Application – a question of quantity
One of the most interesting and thought-provoking things to come out of our Spring Ministers conference with Bryan Chappell was about the quantity of application. How much application, in other words, does your sermon need? He suggested that this varied considerably depending on the nature of the congregation. For example, at one extreme, city businessmen, used to being presented with the facts and making decisions, need very little application. They don’t need to be spoon fed and need to be able to work things out for themselves in order for them to sink in. At the other extreme, kids need everything presented to them. Lots of application in other words. And then you can do the maths for all the groups in between.
This has a number of implications for us as preachers.
First, we must not assume that a model of preaching which (in crude terms) has x% application in Place A is necessarily transferable to Place B or establishes a pattern for ministry which is universal. I’m sure we’re all guilty of that thinking at some level! We tend to look down on others because they have more/less application than we do. Surely I’m right!, we say. I know I’ve done this.
Secondly, there is simply no substitute for knowing our people. We cannot assume what they need, we need to sharing their lives with them in order to be able to know whether our sermons are hitting the mark in a way that is helpful and applicable.
Thirdly, preaching to multi-social, mixed congregations is always harder than monochromatic ones. I think most of us in ministry actually realise this already! But here is another reason why it is so. We can react two ways to this. One is to build monochromatic churches. The other is to realise that preaching is hard work, and there is no substitute for careful thinking when it comes to application.
It won’t surprise you to know that I’m in favour of the second of these, not least because of the theological issues at stake (Eph 2/3). I’m not particularly a pragmatist. But I am a realist, and so I know that in my preaching I need to incorporate variety into my sermons and develop strategies for hearing back how my preaching is connecting with those I’ve been called to serve.
Application – a question of quality
Have a think back to your sermon last weekend. What was your application? Here are some questions to help you do some evaluation.
1. Did your application come from the text and the flow of the text? In other words, was it NATURAL?
2. Did your application go beyond the standard stuff – read your Bible more, pray more? In other words, was it THOUGHTFUL?
3. Was your application rich enough to connect with different groups of people? In other words, was it BROAD?
4. Was your application worked out (at least in a few cases) so that you joined the dots for people? In other words, was it NARROW?
5. Was your application grace-filled, rather than legalistic or duty-bound? In other words, was it full of the GOSPEL?
Or, to put it another way, was it QUALITY?
Leadership and staff changes at The Proclamation Trust
The Trustees of The Proclamation Trust have today announced some significant changes to our teaching team. As previously announced, Nigel Styles will be taking up the role of Director of the PT Cornhill Training Course full time from September. His involvement with the Trust has already begun as he begins to hand over his responsibilities as Senior Minister Emmanuel Church Bramcote and as Director of Training for The Midlands Gospel Partnership. We are delighted to welcome Nigel, Lizzie and their daughter Maisie to London.
Stephen Boon will be joining Nigel as full time teacher and tutor, also starting in September. Stephen is currently serving at St John’s Church, Tunbridge Wells, where he will continue to worship. From Janauary the team will be further strengthened with the appointment of Gwilym Davies in a part-time capacity. Gwilym is currently Pastoral Staff Worker with SMU Christian Fellowship, Singapore.
Tim Ward, the Acting Director of PT Cornhill will be joining the faculty at Oak Hill College starting in September. He and Erica and their son Jonathan will be moving to Southgate over the summer. Amongst other teaching and pastoral responsibilities, Tim will be seconded as faculty to Oak Hill’s new in-context training Academy in partnership with the Acts 29 church-planting network.
Jonathan Griffiths, currently teacher and tutor will be moving in the summer with his wife Gemma and their three children to Ottawa in Canada, where Jonathan has been appointed Lead Pastor of Metropolitan Bible Church, a large city-centre church.
Rachel Olajide, our conference manager, will be having a break from the Trust in the summer as she and her husband Ayo prepare for the arrival of a new baby. She will be replaced by Selina McNish-Millar, currently Cornhill Administrator, working alongside Jasmine Goodyear.
Please join us in thanking God for faithful colleagues and their invaluable contribution to our ministry and pray for all these appointments and changes as we ask God to continue to bless the work of the Trust.
Delighting in the good
A small snap-shot for you of the happy life we try to live in PT Towers: on a warm afternoon recently during a break for Magnums (Classic or Almond), the conversation turned to favourite films. A wide variety of tastes was presented with some vigour, which is of course all to the good. It turned that I share with a certain Mr A.R. of this blog a love of the Coen brothers’ film Fargo (lately turned into a TV series). A certain Miss C. Sandom of this parish fails to share that love, as is entirely her right. I digress, though.
