Good communicators: the proof of the pudding
None of us here have written anything about that book yet, primarily because we haven't read it apart from a few sample chapters doing the rounds. But I was very struck by something my good friend Dave Bish wrote about communication in his review. We spent a little while discussing it over lunch yesterday and it's worth repeating.
He's known for being an outstanding communicator. I think he's fun with words but probably not actually that good a communicator. When challenged he argues he's misunderstood, which can only happen for so long before you have to ask why. His style is very accessible (though having only 150 words per page grates after a while). He constantly asks questions and rarely answers them which while provocative is a bit annoying.
Just what makes a good communicator? I guess this is an oft-asked question, and oft-answered. Many of the standard answers will be do with rhetoric – style, illustration, engagement – all that sort of thing. I don't want to belitte any of those in particular; we encourage our students here to think about each of them carefully. But I wonder whether good communication at its heart is about content, not style. Of course, the style may help convey the content well. But without content there is nothing to communicate and therefore no good communicator.
I think this is the burden of all the preaching vocabulary in Acts. It is interesting that all the variety (proclaim, preach, reason, argue etc) comes from the description of what is being done. There is no vocabulary for style. There are no adverbs, in other words. Paul is not described as arguing winsomely or preaching humourously. That is not to say that such attributes were not present. I'm sure Paul was not dull (despite the Troas moment!). But he was a good communicator, humanly speaking, because of what he had to communicate. May that be a lesson to us.
Religion heading for extinction say mathematicians
Well, they didn't say exactly that, but that's how the BBC news website is reporting it (you can read the report here). Not surprising – as it makes for a nice headline. But halfway down the report is the real interesting part.
"The idea is pretty simple," said Richard Wiener of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement. "It posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility."
Well, that is certainly a simple idea – essentially it seems that this is a rather posh way to say what we've always said "a crowd attracts a crowd." There is clearly some anthropoligical truth in that statement, truth that is echoed in the thrust, say, of Acts 2.42-47. And we shouldn't belittle it.
But theologically it is dangerously flawed. Genuine Christianity (as opposed to nominal) grows not through numbers attracting numbers for social cachet but by men and women and children believing the message. That faith comes from God himself and so church growth continually bucks trends and statistics. In countries where the gospel seemed dead, there are remarkable awakenings (e.g. China). Sometimes, great things start from just one man or woman (e.g. some of the great missionary pioneers) who even in their lifetime are dismal failures.
Thankfully, we don't need to be scared by such mathematical shenaningans. Even the smallest church can be used by God for extraordinary things and our glorious confidence is that the word of the Lord does not return void.
Try putting that into an equation.
Useful Hebrews commentaries
I'm just preaching on Hebrews at the moment and there are lots of commentaries to choose from. Here are some I've found particularly useful:
- the best one volume commentary seems to be Peter O'Brien's Pillar volume. Not cheap, but very thorough.
- O'Brien does reference FF Bruce a lot. Some find him a bit superficial, but he does deal with most of the issues. The revised version is better.
- Ray Stedman's smaller volume in the IVP New Testament Commentary series is perhaps one of the best short commentaries.
- For a simple accompanying book, Stuart Olyott's "I wish someone would explain Hebrews to me" is hard to beat, though sometimes the application feels a little straightjacketed. We have sold this en masse at church to accompany our series.
- Leon Morris has contributed the volume to the Expositor's Bible Commentary and so this is a useful addition if you can get hold of it separately.
On the other hand, there are some excellent commentaries that are harder to use when preaching. Chief among these is John Owen's excellent set – very thorough and containing a series of thematic lectures as well as verse by verse exposition. But, on the whole, they are too dense to be of practical use to a preacher unless he has a lot of time to read around. Shame, because there's gold dust here. I've also got Westcott (hmm), the CFP focus on the Bible volume by Walter Riggans (not one of the strongest), Let's Study Hebrews by Hywel Jones (better) and one or two smaller volumes which tend to skip over quite critical trains of thought. You really need a comprehensive commentary.
So, if it was going to be just one it would probably be Peter O'Brien.
When Vera Lynn doesn’t help your grief
I once heard Don Carson distill pastoral work into one phrase: "preparing people for death." He's absolutely right, ultimately. Strange then that many preachers should do such a poor job of doing just that. Any pastor who deals with those who are grieving will know deep down, if he is honest, that this is true. Many Christians take a kind of Vera Lynn approach to grief, "We'll meet again…..I know we'll meet again some sunny day." I was once criticised for criticising this thinking – on the basis that many of the older generation found the music and songs of Dame Vera a great help during WWII. Fair 'nuff. But that doesn't excuse it as a pastoral approach, where it is totally unbiblical.
