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Don’t Take For Granted That They Know How To Listen!

We should always look for ways to be better communicators. We should always want to improve as preachers so that the message we bring from God’s Word is presented in as understandable a way as possible. However, I believe that we need to broaden our focus.

I recall teaching a class on communication in marriage where the process was broken down something like this. Communication involves:

  • What you said.
  • What you meant by what you said.
  • What you think you said.
  • What the other person hears.
  • What the other person thinks you meant by what you said.

I may not have gotten all these elements right or in the right order, but the point is that when two or more people talk, there’s a lot going on. Reading this makes me think it’s a miracle that any of us understands anything!

At the most basic level, communication involves speaking (or writing) and listening (or reading). When pastors focus on better communicators, we tend to look at how we can be more effective speakers. And we should do that! But let me suggest that we should also think about how to help our people become more effective listeners. In other words, our people can and should be taught how to listen to a sermon.

If that sounds strange, it may be because we have an expectation that people automatically know how to listen to sermons. We talk. They listen. Voilà!

But not so fast!

How do we know that they are listening well? How can we tell if they are tracking with us? How can we be sure they don’t misunderstand what we’re saying? Certainly the burden of responsibility for listening falls on the hearer. But if we can help them a bit, nudge them toward a more intentional listening, we’re doing them a great service.

A few years ago I came across a booklet by Christopher Ash entitled Listen Up. It’s about $3.50 from Westminster Seminary’s bookstore, which is less than I saw it for on Amazon. But if you want to buy a bunch of them, you can get a pretty good discount from The Good Book Company. After reading the booklet myself, I made a bulk purchase and gave them away over the course of a few Sunday mornings. I may even have developed a small group discussion around it. If I didn’t, why didn’t I think of that then? HA HA

It would be a benefit both to you and to your people if you provided copies of this booklet for them. Maybe they can kick in a buck or two if they can to offset the cost. However you handle the accounting, it’s something that would be helpful.

There are other practical ways you can help your people be better listeners. You may already be doing the first two, but we can always do them better:

Put A Note Sheet in the Bulletin. Most churches that I’ve been in either do this or provide some space in the bulletin to take notes. But make sure your note sheet guides them as they listen.

By the way, you may come across the occasional article or argument against having people take notes. The reasoning is that the sermon is a special means whereby God speaks through the messenger to his people. It is therefore not to be regarded as a lecture, but is to be heard with the mind and heart. I appreciate the point, but I don’t think it precludes note-taking. Granted, if people are trying to write a long sentence they thought was significant, they could miss a couple of others that might even be more important by the time they’re done. But a having brief main points and a fill-in-the-blank note sheet, coupled with a judicious use of visuals, can help them write and still keep pace. Which brings me to the second point.

Use Visuals Judiciously. PowerPoint-type presentations have become so prevalent in our churches that you may wonder why I even bother suggesting that you do something you’re already doing. But notice that I also use the word “judicious.”

Avoid cute stuff. Stay away from visual for the sake of visual. Vow not to use visuals to entertain. You don’t want to distract from or negate the seriousness of the moment. But a PowerPoint presentation that lists your major points (underline the words that go in the blanks!) can be very helpful. I’d also project quotes if I felt they would help, and occasionally a map or a picture if it would help people understand.

Again, you may use these tools already, but if not, I’d recommend both.

Finally, Talk to Your People About Listening. Is it possible to preach an expository sermon on how to listen to a sermon? I would answer with a qualified “yes.” I don’t know that we have to devote an entire sermon to the subject, but just think – how often do the Scriptures themselves encourage us to pay attention, to hear, to listen, to Scripture? How many times do the biblical writers remind us of the unique character of the Bible as the inspired, inerrant Word of God and tie that to an admonition to pay attention?

When we come across those times, wouldn’t it be appropriate to take a few minutes and remind people to be good listeners? You might illustrate with something from Christopher Ash’s booklet or a quote from one or more of the articles I’ll list at the bottom of this post.

Do people need to be taught to pray? Do they need to be taught how to read the Bible? Do they need to be taught how to apply the Bible to their lives? We would answer these in the affirmative. Don’t leave out the need to teach them how to listen. It’s one of those Christian “skills” that is too important to their spiritual health to assume that they’ll pick up good habits by accident.

Here are several articles that you might want to read and reference. Thanks once again for stopping by! I’d be glad to hear ideas from my readers.

