Light through the windows
Aged about six, at one of his first class assemblies, my son was standing in a line of kids who each had to tell the watching parents what they wanted to be when the grow up. There was the predictable list: fireman, astronaut, footballer, ballet dancer, nurse. My son said: “I want to be a nillustrator” (he likes comics and drawing, you see – and also, it seems, likes being different from the other kids.)
Well, when it comes to preaching, I want to be a better ‘nillustrator’. The seminar on this at NWA was the better attended of the two, and my sense was that this partly reflects a feeling among many preachers that they are weak in this area. If they expected to hear from an expert they would have been disappointed; it was just me reflecting on my weaknesses in this area. However sometimes we can learn more from someone who’s had to work hard to grow at something so that it becomes learned behaviour, rather than it coming naturally, because they can articulate the issues better than someone who just does it instinctively.
Here are two principles with sermon illustrations. Obvious stuff, I know, but I need to keep reminding myself of it:
- Illustrate more often for impact than for understanding. Most of the Bible is not difficult to comprehend. But what our cold hearts and dull minds need is illustrations which express the impact of our passage in different ways, so that the truth comes at us from all angles. After all, Scripture does that all the time, teaching the same truths in theological form, and also in narrative, poetry, apocalyptic, and parable. By contrast, the SEIA model (state, explain, illustrate, apply) – helpful though it is – tends to set me up more to illustrate for understanding. Increasingly, though, I think I need far more good illustrations for impact.
- One specific story is better than a thousand generalities. “Yesterday a friend of mine spilled a full cup of coffee down his trousers five minutes before an important meeting” is better than “There are many times, aren’t there, when annoying things happen”. It’s a narrative that evokes an emotion, rather than a colourless generality. You may not need to keep reminding yourself of this, but I do.
A tune up for preachers
A couple of weeks back I was at week 2 of New Word Alive along with three or four thousand others. It was thirteen years since I last went to (old) Word Alive, and it was a delight to be back. I was there with my family, and one of the simple joys of it for us was to be together with such a large number of believers. (Other smaller delights: the pretty setting of Conway Castle, and a run along the sea-front.) When you spend most of your time in a smaller church, as we have for the last nine years or so, that is a pretty significant pleasure.
I was at NWA to lead a couple of seminars on preaching, aimed at more experienced preachers, to which I gave the title ‘A tune-up for preachers’. As the focus I took issues of communication: illustration, application, and the physical aspects of preaching. The latter especially might not be regarded far and wide as PT’s bread and butter, but every wise preacher knows how vital it is, and it’s something I have been thinking about for a while. I said at the outset that I was assuming that everyone there had all the key convictions about expository preaching in place and was always working on them – and that if they did not they should ignore everything that followed, as I don’t have much interest in helping someone be a better communicator if what they’re about is something other than expounding Scripture faithfully.
One of the elephants in the room around PT circles is that a faithful exposition that has a decent number of illustrations and makes a stab at application can still be profoundly dull and uninspiring. I increasingly want to say (both of my own sermons and others’) that such a sermon is only partially faithful to Scripture at best. One thing God’s word never is, is dull and uninspiring, and preaching needs to be faithful to Scripture’s character, as well as to its propositional content. Lord preserve me from ever making it seem dull – even accidentally, out of a (right) desire to point my hearers away from myself and to Christ.
Over the next few days’ blogs I’ll give you a few more musings from these seminars, along with some stuff from the cutting-room floor that didn’t make it into the seminars.
Why it doesn’t matter if people don’t remember your sermons
I've just spent a wonderful hour with a dear Australian brother who has given his lifetime to preaching the gospel and teaching others to do so (no name dropping here!). He made an observation, almost in passing, that really grabbed my attention. "It doesn't matter", he said, "if people don't remember your sermons. Preaching is about making actions instinctive, not giving you more head knowledge." He went on to say that he's a good reader, but doesn't remember being taught to read. He can play the piano but remembers very little about his tuition. He knows how to ride a bike, but can't recall the moment when the stabilisers were taken off.
How true and how liberating! We are tempted, I would suggest, to measure our ministry in terms of how much people can remember of it. And when people say to us "I remember your three points" we get a inward glow. But in fact, the measure of God's word preached is whether people change and if spiritual habits that were unnatural become the norm, become instinctive. We need to pray that our preaching would be effective and not so much that it would be memorable.
