Title: Looking at Preaching Afresh
Part 2: Secure in Ministry - Preaching
“Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching”
(1 Timothy 4:13)
Back in 2004 I wrote two books on 'Creating a Secure Church". The first one was about personal security and the second one was about being secure in our corporate life as church. In chapter 10 of that second book I wrote about preaching. Having recently been updating that book, coming across that chapter I note I wrote things then that I still believe apply today. It explains some of the things I mentioned in the first paper on this subject but more fully, and for that reason I resurrect it here. Yes, it is all about preaching but the emphasis in on the subject of 'security' within preaching.
1. Secure to Minister
If we are approaching this in a simple, straight forward, logical manner then our first stopping place must be to consider the security of the one ministering, before we move on to consider creating a secure environment for the congregation through preaching.
Reading Scripture, preaching or teaching are all matters of communication. Those who teach on communication say that we communicate more by who we are and by our body language than we do by our very words. Someone has said, “What we intend to say and what others hear us saying are not always the same thing.” Thus the preacher who is not absolutely convinced of his message will convey an uncertainty whether he likes it or not.
If our preacher or teacher has any doubts about the things I've covered in the chapters on Personal Security (see the Book) that will be conveyed to the people. A preacher who is not absolutely convinced of the Gospel cannot preach the Good News effectively. A preacher who is not convinced of the authority of Scripture cannot preach with authority. Such a person may seek to make up for these lacks by style, humour, careful preparation or whatever, but at the end of the message something will be missing.
In his book True Reality, Dr. Francis Schaeffer testified, “in 1951 and 1952 I faced a place of spiritual crisis in my own life…. a problem came to me, and that was the problem of reality…. it seemed to me that among many of those who held the orthodox position one saw little reality in the things that the Bible so clearly said should be the result of Christianity… gradually it grew on me that my own reality was less than it had been in the days after I had become a Christian. I thus realised that in honesty I had to go back and rethink my whole position.” He then recounted how he walked, thought and prayed until he came through to a new place of clearness with God in his understanding.
What happened to Francis Schaeffer needs to happen to any preacher who has lost (or perhaps never found) that burning conviction that “this is the word of God and it's the most important thing in all creation!” The greatest danger for the preacher who stands up week in, week out, to bring a sermon, must surely be that it becomes routine, ordinary and even, dare we say it, boring! With the advent of Christian Radio stations, Christian TV channels, audio and video cassette recordings and now, most recently, the Internet, today's Christians can saturate themselves in the preached word. But do more and more messages produce more mature Christians? No, knowledge does not necessarily equate with maturity, that's more to do with such things as intimacy with God, humility, obedience and faith.
The challenge for today's preacher is so often conveyed as the challenge to communicate in post-modern terms, in post modern style to a post modern people (and if you haven't a clue what that means, count your blessings!). Yet for all of that, the influence of the church in many parts of the world is receding. No, what we need most of all is preachers who have just come out of God's presence who can say, “God says…” and say it with a conviction that comes from a divine encounter. When this happens the church enters into a new level of security, secure in knowing the Truth, secure in knowing that He has spoken, secure in knowing that He is there and speaking to His people.
To conclude these brief comments on the preacher, we must answer the question, can it always be like this? If you are a one-man ministry, you will know the pressures of busyness that can be there in ministry. It is often this busyness that squeezes out time seeking God. Whatever else we do, the thing we need most, if we are preachers, is to take time out regularly to seek God. Other things may have to go, but this cannot.
We may not be on fire every week and at every meeting, but we should at least seek to be. The Bible is the most exciting book in the entire world and we abuse God if we convey His truth to us as something on a par with the daily papers. As preachers, if we can only show the truth of what is there in the book as the Holy Spirit reveals it to us, our people (some at least!) will likewise be excited, thrilled, stirred and convicted.
