A labor of love
Our friends at Reformation Heritage Books have sent us a truly wonderful book – A labor of love by J Stephen Yuille. It basically takes sixteen prayers of the puritan minister George Swinnock and turns them into short chapters on the nature of Christian ministry and its high calling. I've been reading one a day and finding it really very helpful. The Puritans can – at times – be a little introspective. And there's always a danger that this kind of book could be just that. However, Yuille steers us down the straight and narrow and provides a useful biblical commentary on each chapter. Here you will find the full breadth of Christian ministry and a useful challenge and tonic for the soul.
The book ends with a farewell sermon Swinnock preached in 1662. It's hard not to be moved by this (and if you'd sat through a sermon this length, you can be sure you would have wanted to move just a little – it's long!). It strikes me that it's Puritan preaching at its worst and best. Worst – because the preacher sits sometimes very loosely to the text; it's quite incredible what he gets out of it. Best – because it's biblical truth rooted in pastoral warmth and genuine love for the people.
Overall, highly recommended. Even though it's only available on kindle in the UK at the moment, it's definitely worth getting.
The preacher’s besetting sins (part 4)
Self pity is one of the most ugly of sins, yet least called out. It is closely related to pride and vanity of course, but has at its root a lack of contentment in Christ. It also has many shades. But it is rarely private. In many ways, self-pity is badly named. For although it starts with feeling sorry for oneself (in lots of areas), it rarely remains private for long. In some preachers this manifests itself in their preaching illustrations. Just get in another illustration about tax credits and you can remind the congregation how little you are paid! For others, it is in personal conversations with members of the congregation. Car is playing up again. Can't really afford to fix it.
I think self-pity centres on one or two key areas of life:
- money. We are not paid wild amounts and convince ourselves that if we had stayed in the secular world we would be much better off.
- time. Ministers make huge sacrifices in terms of time. We'd love people to appreciate that more.
- ministry success. Our ministries are just not as fruitful as we'd love them to be.
I think (and have discovered myself) this sin to be insidious. It creeps in slowly and, like Russian bindweed, takes hold and is a devil to shift. Literally. Try reading Screwtape! Self-pity is a great satanic weapon.
So. here are a few home truths:
- money. You may be one of those pastors who is paid too little. I pray your church remedies that. But let's say you are paid £20,000 plus house. That's not much is it? Er, yes. It depends where you live, but let's assume your house would cost £1,000 to rent a month (round us it's £2,000 a month). You don't pay tax or NI on that benefit. Some of your bills are probably paid. You can make deductions as a minister that no one else can. And yet, the tax system still assesses you on the basic salary because you are a minister. So you may get tax credits. Even allowing that you don't – my fag packet exercise reckons on £20k plus house being equivalent to a salary of almost £40,000. Not so shabby now. So (for most of you!) enough of the whingeing about money.
- time. Yes, you do spend evenings out. But what do you think your secular church leaders do? They work during the day and come out at night. You can, if you plan your day well, have an evening meal with your family. You can be flexible. I worked in the city and I have never yet met a minister – even one of the workaholics – who works harder than we worked then. That's not to say we shouldn't be wise about time and time management. We must certainly not overwork. But the case is overstated.
- ministry success. Go away. Read Ezekiel 1-3. Ministry success is not your measure. Ministry faithfulness is. So if your self-pity is caused by a lack of ministry success, you have greater demons to fight. God have mercy on us all.
Sorry to be so blunt. But self-pity is ugly. And it has no place in the life of any Christian, least of all a minister of the gospel of grace.
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.
How to host a visiting speaker #2
Introduce the visitor properly at the meeting
Because you have invited the visiting speaker, you probably know them, or at least know about them. This may be true for some others. But we ought never to assume it is true for all. If we just say, ‘Well, we all know Ebenezer so he needs no introduction and I’ll just hand over to him’, nothing is so calculated to make the newcomer feel an outsider. ‘Ah,’ she thinks, ‘I and I alone don’t know him; how could I be so ignorant? I wish I hadn’t come.’
Here are some practical tips about welcoming and introducing speakers in a way that is courteous and helpful to the hearers.
1. Show them before the meeting where they are to speak from and where they can rest their notes
2. Show them any arrangements for amplification and ask them in advance if you would like to record their talk
3. Interview the speaker briefly sometime in the meeting before they speak. Discuss with them in advance what questions will help the hearers to feel they have begun to get to know them. Keep the interview crisp and light, but try to include something to identify them as a human being (rather than just the doer of a job!) and something about the work in which they are involved
4. If a speaker’s wife or husband has accompanied them to the meeting, make a point of welcoming them as well, rather than ignoring them. Perhaps get them to the front for the brief interview, if there is time.
5. Offer them the opportunity to tell people a little about the work they are doing
6. If they have written a book or published a booklet or article that might be of interest to those at the meeting, take the trouble to have a copy to hand and mention it; unless the visitor is into self-promotion he may be reluctant to draw attention to it himself.
7. If you have a bookstall, get some copies ordered in good time for this
8. Say clearly what subject or passage you have asked them to speak on
9. Pray for the speaker, the hearers and the grace of God to be at work in the meeting
10. Hand over to them
11. Thank them briefly at the end, but avoid capping what they have said with lengthy extra observations of your own. Remember the aim is not to leave people thinking how well or badly the speaker has spoken, but rather going away to do the word of God.
Thank them afterwards
There are two things to remember afterwards.
1. Send them enough to cover their expenses. They won’t expect anything more than this (and if they do, then you probably don’t want to invite them!) But if you want to give them some kind of thank you gift, think about what will be most appropriate. Book Tokens are less welcome than they once used to be, because it forces people to buy expensive books in bookshops when they can usually get them a fair bit more cheaply on the Internet. How about an Amazon token?
2. Write to thank them for their teaching or preaching. Even if you can’t think of much good to say about it, try to say something. And if you say it in writing they can share the thanks to encourage those who have been left behind, perhaps coping with children.