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Two Essentials for Preaching that God Blesses

A Minister’s Preaching, Part 5

With the exception of last Friday, I’ve been looking at a prayer called “A Minister’s Preaching” that comes from the book The Valley of Vision. These prayers, written by Puritan pastors, cover all facets of personal and pastoral life. I regularly read from some of these prayers as our congregation prepared to observe the Lord’s Table. I also kept a copy of this prayer in my Bible to use to prepare my own heart before I preached.

The first discussion of this prayer can be found here, the second here, the third here, and the fourth here. This will be the final look at this prayer.

If you’ve been reading along, the following is the text of the prayer. If this is your first time reading “A Minister’s Prayer,” let me encourage you to read it two or three times before you read my comments:

First, notice the confession of his need of God’s help. It’s impossible to understate how much we need God’s help when we preach. We need God’s help in choosing what we preach, in preparing what we preach, and in presenting what we have studied. We need help in gaining the attention of our audience with an appropriate introduction, and bringing the sermon to a conclusion that calls for (or summarizes) a desired response. We need help when we preach.

Next, notice that the author expresses a desire to be spiritually fit.

None of us is perfect. We all struggle with sin. While we should understand that when God is using us he is using a flawed vessel, we should also want to be a “pure channel of (his) grace.” So we should care for the condition of our own souls if we want to speak to others. When we do, we are instruments of refreshment, like the cool clear water pictured above.

Finally, he asks that God would “Help me not to treat excellent matter in a defective way.” I don’t know what the author of this prayer considered a “defective way.” I can only guess, so I will.

It is possible to package the truth in such a way that we treat it casually or carelessly. I once heard a man preach and talk about “that cat, Jesus.” He later referred to God by saying, “He’s one smart dude!”

I’m sorry, but that diminishes that which should be elevated and revered. It may sound cool and hip, but I can’t recall anywhere that the Scripture calls us to be cool and hip.

Listen, a lot of preachers use humor in their preaching. I know I did. I hope I used it appropriately and it was not distracting. But attempting to be funny or feeling that we need to underscore each point with a joke treats “excellent matter in a defective way.”

I was once at a Christian conference center where the preacher would make a point that was often very probing. But then before you had too long to think, he would make a wisecrack, show a funny video, or do something that moved you from a reflective moment to being entertained.

Why do we preachers do that? Is our view of God so weak that we lack confidence that the Holy Spirit can minister through an honest, winsome-yet-serious presentation of the Word? Are we reluctant to be appropriately serious for fear of turning off our audience?

Well, this is a great prayer, and it has been so helpful in reminding me of my need and my goal in preaching over the years. May God bless you as you preach and/or teach this Lord’s Day.

It’s a privilege, isn’t it?

How Do I Know If My Preaching Is Good Enough? (Part 3)

To the reader: I will suspend what I’ve been writing about on Fridays for the last several weeks to finish the discussion I began on Monday. Monday’s and Wednesday’s posts assume a fictional conversation with a young pastor who is concerned about the effectiveness of his preaching.

Hey! Good morning!

These are the big ideas I wanted to leave you with on Wednesday:

  • Be yourself.
  • Be a pastor, not just a “speaker.”
  • Know that God can and use you even when you don’t feel great about your sermon.

I wanted to deal with attitudes you have about yourself as well as beliefs you have about God. I hope that I communicated them clearly. If not, talk to me about them, ok?

In 2 Timothy, Paul writes: Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. – (2 Timothy 2:15 ESV). Paul is talking not only about the way Timothy lives, he’s talking about the way Timothy preaches. If you want to be an effective preacher, you need to care for both. And both of them are hard work!

You know that as a pastor you are constantly giving out to people. If you don’t care for your own spiritual needs, you’re gonna limit your ministry. You’re gonna run out of gas. So you need to cultivate your own relationship with God. You need to pray. And you need to have people in your life who are spiritual helpers. I wrote about this the other week.

Your feelings may differ, but I often used my preaching passage for my quiet time. When I was in Bible College one of my professors warned us against mixing our quiet time with our sermon/lesson preparation. He felt the two should be distinct. I don’t agree. Sermon preparation is a spiritual activity. I see no reason to create a dichotomy between our “quiet time” and our study. But that’s my opinion, and as a good friend says, “That and $1.39 will get you a cup of coffee.”

