Archives For Preaching

In the church, we handle glory on a regular basis. Every time the church gathers, we talk about topics like: the greatness of God, the fact that God became a human being, our longing for redemption and our inability to save ourselves, the fact that Jesus has conquered death, the reality that God himself lives inside of our human bodies through his Spirit, etc. In other words, the church’s conversations are about the most profound, awe-inspiring, life-transforming, tear-inducing, joy-invoking topics imaginable!

And yet we are numb. The fact that I could type the above sentences without falling on my face and/or break dancing means that I’ve grown callous to truths that ought to be overpowering me at every moment. Think especially of what this is like for pastors: They stand in front of the faithful week after week and talk about the greatest mysteries, struggles, and triumphs in the universe. How can we keep these powerful truths fresh? How can we continue to see and value the glory that the Christian life puts us in contact with at every moment?

Makoto Fujimura: Consider the Lilies

Makoto Fujimura: Consider the Lilies

One significant answer is this: we need artists in our churches. We don’t need only artists, but we do need artists. Art is a gift that God has given humanity so that we can explore the significance of life. Textbooks and newspapers present us with the facts of life; art presents us with the meaning and significance of those facts. If art is God’s gift (it is!) and if this is what art does (it does!), then how can we afford to ignore the role of art in our churches? (We can’t!)

Pablo Picasso: “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

J. R. R. Tolkien: “We need to clean our windows so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity.”

Madeleine L’Engle: “Perhaps art is seeing the obvious in such a new light that the old becomes new.”

As a Bible college professor, I spend a lot of time in classrooms talking about theology and life and ministry. But some of my richest times in those same classrooms come when I teach my class on Christianity and the Arts and my students share the art they’ve created. It takes those same powerful truths we talk about and pushes us to view and handle and (almost) taste them in ways that bring them to life again. The insightful artist can, in a sense, restore sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, feeling to the numb.

Speaking as a pastor to other pastors, Eugene Peterson says:

“Everyone needs artists. Pastors especially—and especially this pastor—need them, for we spend our lives immersed in forms of glory, in the world of salvation become incarnate in Jesus. If because of overfamiliarity and too much talking about we no longer see the glory contained in the form, no longer touch the salvation in the body and blood of Jesus, we are no longer pastors. I want to tell all my pastor colleagues, ‘Make friends with the artist. Let him rip off the veils of habit that obscure the beauty of Christ in the faces we look at day after day. Let her restore color and texture and smell to the salvation that has become disembodied in a fog of abstraction.’”

I do think that some churches try too hard in incorporating art into their services. I often get the impressions that churches “get artsy” just so that they can appear “relevant” or “with it” to younger generations. I’m not advocating that we drape every inch of our church buildings in art or that pastors don skinny jeans and adopt the persona of a bleeding heart artist (but it’s okay if your pastor does).

Donal J. Forsythe, "The Long Night," 12 box construction. (http://www.donaldforsythe.com/boxes/longnite1.html)

Donal J. Forsythe, “The Long Night,” 12 box construction. (http://www.donaldforsythe.com/boxes/longnite1.html)

I actually don’t think that incorporating art into the life of our churches should be all about what happens on Sunday mornings. Perhaps it should mean hosting artistic events. Certainly it will mean giving artists regular opportunities to share their art with people in the church. It’s really not about a strategy or a model; it’s about valuing and discipling the artists in our midst and imploring them to use their God-given gifts to enrich our lives and our worship. We should also go so far as viewing our artists as missionaries and sending them out into the world with Bibles and paintbrushes for the sake of our common mission.

Becoming a more artsy church is a lame goal. But acknowledging the power of art and the value of artists is essential. And until our churches figure out how to incorporate the gift of art and the gifts of artists into our common life, we will be depriving ourselves of a powerful means of tearing away the veil and bringing ourselves into regular contact with glory.

For more on this, click here.

For an extended list of solid books on the subject, click here.

Your pastor prays for you. His God-given duty, after all, is to “keep watch over your soul” (Heb. 13:17). But unless you’re a rare individual, you don’t pray for your pastor as much as you should. I want to convince you that your pastor desperately needs you to pray for him consistently.

A major factor in your pastor’s need for prayer is the simple reality that he is a human being. He is tempted, as we all are. He sins, as we all do. He is targeted by spiritual warfare. Because he is a human being seeking to live a godly life, he needs prayer and support.

