Back to school
Today, as you read this, I shall be back in the office following a two week break in Derbyshire. Either
- the sun will have shone, I will have enjoyed cycling round the peaks with my middle daughter Bethan, enjoyed walking through Chatsworth grounds (where we're staying) with the family, and enjoyed a Sunday out in Buxton vesting a good church. Or,
- the rain will have come and I will be miserable.
OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but I do enjoy holidays in the nice weather. Next year, France (we keep telling ourselves). Whichever it was, this week back in the office tends to be a make do and mend week when I try to fix cheaply things that are (a) broken (b) legally fixable without a special licence. It's part of the rhythm of life.
Every ministry has rhythm of this kind and I have discovered as I have moved from rural Hampshire to East London, that this rhythm changes from church to church and situation to situation. Some churches mirror school terms. Others don't. We don't have quite the mass summer exodus in East London that we had in Hampshire (it's partly a demographic thing).
As a preacher understanding your churches rhythm is essential to planning your programme and times away and so on, inasmuch as you do these things. But here's my critical observation – even though a church has a rhythm and perhaps a summer downtime, there is no preaching let up. The preaching on an August Sunday is no less important to the church (even if the church is half filled) than the preaching on the first Sunday in September. The place preaching has at the heart of church life is a reality irrespective of numbers in the pew, visitors on holiday, students (or not) and a myriad of other factors. Do people coming to your church know that?
I always enjoy the Credo magazine. It does come from my baptistic stable, I must admit. Nevertheless, that is not a badge it wears particularly strongly and, therefore, whatever your ecclesiological persuasion, you should find something stimulating here.
2013/4 Resource Guide
You should by now have received your 2013/14 resource guide if you are on our UK mailing list. Please note that we don't send them overseas any more as the cost is astronomical (e,g £4.24 for each copy to Australia). If you are in the UK and have missed out on the UK mailing and wish you hadn't – then please contact the office to be included. If you are overseas and would like to browse, then you will find the guide online here in easy to read format (and also available for download). It's worth a little of your time – not only news about what we're planning for 2013/14 but some articles and other bits of useful information.
Sermon illustrations part 4
Where do you get your sermon illustrations from?
I wonder if there's a better way than either Mr A or Mr R. In reality, it's a strategy we both use. Here it is in essence:
- many passages have their own illustrations – or, at least, colour. Preachers ignore these at their peril. "We all, like sheep, have gone astray" says Isaiah. There's no need there for an illustration about lemmings (which, by the way, do not behave as the video games suggest). The simile is right there for you.
- many things that need illustrating are well illustrated by stories from the Bible. It makes me laugh that some preachers are almost evangelistic about not have any cross references but are happy to liberally quote the BBC website. The Bible is full of stories that illustrate hard things. Why not use them?
Added to this is the importance for the preacher of simply looking around. Spurgeon makes much of this in his "Lectures to my students.". For him, it was being aware of the natural world (flaura, fauna etc) and using these to illustrate. Perhaps our vista may be slightly broader, but – in essence – being a good sermon illustrator is often about just keeping your eyes open.
What is more, this kind of "look around you" illustrating will make your sermons sound more contemporary immediately. (I say "sound" advisedly, because a contemporary sermon is surely one that hits home to current listeners, rather than one which is "trendy" and "happening"). For example, I preached on Numbers 5-6 last weekend and was trying to show from Numbers 5.1-3 that God was interested in holiness because he was both holy himself and present. My illustration was that you can admire a skillful athlete from the stands, but you don't need to be skillful yourself. However, God is present with his people. You're not in the stands. You're on the track with him. I used the athletics illustration because – right around the corner from us – we'd just hosted the anniversary games at the Olympic Park.
Which brings me to one of the most important rules about illustrations which I have just broken.
Please, no sports illustrations.
Must you? Really?
Sermon illustrations part 3
Where do you get your sermon illustrations from?