It doesn't matter if people don't remember your sermons.
One face missing from the EMA: Ravaka Rajo
We were looking forward to welcoming Madagascan pastor Ravaka to this year's EMA. Sadly, we heard today that Ravaka was called home by our Sovereign Lord following a motor accident. Ravaka, a pioneer pastor, was due to be on holiday in the UK in June and was combining the trip visiting UK in laws with a visit to the EMA. He leaves behind his wife Liz and two children Anna (9) and Jonathan (8). Please do bear up the family in prayer. A reminder, brothers, that our time is short and that the ministry is urgent.
Getting wet and the Cycling Confucius
It's been some time since Cylcing Confucius spoke. he's back today by popular request.
If you cycle in the rain you will get wet.
It may not look it, but this photo is me on my bike. I'm obviously hidden by the spray, but this is precisely what happened to me today so I arrived at work completely soaked through. You can wear all the expensive waterproof gear you want, but the Cyling Confucius is right. If you cycle in the rain you're going to get wet. And more fool me. I thought I had dry everythings in the office, but I still had to send someone out for some new socks… There is an inevitablity about it all.
There are, too, pastoral inevitabilities. This is because the Christian life has inevitabilities (Luke 9.23, 1 Tim 3.12). The pastor feels these for himself (as any Christian) but the pressure is multiplied because he feels them for others too. That's just the way it is. Not that we're full of self pity about this of course. Following in the Master's footsteps is both a privilege and a delight. But we need to be realistic about the nature of ministry and make sure we have in place mechanisms and safety nets to support us through difficult seasons. To put it in cycling-to-work terms, make sure you have dry socks in the office.
For some, that will mean having and building strong leadership teams made up of real friends. For others that will mean having good ministry friends with whom you meet regularly. For others it will mean…. well, you work it out.
But we all need dry socks in the office. Cycling Confucious – he not wrong.
Alongside Christian newspapers, it's a really good habit for a pastor-teacher to read Christian periodicals. There are a number of reasons:
- by definition, such things tend to stretch us. This discipline of feeding our minds and hearts and seeking to grow is always worthwhile. The nature of journals/periodicals is that you get more developed and thought-through arguments than, say, a blog.
- they also challenge some of our core convictions. I find journals make me think about what I am doing and how I am doing it. Not always in agreement, of course, but (and I admit to sticking to evangelical publications) with right motives
- they sift through the books being published. Of the making of books, there is much. You cannot possibly read every book, and I find journals a helpful way of sifting what is good to read and suggesting other titles that I might not come across elsewhere
Here are the ones I regularly look at: it's hardly an exhaustive list and I'm not making any comment by saying that I know that there others, and that I don't read them. As with books, you can't read everything. But over a few years, these are the ones that I've found particularly helpful.
- I like Modern Reformation. I have actually got a print subscription, though that not's strictly necessary. But I find this one stretches my thinking nicely.
- Slightly more down to earth and less technical (though no less helpful) is The Briefing. I don't always agree with it (like most of the journals, in fact), but it's always stimulating.
- I like the Banner magazine for its historical focus
- Credo comes from baptist roots (like me), but does not generally seem narrow. It's nicely presented, online only (and free).
- IX marks has a similar provenance and is focused on issues in the local church – always stimulating, also free and online
- Themelios sometimes does my brain in being a Pooh bear (bear of little brain). But the book reviews are superb. Now online and free.
- Churchman comes into the office, so I tend to read it. Very occasionally I just don't understand it (being a good non-conformist), but nonetheless, some very interesting articles which have helped me enormously.
I'm pretty sure that reading a Christian newspaper is high up the priority list for Christians. For sure, in the world, newspaper readership is down, but I think that's a shame. In the secular world there are lots of alternatives to print – online news from the BBC, 24 hour news channels and so on. But there is just no equivalent at the moment in the Christian world where you'll get an evangelical look at what is going on. That's why I'm very happy to be associated with one newspaper in particular (Evangelicals Now) and we get other newspapers in the office too. However, if our people are going to grasp any vision for keeping abreast of what is happening around the world, then we – as gatekeepers – need to be better champions of such periodicals. So, I guess I'm making a case not just for pastors to read a Christian newspaper, but for pastors to encourage churches to do so too. £12 is not a lot for an annual subscription, given what you get.
