Netflix or the Bible

mollie-sivaram-yubCnXAA3H8-unsplashThis morning I read some stats from a US research company on how Americans are managing the pandemic. The results aren’t at all surprising, but they are a cause for alarm. I haven’t seen equivalent research for the Aussie context, but I doubt our figures would show any improvement.

To help them cope with the pandemic, most Americans said they are staying home to watch Netflix and chill: 89% reported that they are watching TV or movies daily or weekly. This includes 90% of all Christians, 87% of Jews and 88% of the religiously unaffiliated, according to Pew.

Many Americans (84%) also are spending time outdoors or talking by phone or video with family and friends (70%), the survey said.

But fewer are turning to their faith for support.

More than half (55%) reported praying at least weekly, followed by reading Scripture (29%), meditating (26%) and practicing yoga (8%).

https://julieroys.com/to-cope-with-pandemic-americans-choose-tv-over-bible/

This confirms indications that there has been a rise in prayer during this period. Though, I wonder if longitudinal studies will demonstrate a spike in ‘crisis’ prayers tapering off with things becoming more ‘chronic’.

A worldwide crisis calls Christians to worldwide prayer. Now is the time above all to be drawing near to God for comfort and strength. Now is the time to listen to God, to be reminded of his intense glory, his sovereign power, his promise to judge the wicked, is loving mercy, his grace to the humble, the incarnation of his Son, and his promise of restoration to come.

As I speak with my Christian friends, I fear we have the balance wrong. Some of us are watching news almost ever waking minute of everyday. Our minds are saturated with numbers, testing, positive cases, epicentres, hotspots, clusters, close contacts, numbers in ICU, deaths. The numbers are staggering, catastrophic, overwhelming, even numbing. And then, as if for relief, we add US-China tensions, Beirut blasts, political posturing, and football.

I tend to watch an hour of news most days, local and international. I flick around the internet, checking reports, reading an online paper, following news feeds. We often watch a show in the evenings. Maybe a miniseries, or a movie, or a catch up of some old series we enjoyed. Some are glued to screens most of the time. The most honest advertising I’ve seen recently was the introduction of Foxtel’s new streaming service and calling it ‘Binge’. (If only the gaming, alcohol, and tobacco industries were so honest about their intentions.) The aim is addiction. You can escape into another world and leave the real worries of this world behind—until you have to work again tomorrow after 2 hours sleep.

OK, so what am I recommending? Listening to God daily. Taking the time to read from the Bible. Hearing God’s perspective on what matters matter most. Discovering an antidote to anxiety and fear. Being reminded of God’s deep secure love and his promise to never leave nor forsake us. Grappling with the questions of suffering and pain, death and disaster. Having our hearts warmed by the rich mercies of God in Christ Jesus. Being comforted by the Comforter, who dwells in all who trust in Jesus. Being moved beyond ourselves to show love and compassion to others.

Can you find time each day to turn off the TV, put away your device, open a Bible—yes, a real one, with a cover, paper pages, where you can highlight, jot notes, flick between passages, and come back to things you’ve read before?

Why not change the TV diet. A little less Netflix. Listen again to the sermon from Sunday. Start a reading program. Mix it up. Dwell deeply in the Psalms. Explore the existential questions in Ecclesiastes. Take an attitude check with James. Rediscover worship in Romans 12. Recharge for ministry from Philippians. Investigate Jesus from the Gospels.

During the pandemic I’ve been aiming to record a Bible talk each day, with the aim of encouraging people from our church, and others, to keep a regular balanced diet of God’s word. There are talks for enquirers, equipment for people in ministry, encouragement to godly living, and calls to persevere under trial. Why not replace a little TV, with a regular Bible Bite.

It started as a pandemic project, but I’m hoping to keep it going. It’s been encouraging to hear from husbands and wives who watch an episode each day over coffee to explore God’s word together, from people who are sick and appreciate a brief exposition, from a Christian radio station who are broadcasting them, from Bible study leaders who have used them to supplement their programs, and from people isolated here and abroad, who have been encouraged by God’s word.

Please have a think about your spiritual diet. Check out the talks at http://youtube.com/c/davemcdonaldbibletalks and subscribe for regular updates. I’d love to hear how you use them and if they’re a help in any way.

