The preacher’s besetting sins (part 3)
The preacher's unteachable spirit
The preacher spends more time in the word than anyone else in the congregation. Possibly. Hopefully. How remarkable it is, therefore, that he can develop an unteachable spirit. And yet it is all too common. An unteachable spirit means that the preacher is almost incapable of sitting under someone else's ministry and benefitting from it.
- This may be a sin of habit. He may sit under other people's ministry so rarely that he scarcely knows how to do so anymore. He is always preaching, or if not preaching, then away on holiday or filling someone else's pulpit on a Sunday away.
- This may be a sin of pride. If he is the senior pastor, then he views the younger preachers in his church as his protegés, coached from an early age and he looks on when they are preaching with a kind of headmasterly benevolence.
- This may be a sin of coldness towards Christ. In all the preparing and studying to give to others, the preacher has quenched the Spirit to the extent that the word no longer grips him in the way it used to do.
- This may be a sin of being overtly critical. The preacher is so used to critiquing sermons or listening/reading critically that he is actually unable to do anything other than suggest points for improvement or spot signs of potential heresy.
Or (e). All of the above. Running conferences, as I do, I see a lot of this. It is very, very easy for us to listen critically and end up not hearing anything. I have lost count of the times that otherwise great expositions have been critically received because….well., the list is endless, you would not believe it. And, of course, I see it in my own heart too. I spend a good deal of my time helping other preachers and I still have to discipline myself to take time to remember – for example during a sermon practise class – that I am hearing the word of God preached. There's still time needed to pause and reflect.
I think this is a deadly sin for a preacher. It's deadly for his own heart. And it's deadly for his people. You'll know quickly a congregation member who sits under an unteachable pastor. Because they will quickly become unteachable too.
So how can it be fought? Here's some wisdom, for what it's worth…
- don't hog the preaching. Make sure, from early on, you sit under other's ministry in your church
- discipline yourself in prayerful assessment of a sermon in terms of what your heart needs to hear
- use conferences wisely to sharpen your own preaching and also sit under good ministry. Expect these times to build you as a Christian
- listen to online audio to receive good teaching regularly yourself. Find time to do this in your busy week.
And ask God to take away your unteachable spirit. It helps no one.
The preacher’s besetting sins (part 2)
This is part 2 in a short series this week on the preacher's besetting sins – written out of some painful self-examination this summer! I hope it's useful.
The preacher's cold heart
The great black-lined irony of preaching is this: the very man who stands in the pulpit week in and week out parading and proclaiming a public form of warmth and love for Christ can be the most cold hearted in the congregation.
At one level, this shouldn't surprise us. All Christians have ups and downs. But most Christians can subsume these into ordinary life. But when ordinary life is church ministry, as it is for the preacher, the combination can be deadly. There will be times – there will – when you are a reluctant preacher. You know, if you are honest with yourself, that you're a sinner preaching to sinners. And sometimes this becomes even worse – a cold hearted believer parading warmth towards Christ which you scarcely feel.
It's not just the ups and downs of Christian life that can bring this situation about. The very nature of ministry – lots of time alone, study, preparation, thinking and so on, can – if not checked – lead to a cold, loveless kind of faith. All the energy is expended on producing a creditable, faithful sermon. So much so that there is nothing left in the tank for our own walk with Christ. What experienced preacher has not felt this from time to time, perhaps more often than we should?
How easy it is for a preacher to say to his people "you know, I've preached this sermon to myself" but the reality is that he only did so to see how long it took. How easy to sound convincing about your quiet times from the pulpit. How easy to big up your own personal evangelism ("as I was saying just the other day…"). And because we know the Scriptures we know what is at the root of this. We know it is easy to convince others because we know it is easy to convince ourselves that we are doing well.
Just recently, I've set up a little group of people to hold be accountable and advise me. It all sounds a little cheesy and American. An accountability group! Whatever next! But it's been really useful in addressing my personal walk with Christ. The thing is I can convince my people, my wife, myself – that I am doing better than I am.
And the remedy? Well, you should know it Mr Preacher because it is what you give your people week in week out. You really do need to preach that to yourself. And if you don't know the answer… well, God help you. But it must begin with honest assessment. Perhaps you can do that yourself? Perhaps you need others to help you do it? Perhaps you need to read a book?
But, please, I beg you, if your walk is cold, don't pretend it will mend itself or (perhaps worse) that it simply doesn't matter.
Birthday in the PT office
He won't thank me for making it known, but today's is Dick Lucas' eighty-eighth birthday. In God's goodness, he's still sharp and on top of things. The Scriptures tell us to honour our elders, and though this can be misinterpreted, it surely means – at the very least – we should give thanks to God for the ministry of Dick over the years, still serving us as we serve the local church.
