I had an interesting conversation this morning with someone about topical preaching. We had been listening to a talk at a pastor’s convention on race and ethnicity (a very good one, as it happens) which had gone all over the Bible. “A good sermon?” he asked. “A good talk” I replied – in fact, very good. But not a sermon, I don’t think, because (1) of the context (a conference not a church) and (2) because it not exposition. There was no control.
That’s the thing about good preaching. The Bible is in control. I do preach topical sermons, and in these sermons I do use other Bible passages, but I try always to have one passage as an anchor so there is constraint and the constraint comes from God’s word. People need to see that this is not me speaking, but God. And the danger with trawling references is that just because you include something, doesn’t mean there isn’t other stuff you should have put in too. It can work, but it’s a difficult thing.
Take one passage, however, and suddenly the sermon changes. You have a divinely inspired constraint which, I believe, God blesses. Don’t get me wrong – there’s a place for those other kind of talks in church (and one of modern problems is that we’ve eliminated all the traditional spots where they might have happened, a bug bear of mine). But the sermon should be constrained by the text and that is expositional preaching. Topical preaching should be a subset of it.
Of course, that means you won’t always be able to say everything you want to say about a subject: the passage in question might not be as comprehensive as it would be if you had inspired the Scriptures. But isn’t that rather the point?
The deadline looms
Sometimes, through no fault of our own, deadlines come upon us that put us under severe pressure. That’s the nature of the task. For the record, I don’t have a huge amount of sympathy for pressures that come because we can’t organise ourselves very well (and you’re in ministry because….? Remember 1 Tim 3.4) nor pressures that arise because we’re lazy. Nevertheless, putting our sins aside, sometimes deadlines do pile up. This week I’ve got a very difficult funeral, a boss who needs to be absent, a senior pastor away just when some key pastoral stuff has arisen. It just happens that way sometimes.
Here’s what I’ve written in my journal as learning points (principally for my own benefit, but they may be helpful).
1. Don’t get into the habit of being a last minute junkie. I’ve quite enjoyed the positive stress that such pressing needs can bring. It could easily become habit forming. This is not normal –nor must I allow it to be so.
2. It’s OK to stretch the day once in a while. Today is a day of burning the candle at both ends. My loving Mrs R understands this and my kind daughter accommodates it. But, again, such stretching is OK sometimes, but must not become commonplace. Capacity is lower than today’s stretch.
3. Don’t sacrifice prayer time. Tempting though it is, it’s a false economy. I work in an office and we meet to pray every Monday. This week I made sure I still did, even though every fibre of my sinful being was crying out “you’ve too much to do…”
4. Be happy with less than perfection. I like to get things exactly right and I work very hard at sermons. But a good pastor needs to be able to leave things with the Lord, even when circumstances have meant that my normal eight hour sermon prep has been curtailed.
5. Don’t tell people how hard you’re working. I realise the irony of this point, given that I’m telling you, but don’t dare offer me any pity. I feed on self-pity and yours will not help one bit. I do have a temptation to make something of my self-sacrifice from the pulpit, but this is one sin that must be mastered.
6. Seek more grace. Always.
What will you do with the word of God?
Sometimes, my own preaching convicts me deeply. There is always challenge of course, but sometimes the application seems so pointed and precise that it almost has my name on it. So it was with 1 Kings 13 last Sunday, one of the more bizarre parts of 1 Kings: a great story, carefully told, but inpenetrable to some.
It’s essentially the story of two men who defy the word of God. Jeroboam is obvious. He has already heard God’s word and continues to set himself against it. Judgement and destruction await. This is about outright rejection of God’s word.
But there is a more subtle danger. The “man of God” – the young, clear, courageous, direct, bold prophet who speaks to Jeroboam, himself “defies” the word of the Lord as he goes against what God has said and gives in to the lying prophet. There are many questions here, but the lesson is clear – even the most orthodox and assured preacher is at risk of (in this case) going against God’s word. What he is in public is not what he turns out to be in private.
And his fate is equally certain. Death. For the record, I think there are many clues that he is not thrown out of the covenant people. He continues to be known by the important title “man of God” (20 of its 80 occurrences in the OT are here in this one chapter). The lion who kills him then appears to stand guard over him! He is spoken of highly by the older prophet. This is not, in other words, about losing your salvation. Rather this is about (precisely) preachers of the word of God staying faithful and true to the word of God and not turning to the right or the left.