You can find the following Bible Bites (5-10 minutes):
Psalms (3 talks ongoing)
Ecclesiastes (38 talks)
Philippians (22 talks)
Titus (19 talks ongoing)
James (23 talks)

And the following sermons (roughly 20 minutes):
Romans 12 (10 talks)
2 Corinthians (2 talks ongoing)

Muddled emotions

Recently I stumbled across a video clip of John Macarthur critiquing Joel Osteen. He read from his first book, Your Best Life Now, offering a harsh critique of his self-centred prosperity gospel. Macarthur went so far as to say that Osteen was making the same promises as Satan when he called Jesus to make the stones into bread and told him that all the kingdoms of the world could be his.

I have no problem with this criticism. It seems to me that Macarthur nailed it. The wealthiest pastor in the USA with the largest congregation in the USA, sadly has much to answer for. His massive TV audience, his millions of books, and his huge following, including the likes of Oprah Winfrey, make him a hugely influential figure. And I don’t believe it’s an influence for good or God. I believe our Christian bookshops should boycott his books and television stations should take him off air. They are my thoughts.

UnknownBut what disturbed me in the video, was the laughter of the audience when Macarthur quoted Osteen. There was much hilarity and amusement. Now, I’m not suggesting that Macarthur was using Osteen to whip up his congregation, or making light of what he was teaching, but is laughter really the appropriate response? Is what Osteen teaches funny? If it’s false and destructive, then shouldn’t it lead us to tears?

Many years ago, I gave a talk at a student conference and began with various critiques of false teachers. Some of the stories I quoted had been taken from a Macarthur book that highlighted the nonsense of what some had described as people claimed to have died and gone to heaven and back. Some of the stories were really weird. As I told these accounts, I had people in stitches. There was uncontrollable laughter at times. I found the accounts so bizarre and ridiculous that it was easy to generate comic relief. Even I had tears running down my eyes—not of sorrow but laughter.

After the talk I was taken aside by two young men I deeply respect, and by my wife. They had the courage to challenge me about what I’d said and done. Did I really believe this was false teaching? Did I care that it was leading people astray? Was I committed to the truth of the gospel? Then how could I make light of these things? How could I use them to grab quick laughs and build rapport with my listeners? They called me to repent. And I did. I asked God for forgiveness and I stood before the conference the next day and asked for their forgiveness.

If we are convinced that these things matter, then is no place for being flippant with the truth. False teaching is dangerous and should be no cause for hilarity. We’d do well to remember the example of the Apostle Paul when he speaks of those who oppose the truth…

For as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. (Philippians 3:18 NIV, my emphasis)

As he leaves the Ephesian elders to take care of the church, and to protect their congregation from false teachers, he reminds them…

Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears‘Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. (Acts 20:30-32 NIV, my emphasis)

I believe we are called to know the truth—the truth that sets us free—and to share this truth with others. This will mean opposing the post-modern nonsense that you can have your truth and I can have mine. There will be times when we must speak up for the truth and call out lies and falsehood. But when it comes to life and death, salvation and judgment, it’s not a game. It’s very real and the stakes are high. So let’s speak the truth, in love, and warn people of lies that destroy. And let’s remember what it cost Jesus to rescue people from hell and judgment. Jesus wept over Jerusalem because they ignored and opposed the truth. Will we weep over the blinding deceptions being propagated by the likes of Osteen and others?

Expositional Preaching

helmCoaching and playing don’t always require the same skill set. Not every player will make a good coach and not every successful coach will have been an elite player. Look at some of the men coaching gymnastics. It’s hard to believe they could have ever mastered the pommel horse or uneven bars for themselves, but they can be brilliant at training others.  The successful coaches are somehow able to deconstruct each aspect of each move, and train their athletes to weave their brilliance in seamless performances.

Every now and then we see a player with a deep awareness of the game. And not just their contribution to the game, but the game itself, and how every part works together. Steve Larkham, the Australian rugby great, was a player like this. He’d weave his magic and he’d create the opportunities for others to weave their’s. Larkham not only did, but he knew what he did, and he could pass this on to others. He coached as he played and it was no surprise to see him coaching after he stopped playing.

So what does this have to do with expositional preaching? Nothing. I just love gratuitous sporting illustrations!

Seriously though, many great preachers function at a very high level of unconscious competence. They communicate with clarity and depth. They shine a light on the riches of God’s word and they impress it on the hearts and minds of their listeners. We come away from their preaching with ‘our hearts burning within us’. But don’t ask them to train other preachers. They can’t even tell you what it is they do. They’re at a loss when it comes to coaching.

Recently, I attended a preaching coaching workshop at Moore College. I’m so glad I did. For me it was Preaching Coaching 101. Keep it simple. Break things down. Clarity. Simplicity. Specificity. Depth. Grace. Gospel. Theological. Heart. Mind. Affections. Motivations. Exegesis. Contextualisation. And more.