But there are other reasons for his need for prayer related to his unique role as a pastor. I want to explore three of those below:

 

  1. YOU EXPECT YOUR PASTOR TO SPEAK FOR GOD.

All of us desperately need to know what God thinks about all of the issues we face in life. We need to hear from God—regularly, insightfully, passionately.

So put yourself in your pastor’s shoes here. Week after week, you gather with other believers to hear a word from God. And your pastor is the one who will deliver God’s word to you. His job is to stand before you on a regular basis and declare, “Thus says the Lord.” Much of the Spirit’s conviction in your life will come from words your pastor speaks. Many of your beliefs about the nature of God or how God wants you to behave in a given situation will originate in your pastor’s sermon prep.

Your pastor speaks to you on God’s behalf. He feels the weight of that burden. Make sure you’re praying for him. Pray that God will speak to him. Pray that he will listen. Pray that God will empower him as he takes on the formidable role of a modern day prophet.

Francis Chan Preaching

 

  1. YOU EXPECT YOUR PASTOR TO SOLVE ALL YOUR PROBLEMS.

Perhaps this sounds overdramatic. But when something goes wrong in your life, who are you turning to for help? When you’re struggling with sin, when you can’t navigate a dysfunctional relationship, when you’ve experienced loss, when you’re depressed, when you need some guidance—who is it that you turn to in these situations? If you’re like most Christians, you’ll turn to your pastor to help you solve your problems.

That’s as it should be, to a certain extent. Your pastor does indeed keep watch over your soul; he is there to help you grow. But once again, consider it from your pastor’s perspective. What if you were the last line of defense (and often also the first) with every major issue anyone in your congregation could possibly encounter? That’s an enormous burden to bear. And an impossible schedule to maintain. (Even if your church has multiple pastors, that means your church has more people to care for.) Be sure to pray for your pastor in this regard. Ask God to give him wisdom, patience, and endurance.

 

 

  1. YOU EXPECT YOUR PASTOR TO THINK & ACT LIKE YOU IN EVERYTHING.

You’re not offended by everything your pastor says, but let’s be honest: there are a good handful of topics over which you would be horrified to hear your pastor disagree with you. What if your pastor preached a sermon that gave a differing view on the end times, or on speaking in tongues, or on the proper use of alcohol, or on the way Christians should relate to politics, culture, homeschooling, workplace evangelism, infant or adult baptism, or whatever? The list of issues upon which Christians disagree is almost literally endless.

You might not be upset about every theological point your pastor makes, but someone is likely to be. Consider it from your pastor’s perspective: It’s impossible to preach on the end times, hell, the role of obedience in the life of the Christian, or spiritual gifts without offending someone. You can imagine the weight that this places on his shoulders every week.

Pastors face constant criticism. Their lives are lived in a fishbowl, with everyone analyzing what the pastor and his family do (and don’t do). Not only that, but he also has to present his (well-studied) views on controversial topics to a large roomful of people every week. Can you imagine the pressure? So don’t forget to pray for him. Be gracious to him when he “gets it wrong” theologically, and don’t forget to pray that God would give him grace, patience, and encouragement as he has big and small conversations week after week with people who are angry about something he said.

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You may love your pastor deeply. Or you might have a real problem with him (for good or bad reasons). But either way, be sure that you are praying for him. He has devoted his life to speaking for God and ministering to your soul. That’s an impossible job. Keep praying that God will encourage, shape, and empower your pastor. And please heed these words from Hebrews:

“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (13:17)

John Piper PreachingChristians—evangelical Christians—are those who have a sense of urgency about spreading the gospel. So when a Christian is handed a microphone, he or she knows what to do with it. That microphone, that platform, that position of influence, is to be used for the sake of the gospel.

That’s as it should be. You might say that we know what a microphone is for. And yet, unless we ask how a microphone is to be used, we could be making a big mistake in our zeal for witnessing. In fact, I think we do this very often, and it’s the Christian musicians among us who suffer, it’s their witness that gets restricted and/or diminished, and it’s their place in the mission of the church that gets called into question. All because we don’t know how to use a microphone.

