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Draw Straight Lines to the Text

Any good book you read about sermon preparation is going to say something like this: the point of the sermon should be the point of the text. You could say it backwards too: the point of the text should be the point of the sermon. 

The Biblical text is not there to be used as a jumping off point for us to share our ideas. A fellow pastor was talking the other week about a sermon he heard based on Luke’s account of what we call The Prodigal Son. The speaker used that passage to share tips on handling money. That’s awful. The point of the sermon had nothing to do with the point of the text.

When I was preaching regularly, it would bother me when I did not feel I preached well. It probably bothers you a bit too when you have those days. I could live with that. But I never wanted to look back on a sermon and know that I had not handled the text properly.

When I use that expression – handle the text properly – I mean that the points of the sermon could be clearly seen in the passage I was preaching. I didn’t want my people to wonder, “Where on earth did he get that?” I wanted them to see that what they were hearing was a representation of what the text actually said.

When we are at the point where we’re writing our sermons, before it reaches its final form, we need to ask ourselves if we have taken each of our points from the text. If we can’t answer in the affirmative, our job is not done.

One reason (and there are many) why this step is essential is that when we preach, we are teaching our people how to read the Bible. If we are not careful, they will learn not to be careful. If we come up with something obscure, they will be more likely to come up with obscure meanings and applications. 

Sometimes a point I was making in my sermon lent itself to a few moments of explaining how I got there. In other words, I would say, in effect, “Let me show you where I got this from.” It was an opportunity to give a brief lesson in reading the Bible well.

If you have been in a small group Bible study, you know that people can make exegetical blunders. Every small group leader has had that uncomfortable moment when someone has come up with something that’s a bit “out there.” As pastors, we can’t do that. Yet we’ve all probably heard a well-meaning preacher come up with an obscure or out-of-left-field point.

You do not want to be that guy.

One of the best ways to be sure we are staying on target is sequential expositional preaching. Topical preaching has its place. But if our preaching follows the pattern of choosing a subject and then finding a passage to support it, it is very possible to press a meaning into the text that is not there.

Before you close down your study for this coming weekend’s sermon, the Sunday School class you are teaching, or the small group you are leading, ask yourself: Can I draw straight lines from the points I am making to the biblical text?

Tools of the Trade for February 3, 2020

A Weekly List of Links and Resources for Pastors

I hope you’ve had a good weekend. Here are some links to read, file, and share.

For Pastors/Church Leaders

David Murray, always worth reading, writes about guarding our relationship with God. It’s easy to let that become part of our “professional” persona.

This Podcast, with Tim Chester, asks the question “Are We Undervaluing the Lord’s Supper?”

There’s an intriguing statement in this article about the source of power in our ministry. “All Christian work is about responsibility without authority. Therefore, it’s easy to get discouraged.” Thought provoking and worth the read.

If you interview for a position in a church, you’re going to be answering a lot of questions. But what should you be asking? Jeff Robinson shares some insights.

Peter Mead, from, talks about some preaching paradoxes that originated with John Stott.

This article is from a secular source, but it describes 10 characteristics of good learners. These kinds of articles can be helpful for those wanting others to learn.

If your church is not familiar with some of the great creeds of the Christian faith, here’s a short introduction.

Sad story, great point. Don’t overlook older people in your church.

Here are “5 Lessons on Faithful Endurance from a Longtime Pastor.”

Gene Edward Veith writes “An Open Letter to the Pastor in a Post-Christian World.”

What are your people wondering about and asking when they hear you preach? David Qaoud gives us some food for thought.

For You and Your People

My wife loves snow, but to her disappointment there’s been very little snow for us this winter. We’ve had a 3 inch “storm” and two half-inchers that have barely covered the grass. Driving has been without difficulty. However, it’s been generally grey and dismal. Winter can affect what’s going on inside of us as well, and David Mathis writes an incredibly helpful article on that subject.

Have a great week!

