Asking the right questions of a text
When faced with out-of-the-ordinary situations in Bible passages, our minds immediately fill with questions. It's difficult, as preachers, not to dwell on these questions, particularly if we feel that our congregations may be dwelling on them too. But the disicpline of good preparation is to ask the right questions. These may be:
- the questions the text wants to answer
- the questions the text asks, even if it doesn't answer
Let me give an example. I'm just studying Hebrews at the moment (yes, still!). I've got to the majestic chapter 11 and the enigmatic Enoch. What do you make of his "translation" (LXX language) – being taken whilst he walked with God. Try googling it. Try sermon-centralling it. There's lots about how this thing might have happened. Was it like a supposed rapture? Was it like Elijah? Was it an Acts 1 kind of moment?
But that is neither the question the text answers, not the one the text asks. In Hebrews 11.5-6, the author is concerned with WHY Enoch was taken, not HOW he was taken. A faithful sermon on Enoch, therefore – whether from Genesis 5.22-24 or Hebrews 11.5-6 ought to focus on that question too. It's quite a different sermon:
- He was taken by faith
- He was taken because he pleased God
- Without faith it is impossible to please God
- So, he was taken by faith
That's not an outline, by the way, just an observation on the logic of the first few sentences of the Hebrews reference. The key to a good and faithful message is always to ask the questions the text is asking/answering. You can't go far wrong if you do that.
In good company and the tone of the text
There's a really very helpful post by Piper here on the preacher's tone and its connection to the text. Well worth a couple of minutes of your time. I notice too that Piper manages to group together Jesus, Paul, John Stott and our own RCL in the same breath….wonderful! I'm not sure (in fact I am sure) the latter two are not deserving of that company – but his point is well made.
So I ask again: What tone should you aim at in preaching?
My answer is: Pursue the tone of the text. But let it be informed, not muted, by the tonal balance of Jesus and the apostles and by the gospel of grace.
Working with women Part 3
Final part today:
- Recognise most women staff are more emotionally involved in their ministry and find it harder to switch off.
- Women may not have the same output levels as men (eg they might meet with less women but know them better; men might meet with more men but know them less).
- Often women can be the only female on the staff. This can be lonely for them. Ask them what it feels like to be the only woman on the staff and if that’s ok. Encourage them to meet with women outside of the church to talk about ministry issues with.
- SINGLE WOMEN – have to run their own home as well as full time job, tend to work longer hours, can easily burn out. Living on their own – nobody to talk to at the end of the day – can be an issue (women like to talk out their day). May not have husband and children to look after but are often involved in extended family, particularly ageing parents (can get overlooked). Holidays – sometimes hard to sort out. Having a day off when all friends are working is hard.
- CHILDREN’S WORKERS – have lots of admin to do (eg photocopying, cutting, colouring, gluing etc) which can be disheartening when they’ve been trained to teach the Bible / have degrees, have to rely on lots of volunteers (and are often let down by them), physically exhausting job (lifting and carrying, managing groups of children) Eg after weekend away!
Working with women Part 2
Brenda continues with godly tips for working with women:
- Initiate meeting up / have a regular meeting to talk about their work – women need to do this.
- When there’s a problem, it’s probably best not to give solutions too quickly, but more helpful to listen and ask questions. Most of the time women don’t need a solution, we just need a hearing!
- Ask them about their time off (if they’re having enough).
- It’s good to be available.
- Include women in staff meetings. Having staff meetings (even if there is nothing major to discuss) gives them and team time to relate, catch up on how ministry is going, have fun, encourage each other.
- Women will often hold back, so you may need to ask their opinion, invite suggestions – women won’t easily offer it, especially if there is some criticism to give. Don’t assume they have nothing to say.
- Include them in discussions about preaching. Women can help ministers to apply the Bible more effectively to the women in the congregation (more than half women!)
- Occassionally them to share what they have been teaching (outline of Esther etc).
Working with women Part 1
Many of us work with paid female staff. Those who do not nearly all work with unpaid female helpers of one kind or another. At our recent senior ministers conference we invited Brenda Beckett from All Souls to give the guys some help in understanding how the working relationship can work. Her nuggets of godly wisdom are worth repeating over a few days. Here's part 1.
