Category Archives: Ministry
Usually when I post rookie’s guides, I’m writing to help rookies as someone who is a little less rookie myself. This is not the case with topical teaching or preaching. I’m far more comfortable with preaching expository sermons or writing Bible studies that work through books of the Bible.
So when it comes to topical teaching and preaching, I’m a rookie too. I’ve had quite a lot of opportunities to do it, particularly in my preaching, but I don’t consider myself to have even come close to getting the hang of it.
Therefore as one rookie to another, here are some tips that I’ve found helpful.
1. Work out your approach
Topical teaching requires a decision regarding how you’re going to use Scripture. Since your teaching surrounds a topic, not a text, you have to work out which texts and how to use them.
There are probably four ways you can approach a topical. I’ll list them below in order of least to greatest difficulty.
a. Anchor in one passage
Instead of trying to do everything from every part of Scripture, just choose one and stick close to that one. This is my recommendation for new preachers and those least experienced with topical teaching. Find a passage and basically do an exposition of that.
For example, if your topic is repentance, you might just want to keep yourself to the classic repentance passage of 2 Corinthians 7:10 and surrounding verses. You can draw on other supporting passages, but your anchor is in this one text.
Clearly there are disadvantages to this approach. You don’t get to cover the breadth of a topic. You can actually end up ignoring the key issues raised by a topic and end up skimming the surface of a topic. But you know what? I reckon it’s better to do a good exposition of a passage that’s relevant to a topic, than to do a bad job of the other approaches below.
b. Biblical theological
Some topicals lend themselves really well to tracing that theme through the progressive revelation of the Bible’s storyline. This can be really refreshing and helpful, especially if you’re teaching those who don’t have a good grasp of Biblical Theology. It also has the added advantage of imparting a method of reading the Bible and approaching a topic to those whom you’re teaching.
An example is the topic of ‘worship’. Tracing this idea through creation, fall, redemption, and new creation is one obvious way of teaching it.
c. Systematic theological
Other topicals can fit so well with classical Systematic Theology categories that it’s most helpful just to teach that aspect of Christian doctrine. Keep your Grudem (or your ST of choice) handy and use that as a basis for your preparation.
d. DIY synthesis
Now I know that both (b) Biblical theology and (c) Systematic theology are themselves methods that require synthesis. After all, any kind of theological approach requires synthesis. However, in (b) and (c) you get the advantage of utilising synthetic approaches that have been done for you, whether it’s applying Goldsworthy’s biblical theological schema to your topic, or canvassing Grudem or Horton for what they say about the topic.
Some topicals, however, require you to do that task of theology yourself. This is hard work, and requires a level of theological reasoning that most won’t be able to pull off (myself included), but it’s worth keeping it as an option in your arsenal. If your topic is something that leans towards theological ethics (e.g. abortion, politics, same sex marriage etc.) or current affairs (e.g. radical Islam and terrorism), this is probably the approach you want to take.
However there’s a reason why this is last on the list. It’s not easy. I wouldn’t recommend any fresh preachers/leaders to try this method.
2. Interrogate your topic
If you’ve been given a topic to teach, you really need to explore that topic well. This is where those trained in expository teaching tend to fall short.
In an expository sermon, I’m not supposed to just ‘springboard’ off the text. I’m supposed to spend my time exposing the text and let it speak for itself. And so my introduction, illustrations, and conclusions are there in a supportive role to my exposition. Read my post here for what I mean by this.
In good topical teaching, and especially if you use method 1(a) above, you more or less have to do the opposite. In topical teaching, you basically need to exegete the topic and use the text in support. More often than not, you have to springboard off the Biblical texts rather than delve deeply into them. Your introduction needs to really open up the topic, raise questions, anticipate objections and questions, and then lead from the topic into the body of your sermon/Bible study. Therefore your introductions may need to be much longer. Again, it’s not something you would ordinarily do in an expository sermon.
Now of course I’m not saying that we’re at liberty to teach passages out of context, or be indulgent with our introductions and illustrations. The point is simply that in order to do a good job teaching about the topic, you need to exegete the topic in a way that does justice to the topic.
3. Be very explicit in your logic
Following someone’s train of thought in an expository sermon is important, but in some ways, the way you present that logic depends greatly on the genre you’re preaching. Teaching a psalm or narrative in a rigid three point sort of way can sometimes strip the text of its beauty.
In topical teaching, however, I would argue that a clear and logical step-by-step organisation of your sermon/Bible study is vital. Even if you baulk at the idea of an 8-point John-Piper-esque sermon for your expository teaching, you’d probably want to head in that direction for your topical. In some ways, your topical sermon is structurally more like an essay or a persuasive piece of writing. In order to persuade me, you need to ensure that I follow your train of thought and argument well. And if you’re not in the habit of doing so, give your hearers detailed paper outlines if you can.
4. Don’t try to do everything
A 30 minute sermon, an hour-long Bible study – it’s impossible to adequately canvass most topics with those time limitations. Therefore we need to be realistic with what we can achieve in one session.
If you have any control over the teaching program, consider breaking the topic up into a teaching series that stretch out over a number of sessions. If, however, you don’t have that luxury, then don’t be afraid to just teach what you can teach in that one session, and give your hearers some resources they can follow up with.
I generally don’t do Q&As after normal sermons, but with topicals (and in particular thorny issues), it’s worth doing some. This can liberate you from having to cover everything in your sermon / Bible study. You can read widely, teach on one aspect, and allow people to raise issues that are pertinent to them.