When You Lose People to Bigger Churches

One autumn evening, I sat with a couple who had been members of our church for several years. They had come to tell me that they had decided to attend another church because they felt they needed a bigger and more vibrant youth program than what our church could offer. Inwardly I wanted to cry. Not only were these friends, this was the second time in just a few weeks that I was having this same conversation. Losing one family was hard enough. Two?

I was assured that they loved me and loved my preaching, but they had come to say goodbye. I was glad that I was not the reason they were leaving. But as I told my wife, it was like a girl you were dating breaking up with you and saying, “It’s not you, it’s me.” It still hurt. 

But losing people didn’t end there. Losing these two families resulted in some other families leaving. The rationale was “If they’ve gone, my child’s Sunday School class/youth group is even smaller, and I want my child to have more Christian friends.” Within a few weeks, this chain reaction led to our losing close to 40 people. That was a big hit – so much so that a month or two later I gathered our people together during the Sunday School hour and explained why so many people were missing.

Our people were gracious, and most of them were affirming and encouraging. Of course, you will always have people who suspect that there’s something sinister lurking under the surface. (You’re thinking about that person in your church right now, aren’t you?) But our people were supportive, and other families assured me they had no intentions of going elsewhere. I was grateful for that.

But that doesn’t mean it was easy. 

Younger pastors, you will experience disappointments of all kinds during your ministry. This was one of the more significant ones that came my way. When people leave, you question yourself. Is there something you could haves done to prevent them leaving? Does this reveal a lack of effectiveness as a pastor? Are the conspiracy theorists in your church are on to something? 

Go ahead – ask those questions. But sometimes it is just hard to be a smaller church.

So after you’ve asked and answered those hard questions, what do you do when people leave your church for less than the best reasons?

First and foremost, remember that God’s sovereignty extends to those who come to and those who leave our churches. You may lose people, but God is not wringing his hands asking, “What will happen to such-and-such church?” Your church does not belong to you. You are only a steward of God’s church. I know it’s easy to say and hard to remember, but you have to remind yourself of this often.

Second – and looking back I think I could have done this better – remind your people often of the meaning of membership, of the reasons we commit to a group of believers. This might not prevent people from folding their tents and moving on, but it might make them think twice before they do. And by the way, don’t burn your relationship bridges. The people who leave as I described above are not enemies. I was grateful that, in the years that followed, when I encountered some of the people who moved on from us, our relationship was still intact. 

Next, pray that God will bless you with new people. Some people don’t feel at home in larger churches. They’re glad to be a part of a smaller congregation that feels more like family. They want their pastor to know them, to know the names of their children, and to know about their lives. Ask God to bring those kinds of people to you. 

Finally, love the people God has given you. You may, like us, lose some families. But you will have others who remain. Love them. You may be hurt and disappointed by those who left, but don’t let those who stay with you feel that they are less important than those who are no longer there. If you need to mourn, and you probably will, do it privately.

For you young guys reading this today, I would wish that you would never have to deal with the disappointment of losing people to a larger church. But I believe that it is almost inevitable. 

So when it happens, do your mourning. And ask yourself some hard questions. And if there is something you need to change, change it. But then roll up your sleeves and plunge yourself back into being the best shepherd you can be to the sheep God has given you. 

Younger Pastors, Older Churches, and Change

In 1986 country singer Ronnie Milsap scored a number one hit with the song “Lost in the Fifties Tonight.” That kind of describes the way things were In 1980 when I began my ministry in the church I would serve for the next 37 years. When we arrived, the church was very traditional. With an emphasis on very and traditional.

I want to hasten to say that I loved the church and the people. Through the decades of my time there we went through a number of changes, but early on it was definitely a challenge.

As an example, in the early 1980’s, small groups were hardly a new idea. Many churches had introduced them into their regular weekly program, usually replacing the traditional Wednesday night prayer meeting. But when we tried to start small groups in our church, we found that a significant number of people were unhappy that they were no longer meeting in the auditorium. We found that out by taking a survey asking people to identify what they wanted to see take place on Wednesday night.