What I love most about the film Fargo is that it makes the good-hearted characters who live ostensibly dull lives seem far more interesting than the evil ones (and one is really nasty). Whenever I watch the film I feel that in some way my self-centredness is shown up as petty and boring and that any goodness in me feels like the really exciting thing about me.
I felt very much the same reading Dickens’ Bleak House, which I have just finished. The vicious and self-obsessed characters are of course painted by Dickens in vivid and often comic ways, but they are in the end essentially dull and monotonous in their unpleasantness. By contrast the morally good characters regularly find surprising new ways to show kindness and self-sacrifice to others.
Now here’s my point: most popular culture that I consume – which for me is primarily feature films and music – works precisely the other way round. It portrays selfishness and evil as essentially more interesting and sophisticated than goodness and self-sacrifice, which are usually more dull. Reading the closing chapters of Bleak House had, I felt, a positive effect on my soul, making me genuinely delight in good and find selfishness abhorrent. It is rather chilling to suppose that the majority of my cultural diet persistently has the opposite effect without me noticing very much.
This is surely one small reason why the NT Gospels present not a series of theological statements about Jesus but snap-shots of him in narrative action. Before us on those pages is the most excitingly good man who ever lived, showing up the evil of human self-righteousness in all its monotonous and destructive bleakness. May and I we be genuinely more excited by that goodness than by anything else. We may become very sophisticated readers and preachers of the Gospels; may we never lose a sense in our hearts and on our lips of discovering the most thrillingly unanticipated fact: the entire goodness of God came as a man and lived out his life, even as far as death, among us.
I wonder what comes to your mind when you think of leaders who are Spirit-filled? It’s almost certainly gifting. That’s our default mode to describe Spirit-filling, especially when it comes to ministry. But what if there’s another paradigm which is the dominant one, or at least a hugely significant part of the Spirit-filled life? What if a Spirit-filled pastor is not just one (or not mainly) one who is gifted, but one who is fruitful? That seems to me to be a legitimate line of biblical analysis, given Galatians 5. Of course, the truths there are not just for preachers, but for all believers. However, we ought to think of pastors and preachers as those who are faithful believers who are especially gifted by God.
In other words, ministry is godliness + gifting. Not the other way around. It starts with godliness and we appoint those to posts who are filled with the Spirit (e.g. Acts 6). Don’t you think that means godliness? Of course it does. It’s trendy to write down equations these days, so this means, quite simply M = Go + Gi in that order.
This was brought home to me this week as I spent a happy afternoon out cycling with two other pastors. They were incredibly patient with me. It takes a lot to get me up a hill (and, frankly, I’ve got a lot to get up the hill) – so I go pretty slowly up the inclines. Descents, by contrast, are straightforward. I was profoundly thankful for their patience. Isn’t that an underrated spiritual quality? Yes. And isn’t it an underrated pastoral quality? Yes, indeed. As are – as it happens – many of the component parts of the fruit of the Spirit.
I think we should all want to be Spirit-filled leaders.
So help me God.
Professional speakers beware
I have come rather late to an appreciation of Charles Dickens. Better late than never, I suppose. At the moment I am particularly enjoying his sometimes biting social comments in Bleak House. One of the central characters is a Baronet by the name of Sir Leicester Dedlock, who through most of the story holds a very lofty view of his importance in society. Towards the end of the novel [*spoiler alert*] a great catastrophe occurs in the Dedlock family and the shock of it causes Sir Leicester to suffer a stroke. Dickens compares his present stricken state with how he used to be:
‘His voice was rich and mellow; and he had so long been thoroughly persuaded of the weight and import to mankind of any word he said, that his words really had come to sound as if there were something in them. But now he can only whisper; and what he whispers sounds like what it is – mere jumble and jargon.’
Here is my confession: as soon as I read those words, images of certain people I know jumped immediately into my mind. I guess that’s because one of my private self-serving judgments on them is that they too have an exaggerated sense of the significance of their own words.
Of course one of the godly response to such thoughts about others is deliberately to turn the searching eye of such a judgment back on oneself. I speak for a living. I preach. I teach. I lead sermon practice classes. I have students regularly coming to ask my opinion on a variety of topics, on some of which I am reasonably qualified to give an opinion that might carry some weight.
