunday School picture I think! The point is, just having the picture up there on the screen seemed to help people. Partly it gave them a simple visual to reflect on whilst I was preaching. Partly, it made it obvious when I moved on to another point/storm! Simple visuals seem to help some, without distracting others. It was evangelist Denis Pethers who said that every sermon should be expressible in one simple picture, as well as one short sentence.

That’s all for this week. Let’s see what next week brings.

What Exactly Do You Do With a Church?

I know it seems like a strange question, but it is one that many of us as Pastors or Elders face. It’s “the vision thing” by another name. We want to do more than just keep the doors open or the wheels well oiled and spinning. We want our churches “to go somewhere”–but where?

Rather than suggest all sorts of spiritual exercises for vision seeking, I want to offer a more direct and Bible-based answer.

Many years ago I had the privilege of hearing Bob Roxborough (then Pastor of the Millmead Centre in Guilford) speak about spiritual renewal in the church. He suggested that leaders needed to ask certain key  questions of their church in order to get a sense of mission and vision for the future. In offering these he was summarizing the Five Essential Questions put forward by Pastor Lloyd J Ogilvie (who went on to become Chaplain of the US Senate.)  I find them helpful and I reproduce them here:

Q1. What Kind of People Does God Want Us to Produce in this Church? (The Discipleship Question)

Can you describe what a healthy, Christ-like disciple should look and sound like in your community?

Interestingly, many of the “successful” mega-churches in the U.S. have a very clear description of the sort of disciples they are seeking to produce. Perhaps this is a lesson we could all usefully learn?

Q2. What Kind of ‘Experiences’ Do People Need to Have In order to Become Those Kinds of People? (The Process Question).

The key word to me in the above question is “experiences”. Note that Ogilvie did not say ‘sermons’ or ‘teaching’.  To be sure, teaching is vitally important, but by itself it is not enough. Experiences is a broad word that covers…well…more or less anything and everything–small groups, mentoring, mission trips, practical hands-on training, seminars, retreats, worship times, friendships…

Q3.  What Kind of Leaders are Needed to Provide Those Kinds of Experiences? (The Leadership Development Question)

It amazes me the number of churches who do not have a leadership development process. At its most basic, such a process should have as its aims to

  • Discern (or Identify)
  • Develop (or Train)
  • Deploy

leaders at every level and in every area of the church. It is as much an attitude and a culture as it is a program.

However, since my own church that I Pastor has no such program, perhaps I ought to eat humble pie, bow my head in shame, and move on to the next question.  (Which, ironically, follows on nicely…)

Q4 What Kind of Pastor is Needed to Train Those Kinds of Leaders? (The Pastor Question)

Obviously a better one than me! But perhaps that is not quite true. Perhaps what is nearer the mark is, a Pastor like me with

  • different priorities (such as training others to do, rather doing ministry myself)
  • a different model of ministry (where my ministry is preparing others for ministry)
  • different skills (in training and mentoring)

This in turn leads to…

Q5. What Kind of ‘Experiences’ Does the Pastor Need to Be(come) That Kind of Pastor? (The Theological Education Question)

For me, this means asking what kinds of training do I need to develop these new priorities, models and skills. What courses are available? What books and tapes? Do I need to design my own study/growth program? What churches or pastors can I visit to learn from? Who could mentor me?

However, one cannot fully answer this question until the church or leadership has developed clear  answers to the first four questions.

 

The process that Pastor Ogilvie outlines may seem less spiritual than holing away in a monastery for a week and seeking a vision from on-high. And yet, if a Church and its leadership were to seriously, prayerfully and with due attention to the Bible, were to work through these questions, the results could be truly transformational.

Question: Do you have any experience of trying to work through questions like these? If so, what were your results? And what difference did it make to your church or your ministry?

[Every so often I want to offer a brief Biblical or theological reflection on ministry. Here is one of them…]

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. – The Apostle Paul (Acts 20 v28)

Ever wondered what on earth it is we’re actually supposed to be doing?