I love preaching, but I also love listening to great preaching. We need more and more passionate, humble, empowered, clear, focused communicators of the Word of God’s Spirit. We need people who will dig deeply into the text and fire it deep into the psyches of the listeners. We need preachers who handle the Scriptures with care and expect God to transform their listeners. This means both getting the message right and getting the message across.

Enter David Helm and his sharp little book, Expositional Preaching: How we speak God’s Word today. Our coaching workshop leant heavily on Helm’s approach to expositional preaching. Helm has learned much from the likes of great preachers like Dick Lucas and Kent Hughes, and it shows. Like a master coach he has broken down the art of preaching so as to pass it on to others. Helm is persuaded that we need to do two things well: Get it right and get it across (p36).

I’ve listened to the audio book of Expositional Preaching and now I’m digging into it more thoroughly with my paper copy, and a pen and a highlighter in hand.

Helm addresses the dangers of merely coming to the Bible to find something that fits with what we want to say. He asks the question “Who will be king? Me? Or the biblical text?” Helm is persuaded that we must let God speak and not get in his way with our hobby horses or attempts to be ‘relevant’. This must involve careful exegesis and theological reflection, but it will also require an investment in careful communication. Helm covers both sides of this equation in his book.

Expositional Preaching provides an introduction to the necessary building blocks for preparing messages that will communicate God’s message to contemporary listeners. If I can shift my metaphors, Helm’s book offers us a recipe for preaching that is nutritious, well presented, and full of taste.

It’s probably aimed at new preachers—ministry trainees, students in theological colleges, people starting out on a lifetime of teaching the Scriptures. For me, it’s an excellent coaching manual for those of us who feel we can do, but who have trouble in identifying what we do and why we do it and how we do it. If we seriously want to equip people who are passionate and skilled in biblical preaching, then I recommend we recruit David Helm as our coach—or at least work seriously through his coaching manual.

Please persuade me

Version 2I’m a preacher. Something of a frustrated one currently. Most Easter Sundays see me preaching. And if you only ever hear me on this day, you might think I’m a one trick pony. The topic is always the same. Resurrection. Jesus coming back from the dead. The empty tomb. Appearances to the women. Dealing with doubting Thomas. The hope of eternal life. Why death is not all there is. Being prepared for your future beyond your future.

If you get along to church on an Easter Sunday morning, there’s a pretty good chance you know what you are going to get. And if you are the preacher at that church, there’s a pretty good chance you know what you should give. It will be about Jesus. The one who died is no longer dead. There is real hope for humanity. We can know our creator. We can receive his forgiveness. We can be adopted into his family. We can trust him in life and in death. Life can be better—not freedom from suffering, but genuine hope in our suffering. Life can have meaning—not simply protons, neutrons, electrons—life with God, shaped and transformed by God.

Easter is familiar. Like birthdays and Christmas are familiar. It comes around every year. We know what to expect, and we know what to give. It’s comfortable.

So, let me plead with you, preacher. Don’t just preach another sermon tomorrow. Don’t give me extraneous facts. Don’t show me how well you know your Bible. Don’t parrot out the same message you wrote for another gathering a decade ago. Don’t read your manuscript like any other lecture. Don’t make it about you—make it about Jesus. And make it about me, and how much you want me to know Jesus. Persuade me. Implore me. Urge me. Don’t give me reason to ignore you, to tune out, to scan my Facebook. Call on me to take this with deathly seriousness. Prove to me how much this matters to you. Show me how much you care—about me and your message.

Don’t you dare simply go through the motions. Preacher, if you’re not persuaded, then pull out now. Tomorrow you will have people turn up to listen to you. Please don’t let them down. Persuade them. Show some passion.

Stop now and pray. Ask God to speak through you. Pray that you will be captivated by the love of Christ. Call on God to fill you with the power of the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. Humble yourself and seek God’s help for your privileged task of declaring that Jesus is alive today.

When I turn up to church to hear what you have to say, please persuade me. Make me so glad I came.

Be like the Apostle Paul…

As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,’ he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.
(Acts 17:2-4)

The daunting task of the preacher

Version 2Preaching can be an intimidating task. Knees quiver and voices quaver for some of us when we are forced to speak publicly. But it’s not the people in the audience that should cause us to tremble—here are four things more daunting still.