Here are three articles all with the same title, but of course written by three different authors:

Here’s one by Scott Slayton on Patheos

Dr. Phil Ryken writes on Reformation21’s website

Finally here’s one by Daryl Crouch that was in LifeWay’s “Facts and Trends”

God bless you as you minister this weekend!

Helping Your People Retain and Engage With The Sermon

How many of you want to be discouraged? Raise your hands. Ok. Here’s what you do. Today or tomorrow, call five of your people – people who you know were in church last Sunday – and ask them this question, “Without looking at your Bible, what was the main point of last Sunday’s sermon?”

If you have more than one that can answer that accurately, you’re one fortunate dude.

I may be completely wrong, but I imagine there was a day when people had a lot of time to think. As a carpenter worked, the TV was not on in the background. As a farmer walked behind his mule, plowing the field, he wasn’t listening to the news on the radio. As a housewife went about her daily routine, she heard the noises of her children playing, and there were no magazines or websites to skim at lunch.

I like to think that during those times Christians reflected on what they had heard on Sunday. Not every minute, of course, but at some point during the week they could think over the sermon they had listened to as they went about their work because it was one of the few outside “inputs” they had in their lives.

That’s not the way it is today, is it? As I’ve said before, it’s quite possible that many (most) people forget the point of the sermon before they even get back home from church.

Knowing that can be just a bit discouraging, can’t it? But I don’t think it necessarily has to be that way. So how can we extend the impact of our sermon? How can we help our people engage the passage and message we’ve led them through. Let me suggest a few options:

The primary means that I see churches using involves their small groups. Most of our small groups studied a parallel passage or revisited the text I preached on. I would write study questions while the sermon was still fresh in my own mind and then email them to our group leaders. Writing study questions – good study questions – is not easy. And you want to focus attention on the Bible, not on your own words (though it’s not a bad idea to people to occasionally interact with something you said in your sermon).

If you’re the senior pastor and an associate is in charge of the small group ministry, talk it over with him and win support. I mean, you could dictate, but that’s not cool. Also, he may be the best one to write your study questions. That would mean him studying the passage during the same week you do so he can get the questions out right away. But before you assign him that responsibility, make sure he has time for what is essentially another lesson preparation.

Good study questions make people think and provoke discussion. I recently came across a short book titled Writing a Small Group Study. I purchased a few weeks ago, but haven’t read it yet. However, the publisher produces solid study materials that I’ve used so I’ll recommend it on that basis. I also maintained a collection of good study guides that I used on occasion to jog my thinking.

Make sure you solicit the support of your small group leaders. I explained to our leaders that I spent a good chunk of time studying a passage and preparing a sermon, and that with all the distractions that come into our lives, it just made sense to want to help people recall and interact with what they heard at some point during the week that followed. Most of the time our leaders were right on board with that. If you can’t get all of them to sign on to that approach, you might get a couple of leaders to be willing to change from using a discussion guide to using questions related to your preaching. Then, on occasion, let it slip from the pulpit that some of the groups are discussing the sermon. You may find others eventually become interested. Schmoozing 101.

A second way of getting your sermon back into the minds of your people is to send a brief summary of the sermon by email, and/or post it on your church website. If you do this on Wednesday or Thursday, you’ll be helping them both recall what was preached and anticipate what will be preached.

This does not have to be a major project, and you might even enlist your secretary to do this for you if she’s competent in this area. I’d list your major points – and not just a short phrase but the “meat” of each of the points in your sermon, as well as the application. Something like: “This past Sunday we looked at (list the passage). The main ideas were (list your major points). We were encouraged to (summarize application).” Then you could include “On Sunday, we’re going to be looking at (list the passage).” Then encourage your people to read the text in preparation for the sermon. I wish I had done the first part. I usually sent out an invitation to prepare for Sunday in an email on Saturday.

Finally, something that I came across the other week could work well if your worship service is early enough. I read about a pastor who held a Q&A session following the worship service. With some churches not having a traditional Sunday School, this may be a very workable way of introducing an additional learning opportunity while your people are already at church.

In order for this to work, though, I would think that your congregation has to be large enough that you’ll have more than one or two people present. Not that you’d be wasting time with just one or two people, but a group of five or more would probably be best for generating discussion. And the point is not to debate something that might be controversial, but to allow both feedback and give people an opportunity to clarify what they thought they heard you say.

