Balanced preaching and my quads
As a failed rugby forward I'm always struggling to keep fit. Mostly I do this by cycling everywhere and going on the rowing machine at home. I've begun to notice that I have quads to die for. But sadly this is about the only muscle group that is anything to write home about. Cycling is great for fitness and developing certain muscles, but not all. No wonder track cyclists look so abnormal as they walk along with their over-developed leg muscles.
There is a danger, of course, that we can be great preachers and develop to Olympic standards certain muscle groups of our congregations. We can preach our favourite books, easier books (if I can say that), personally meaningful texts, hot topics. And, let's be honest, preparing such sermons, is relatively easier. There's not the same hard graft in the text nor wrestling in prayer required.
But as preachers we know we must preach the whole counsel of God and perhaps the best way to do that is to preach through books of the Bible. That is the strategy that is most likely to make your preaching balanced. Of course, there's still then the question of how to choose books. Here are some ideas:
- we should be aiming for a mix of genres and parts of the Bible so our people can understand the whole of the Bible's story. If our preaching is dominated by one genre, e.g. epistles (probably 'easiest' to preach?) we will scarcely be helping our people as we might
- we should be aiming to cover a range within a certain period of time. Peter Lewis at Cornerstone Nottingham once said (I think it was he) that he aimed to preach through the whole Bible in 10 years. That may or may not be realistic chez vous. In fact, the turnover of your congregation may demand something else. Tim Keller says (I paraphrase) that when he was in a settled church in Pennsylvania he could afford to preach slowly through books MLJ style. Now he's in NY everything is different. So much for you will depend on your context.
- we should be aiming to preach books that address issues for our people. Knowing what we sometimes call the "melodic line" of a book is a great help. Knowing that Hebrews is a book written to people tempted to give up would mean it is ideal if you find yourselves in a situation where everything seems hard.
- we should be aiming to stretch ourselves. If you're anything like me, some of the best preaching comes not from a book I've hugely familiar with and know almost by heart (familiarity often breeds preaching content). It comes from when I'm freshly in a book, studying and praying hard.
Don't let your congregations get huge quads but have flabby stomachs!
Abuja Bible College – or, Cornhill for Nigeria
Those who, like me, have done the Cornhill Training Course will know that they learned almost as much from the students as from the teachers. The students I learned most from were those from Nigeria.
Pastors and workers from NIFES (IFES in Nigeria) have been coming to Cornhill for years. When they have returned to Nigeria, they have put huge effort into passing on their training to others – mostly through conferences. The need for something more permanent and thorough has been obvious for some time. There are so many vibrant churches in Nigeria, and so few opportunities for pastors to train.
Finally a group of Nigerian ex-Cornhillers, along with Lee Furney – who has been involved with Cornhill for several years – have set up Abuja Bible College. It joins Cornhill Scotland, Belfast, and Sydney.
It focuses on Cornhill distinctives – expository preaching, spoken sermons rather than academic written work, and lots and lots of practise with honest feedback, all based on in-depth study of the bible – as well as doctrine, contextualisation, and pastoral issues. That's a model which will work anywhere – it doesn't tie the church to Western models, and isn't suited only to Nigeria, but to producing preachers anywhere who can clearly preach biblical truth.
Like Cornhill, it can be taken part time while serving in a church, or while working – making it possible for people already in ministry, or who couldn't otherwise afford training. Besides preachers, it will train men and women to teach the bible in other settings, like youth and Children's work.
Please pray for this great new initiative, and if you are in Nigeria or West Africa, or know people in West Africa looking for rigorous training in how to preach faithfully, then do put them in touch with Lee in Abuja.
The sound of silence
I worked out a while ago that in the last ten years of ministry I've preached something like 800 sermons, a pretty typical number for a sole-in-charge pastor, I guess. Not surprisingly, amongst that number there have been a fair few duds (more than I care to admit) and messages that could have been preached a whole heap better. But the glory of preaching is that it is not just a carefully crafted speech which must be delivered word perfect, pitch perfect. It is not (ooh, this is topical!) the King's Speech.
Of course, delivery matters. Technique is not to be despised. But on the whole, preaching is more than this. And, to my absolute humility (and grateful relief) I am often able to preach better than I know or deserve. And, as it happens, preaching regularly in a local church means mistakes matter less anyway. The people should love you, warm to you, enjoy your ministry like a family member. Word-perfect is not a pre-requisite.
This was brought home to me this last Sunday. I've been preaching a short series on Genesis 1. Four sermons on the God who reveals himself as the God who creates, the God who relates, the God who participates and the God who anticipates (this last one next week). My sermon last Sunday had a point about common grace and what a great doctrine it is – warmly (I hoped) applied in terms of not being anxious (Matthew 6) and in other ways. But in my last minute prayer and prep I realised that I had made a glaring omission.