1. God

The task of the preacher is to speak about God. And we do it with God himself in the room. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of talking about somebody and then becoming aware that they can hear you. You didn’t realise they were there, and then you see them out of the corner of your eye. They’ve been listening in and heard every word you’ve said! The preacher has that experience every time they preach. We talk about God in the presence of God. How important it is we get it right. We’d do well to reflect on the lesson of Job in chapter 42, who basically says, “Look, I should shut up because I didn’t know who or what I was talking about.” And if he didn’t know what he was talking about—and he gets to be in the Bible—then we should be a little careful. Don’t you think?

2. God’s word

God’s word is a powerful thing. By God’s word the heavens and the earth were made. By God’s word this universe continues to function. By God’s word hearts and minds are brought from death to life. By God’s word the church is built and grows into maturity. Our task is to handle this powerful word of truth with great care (2 Timothy 2:15). I may get into trouble for mentioning this, but my brother recently removed his thumb—literally. One minute he is working in his garage with his circular saw. A short time later he is waking up in hospital with a surgically reattached thumb. A circular saw is a powerful instrument. It can do great good and great harm, so we must handle it with care. How much more the word of God. People depend on the preacher to take great care with God’s word. In fact, their lives depend on it.

3. The preacher’s heart

Let me state the bleeding obvious—I’m not perfect. Not even close. And every time I have to preach I’m reminded of this fact. I often feel like Isaiah who in chapter 6, when confronted with a vision of the holy God, says “Woe is me, because I’m a man of unclean lips, among a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah could have been speaking for me.

I know my own sinfulness. I know my weaknesses. I know the things that I do wrong. And yet here I am, charged with speaking about the holy and righteous God—in my state. How important that I remember that God has acted in Christ to cleanse me. How important to remember that God can even speak his truth through a donkey (Numbers 22).

4. The preacher’s life

God calls us to practice what we preach. The apostle Paul called people to follow his example and to copy his way of life. So much of what people learn is caught rather than taught. Our walk should match our talk. When it doesn’t we can quickly undermine our message. How many preachers have called their congregations to sexual purity only to have their porn addictions, their illicit affairs, or their heartless marriages exposed? We know our hypocrisy and they can easily lead to warped preaching. Some will avoid speaking on any topic they’re unwilling to confront themselves. Others will confront their failures by beating on others. They know the deep-rooted greed in their hearts and yet mercilessly challenge others to confront their idolatry and covetousness.

From the gospel to the gospel

We must always remember that ‘but for the grace of God go I’. We have received grace, mercy and forgiveness through Jesus Christ. We bring nothing to the table—it is all of God. We should thank him and trust him alone. So too, our ministries are gifts of God’s grace (Romans 12:3-8). God doesn’t choose the clever, the strong, or the powerful because they are the ones qualified to be his ambassadors. He works among the weak and the imperfect to equip them for his service. God’s Spirit is at work in the messenger and the message. So let us never give up praying that God will transform our hearts and minds and work through our words and actions.

Our message is to be grounded in gospel. So too we must point people to the gospel. We have a powerful life-changing word from God. We must not water this down to a pathetic call to live better lives. Let people hear the hope. And hear it loud. God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself. God is working for the good of all who love and trust him, to make us more like his Son, Christ Jesus. Self-righteous pretence leads to hell, but God-given righteousness, through faith in Christ, leads to everlasting life.

Let’s keep on with the daunting task of preaching the gospel.

Originally published on TGCAu site 20/8/15

Ministry on holidays

I know I’m on holidays, and I didn’t plan it this way, but the beginning of 2015 has offered a number of opportunities for ministry. On Sunday 4th January I had the opportunity to preach on Hebrews 10:19-25 at South Coast Presbyterian Church and warn people of the dangers of making new year’s resolutions that focus on personal achievement. Typically on new year’s eve we decide how we’re going to work harder, but God is calling us instead to rely deeply and continuously on the completed work of Jesus. That night I was also interviewed on 2CH about Hope Beyond Cure.

During the following week I was interviewed by a leader of the Next Gen conference who drove down to the South Coast to ask me questions about suffering and hope in the gospel. I sat in front of my tent and answered questions for about an hour, so that he could edit the material into three 5 minute segments to use at the conference this week. Someone sent me a tweet saying they were at the conference and were encouraged by the interviews.

On Saturday we travelled to the Central Coast to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday. It was a joyous occasion and good to see family again and meet my new niece, Annabelle. We stayed with Jim and Lesley Ramsay and as usual found them a great encouragement. On the return trip we dropped Marcus at the airport so that he could head to the Gold Coast to catch up with friends he made at the CMS MMM camp this year. He’s been preparing Bible studies to do with his friends during this time.

moretolifeOn the Sunday I spoke at the first of the Church@theBeach events for Austi Anglican. I had the opportunity to share something of my journey with cancer and to speak of my hope in the resurrection to come. Afterwards I met a woman who had just discovered she had metastatic cancer and had recognised her need to work out the big issues of life, death, God, and the life to come. I will be praying for her.