Every so often, amidst all the meetings and appointments and emails and complaints and problems and admin, you suddenly get one of those “why am I doing this?” moments.  At least, I do.

 

Searching the Epistles for Answers

Many years ago I did an extensive study of the Pastoral Epistles. I asked myself one basic question, what exactly did Paul expect Timothy and Titus to do?

The conclusion I came to was this–Paul expected his younger understudies to do two things:

  • Keep the flock together in unity
  • Help each individual towards Christ-like maturity.

Unity and Maturity…that was it.

 

Learning from the First Church

Recently I have been preaching on Acts 2.  I noted how, in the Greek text, the  key promise in Peter’s final appeal was not so much the forgiveness of sins, but rather the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Thus the Acts 2 Church is presented as very much The Community of the Holy Spirit.

One of the key features of that first community was its deep unity. For example, they were devoted to

  • the prayers’ –implying praying in common, together
  • the fellowship’–suggesting that they weren’t so much committed to just fellowship (having a few mates in the church) as THE fellowship (being part of one, united body).

As I explained to the Church, this should not surprise us. The Holy Spirit’s vertical ministry, as it were, is to connect us through Christ to the Father, so that we may grow in intimacy with Him and also experience more of the salvation that Christ has won for us.

Thus we may say that He seeks to give us greater oneness with the Father and the Son, that we may grow in maturity.

In the same way, the Spirit’s horizontal ministry is to bind us every more fully into a oneness of community, around Christ. That is, to help us experience ever more deeply the unity that we have as Christ’s body.

Unity and Maturity.

So it seems to me, that although we are under-shepherds of Christ, we are also overseers by the Holy Spirit, and as such our ministry reflects and draws upon His ministry–that ministry of bringing people to greater maturity in Christ and greater unity in Christ.

 

Making It Personal

More than some vaguely interesting (or not) point of theology, this makes me realize that ALL true pastoral ministry must be profoundly Holy Spirit based, Holy Spirit lead, and Holy Spirit enabled. I can begin to understand why Paul Yongi-Cho referred to the Holy Spirit as “My Senior Pastor”.

It makes me ask myself how much my own ministry is founded upon a true dependence on the Holy Spirit.

I can hear the words of Bob Roxborough ringing in my ears “there is all the difference in the world between professional ministry and a life empowered by the Spirit.”

That’s why we are here, to promote Unity and Maturity, just as the Holy Spirit who appointed us seeks to do Himself.

And we either work for Him, and under Him, or we don’t work at all.

 

I’m told that in American Football (that’s the one that’s a bit like Rugby) there is a tradition called Monday Morning Quarter-backing. Basically, every Monday morning after a match, the coach and the Quarter-back sit down with a tape of the game and go through every play, every throw, every decision.  It helps the QB, the key player in the team, evaluate his performance and identify areas for improvement.

It’s something we Preachers could do too.

How often do you listen to a copy of your previous Sunday’s sermon? If you’re like me, there are quite a few that you just don’t want to have to listen to ever again! Actually, these are probably the ones we most need to listen to again. It’s from these strike-outs (to mix my American sporting metaphors) that we can learn the most.

My suggestion is that we listen to our previous Sunday’s message, with a notebook in hand, and ask ourselves just a single, key question:

If I was preaching this message again, what one thing would I do differently?

That’s it.

The answer could be anything, of course.

*Sharpen the headings on the points

*Spend more time within the sermon on application

*Use a few more (or less) illustrations

*Have my ending clearly worked out

The one thing you are not allowed to put is “work harder on the sermon”. That’s a no-no for two reasons:-

Reason 1: It’s a rod for your own back . Exactly how hard is enough?

Reason 2: It’s too vague. What would you actually do differently next time? “Work harder”. Yes, but on what? The exegesis? Understanding the background? Structuring the sermon?  You can’t prescribe effectively without exactness in diagnosis.

So, write your one thing down. That’s all.

And do the same next week….

And the week after….

And the week after that….

Fairly soon, if you have a weakness in your preparation or delivery, it will become apparent. If four weeks out of five you find yourself putting down “make sermon structure clearer,” then that is telling you something.  It is also giving you something more helpful to focus on than “try harder”.