Anyway, here are two ways that I think will help you improve as a preacher:

First, as a young preacher, it’s helpful to listen to other men preach. Especially if they do it well (ha ha). Some men whose ministries I’ve appreciated in particular include Al Mohler, Alistair Begg, John MacArthur, Mark Dever, and R.C. Sproul. These guys are very from each other, but they are master communicators. And Alistair Begg has this fantastic Scottish accent. I’ve always thought if a preacher has an English accent, he can transform a “C” sermon into an “A.”

When you listen, pay attention to how other men handle things like introductions, illustrations, and conclusions. Do they use humor? If so, how? How long do they preach? What makes them compelling preachers?

Now a word of warning: like I said, you can learn a lot from listening to others, but don’t imitate them. You know – be yourself.

Second, read about preaching. Try to read at least one or two books on preaching each year, regardless of how long you’ve been doing it. We’re fortunate that there are so many helpful books on the subject.

  • Tim Challies lists some Kindle books on his July 23 (2019) a la Carte column. In particular, David Helm’s book is very helpful.
  • Searching Westminster Seminary’s bookstore yielded several dozen books on preaching. In particular, I would recommend Preach the Word, edited by Leland Ryken, Christ-Centered Sermons, by Brian Chapell, Feed My Sheep, by Don Kistler, The Archer and the Arrow, by Jensen and Grimmond, and Preach by Mark Dever and Greg Gilbert. I couldn’t seem to find the latter on but it is listed here at Amazon. I’ve left off some books that some would consider classics, and you should read those too, but these are basic books on preaching that will keep you focused on doing it right.
  • Check in periodically with Proclamation Trust. While they hold conferences in the United Kingdom, they have good number of online resources.
  • Subscribe to Expositor Magazine. If you look at the website, you’ll see why it’s a good investment.

These books and resources will help you develop sermons that are biblically sound and enable you to minister more effectively to your congregation.

Before we go our way urge you to make two commitments:

  • First, commit to never taking a passage out of context. I have heard guys who have good things to say, but what they are saying has little to do with the passage they are preaching from. Make sure that somewhere in the preparation process you ask yourself, “Does my sermon accurately reflect the passage?” Or, to put it another way, “Are all my points derived from the text, or have I allowed myself to force the passage to fit what I want to say?”
  • Second, avoid “seminary speak.” I’m not advocating that you avoid technical terms or difficult subjects. But remember who you are preaching to. If you are in seminary or have recently graduated, you’ve lived in a world that almost has a language of its own. It wouldn’t hurt to run your sermon manuscript through a grammar checker. There are several online, but ProwritingAid is the one that I’ve found helps the most. It’s a subscription service, but among other things it can tell you the reading level of your manuscript. Remember that you’re preaching to people with a variety of backgrounds and ages. You don’t want to be preaching over the heads of your people.

Well, we should probably get going. I hope that some of this has been helpful to you. As I have said, and will say often, I was an ordinary preacher in an ordinary church. I’m hardly an expert, but these are some things that were helpful to me.

We can talk again if you like. Thanks for getting together and thanks for picking up the tab for the tea and coffee. Have a great weekend!

Note to readers: What books have you found helpful? Are there any online resources that you’d recommend? Click on the title of this blog post if I a comment box is not right below and leave a comment for me. I’ll be glad to share your comments with other readers.

How Do I Know If My Preaching Is Good Enough? (Part 2)

This continues the fictional encounter with a young pastor friend that I began on Monday.

Good to see you this morning! I hope your week is going well.

The other day you asked me how you can know if your preaching is “good enough.”

I think a lot of us wonder that, especially when we’re young. Like I said on Monday, even veteran pastors wonder from time to time about their preaching. But it’s not an easy question to answer because it’s hard to quantify exactly what is and isn’t “good enough”.

When you ask that question, you’re really asking if your sermons minister to people. You’re thinking about how to be a better preacher. So let’s talk about that. I’ve got some suggestions that I think are really key to a young man developing as a preacher and teacher, so here goes:

First, it’s vital to remember that God created you, gifted you, and called you. I can’t overstate this. You are unique. Everyone develops their own unique preaching style and developing your style takes time. But your style should be your own.

I was thinking about David and Goliath. Remember how Saul wanted David to wear his armor into battle, and David tried it on and then tossed it aside because it wasn’t him? Obviously that passage has nothing to do with preaching. But it illustrates my point: David couldn’t be Saul and be effective. And you can’t be someone you’re not and preach well. So at the outset, don’t try to imitate someone else.

Another thing to remember is that our effectiveness as preachers is greatly enhanced when we show humility and genuinely care for our people. They can tell whether we’re merely orators or whether we’re caring shepherds. If you love your people, your preaching will have credibility even if it doesn’t have polish. I suspect that there are a lot of churches who hear perfectly average sermons from perfectly average preachers Sunday after Sunday. But those average preachers are effective in their churches because they love their people.