The preacher’s besetting sins (part 1)
I preached my first sermon in 1988 at Woodhouse Eaves Evangelical Baptist Church, in a small village just outside Loughborough. Habakkuk, if you're interested. Since then, amazingly almost 25 years ago, I've been preaching pretty regularly, first as a lay preacher, then as a pastor-teacher. This summer, I set aside some time to reflect back on that preaching and try to see what my besetting sins were as a preacher.
I've preached some good sermons (probably the minority), some stinkers, and (this is probably the majority) some average expositions. But they all have one thing in common: they were all preached in sin by a sinner. My motives have never been entirely pure; I hope I am more sanctified now than I was in 1988, but I am sure not perfect. And I want to put sin to death, both in my personal life, but also in my preaching ministry. That requires me to identify the sins that beset my preaching life, and work, prayerfully and in dependence upon God, to root them out.
As I've done that I've realised that these preaching sins are pretty common to all of us who preach. For sure, there may be differences around the margins, but I want over this week, to share four struggles that I've felt in my own preaching in the sure knowledge that these are four struggles you have felt too. Maybe some more than others. And maybe I've not nailed the particular one you are struggling with at the moment. But these posts come prayerfully and humbly, hoping that our preaching might be used by God as we seek to serve him with good hearts.
The four sins are:
- vanity and pride
- an unteachable spirit
The Preacher's Vanity
It took me a long while to realise that there is the world of difference between wondering:
- what will people make of this (i.e. the sermon)
- what will people make of me
The first, correctly focused, is a commendable trait. As we are preparing our sermons, we should be thinking whether people will understand what we are saying; whether the application we have seen flowing out from the passage will capture people's attention; prayerfully whether this sermon will make a difference in people's lives as we seek to faithfully expound the word of God. All of the above and more. We don't preach for ourselves. We preach, ultimately, for the glory of our triune God, which means we preach for people. We want the living and active word of God to grip them and take hold of them and, by the Spirit's power, change them.
All well and good. But that is a world away from the second question, even if – at first glance – it appears very close. What will people make of me is the classic vanity question. It is the question that reveals the preacher's inner insecurities or desires. I want to be liked. I want to be seen to be good. I enjoy being at the front. I really quite like it when people say I am a good preacher. And so on. It begins with vanity, and quickly turns into pride.
Vanity is an ugly sin. It has no redeeming qualities. It both corrupts our own hearts and corrupts the hearts of our listeners too. Let me explain.
It is perhaps no surprise that it corrupts our own hearts. Let me explain how I think that affects our sermon preparation and preaching:
- for some it will mean pulling punches. If I want to be seen to be the great pastor-preacher there will be times when I let people off the hook and don't preach a passage with its full force. I don't want to upset anybody after all.
- but there will be other times when I go to the other extreme. There is a kind of Christian who loves the firebrand preacher and vanity may make me into a condemnatory preacher. It's easy to be that kind of preacher. There's always something to get angry about. Goodness, my people might even call that kind of ministry prophetic!
- for others it will mean preparing so that I can dazzle my people. That chiasm; that obscure Hebrew construction; those bookends; and so it goes on.
- for some it will be length. Vanity can make us preach longer sermons than are necessary, simply because we can
- for others it be shortness. Look how much I can get into 15 minutes! Although I have to say, I've not met many evangelicals with this curious form of pride
- for some it will mean banging the drum about our particular hot potatoes. Yes, this too is a form of vanity. For people should be interested in the things that get me hot under the collar.
And many more. And of course, when all this works – vanity quickly becomes pride. Not all of these are sins in themselves or course. Just because I regularly preach for 45 minutes doesn't mean I am proud. But they may be indicators that vanity is an issue.
And this deep, inward sin corrupts the hearts of our hearers too. How so? Because when we don't preach the passage faithfully, we are not giving our people what God has ordained for them. That goes right to the heart of expository preaching. We preach the passage precisely because we have confidence that this is what God wants his people to hear. But when we are more interested in presenting ourselves we diminish the text and rob people of what they really need. They become, at best, impoverished; at worst, corrupted themselves. Pity the congregation with a vain preacher.
As with all the preacher's besetting sins, the glory of preaching is that God uses weak vessels. In one sense it is not as though our sin will hinder the effectiveness of the Spirit working through his word. Yet, on the other hand we must not be so naive as to dismiss any link whatsoever. Take a look at 1 Timothy 4.16. I am increasingly convinced that this is a lodestar text for preachers.