Jesus applies common grace in another way in Matthew 5. There, Christians are exhorted to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them – because God is a God of common grace and we should not just glory in the doctrine, but practise it too. Saying grace at the dinner table should naturally lead to us praying for those against Christ and his people. Just in time I scrawled a couple of words on my notes and had in my head how I would frame it into words.
Except when the moment came I completely forgot the point! I stared at my notes trying to make sense of what I had scribbled. It left me completely. I stopped. I apologised. People smiled. There was a pause – a long pause, I thought. The sound of silence. Then suddenly it all came flooding back and I was fine.
As I say, not the King's Speech. But that's fine I think. The silence was probably shorter than it seemed to me. No one seemed to notice, and it gave me time to gather my thoughts and words. Oh, the wonder of preaching to people who know and love you!
British Gas and the mystery of godliness
We had our boiler serviced a couple of weeks ago and just recently I received this nice letter from Matthew Bateman, the Managing Director for Service and Repair.
Dear Reverend Reynolds [a bit formal, but better, I suppose, than Dear Adrian]. Recently we visited you to service or repair your central heating boiler. We would like to know how we left you feeling?
Feeling? Ha! Surely the issue is whether the boiler works? I'm rather tempted to reply and say "Well, Matt, I was left feeling a little hungry, because I had to delay having my tea because of the appointment time. What is more, my chips were then cold, so I was ever so slightly bitter about it. Yours sincerely….."
I wonder how the folk we preach to are left feeling at the end of a sermon? And, to be honest, is that really the test? Now, feelings matter. Of course they do. But feelings are a consequence of the work we are praying the gospel will do in people's lives and hearts and minds. When Paul prays for the Ephesians in that grand prayer of chapter 3 he prays that they will be "strengthened with power" and that "Christ may dwell in their hearts" and "may know the love of Christ" and be "filled to the measure of all the fullness of God."
If such a prayer were to be answered in our congregations (and we pray it will be, oh, how we pray!) there would be an outflow of feelings. I'm sure of it. But it's not what we seek primarily. We look for the work of the mystery of godliness which leads to changed lives and changed feelings.
We must make sure we're not in the mindset of asking "how did that sermon leave you feeling?" Nor, worse, are we preaching to change feelings. Rather we need to ask, "what did the living and active word of God do to you to make you more like Christ?"
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Two of my girls have just returned home from school. "Dad, we had a confirmation service today and we said the nicotine creed."
And an interesting credal development.
In praise of John Flavel
Robin's post about John Flavel reminds me to say what a hero he is of mine (Flavel, rather than Robin – though I'm also very fond of Robin!). The book that Robin is recommending (Keeping the heart) is currently out of print, but Christian Focus will reprint it later this year. You can probably grab a second hand copy on Amazon, but you'll be doing well to get a new copy until then. If you are impatient, though, Banner of Truth produce a collected works of Flavel. You'll find Keeping the Heart in there, except it's called Saint indeed etc. If the combined set is too pricey you can read the book online at Google Books. Not ideal, I know, but worth it, as Robin says, for the content.
Many preachers get told they ought to read the Puritans and soon find themselves struggling, because the Puritans are not always the easiest read. Flavel stands out, however, for his readability, even 350 years on. It's also worth reading his volume on Providence. If either of these are still too tricky, then Grace Publications (an imprint of Evangelical Press) publish a simplified version of Providence called God Willing.
Flavel himself was a remarkable man. We visited Dartmouth this summer for our family holiday and it was here that Flavel conducted much of his ministry. He was one of those Church of England clergymen who was ejected in 1662 for refusing to toe the line when a new Act of Uniformity was introduced. Infamously, he preached out on the sands at low tide (this is, I'm told, the reason that Church of England parish boundaries now reach out to the mean low water mark – to stop rebel preachers, though this may be an urban myth).
Flavel, much loved by his congregation, continued this illegal work in Dartmouth until King James' indulgence for non-conformists. Then he founded a non conformist church (still open,now a URC church). We visited the church because there was an art exhibition open – and sure enough, there, just inside the door, was a painting of John boy himself.
His pastoral heart is reflected in much of his writing. It's worth searching out not least because he was renowned a preacher who was in touch with the common man of his time and area; he loved preaching to the farm hands. Perhaps it is this common touch which makes him so easy to read today and a good model for preachers?
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Ups and downs of Jonah
We've enjoyed hearing Angus MacLeay (author of PT title, Teaching 1 Peter) at our Women in Ministry. He's been teaching very pastorally and helpfully on Jonah – the gospel according to Jonah, in fact. It won't surprise you to know that this is the same as the gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John for the gospel is always the same.