Part of the time when I speak, of course, my words do have enormous ‘weight and import to mankind’. That occurs when – and only when – I am preaching, teaching and pastoring from Scripture and have done my text-work faithfully. At such times I must indeed speak as if there were ‘something in’ my words, because in God’s goodness there really is!
I can think of plenty of other times, though, when what’s coming out of my mouth is just my not-very-humble opinion on this or that issue of church politics, general wisdom, or family life. How terribly easy it is then to borrow from the way I’ve learned to speak when there really is something true from the Lord in my words, and to try to build an aura of unquestionable authority around these other words, when the reality is that it’s really only my opinion and is likely to be just as foolish and self-serving as anyone else’s.
It is right for a preacher to learn to speak in a manner that befits someone really uttering the word of God, when in fact that is what he is doing. But what a watch we must put on ourselves, so that we do not speak that way when our words may well be as empty as those of any risible Dickens character.
Five marriage glories
Just to set some balance from yesterday’s post, here are some marriage glories.
1. Marriage. Just marriage. Not everyone is given this gift. Some have the gift of singleness. But to those to whom it is given, it is a glory to be celebrated and enjoyed.
2. Mixed marriage. Not an unbeliever to a believer – but marriages across race and culture. These are glorious. They are not without pressures, of course, but they display in microcosm the way the gospel breaks down all kinds of barriers. Such couples may need more help and pastoral input, but such couples have something glorious to celebrate and the church must celebrate with them.
3. Arranged marriage. Many western Christians have a deep aversion to arranged marriages. Nevertheless, with certain caveats, there is nothing inherently wrong with such marriages. They can be glorious too (and we need to recognise that). Forced marriages are not good, of course. And we need to talk sometime about arranged marriages where Christians are paired off with those who are not believers. Nevertheless, the point stands. Marriage sustains the love, not love the marriage, and therefore arranged marriages can work and – when they are Christian – are glorious too.
4. Long marriage. Most churches I have been in have celebrated significant birthdays of members. I’m not against this – it’s part of being family. But it’s strange that we don’t really take time to celebrate long marriages. They are covenant relationships which reflect deeper glories and so we should make much of those who, in God’s grace, stay the course, encouraging others to do the same.
5. Sex in marriage. Christians have got a bad reputation for being anti-sex. However, nothing could be further from the truth. We’re pro-sex, hugely so. Most cultures recognise that sex is good or bad depending on its context (for example, rightly criminalising some forms of sexual activity). Christians agree. Our context is marriage between a man and a woman and we celebrate sex in this context. It is a good thing (and we might say, God thought of it first!). This is a glory.
Five marriage oxymorons
Two posts on marriage – both of which need careful reading. Everything is in the definition. But I wanted to bust some marriage myths, using the idea of an oxymoron (something that cannot be) and establish some marriage truths, using the idea of glories (that’s tomorrow). Would you agree? Would your church leadership teams agree?
1. Same sex marriage. The high profile one. Whatever the state may call it, a same-sex marriage is not a marriage. It’s not an unwise marriage, that we have to pastor into. It’s not a marriage. Period. That truth raises all kinds of pastoral questions and needs wise, pastoral strategies (which churches ought to be thinking about now). But the reality is unchanged. A marriage is between a man and a woman. Genesis 2.24.
2. Sexless marriage. There are painful and obvious reasons why marriages may be sexless – long term illness for example. But, all other things being equal, the Bible is clear that sexless marriages are not right. Read 1 Corinthians 7! My weekend papers carry articles at least twice a year about couples whose marriages are sexless by choice. But it’s not a Christian position.
3. Mixed marriage. Listen carefully! I don’t mean mixed in race or culture (those kinds of marriages belong in my glory list tomorrow). But mixed marriages in terms of an unbeliever to a believer. Of course, if one of a couple is converted, the marriage should not end (1 Cor 7 again!). But I will not marry a believer to an unbeliever, as far as I can ascertain. Not only is there 2 Cor 6:14, but for those who think this is too vague (and there may be something in this), Paul’s enjoinder to widows makes the point (1 Cor 7.39). Unlike same-sex marriage, I believe such marriages are indeed marriages in the eyes of God, so they cannot simply be left. We have to live sometimes with the consequences of our actions. Nevertheless, the oxymoron stands. (I am aware, of course, that in arranged marriage cultures, this point needs nuancing).
4. Childless marriage. Again, please listen. I am not referring to extremely painful and pastorally difficult situations where couples cannot have children. Nor do the very few exceptions to this situation (often related to health of one or other partner) change the general rule. Rather, I am referring to the situation where a couple choose (in the long term) not to have children. My ex-colleague Christopher Ash has written about this in the shorter of his marriage books: I commend it highly.