What are some of your tips and suggestions? I’d love to read them. Comment below.
Dear Pete, do you have any articles on post-ministry blues, especially after the output of a big Sunday service and its high? Definitely feeling it today and wonder if it would be helpful for others to know about it too?
I am four Sundays into a new church plant. I have an amazing launch team. They’ve been running really hard for the last couple of months. I got this email from one of them a couple of Monday mornings ago. And just to give you a bit of context, the Sunday afternoon just a few hours earlier, this ministry leader had been sharing how they were doing really well in terms of energy levels in spite of the mad sprint in recent weeks.
It’s the “Monday Ministry Blues”. Mark Driscoll used to call Mondays ‘Bread Truck Mondays’, because Mondays were the days he wished he drove a bread truck rather than worked as a pastor.
If you’ve ever had busy days or periods of intense ministry, then you’ve felt it. Whether it happens on a Monday because of a busy Sunday, or any day of the week after an intense period of ministry (e.g. a mission or conference), then you’d know exactly how this feels.
So here’s my attempt to answer this email from one of my church leaders, in the hope that it benefits others too.
I reckon it helps to understand why we get the Monday blues. Here are three reasons:
1. You Have An Enemy
1 Peter 5:8 Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.
The Bible tells us to be constantly vigilant because we have a spiritual enemy who is determined to undermine the work of God and his people. If the devil, our enemy, is as clever as the Scriptures say he is, then he would know how to bide his time to hit us when we are weakest.
And more often than not, ministers of the gospel are weakest on Mondays.
It’s not surprising, then, that it’s on Mondays you get the voices of doubt and discouragement. Your sermon wasn’t as good as you wanted it to be? You’ll feel that acutely on Monday. Your difficult conversation with that church member that didn’t go so well? You’ll hear it replay in your head on Monday. Your personal godliness was pretty good up until now? Monday’s often the day that the temptations come like a tsunami.
Let’s not be naive. These can’t just be explained on the natural realm. We have an enemy and he not only knows how to go for the jugular, he knows when to do it.
Our battles are ultimately located in the supernatural realm. Be alert. Be watchful. Be prayerful. Put on your spiritual armour (Ephesians 6:10-17). Especially on Mondays.
2. You Have A Body
While the ultimate reasons are spiritual and supernatural, let’s not forget that there are physical and natural reasons for the Monday blues as well.
You and I aren’t in glory yet. Neither are we just free floating spirits. We are embodied beings. And these bodies? Well, they’re nothing like the bodies we’ll one day inherit.
The Apostle Paul writes on many occasions of his physical and mental weariness (e.g. 2 Cor. 7: 5 and 10:27). We have bodies, and these bodies are a complex interplay between the physical, emotional, and psychological.
When we exert ourselves in Christian ministry, don’t be surprised that the adrenalin high will eventually give way to a low. Those who have never experienced the intensity of preaching one to four times on a Sunday, led multiple people in groups or ministry teams, run music ministry, led Sunday worship, taught kids or youth, run leaders meetings, met one-on-one with people for discipleship or counselling etc., won’t understand how these activities have an intensity that is disproportionate to the hours you spent doing them. You’re going to feel tired after this kind of intensity. Mind, emotions, body – all of these will feel on the verge of collapse after particularly big days (or weeks).
We therefore need to recognise this physical dimension of ministry life. And recognising this will help us manage our tiredness with simple but vital solutions such as relaxation and exercise; mental and emotional refreshment; music, art, creativity, hobbies and the like.
Until we get our new creation bodies, our outer persons will waste away day by day even as our inner person is renewed day by day (2 Cor. 4:16). And that brings me to my final point…
3. You Need The Gospel
It’s so easy to be frantically ministering to others with the gospel and forget that you and I need the gospel just as much as those we love and serve.
The Monday morning blues are a great (and sometimes painful) reminder that we never move beyond our great need for the gospel. The more we feel weak and melancholy and down, the greater is God’s reminder to go back to the gospel we’ve spent so much time and energy to give to others.
Here are some ways we especially need the gospel on Mondays:
(i) We need the gospel to remind us that our identity and self-worth don’t come from our ministries.
This is because doing Christian ministry is uniquely satisfying on the one hand, and particularly discouraging on the other. We can be tempted to find our identities so caught up in what we’re doing to serve God and others that we forget that our relationship with God is not grounded on what we do for him but what he’s done for us.
(ii) We need the gospel to remind us that the power of God is in the gospel and not in us.
How tempting to think that the church I serve will stand or fall by my ability or inability in ministry! The same gospel that saves me from pride will save me from discouragement and defeat on a Monday when I feel that my sermon wasn’t as great as I wanted it to be. It’s the gospel that is the power of salvation (Romans 1:16-17), not me. I can rest and entrust the fruit of my ministry to God.
(iii) We need the gospel to remind us to worship.
Many Christian leaders would know the principle that all theology leads to doxology. All of our thinking and leading and preaching and teaching should lead people to the praise and worship of God. After all, this is where the whole of creation is heading.
And yet, this is the one area where Christian ministers and leaders are most likely to neglect when it comes to their self-care.
Christian leader, how is your personal worship going? How are your quiet times? How is your personal Bible reading? Do you meditate on the Word of God? Do you spend time in personal praise and song? Do you confess and repent of your sins daily?
If we don’t value the importance of personal worship and adoration, personal confession and repentance, personal reading and meditating, then perhaps we’ve forgotten the gospel. For it’s the gospel that reminds me that my service of God doesn’t come from my power or my initiative or my talents or gifts. It comes as an overflow of my life of worship. I must be filled before I can fill others. Anything less is ministry by works, not ministry by grace.