If Christopher's approach is careful, then mine can only be described as anarchic. I am blessed (cursed?) with a mind which is only able to remember trivia. Exams were an ordeal for me. Anniversaries? No hope. Mrs R's phone number? Useless? Greek? Always a labour.
Trivia. Ah, that's me. I'm your man. Pub Quiz, here I come. I remember useless stuff I read, see and hear. The stories stick with me. I don't remember the details always, but the kernel of the story sticks. So, I remember a man who cheated in a half marathon and took the bus some of the way around. I remember that the French for candy floss means Grandpa's beard. I remember stuff like that.
20 years ago that would have been a curse that was without alleviation. But now, we have the internet made for trivia nerds like me. And so, with a decent news search engine (BBC or The Times), I can find the stories I remember a little about and use them as sermon illustrations. So, no word file for me. Just a decent website and a kooky memory bank.
But tomorrow, I'll show you a better way…
Sermon illustrations part 2
Where do you get your sermon illustrations from?
Christopher Ash and I are fundamentally different when it comes to storing and accessing sermon illustrations. I thought it would be useful, therefore, to explain our two strategies. The two approaches reflect our nature and the way our minds work.
So this is how it is for Mr Ash. He has a word document and every time he hears, sees or reads a story that makes him sit up and take notice he writes it out in his word file. He then searches the word file for key words when he is looking for illustrations. This word file is (I hope) backed up!
This kind of approach is methodical and anitipatory. You'll see tomorrow that my approach is very different. I doubt Christopher has some of the head scratching moments I do! It enables stories to be quickly and accurately recalled. But is has its drawbacks too. It requires a disciplined mind and care that you don't reuse illustrations too often – you need quite a big bank.
On the whole, I'm rather envious of this approach. My scattergun technique will be revealed tomorrow….
Sermon illustrations part 1
Where do you get your sermon illustrations from?
That's a common question experienced preachers are asked by inexperienced ones. So, I thought it may be useful to give a few answers. First though, it's worth asking what sermon illustrations are for? Sermon illustrations are stories or similes or pictures which cast light on something that is difficult to understand. It may be difficult because it's new, outside of the culture, hard – for many reasons. But illustrations are there to be a window onto an otherwise darkened room.
That means they are not always necessary. Some preachers are slaves to illustrations, feeling that the congregation will be very bored with this particular passage unless there is an illustration to help along. I fear that says more about your preaching, dear brother than it does about the congregation! Sometimes, little breathing spaces are useful in sermons: that's not an illustration and nor should it take time and energy away from the message. But if you feel that your preaching is simple enough not to need illustrations, but you must have them anyway to keep people with you….well, perhaps you need to go back to the drawing board!
Nor should illustrations often be negative. For example, tell a long story and then say "and this is what God is not like…." It's tempting to pursue that line. It's always easier to find 100 things that don't illustrate what you want to say, then one that does. By definition. However (and also by definition) it's hard to build up a proper picture of what you are trying to illustrate but telling people what it is not. I fall into this trap often, and Mrs R thankfully reminds me of my own counsel (often). Sometimes they work. But less often than most preachers think.
For example. Imagine you are trying to illustrate the dependability of God's word. You could use the illustration of a weather forecaster, who only gets things right some of the time (perhaps using that famous moment when the hurricane of 1987 was not predicted). "That is not what God is like" you could say. But what have you proved. Very little.
However, with only a slight tweak you could turn this round. "What if there were a weather forecaster, you might say, who always got things right. Every time. No mistakes. 100% record. Everybody would tune in to him or her. No one would bother with any other channel. He or she could command any salary they wanted. Everyone else would be out of business! Imagine a forecaster like that!" And so it is with God…. See the difference?
Tomorrow, where Mr Ash gets his sermon illustrations from….