5. Open marriage. Recent court cases in the UK have raised the issue of open marriages once again where either or both partners are free to sleep around. No. It’s my fifth marriage oxymoron – read 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 if you’re in any doubt about this and the spiritual thing that is going on when you sleep with someone.
The leadership tension
I love the sport of cycling, whether it’s on the track or road. And I’ve particularly enjoyed the recent success of the Great Britain team, which means I have some mixed feelings about the departure of the senior British coach, Shane Shutton (reported here in the Guardian). For the record, he denies the allegations (of bullying, sexism and other isms). He is also, however, a rather driven man, somewhat abrasive at times. But, first under David Brailsford, and now alone, there is no doubt he has overseen something of a transformation in British cycling, especially track cycling.
So the media response this weekend is not unexpected – we will win fewer medals, but be nicer with it. The team will be a bit more PC, but less aggressive in the saddle. Whether these speculations turn out to be true or not, those on the inside believe that – in general terms at least – this is the way it will go. There is a tension between niceness and aggressiveness. Many top coaches are bullies.
There are exceptions of course. But in the short term, the way to get the most out of people is to beat them up. In a previous life, I spent a secondment at the Serious Fraud Office investigating Robert Maxwell, and then worked for a short time for Mohammed Al Fayed so I know something about larger-than-life bosses and the atmosphere they create.
As always, of course, the church is in danger of imitating the world, and we convince ourselves that good leadership means strong leadership which means (although we never call it this) being a bully. For the record, I have no one in mind, but it is a truism that, in the short term, such leadership will do churches an apparent good. There will be an atmosphere of fear, but we won’t call it that. We’ll call it strong, masculine, even godly.
Conversely, the Bible model for leadership is gentleness and compassion. Such qualities are not to be confused with firmness and conviction (something I sometimes get muddled, I must confess). Nevertheless, we must not swallow the world’s lie that allows bullying into the church and assumes it is this which will win us the spiritual gold medals. It may have a short term effect (convincing us of the rightness of our decisions), but it is neither godly nor wise and we must be clear on this at least.
7 practical things that makes my preaching ineffective
I spent a little time reflecting on 7 practical things that make me ineffective as a preacher. I realise that this kind of post rather lays my own heart bare. Nevertheless, it’s worth posting because we need to be honest about what holds us back. I don’t think you will find any surprises here, but perhaps some things will resonate and you – like me – will be driven to our knees. Of course, all of this is written in the context that (as I said yesterday) it is God who gives the growth. Nevertheless, we are called to be faithful proclaimers and therefore need to be realistic about what holds us back. Neither is this a spiritual assessment. I am only too keenly aware of my pride and vanity which holds me back. This, however, is more of a practical assessment.
1. Sloppy exegesis. We need to be realistic that understanding a text can be hard. Some parts are harder than others (2 Peter 3.16). I’m probably in the glad position to have more of a grasp than most (excepting half a dozen) of my congregation and so I’m always tempted not to do the hard work of exegesis.
2. Too much exegesis. That requires some explanation. I can always study a text more. There is always another commentary to read. Another reading. I like this stuff. I get excited by it. But my preparation time is limited, so it’s quite possible to do too much exegesis and be thoroughly prepared in terms of what the text means, but virtually nothing how it changes hearers.
3. Failure to think of Barbara (name changed). Lovely Barbara is in my home group. She’s a delightful Christian, a long time saint who likes things to be simple. I often think of her when I prepare, but my sermon is always worse when I neglect to do so.
4. Little thought given to construction. Surely content trumps everything? No. For if my speech is hard to receive (and there may be a number of reasons for this), then good content is meaningless.
5. Too many clever sentences. I love words and I am, at heart, something of a wordsmith (you may be surprised!). But the sermon is a spoken word not a written word and clever written sentences almost never work orally.
6. Too little thought given to vocabulary. Conversely, a sermon that wafts around and never really concisely and clearly nails ideas with clear words will be misheard. I need to be able to convey the heart of my sermon in clear, short, well thought through sentences. This is not to contradict point 5. I can craft oral sentences. And in fact, I need to.
7. Generalised application which bears no connection to the text. I love this stuff. It’s application 101 isn’t it? No, because as Bryan Chappell was reminding us last week, people are quickly turned off from generalised application that is forced into a text.
What about your sermon this week?