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Tools of the Trade – August 5, 2019

A Weekly List of Links and Resources for Pastors

Each Monday I’ll list some links that are related to pastoral work. Almost everyone reads Tim Challies’ blog, so I will do my best not to duplicate anything that he links to. If you see something you like, be sure to send it to your Evernote file.

A lot of us come from church backgrounds where our worship services are more “free-form” compared to liturgical churches. How we order our services is often more a matter of pragmatism than anything. Here’s a worthwhile article that asks about the connection between our theology and our worship. And here’s another article from the Southern Baptist newsletter that deals with the same subject.

Do your prayers match your Big-God preaching? That’s the question that this article asks. Challenging!!

One of the things always I wanted to do but never got to was have our church sponsor a series of workshops for pastors on the subject of “Pastors and Church History.” A lot of us grew up in, or have served, churches that have little connection to the past. I think we miss something without a sense of heritage. This is part of a series on pastors engaging with the writings of different people who have been influential in church history.

Here’s a book from Christian Focus on preaching and church revitalization. If you are in a smallish or struggling church you might want to pick it up. The publisher has a number of books on preaching, but take a look at this three-part series called Get Preaching. They all look helpful, but the last one in the Get Preaching series covers preaching to a variety of ages in the same worship service.

Small church? Small town? Discouraged? Feeling alone? This article is about one small-town pastor’s struggles and how God met him in the process.

Hopefully something here will be helpful! See you Wednesday!

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?

You Shouldn’t Have Bought That Book!

Over the years people would often come into my office and look at my books.

“Have you read all of these?”

My stock answer was, “I’ve read some of them, but a lot of them are reference books that I use for sermon and lesson preparation.”

That may have sounded odd to my visitors. Most people don’t buy books for “reference.” But the bulk of a pastor’s library consists of Bible reference tools, commentaries, and theological works – most of which are not going to be general reading. However, I also had books I bought on impulse, books I had no intention of reading again, and books that were probably outdated. So there were times when I looked at a book and said to myself, “You probably shouldn’t have bought that book.” I had good intentions, but – well, you know.

Books are expensive, even when you can buy them at discount. Some commentaries and larger theologies list for well over $40. You’re going to face both the need and the opportunity to buy books on a regular basis. How can you build a library that is top-notch: giving you the resources you need while at the same time not filled with books you wish you hadn’t bought?

If I could to start over, this is how I would build my library:

First, I’d begin with some basics. You probably have some or all of these already from your time in Bible College or Seminary.

Those books form the foundation of a good library. Some might want a concordance, but they are available in the public domain online.

Next I would begin building the commentary section of my library. My aim would be to pick up the best commentary on each book of the Bible. This is something you do over time, of course. A very helpful resource is Best Commentaries. If you haven’t checked that out, take a look.

The resurgence of interest in Biblical Theology has produced some significant works over the last decade. Westminster Seminary’s bookstore and Amazon can be helpful too, of course. I’d pick up a Biblical Theology of the OT and a Biblical Theology of the NT.

But, that leaves a lot of books on theology, church life, pastoral ministry, preaching, current issues, family life, and the spiritual life. What do you do here? There are exceptions, but I have found that these kinds of books are “read once and put on the shelf.” I’ve given away boxes of books like this. So how can you maximize your resources?

Get Kindle books.

Kindle books tend to be a bit less expensive than their paper counterparts. And if you don’t have a Kindle, that’s no biggie. Amazon provides Kindle apps for Android, IOS, PC, and Mac. Unless you’ve sworn off technology, you’re covered.

Some prefer a physical book to an electronic book. Physical books can be marked up and loaned out. Electronic books can be more limiting. But they can save you a ton of money.

Tim Challies, probably the most prolific (and helpful) Christian blogger, puts together a list of discounted Kindle books nearly every day. I have accumulated scores of books this way for as little as $1.99 each. His A La Carte article is worth checking daily.

Of course there are going to be exceptions. There are books that fit into the general categories I listed above that you may want on your bookshelf. But following this approach will give you what you need AND keep you from having boxes of books to give away because you have no use for them or you haven’t read them (and don’t plan to). And note that I haven’t even touched on the books that are available through software programs like Logos Bible Software, Accordance, or Olive Tree.

The size of your library is far less significant than the quality of the books that are in it. Buy well and you’ll build a resource that will last you through your ministry. Do you have ideas or tips? Leave a comment or contact me.

P.S. If you are a Kindle user, John MacArthur’s Biblical Doctrine can be had for $2.99, at least today (July 30, 2019).

Tools of the Trade – Monday, July 29, 2019

A Weekly List of Helpful Resources

I hope you had a great weekend of ministry. Today may be your day off, a day full of meetings, or a day to catch up and do some of the administrative-type of tasks that we all have to deal with.

A few weeks back I recommended the program Evernote. In case you’ve not heard of Evernote, it is an online repository for notes and articles. I use it primarily to clip articles that I think are worth coming back to and save them by topic.

There is a wealth of resources available in various blogs, online journals, and websites that can be very useful in your study. In addition, I’ve found articles that are worth sharing. In fact, I had a literature rack installed in a prominent place in our church and kept it filled with articles that would be helpful to people in my congregation.

You can get a free account that should be just fine for your use. Evernote also has browser extensions for all the major web browsers, so you can save an article into your Evernote file by clicking on the extension icon in your web browser. Evernote has apps for tablets, phones, and computers. Highly, highly recommended.

Here are some articles worth reading and clipping:

Tabletalk, the monthly publication of Ligonier Ministries (R.C. Sproul) has a good article by Guy Richards on handling criticism. If you’re a pastor, chances are you’ll probably get some. I know – hard to believe, right?

Here’s an article on J.I. Packer (Knowing God) and his teaching about holiness. It’s worth the read.

Pastors are not exempt from depression. In fact, we may be more prone to depression than a lot of people. Thom Rainer has a helpful article here.

Have you ever visited someone in the hospital and not known what to say? Or said the wrong thing? Or have them tell you of a well-meaning but thoroughly unhelpful comment another Christian made? Read this and share it.

Kevin DeYoung put together a list of books to read this summer on the subject of preaching. He polled some fellow pastors and scholars and gives us their recommendations.

Subscribing to several theological journals can be expensive. Thankfully a lot of seminaries put their journals online for free reading (and Evernote clipping). The Masters Seminary Journal (John MacArthur) can be accessed here.

See you on Wednesday!!

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!