Next weekend we are looking forward to our son, Marcus, getting baptised here at Burrill. If you are down near Burrill at 3pm on Sunday you’d be very welcome to join us.

Be the best bad presenter ever

I’m a regular preacher (again) and I’ve preached my fair share of dud sermons. Mind you, I’ve also listened to plenty of dud talks from others. What gets me most is when there’s a disconnect between the message and the medium, or the message and the messenger. It’s difficult to listen to an important message that completely lacks passion. It’s frustrating to have to fight to understand where the talk is going, when there doesn’t seem to be any logic or coherence to the message. It’s deadening to listen to the speaker drone on and on without changing pitch or tone or volume or speed.

badpresenterBe the best bad presenter ever: break the rules, make mistakes, and win them over by Karen Hough caught my attention. It sounded like a book that might have something useful to say to preachers and presenters alike… and it does. Hough critiques 14 rules that are commonly given to public speakers and shows how they can actually get in the way of good communication. She speaks of the respected rules for speaking and why you should break them—mercilessly. This book is built on the conviction that you are part of the message. People want to connect with you, not a proxy of you. If they know you care deeply about your message then they will forgive your clumsiness and mistakes. Passion overrides technique.

I will list the rules Hough says to break, and follow each with the alternative:

  1. Your purpose is to give a good presentation
    “Good” is to a presentation like “fine” is to a compliment. Your purpose is to make something happen!
    What purpose does your presentation serve? Having a searingly clear purpose will filter out all the silt from your presentation. Think of the purpose as the destination—the outcome of your presentation. What do you want to have happen? What change will come from you taking the time to talk to these people? (p15)
  2. Give informational presentations
    That’s about as exciting as watching grass grow. Take action!
    Remove inform from your list of acceptable actions. Replace it with words such as motivate, convince, teach, inspire, anger, entertain, invigorate.
  3. Practice in front of a mirror
    Mirrors are just a one person show. Practice often, out loud, and on your feet.
    Why would you want to submit your audience, and that critical speech, to your first unpleasant dry run?” (p32-33)
  4. Picture the audience in the underwear
    Stupid visuals distance you. Connect with your audience. Who really wants to visualise Bob from accounting in his underwear?
    You’re not there to impress your audience with how remarkable you are; you’re there to communicate with them. Become more “audience involved” and less “me involved”. Self-consciousness results from too much attention to yourself, which puts others—your audience—in the background and you in the front. (p42)
  5. Open with your introduction and close with questions
    Like a dreaded college lecturer. Bookends will hook your audience and send them out singing.
    People form opinions of others within the first seven to thirty seconds, so a hook must grab people’s attention right away. Give people a reason to listen. Use the power of repetition to teach your main points. Finish with what you want your audience to take away. The risk of finishing with questions is they can take the audience anywhere and completely away from your talk. If you take questions have a closer afterwards.
  6. You either have confidence or you don’t
    That’s bogus. You can teach your body confidence. And your body is your most powerful tool.
    Hough comments on research that shows how by changing our bodies we control chemicals that affect our confidence. Body language and tone of voice are both critical features of good communication. (By the way, this is why email is such a poor communication tool for influencing others. It has neither body language or tone of voice.)
  7. What you say is most important
    It’s how you say it that matters.
    I don’t agree with this contrast. It’s a ‘both/and’ rather than an ‘either/or’. Truth matters, but so does how we communicate truth. Hough talks about the tools of articulation, volume, pitch, timbre, speed, connection to breath, and silence.
  8. Scan the back wall to simulate eye contact
    Scanning is fake.
    Far better to plant a friend in the audience and make regular contact with them—especially if they agree to smile at you regularly!
  9. Stand behind the podium
    Podiums are really, really awful.
    Body language is important. People want to see you, not a piece of furniture, so step aside and feel free to move around.
  10. Explain each topic
    Tell stories! Stories are the most powerful way to share information.
    Why does this remind me of my good friend Chappo! He was the master story teller, and as he did he explained his topics better than most. People like to hear about people rather than concepts. When it comes to preaching, stories are an excellent way of showing how it all works.
  11. Have all your bullets on PowerPoint slides
    Bullets are so called because they kill good presentations. PowerPoint numbs the brain. You are the presentation.
    Personally, I loved this chapter! I’m over PowerPoint. PowerPoint is a scourge—on our ability to communicate effectively and keep an audience awake. Worse yet, it has become a substitute for us. (p97) PowerPoint is a lot like email: it’s a perfectly good tool that should make our lives easier, but it’s become a time-sucking, efficiency-mauling monster. (p98)
    If we are going to use PowerPoint, Hough recommends three simple suggestions:
    10/24 Only ten words per slide, and never smaller than 24pt font
    Don’t read your slides. Your audience is quite capable. Use them to illustrate.
    Prefer pictures to words. They will stick in people’s minds.
  12. If something goes wrong, act like nothing happened
    Everyone knows what happened, and ignoring it is weird. Acknowledge it, deal with it, and move on.
  13. Ignore your nerves, and they will go away
    Only zombies never get nervous. Nerves are good—breathe and embrace them.
    The truth is, nerves are a great bad thing! They are the body’s way of telling you that you care, that this is important. (p115) A helpful strategy for coming our nerves was developed by Dr Andrew Weir: breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds; hold that breath for 7 seconds; release the breath through your month with a whooshing noise for 8 seconds. This technique is used to help your body calm down.
  14. Control you emotions at all times
    Passion and emotion are okay.
    Emotional intelligence is a key concept in managing yourself as a presenter. (p121) Don’t fake it, and don’t be controlled by it, but expressing your true self appropriately to the context is important.