To be honest, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that the location of a church meeting trumped what happened in that meeting, but that’s the way it was. However, after a couple of years the demographics of the church changed, several dozen younger couples had become members, and we were able to start a small group ministry with a minimum of upset. In fact, the only complaint I heard was from one older man who was concerned that meeting in homes might create a moral dilemma. He posed this question to my brother-in-law, who was one of our group leaders: “What if you are sitting on the sofa and you inadvertently sit too close to – and maybe even touch – someone of the opposite sex who is not your wife?” True story. Hardly an argument against having small groups in homes, but I did appreciate his heart.

If you are a young man involved in an older church, it is likely that you will bump up against the anti-change crowd. How are you going to handle them? A few suggestions:

First, make sure that you have a good reason for the change you want to take place. Just because other churches are doing it (and with success) doesn’t mean it’s right for your church. Adults who are in their 60’s and older have seen an enormous amount of change in their churches, and many of them feel that they’ve lost aspects of church life that were meaningful to them. Before you introduce something new – especially when it involves replacing what the church has known for a long time – make sure the change is really going to benefit your congregation.

Second, do some research. You shouldn’t even attempt change without having the support of your leaders. If they’re hesitant, put it on the back burner and try again another time. You might also talk to other pastors who initiated the same changes or, more importantly, talk about the proposed changes with a couple of people in your congregation who are level-headed and able to keep things in confidence. Make sure you don’t just talk to one age group, and consider the counsel you receive from the people you talk to.

Third, take your time. You don’t have to change overnight. The changes you want to see take place might be able to happen incrementally rather than all at once. This is especially true when you are making changes that are more drastic. We were eventually able to remake our entire Wednesday night program, but it was something that we took four years to accomplish. If we had imposed all the changes at once, it would have been a fiasco.

Fourth, remember that you can’t please everyone. When I came to the aforementioned church, adult Sunday School classes were lacking. I was tasked with transitioning to elective classes instead of age-group or gender-based classes. And everyone was cooperative except for the senior women’s class. I actually had one dear old saint ask me, “Why do you hate us old ladies so much?” We ended up just letting them do their thing. Especially after I started getting death threats. Just kidding.

I’m aware of several situations in which well-meaning pastors tried to institute change without the appropriate support, without doing due diligence in terms of assessing how a particular change would affect their church, or by instituting changes too soon. In each case it led to upset, some of it significant enough that it led to an early end to their ministry in that church. You don’t need that.

If you are in your first year or two in a church, make building a relationship with your people your priority. People will follow you if they know you love them. But it takes time to build that kind of relationship. But if you have that relationship, they will more willingly trust you as you lead them to do things differently. Even if they haven’t done it that way before.

Tools of the Trade for January 27, 2020

A Weekly List of Links and Resources for Pastors

There’s some good reading in the articles below. I hope that you will find them helpful.

For Pastors

We are blessed with a large number of Bible study guides for personal or group use. But some are better than others. How do you tell the good ones from the ones you should pass by? Taylor Turkington gives some advice for evaluating study guides.

My wife and I have had the opportunity to visit a number of churches over the last year or two. I’ve seen interviews, discussions, and video-driven talks in the place of the sermon. Here’s an argument for keeping the traditional sermon.

My friend Jay once suggested going to the back of our auditorium for the benediction. Why even bother giving one? Drew Hunter explains the value and place of the benediction in the worship service.

This article, written primary for church planters, is still relevant for young men embarking on their first pastorate. It’s called Planting Churches With a Lasting Gospel Legacy.

Here’s another reason why it’s good to know even a little bit about church history.

Religious liberty is a hot topic in the news today, and the current administration made a statement earlier this month that church leaders should be aware of.

9Marks’ Jonathan Leeman has started a series called “Preachers Talk” Here’s where you can download the first 30-minute episode.

