Is your preaching consistent?
I know you hope, pray and work for excellence, but the bottom line is most of our preaching is a bit hit and miss. I wonder, though, if congregations really need consistent preaching as much as anything. I don't mean consistently bad, of course. But some assurance that when they come to church they will at least hear a resonable sermon? In other words, is a consistent level better than 50% above the line and 50% below?
Perhaps this is provocative, but I think that is an easier and more helpful ministry to sit under. It also allows the consistent preacher to push the entire bar up rather than just deal with the troughs.
How then does a preacher work at consistency? Here are some ideas:
- we all know that some sermons take longer than others. That depends on the man, I guess. I know an average sermon takes me 10 hours to prepare, but I also know that some take 12 and some take 6. It depends on a huge number of factors. So, here's the idea. Always plan your week for your worst case. If you know it sometimes takes you 12 hours, plan for 12 hours, even if it often only takes 10. That way, you've always allowed time to get up to a consistent level. Plan for 10? You'll be stuffed by the hard nut sermon that you just can't crack and your congregation will suffer too.
- seek feedback and measure it up against your preparation process. I often find that my best sermons have least effect and vice versa!! Asking others what they thought and what they found useful (not just technically, but in the way it came across) and then matching that feedback to how the week's prep worked out is a good way of working for consistency.
- start your prep before finishing the previous message. In a series I've already worked through a book and I try to start the prep for next week on the Friday. I find it informs the coming sermon and sharpens the one for the following week.
Of course, having said all that – and before the emails flood in – I'm not arguing for mediocrity. Consistency is not the same as medicority. Nor am I denying the spiritual aspect of preaching. Praise God – the effectiveness of sermons is about so much more than my effort or work. But to deny the human element of this means of grace is a false spirituality.
Does God have a bank holiday?
Yet another bank holiday in the UK and everything is closed. It got me thinking about what God does on his day off – not a bank holiday of course, but his Sabbath. Some very brief observations:
- the Sabbath day is clearly special. In Genesis 1 fish, birds, animals and humans are blessed, but not days 1-6. Only "Day 7" is blessed. Only that Sabbath is holy.
- the Sabbath day is unending. The day formula (and whatever else you may think about Genesis 1, there is surely no doubt that the days are supposed to look like days) is missing from "Day 7" – there is no day 7, just the beginning of a new age in which God rests
- the Sabbath day is not a day of inactivity for God. He "rested from all the work that he had done in creation" – but he is not in his deck chair. "My Father is working until now, and I am working" said the creating Son (John 5.17)
- the Sabbath day is forward looking. That becomes clear as we unfold a biblical theology of Sabbath, particularly as it is seen in the Hebrews 4 Bible Study. "So, then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his" (Hebrews 4.9-10).
Here's Calvin on the Sabbath and resting from our works:
Now this conformation the Apostle [sic?] teaches us takes place when we rest from our works. It hence at length follows, that man becomes happy by self-denial. For what else is to cease from our works, but to mortify our flesh, when a man renounces himself that he may live to God? For here we must always begin, when we speak of a godly and holy life, that man being in a manner dead to himself, should allow God to live in him, that he should abstain from his own works, so as to give place to God to work. We must indeed confess, that then only is our life rightly formed when it becomes subject to God. But through inbred corruption this is never the case, until we rest from our own works; nay, such is the opposition between God’s government and our corrupt affections, that he cannot work in us until we rest. But though the completion of this rest cannot be attained in this life, yet we ought ever to strive for it. Thus believers enter it but on this condition, — that by running they may continually go forward. (Commentary on Hebrews)
Hearing the Spirit
Christopher's new book Hearing the Spirit is now out. There will be plenty of copies available at the EMA, but for those who are unable to make it there, it's already on sale at 10ofthose.com here. It's an excellent, well-argued, appreciation of the work of the Spirit in relation to the Word, focusing in particular on John's Gospel. If you were at last year's EMA you will have heard some of it, but the argument is much more developed than those two short sessions allowed Christopher. Like The Priority of Preaching, this promises to be an important book for our understanding of the way that God works in the age of the church.
