Using news stories as illustrations
An older preacher I know stores up news stories in a file index system and retrieves them for use as illustrations as and when the need arises. That requires a level of dedication (and time) I simply don’t have. I tend to use the BBC or The Times search functions: very powerful tools indeed. That requires, of course, a knowledge of what you’re looking for. The story must be there somewhere in the back of your head for you to be able to search for it adequately.
But, it also requires a healthy scepticism. News stories – especially online ones – tend to be reductionistic. I think as preachers we need to exercise some caution and realise we don’t always know all the facts. Passing on stories as gospel without being in full possession of the truth is the way of the world – witness the 400,000 who signed the Jeremy Clarkson petition without even knowing what happened! Extraordinary.
But there is more to most stories – and those about Christian bashing which circulate on social media are often very skewed indeed. Take care Mr Preacher. For example, read the actual ruling of a hypothetical tribunal and you discover that Mr A was sacked not for “being a Christian” but some aggressive infringement. I recently read a notorious Ofsted report from cover to cover and had some sympathy (if it reports correctly) with the Secretary of State.
Preachers are not tabloid reporters. Illustrations are helpful windows, but need careful thought if they are going to serve the purpose for which they’re intended.
This morning I spent a happy time with some of my tutees from the Cornhill Training Course. They come from a variety of backgrounds: Anglican and Free Church, married and single, older (some retired) and younger. All of them (and they are 6 months in) have given up things to come and study with us. I asked each of them the same question: any regrets?
To a man (and all my tutees are men, but we also train women!) they said “No.” I was comforted to hear that. It’s not always universally true. Some people start out and find it’s not for them. But they are an unusual rarity. Even though we have a significant number who don’t go into full time ministry, still we find very, very few who ever regret taking the course.
Perhaps you have someone in your church who would benefit? Now’s the time to think about it and one of us here would be glad to chat through some of the options. Why not get in touch?
Fifteen years ago I was in the same boat. I left behind a relatively successful (though I cannot say glittering!) business career. The nice car and house went. We lived a simpler life. And I can honestly say, hand on heart.
Preaching and Leading
Different strokes for different folks. We all come from different traditions which determine what structure services have and who leads and preaches and – critically – whether these are the same people. I’m – to quote Levy – Free Church Reynolds, which means I am comfortable with both leading and preaching in the same service. And for some of the reasons I outlined yesterday, I happen to think that’s an extremely good model. But we don’t particularly stick to it, chez nous. I’m often leading not preaching and vice versa. And that’s OK too, provided there is at some least some joint planning and thinking. When services are a game of two halves with no connection whatsoever, I don’t think it particularly helps anyone. In fact, sometimes it can hinder: imagine you’ve got a particularly sober sermon. The rest of the service needs to reflect that, at least in part.
Just in passing
Some of the most extraordinary truths in Scripture are mentioned almost in passing. Take Ephesians 1.11-14 for example. This was my passage on Sunday and it stirred me greatly. As you almost certainly already know, Paul is first of all talking about himself as a believing Jew before pointing out to the Gentiles that they too have been included in Christ. That’s why he repeats the language of predestination (v.11 compare v.5) and being chosen (v.11 compare v.4) and why he switches from the “we” language to “you” language at verse 13.
But as he points out that he, as a Jew, was amongst those who were first to believe he says the most profound truth about God’s sovereignty:
“[He] works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.”
Just let that sink in! Now, in the context, he is talking about his salvation, but his description of the providence of God encompasses “everything” not just the salvation of some Jews. How do you do justice to such a truth when it is mentioned as though in passing? Here are one or two ideas:
First you could make more of it than the passage does: it could become one of your teaching points. This, I guess, is an obvious temptation. I worry about his approach because it damages the delicate balance that the Spirit has inspired and detracts from the main point Paul is making about inclusion.
You could slow up and just preach the verse. I think this is a good approach as long as it is not the normal one. Most of us preach one verse at some time or another (especially in short evangelistic contexts). There is much to be said for it and it is quite a skill. We get the students to do it here from time to time and they often struggle with it. You can still be expository doing one verse, by the way: you’ve misunderstood expository preaching if you think it needs long passages.