- Ask them what would be helpful. They will know. Ask your wife. Act on their suggestions, even if it doesn’t make sense to you. This will give them a sense of your support, desire to lead them well. Also you may need to adapt how you lead different staff according to their particular needs.
- Make effort to know them as a person, especially when new (along with your wife) ie having them along to family meals every now and then – ask them about family, interests, etc and remember what they've said and ask them about it again.
- Communicate! Relate! Pass the time of day, drop in. Show an interest in them as individuals, part of your team. Show an interest in their ministry as part of your team (ask how a particular thing went eg weekend away talks / speaking at outside event, give constructive criticism on things you see them do). A 5 minute ask every week will save them major meltdowns later!
- The worst thing is just to leave a woman to get on. You may well trust her, not have a specific issue to talk about. But a woman just sees that as all sorts of negative messages. I may be trusted, but I want to see my boss—regularly!!
- Don’t be afraid to guide and direct the work the women do. This isn’t to be a control freak, or mistrust her. But women need reassurance they are on the right lines. Make time to discuss the things on her agenda. Know what she does. Give feedback. Say thank you.
It’s not fair (Olympics and Ministry)
- It's not fair. Despite applying for loads of Olympics tickets I received none.
- It's not fair. I even went for some really obscure ticket choices, after all second round men's epée anybody? Zippo.
- It's not fair. Local residents were initially promised priority tickets. Offer withdrawn.
- It's not fair. The marathon route was originally planned for about 100 yds from our house to go through our Olympic borough. Route redrawn and now nothing will go near our house.
You get the picture. I'm beginning to sound like one of the children. IT'S NOT FAIR.
It's amazing how much you hear that in church. Perhaps not those words, but that sentiment, anyway.
It's amazing how much you hear that in ministry. You've toiled as hard as Rev Joe down the road. How come he gets all the fruit? You've invested a huge amount into young Mike. Now he's off with another church completing his training. You've sweated over a sermon only to be told by dear Doris that she won't be there on Sunday. You've given a year of 121 studies to Kathy & Jim and then they've decided to move with work. IT'S NOT FAIR.
It's amazing how many of our gripes as ministers are linked to a poor doctrine of the church. Play back each of these scenarios with a bigger view in your head of the doctrine of the church. NOT FAIR my foot. HURTS MY PRIDE*, more like.
* speaking from personal experience….
The parting of friends – a sobering story
I've just started reading a now-out-of-print book that a good friend bought for me. It's called "The Parting of Friends" by David Newsome and it was published in 1966. My copy cost 63s and I'm young enough to say I don't even know what that means. It's the story of the dissolution of the evangelical heritage in the Wilberforce family. It's esepcially a study of how many of those influenced by the Oxford Movement and those who eventually became Roman Catholics came from a strong evangelical background. All three Wilberforce children who entered Anglican ministry (Robert, Samuel & Henry) studied at Oriel College Oxford and married into strong evangelical families. But all were influenced by the downgrade to a greater or lesser extent.
I confess it's a period of history I know precious little about – certainly when it comes to the church (politics is another matter again). But I'm warned by my friend to be saddened and sobered by the speed of the change. What a contemporary issue! It's a change I see all around us today. Churches (and evangelical dynasties) that were one generation ago thoroughly orthodox have quickly changed – how quickly! I suppose it's encouraging to see that this is not a new phenonemon. However, evangelicals do not always do a good job of raising evanglicals, I observe. Thank God for the exceptions!
More on this as I read through.
Addendum: not so out-of-print after all: there is a new edition available through Amazon published by Gracewing.
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.
Every now and again technology astounds me. Sometimes it astounds me with it’s capacity for evil (like the current web of gossip, deceit and betrayal unearthed by Twitter), and at other times with it’s capacity for good. Last week I stumbled across technology which falls firmly in the latter category. It is the Tyndale Toolbar which has been put together by Dr David Instone Brewer at Tyndale House in Cambridge. I’ll let him tell you about the wonders the toolbar can perform in this 3 minute video he has made here:
You can download the toolbar here: http://www.tyndale.cam.ac.uk/toolbar
For any serious Bible teacher this is a truly remarkable resource and one that will open up so many of the best Bible tools on the web.
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)