Here, very helpfully I think, are EN editor John Benton's five reasons to read a Christian newspaper. You may like to copy and paste these and use them with your congregation:
- INSIGHT: We need to read a Christian newspaper because the secular media rarely report on the great strides the gospel is making worldwide, or if they do they usually manage to misreport what is going on.
- UNITY: God’s word tells us that all true Christians are one in Christ Jesus. By reading news of other believers nationally and globally we give concrete expression to that oneness.
- BALANCE: As we find out about Christians and churches at home and abroad and their successes for the gospel or the challenges they face, we are put in touch with an up to date and overall picture of what God himself is doing in our day. This makes us more balanced as Christians.
- SOLIDARITY: As we read news of other brothers and sisters we have the opportunity to stand with them in prayer and so become co-workers with God in this generation.
- DISCIPLESHIP: As we take interest by reading about other Christians we are delivered from parochialism, self-centredness and party spirit and show God that we really do care about his kingdom and not just our little bit of it. This is a mark of a true disciple.
Accommodation at the EMA
We want to make the EMA as accessible as possible and perhaps you're thinking that you might come but have no one to stop with in London and find that paid accommodation options are just too prohibitive? If so, we've got some good news for you. We've arranged with a number of church families in London to host delegates for free during the EMA. This is a great opportunity to attend the EMA and spend some time in a Christian home, hosted by kind London families who want to serve those in ministry. There are obviously only a limited number of places and we'd love to use them for those who would otherwise be unable to afford to come. Do contact the office if you're interested. Also, if you're a London delegate and you have some spare room, get in touch and we'll gladly add you to the accommodation list.
May no new thing arise
I love reading – and not just Christian books, but newspapers, novels (old and new), biographies, history books. I'm a bit of a bookworm. However, I must confess, that one series of books I read time and time again are Patick O'Brians series of 21 naval novels set in the early 19th Century. They are boys-own stuff; lots of swashbuckling but with interesting character development and botany! O'Brian knows his stuff – both naval, botanic (I think!) and Catalan – for one of his heroes is a Catalan independentist. He has this character regularly speak a Catalan proverb: May no new thing arise. We rather like that here in the office as a tag for ministry. It's not that we don't want new things in terms of new birth and new levels of sanctification of course; by no means! Nor do we reject application and delivery that is relevant to a 21st Century audience.
However, we do recognise that much of ministry is same old, same old. This is necessarily so because people don't change and, thankfully, God and his word do not change. Therefore, novelty as a ministry objective is very, very dangerous. This is a sweeping statement – I recognise that. And it is true, we have to be looking at the ways we do things constantly to evaluate ourselves against Scripture. But fundamentally there is nothing new that a preacher has to do. And God help the preacher who makes it his objective to find something new to say.
Tidball (in Preacher keep yourself from idols) is very helpful on this.
The teachers of the early church never moved beyond the original apostolic gospel, even though they constantly engaged in making fresh applications of it. Time and time again, they drew people to the original apostolic gospel and encouraged them to remain loyal to it, while always seeking to make it relevant to the new challenges believers were facing.
May no new thing arise.
International at EMA
We've two exciting announcements regarding the EMA.
- First up, this year we're supporting an international project. With help from some of our book publishing friends, we're going to provide books and resources for Johannesburg Bible College, including an ESV study Bible for £5. We hope that those who come to the EMA might partner with us in this new initiative which is a recognition that we're blessed with many abundant resources here in the UK and we long to be outward looking and help others.
- We also want to recognise that many people come to the EMA from overseas. Indeed, many of our regulars tell us what a lifeline it is for them as they labour for Christ in sometimes hard places. We want to acknowledge the efforts many make to come to the EMA. If you're an overseas visitor, you're very welcome to come to our International reception over lunch on Tuesday 24 June. We do need to know who is coming though, so if you're an international visitor and you have booked for the EMA but you haven't yet been sent an invite, please do email the office and let us know.
In 2012 we had a few overseas workers who were brought back by their churches to spend time with their church families, report back and be refreshed. Several made the EMA part of that spiritual refreshment. Why not think about this for your overseas workers? We'd love to see them.