This is how the Scriptures see it. Our hope for the future is that we will meet Christ. And in fact earthly relationships will be transformed. I am pretty sure that I will know who Mrs R is in heaven – but here's the thing. There is no marriage in heaven, and so I will relate to her as I relate to every other believer. That is not to diminish the relationship Mrs R and I have now. Quite the oppostite. It is to elevate every other relationship with every other believer to the same level and much beyond. And, importantly, together we will relate to Christ supremely as his bride.
If you think about it, hoping to be reunited with loved ones to continue earthly relationships is fraught with difficulty. What if they're not there? Will there be regret in heaven (impossible) or sadness (same again!). Will there be jealousy because they relate to someone else more intimately than I? No. We will all have perfect relationships – every believer will be closer to me than any earthly relative is now. Amazing.
And, I say it again, believers together will relate to Christ supremely and perfectly.
That is our hope. It might seem, in the present time, a bit cold when it comes to grieving. Not a bit of it. It's actually liberating. How do you think about a loved one who has gone? How, and this can really hurt, do you think about a loved one that has gone and seems not to have been a believer? Answer: with death those earthly relationships cease. In the case of an unbelieving family member, that liberates the one left behind from a lifetime of regret and guilt. The bond is broken. In the case of a dead spouse it means the living can continue to live. We cherish memories of course, but we do not grieve as those who have no hope.
Of course, telling people this when they face death is hard and, often, too late. Preach it now.
But still, I won't let people play "We'll meet again" at funerals.
Every preacher should have gears
The most and absolutely reverend [it's all about our standing in Christ] P. Suddell popped in yesterday to help with some Cornhill teaching. Always nice to see him as he is a fellow cyclist (though, one key difference, he is actually good at it). He gently chastised me (and rightly so) for a lack of cycling related posts. So here we are. I'm preaching Hebrews 5.11-6.20 next week and, as I do when I'm preaching, I'm constantly mulling over the passage, not least as I cycle backwards and forwards to the office.
Studying the passage afresh has reinforced in my mind the importance of "going on to maturity" (Hebrews 6.1). The Hebrew Christians weren't there yet, they needed some milk still – but they should have been further ahead; and reading through the argument of my passage, going on to maturity would be one of the ways (humanly speaking) that they would avoid the terrible risk of apostacy.
I was ruminating on this as I waited at a red light (yes, I'm one of those cyclists). As I pull away from the lights, I go into an easy gear. It gets me going and helps me build up speed quickly and, importantly, keeps me on the bike (my feet are clipped into pedals). But as I get going, it's useless to stay in such a gear. Not only would it take me an age to get home, it would do my legs in and, ironically, going very slowly is more likely to lead me to lose direction – it's easier to steer a bike that's going faster, it's much more stable.
Gears are good. I need both low and high of course. Try pulling away from the lights in top gear (bike or car). Pretty useless, on the whole. And when hard times come, as they invariably do – strong head wind, steep hill – sometimes I need to get into an easier gear again to make progress. But on the whole my journey home is about starting low and cranking up.
Preachers need gears. Of course there is a tension here. There are always those in our congregation who are starting out. They need the milk, not the solid food. But we're many of us guilty of the sin of lowest common denominator and, if that is the case, we will find that our congregations never go onto maturity. Pity the church whose pastor does not lead them in this direction and take steps to move them on. Not only is maturity an impossible goal, but the risk of apostacy is heightened.
Every preacher should have gears.
And use them.
Leaving Amish Paradise
Mrs R and I (and little Alice) watched a very moving programme on BBC last night. It's on the iPlayer for a while here. It's about two couples leaving the Amish community, essentially because they've been born again. Their conversion is obvious. Leaving behind some of the Amish baggage (which sometimes resembles medieval Catholicism) is hard, not least in the way they sometimes read the Old Testament (watch out for the mouldy house being burnt!). Nevertheless, it's moving to see people giving up everything they value in their past because they want to follow Christ, especially when the cost is high. Worth an hour of your time.
I know a little Greek
Studying a passage without giving any thought to original languages is like eating a MacDonalds without thinking "where did this beef come from?" [Wait – does that work as an illustration? Possibly not – but you get the idea].
However, not many of us are the Greek and Hebrew (and Aramaic!) scholars we would really love to be. As the old joke goes, I know a little Greek….
Thankfully there are lots of resources out there to help us. Before the advent of computer software (or at least before it landed on my desk) I used a reverse interlinear together with a good lexicon (in my case the ESV reverse interlinear and the BAGD lexicon for Greek – there are plenty of other resources). But these days I mostly do word study on my computer.