There may be other ways of extending the impact of your sermon. You could record a mid-week summary and preview (3-5 minutes) and put that on your website. One pastor I know writes a series of questions for personal review that are put on the back of the note sheet in the bulletin. Be creative. Ask some of your people for ideas. Talk it over with your elders.

As a pastor, your primary task is caring for your sheep, and a major part of that is feeding them. Does it make sense to spend the time and energy you do on your sermon, deliver it, only to have it fade quickly from the thinking of your people by the time they head back to work on Monday?

What do you think? Do you have other ideas that have worked or that you would like to try? Put them in the comments section and share them with me and the others who read this blog.

God bless you in your ministry this weekend!

Planning Your Preaching, Part 3

So how do you go about planning your preaching? What are you going to preach next and what do you preach after that?

I want to finish up this short series with some suggestions on choosing preaching content. I’ll assume that I am writing to guys who are relatively new to ministry, though I know that several of you who read this blog have ministered for awhile.

Start first by praying. That’s the obvious thing, but easily bypassed when we start to think too hard. Prayer submits our minds to God, and while I don’t believe that God speaks to us verbally, I do believe he guides our thoughts.

The second major factor to consider is your congregation. How familiar are they with the Bible? How well have they been taught? How much Bible exposition have they had as opposed to the kind of life enrichment topical series I wrote about on Wednesday? If they have had a background in exposition, what books have they recently studied? You don’t want to repeat something they just heard a year or two ago.

I found that if I began there, God would guide my thinking so that my mind was drawn toward a particular book of the Bible. That does not mean that my choice was inspired or the result of revelation. Far from it. But if I prayed for God to feed his sheep through me, I believe he guided my thinking through whatever means he chose to use.

Some recommend that you alternate between the Old and New Testaments. There’s a case to be made for that, though preaching Old Testament books can be challenging for a younger preacher. If I was asked by a younger preacher who was either just starting out or who was switching to Bible exposition, I’d suggest the following: Preach two or three series from shorter New Testament letters. The first book I preached through was Ephesians. James and Peter’s letters also are good places to start.

Then I might suggest a series on the Psalms. With 150 Psalms, you could choose 7 or 8 from the first third of the Psalms, come back in a year and do another series from the 2nd third, and then a year or two later do a series from the last third of the Psalms.

After that you might consider preaching through the Gospel of Mark. It’s the shortest Gospel and probably the easiest one to preach through.

Preach through Judges. Do a series on the life of Abraham from Genesis, or the life of David. I’d avoid anything remotely resembling apocalyptic literature for the first five years of your preaching, though Revelation 1-3 makes a great series. Whatever you preach, arm yourselves with good commentaries.

Periodically during your ministry check your preaching record to make sure that you’ve given your people a balanced spiritual diet. You might want to avoid long series (more than 12-15 weeks) until you have a bit of experience. Then tackle books like Acts, Romans, Daniel, or a series on the Minor Prophets.

There is no one better than you and your leaders to analyze your church and determine what it needs. Know the books of the Bible well enough that you have an idea of the major themes of each so that you can choose what is most appropriate.

If you are reading about preaching (which you should), glean recommendations from people a whole lot smarter than me. Talk to experienced pastors and ask them how they chose their preaching material. Try to plan out a year of preaching, taking Christmas, Easter, and perhaps the summer into consideration.

And trust God! He will guide you as you prayerfully consider the needs of your people.

I trust God will give you a great day of ministry on Sunday!

Planning Your Preaching, Part 2

Laptop, WordPress, WordPress Design, Smartphone

Most pastors are able to create their own schedules, and that may lead some to feel that they need to be visible around the office as much as possible. After all, we don’t want to give the impression that we’re not working. 

While we want to be responsible with our time and available to our people, time to be alone is vital. As I noted on Friday, I often went off site to work on my sermon. Those hours were part of the “regular office hours” I put in. I just moved my office to another location. You should feel free to do the same. Last Friday’s post was intended to give some examples.  

Today I want to encourage those of you who are just finding your way as preachers to carefully consider the shape your preaching will take. I would like to commend the expository method of preaching that takes a book of the Bible and teaches it over an appropriate number of weeks as opposed to preaching a series of topical messages. 

Preaching should primarily focus on teaching people about God and our relationship to him. If we don’t have that as our primary aim, our focus will be on teaching people about us and how we relate to God. I believe there is a difference not only in how we approach the Bible, but in where we end up in our thinking about God.