If you’ve been presenting or preaching for a while, and you have a feeling that you’re not really connecting as you should; if people complain you’re a bit hard to understand; if you don’t seem to be motivating change in people; if you think your talks could do with a tune up; then I recommend taking a look at this book.

The curse of knowledge

booksIn their book, Made to Stick, Dan and Chip Heath speak of a major problem with communication. It’s called the ‘Curse of Knowledge’. Once we know something, it becomes difficult to imagine what it was like not to know it. We subconsciously assume our audience know what we know. It makes it harder to share our knowledge effectively with others, because we’re not connecting accurately with our reader or listener’s state of mind.

I was made aware of this recently when I received feedback from my editor on the first few chapters of my book. We are strangers to each other. She had not been reading this blog and knew nothing of my circumstances or background, other than what I’d written in the opening couple of chapters. It must have been like listening to one end of a phone conversation, trying to piece together what the other person was saying. She helped me to see all the assumptions that I’d been making about my audience. I had knowledge, therefore I assumed they did too. This is the curse of knowledge for the communicator.

I had only shown these chapters to two other people. Both of them knew me pretty well. They understood the ‘other side of the phone call’. They could fill in the blanks. One of these people was my father, who knew my circumstances very well. For him my assumptions of knowledge were reasonable, but not for a potential book audience. Changes are needed. Gaps need filling in.

It’s important for preachers and Bible teachers to be aware of the curse of knowledge. The more they study, the more they learn, the more they preach, the more they forget what others don’t know.

How many times have I heard a preacher say things like, ‘You will remember what it was like for the people of God in the wilderness’. The preacher knows what he means and, to be fair, so do most of the people in his congregation. He is referring to the 40 years that Israel spent between being rescued from slavery in Egypt to entering the promised land of Canaan, under the leadership of Moses, as described in the books of Exodus to Deuteronomy.

Imagine someone is at church who has never read or heard of these events. What might they be thinking? Here’s a few possible thoughts…

  • I don’t remember, should I?
  • What was it like? Was it good? Or was it bad?
  • Who were the people of God?
  • When was it?
  • Were these really special religious people?
  • Is he talking about the Tasmanian wilderness or some other one?
  • Surely, wilderness must be a metaphor.
  • I’ve no idea what he’s talking about.
  • There’s an in group here, and I’m not part of it.
  • (Subconscious) Is it worth listening to this guy? I don’t know enough.
  • I wonder what time this finishes?
  • What should I make for dinner?

If we want to engage people, if we want them to connect with our message and stay with us, if we want them to understand and remember what we’re talking about, if we want to see people’s lives transformed, then let’s beware of the curse of knowledge.

Setting hearts on fire

chapman-setting-hearts-fireJohn Chapman’s Setting hearts on fire: A guide to giving evangelistic talks is the book that I wished I’d had when I started out as a preacher. It’s clear on the Bible and it’s clear about preaching the Bible. It offers a template for approaching, preparing, and delivering talks in a faithful and captivating manner. You don’t have to be an evangelistic preacher to gain from this book. You don’t even have to be a preacher at all. If you’re involved in teaching the Bible in Sunday School, youth group, Bible study, or school scripture then you’ll find so much of value here. In fact, if you want a book that will help you to read the Bible for yourself, know what the Bible is about, and know how to respond to the Bible, grab yourself a copy. It’s gold!