- I use Logos as a very powerful language tool, though other software works just as well. Today as I get to grips with Hebrews 5 I am very struck by the word metriopathe?. It's one of those words that only appear in the New Testament once and is often translated "deal gently with." But the lexicons tell me that it is more significant than this. It is well attested outside the NT so we know what it means. It means striking a balance between extremes. Thus our High Priest Jesus is able to match his abhorrence at sin with a pastoral and priestly concern for us – so yes, he does deal gently with us, but the word means so much more. I found myself meditating just on this one word! After all, a priest who was just kind and loving but had no comprehension of the seriousness of sin would be useless! And a priest who is only concerned with sin and justice but does not match it with love would be a harsh companion. Praise God for Jesus' metriopathe?.
- It goes without saying that very often this kind of word work is work for the study and not necessarily for the pulpit. Beware your own pride in proving your Greek and Hebrew skills to your congregation (which are invariably less than you make out anyway!).
- And if you are an occasional preacher with no knowledge of languages, then take heart! I find a very useful way to think about passages is to compare two or three different Bible versions; this will often throw up differences that warrant further investigation, for example, in a commentary. A knowledge of languages is useful but it is not essential, in the goodness of God!
Hebrews 6: make sure you ask the right question
Next week I've got to preach Hebrews 5.11-6.20 which includes the nutty section on apostacy. It's easy to get really distracted by this section and miss the strong exhortation to maturity that comes before and the confidence the writer expresses about the Hebrews themselves – in other words, whatever else you may think about Hebrews 6.4-6, the writer is confident: "we feel sure of better things, things that belong to salvation." And later on, "we have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul…"
So, the writer is not answering the theological question, "Can I fall away?" or even "If I fall away, will I be able to get back?" Preachers do well to remember that. Nevertheless, it is a perplexing part of the passage and with our Sunday evening congregation where I'm going for a simple approach, it needs an illustration to help people understand why it is here and what purpose it is serving. Here's what I'm going for.
See the sign? What do you think when you see this sign? I guarantee that you are not asking, "If my car goes over the edge will I be able to get it back onto the road again or is it the end for my car?" No! Of course not. Instead, you're saying "I am going to make pretty darn sure I don't go anywhere near that edge." And after you have passed the danger zone you breathe a sigh of relief and say "I'm glad that sign was there and I didn't let myself get too close to the quayside." That is essentially the purpose of the warnings throughout Hebrews. They are not answering theological questions about one of the five points of Calvinism. Rather they stand as stark and sober warnings to be heeded. I'm hoping that this simple illustration will help me keep to the main thrust of the passage and not get too sidetracked by this vexing issue.
Preacher, find a friend
I've just returned from the Spring Ministers Wives conference for….wives. But some of the teaching from Proverbs (from Vaughan Roberts) was very pertinent to preachers. In fact, Vaughan was encouraging the wives to make sure their husbands had friends. Here are Vaughan's main points/outline together with some Proverbs to follow through. The reality is that many pastors cut themselves off from friends (either deliberately or through negligence). I'm unlikely to last the distance if I let myself get in such a state.
1. True friendship is close
Proverbs 18.24. We need close friends but be discerning (Proverb 13.20) and be deliberate
2. True friendship is constant
Proverbs 17.17. Proverbs 19.4. Proverbs 25.19. Proverbs 27.10.
3. True friendship is candid
Proverbs 29.5. Proverbs 27.5-6.
4. True friendship is careful
Don't speak too quickly. Proverbs 16.28. Proverbs 17.9. Proverbs 20.19.
Say the right thing at the right time in the right way. Proverbs 27.14. Proverbs 25.20.
5. True friendship is Christ-centred
For Christ forgives our greatest failings and Christ meets our deepest longings.
The idol of novelty
I'm just reading Derek Tidball's excellent Preacher Keep Yourself from Idols. There's an excellent chapter on novelty as an idol with a paragraph which goes to the heart of preaching:
It should be axiomatic that no sermon should make a secondary issue in the text its main theme. Yet the thirst for novelty often pushes preachers to do just that. To preach, for example, about good parenting on the basis of the parable of the prodigal son is to miss why Jesus told the parable. If we want originality we can do no better…than to study the text carefully. To continue with the prodigal son for a moment, we should be asking why Jesus never told a parable about 'a prodigal son'. His introduction reads, 'There was a man who had two sons' (Luke 15.11). How does that impact our preaching? Perhaps we should be preaching on the question, "Which son was the prodigal?"
Worth the price.
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