When you take a book of the Bible and preach through it, you are exposing your people to the Bible as it was written. God did not give us the Bible in an encyclopedia format. Remember that our preaching shows our people how to read the Bible. If all they hear are series of sermons about them, they’ll be approaching Scripture that way. As a result the are likely to miss developing a deeper understanding of God and the Gospel along the way. 

There are exceptions, but a topical series is often going to apply to only a segment of your congregation. But if you preach through Philippians, there’s not a person in your auditorium who will be neglected in your sermons. I’ll even say that expository preaching – done right – is more practical and relevant than preaching topic after topic of our own choosing.

A series on raising kids or discovering your life purpose may appear more relevant and sound more appealing than a series on “Colossians.” But I’m concerned that a lack of systematic preaching will leave us with churches and Christians who cannot navigate an increasingly hostile culture. Just my two cents, but give it some thought.

Preaching through Bible books also helps your people to get a balanced diet. It lets God set the agenda for your preaching and frees you from having to come up with the next exciting topic. When people used to ask me when I would be speaking on a specific topic, I explained that I would do that when it came up in the text. If you are properly preaching through both Old Testament and New Testament books, history and letters, poetry and prophecy, eventually you cover a multitude of subjects that you might not even come close to if you major on topical preaching. 

The Bible doesn’t tell us how to choose our approach to preaching. But doesn’t it make sense to present it to our people the way it has been presented to us? Don’t neglect the occasional topical series or sermon. But let your choice of what to preach be shaped primarily by a desire to encounter God and what he has done for us, and then by how it “applies.”

For further reading, let me recommend Mark Dever’s book Preach.

Tools of the Trade for September 16, 2019

A Weekly List of Links and Resources Especially for Pastors

Chris Scotti is the VP and Publisher of 316 Publishing, which features a number of New American Standard Bible Resources. One of their resources is a great NASB app with Greek and Hebrew lexicon. I’d been using it on occasion before getting an email from Chris and recommend it for its ease of use. You can see the various resources available at

Here’s a short piece by Peter Mead on approaching the text we preach with the right goal in mind.

Tim Challies, who contributes so much to the Christian community, writes about how to frame our preaching for maximum benefit to our audience.

The folks at always produce good stuff for us. Here’s an article by Jeff Mooney on dealing with those times when we feel spiritually dry.

Nothing controversial here. 🙂 “I’d Probably Still Cancel Your Short-Term Missions Trip.” You may not agree, but Carlson raises some issues worth considering.

Here’s encouragement to prepare our people to suffer.

John Piper talks about God’s sovereignty and our unproductive days.

Here’s a good article to share with parents and those who work with kids.

Have a great week of ministry!!!

Planning Your Preaching

Harvey Cedars, New Jersey

For several decades my family spent a week in late August at Harvey Cedars Bible Conference at the New Jersey shore. My wife’s father had been a speaker there almost every summer, and Laura spent several summers there working on staff.

The Bible Conference provided a low-stress schedule, and afternoons were reserved for the beach, which was just a short walk across the street. My family loved the beach. On the other hand, I hate the beach. I have never enjoyed the combination of the sun, sand, lotions, and heat. So I’d stay back in our room and often I would work on my preaching plan for the year.

I know, I know. You’re not supposed to work on your vacation. But those few hours of peace and quiet each day gave me the opportunity to at least draft a preaching plan through the early winter and sometimes longer.

Hagerstown, Maryland

Sometimes I had a special preaching project that I wanted to work on, so on several occasions after my kids were grown I left home on Sunday night, drove three hours to a motel in Hagerstown, and returned home on Thursday. I had three days to focus, generally without interruption.

Other than the fact that it was only three hours away and it had plenty of places to eat, decent prices for hotel rooms, and a small mall to walk through when I wanted a break, there was nothing special about Hagerstown. But I look back on the two or three times I had a personal “retreat” there with appreciation for what I was able to accomplish.

The Italian Restaurant Across the Street

In a typical week, portions of Tuesday and Wednesday would be given to studying the passage I was preaching on Sunday. Thursday was sermon-writing day.

There were times when I did my sermon-writing in my office. But more often than not, Thursday would find me in a corner booth of the Italian restaurant across from our church. Sal, the owner, would drop off a Diet Coke, and he graciously allowed me to work there as long as I wanted. It was pretty quiet at lunch, and there was something about getting out of the office that turned on the creative juices in my mind. I could often accomplish more in two or three hours out of the office if I tried to tough it out in my office. I’m not sure why that is, but I’ve heard other pastors say the same thing.