Possibly we need to go back to fundamentals, to the fact that we preach because we are called by God to do so. We are people who have had an encounter with God, and as a result of that we have a divine commission to declare His word. But it's more than that. As we said at the beginning, we convey more than words, we convey who we are, and in this context we also communicate who it is with whom we've been meeting.
When Moses came out of God's presence, he shone with God's glory (Ex 34:29,30) There is a sense where, in a measure at least, it should be the same for us also. Now that is the starting challenge for those of us who dare to preach!
2. Security through Preaching
All that follows are simply suggestions that highlight some of the issues within the actual act of preaching or teaching, that pertain to creating a secure church. We now assume that our preacher is indeed someone who has encountered God and heard from God and has come to convey what God has said.
Comfort and/or Challenge
Many people living in the West at the end of the Twentieth century and into the Twenty-first century, have made an idol of personal peace and comfort. To that end they would rather hear words of comfort than of challenge, and to a large degree this subject is all about bringing comfort.
Before the well-known “Prepare the way of the Lord” prophecy of Isaiah 40, came the word from God, “Comfort, comfort my people”. When Jesus came he came to “comfort” his people. The subsequent Isaiah 61 prophecy read out by Jesus (Luke 4:17-19) is all about coming to the poor, the broken hearted, the captives, the prisoners, those who mourn, to bring the blessing of God to them. This is all about comfort. Comfort is all about bringing people into a place of security in God.
Any form of preaching, prophecy or counselling that simply pats people on the back and says, “You're all right” is missing the mark. True comfort can only come from the reality of a real relationship with the living God, receiving the wonder of His love and blessing.
But our preaching must not stop at that point; it must always have a dimension of calling for change, calling for growth, calling for going on in our relationship with God. When the apostle Paul spoke about what he wanted in his life and death (Phil 3:10,11) he continued, “Not that I have already obtained all this” (v.12) and, “I press on…” (v.14). In our preaching and teaching there must always be the challenge (directly or indirectly) to reach forward for something better than we have at the moment. The Christian life is not supposed to be static.
You've probably heard it said, “God loves us just as we are, but He also loves us so much that He doesn't want us to stay as we are, He's got something better for us.” The Scriptures again and again testify to this and we need to convey it.
This leads us on to the creating of hope. Jesus constantly brought hope to people in bad places in life. Those Isaiah verses from chapter 61 we referred to just now are all about hope. Jesus doesn't want us to remain in the prison we may find ourselves in. He's come to deliver us out of it, whatever ‘it' may be. Sometimes he may deliver us out of the circumstances, other times he may deliver us in the circumstances.
In Acts 12 God delivered Peter out of the prison he was in. However, when we read Acts 21-28 we find Paul in prison for a long period of time, yet when you read his letters from prison (e.g. Philippians) he is clearly more free than most of us!
Where the ‘it' above is clearly a sinful habit or practice, then we know that Jesus wants to deliver us out of that, and the powerful presence of his Spirit within us, is there to empower us out of it. Yet sometimes there needs to be wisdom in how to work that out. James tells us that God gives wisdom generously to those who ask for it (Jas 1:5) and so this is something we should be conveying to our people.
The Pharisees of Jesus' day burdened the people with lots of “You shall not” commands in every area of life, without giving them the means to change. Jesus came and brought hope for change by bringing a new relationship with God and subsequently a new power to achieve with God's wisdom what was humanly impossible.
3. Law and Grace
We need law and grace but we don't need legalism. Let's explain that. Some Christians say, “Oh, I'm not under the law, I'm free” and use that to excuse their unrighteous behaviour, yet that is not what Jesus or Paul taught. When God gave the Law to Israel He gave a host of guidelines (which He expected to be followed!) for the new nation with God as their king. Jewish tradition often turned these laws into burdens that God had not intended and focused on the outward act while forgetting what went on inside a person. Thus in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7) Jesus keeps on focusing on the heart condition, the inner attitude (e.g. Mt 5:28 lustful desire equated with the outward act of adultery).
