Category Archives: church

My Preaching Essentials (Part 2)

PreacherVisionAnd the list continues…
4. PreparationSome circles emphasize extemporaneous preaching. I think there should be great freedom for the Spirit to work in a preaching setting. That being said, flexibility is usually enabled by preparation. Why should one carefully prepare? First, it is the model of Scripture.  When the apostles spoke, their message was theologically deep and biblically sound. They had pondered what they would say. When the Scripture writers wrote, they carefully crafted arguments with deep biblical connections and powerful rhetoric. The Biblical writers demonstrated great care in the way they used words. We would do well to emulate their example. Second, the text of Scripture is too important to teach flippantly. In addition, though it is able to be understood it is not always easy to understand. The distance between our language and the languages of the Bible, our culture and the cultures of the Bible, and our background and the backgrounds of the Bible necessitate care in teaching its message. (1 Timothy 4:11–16)
5. Honest. I know the temptation to preach ‘what works’. I know the ‘that’ll preach’ mentality. I know how my ego and desire for approval bids me sacrifice truth at the altar of utility. My appeal to preachers is to avoid pragmatism. Be honest with people even when the honest answer is not always the easiest thing to preach. Share your struggles. Preach the difficult texts.
Be honest about the text. Tell people when there is a passage that exceeds your understanding. Explain interpretive options when you don’t know which is best. The tendency for preachers is to yell louder and make statements of certainty to overshadow any doubts. However, the historical, textual, and hermeneutical difficulties make it tough to preach. Rejoice in the diversity and celebrate the difficulty. One example of a difficult text is the famous pericope de adulterae (the story of the adulterous woman) found in John 7:53–8:11. Whether or not this story really happened, the evidence is strong that it is not original to John’s gospel. The historical and textual evidence points fairly conclusively to it being a later addition. However, this story ‘will preach.’ It’s powerful and illustrates a lot of honest truths about Christ. However, what will preach and what is original to the Bible conflict (in this instance). I would implore preachers to trust the plan of God in the organization and content of Scripture. What is original is sufficient. Some hearers might be dismayed by such a choice but I think the harm done by glossing over the truth will be exposed when someone less amenable to Christianity uses Christian deceit or ignorance to undermine the truthfulness of the Bible. Be honest when you preach! (Colossians 2:8)
Be honest about yourself. Be honest about your sin. Be honest about your failures. Be honest about your limitations. Be honest about your sources. Be honest about your life. Be honest about your credentials. The end.  (1 Thessalonians 5:5; Titus 2:7)
6. Textual. This is a good counterbalance to my talk about originality. While the messenger is unique, the message is timeless. The text should determine the shape and structure of the message. I love Andy Stanley’s classic, Communicating for a Change. He has a lot of good information for communicators on how to memorably and winsomely engage an audience with a message. My biggest concern with his thesis is in regard to his ‘one point sermon.’ He lays out an argument from pragmatism. Essentially, people can only remember one point when you preach. In addition, the preacher can only really make an impact if he has a laser focus around one clear area. While I think people can remember, understand, and apply more than one point, my major critique is that the principle of a ‘one point message’ dare not overrun the logic of God’s Word. Sometimes a self-contained pericope contains multiple points. What if Paul uses multiple points to get his message across? Am I, the contemporary preacher, really confident that the original authors intent is of no value in this case? Am I willing to overrun the organization and rhetoric of the original text to make it more palatable for the modern audience? Ultimately, we only know God if he speaks to us. Let’s trust that what he said and how he said it is sufficient. For more on this, see Mark Dever and David Platt talking about the role of expository preaching in a healthy church. (1 Timothy 4:11–16)

My Preaching Essentials (Part 1)