My Office

The product of my restaurant writing was by no means the finished product. I would go back to my office and spent the rest of the afternoon on Thursdays writing the first main draft of the sermon. I’d finish that draft, review it as time permitted, and then put it away until Saturday morning. As I’ve said elsewhere, Friday was my day off. While I was doing other things on Friday, the sermon was fresh enough in my mind that often thoughts would come that I’d jot down and integrate into the final draft on Saturday. That final draft occupied my attention for the bulk of the day on Saturday. Then on Sunday morning I would give it one more review, revise what needed to be revised, and then off we would go.

Obviously the final product was more than just a matter of where I studied. It was the result of prayer, study, talking to others, pacing and thinking, reading, more pacing and thinking, and writing. But getting away from my normal working environment was a huge help in the process.

I want to write a couple of posts on sermon planning, and the point of this little field trip is that sometimes, like real estate, your best sermon writing depends on location, location, and location.

I’ll write next week about the specific planning process for both long-term and short-term sermon planning. You can keep up to date with what’s happening on this blog by either subscribing to receive an email of each post or when there is a new post. But in the meantime let me ask you a few questions for your own thought, though feel free to share your answers in the comments section.

  1. What part of sermon preparation is the most difficult for you? Why do you think that is true?
  2. What impact do you think it would have on your study if you could get out of the office at least once a week?
  3. Where could you could go to maximize your ability to focus?

May God bless your ministry this weekend! Thanks for reading, and please feel free to email me or leave a comment!

Tools of the Trade for September 9, 2019

A Weekly List of Links and Resources Especially for Pastors

We often struggle to be creative, yet not compromise the content of what we are trying to communicate. Matt Hedges, writing about Church Planting, tells us that Faithful Ministry is Savvy Too.

How would your small group respond if someone walked in with a handful of Bible Commentaries? These authors suggest that it ought to be met with appreciation. I agree.

Here’s a great interview with John Piper on “When Worship Lyrics Miss the Mark.” That happens? 🙂

How would you answer this question: “Is Your Church Frantic or Focused?”

Writer and Pastor Ray Fowler has a series on favorite productivity principles. Sometimes we can read so much about this subject that we don’t get things done. But this article has some great suggestions and resources.

Here’s an article on church planting and pastoral work in rural areas. I suspect that a lot of God’s work goes on in places that no one has ever heard of. Are you in one of those places?

How should we respond when ministry seems to fail? Josh Squires writes about making sense of ministry failure.

Here’s an interview to watch if you are in seminary or contemplating ministry.

Anything John Piper writes about preaching is worth reading. Preachers, Show Them in the Bible talks about why many sermons fall short.

Dr. Robert Godfrey talks about What Are We Missing if We Neglect the Psalms? There’s so much good preaching in the Psalms! Very much worth the listen.

Have a great week! See you on Wednesday!

And Now, Introducing . . .

Last week I wrote about how we can best conclude our sermons. I thought it might be helpful to consider introductions.

As a freshman in Bible College, I was introduced to John Milton Gregory’s The Seven Laws of Teaching. This is an older book (and by the way, you can get the Kindle copy for 99 cents!), and it had, uh, seven laws for communicating life-changing content within a Christian teaching context. It’s not about preaching, but it is certainly relevant to preaching.

Gregory’s first law was one that I have kept in mind for decades, and applied it not only to the classes I taught and the groups I led, but to preaching. It went something like this: “Gain and sustain the attention of the student.”

Wouldn’t it be great if we got up to preach, and every ear was open and people were leaning forward with anticipation? But that’s not how it works. In most cases, anyway. Our people lead highly distracted lives, and when the sermon begins, they know they are a good part of the way into the service and what they have planned for the afternoon is not far from their minds. In addition, people aren’t used to someone standing in front of them doing a monologue for 30-45 minutes. That our people are willing to listen is commendable! So we need to gain and sustain their attention. That’s the purpose of the sermon introduction.

What makes for a good sermon introduction? Different preachers may have different opinions. For example, I think a good introduction is usually short. But there have been rare occasions where my introduction was up to one-third of the sermon. In cases like that there was something about the topic or about the passage that needed explanation. But that shouldn’t be the norm.