You could use it to inform the rest of the service. This is what I did last Sunday, at least in part. We used it to help us pray and I did a short kids’ talk. We sung a Colin Buchanan song about God being in control and then sung a grown up one too: Sovereign Ruler of the Skies. That way the service held together well and we got as much truth from the passage as we could, even though the message was not skewed away from the Spirit inspired balance.
That – of course – requires the preacher to be the leader too, or at the very least work closely together. Which is a whole different topic.
Some recent additions to our media resources
We keep adding additional old resources to our media pages, as well as new material from conferences as they occur. We’ve just added audio from last week’s wives conference here.
Can I highlight some others which might be of interest? In slightly similar vein to last week’s To Fly, To Serve – but specifically about preaching – are these three talks from David Jackman on putting together an expository sermon.
Our back catalogue now includes almost all talks from past EMAs, with recently additions including lots from Dick Lucas, and some from John Chapman, Peter Jensen, and David Jackman. If you’ve not explored our resources pages, why not give them a go? We hope the filtering system is easy and self-explanatory. We’ve also been working to improve the indexing. If you choose talks on a particular book, they’ll be listed with overviews of the whole book at the top, followed by others in chapter order – for example, if you filter to Romans, you’ll get two overviews (from Dick Lucas and David Cook), and then lots of talks chapter by chapter. If you want to filter further – to just one speaker, or just one conference, for example – then you can choose another filter from the top.
We’ve quite a few more talks to add from the archive, so we’ll hope to build up better coverage of some bible books and some topics where we’re currently a bit thin. Watch this space.
When the word provokes
Scripture is useful for all kinds of things. And we must expect our preaching to sometimes teach, sometimes rebuke, sometimes correct and sometimes train in righteousness so that God’s people are thoroughly equipped for every good work. But increasingly we live in a culture where people crave and expect affirmation. People want to hear something good and encouraging; they don’t want to hear words of correction. Even on The Voice the most awful contestants are affirmed.
Not surprisingly, this echoes in church life. A good sermon – people say – is one which builds, encourages and affirms. I happen to think that preaching which holds out Christ to people should do this a lot. And – for sure – it is easier for preachers to be negative than positive and we want to work hard at presenting the tone and application of the text.
But increasingly, I see people reacting badly against rebuke and correction – even though these are part of the Spirit’s stated aim of the Scriptures. I saw this in action just the other week when I sat under a message which gently rebuked (appropriately so, I thought). It really stirred up a storm. What should have happened is that listeners should have thought, pondered and prayed through what they heard to see if it really did apply to them and, if it did, respond humbly with repentance and a crying out to God for help to change. Instead I saw a lot of negative response. “How dare the preacher….” Interesting.
Deep down, people (and we too, probably) don’t want correction and rebuke. We want warm affirmation. I’m not saying all preaching needs to be tub thumping sin-bashing. It needs to reflect what’s in the text. But we also, as preachers, need to help people respond to those harder sermons when God is changing us into the likeness of Christ.
How do we do that? One idea – just one. We need a little more after the sermon. Not just a closing song. We need to help people through humble repentance step by step because it is so alien to the world. The rather abrupt endings to many of our services do not really help people fight this battle with the world.
To fly to serve part 4
If you’re bored with my metaphor, I’m almost done. I’ve just got to land the plane. Step 4. Your long haul flight is useless without a safe landing. You can be as careful as you like, but if you descend too quickly and hit the deck (or too slowly and miss the runway), the flight is a disaster. An ending can be short and quick – a bit like landing at my local airport, London City. Or it can be a bit longer. But it is still only the landing. It is not the level flight where all the distance is covered.
Your job is to get the passengers safely to earth and at the right destination. Don’t spend the whole of your level flight working towards Manchester, only to land them in Brussels. That won’t do. And the captain takes them right to the gate. No “you can walk from here” like some kind of cut price airline. This is British Airways!
And no presenting anything new. The descent and landing are not, generally speaking, the place to learn new things. They simply bring the truths already learnt to land safely and helpfully.
That is the work of the Bible teacher or preacher. Captain Extraordinary. Four Rings.
