Today is one of those most curious of British things – a bank holiday. That means, for overseas readers, that everything is closed. Banks yes (although to be fair, they're closed lots of other times too), businesses and so on. We have two of these delightful days in May, though we do gripe that we have less statutory holidays than some places (UK total 8 per year, Colombia 18, Mexico 7….). So, what to do?
Some people shop. Some people spend some time with family. Some people attend sports events. Others simply enjoy the lie-in. Some work. This can be especially true for ministers if they have a standard rythmn of which Monday is a critical part.
Others book onto the EMA. A well known evangelical leader told me that none of his staff had booked yet "because there was plenty of room." Whilst that's true – it would be nice not to leave it too late. We look forward to receiving your booking on this bank holiday booking day.
We are more often motivated by fear than by attraction. I probably wear the kinds of clothes I do more because I don’t want to regarded as the kind of person who wears either smarter or scruffier or trendier clothes than I do, than because I particularly love the clothes you can buy at ******* (name of store removed for editorial reasons).
So too with what preachers do physically in preaching. I suspect that if you walk up and down with you radio-mike the whole time, that’s because deep down you think you’ll be too dull if you don’t. And conversely if you remain in your pulpit or behind your lectern that’s because you don’t want to be one of those preachers who gains his impact through showmanship more than through the Word.
Both these fears are fine, of course, but the chances are that most readers of this blog (the Brits, or more specifically the English, anyway) are more likely to fear being a rabble-rousing showman than an unexciting lecturer.
At this point it’s not uncommon for someone to refer Paul’s refusal to use the accepted persuasive techniques of his day, but instead to preach simply the cross of Christ. That is indeed a relief for us, that we ought not dress up our gospel proclamation in whatever faddish trappings our world happens to find engaging right now. However I don’t think we should use that fact to overlook the obvious truth that the preachers through whom God speaks have bodies. If I stand stock-still behind a lectern that I grasp in an authoritative manner am still making a powerful culture-laden statement – it’s just a different statement from the one made by the preacher who wanders waving his arms like a windmill.
At New Word Alive I heard one speaker make an excellent point from 2 Corinthians ch.1 about the need for believers not to hide their sufferings from one another, but to share them. As he did so, two or three times he made an illustrative physical movement: first of half-turning his back and clutching something to his chest and stroking it, but then of turning round to be open to us, walking a few yards and offering his hands openly in front of him. Not histrionic, not emotive for its own sake. And it made his point infinitely more effective and memorable. I think in a few months it’s that physical act I will remember, and that act will call his teaching point to my mind.
Applying the truth
Two issues here: when in the sermon to apply, and how to do it.
- First, the when. Here is a gut-reaction I have when I’m listening to sermons: I am much more often grabbed hold of and feel that God’s word has got under my skin when the preacher has dropped in application regularly as he goes, rather than saving it all up for the end. And that’s true even though I am someone who happens to have had a fair amount of training and experience in listening to long lectures (everyone gets their kicks somehow). It is very tempting to save the application till the end: “I need to explain it all before I apply it”; “I want a big, practical finish”. But not many people can hold in their heads all the biblical content that we’re giving them for all those minutes, and then have it all freshly at the front of their minds when we finally come to set out the application. When I first started preaching I was especially impressed by one preacher whose introduction was usually a piece of his application brought forward. At the outset he convinced us that we needed help in a certain area, and then he brought us to Scripture to show us that here was the medicine we needed. Of course it’s good not to be predictably formulaic, but there is some wisdom in that. I might start doing it again more often.
- Second, the how. There are a million and one things that could be said, but here’s just one. Stories count for a great deal. I was reading recently about a department store that wanted to have the reputation for the best customer service. In their staff training they constantly re-told the true story of an employee who one day ironed a shirt for a customer who was heading off to a big meeting – and the shirt had been bought in a different store. That one story communicates an awful more about how the management want the employees to relate to customers than a whole series of bullet-point principles. So we’re back to the same point as the previous post on illustration. Specific stories of this biblical truth being put into action is better than a string of general exhortations.
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.