Some pastors feel free using videos or music to introduce their sermons. I’m not going to pass judgment on that, but I like to lean away from anything that is entertaining. People who are entertained expect more entertainment. That’s just the way we are. While I think humor has a place in our preaching, my preference was not to tell a joke during the sermon. I preferred other kinds of humor that were quick and not likely to distract. So for me, the classic joke seemed out of place. And entertainment for the sake of entertainment shouldn’t be a part of your preaching repertoire.

Generally, though not always, an introduction will be a story. Jesus was a master at using a story to set up his points. So let me make some suggestions that will not only help with introductions, but may help with illustrations you use during the sermon.

First, make sure your introduction connects with the subject of the sermon.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s possible to have a great story or some other content that connects only tangentially. You don’t want your congregation wondering why you said what just said while you’re moving on with your sermon. Make sure the introduction leads into what comes next. Similarly, illustrations should be clearly connected to what you’ve just said or what you’re about to say.

Next, don’t write your introduction first.

It’s just best if you wait until the sermon is finished or you at least have your main points down before you come up with your introduction. You want the sermon content and application to guide both your introduction and conclusion. If you develop these before you write your sermon, you may find that the reverse is true. If that happens, you may fudge on how you communicate the content of the passage because you have what you think is such a great introduction.

Third, write your introduction out in full, even if you preach from an outline.

I always wrote a manuscript, either in paragraph form or as a developed outline. Then I condensed it onto several 9×6 sheets (so they fit inside my Bible) and preached from that outline. I found it most helpful to write my introduction and conclusion out in full. If used a story, which I did often, I wanted to be precise in how I told it. If you hem and haw while you’re trying to open your sermon, you’ll lose people. The same is true for illustrations during the sermon and for the conclusion at the end.

Fourth, don’t be afraid to tell stories about yourself or your own experiences, but NEVER be the hero.

The longer you live, the more opportunities you have to mess up or to do dumb things. In no way did most of my sermons start off by telling a story about me, but I wasn’t afraid to share an experience I had as a way of connecting with the congregation. But what I said about not making yourself the hero is so incredibly important. You want your congregation to relate to you, not view you as a superstar who gets it right all the time and loves to tell about it. They’ll be playing tick-tack-toe with the person sitting next to them before you get ten minutes into your sermon. Or maybe hangman.

In 40 years of pastoral work, plus just living as long as I have, I’ve had some funny things happen. I’ve met some unusual people. I’ve experienced some great and some not-so-great moments in life. And the longer you live, the same will be true for you. So if you have the stories that don’t distract, use them.

An example:

I remember several years ago when I had stopped at a grocery store to get ice cream and a few other things, and the couple in front of me were debating the price of a bag of Hershey Kisses with the cashier. They were on sale after Christmas, and the customer obviously had the right to get their item for the right price, but they were debating pennies. PENNIES!!!!!

I stood there watching my ice cream melt and finally said, “How about I pay the extra dime so I can check out my ice cream before it melts?”

Moment of silence.

The wife said, “You’re rude. Why don’t you go to the 7-Eleven if you’re in a hurry?” Then, while the cashier was calling the manager for help, the husband came up to me and said, “It’s not about the money for us. What if some little old lady wants to buy them and she has to pay more?”

I’m thinking “Right.” But I said, “I’m not trying to be rude. You have every right to get the correct price. But this has been going on for a bit and I just want to pay for my stuff and go home. So I’m willing to pay the difference.”

Apparently the sale price of Hershey Kisses was a big deal, because by the time they moved out of line and I had paid for my stuff, they were still going at it with the manager. And the fact that they were going on and on about this made me all the more satisfied that I had dropped my killer line.

Now before you judge me, you KNOW you’ve always wanted to say something like that. Go on, admit it!

I felt a wonderful sense of satisfaction as I left the store. I got to say what most people in the store would have wanted to say. In fact, I had stood up for every poor soul who had ever had to stand in line because someone was being dopey. I was their champion! The day was mine! So I got in my car and started to drive away.

And then it hit me. “What would happen if they showed up in church tomorrow?”

Now I had no problem telling that story during a sermon. It was a little longer than I might normally prefer, but it connected with a point I was making; it drew people who had drifted back to listening, and it underscored what should be obvious – their pastor could blow it too.

If you’ve got a story where you learned a lesson that applies to the passage, tell it. Write it out, keep it brief, and don’t be the hero.