I've had the joy of reading it several times because our book publications are one of my areas of responsibility. I enjoyed it each time – it got me thinking; it stretched my thinking and it helped my thinking. Don't tell Christopher, but I'm pretty sure I can arrange for signed copies for £400 each…just send me a cheque.
Early Diary Dates
Booking is not yet open for our next season of conferences (it opens on 1 July) but many of our conferences now get booked up early so it helps with planning to have the dates in the diary now. So, here's a list of some of our most popular conferences together with dates for 2011/12:
- Autumn Ministers Conference with Carl Trueman, Dick Lucas and Charles & Tricia Marnham: 7-10 November 2011
- Women in Ministry Conference with Andrea Trevenna and Vaughan Roberts: 23-26 January 2012
- Spring Wives Conference hosted by Dick & Suzanne Farr: 5-8 March 2012
- Spring Senior Ministers Conference with John Dickson & David Meredith: 30 April – 3 May 2012
- Spring Younger Ministers Conference with John Dickson & David Cook: 8-11 May 2012
- EMA 2012 with Paul Tripp, Mike Reeves, Christopher Ash, Mervyn Eloff, David Cook & Glynn Harrison: 27-29 June 2012
- Summer Wives Conference hosted by Adrian & Celia Reynolds: 10-13 July 2012
BTW: you’re not the Messiah
Always a helpful reminder. Read Christopher's short and very sharp exposition of Psalm 131 here (May 2011 Evangelicals Now).
If a spiritual listening device were switched on in our churches, it would pick up a lot of noise, disquiet, anxiety in our hearts — about our jobs, or joblessness, our pensions, elderly parents, difficult teenagers, a troubled marriage, the aftermath of divorce, our health, upcoming exams, whether we will get married, whether we can have children… The list is endless. Can you put your hand on your heart and say, ‘I have a quiet soul. There is no noisiness inside me. Even in the midst of pressures and busyness my heart is at peace and still’?
Senior Ministers: New Music
We had Philip Percival with us last week helping with music and were able to learn three new songs, the first of which we even managed in three/four part harmony – amazing!
- Behold our God from the new Sovereign Grace Risen! album – lead sheet and piano score here
- We're not alone (or Never alone) by Philip Percival himself – sheet music here
- This life I live by Michael Morrow (EMU music) – sheet music here
All worth learning and singing.
Numbers 33: what do you do with a long list of names
Last week we spent some wonderful time with Iain Duguid in the book of Numbers. Here's some helpful stuff on Numbers 33 which might also help you with clear thinking about some of the other lists of names in the Old Testament:
On the face of it, Numbers 33 is one of the most unpromising texts in the Old Testament. It is a list of place names, but not just a random collection of place names. Rather, it is a list designed (at God's command) to shape Israel's perspective on her wilderness wanderings as a whole. When we look closely, there are three different kinds of places listed here. Some of the places where they stayed call to mind the Lord's faithfulness to Israel in providing for their needs in the desert. Others call to mind Israel's sinful rebellion against the Lord at a variety of points through their wandering. Still others are places where, as far as we know, nothing particular of note happened. Each of these categories has lessons for God's people.
(1) The people needed to be reminded of God's faithfulness along the way. (2) The people needed to be reminded of God's forgetfulness along the way. Curiously, you wouldn't know about the rebellion from the list itself. Whilst some mention is made of God's faithfulness along the way, none is made of the people's sin apart from the place names themselves. When God lists the wanderings, he chooses to pass over the sin in silence. (3) The majority of the time nothing happens at these places. They are the geographical equivalents of 'Tuesdays' – days which are often immemorble. Life is not a collection of highs and lows, but the majority of life is about the time in between and God is in those days and places too.
Why are there so many stories in the Bible or why the Old Testament is so long?
Some brief notes from Iain Duguid's second session: Why are there so many stories in the Bible?
"In our culture, stories are for children and for the beach in the summer. We tend to regard stories as fluff, or at least less than fully serious. So why does the Bible, the most serious book in the world, contain so many stories?"