You should also keep in mind that most of the time we can’t see how God is working in people’s lives. Occasionally someone will tell you how what you said was helpful. Some congregations might be given to that more than others. But the best measure of your preaching is seen over time. In another blog post, I compared the result of hearing the Word the way we form an object from paper mache. We add layer upon layer until the object finally takes shape.

Think about what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians: And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18 ESV). We are being transformed. It’s a process.

You will be surprised by how and when God uses you. Sometimes here would be a Sunday when I thought my sermon was awful. And guess what? I’d have people tell me how God ministered to them. I’d be thinking, “That can’t be – the sermon was horrible.” But God used it anyway. So remember that how you feel about how you did on a particular Sunday is probably not a good measure of what really took place.

It may not be easy to know how good your preaching is, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be a more effective preacher. If you keep these things in mind, I think you’ll be laying the foundation for being the kind of preacher you want to be.

Let’s talk again on Friday about some practical ways we can improve our preaching, ok?

How Do I Know if My Preaching is Good Enough?

Question Mark, Question, Response, Search Engine

This is a question that was raised by a young friend. I think it’s a great question. I want to answer it in two parts. Today I’m going to set the stage for some suggestions I want to offer on Wednesday. So be sure to come back then!

Picture us sitting across from each other in a coffee shop. We talk about how your ministry is going, and then you say, “The reason I wanted to talk to you today is because I’m wondering if my preaching is good enough.”

“Tell me what makes you wonder about your preaching,” I respond. You tell me you study hard, you work on connecting to your people, but when you’ve finished preaching, you wonder if it’s been adequate. Did it help anyone or was it merely helping pave the way for some afternoon naps?

Some thoughts:

First, younger preachers probably struggle with this more than more experienced preachers do. At the same time don’t think guys who have preached or taught for decades don’t have moments (or even seasons) of self-doubt. So you’re asking a question that we have all asked about ourselves.

Second, I’d have a question. I’d want to ask “Good enough compared to what?” What do you think is “good enough” and where do you think you fall short? I’d be very interested in how you answer those questions.

Your answers may range from what you perceive as a lack of response to an inner sense that you’re just not communicating. Whatever your reason(s), the issue is bugging you, because you want God to use you in the lives of your people.

I would tell you I am glad that this is something you’re concerned about. We should be concerned about our effectiveness because we’ve been entrusted with such an enormous responsibility.

I’d ask if I could listen to some of your sermons. I’d want to listen to one or two that you felt good about and one or two that you felt missed the mark. I’d also like to read your manuscripts or sermon notes.

We’ve talked awhile, and it’s time for you to go to back to the office, so we’re going to meet again. When we do, I want to share some lessons I’ve learned about preaching – things that may help you be a better preacher, but also some things that may help you see yourself and your preaching ministry more accurately. I would be careful to tell you I am not an expert on preaching. I was an ordinary preacher, and I had good Sundays and Sundays that were not as good. I can relate to what you’re thinking.

So I’ll see you then, ok? And I’m buying. It’s a privilege to talk to you, and I’ll be praying for you!

Preaching Is Shepherding!

A Minister’s Preaching, Part 4

My Master God,
I am desired to preach today,
but go weak and needy to my task;
Yet I long that people might be edified with divine truth,
that an honest testimony might be borne for thee;
Give me assistance in preaching and prayer,
with heart uplifted for grace and unction.
Present to my view things pertaining to my subject,
with fullness of matter and clarity of thought,
proper expressions, fluency, fervency,
a feeling sense of the things I preach,
and grace to apply them to men’s consciences.
Keep me conscious all the while of my defects,
and let me not gloat in pride over my performance.
Help me to offer a testimony for thyself,
and to leave sinners inexcusable in neglecting thy mercy.
Give me freedom to open the sorrows of thy people,
and set before them comforting considerations.
Attend with power the truth preached.
and awaken the attention of my slothful audience.
May thy people be refreshed, melted, convicted, comforted,
and help me to use the strongest arguments
drawn from Christ’s incarnation and sufferings,
that men might be made holy.

I myself need thy support, comfort, strength, holiness,
that I might be a pure channel of thy grace,
and be able to do something for thee;
Give me then refreshment among thy people,
and help me not to treat excellent matter in a defective way,
or bear a broken testimony to so worthy a redeemer,
or be harsh in treating of Christ’s death, its design and end,
from lack of warmth and fervency.
And keep me in tune with thee as I do this work.