To fly to serve part 3
By now, I’m thinking I deserve a BA discount. Any takers? My metaphor may do wonders for the long haul travel market. Step 3 is in level flight. This is where the most part of the journey happens. To listeners it may not seem as glamourous as take-off, nor landing. But in fact, the pilot knows that the distance and direction is covered by the largest portion of the time – time spent in level flight.
This is where the Bible speaker gets the truth from the page and applies it to the hearers’ hearts through their minds. It needs to be understood first, and then – because it is understood – it needs to be felt. What helps?
Structure helps. A pilot needs a flight plan. There should not be too many legs and, like take-off, not too many abrupt changes of direction. In fact, each change should flow naturally from the last. Gentle turns rather than steep banking. I recently flew back from India and we changed direction – slightly – only twice. Whether you have 3 points or 0 points is not really, well, the point. Rather, there should be natural and gentle progression.
Balance helps. People want and need a smooth flight. That will get them to their destination calm rather than agitated. So, for example pace is key. Don’t spent 20 minutes on your first 5 verses and 5 minutes on the next 20. No one wants to be on a flight like that. They’ll worry whether you are going to make it to your destination. And avoid turbulence. Have you ever talked to someone after a long distance flight? What do they say? “A bit bumpy.” Even when it mostly smooth. People remember the lumps and bumps and so – on the whole – you don’t want any lumps and bumps.
Preparing for the end also helps. Don’t leave all your application until the end for example. That’s too much to load into the landing. A careful and wise pilot gives passengers regular updates to show them where they’re going. He tells them the time and weather at their destination, so that when they get there, they’re all ready for it.
And by the end, people should be with you. This is key. Level flight draws people in and helps them to understand the passage and feel the emotion it is supposed to stir in us.
To fly to serve part 2
You may already think I am making too much of my extended metaphor – in which case, take a week off from the blog and come back next Monday. But I have found that when we are training men and women to be Bible teachers – in limited amounts of time – it can help them have a simple illustration which works at many levels, a parable if you like. Yesterday we saw how the pilot needs to be clear on the destination. Today:
Step 2:Take off. How you start really counts. Imagine your transatlantic flight on the runway. Probably some passengers are nervously excited, anticipating the journey. Others want it to be over already. Others still are dreading what might happen. The take-off is key. Your job is to get the plane in the air so that the long, demanding work of being gripped by the text can start.
So, you need to build up speed quickly. Many Bible speakers make this mistake. They spend so long in the take-off that the plane never gets anywhere. Dick used to call this waggling on the tee before he embraced my plane metaphor (only joking!!). And the take-off needs to be appropriate – it gets you going in the right direction. Your listeners don’t want a funny story that has nothing to do with the text. The careful pilot accelerates quickly down the runway and then climbs quickly to his cruising altitude and direction. He avoids abrupt turns. Sure, if he climbs too quickly he’ll stall and crash. But too slow and he may not clear the trees.
Those who teach others need to begin well. What this looks like will vary according to audience, but most of us cannot get away with the John Owen approach, “As I was saying last week….” The start needs to relate to the whole in terms of direction. It must not overwhelm the whole – there is a long journey ahead. And the start is only the start: don’t make it more than it is – necessary to get the plane in the air, but it is not the journey itself.
Talk Shmalk: for the purposes of clarification
My post today is about more than preaching. I love the language of preaching and hate it when people introduce me to say I’m going to ‘explain the Bible’ or ‘give a talk’: I happen to think there’s something very special about preaching (theologically). I’ve written about that many, many times.
However, in my posts today (and this week) I was trying to help a broader range of people than just preachers: hence the language of ‘talk’. There are lots of teaching opportunities in church which – I don’t believe – are appropriate to call preaching: they are not the church gathered under the man of God bringing the word of God. These might be a small group talk, a women’s meeting, a youth group, a CU meeting: I used ‘talk’ to encompass all of these and more. The language was not the point of the post, and I hope that’s obvious.
Oh, and by the way, ‘sermon’ is not in the Bible either. In fact, it’s from old French meaning ‘talk.’ Voila!