If you’re handed a mic, and God has gifted and called you to preach, then you’d better preach. Speak the work of God clearly. Proclaim it with passion. Too much preaching today skirts the real issues, shrinks back from declaring the full character of God, and minimizes Jesus’ call to die to self, take up one’s cross, and follow. Preach it like it is.

But if you’re handed a mic, and God has gifted you as a musician and called you to glorify him through your music, how do you use that mic? Do you act as a musical preacher, laying your three-point sermon atop four chords? Many Christian musicians have taken a route similar to this, and some have been effective. But is this the only way our Christian musicians can use their God-given gifts to his glory?

How do we ask other types of Christian professionals to use their crafts in their Christian witness? Dorothy Sayers challenges the typical approach:

“The church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him to not be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours and to come to church on Sundays. What the church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.”

If you want to serve God in your carpentry, then make excellent tables. That’s the first step toward honoring God with the skills he has given us. Yet for many Christians, the first demand we make of Christians with musical skill is that they function as preachers.

Joylissa

Joylissa.com

Truly, the first step toward honoring God as a Christian musician is to make great music. This is an overgeneralization, but too often Christian musicians have sacrificed the quality of the music for the sake of more preachy lyrics. I have seen many great examples of excellent music paired with deeply religious lyrics (here and here, for example). But I have also seen Christian musicians badgered, rebuked, even accused regarding their devotion to Christ—all because they skillfully crafted songs about many important aspects of God’s world; they simply fell short on the “Jesus” quota.

Nobody is questioning the salvation of Christian police officers who don’t insert the Apostles’ Creed as they read a criminal their rights. Nobody is questioning the devotion of a plumber who falls short of his quota of cross-shaped pipe junctions. Yet the presence of a microphone causes us to misunderstand the nature of music and to hold our musicians to the same standard as our preachers.

Music isn’t preaching; it’s art. Preaching is about clarity and conviction. Art is about seeing the world in fresh, challenging, and inspiring ways. It intentionally and powerfully works through indirection. Obviously there is an overlap between these two forms of communication, but until we are ready to appreciate the true artistic nature and value of music, we’re missing the point.

If God has gifted and called you to be a preacher, be a good one. Preach passionately and clearly. If God has gifted and called you to be a musician, be a good one. Stretch your creativity to the limits of God’s gift. Explore his world and the people he made with joy and sorrow. If you’re ashamed of Jesus, that needs to change. If your only goal is to gain popularity, that needs to change. But if you’re singing to God’s glory regardless of the subject matter you believe you should explore, then don’t listen to those who think they know how to use a microphone. Glorify the Giver by enjoying his gift to the fullest and helping others do the same.

And if you find this kind of thing interesting, you might want to check out Resonate: Enjoying God’s Gift of Music, which releases next week:

 

I went through what I consider to be a dramatic change in my spiritual life during my college years. There were a number of factors involved in this, including my stage of life, some great mentors, some new ministry opportunities, and a great group of friends. But I want to single out another component that helped to shape me spiritually during that time: I started to read books on theology and listen to sermons from big-name pastors. Three of these pastors/authors in particular had a big impact on me in different ways.

First there was John MacArthur. When I first heard John MacArthur preach (via Cassette tape), I was struck by his careful explanation of the Bible. There were no gimmicks, relatively few flourishes, and almost no extra-biblical illustrations. He just walked through each passage a phrase at a time and explained what it meant. And I loved it. I credit MacArthur with teaching me the value of the Scriptures and the endless supply of insight that can be drawn from each passage.

Then I came across John Piper. In addition to being forever changed by Desiring God, I got ahold of his sermon series on Hebrews. In addition to the careful explanation of the Bible that I learned to value through MacArthur, John Piper showed me the importance of following the argument a biblical author uses. Piper would trace the flow of thought in a given passage and in that way show how these seemingly unrelated verses fit together to form a more cohesive (and persuasive) whole. (For my fellow MacArthurites: I know that MacArthur also pays attention to the flow of argument in a passage, I’m merely saying that I noticed this important concept while listening to John Piper.) I can’t overestimate how important this lesson has been in my subsequent study of Scripture.

Francis Chan 2And then I found Francis Chan. Francis has always carefully explained Scripture and followed the logical flow in the passages he preaches. But something about the way he preaches struck a chord in me that I hadn’t experienced previously. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why Francis Chan is such a powerful communicator, but for me it comes down to this: he presents obvious, familiar truths in surprisingly fresh ways. He’s the master of the obvious. Francis will often preach on a passage that I’m sure I’ve understood and have been convinced that I’m applying to my life appropriately. But he’ll somehow get me to look at that passage in a new way, to see it with a fresh urgency, and to see that I haven’t truly let it sink into my heart and flow out into my life.