Spiritual refreshment is even more important than physical, mental, and emotional refreshment. We must never neglect our great need for it and how much greater that need will be after an intense period of ministry.
So take heart dear brothers and sisters who labour in the Lord. Though Mondays may feel more melancholy than other days, it’s also a day where God has more grace to give us in the gospel. For our times are weakness are there for the greater display of and experience of God’s wonderful power in the gospel (2 Cor. 12:10).
I think it’s a good time for me to go to the gym now.
Yes it’s true. MAMIL. I’ve become one of them.
For the uninitiated, MAMIL stands for ‘Middle-Aged Men In Lycra’. We’re not your casual cyclists who only commute to work and casually cruise beside your favourite picnic spot. We ride expensive road bikes. We have specialised cycling paraphernalia. We (supposedly) adhere to a rule book that makes the Old Testament look like a pamphlet. We ride in groups on weekends and hog up your cafes. We wake up before dawn. Our wives and girlfriends feel like widows. And of course, we wear lycra. The tight, crotch-enhancing, mankini-looking ones. MAMILs.
And I’ve become one of them.
It didn’t start out like that. When I got into cycling, I had a bike with normal handlebars. I mocked my MAMIL friend and colleague and his love for lycra. I wanted to cycle for exercise and leisure, but I didn’t want to be one of those guys.
But then the ‘turning’ happened. It didn’t happen all at once. But it happened fairly quickly. Now I’m one of them. And proud.
Now I know that some of my fellow MAMILs are reading this with unbridled (or should I say, unsaddled) delight. But I imagine for most of you, you’re cringing and cursing the mental image of me in tight bike-pants. So let me cut to the chase. This thing, this lycra-wearing-becoming-a-MAMIL thing, has actually taught me a lot about Christian ministry.
Let me share them with you:
1. It’s hard being a newcomer
When I went on my first group ride, it was such a disorientating experience. Not only did I not have the right lycra, I didn’t know the rules of group riding. There are a host of cycling etiquette rules and hand-signals that group riders use to keep one another safe.
Add to that a bunch of blokes you’ve never met, riding at a time when you’re usually in bed, going distances that make your muscles cramp and seize up… all of this makes for a very tough initiation.
Kind of like church for an unchurched person, right?
Do you remember what it was like? Walking into a religious building, with particular unspoken rules like when to stand, when to sit, what to do. There’s singing and praying; there’s reading from the Bible (where do I find Lamentations?!!!); there’s liturgy and creeds. There are new people all around you. It’s so disorientating as a newcomer. But then….
2. That one friend makes a huge difference
The MAMIL friend who introduced me to the cycling group was my safety net. Even before my first group ride he rode with me. He gave me a handle of some of the basic rules. He encouraged me. He introduced me to other guys in the group. He stayed with me at the back of the pack when I was dying up those hills.
That made a huge difference
And that one person can make all the difference for newcomers to our churches. Talk to any newcomer who’ve worked through the initial disorientation and have decided to stay (even if they haven’t yet become a Christian). There’s always that one person, or maybe a couple of people, who’ve welcomed them, explained things to them, introduced others to them. Don’t underestimate the power of this sort of ‘ministry of the pew’. It’s the key way to keep the backdoors of our churches closed.
3. Make the main thing the main thing
I hear there are some cycling groups that will make the newcomer really feel like a ‘noob’ (cool talk for ‘newbie’). If you ride a non-branded, non-carbon bike with cheap components, you’d feel it. If you don’t know how to talk the talk, you’d feel it. If you struggle up those climbs, you’d be dropped. If you have a puncture or mechanical problem, you’d have to learn the hard way and DIY (and then get dropped).
The group I ride with has some serious riders, but they never made me feel any of that. Why? Because for them it’s not just about the gear and the other badges of belonging. It’s all about the passion. It’s all about cycling. It matters very little what you ride, you just have to love cycling. And that’s enough.
When it comes to our churches, we have to be exactly the same. Because what happens when we major on the other good-but-not-central stuff that makes for church, it confuses newcomers and creates unnecessary barriers for them to really know Jesus.
Yes music and singing is important. Yes serving is important. Yes morning teas and socials are important, as is creche etiquette and bringing your own Bibles and a whole host of other stuff. But what’s the main thing? Isn’t it the gospel? Isn’t Jesus the reason why we’re there, gathered in worship and service?
So do we make Jesus our passion? And is it clear to the newcomer?
Do we give off the impression that they have to be ‘more like us’ in order to belong? Or is it enough that they want to know Jesus better, and so we make every effort to encourage them to do that?
Churches that make the gospel and keep the gospel central are infectious.
Just like my cycling group.
And that’s how I became a MAMIL. Their passion for cycling, their ability to welcome, their openness to include newcomers – all of that drew me in. It got me to feel comfortable with the hand gestures, and the bike talk, and the early morning rides, and of course, the lycra. I’ve grown to love the lycra. I’ve become one of them.
Which leads to my final point:
4. Shared experiences are powerful
Watch MAMILs on the road. They nod or wave at each other when they pass. They’ll stop to help a stranger change a flat. They’re a big lycra-wearing family.
Don’t for a moment think that this only happens at church. It’s a sociological phenomenon. Shared experiences are powerful. And the more transforming the experience and the greater the cost of the experience (think tragedy or suffering), the more powerful the bonds it creates.