Here are his answers:
- a good story has a universal appeal. Not everybody loves to read theology textbooks, but people love a story. The youngest child or oldest saint can grasp and enjoy a well written narrative. Narrative has the unique ability to be both simple and profound, ministering to people of all ages and conditions. No wonder the Bible itself is one grand narrative.
- stories help put flesh on abstract ideas. "You shall not grumble" is an abstract idea. Numbers 11 explains it well….in a story. The narratives of Scripture similarly show us what the character of God means in practice and not just in theory. This is also why the Old Testament is so long. How you do display God-sized patience except in a long series of stories?
- stories are able to convey the complexity of life in the world in which we live. Life on earth is rarely simple and unambiguous. We are bit players in a much larger story and narrative is well suited to that idea.
We've been gettng into Numbers (even Numbers 33!!) and these points have been shown to be true. You'll have to wait for audio and video (hopefully next week or so).
Duguid: Why we need the gospel that changes
We're at the Senior Ministers' Conference at the moment and enjoying the ministry of Iain Duguid. Iain is a great OT scholar and is at Grove City College (if you're from the US you will understand that, if you're from the UK….). Iain's print ministry has always been a great help to me, now he's here in person and we've been usefully hearing about preaching Christ from the Old Testament.
His introduction to his subject has been particularly useful. It was a reminder that it is the gospel that changes and it is why we need the gospel – ALWAYS. He cautioned against what Newton called the "inefficacy of knowledge" – knowledge about the gospel does not change (isn't that a great challenge for preachers). The gospel changes. And it's why we need the gospel.
How much of our preaching is sharpened by this, asked Iain? He gave an illustration of a student on campus who is ordinarily scruffy, smelly and takes no care over his appearance. If he suddenly turns up one day smart and smelling of cologne, you know he's met a girl! This is what Thomas Chalmers calls "the expulsive power of a new affection" (try googling the sermon, it's great stuff).
If, said Iain, the Westminster Shorter Catechism is right and the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, then the goal of preaching must be to help people glorify God and enjoy him forever. Does your preaching do this? Do you even think about it this way?
@thecross is a new book by John Benton published by EP. It grew out of sermons that John preached at Chertesy Street Baptist Church in Guildford. From the start it's obvious that this book is pastoral. John's got a big brain and he's a well known newspaper editor, but he is first and foremost a pastor and in this book, it shows. That makes the book both accessible and warmly applied, two necessary ingredients that can't always be taken for granted.
The burden of the book is not revolutionary nor that of novelty, but one of reminder:
The central burden of this book is to back to some passages of Scripture and rediscover, restate and rejoice in the breaktaking reality of what the cross of Christ achieved, which is the gospel preached by the apostle (p12)
I think it's fair to say that aim is neatly and carefully achieved. Pastors or mature Christians are unlikely to find theological stretch here, but that's hardly the point of the book. There is, however, warmth and vitality. Six chapters cover six essential ingredients: faith alone; penal substitution; justification; imputed righteousness; Christ's obedience and sanctification.
I was particularly struck by four and five. Much has been written on penal substitution in recent years and I wonder if that has meant we have neglected some other key doctrines. Therefore a chapter explaining imputation simply but profoundly is extraordinarily welcome, as is the chapter on the active obedience of Christ (which I posted on a few days ago) – forgiveness is not enough!
Even after the forgiveness of sins, there would still be an obligation to obey God perfectly. If the original promise of life to Adam was based on a probationary period of obedience, it seems strange to think that God would proceed to grant eternal life simply on the basis of man being forgiven for his sins and so returned to Adam's state of guiltlessness. Something more is required (p93)
Each chapter ends with a little story of a real person and an illustration of how the truth of the chapter has changed the life of that person. They are very helpful in terms of applying warmly what to some might seem rather cold doctrines. Bang on the money!
I did like this book:
- it warmed my heart even though it didn't tell me anything I didn't already know
- it stirred my imagination to think about a similar little series
- it made me think of people that I could pass the book onto – even perhaps serious seekers struggling with the cross? Certainly thinking church members who, like me, need to be constantly stirred by the truth that "Jesus died for sins."