And it is in this precision that I find the challenge. Don’t you, Mr Preacher? What will you do with the word of God? Not just in public, in the pulpit, but every moment. For us, of course, that is a deeper question. It is not about a relationship to a book, but a relationship to a King. What will you do with the word of God? is actually What will you do with the Son of God?
There’s something to be thinking about on a Monday morning.
Make the most of a quieter week
I’ve lots of books on preaching on my shelves, but one of the most unusual is undoubtedly “The Hardest Sermons You’ll Ever Have To Preach” – a collection of two dozen or so sermons preached at hard moments – deaths, national tragedies, suicides and so on. The sermons are a bit of a mixed bag, to be honest, but each is accompanied by a few pages of pastoral notes outlining the preachers’ approach, why he chose this passage, some pastoral wisdom and so on. It’s a very helpful book.
Especially because next week I will have to preach one of the hardest sermons I’ve ever had to preach. One of our students’ baby died at term and I’m taking the funeral next Friday. It’s a tough assignment, all the more so because these situations require pastoral time in an already squeezed week. I generally spend about 8 hours on a sermon, so, all other things being equal, I’ve got to find at least that over the next few days to prepare this hard, and also important sermon. (So, John/Mike/Olu if I don’t reply to your emails you now know why!)
Most of us who are preachers don’t preach absolutely every week, or have slightly lighter loads at times. I hope you use this down time (or reduced time) wisely – reading, praying, resting, thinking and so on. But here’s another thing that I would add to the list: at least do some thinking and preparing for some of these hard moments. If you’re a pastor (and you are, Mr Preacher), then these moments will come at some point. The chances are you will be needed straight away to counsel and comfort. You’ve got to – if you can excuse the frivolity – have something up your sleeve.
I don’t mean that you just preach the pre-packaged funeral sermon. You’re not the journeyman funeral guy. But you need to be able to hit the ground running. I’ve done a lot of funerals, but this is the first of this type, and I wished I had given it more thought before it happened.
For the record, I’m preaching Psalm 139 which gives us the all-knowing God’s creating in the womb alongside the numbering of our days. It is honest about the struggles of life (“If only you would slay the wicked”) and calls us to self examination (“Search me, God”). It also points us towards another who was knit together in his mother’s womb and for whom his days were numbered – another whose life was cut short: but who conquered death and gives the same hope to all who trust in him.
Invite a friend to the EMA
Last year, we welcomed 1,400 people to the EMA. It was a greatly encouraging time – to meet together, to sing together, to pray together, to listen and learn together. There is nothing else quite like it that brings evangelicals together – and for this we’re very grateful. Each year, we welcome a few hundred newcomers. Some of these are those starting out in ministry; others are those thinking seriously about ministry (indeed, that was how I first came to an EMA, invited by my pastor); others are those who are perhaps unfamiliar with PT but are brought along by friends.
We long to serve all that come, and we long that more would come – not for any reason except that we believe a deep commitment to expository ministry, worked out in a godly life and healthy church, is at the heart of God’s revealed plan to build his church and bring glory to Christ.
To make it easier to bring people along, we introduced a buddy rate last year. This gives you the opportunity to invite a friend who has not been before, or perhaps someone who has not been for a long time, at a reduced rate. The benefit is not only what they will hear, but the time you will be able to spend with them in deepening friendships and partnerships.
We can advertise all we want, but most people come to the EMA because they are brought by a friend. And yet, perversely, many of us lack deep friendships in ministry. Perhaps, just perhaps, this might be a year and a topic where you could use the EMA to foster just the kind of ministry relationships we need if, in God’s goodness, we are to keep going.
EMA 2016, Leaders who last, booking is open here.
Seminar streams at the EMA
Throughout the EMA we’ll be running seminar streams that take the issue of perseverance and develop it more thoroughly, alongside some preaching and teaching seminars which retain the focus of the EMA which is to promote expository ministry, as well as build networks of expository ministers.