PreacherVisionFor what it’s worth, I’ve been thinking a lot about preaching lately. I remember in seminary being very disappointed in my preaching class. Now that I’ve had the chance to think about it, I’ve compiled my thoughts on a few important criteria for a preacher. The order is not significant, so don’t read into it too much.
1. Authenticity. Gone are the days of the polished performance. The Bible speaks consistently of honesty and truth as essential to the Christian life. No radio voice here. No stage actors. The modern preacher is more akin to a stand-up comedian than a Shakespearean orator not because he tells jokes but because he tells the truth! Your listeners don’t need a performance, they need the truth. (1 Thessalonians 2:1–12)
2. Originality. With the internet anyone can find top notch preaching at the click of a mouse. There are enough quality sermons to fill an ipod for days. If your audience wants to hear John Piper, Danny Akin, David Platt, or any myriad of other preachers they can. But they are listening to you. Your church has called you to teach. They want to hear how God has gifted you. I’m not saying to speak only your opinions. Speak the timeless truth of God’s word but teach it from your unique perspective. Use the gospel-cultivated personal relationships you have within your local body of believers to meet people where they are and take them where they are to go. There is an atmosphere that cannot be duplicated via video.  (1 Corinthians 7:7)
3. Growth. A preacher should be growing in their knowledge and ability through the power of the Spirit. There is no room for stagnation or staleness. I’m not even sure that one should “settle into a groove” as they say. If one is growing, stretching, and being challenged by the cost of discipleship, then the message should reflect it. (2 Peter 3:18)

Studying the Bible, Preaching, and GPS

Have you ever wondered how we used to navigate the world before cell phones, gps, and the internet? I remember walking the boardwalk at Virginia Beach in college while talking on the phone as my friend directed me to his location. The thought crossed my mind, how did I used to find people? Did we actually make plans and meet at the designated time and place?

Recently I was asking a teenager for directions. His response, “I don’t know, I always just follow the GPS.” This is one of the first generation of drivers in which GPS devices are ubiquitous. The result, many people have no idea of how to get from place to place without being told every step along the way. In the end, if someone doesn’t know how to think for themselves, even with someone telling them where to go, they take the wrong turn.

Even when following a GPS device there is a need for discernment, interpretation, and thinking for yourself.

(*Note* NBC Universal will not allow me to put this clip up but they also will not make it available on their website. Here is an alternate link of inferior quality that will let you sort of watch this clip. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BIakZtDmMgo Now back to our programming.)

This same problem is pervasive in the church. First, many pastors merely parrot the latest Christian celebrity, fad book, or acceptable commentary. In fact, I know a reasonably well-known pastor who blatantly plagiarizes sermons. I’m talking about a pastor who has spoken at seminaries, held state denominational positions, and more. For whatever reason (and I have my suspicions) many pastors skip the hard work of biblical exegesis. Rather than think for themselves, the merely say what they’ve been told.

Second, many Christians merely listen to the pastor’s word and never interpret and discern it for themselves. I sometimes wonder whether pastors want people to only take their word or be equipped to think for themselves? Is this some power grab meant to keep the laity subservient? I’m not willing to buy into that sort of conspiracy. However, a good deal of ineptitude and laziness might be in play. It is much more difficult and less gratifying to the ego to empower rather than just preach.

To use a cooking illustration, it is more gratifying to bring out the perfectly cooked dinner than to take someone in the kitchen and teach them how to cook. I believe that the best leaders can do both. I believe that they can both cook and teach others to cook for themselves.

So, what is my challenge to those who preach God’s word? First, do the hard work of studying the Bible. Second, teach your hearers how to study, think, and apply God’s word for themselves.

Everyone is So Easily Offended

10979980-offended-child-portraitIt seems that everyone is so easily offended. I’ve watched from the sidelines as comedians navigate which words are in and which words are out (sometimes at the expense of honesty). Political correctness dominates the cultural conversation but usually without a careful understanding of language and morality. Instead, arbitrary preference and magical words restrain truth-telling.

The same seems true in the church. So many people are looking for an opportunity to be offended. Often they are offended on behalf of other people (an odd phenomenon). It just seems that a lot of amateur referees are waiting to blow their whistles. As a result, those who are called to lead and challenge are often forced to mute the force of their message for fear of upsetting or unsettling. There is no room for pandering in the church (2 Tim. 4:3).

There are clearly things in the Bible that are offensive. In fact, God’s Word intentionally offends and disrupts (1 Cor. 1:18, 21, 23; Gal. 1:10, 5:11, 6:12-14). Jesus was anything but politically correct. Paul was far from gentile in his speech. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible are not the kind to invite to a formal dinner party.