Jesus constantly confirmed the Law but actually insisted that it was what went on inside a person that was critical. There are many things in Paul's writings which could be put forward as ‘laws', e.g. Eph 4:25 “each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully…” i.e. you must not lie! These things are just as applicable to us who are Christians today as to those to whom Paul was writing in Ephesus. So how does this fit in with “I'm not under the law?” To answer that we need to note two things:
First, keeping the rules does not bring salvation. This is what Paul had to convey to the Galatians (Gal 3:2-11). Salvation comes by believing the Good News of Jesus not by earning it through human effort.
Second, because of who we are, we will live in a particular way. In many of Paul's letters he focuses first of all on what God has done for us through Christ and who we now are, and then he goes on to show how this works out practically.
In other words 'behaviour' follows 'being'!
His letter to the Ephesians is a classic example of this where, for the first three chapters, he explains who we are in Christ because of what Christ has done, concluding that we “may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (3:19). In the beginning of chapter 4 he then continues, “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (v.1) and proceeds to speak about a life that is humble, gentle, patient etc. All of his ‘do this' or ‘don't do that' instructions come with a reason. Just like Jesus he points to the heart condition, or attitude of the believer who is part of a new body (v.4-), made new (v.23), not submitting to the devil (v.27), building up others (v.29), not grieving the Spirit (v.30), responding as God has responded to you (v.32).
Our preaching and teaching needs, therefore, to emphasise first and foremost the wonder of God's grace, what He has done and who He has made us. When there is genuine heart response to this there will be godly sorrow for wrong attitudes, wrong behaviour etc. and a desire to get clear of such things. Paul understood this when he said, “See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern.." (2Cor 7:11). He knew that when there is an openness to the truth, there would be a godly response.
The purpose of the Law, therefore, is to drive you to Christ in your awareness of your sin (Rom 7:7) and to provide guidelines for godly living (e.g. as laid out in Paul's letters).
In passing I would note that a right understanding of the ‘laws' or ‘rules' we find in the New Testament will involve two things:
Legalism is about how we apply these things:
Legalism is seen in many Christian quarters, often those most zealous for God (just like the Pharisees would have claimed to be!). We take what are good spiritual disciplines and we lay them as burdens on people. Because they seem to crop up so often, I want to cover the most common ones in what follows.
a) Reading the Bible
Legalism says , “Every Christian ought to read the Bible. Christians ought to turn up at the Bible Study every week.”
Grace says, “You know with God's help the Bible can become exciting, meaningful, helpful to teach or guide us, a real source of God's blessing. I know for myself it's been a major source of God's blessing to me. Why don't you try asking God to teach you through it, for example, by reading a paragraph a day and asking God to really show you what it means for you today? If you like we could do it together sometimes, or even go along to the church Bible Study and learn through that, which I've often found so helpful”
Comment: For myself Bible reading and study on a daily basis has been something easy to do, but then I accept that that has been God's gifting. Not everyone may be as blessed - but you could be!
Legalism says “Every Christian ought to pray. Christians ought to turn up at the Prayer Meeting every week”.
Grace says , “Isn't it great that we can talk to God about anything. I find that when I put aside some time each day to purposefully talk to God, He talks back and puts lots of things in my mind, giving me wisdom to know how to deal with life. I've also found it really helpful to pray with other people sometimes. If you like we could pray together sometimes, if you would find that helpful. Why not come along and sense how God moves through other people in the church Prayer Meeting, that's often helped me in my faith.”
Comment: I believe more is spoken about prayer in Christian circles and more legalistic comments made about it than about any other subject, yet most Christians struggle for a meaningful experience. Those who do flourish here are normally intercessors who often make the rest of us feel guilty because we don't feel the same. So if you're not an intercessor, get freed from your guilt and let God teach you His way to come to the level He wants for you.
Legalism says “All Christians ought to be witnesses for Jesus. All Christians ought to be involved in evangelism.”