Vanity is one of the preacher's root sins. It is often behind other sins, particularly of behaviour. We act in certain ways, because we are vain. And because of its nature, I think it is a common besetting sin of preachers, to a greater or lesser extent. So root it out with me, I beg you. Be honest about its presence and, with the Spirit's aid, fight against it; put it to death.
For God opposes the proud. And it would be a terrible thing, Mr Preacher, to have the very God you claim to serve so faithfully, opposing you.
NIV Proclamation Bible
Lee Gatiss (Editor) and Hodder & Stoughton have put together a terrific new edition of the NIV called The Proclamation Bible. It's not by us, but it's inspired by the work we've been trying to do over the last 25 years or so. As well as some introductory articles, there is a two page essay on each book of the Bible giving some pointers to its message and structure. It's not a study Bible in the traditional sense (verse by verse explained), but it is actually something more: the helps are designed to give you a head start in preparing a message or talk from a particular book, whether you are a preacher, small group leader or kids worker. It's also effectively a wide-margin edition, with space to write around the edges and make this into your own unique resource.
The list of contributors reads like a who's who of good evangelical preaching! Get this: Adam, Alexander, Anderson, Ash, Austen, Bartholomew, Beale, Beynon, Block, Bolt, Bray, Byun, Casement, Clarke, Cooper, Cowan, Darlington, de Witt, Eloff, Fyall, Gathercole, Gatiss & Gatiss (!), Gibb, Gibson, Goligher, Hardyman, Harmon, Helm, Hely Hutchinson, Jackman, Jobes, Jongkind, Lucas, MacLeay, Mason, Meynell, Moo, Mote, O'Brien, O'Donoghue, Perkins, Peterson, Pratt, Reynolds [can't have everything] Roberts, Robson, Rose, Rosner, Schluter, Shead, Skrine, Sleeman, Stuart, Taylor, Theocharous, Thompson, Tinker, Tooher, Vibert, Ward, Weekes, Williamson, Woodhouse, Wright.
Amazing line up!
Not only this, but PT gets a small royalty from each Bible sold to help support the work. I've seen a lot of the contributions before as a consulting editor, but I've actually just spent an hour flicking through others and thinking how good a resource this would be for anyone who teaches the Bible. RRP is £29, but you can get one from our friends at tenofthose for £20 if you preorder.
What to look for in a training course
This week I've been doing some recording with the FIEC for some video shorts. My own slot was on "what to look for in a training course" and here's my text. I happen to think that PT Cornhill fits this set of criteria very indeed – well, I would, wouldn't I!! But even if that's not your chosen route or the route of those you're training in your church (and I'm big enough to realise that there are lots of good options), I hope there's some wisdom here. Please note that this was written for a free church audience. Nevertheless, I hope there's lots of help here whatever your background.
One of the great things about preparing for free-church ministry is that there is no one set route to follow. That means that you can carefully choose a training route which suits you best. However, perhaps most importantly of all, remember that any training you undertake needs to be part of a mindset of ongoing training. It’s not: train, qualify and then you’re done. Ministry is a lifetime of learning, growing and serving.
Nevertheless, a good training period going into ministry can set you up well for a lifetime of service. It’s brilliant that here in the UK there are lots of different options that you can pursue. But how on earth can you choose between them? Well, here are a few pointers.
First, don’t make the choice on your own. You belong to a local church and, even if your church is not in a position to fund all your training, you should be making decisions with them. And this strong doctrine of the local church is also important when it comes to choosing a particular college or course.
Make sure that the place you select has a robust and healthy theology of the local church. Do they see their role as serving the local church – or as setting the agenda? How will you (especially if you go away to study) maintain this local church involvement?
The second tip is this. Choose training which reflects the nature of real church work. Make sure it majors on the things that feature most in ministry. For starters, that means preaching and pastoral work. Don’t choose somewhere which sees those things as nice-to-have. They need to be at the core of your training because they’re at the core of your ministry.
Then a word about breadth. You need to be trained by those who respect your particular theological position. I think it’s a fool’s errand to think you can convert a liberal establishment. Don’t even try! Find out what the course beliefs are. Make sure you’re happy with them.
But equally, go for somewhere where there is some stretching breadth so that you will be challenged, always assuming that the breadth comes from secondary issues. In other words, you’re looking for somewhere that accepts and rejoices in your boundaries but includes others who will get you thinking outside of the box. That balance needs wise thinking, but is worth considering.
Then there are some practical considerations, of course. These include cost, location, full time versus part time, whether you have a family (it may be difficult to move them all), length of course, how it will fit with church or work life, whether it leads to a recognised qualification and so on.