Now, there are many other preachers and authors that have had a huge impact on my life. But these three lessons strike me as extremely significant in my own personal development. And thinking about these lessons reminds me that while each of us is different, God uses us for different things. For example, I know MacArthur and Piper preach with passion, but God really used Francis Chan to show me the importance of passion in preaching. We’re all growing all the time, so it’s important to stop on occasion and take stock of where we’ve been and how God has brought us along the way.

I’m not a professional preacher, and offering thoughts on “how to be a better preacher” can be dangerous, since I’m yet to “arrive” myself. But my thoughts on preaching do not mean that I know all there ispreacher 1 about preaching, nor does it mean that I’m the world’s best preacher. I don’t, and I’m not. But I do enjoy the craft.

So here are a few lightly seasoned thoughts on preaching. I’m going to assume the obvious points about having the right character and gifts, praying through your message, depending on the Spirit, and accurately handling the text. These are no brainers. Or, they should be. But once you’re all prayed up and have done your exegesis, how can you hone your message?

First, be clear. Clarity is probably the single most important aspect of a sermon. Even if you’re not too passionate, or have nothing fresh to say, or can’t find a super compelling illustration: be clear. I’d take a clear sermon read off a manuscript over a passionate sermon that makes no sense any day. And it has to be clear to others, not you. You are your most unhelpful critic. If you can’t practice on someone else before Sunday, then you’ve got to learn how to think like a stay at home mom, a mechanic, a successful businessperson with an MBA, and a teenage girl who just got pregnant. Put yourselves in the shoes of real people experiencing the joys and sorrows of life.

Second, tell stories. You don’t need to pack your sermon full of stories, and your stories don’t have to be long. But people identify with a story much more than they do with abstract truth. And don’t just tell stories, but learn how to be a good storyteller. When you hear someone else tell an effective story, ask yourself: What made it effective? Was it the story? Or the way it was told? (Probably both.) Stories take abstract truth and make it compelling. I don’t care how loud a preacher screams at me, “God loves you! God loves you!” or how many verses he quotes, you may find me snoring in the back row. Tell me God loves me, show me from Scripture where God loves me, and then sweep me up in a compelling story about God’s love that gives fuel to an out-of-gas truth.

Third, script your sermons. There are only a few Francis Chans out there who can write some thoughts on a napkin 10 min before he preaches and knock it out of the park (seriously, I wish I were lying). preacher 2Most of us mortals need some time honing our words, and scripting is a great way to use specific, thoughtful, intentional language to convey God’s truth. Now, if you get up and just read your manuscript, I’ll still be snoring in the back pew. Scripted sermons should not be read on Sunday. They are to be written on Wednesday, edited on Thursday, read 5 times on Friday, and memorized (or close to it) on Saturday. That way, your Sunday sermon may look like it was written on a napkin—hardly glancing down at your notes—but every word has been deliberately thought through, prayed over, and, in case of flat words, deleted. A half-dead truth can be resurrected by describing it with fresh and vivid language. Rarely does such language come into your brain on stage.

Fourth, ask for feedback. The best class I ever took in Seminary was a preaching class. Two semester’s worth; it was required. For the class, we preached a sermon every 2 weeks and were ripped to shreds by our classmates and professor. It was great. No, it was terrible and embarrassing—but it was great. “You look like a vulture up there,” stated my unimpressed professor after I preached an entire sermon gripping the pulpit into sawdust. I didn’t even know my hands were on the pulpit! If there’s a preaching rule, I’ve broken it. I’ve smacked my lips, jiggled my keys in my pocket, and chugged water from a crackly 1-liter water bottle. I never knew how abrasive these gestures were until I was told. I’ve used offensive illustrations, made confusing points that I thought were brilliant, and told very dull and ineffective stories that I thought were worthy of publication. Ask for feedback, critical feedback. And you’ll slowly stop making mistakes that can be easily fixed.

I’ve got much more to say, but I’ll stop here. We’ll see. If any of this is helpful, I’ll post some more thoughts tomorrow.

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