The opening chapter shows the importance of preaching. It matters because it involves being God’s mouthpiece to others.

That is the wonder of preaching and teaching. A human is speaking but the listeners encounter the living God speaking.  (p23)

Chappo’s understanding of preaching comes from 2 Timothy 4:1, where Timothy is charged to Preach the Word. This is the task. It’s not simply imparting wise words from someone who is well trained and can come up with good ideas. No, it’s faithfully passing on the very words of God. God is a speaking God. He communicates by words. These are very powerful words. They bring life. They transform and change people. They bridge the chasm between God and people, such that people are welcomed back into relationship with God. Preaching, therefore, is a weighty responsibility.

Preaching God’s Word is an unequal partnership between God and the preacher. God works through the spoken word, by the power of his Spirit, to effect change in people. For this reason, we are called to pray for the work of understanding and proclaiming God’s message. We need to work hard at it. Praying and preaching are our side of the partnership. Chappo warns against three things that can get in the way of people responding to the preaching of God’s word. He mentions 1) unbiblical teaching; 2) preachers showing off; and 3) the spiritual blindness of listeners. I would add a fourth: 4) confusing the message. If the preacher hasn’t worked out what it means, or how to communicate it clearly, then people can be left unclear about what God is saying or how they should respond.

Chapter 2 of Setting hearts on fire is an inspiring chapter. It speaks of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Saviour and King. Chappo shows how this is the entire message of the Bible in a nutshell. He takes us from Genesis to Revelation, with great clarity, summarising the big picture (or metanarrative) of the Bible. He shows how the Old Testament points to Jesus and how Jesus fulfils the Old Testament. If you’re not sure how the Bible hangs together then you should probably take 15 minutes to read through this chapter. What’s more you shouldn’t begin teaching the Bible until you do!

While this is a book on evangelistic preaching, Chappo shows how all biblically faithful preaching will be evangelistic because it will point people to Jesus. Three things distinguish evangelistic preaching in this book:

  1. its content is a summary of the whole Bible message of Jesus as the Saving Messiah
  2. it is aimed specifically at unbelievers
  3. its style is controlled by the target audience (eg. absence of jargon  and technical terms, user friendly)

Chappo is not saying that every talk should have John 3:16 tacked on at the end of it, or that ever talk should be the same three point summary of the gospel. Rather, we should work within the context of the passage, the book, and the whole Bible, so as to point people to Jesus. His aim in this book, and for preaching in general is for people to respond to God’s word, in the same way that the disciples responded after hearing the resurrected Jesus teach them the Bible:

Were not our hearts burning within us, while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?  (Luke 24:32)

Every sermon, talk and Bible study should be headed in the same direction – pointing people to Jesus. Every sermon, talk and Bible study should be seeking the same positive response to the Word of God – repentance (turning back to God) and faith (trusting in God to save them through the work of Jesus). Chappo shows us how to do this without violating the text or importing external ideas into the passage of the Bible.

This is a liberating book for the preacher, because it makes clear what is God’s work and what is the preacher’s work. How people respond is up to the listener and God. It’s good to be reminded that the Holy Spirit knows our listeners more than we do and loves them more than we do. This takes the pressure off the preacher. Our job is to proclaim the word faithfully, while God is responsible for changing people’s hearts. Therefore we should pray and work hard at our preaching.

After offering some tips on how to choose passages for evangelistic preaching, Chappo moves into the second half of the book on preparing and preaching the word. He offers us an excellent outline for structuring the shape of talks:

  1. State the point
  2. Show me in the Bible
  3. Explain it
  4. Illustrate the point
  5. Apply it

This is easy to remember. One point for each finger: 1) state it; 2) read it; 3) explain it; 4) illustrate it; 5) apply it. I’d recommend this as a good shape for any preacher. It gives balance in helping people to work from the Bible, to changing their lives. This chapter models how it’s done, with Chappo giving us the text of a talk he was working on at the time. He shows how he gets from there to here in a way that is clear and transparent. Sometimes I hear preachers and I wonder what mental gymnastics they’ve done to get to the sermon, or what they expect their listeners to do once they’ve finished. With Chappo’s model you work toward a coherent Bible-shaped message.