All those need to be part of your decision. Find people who have done the course and ask them questions. How did it work? How did life shape up? How did the family cope? What would they do differently?
But above all, plan to enjoy it. Even though ministry is a lifetime of learning, this opportunity to train now is almost certainly a one off. So, plan to get the most out of it. And plan to enjoy it.
I’ve done three lots of training in my career. The first two were business related and necessary. They were, to be honest, a bit of a chore. But I loved training for ministry and would not have swapped it for anything. I hope you feel the same.
EMA evangelistic event
Here's an idea. Next year is Passion for Life and though lots of churches will be organising events at Easter, there will be some momentum. So we wondered if we can't make use of the Barbican as a professional concert venue and put on an event one of the evenings at the EMA. The idea would be, broadly speaking, a classical music event with performance and testimony using well known professional musicians who are also Christians with a clear testimony. It would be a great event to bring friends to if you live in and around London. But before we push the button we need to think whether it's viable or not. We can rent the Barbican for the evening at a lower cost during the EMA than at other times, but it's still not cheap. We'd love to hear from you if you think this is something your church would support (we're not asking for financial support – just an indication of whether you think it's a good idea and would promote it in your fellowship). If so, please could you email us and make some encouraging noises? Thanks – we look forward to hearing from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Just a thought…
I wonder if churches should celebrate significant birthdays of congregation members less and notable marriage anniversaries more?
I know there is the risk of offending the singles, but think about it. As long as you are alive, a birthday comes around. That's worth thanking God for. Of course it is. But marriage is an altogether different order. Not only is it a covenant relationship, reflecting Christ and the church. But long marriages are increasingly counter cultural and any marriage which lasts the distance is evidence of God's continued sustaining goodness over and above simply keeping us alive.
Let's have family church gatherings where we celebrate 25 year marriages, 40 year marriages, 50 years and beyond.
Summer reading review #4
Here's a roundup of what else graced my kindle this summer:
Superb. A remarkable study into something I learn for O-level history. The political and royal wheeler-dealings are overwhelmingly mesmerising. A sobering reminder that the democracy we enjoy now was not easily won, nor should it be taken for granted. And a reminder that the details are often surprising and matter – on such things the fate of nations turn. For example the arch enemy of reform who supported the bill because he thought it might somehow reverse Catholic emancipation. His vote counted. When the affairs of nations turn on such small matters, the sovereignty of God is a remarkable comfort.
Don't. Just don't. Why would you?
Silly nonsense. Barely enjoyable. An alien story with a post modern slant.
Sian died before completing this story (she was the wife of BBC editor Robert Peston). Does that make people write nice things about it when it's not a particularly good story? The trouble is this kind of mystery murder is not my normal fare and so I'm ill equipped to say whether it is a good example of the genre. I read it because it was set in post war austere London (a setting for few books) and that intrigued me. But it didn't really grip me much – just a few sordid characters making their way in North London.
This was a kind of "Bible overview" but in Naval terms – a framework into which I could put all the other naval things I have read. My grandfather was a regular in the Navy and I like to think I got my love of things nautical (though not, I guess, my colour blindness) from him. I really enjoyed this book. It was both informative, as well as setting everything I read into a larger narrative. Wilson also stops off along the way: who knew how close the Armada came to success and what a muppett Drake was?
It reminded me very much of the importance of seeing the whole story. You can take glorious battles out of context, and when you do so, you are in great danger of missing the big thing that is going on. And that, apparently, is the way to read the Bible too…
Summer reading review #3
And the mountains echoed is Khaled Hosseini's third novel – each of which is focused somehow on his native Afghanistan. The previous two (Kite Runner and A thousand splendid suns) are both moving and well written. This third is no exception. As with his previous two novels, I sometimes wonder if his early 20th Century view of Afghanistan is a bit too rosy, but who I am to say. In this novel, we find the harrowing story of a brother and sister split apart at birth and the tale of whether they will ever be reunited.
The writing is realistic without being sensationalist – good material for Christians in this sense. And the story is complex. It jumps around from person to person (with different voices narrating) and era to era. Within the main plot are a number of involving sub plots. Its testament to the writing of Hosseini that this doesn't distract from the book or reduce the enjoyment. On one level, this is a really good book.
But it is also (like his others) achingly and almost unbearably sad. It reduced me to tears and offered no real redemption. Even though there is a sort of reconciliation at the end, the circumstances surrounding it are so tinged with brokenness, that it ends up being a sad rather than uplifting experience. Like Kate Atkinson's book, here is a story that is longing for the redemptive power that only the gospel can bring. Although just a story, it leaves the reader in no doubt that unless there really is something better, life is pretty miserable.