Angus explained very helpfully how he looked at and studied the text (not just how he preached it). This is the value of PT conferences where we ask our speakers not just to preach to us (though we ask them to do that) but also to "show some workings" – something that as a preacher you would not normally do.
What Angus has most helpfully done is to show how important the language of direction is in the book of Jonah:
The low point is "you cast me into the deep" (Jonah 2.3) and the high point "you brought my life up from the pit" (Jonah 2.6). In fact, when you stop to read it, you find the language of direction (down, up, into, low etc) crop up time and time again. And of course, implicitly, this is how Jesus reads Jonah too – for the sign of Jonah is about going down into the whale three days and three nights followed by resurrection (see Matthew 12.38-40).
The possibilities of The Senior Service
I'm writing from our Women in Ministry conference at Hothorpe Hall in Leicestershire. Hosted by Carrie Sandom and Caroline West, we've enjoyed excellent teaching from Angus MacLeay, Kate Selby and Kirsten Birkett (above, with Carrie). It's a joy to be here with 60ish women serving the Lord in a great variety of ways. I'm greatly moved by the testimony of two of our more senior ladies – Denise serving the Lord in Harpenden and Irena serving the Lord in Crowborough. Both have come to ministry in the autumn of life. But both are also a testimony to the way God can use newly retired or nearly retired folk in his service.
Of course, our focus tends to be on the young guns. By and large most of our Cornhill students (though by no means all) are young-ish. But there's no reason why that should be. And with a growing elderly population often reflected (or even magnified) in church life, ministry to those who are older is a key part of church life, and perhaps we need to do more to encourage our autumn men and women to consider ministry.
In fact, what about Cornhill? Perhaps there are are some older folk who could do a really good job of serving in a Bible teaching capacity in the church? Please don't think they are not worth investing in; nor that they don't need training and help.
And if you are woman in such ministry, or have such people in your church, then I'm sorry you missed out this year on this excellent conference, but why not plan to be with us next year? The dates are 23-26 January 2012.
Take heart – God converts the famous too
I'm not one to gloat, but, oh man, we won the Ashes in Australia! A wonderful victory. Those England cricketers are worthy of admiration for achieving what no one has achieved for two decades. However, the Christian in me knows that they need Christ more than glory or fame. And yet, if I am brutally honest with my heart, there is a part of me that thinks that it is all just too difficult; some of them seem just too far away. Of course, I would never say that in public! But I need to be realistic that my theology (where I believe firmly that the arm of the Lord is not too short that it cannot save) is not always matched by my practice or feeling of the moment.
So, I've been encouraged to read today John Pollock's excellent little book, The Cambridge Seven, and in particular the section on the great missionary CT Studd. As you may know, CT was an England cricketer who famously played in that first Ashes test at the Oval (we lost, by the way). WG Grace described him as probably the best cricketer of the day.
CT is immortalised in the inscription found on the urn.
When Ivo goes back with the urn, the urn;
Studds, Steel, Read and Tylecote return, return;
The welkin will ring loud,
The great crowd will feel proud,
Seeing Barlow and Bates with the urn, the urn;
And the rest coming home with the urn.
CT was a Christian, but unlike his brothers not a fervent one. Yet during the off season of 1883-4 his life was changed through an encounter with DL Moody the famous US evangelist. CT eventually became a great worker for Christ in China, but not before he determined to take Christ to the entire English cricket team. He took every one of his colleagues to hear Moody and AJ Webbe, AG Steel and captain Ivo Bligh all gave themselves to the Lord.
Imagine. Andrew Strauss. KP. Graeme Swann.
"Behold, the Lord's hand is not shortened that it cannot save or his ear dull that it cannot hear" (Isaiah 59.1)
Take heart, preacher and believe that God is able to do great and mighty things through the preaching of his word. Even amongst the famous.
Keeping the heart: help from John Flavel
I really appreciated Adrian's blog post on the importance of guarding the heart – thanks Adrian!. As I am involved with training preachers on the PT Cornhill Training Course, I see more and more how vital our hearts are as preachers. As well as Thomas a Kempis, I have benefited greatly from John Flavel's 'Keeping the Heart' which the good folk at Christian Focus have re-published in a very accessible format. Here's how Flavel kicks off:
'The heart of a man is his worst part before it is regenerated, and the best afterward; it is the seat of principles, and the foundation of actions. The eye of God is, and the eye of the Christian ought to be, principally fixed upon it. The greatest difficulty in conversion is to win the heart to God; and the greatest difficulty after conversion, is to keep the heart with God' (p 7).
The Puritans used to talk about the need to hold orthodoxy (correct doctrine), orthopraxis (correct actions) and orthocardia (correct heart) We tend to think a lot about the first two of those. If you want help with the last one – orthocardia – Flavel is a wonderful heart surgeon.
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