(In case you’re wondering, my repetitive mistake is….not working out, and writing down my ending. Sometimes my sermon is like a plane coming in to the runway on a foggy day. You think it’s about to land and then off  it zooms again!)

So get your notebook out, get listening, and start identifying your ‘one thing’.

Oh yes, why Monday Morning Quarter-backing on a Tuesday? Because if you’re at all human, when you’ve preached a real stinker, you”re far too depressed on a Monday to listen to it again objectively! So give yourself a little time to get back on an even keel.

And don’t be too hard on yourself. Remember, even the great Dan Marino threw an occasional bad pass!

So what’s your repeated mistake or weakness in your preaching? Please leave a comment below.

I probably learned more about preaching after Bible College, than I did while I was at College.

My College time taught me a lot about how to interpret the Bible, but not necessarily about how to communicate it. Shortly after I’d graduated, however, two things happened that changed my preaching forever;

#1 I heard Dr Jim Packer give some masterly talks on preaching at the 1987 Evangelical Ministry Assembly.

#2 I read John Stott’s “I Believe in Preaching”.

I will talk about Dr Packer at a later date. For now, I want to reflect briefly on John Stott’s excellent book.

Here are three things that I learnt from it. They have stood me in good stead down the years.

1. Preachers Must Have a Theological Understanding of What They Are Really Doing?

In other words, you must have a theology of preaching.

When I was a young Christian, a sermon seemed to equal three points from a Bible passage, preferably all beginning with the same letter. Such a practice probably owed more to the academic class room than to a robust theological understanding of preaching.

Preaching is not delivering a lecture; nor is it giving “a talk”. Many people who criticize preaching rightly point out some of the modern trends that make our task difficult. But they often seem to be confusing preaching with something else, such as giving an educational lecture. There seems little theological understanding of preaching in some of their comments. This worries me.

In “I Believe in Preaching”, Stott lays out some Biblical and theological foundations for understanding preaching and the preaching ministry. They are a useful starting point for developing one’s own theology of this vital ministry.

So what is your theology of preaching? (Do you have one??)

 

2. The Essence of a Good Sermon is Being Able to Summarize Your Message in a Single Sentence.

For me, this drives at the heart of the difference between teaching and preaching.

In teaching one might be explaining a doctrine, or showing various different truths to be found in a passage. The emphasis is on imparting information, and helping people understand and (hopefully) apply it. But preaching is much more singular. In preaching one has a message. Or one has a single truth and a particular application of that truth. And the emphasis in preaching is on response, on getting people to repent and believe, to change by the power of God. As such, Stott said, one should be able to summarize this message in a single, sharp sentence.

I guess you could say, every sermon should have its own mission statement!

As I looked back on my preaching, I had to acknowledge Stott was right. All my best sermons had that quality about them–there was a focus, a unity of purpose, a single and obvious key point. My poorer sermons were much more muddled and meandering.

So here’s a question to ask (and perhaps a habit to develop too):

Could I summarize the message of my sermon in a 140 character tweet?

 

3. A Preacher Must Be Disciplined and Intentional in Their Study Habits.

I think I read Stott’s chapter on “Study” more times than any chapter in any other book. It seared into my mind and soul.

Stott outlines the need both for dedicated study of the Word of God, alongside related reading such as theology, and also equally dedicated study of the world around us. This is in order “to bring the Word to the World”, to use a favourite phrase of his.

He outlines several practical guidelines for such study, and I have endeavored to learn and apply his principles. One of the simplest, most helpful, and also most challenging is this; the effective preacher should aim to study,

* an hour a day

*an afternoon a week

*a day a month

*a week a year

As Stott points out, this adds up to some 400 hours a year!

So if you haven’t read “I Believe in Preaching” (or “Between Two Worlds” in the USA) may I recommend it as a positive investment in your preaching ministry.

Until next time, let me close with a final question.

In terms of study, have you found any particular patterns that work? Or any particular habits that have proved useful? If so, why not share them with us?

Please leave your comments below.