On Fridays, I’ve been commenting on a prayer from The Valley of Vision – a wonderful book of Puritan prayers. The prayer is called “A Minister’s Preaching.” I found it so helpful in focusing my own prayers on Sundays that I copied it and put it in my Bible, often using it privately on Sunday mornings before I preached.

I’ve written about the first part of the prayer here, the second part here, and the third part here.

Today I’d like to look at the section I’ve highlighted in boldface. There are several requests in this section of the prayer. I’ll focus on three of them.

First, the author asks that God would enable him to preach to “leave sinners inexcusable in neglecting thy mercy.”

Faithful preaching is Gospel-centered preaching. Without forcing the passage to say what it does not, at some point in the sermon we need to make sure we are explaining what it means to trust in Christ. If people hear nothing more than a motivational talk or a list of behaviors to adopt or put off, they won’t hear the Gospel. They may even make the assumption that being right with God comes through doing good things.

Weaving the facts of the Gospel into a sermon is not always easy. We need to pray for God’s help in this, just as the writer does. It is almost certain that you will have people in your audience on Sunday who don’t know Jesus, so keep the mercy that God showed in Christ prominent in your sermons.

Second, the author demonstrates a shepherd’s heart by asking God to enable him to minister to the sorrows of his people and bring them comfort.

Certainly we want to motivate our people to a greater love for Christ and greater service. But many in your congregation are wounded, discouraged, beaten up, and sorrowing. They hurt.

Help them. Encourage them. Bind up their wounds. Teach them about the love and care of Christ, who urges us to service but is also a tender shepherd. I’m reserving a future blog post for this theme, because I honestly fear that too many of us are championing our church programs and “mission statements” at the expense of pastoral care.

Finally, note that the author asks God to “awaken the attention of my slothful audience.”

Wow. That sounds harsh at first blush, doesn’t it? No doubt there will be people in your church on Sunday who have prepared their minds and hearts. But think: you’ll also have some who are attending out of habit (which is not the worst thing in the world), some who would rather be somewhere else, and many who have other things on their minds, like the burdens of the week or the afternoon’s ballgame or activities. They live in a media-rich environment and are used to being entertained. They are not bad people. They are products of the culture. And so are we. But we happen to be preaching so we have to pay attention! In this part of the prayer, the writer is asking that God would wake them up and help them focus on what God wants to say to them.

Whether you are preaching or teaching on Sunday, these are worthy requests to bring before the Lord. He desires to use you to minister to the varied needs of your church. Maybe it’s a good Sunday to use this prayer on your own or with your elders before the worship service begins.

May God bless your ministry this weekend!

A Minister’s Preaching, Part 3

On Fridays we’ve been looking at a prayer from the Valley of Vision titled “A Minister’s Preaching.” Today we’ll look at this section:

Give me assistance in preaching and prayer,
with heart uplifted for grace and unction.
Present to my view things pertaining to my subject,
with fullness of matter and clarity of thought,
proper expressions, fluency, fervency,
a feeling sense of the things I preach,
and grace to apply them to men’s consciences.
Keep me conscious all the while of my defects,
and let me not gloat in pride over my performance.

In an earlier post on Expectations, I told about a man who said that he wished he could be a pastor so he could study the Bible all day. Obviously, there is far more to pastoral work, and my response to him was that I had to fight for the time to study. You may feel that way too. But there’s another battle that we fight: the battle to include God in our study.

See, it’s easy to pull the books out, fire up the computer, and work on the passage we’ll preach and crafting the sermon. But the Puritan writer reminds us we need God through the entire process. We know this, but it’s good to be reminded. It’s good to have the opportunity to recalibrate our habits if we’ve gotten used to launching out on our own.

There are several requests in this part of the prayer: First, there is the confession that we need God’s help. It rightly acknowledges our insufficiency to delve into spiritual truth without God’s aid.

Having done that, he next asks God for specific ways in which we need help. He asks for insight, for an understanding of the passage. He asks for guidance in choosing the right way to express what he has learned. He wants to apply the passage to his own life, and he wants God’s help in applying it to the lives of the people. He desires to do more than educate. He wants to stir his listeners, to reach into their hearts.

And finally, he asks that God would protect him from pride. Pride is a killer.

Early in my ministry there were two young men in our church who were preparing for pastoral work. They spoke in our prayer meeting on successive Wednesday nights. The first spoke humbly. The second, well, he did not. Who do you think was most effective?