Grace says , “Do you know, I hardly know anything more exciting than leading someone to Christ. It's so wonderful when you are actually part of seeing someone being born again. I find that God gives me opportunities to talk about Him and mostly it comes when other people start asking questions or making comments about spiritual things. Sometimes they want to talk further, other times not. It's up to God really, I'm just a witness.”
Comment: Some people I consider to be people-people, those who are natural communicators. If you are, relish it, if you're not ask God for grace to love others and perhaps you'll find yourself sharing His love.
Legalism says , “If you want to be serious with God you ought to fast as well as pray.”
Grace says , “Sometimes God may ask you to fast as well as pray and when He does He will enable you to do it for the time He says. It can be an incredible time of discipline and blessing from God.”
Comment: I have done a number of eight day fasts in the past as well as a variety of one to three day fasts, but as you'll see from an earlier chapter in Book One, the Lord has me on hold on this subject at the moment, but He may prompt me to fast again. The crucial thing is that you fast when HE says. (Incidentally you cannot prescribe fasting from the New Testament. “When you fast” of Mt 6:16 was Jesus speaking to an existing practice, not decreeing it for Christians).
Legalism says , “Christians ought to tithe and give a tenth of their income to God.”
Grace says , “Well, I live in a materialistic society and I know God would rather I was a generous giver than a constant grabber, so a good way to put a check on my life is to make sure I give regularly. A simple and obvious way is to emulate the Old Testament saints and give a tenth, and I find that when I do that I find God blesses me and helps keep my finances in order. If you feel the same way you might like to do the same.”
Comment: As with fasting, I don't believe you can make a case from the New Testament for required tithing. However my wife and I follow the grace way above and God has looked after us. I would add that tithing needs to be seen in the light of our whole approach to our finances. Tithing should not be a guilt cover-up for a Consumerist attitude that has to spend and spend and spend, often unwisely.
Driving or Lifting?
As we conclude the section on Law and Grace we must be aware that driving people by laying burdens of guilt upon them – “you ought to be praying for the lost, you ought to be reaching out to the lost because there's one lost soul dying every second” – may actually motivate people into action, but the action is then saturated with resentment and guilt, and ultimately that will backfire.
People who are working or serving with a negative resentful attitude will be like the servant of Jesus' parable who saw the Master as “a hard man” (Mt 25:24). In the kingdom of God the end does not justify the means. In saying this we touch on a crucial issue to do with preaching, an issue which may cause upset and offence although that is not what I want.
I will make an initial proposition and then justify it: when we are preaching, teaching, prophesying, counselling or evangelising, we must never forget that the people to whom we are speaking are loved by God and precious to Him and this requires us to respect and honour them, even if they are in a state of unbelief or are in a place of disagreement with us.
Around the Christian world you hear some strange things sometimes. For instance browsing the Net a while ago I came across a group who have a name for upholding the Word of God. Picking on an intriguing article about the Toronto Laughter, I felt like weeping when I found the writer saying “When Holy God in His mercy points out the human condition that ‘all have sinned and come short of the glory of God', it can be no laughing matter.” The implication there seems to be that laughter has no place in the kingdom of God. The writer had obviously never been around when someone has been miraculously healed. More than that the Toronto laughter was all about the children of God (not the lost world) celebrating the wonder of God's love.
In another situation recently I was in the vicinity of “a great man of God” (that was how he was being heralded because of his great ministry) who declared that it was quite all right to be rude to people if they were slow on the uptake or slow to respond to the Gospel.
Then we have examples of preachers from yesteryear preaching the most outrageous things in such a violent manner to their congregations, and this being accepted because large numbers came to the Lord. Practices around the world often leave one wondering about the grace of God, e.g. the minister who physically jumps up and down on someone in the process of deliverance ministry, and it is accepted because his church seems to be growing.