The gospel is our shared experience. It is uniquely transforming and costly (for Jesus). What a tragedy when some of our churches feel less like family than a weekend cycling club!
So there it is, my journey to MAMILdom is nearly complete. Hopefully it’s not just a fad. But even if it is, I want these lessons to remain.
And so I can’t wait to invite a fellow MAMIL to church and tell him, ‘Yep, it’s a little strange to begin with, but just like our cycling group, we’re really just about one thing – one PERSON to be precise. And that’s enough. Come and check him out. I’ll help you with the rest.’
I believe there are unique dangers in the social media age we live in; dangers that young men and women keen on full-time Christian ministry face in particular.
Before I head into the warnings, just a bit of background, so you know this isn’t just a baseless rant from a middle-aged pastor who’s out of touch.
In my role as a pastor and church planter, and a leader in the RICE youth movement, I am constantly in touch with young adults. Some of these are young men I am personally mentoring and walking with towards full-time ministry.
One more thing: I myself headed towards full-time ministry as a young man (I was 23 when I started Moore College; 21 when I started MTS). And while what I have to write below in terms of warnings for young men are equally applicable to the 20-year old me (from the late 90s), I believe there are unique challenges and temptations in the ever-changing world that our young men and women find themselves today.
Almost all of them have to do with the social media phenomenon of Facebook, Twitter, WordPress and so on.
1. Greater opportunity to indulge in narcissism
Yes it’s an over-used word nowadays – ‘narcissism’, but I can’t think of another word for now. We are all, in our sinful natures, narcissists to a certain extent. However, with social media, it’s much easier to feed that aspect of our old selves.
While your friends post up endless selfies, the keen young person wanting to head into ministry is tempted to self-obsess in other ways.
You have a blog? How important is it to you to track how many people read it? You have a social media profile? How important is it that you present the perfect image, have that perfect DP – you know, the one that balances your fun-loving casual youthful self with your desire to be taken seriously as that up-and-coming theologian or pastor?
When the Apostle Paul tells Timothy to ‘flee the evil desires of youth’ (2 Tim. 2:22), I wonder if what fleeing our narcissistic selves might actually look like in this day and age?
2. Over-inflated sense of influence and importance
People reading and liking your posts, subscribing to and sharing your blog posts can create an illusion that you are more influential than you actually are. Before this brave new world of social media, if a young person wanted to influence others, the most he or she could hope for is an itinerant speaking gig somewhere. Not now. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, could be liking and sharing your posts, giving you the illusion that you have a group of others (mostly peers or teenagers) who are hanging on your every word.
It’s easy in this situation to get a big head. Your writing started off being less assertive because you’re not as sure about yourself and what you’re writing. But as you pick up more followers, likes, and shares, you soon gain more confidence, make more certain pronouncements about life, the Bible, and ministry. You start getting into endless arguments on your page or others’ defending your point of view. And why? Because deep down you’re beginning to think you’re more important and influential than you are.
3. The Shallowness of “wiki-theology”
Now more than ever, keen young leaders have open access to theology and sermons online. That’s mostly a wonderful thing. But we must remember that wiki-theology tends to be shallow; like getting your news from your Twitter-feed.
It grieves me that some young men wanting to head into full-time ministry talk about formal theological study as some sort of outdated hindrance to actually getting your hands dirty in ministry. I wonder if a lot of that is due to the prevalence of “wiki-theology”.
Don’t be fooled in thinking that reading lots and lots of stuff online is a substitute for serious theological study. That’s why I’m encouraged by Joshua Harris’ recent decision to do just that – to take some time off and study theology formally.
4. Devaluing the local church
The world-wide-web-“church” (if we can even call it that) seems far more exciting than the local church. Your ideas of church growth, church planting, church ministry, theological discussion and education comes more and more from ‘out there’ than from your local church (or local denomination or training college). It’s easy to develop an insatiable appetite for that which is ‘bigger’ and ‘better’ somewhere else in the world. And so you begin to slowly (and sometimes unconsciously) devalue the small, struggling, one-pastor congregation you’re part of. You begin to see churches and pastors simply as those who will aid you or hinder you in your personal growth as a young man or woman heading into full-time ministry.
5. Devaluing personal mentors
Related to the above, it’s easy to think that podcasting Tim Keller, reading R.C. Sproul, and following David Platt is enough to guide you into becoming the Christian leader you want to be. And so you devalue the vital mentoring and training that can only happen when a local older man or woman in full-time ministry walks with you over the course of years, in the context of a local church.
The last thing I want to do in this post is to discourage young men and women from heading into full-time ministry. I love that one of my roles is to walk with some of the best and most gifted young men I’ve ever met in this crucial stage of their lives.
Neither am I without guilt when it comes to some of the very things I’ve identified. I’m tempted – even as I blog – to indulge in narcissism, and develop an over-inflated sense of my importance and influence.
I write this because I believe it is a different world for keen young leaders than the one I grew up in. You’re immersed in this online social media-saturated world in a way I wasn’t. And so it’s more likely that you’re less aware of its dangers and deceptions. Call me old and old fashioned, but I’m hoping that a word of caution from someone in your world but a standing a little outside of it, will be helpful for you.
Signing off so I can go meet with the saints at my local church.
1. “Spring-boarding” off the text
This is probably one of the most common mistakes for rookies learning how to preach expositionally. Rather than letting your sermon flow from the main idea and logic of the passage, you find one of the interesting points of the passage and ‘spring-board’ into a sermon about those points. Your sermon becomes more ‘topical’ than ‘expository’; and while it gives the appearance of preaching from the passage, you could really preach a nearly identical sermon from any number of passages that also deal with that topic.