Sometimes, to expose sin and make room for truth it takes a disturbance. Maybe this comfortable ‘don’t rock the boat’ attitude is hampering our growth in Christ. In my life, my greatest times of spiritual growth come in the midst chaos. I’ve learned more from the teachers that have challenged me than the ones who let my complacency suffice.

Recently, I read this interesting quote: “the easily offended are missing the point.” If I am on guard (always critiquing, always judging) then I am not listening, gleaning, discerning, or participating. As the same author reminds, “Learn how to glean good lessons from bad teachers.”

Finding the Will of God

Recently I preached a two part series on “Finding the Will of God” at Nansemond River Baptist Church. You might be surprised at my take on the matter from 2 Peter 1. So many people want to find God’s will but go about it in a completely incorrect way. God’s design is much clearer and straightforward than most of the faux-spiritual hoops we try to jump through.

“Finding the Will of God” (Part 1)

[vimeo https://vimeo.com/48242688]

“Finding the Will of God” (Part 2)

[vimeo https://vimeo.com/48691164]

Thoughts on the Dangers from Within

A few weeks ago we were talking about Acts 20:13-38 in small group. I am still feeling the affects of that powerful passage.

You see, this is Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian church. A church that occupied the majority of his last missionary journey and where his protégé was an elder. His farewell to the Ephesian elders is filled with tears and heartache. He is convinced that he will not see his friends again and his conviction proves true.

In his farewell I am reminded of true gospel ministry. A ministry that is sacrificial rather than demanding, honest rather than flattering. It is rooted in humility and thoroughness. Such ministry has a deep foundation in truth and is developed in meaningful relationships: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

All that to be said, I find it interesting that the very last words Paul speaks to the Ephesian elders regards the dangers from within the church that will come. Communication in that day and age was spotty and travel was dangerous, there was a high likelihood they would not receive any future instruction from Paul and he left them with these words:

Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God which he bought with his own blood.  I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.

As I thought about these last words I was reminded that the danger for Christians is more frequently from within the church than without. This is no excuse to abandon the church but rather a call to guard the health of our faith community.

Dangers from without are easier to spot. They are different and distinct. Such is the case with many “overt” sins. Maybe this is why Christians often point to “outsider” sins (e.g., homosexuality, drunkenness, etc.). They’re easy to spot! But just because they are more visible does not mean they are more dangerous.

Sin that grows within the community of faith is much more difficult to identify because it takes Christian language and even Christian scripture and cleverly mixes it with false teaching. I finally settled on two major dangers that are present within the church that often receive Christian justification: traditionalism and existentialism.

Imagine a wide, asphalt highway with two great ditches on each side. If the highway is the firm sure ground of Biblical truth, then two ever present dangers are the lure of traditionalism on one side and the elevation of feeling on the other. The difficulty in navigating the highway of truth is that we are often tempted, by distraction or danger, to swerve off of its sturdy path.

When you ask people to make godly decisions they too often have no Biblical foundation on which to base their choices. As a result, the default mode is often traditionalism. Such traditionalism is seen in the kind of thoughtless repetition of doing things a certain way because they’ve always been done that way. Much like Einstein’s definition of insanity, traditionalism is unable to look outside of personal experience to find a better option.

On the other extreme is the particular modern lure of “feelings.” Most people have no solid criteria by which to discern right from wrong and good from bad. As a result, they are at the whim of their feelings. They tell me they “feel” like they’re in love or it just “seemed” like the best thing at the time. That tickle in your stomach is probably just gas. This too shall pass.

I think tradition can be a vibrant connection to our Christian heritage and feelings directed toward God are lovely but both our traditions and our feelings must serve in submission to the truth of God’s word. “We have the prophetic word made more sure” (2 Peter 1:19). Our feelings and our traditions can easily be co-opted by suave communicators. They can quickly make you think that God is all about making you feel good or the Bible is a book that justifies the way things have always been done. The only light in such darkness is the revealed word of God, to which we would “do well to pay attention” (2 Peter 1:19).

Next time you have to make a decision ask yourself, “what does the Bible say?”

Gospel Fluency

This promo video is of Jeff Vanderstelt, a pastor at Soma Communities, is very challenging. I would hope that I would personally view all things through the lens of the gospel. In addition, I hope I am teaching and equipping my church to think this way.

For more thorough and involved teaching on this subject, see this post by Justin Taylor.