The main seminar stream has three different topics – but all related to the main theme. Don Carson will give us a brief introduction to John’s letters. Don has been working on these recently and sees them as key to understanding how we – and our churches – persevere. This one off session will be accompanied by our launch of Mervyn Eloff’s Teaching John’s letters in our PT Resources series. For the second and third session we will be helped by Robin Weekes (Emmanuel Church, Wimbledon) and Graham Beynon (Graced Church, Cambridge & Oak Hill). They will address particular topics which we need to embrace if we are to make it to the finish line – Robin will speak on contentment, particularly as it relates to battling through tough times; Graham will address putting sin to death, the great call of Romans 8 to all of us, and at the heart of biblical perseverance. Both of these will have an interactive question time.
Other seminar streams are available to three -day guests.
Dan Steel (Magdalen Road Church, Oxford) will lead a three day stream for younger guys, specifically addressing issues that arise early in ministry and how we plan for the longer term. It is really important to think carefully about how to begin well.
Andrew Cornes (recently retired from All Saints Crowborough) will bring his unique and honest insights to those who are in the last 10 years of paid ministry. How can you end well? Again, this is a key issue for many.
Carrie Sandom (St John’s Tunbridge Wells & PT Women’s Director) will lead a stream focusing on perseverance as a woman in ministry.
Then we have three streams which are about our core work – expository ministry.
Tim Ward (Christchurch Bromley and PT Cornhill) will lead a preaching stream focusing on 2 Peter. This important book is often overlooked and contains many themes pertinent to perseverance. The stream will enable those who attend to grapple with the book and get ready to preach or teach it.
Nigel Styles (new Director of PT Cornhill) will lead a small preaching masterclass – just 20 guys in a boardroom style. This is for those with 10-15 years + experience in preaching and is designed to keep you going in preaching, at the heart of a persevering ministry.
Adrian Reynolds (Director of Ministry) will lead our preaching refresher. This is one of our most important streams as it introduces or reminds preachers of the some of the essential basics. It is suitable for occasional preachers and new preachers, or simply those who want to refresh their slightly tired skills. Adrian will use some of Dick’s original preaching instructions and material developed by the Simeon Trust to teach this stream.
These smaller seminar streams are limited to 50 people each (masterclass – 20) and places will be offered on a first come, first served basis.
EMA 2016, Leaders who last, booking is open here.
Dick and Don in da Barbican
We always think carefully about who we ask to speak from the platform at our annual EMA conference. On the whole, we want preachers to speak to preachers, so even when we ask well known writers or scholars to speak we do so because of their experience as preachers of the word of God. We know, we’re sure, that we must keep things real, and for no topic is this more important than for the one of ministry perseverance.
For 2016, we’re grateful to God for a number of top quality speakers, including our very own Dick and Don (Lucas and Carson respectively). The morning expositions will be led by Simon Manchester, a wise and gracious preacher from St Thomas Church in North Sydney. Simon is himself no stranger to the struggles to persevere and his preaching will set us up each morning.
Don Carson joins us for the first time since 2009 to give us a biblical theology of perseverance. Many people have read Don’s book about his father’s ministry and know that his background is rooted not in the cut and thrust of mega church politics, but rather in the crucible of a small struggling ministry where the temptation to give up – financially, spiritually, physically – was ever present. Don is going to show us why and how we should persevere, whatever stage of ministry we are at.
Vaughan Roberts, PT’s Director, will lead us in one session with one of his pen portraits – this time around looking at John Newton, another great pastor who persevered and had an extensive ministry in encouraging many others, old and young, to do so as well.
To close the day, we have asked three UK preachers to bring us back to the gospel and how we are to keep preaching to outsiders, to the church and – crucially – to ourselves. We’ve asked three preachers from different stages of ministry to show how the topic of perseverance is one that we all need to address: Jonty Allcock from the Globe Church in London represents a younger generation who often think themselves bullet proof, Alasdair Paine (St Andrew the Great, Cambridge) flies the flag for the middle stages, where many simply coast along, and we’re pleased to say that Dick Lucas has agreed to take the last session, representing someone who has kept persevering and continues to do so.
EMA 2016, Leaders who last, booking is open here.
Introducing the 2016 Evangelical Ministry Assembly
Statistically speaking, many of us in ministry will give up. Some of us will suffer moral failure and have to step down. Some of us will burn out and have to step away. Some of us will keep going in body, but not in spirit. Those are the statistical realities.
Not me, of course. I will keep going! Won’t I?