We all have hobby-horses that we like to flog endlessly. Rookie preachers tend to do this more and hide it less well. It’s probably because they have fewer insights from exegesis and life/ministry experience. So whether your hobby-horse is ‘5 point Calvinism’ or ‘heresy bashing’ or ‘The Westminster Confession’, if it’s not absolutely tied to the content or application of your sermon, learn to leave the horse in the stable.
3. Indulgent illustrations
Illustrations are great. Vivid and interesting illustrations are even better. But not when they go for 1/4 of the length of your sermon, or have so many interesting twists and turns that the relationship between your illustration and the point being illustrated is hanging by a very, very thin thread. Make your illustrations interesting and, by all means, do extended ones on occasion, but please don’t be indulgent with them. Make sure your illustrations actually serve the sermon, and not the other way around.
4. Saying too much
Rookie preachers can often forget that less is more. This is related to the above point about illustrations, as well as, in particular, introductions and conclusions. Neither have to be long and drawn out. Sometimes a short punchy intro is enough to get your listeners on board. And your conclusions don’t need to reiterate all your points again. Just tie it up and finish memorably. That’s enough.
Another way rookies say too much has to do with taking all that they’ve read (and/or in the case of seminary students and graduates – all that you’ve studied), and learning how to leave most of that in the study. You’ve heard of the iceberg principle? Only 10% needs to be above the water. The other 90% stays beneath.
And one last note. Rookie preachers should almost never preach longer than 30 minutes. Remember this?
5. Saying too little
Clearly this is the opposite problem to the above, but it’s not unrelated.
Sometimes in order to accommodate for the long illustrations or techy commentary-like stuff that you haven’t left on the cutting room floor, you don’t have time to take listeners deeper and further in other areas.
Sometimes rookies say too little when you quickly mention concepts and ideas that actually require more explanation. Don’t just throw out phrases like ‘all this points to Jesus’ and then just leave it like that. Tell me how it points to Jesus. Chances are that right there is a glorious point about the gospel you should say more about.
The other reason rookies may say too little has to do with lack of pastoral and/or ministry experience. That can only get better with time. It’ll come as you spend more time ministering to and teaching the people in the congregation, outside of the pulpit.
6. Shallow applications
This is related to the previous point. A lack of experience in both life and ministry will inevitably lead to applications that will often miss the mark. Again, much of this will improve with time and experience. But in the mean time, rookies need to be aware of the tendency to drift to shallow applications and so need to work just as hard on application as they do on the passage. If in doubt, regularly use a cross-section of the congregational leaders as sounding boards and test out your applications on them.
7. Speaking like you write
We write differently to how we speak. Most rookies use full scripts and so need to draft, re-draft, and re-draft again in order to replace those bits in their writing that sound too much like writing and not like speaking.
There are lots of good stuff on this floating around on the web, but for starters:
i. Avoid passive verb constructions (rather than: ‘the man was healed by Jesus, go for: ‘Jesus healed the man’).
ii. Don’t use words like ‘therefore’, ‘however’, and ‘moreover’ etc.. Try using ‘so’, ‘but’, and ‘the other thing is…’ instead.
iii. Chop up long complex sentences into shorter and simpler ones.
iv. Use things like pauses, repetitions, re-phrasings – basically things you don’t need to do in writing because they’re a waste of space. In speaking, use them liberally to help make your point clearer and more memorable.
v. Learn to script in slangs, contractions (didn’t, wasn’t, hadn’t), even grammatically incorrect things you use in speech that you’d lose marks for in essays.
8. Trying too hard to emulate someone else’s style
I get it, you’re starting out and so you don’t have your own style yet. Copying those you listen to (especially if you podcast them and listen to them A LOT) is unavoidable. But try not to consciously emulate someone else’s style. This isn’t a copyright thing. It has to do with the fact that the famous guys you listen to are generally very unique. If you try to do it their way, it’s most probably not going to work.
Let the Francis Chans and David Platts and Tim Kellers do their thing. You just keep your head down and work hard at improving being you.
9. Idiosyncrasies heightened
The interesting flip-side to developing your own style is that if you’re a rookie, the unhelpful bits of what makes you ‘you’ is going to be heightened.
Is your sense of humour cringe-worthy? Do you like using esoteric vocabulary or wax poetry in your every day speech? Do you like giving soap-box lectures to groups of friends, even if that group is only two big? Do you gesticulate a lot even when talking to your dog?
All of these things will likely be heightened in the rookie’s preaching, and you’re generally not going to even notice them.
10. Lack of good preparation method
Finally a lot of the above rookie mistakes can be addressed if rookies just remembered that they’re rookies. Which means that you need to learn a method, try it out a few hundred times, practise and practise and practise until you nail the method, and then you can freestyle a bit more.
Many rookies don’t want to do that, at their own detriment. Learn a method of preparation from the great teachers of preaching. My method of choice is Chappo’s (John Chapman, from Setting Hearts On Fire). It’s not the only one out there that’s good, so find another one that is and learn it.
When you’ve absolutely mastered the method, before you know it, you’re not making these same rookie mistakes any more. But just remember, ‘the first fifty years are the hardest’ (Chappo), so keep at it brothers and sisters. Soli Deo Gloria!