There’s an old story about a young man who preached for the first time. Perhaps you’ve heard it. He entered the pulpit with an air of self-sufficiency and it went downhill quickly. At the end of the service, the veteran pastor met him and told him “If you had gone up like you came down, you would have come down like you went up.”

Public people are subject to pride and self-sufficiency. Involving God from the time we first open our books to prepare through the time we close our sermon is a help not only in beating back that monster, but in having God speak to our people.

I hope you’ve had a great week of study and that on the Lord’s Day you will experience his help in ministering his word. God bless you!

Get the Gospel Right While You are Young

“With every head bowed, and every eye closed, if you want to receive Jesus as your personal Savior, raise your hand.”

Those words are a part of the church experience of my youth. Most sermons closed with this kind of invitation. Usually it would include a call to come forward, talk to the pastor, and pray a prayer. If you prayed the prayer and meant it, you would become a Christian. It was very similar to the approach that Billy Graham used for his crusades.

The Jesus Movement hit the Christian world in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was the time of Hippies, Woodstock, the drug and sex revolutions. Older people were disenchanted. Younger people were experimenting and looking for purpose. As a result, Jesus was presented as the remedy for unhappiness, bad marriages, and finding satisfaction.

The so-called Seeker movement of the late 20th century and the early years of this century followed in this tradition, presenting Jesus as someone who could fix life’s problems and be a friend in an uncertain world. Many claimed that the Seeker movement avoided the hard parts of the Gospel message so that people were not turned off. If they were, they would stop coming to church.

The Gospel-Centered resurgence (sometimes called the Young Calvinist movement) of the early 2000s sought to restore the clarity of the Gospel message. There was a renewed effort to express the gospel fully and accurately. Doctrinal themes and biblical terms that had been regarded as difficult to understand were now at the forefront of Gospel preaching.  

Here’s my point: I’m realizing that over the last 50 years the way we have expressed the Gospel has changed several times. And I don’t think that’s a good thing.  

Now before I go on, let me say that no one should be a Gospel Curmudgeon. A Gospel Curmudgeon is someone who takes delight in being critical of others who don’t dot every “i” and cross every “t” the way he or she does. Some of these people have websites. Their sites are the children of the “Fighting Fundamentalist” newsletters from the days before the Internet. Man, were they wild! You and I don’t want to be one of “those” people.

Yet I believe that it’s essential that those of us who preach and teach a) understand the gospel, and b) express it in ways consistent with the biblical message. As I became more influenced (and for this I am thankful) by the Reformed Resurgence, words like “imputation” and “justification” were often used and explained often in our church. In fact, I semi-jokingly told our congregation that if I called any of them at 3am and asked them to tell me what it meant to be justified by faith, I hoped they could do it. 

I never tried that. Though I kind of wish I had.

How should we present the Gospel? Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve observed that something is lacking in some Gospel preaching that I have heard over the last few years. Too often it seems like I’ve heard the facts of the Gospel presented accurately. But I’m missing a call for people to believe it.

Believing is the way we respond to the Gospel. If people don’t believe the Gospel, they aren’t believers.

Can we say we’ve accurately and adequately presented the biblical Gospel if we haven’t called for a biblical response? The Gospel message always includes responding by faith or believing.

It should be rare that a sermon or lesson does not have a connection to the Gospel. Others have written far more eloquently and persuasively than I can that teaching the Bible without a Gospel or Christ-centered focus leads to moralism. But presenting the facts of the Gospel without appealing to people to believe is not sufficient. We haven’t finished the job.

Most of the people in our congregations may be believers. It’s possible there are some who were warming themselves by the Gospel fires but have never trusted Christ. But in most cases our audiences are predominantly Christian audiences.

Yet we should still call on them to believe when we come to the content of the Gospel. In fact, without being manipulative, we should urge them to belief/faith as the way to respond to the Gospel.

Is that “preaching to the choir?” No!

We don’t know people’s hearts. We don’t want people to assume that they are Christians just because they are hearing the Gospel message. And we shouldn’t want any to answer the question of “How do you know that you are a Christian?” by saying, “Because I prayed a prayer.” or “Because I went forward at an invitation.” or “My life was a mess so I turned it over to Jesus.”

May I encourage you to check your preaching and teaching? The Gospel message includes a call to respond. Be sure that your Gospel presentations and explanations ALWAYS include that appeal to believe the Gospel, to put faith in the finished work of Christ.

You have your whole ministry life ahead of you. No matter how large or small your church or class is, you’ll speak to hundreds of people if not thousands over the years. Let me encourage you to get the Gospel right while you are young.