Sometimes the best introduction is just a statement, carefully composed, of why the passage is important.

Sermon-crafting is very personal. We each have our own methods and procedures, though we learn from others (sometimes without realizing it). You may want to start your sermon with Scripture and then explain the relevance or the reason the theme of the passage is so important. You don’t always need a story, of course. Depending on your personality and life experience, you may not have a reservoir of personal illustrations.

That’s cool. But a good sermon introduction will draw your people into the sermon and give them the sense right at the start that what you have to say is worth listening to.

Someday I’ll tell you about the time when I . . . .

So I Said To My Brother-in-Law . . .

I was sorting through some computer files and came across a brief challenge I gave to my brother-in-law, Brian, 14 years ago this month. Laura and I had flown from Philadelphia to Florida late in August for his installation service, and I was privileged to be able to give the charge to the new pastor. (Note to self: Don’t go to Florida in late August without an air-conditioned body suit.)

It was a great day. Two things made it great for me. The first was that my brother-in-law is a first rate, class act guy. He retired a few years after many years of effective and faithful ministry in three different churches. But the other thing that made it great was that down in heart of Florida Marlins territory, I presented him with a Philadelphia Phillies T-Shirt.

Anyway, I re-read the words and thought I’d share them here as a challenge for all pastors, young or old.

Please open to 2 Timothy 4.

Brian, I have no doubt that you want to have an effective ministry. But how does that happen? We have seminars and books by the score that tell us what to do, how to be successful, what we need to focus on. I had several pieces of mail waiting for me when I got back from vacation the other day that claimed that my ministry could be revolutionized if I bought their product.

But how do we decide what makes us effective? The more I think about the church and about what is important, I am convinced of this: Scripture must define our ministry priorities.

When we look at the pastoral task in Scripture, our primary – not our only, but our primary – priority must be the communication of God’s Word.

I have no doubt that we think alike on this issue, but the climate in which we minister today is moving further and further away from this view of ministry. But I want to challenge you to commit yourself to an view of ministry that is not merely part of a passing and antiquated evangelicalism, but rather is rooted in the inerrant Word of God.

Read 2 Timothy 4:1-4: I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.
(2 Timothy 4:1–4 ESV)

I wish I had time to develop this passage in more detail than I do. What Paul says in chapter 4 comes out of his discussion in chapter 3 on the nature of Scripture. Because Scripture is God-breathed and because it is the means God uses to change lives, Paul prefaces his commands to Timothy in words that are clearly not just friendly counsel – they are divine edict (read again vs. 1). Out of this comes the command that forms the heart of this passage:

Preach the Word.
This is not preaching about the Word or preaching from the Word, but preaching the Word. There is a difference between preaching the text of Scripture and using Scripture to support our own ideas.

Our ideas don’t bring life. God’s words do. Our ideas don’t change the heart. God’s words do.

Preach the word persistently.
“In season and out of season” relates to the climate of the times. Whether it is trendy or not, whether it is popular or not does not matter.

How do we stay on track here? The best way is to come to the text for the message, and not to the text to support our message.

So preach the word persistently. Preach the simple and preach the profound. Our “climate” is one in which there are numerous appeals to lighten up avoid topics that are deep. Personally, I resent the insinuation that our people cannot or will not learn. Luther taught the doctrine of justification by faith to peasants. What makes us think our people cannot learn doctrine?

Preach the word to the heart.
“Reprove, rebuke, exhort” (correct, rebuke, encourage – NIV) are words that clearly tell us that we need to speak to more than just the mind. These words tell us that we need to speak with authority to values, behavior, the way people think, how they behave – because the Word does.

Everyone wants to be relevant. You will be relevant if you preach the Word and preach to the heart.

Preach the word with urgency.
A good pastor guards the souls of his people. A good shepherd knows that there is a real enemy who seeks to devour. A good shepherd knows that a verbal profession of faith does not guarantee genuine conversion. So we preach the word with a sense of urgency. We care that our people hear it and that they learn it, and we do all that we can humanly do to enable those things.

If we are not living in the climate Paul describes in verses 3 & 4, we must be very close. This is a day of doctrinal shallowness and compromise, a day in which God’s nature and his priorities are distorted and sometimes even attacked. And you will compete with highly visible people – on TV, radio, and in print – who are considered credible because of their celebrity, and yet offer your people nothing more than spiritual candy.