I’m writing this letter to you not because I don’t value you and thank God for you. Quite the opposite. You are God’s gift to us at church. Your leadership and love and teaching have been used by God in many ways to help me and those around me to grow.
I’m writing because there are some things that pastors tend to do and say that perhaps have unintended effects on those they lead. So please read this in a spirit of charity. Some of my generalisations may be wrong. But I hope raising it with you will help you be even better at ministering to the people God has placed under your care.
So here goes.
When you frequently refer to the Greek and Hebrew (or the ‘original’) in your teaching, it can make me feel like I’ll never really understand the Bible I’ve got in front of me.
When you speak or post on Facebook about your wonderful wife and adorable kids, it makes me feel like a failure because my marriage is a struggle and my kids aren’t that gorgeous.
When you elevate the importance of full-time Christian ministry, it makes me feel like there’s not much I can do to serve God in my secular employment except to give money.
When you emphasise the importance of Word ministry but come under-prepared to teach and preach, it makes me wonder how important it is to you.
When you ask us to invite unbelieving friends to church, but when they come, you don’t really make an effort to meet them and greet them, I feel a little betrayed.
When you guard your day off as something so sacred that you can’t even take a phone call, and yet our church regularly schedules activities and meetings on everyone else’s days off (i.e. weekends), I feel it’s quite unfair.
When you appeal to cleaning or morning tea rosters needing to be filled or finances needing to be raised but never appear to be leading by example, it makes it hard for me to joyfully serve and give.
When you push the importance of training but don’t demonstrate growth in your own skills in leading, counselling, preaching or teaching, it demotivates me to take time out to upskill myself.
When you always appear tired and busy, it makes me afraid to approach you for requests, trouble you for a conversation, and feel like I have a right to take up your time.
When the only times I hear from you is to plug an event or organise a meeting (including on Facebook), it makes me feel a little used in our relationship.
When you talk about the importance of confession and repentance, but never share about your need for grace, it makes me wonder if you need the gospel as much as you say we do.
Dear pastor, I understand that some of these things will be really difficult for you to read, because they are intensely personal and probably mostly unintended. But I write them because I know that while God gave you to us as our leader and shepherd, you’re also our brother in Christ. And so part of our role in the body is to help you as much as you’ve helped us.
Thanks for reading.
Your faithful member, brother, and friend.
Okay I know. This is a somewhat controversial blog post title.
Yes, if you’re wondering, my sermons are over 30 mins. They average 45 mins. And perhaps some readers out there are of the opinion that no sermons should exceed that length.
I’m not going to argue that point or assume that all of my listeners like the length of my sermons. However, I do think there are good reasons for rookie preachers to adhere to the 30 min rule a little more than a lot of them do.
Firstly, why 30 mins? Well in my honest opinion, the ideal range is between 20 and 25 mins. In a normal Sunday gathering, anything less than 20 mins is on the ‘too short’ side. But anything more than 25 mins is on the ‘too long’ side. Therefore 30 mins is the absolute upper limit.
Now of course there are no hard-and-fast rules. And that’s why I do believe that there are exceptions. But I want to argue that for the rookie preacher, there better be a very very very good excuse why that 30 min upper limit should be exceeded.
Before I go into the reasons why, you should know that I passionately believe in training preachers. I’m constantly listening to sermons by rookie preachers and giving them feedback. My main congregation, ACTS 11, also believes in training lay preachers. Aside from our ministry interns and student ministers, I currently have four lay men who preach regularly to my congregation, all of whom have only been trained to do it in the last year. I love training preachers, and I greatly value the men who are willing to take up the challenge to learn to preach, especially when they are also busy husbands, fathers, workers, and lay leaders.
So as an ardent supporter of preaching and rookie preachers, let me now put my cards out on the table. Please rookie preacher, keep your sermons between 20-25 mins. And please, whatever you do, don’t exceed 30 mins.
Here are my reasons:
1. Practise packaging
One of the most important skills in sermon preparation is the packaging. Rookie preachers need to learn how to spend as much time on the packaging as they do on the text. Without good packaging, even a 10 min sermonette can be extremely painful and confusing to listen to.
One of the best ways to push yourself to hone the skill of packaging is to ‘leave more on the cutting room floor’. Rookie preachers don’t yet have an intuitive grasp of what, among the mountains of material they have, ought to be left out of a sermon. They almost always leave too much in rather than cut too much out.
Keeping to an upper time limit is a disciplined way of honing your skill of cutting and packaging so that only the very best stuff stays in. After you do that for a few years, it becomes a little more intuitive. In other words, keeping it short as a rookie is a good discipline to train you for a lifetime of preaching.
2. You don’t know as much as you think
Rookie preachers are either not theologically-trained lay preachers (or youth leaders etc.), or recently theologically-trained new pastors.
If you’re not theologically-trained, then understandably you’re going to lack a certain depth with the exegesis and handling of the text.
If you’re newly theologically-trained, then you’ll probably be brimming with biblical knowledge but lack a lot of knowledge of the people you’re speaking to. This is why most rookie pastors struggle with meaningful and deep applications.
Either way, you don’t know as much as you think you know. Therefore to preach long sermons will tend to take your sermon into the land of the ‘hobby-horse’. When we’re drawing on a limited pool of knowledge (whether exegetical or practical), we tend to default into speaking about the things that we feel most familiar with and passionate about. Now that’s all fine and good for us, but it may have nothing to do with the text or with the people you’re preaching to! That’s called a ‘hobby-horse’.