If we are going to love God and love our people, we MUST think about ministry for the long haul. We MUST think about how we cultivate and nurture these loves. We MUST build in patterns and structures that enable us to flourish in our own walk with Christ and our ministry to others.
The trouble is, such proactive management is well down our list of priorities. If we’re near the finishing line, we think we will be able to limp over, even if we do so in neutral, coasting to the tape. If we’re just starting out, we feel we’re invincible and don’t need to worry too much about perseverance; that’s for the oldies. If we’re in the middle stages – well, we’ve made it this far, haven’t we?
The pastoral epistles are full of perseverance language, applied equally to the young pastor Timothy and the old apostle Paul. Put it another way, the man or woman in ministry who gives no thought to this important topic is already walking along the cliff edge and neither the gospel, our people nor, ultimately, the glory of Christ, deserves such lazy and thoughtless attention. We can’t afford NOT to persevere.
We must be leaders who last.
The EMA booking is now officially open. The 2016 EMA, Leaders who last, is at the Barbican Conference Centre in London from Tuesday 21 – Thursday 23 June. There are standard rates, student and apprentice rates and buddy rates.
Details are here, booking is here.
The King’s songbook
Preaching the psalms is harder than it looks. I’m pretty convinced about that every time I pick up a psalm to preach or, as is the recent case, a few psalms to write study notes on. They’re rooted in the Old Testament, like (say) OT narrative and therefore we have to apply some of the same rules and guidelines we apply there. They’re poetry, like the prophets, and therefore we have to apply some of the same rules and guidelines we apply there. But they’re also heart songs and therefore sermons that reduce them down to logical truths expressed in cold language are hardly doing justice to the text; in which case that’s hardly expository preaching.
No, they’re a tough nut. Ironically, we often say to new preachers or those with little experience – “just choose a psalm and preach on that.” That’s a difficult gig for someone starting out and we ought to be more thoughtful.
Of course, when we get them right, the results are immensely rewarding. Take Psalm 127, for example. I think this is an example of where getting it wrong could actually be pastorally damaging. If we tell the childless couple that children are a reward from him, what are we actually saying? But what if, instead, we realise this is a covenant song sung by a covenant king, Solomon. What if it’s about him rather than us, in the first instance? What if it’s about The King, rather than us, in the second?
Then your first stanza (1-2) would be something like “the king and his city prosper when the Lord builds” and the second stanza would be something like “the king and his family increase when the Lord rewards” (3-5). These points could then unpack the richness and depth and colour of the poetry whilst being rooted in the real covenant meaning – with obvious, encouraging, challenging and helpful lines of application. Altogether better, I would suggest.
Context – aiding application
Yesterday we saw how the context aids understanding. Many preachers are OK with this, and – to be fair – pretty good at it. But context also aids application. It’s when we see a passage in its context that we begin to see the thrust of why it was written and, so, the primary lines of application today.
Take yesterday’s passage – John 15.26-16.15. My struggle was, in part at least, with lines of application. Is it simply a case of “this is what the Spirit does, Hallelujah!” No (though that would at least be a good start). In this section of John’s gospel there is a residing tension. Jesus is going (14.28). That’s tough for the disciples because the chief call is for them to abide in Christ – i.e. to keep going (15.4). Here is a big ask: keep going, says Jesus. I’m going, says Jesus. How can the two be reconciled? Answer – gloriously, Jesus will send his Spirit, another Helper, so “I will not leave you as orphans.”
So far, so good. But those truths in themselves do not really give you the sharp application the passage deserves. Because, in fact, the presence of Jesus in the world brought opposition, and so too the presence of Jesus by his Spirit, carrying on his work, is going to bring the same opposition (which is the thrust of the immediate context in 15.18-25). There is a tension here – the same Spirit who will aid us and bring us the presence of Jesus will also, precisely because he brings us the presence of Jesus, lead us into the world’s hatred.
Ah! Suddenly now the passage has bite. It makes it harder, as it happens, to apply. But once you get there, you’ve got application that has real zip and does what the passage does. No generalities here – “isn’t it nice we have the Spirit?” No – at one level, it’s not nice at all. Just read 15.18-25 again! But it’s precisely into this context that the application really takes hold of us.
Context isn’t everything here. The application is in the passage, not in the surrounding verses. And yet it is the surrounding verses that really sharpen and shape the application and turn the general into the particular. This is what the passage is about, and this is what your people need to hear.