The commonly quoted stat is that “faithful” church attendance is something like two or three times a month. Phil Newton writes about how pastors can encourage church attendance.

I find articles on productivity to be helpful at times, as long as they don’t send us on a quest for productivity perfection or make us focus on tasks to the exclusion of people. I’ll link to an article from time to time that might have a helpful nugget. Here’s one.

Reviews and recommendations of this book have appeared on a number of sites over the last few weeks. I’m sure it would be hard reading, but there are people in your church who have been abused, and you need to know both how to help them and what to give them to read. This is a review of Mez McConnell’s “The Creaking on the Stairs.”

To Share

The Apostle Paul was aware that prayer on behalf of his ministry was vital. Following his example, it is appropriate that we ask our people to pray for us. Colin Adams shares Something You Could Pray for Preachers. Put it on your literature table.

People going through hard times need to be reminded often that God is good and that he is with them in their times of trouble. This article, by Marshall Segal, will be a great encouragement to your people.

This is one for pastors to read too, but also one that you can share. It provides counsel on helping Christians struggling with depression. David Murray has written extensively on this topic.

Have a good week!

Give Them A Head’s Up

By now (I hope) you know what you are preaching on Sunday. But do your people know?

Does that matter? I think so. When I watch a movie, I want to know what it’s about. I don’t need to know the whole plot or story line, but knowing the nature of the film is helpful. The same is true with TV shows and books. Though the information might be minimal, it prepares us for what we’re going to watch or read.

Your church probably has an email list. I want to suggest that you send an email to your people on Friday or Saturday with the following information:

  1. Remind them that there is a worship service on Sunday and encourage them to attend. In a day when “regular church attendance” is often viewed as twice a month, it doesn’t hurt to include a line that conveys “I’m hoping to see you on Sunday morning.” And on occasion, a kind admonition as to why they ought to come is certainly in order.
  2. Tell them what passage you are preaching from and encourage them to read it before coming on Sunday.
  3. Give them the basic theme of your sermon. You might be reluctant to give away the “punch line.” But you can identify the topic and possibly also indicate why it is important.
  4. If there are important announcements, briefly list them. If your people get used to relying on the church bulletin and your email, you won’t have to spend as much time making announcements during the worship service.

You could approach this by inviting people to sign up to receive your email, but I’d encourage against that. You have the list, and while you don’t want to abuse that, you’re not going to be overtaxing their inbox with a short email. And it needs to be short. If it takes them more than a minute to read it, they may not bother.

We need to pull out all the stops when it comes to helping our people engage with the sermon. An end-of-week email can do that. A mid-week email briefly identifying the main points of your sermon and the main application can also be a helpful way of refreshing their memories.

You probably won’t see the results of this practice, but I do believe it is helpful. Let me encourage you to give it a shot.

A friend of mine has a funeral today, and I was reminded of the great opportunity funerals provide for preaching the Gospel. It’s almost a guarantee that you’re going to have unsaved people present at every funeral. They may be friends, neighbors, co-workers, and even family members. And they need to hear the Gospel message.

I was sharing with my friend that I purchased a quantity of Randy Alcorn’s booklet on Heaven. He has written a full-length book on the subject, but this little booklet, available at Amazon for $1.99 is contains some biblical answers about life after death and a clear presentation of the Gospel. Near the close of the service I would say something to the effect that a the loss of a friend or loved one reminds us of our own mortality. Then I would invite people to take a booklet if they had questions.

We had a ledge on the back wall of our auditorium that was a perfect place for a couple dozen booklets. I would suggest that you put them somewhere close to where people naturally pass by on their way out, but not in a place where it looks like you’re hawking them. And by all means, don’t charge for them.

I hope you have a good weekend of ministry! Whether you are preaching, teaching, or engaged in some other form of ministering to your people, may God bless your efforts to serve him!

Little Things Matter Too

Have you ever been in the express checkout lane of the grocery store, and you see people who were in longer lines, who had shopping carts filled to the brim, walking out the door? And you’re still standing in the line that’s supposed to go quickly? What’s going on?