3. You’re not as interesting as you think
I always remember fondly the time when one of my Bible college preaching tutors, in answer to the question: ‘How long should a sermon be?’, replied: ‘It should feel like 20 minutes.’ Great answer! It gets to the truth of the issue since sermon length has a lot to do with the giftedness of the preacher. There are some preachers who can hold your attention for 90 mins and make it feel like 20. And at the end of their sermon, you wished they talked more. Therefore it is unrealistic and unreasonable to expect that all sermons should be of a certain length.
…Unless of course you’re a rookie preacher.
We always like to think of ourselves as more gifted and interesting than we are. This is especially so when our models are extra-gifted speakers who can preach for 90 mins and make it feel like 20. Part of learning to preach is to figure out what kind of a preacher you are and be happy with how God’s made you. The vast majority of preachers are 20-25 min preachers. So as a rookie, rather than assume you’re one of that special lot who can speak for longer than 30 mins, it makes better sense to assume the opposite. Assume you’re average. Keep your sermon in that range . And if, down the track, people keep asking you to speak for longer, then maybe it’s a hint that you should speak for longer.
My point is simply: it’s unwise for the rookie to assume it.
In all honesty, of all the rookie sermons I’ve listened to, I can’t think of one instance where I wished the preacher had spoken for longer. Don’t get me wrong, some of these are brilliant and delivered by extremely gifted rookie preachers. And sometimes my feedback has been for some areas (usually application) to be developed further. But even when I’ve wished certain parts of the sermon had been more detailed or longer, it’s always been in the place of another part of the sermon rather than in addition to. I don’t want the sermon to be longer. I just want it repackaged.
Okay, these are just three reasons. I’m sure there are more. Feel free to suggest more or push back on the points I’ve made.
But in closing, I know there’s one niggling question at the back of your minds: ‘when does a person stop being a rookie preacher?’
Great question. I don’t really have an answer to that. Perhaps Chappo would say ‘after the first 50 (hardest) years’. But you know I don’t believe that, or else I’d be a total hypocrite since my sermons are over 30 mins.
Maybe there’s no ‘line in the sand’ answer. Maybe it’s one of those tacit things that you and your congregation just know. Or maybe it’s when you’ve clocked up 200 sermons (roughly 5 years of preaching if you preach weekly, with a few breaks). I have no idea. But whatever it is, if you are a rookie and you and your hearers know it, please, I beg you: keep it under 30 mins!
Now if you haven’t read the serious and seriously good post my Bible College buddy Murray Campbell wrote, please do so now.
But as in College days, I couldn’t let him have the last word. So here’s my take on the first 8 years. My list of 8 things I learnt:
1. There are only six deadly sins
That’s right. It’s NOT ok to be proud, lustful, angry, slothful, envious or greedy. But gluttony? It’s almost a requirement of being a pastor to over-eat. Hey if you’re in an ethnic church, your congregation members are even kind enough to make sure of it!
2. You really do have to watch West Wing
It’s taken me 8 years, but finally I’m watching The West Wing. Please accept me as a part of the legit ministers club. Please?
3. No matter how hard you try, you will get better at using your cursor than remembering your Greek paradigms
Yes there are exceptions. There are a handful of ministers who will actually finish their M.A.s, even do an M.Th or PhD (sorry, D.Mins don’t count). They have cool Greek surnames or are named after Roman emperors. But for the rest of us, just because you got full marks in Greek exams at Bible College doesn’t mean you don’t immediately gravitate towards the auto-parse cursor on Accordance (or if you’re less cool, Logos).
Get used to the phrase, ‘You had me at luo’.
4. Your congregation really is that shallow
You see, they don’t care if you’ve had a bad haircut, wear an ugly shirt, put on weight, get a tattoo, grow some facial hair… NOT!
5. Leadership isn’t the only thing that’s ‘caught not taught’
When people recognise leaders you’ve trained because they go around giving nipple cripples, dacking others and randomly calling out ‘stacks on!’, you know your training has had unintended consequences.
6. Phillip Jensen was wrong about toilet humour
I can’t remember if the Dean said it or not (so apologies if he didn’t), but it’s not true that toilet humour is the lowest form of humour in preaching.
Nothing is as awesome in a sermon as a well-timed poo joke. Nothing.
7. Being a graduate of Moore College means you either get away with murder or are universally hated
I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked, ‘Where did you train? Oh, Moore College?’, and then… end of conversation.
At this point, you either get automatic permission to lead, preach and do Gangnam Style from the pulpit, or you get chased out with whips.
8. The secret to successful church planting is Chinese food
You can forget Ed Stetzer, Acts 29, Redeemer City to City, New Frontiers, or Geneva Push. The only church planting strategy you need is to find where good Chinese food is and put a church there. It’s the secret strategy to the rapid growth of Asian churches for over four decades.
A Bible-talk (on my understanding) essentially conveys the idea that the speaker wants to talk about the Bible. in other words, the term suggests that it’s a lecture about the Bible. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s quite legitimate to talk about the background, language and meaning of the Bible. The question is: is it enough? Is this what is meant by “preaching” in Scripture? I don’t think it is.
The difference between a sermon and a Bible-talk or lecture is that a sermon is meant to be a sharp arrow that is aimed at the heart. Paul says to the Thessalonians that the gospel he preached came “not in words only but also in power, in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction”. Incidentally, the conviction that Paul refers to is not simply conviction in the hearers; it’s conviction in the preacher as well. A preacher must be absolutely convinced of the truth of what he is saying. Unless the preacher is convicted he is not going to convict anyone else. This means that preaching must be aimed at the heart whereas the terms “lecture” or “Bible-talk” suggest that their main aim is to impart information.