The scriptures show us again and again that God uses imperfect people (and even an Ass - Num 22:21 -) but that should not be an excuse to continue to accept bad ways of ministering. The words may be right and the outcome may apparently be good, but if the means or way of speaking was less that gracious and less than godly we should not sit back and accept it.
We live in a pluralistic society where almost anything goes (was it C.S.Lewis who said if people stop believing in Christ they will believe in anything?) and it seems sometimes in Christian circles we do the same thing. We justify the means because of the apparent end. How many meetings have you been in witnessing the goings on but afraid to voice your disquiet because "surely these are men of God", and if anyone is wrong it must be me! Then we look back after the passing of the years and we see how little has changed and we begin to wonder, was I right after all?
One of my favourite stories has always been Hans Anderson's story of the Emperor's New Clothes. If you don't know it, it's a fairy story where two charlatans arrive in town and convince the Emperor that they have produced a new material but only the most discerning of people can see it because it is magic. The Emperor fears to appear undiscerning and so goes along with what they say when they offer to make him a new set of clothes from this material. Everyone else is also told about this material and so of course no one dares say they cannot see it. On the special day the procession goes through the town with the Emperor supposedly wearing the new clothes but in reality wearing nothing. It was just one little child who had not been told about the clothes who dared cry out that the king was naked. Suddenly everyone confirmed the truth.
We see things in the Christian world sometimes, where everyone fears to question less they be seen as less than spiritual, yet in reality what is going on is less than the glory and grace of God. When the apostle Paul met the Ephesian elders at Miletus (Acts 20:17 -) he said, “Be shepherds of the church of God which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Now that is a dynamic description of the church.
First it reminds us that the church BELONGS to God. It is His possession not ours. Consider a simple example for a moment. Your young child is out playing in the street. They are being silly and along comes another adult who stands there and berates them and threatens them. How would you feel about that, apart from perhaps feeling embarrassed that it was your child? I suspect the answer may be that you feel indignant. This is your child and discipline is your business and yes, they need correcting but not like that!
In daily life we teach assertiveness courses to help people reject potential verbal abuse from others and handle it in the right way. We lay down standards as to how public people deal with their customers or their clients, but when it comes to preachers it seems we often tolerate forms of preaching that in any other context would be called abuse. If we might feel like that about our child, or about how we expect people to treat us in the world, how do you think God feels about the way we sometimes treat each other in the name of preaching?
The second thing Paul's words tell us is that the church is incredibly precious to God because He bought it with His own blood! Suppose you owned something that had cost you most of what you had. You would be wary about lending it to others. You would watch carefully when anyone went near it. Now if we might feel like that about an object, how must God feel about His church?
Key questions we might ask when we come to consider communicating truth to the people before us might be:
Am I looking for lukewarm, mundane preaching? Certainly not! But when preachers shout at people, use emotion to stir people, or a variety of other techniques to move people to action, is this a work of God or a work of man? There is a great deal of difference between genuine passion and much of what covers for it into today's Christian world. The trouble is of course, that people are not fooled - or if they are, only for a while! We are to be conveyors of the truth by the enabling of the Spirit. It is truth applied by the Spirit that is to move people, not technique.
4. Teaching Responsibility to Think, to Act and to Live
The next thing I want to cover here is about enabling people to think for themselves. Sometimes it seems that among those of us seeking to convey the truths of Scriptures, we fluctuate between imparting rules for living (often in the “how-to” do-it-yourself style that has become so common) and making nice statements about who we are in Christ but without any depth, in other words we impart truth in manageable portions that require no chewing, no thinking.
So often, it seems, we produce Christians who are unable to think. A number of years ago I was in a group situation (not Christian) where a discussion was being held about a particular outlook on life. There were about fifteen men apart from myself in the room who joined in at some stage. As I sat there listening I became aware that there was a general consensus of opinion in the room that was uncannily uniform. I questioned the opinion in my mind but just listened and eventually a clue came revealing why this was so. All the participants in the ‘discussion' had watched a major TV current affairs programme the night before and they were now all uniformly expressing the opinions clearly conveyed in that programme.