It was a joy to include Lloyd-Jones' story on being wedded to three points in my Numbers book. Here's my footnote, with some added analysis…
This text (Numbers 22:21) gives rise to one of the best known stories about preaching. D Martyn Lloyd-Jones recalls hearing a preacher who was wedded to three headings. So, for this text he took (1) A good trait in a bad man, as Balaam rose early. (2) The antiquity of saddlery for the passage demonstrates that it is ‘neither modern or new, but an ancient craft’ and (3) A few remarks concerning the woman of Samaria. The preacher could think of nothing else to say. So, says Lloyd-Jones, headings should be ‘natural and appear to be inevitable.’
We might add that preachers need not be slaves to having three points, nor should they take such short texts that they lose sight of the setting and main point being made.
See D Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1971), p.208
So, I want to coin the phrase donkey preaching to describe preaching:
- which takes a short text (not wrong in itself) and completely rips it out of context, or
- which is wedded to three points where this is unjustifable, or
- where the points do not 'naturally and inevitably' arise from the text
Introducing The Proclamation Bible
The Proclamation Bible is an exciting new initiative from Hodder, publishers of the NIV in the UK. It is not from us (as the youtube clip seems to infer) but we are pleased to say it is both inspired by the work that PT has done over the years and it counts as contributors and consulting editors many PT luminaries. The idea is to produce a study Bible with a difference. Lee Gatiss was tasked with putting together a set of helps for a Bible which would be a boost for any preacher or Bible teacher. This is not a verse by verse analysis, like some very good study Bibles already on the market. Rather, we wanted an introductory article to each book of the Bible which tackles some PT classic questions – what is the melodic line of this book, what is its message and intent and so on. As such, any preacher or teacher is given a really good foot up ready for study.
Alongside these book-related articles are a set of introductory articles on reading the Bible. You'll find contributions from Christopher Ash, Graham Beynon, Gerald Bray, Simon Gathercole, David Jackman, Karen Jobes, Dick Lucas, Douglas Moo, Peter O’Brien, me (!), Vaughan Roberts, William Taylor, and Chris Wright …oh, the list goes on. You can pre-order here.
Summer reading: Behind the beautiful forevers
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo is the first novel from the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. I say novel, but it is based largely on interviews and her experiences from life in a Mumbai slum. Not even the names have been changed. I love India and I love reading books about India, but this one left me feeling queasy. It's not an easy book, nor does it have a happy ending. I know that some Indian stories can be prone to exaggeration, but even allowing for this, the stories of the two or three families in the book are sobering at best, depressing at worst. Nevertheless, I found I couldn't put it down. I was put onto this book by journalist and travel writer Oliver Balch whom I found myself sitting next to at a recent wedding. We discovered a shared interest in India and he recommended this book.
What did it teach me as a Christian?
- First, it taught me that I should be grateful for a myriad of things I enjoy in the UK and on which we often grumble. Financial security. Pensions. Benefits. State Education. Uncorrupt police and government officials (in comparison). A superb NHS. The list goes on. Why do so many Christians grumble about these things? God forgive me if I ever do. I don't think I will now…
- Second, it taught me of the need for the gospel. The culture of Mumbai represented in the book is corrupt to the nth degree. Rich people have stopped voting, says the author, because they have found quicker and more sure ways of getting what they want….. it's only the poor who vote. Corruption is presented at every level – but is not thought of negatively. There is no immorality in corruption. No, it's just the most efficient way to get on. This corruption is so endemic at every level, that there is no hope for India apart from the gospel. I truly believe that India needs a Great Awakening. Only then will there be a difference.
- Third, it presented a view of social action which is entirely useless. In the book, Christian money is funneled into the slum through education and social programs. But those who have responsibility for administering the programs (even Christians!) are siphoning off the money before it gets to those who need it. This is their 'right'. So, a local leader set up twelve or thirteen 'schools', gathers some children together and takes a picture which she then sends off to some well meaning US supporters – those who consciences are no doubt assuaged by what they are supporting. If I didn't think it already, it would make me very skeptical about programs which aren't delivered at the end point through those we know. Moreover, it reinforces the second point. The gospel is not social action – that much is clear in Katherine's book, because there is no social action to speak of.
So, hardly a laugh a minute. But a sobering, well-written, thought provoking read.