Well, maybe someone decided that the 10 items or less rule didn’t apply to them. Or maybe Granny is writing a check. Maybe Pops has pulled out his change purse and is trying to find 4 pennies. Or maybe someone’s debit card isn’t working.

We go to the express checkout to check out expressly. Quickly. Fast. And when someone is holding up the works it can be a little annoying. Most of the time it’s no major deal. But sometimes….

It was an early Saturday evening and I went out to buy my wife’s favorite ice cream. I didn’t find it in our local store so I drove up the road to see if another grocer had it in stock. Yay! They did, so I put two containers in my little basket and headed for the express lane.

There was only one couple in front of me as I put the ice cream on the conveyor belt. I started scanning the headlines on the various gossip rags (Bigfoot sightings, UFO abductions), and after a bit I realized the line was not moving. So I tuned back in to what was going on and after observing the antics for a bit I started to do a slow burn.

The couple in front of me were purchasing several bags of substantially discounted holiday Hershey’s Kisses. But the price per bag was ringing up a few cents more than what the shelf price said. And when I mean a few cents, I mean a few cents. Pennies. The cashier apologized, but that was not adequate for this pair. The manager was summoned. He tried to mollify the couple, explaining that they had 14,000 items in their inventory and sometimes there were mistakes. But that was not acceptable. The discussion went on. And on. And on.

After waiting for what seemed like hours (well…) a lightbulb went off in my brain. I had come up with an idea that would solve this logjam. So I opened my mouth and spoke these words with full sincerity but with a measure of sarcasm: “How about if I pay the price difference so that we can all get out of here and my ice cream doesn’t melt.”

Silence. The cashier, the manager, and the couple are now looking at me.

The wife turned, looked me up and down and sneered, “You’re rude.”


Ok, maybe it was a bit wise-guy, so I said, “I’m not trying to be rude. But I’d like to get home.”

She replied, “If you’re in that big of a hurry, why didn’t you go to 7-Eleven?” Slow burn back on.

I answered, “Because I didn’t want to go to 7-Eleven.

At this point the husband took over the negotiations. He said, “You have to understand! This isn’t about us! What if some poor old lady came in and wanted the candy and had to pay more money?”

I can assure you, dear reader, that there wasn’t a poor old lady within 5 miles of this grocery store. But I let his response go and said, “Look, I understand you have a right to the correct price, but I really am willing to pay the difference so that we can all leave.”

Eventually they paid for their order and continued to engage the manager in a dispute about cash register accuracy. I paid for my ice cream, which probably could have been poured into glasses, and left the store.

No, I need to correct that. I didn’t just “leave the store.” I left the store feeling like a champion. I had dared to speak up and face down the most annoying kind of shopper in the world. If other shoppers had known what I had done, that I actually had said something to this couple, they would have put me on their shoulders and carried me through the aisles singing my praises. Word would spread and I would be the idol of grocery shoppers everywhere.

I got in my car, feeling like I had done what so many others through the centuries wish that they could have been able to do, reveling in my rapier wit. And I started to drive away.

And then a tiny voice in my mind raised this question. “What if that couple shows up to church tomorrow?”


Suddenly I didn’t feel quite so heroic or witty. And I was quite relieved when, on the following morning, my fellow shoppers weren’t sitting in my church eating Hershey Kisses.

Last week I wrote about the importance of integrity. I titled the post “People Are Watching.” And they are. And while we may be free from major moral failure, all it takes is opening our mouths at the wrong time or in the wrong way, or doing something stupid to potentially derail our reputation and undercut the work of the Gospel.

We need to watch our words and actions. Yes, even when people cross the “Annoying” line. When you eat out, order your morning coffee, deal with a salesperson, a cop, your kids’ teachers, or the guy who delivers your Amazon packages, remember who we represent.

And if the person in the express lane is taking too long, just go to 7-Eleven.