The uniformity was frightening! Yet in Christian circles we so often find the same sort of thing. Thus, it seems, one of the things we need to do today is to equip our people to be questioners who will seek after the truth, and where that affects the life of the church that is risky. Yet we are called to be a community of truth by one who claimed to be The Truth. Dare we be anything less than this? When this happens, I want to suggest, we will find a new measure of security creeping into the church.
Is this critical faculty likely to destroy the church? No, it simply brings out in the open what is there under the surface so that it can be dealt with. Take the example of say a person who is generally critical. The insecure leadership denounces all forms of criticism as unhelpful, so the critical person simply goes under cover and expresses it out of sight of the leaders. A secure leadership helps people face their negative feelings and asses the truth of them. Is there something that genuinely needs changing (and is it realistic to expect change) or is it the attitude that needs changing? The secure church teaches responsibility to think, to weigh up and to face concerns, to go beyond the surface and develop maturity of thinking that enables personal assessment and assessment of the church situation. Cynicism breeds where there is a failure to acknowledge, “Well we didn't get it right, so let's see what we can do together to remedy that.”
5. We will get it wrong
Finally, before we conclude the chapter, we do need to acknowledge that each of us will get it wrong sometime. Because we're human beings we will not always get it right. I can think of some great men of God who were brilliant 98% of the time, yet every now and then, something came from them that was not quite right. To say such things is not to denigrate great ministries, it is just being real. There will be bad days, there will be times when God's grace does not seem to flow through us freely, there will be blind spots in our understanding. How do we cope with that?
Well, first of all, if we are the person in question, we have to realise that is what we are like. We would rather not be like it, we would rather be beyond criticism, but from time to time we have feet of clay - and God allows it to remind us that it is all of His grace. When pride is lurking there after a particularly ‘successful' time of ministry, a word out of place so easily brings us down to reality.
At that point the test is, am I willing to be a servant, even to be seen as an imperfect servant, who much of the time is able to minister blessing, but occasionally is seen to be slightly less than perfect! If we are the onlookers and someone is having a not quite perfect day, let's learn to be graceful and thankful for the days when the preacher is good! Let's pray for him because he's probably quite aware of his shortcomings. Being out front means he's the first in line for negative thoughts from the enemy.
It's a bit like being a parent really. You may try to do everything you possibly can to raise your children well, but the only thing you can guarantee is that you will do it less than perfectly! We try to do it well and we realise we may miss the target from time to time, but that is not an excuse to stop aiming for it. If you are a perfectionist you will struggle with seeking to achieve perfectly, and then with failing. It's better to be realistic about who we are, recipients of the grace and goodness of God.
6. And So ?
This is a dangerous area for questions. I don't want to generate a critical spirit that is destructive, but instead it would be good to face our shortcomings honestly. By the nature of this chapter these questions really do need to answered by preachers and teachers only. The following cover the matters in this chapter:
Am I confident and certain in the truth to be able to preach with grace and
Do I take sufficient times out to be with God?
Do I see comforting as part of my ministry as described in this chapter?
Do I gently lead my people on in spiritual growth?
Do I give manageable hope to those imprisoned by wrong things?
Do I teach who we are in Christ before I teach instructions for living?
Do I encourage by grace or by legalism (honestly)?
Do I drive people or lift them by love?
Do I respect and honour the people before me?
Do I allow the truth & the Spirit to convict people or try and help God
Do I see the people before me as God's precious possession, even with
their faults and failings?
Do I teach people to think for themselves & take responsibility for their
Can I cope gracefully with my own inadequacies in ministry?
Can I cope gracefully with others' inadequacies?
A number of these issues we will reiterate in some of the pages that follow as we seek to deal with specific subjects for preaching or particular difficultues that arise with preaching.