(The Rt. Rev. David Jones, Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia. Quoted from the Spring 2012 edition of AP Magazine. For the full interview http://www.totalweb.com.au/AP/2012/AP8.12/AP8.12.pdf)
Thirty-to forty-minute sermons don’t work with Gen-Xers. Doing a service which does not incorporate video and contemporary music for the most part does not work with Gen-X. […] Some of the fascinating churches I have visited that are trying to reach Gen-X and are doing so well may have a thirty-minute sermon, which is broken into three segments during the course of the service. You have a ten-minute introduction to the topic, then you have an eight-minute video on that topic. Then the preacher comes back and preaches another ten minutes. Then you have a drama sketch for five to eight minutes, and the service is closed with ten minutes of preaching. That fits their communication style. It fits their attention span. It fits their style of thinking — the “mosaic” style of thinking. (George Barna)
George Barna wrote this a generation ago, but his words still have application to the modern church context. Preachers today are under enormous pressure to make preaching more savvy, more visual, more multisensory, or perhaps just get rid of preaching altogether in favour of multimedia presentations. What are we to make of this?
In my previous post I began a three-part series trying to answer the question: ‘why privilege preaching?’. In this next post, I want to tentatively suggest that preaching as a medium best corresponds with God’s primary medium in revealing himself to humanity.
Marshall MacLuhan famously said that ‘The medium is the message’. In other words, how we communicate effects what we communicate. For example, the evening news on TV – which is primarily driven by 30 second to 2 minute news segments mostly consisting of fragmented video footage, strung together by brief commentary, then broken up by commercials and ending with a heart-warming story about puppies being rescued from Chinese restaurants (joke) – communicates something about the news in addition to communicating the news. It’s saying something about the nature of life and the relative importance of world events – i.e. life is rather fragmented; news = sound bites; and puppies are as important as massacres in Syria. The medium is the message.
When you begin asking why God chose a particular medium of communication in revealing himself to humanity, it may have implications for the medium of communication we privilege to deliver his revelation.
In short, God chose words. More specifically God chose to speak his words. Even the words that he caused to be written in Scripture are, to a large extent, intended to be read aloud, re-preached, re-told, and re-verbalised, especially in the public assembly (1 Tim. 4:13; 2 Tim. 4:1). I don’t think it’s just a matter of God choosing the lowest common denominator in a predominantly pre-visual and pre-literate age (though that is true to a certain extent). I think it has to do with the nature of spoken communication.
Compare the spoken word with visual communication – e.g. radio vs. TV; a phone call vs. a text message. The spoken (and heard) word is more intimate than purely visual forms of communication. That’s why radio is called a ‘warmer’ medium than TV. The spoken word is also more relational. The further one gets from face-to-face verbal communication the ‘colder’ communication becomes, since so much of communication is meta-communication such as intonation (i.e. how we say it). Visual images and the written word have to find ways to “code in” that meta-communication in a way that the spoken word doesn’t (just think about how much more likely an email is misunderstood than a spoken word!). And lastly, spoken words have an immediacy about them that images and written words don’t. Images especially need higher levels of interpretation that are circumscribed by one’s culture. It’s not that spoken words don’t need interpretation, it’s just that since language and culture have a symbiotic relationship, once a word is spoken (or for that matter, written) in a particular language, the interpretation is more ’embedded’ in its actual usage. That’s why if you’re wanting to warn people, you’re more likely to use spoken words than simply show a picture or a sign. (A red sign in our culture means danger because that’s how we interpret the colour red, but for a Chinese person, red symbolises prosperity.)
So isn’t it interesting that when God wants to relate to people – variously to befriend them, bless them, expose their sin, judge them or give them hope – he uses words? He speaks. He preaches. He declares it so we can hear it and heed it. And note how the declarative speech-acts (such as prophecy and preaching) carry with them a certain authority. They are uniquely suitable mediums for God to communicate his words since when God speaks there’s a certain non-negotiability about it. He doesn’t leave his words open to uncertainty and leave postmodern audiences to interpret them however their personal or cultural biases might take them.
Isaiah 55:10–11 As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, 11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
In other words, there’s a reason why God speaks his revelation, tells his revelation, preaches his revelation, even sings (?) his revelation. The reason is the message – the gospel (by this I mean the gospel in the fullest and widest sense: i.e. God’s message of Christ’s Lordship and salvation in the whole of Scripture). In fact, the word ‘gospel’ itself reflects this since the gospel is news. News needs to be declared, announced, proclaimed and preached. When you preach the gospel (medium) you are saying something about the message – i.e. that it’s personal and relational, and yet urgent and authoritative. Thus on the flip-side it’s worth asking the question: if we decide not to preach the gospel but privilege other forms of communicating it: visualise it, enact it, multimedia it, Q&A it, does something get lost? (I’m not saying here that there aren’t many different and helpful ways to communicate the gospel; there certainly are. I’m just asking the question of ‘what do we lose?’.) Does the gospel message itself privilege the spoken medium over others?
So coming back to my initial point about preaching: I believe that because God himself privileges a particular medium of communication to deliver his gospel message, this, in some measure, constrains us also to privilege spoken and declarative communication – i.e. preaching. Multimedia may be helpful supplements to our teaching and preaching, but I think were the church to downgrade the privileging of preaching, we would lose not only a Biblical medium, but perhaps a whole lot of the message along with it.