Never take this pulpit without reminding yourself of the awesome responsibility of your task and of what is at stake, and preach the word with urgency. You do not know how long people will listen.

You may be accused of being old-fashioned and out of touch. Some people will visit and never return because you preach more than a feel-good message. Even some who are sitting here today may urge you to lighten up, which means to dumb down.

You pay that no heed.

You determine at the start of your ministry here to preach the Word, to preach it persistently, to preach to the heart, and to preach with urgency, and when God brings this chapter of your ministry to a close, you will have fulfilled your responsibility to lead these dear people “into paths of righteousness for His name’s sake,” and you will have nothing for which to apologize when you stand to give an account “in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus.”

Preach the Word!

Tools of the Trade – August 12, 2019

A Weekly List of Links and Resources for Pastors

Mondays are for odds and ends that I find helpful. I scan some key blogs and newsletters each week and will link to articles or announcements that are relevant for pastors. But occasionally I’ll toss in a story or something else. I’ve done that today.

This Week’s Tools of the Trade

Tim Challies linked to my blog post on “We Shepherd Sheep, Not Beasts of Burden” from the middle of last week (August 7th, 2019). I had over 1200 hits and hope that some of those who visited will come back again. Tim has been uniquely used by God to “inform the reforming” (his tag line), and has been blogging every day since the Reformation. Or thereabouts. I normally won’t link to his page, and I try not to link to articles he’s already linked to, but his daily column from Friday, August 9, contains reference to several links that I had planned to list here. So rather than duplicate his work, let me just point you to Tim’s site. In addition, he had an article on ten new books for August. Some of them are very relevant to pastors.

In my August 7th post I referenced an article I had read. Logos Bible Software’s blog asks the question “Do your sermons make your congregation think you’re angry?” Worth the read – and some reflection.

My friend Glenn Jago sent me a link to an article that was in Christianity Today that dovetails with what I was trying to say in the post on “We Shepherd Sheep . . .” Tim Challies linked to it, but don’t miss it.

Michael Horton wrote a great piece on mental illness, which is something that we will likely have to deal with as we minister to others.

Here’s another article on how we view our church: “Pastor, Your Sheep Are Not An Accident.

It’s possible to preach a narrative passage and never get to Christ. But it’s also possible to preach a narrative passage and force it to say something it doesn’t. This article speaks to preaching from the Old Testament without preaching mere moralism.

Some of you may be just starting out or in the early years of ministry. But how will you finish? Here’s something worth reading by two veteran pastors.

Ligonier Ministries (R.C. Sproul) posted an article by Sinclair Ferguson on whether it is right to be discouraged. It’s worth reading.

When the Plane Didn’t Land

My wife, Laura, has a sneeze that can raise the dead. When we were first married it was a point of contention between us because I couldn’t imagine a person not being able to sense a sneeze coming on and then somehow mute it. But I soon realized that she can’t.

Some of her sneezes are epic. We were in a Best Buy one time and she came out with one of her “greatest hits.” As the sound of the sneeze rattled off the corrugated steel ceiling, someone on the other side of the store called out, “God bless you!” Laura taught 6th grade for a number of years and it wasn’t too far into the school year before she scared her class by a sudden sneeze.

Some years ago we were vacationing at a Christian conference center. We went during a week that was convenient for my schedule and also for hers since she was teaching. On occasion the conference would have a family week with a speaker who would focus on home schooling. We have nothing against home schooling, but our kids were grown, so it wasn’t the most relevant topic. But we’d attend several sessions.

One night we were listening to a talk that was going on way too long. In addition it was all over the map. The speaker was clearly excited about his topic, but he was plucking random Bible verses out of the air to support his points. We were ready to leave but he wasn’t.

And then Laura sneezed.

It was one of her all-time best. And what made it have an even greater impact was that her sister, who was sitting next to her, was so startled that she screamed.


The speaker stopped. I’ll never forget his “deer in the headlights” look. People laughed, Laura and her sister were semi-horrified, but after what seemed like a good 15 seconds (which is a long time), the speaker resumed his talk and kept going for another 15-20 minutes. I have no recollection of the topic, but I will always remember the sneeze and the poor woman behind us, about 8.999 months pregnant, who was laughing (quietly, thankfully) so hard that she was crying.

I honestly believe that the speaker should have wrapped things up. But he didn’t land the plane. The voyage continued.

Now I’m not saying that if our preaching gets interrupted we should shut things down. But sometimes . . .

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