Chappo was a master illustrator, and he encouraged illustrations for a variety of reasons. They help clarify or reinforce an explanation. They arouse interest, recall attention, or offer a mental break to the listeners. They help people to learn a little about the speaker, which is especially important if people don’t know you. They engage the emotions as well as the intellect, and they tap into different learning styles. The main focus here seems to be in illustrating the explanation of the passage. I’ve found it can also be helpful to illustrate the application, or transition to the application by way of illustration. There are some good ideas about different types of illustrations and some important warnings about the unhelpful use of illustrations.

After the body of the talk has been prepared, Chappo urges us to give careful attention to its introduction and conclusion. Hooking people in at the start is critical if they’re going to stay with us for the next 20 minutes or more. He recommends a few ideas such as asking people a question, using a shocking statement or statistics, appealing to a known need, or telling a story. Likewise, it’s important to end the talk well. Assuming there’s been application throughout the talk, we should tie it together and restate key points as we finish. The conclusion shouldn’t be tacked on as an afterthought. This is the last thing people will hear, it should be important and clear.

Preachers vary from those who use a full manuscript to those who don’t use notes at all. Chappo used a half-way approach with notes and points and there is a sample in the book. Work out what works for you. If you use a full script, it’s important not to be dependent upon it. If you don’t use notes, then you will need to be disciplined and clear so you don’t meander all over the place. The important thing is to know your talk, and this will mean practising it beforehand.

There’s much more wisdom in this book: suggestions for styles of preaching from different parts of the Bible; choosing the kind of talk and length of talk; the temptations that face a preacher; words, emotions, body language; some sample talks and talk outlines; and a sermon assessment guideline.

I recommend every preacher have this book in their toolkit. If you’re starting out, then you’ll find it a huge help. If you’ve been doing it for a while, it will help you recalibrate. If you’re involved in equipping others, it will provide an excellent training manual. Get yourself a copy.

Made to Stick

Made_to_StickOver summer some of our tents got damaged. We had a major windstorm blow through the campground, causing trees and branches to come down everywhere. Two major rips in one tent and a dozen minor tears in the shade tarpaulin. Gaff Tape to the rescue! This tape is seriously potent stuff. It fixes the problems and it goes on easily. There’s really only one problem. You can’t get it off! You can pull the tape away, but the sticky residue remains as testimony to the holes it once covered. The stickiness sticks even after the tent has been professionally repaired. If only that were true of all my good ideas, all my sermons, all my visions for the future! Communicate and they stick – at least all the bits that really mattered.

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath is a book for people who want to communicate. Not just say things, but be heard, understood, remembered, and embraced. The authors have written this book for people who want their ideas to change people’s opinions and behaviours – that is, to make their ideas stick. As a pastor, I don’t want to be merely whistling into the wind. I’m keen for people to be excited by the message of God, to remember what’s important, to change how they think and speak and act, and to pass the message on to others. How sticky are my words and ideas? How much is remembered from my sermons? How do I go about seeking to communicate the life giving words of God?

Sadly, I hear some preachers with a love for God’s message, who come across as boring as the paint job on a navy ship. And I hear others, whose messages are largely froth and bubble, a mix of cliches and pop psychology, who get remembered because they manage to communicate in a sticky way. A good message deserves to be communicated in the very best ways possible. This book offers some great ideas, and you’ll find that many of them are pretty sticky!

The authors have identified six common features to sticky ideas. They’ve expressed them by the acronym SUCCESs. A pity they couldn’t think of a seventh – but maybe the lack of a final S makes it even more sticky?! These are the principles they found at work…

Simplicity
Unexpectedness
Concreteness
Credibility
Emotions
Stories

1. Simplicity

This is not about creating sound bites or necessarily short messages. It has to do with stripping the idea down to its core. What is its essence?

A successful defense lawyer says, “If you argue ten points, even if each is a good point, then when they get back to the jury room they won’t remember any.”  (p16)

This isn’t about dumbing things down. It’s separating the interesting ideas from the important. It’s separating the important from the most important. It’s distilling the essential out of the most important. Then you’ve got simple.

I see this as a trap for preachers. You’ve been working in a passage of Scripture, soaking yourself in it, picking out gems, discovering new paths, having the occasional ‘aha’ experience. You’ve worked hard in your preparation. There are so many things you want to say. And you do! You have enough different good ideas for a series of sermons and people are left wondering what on earth you said. Occasional preachers and student preachers are especially prone to this. If you only get to say things once every now and then, you’d better make the most of it. Yes! But that doesn’t mean saying everything! It means saying what you most want to say and making it stick.

2. Unexpectedness

The most basic way to get people’s attention is to break a pattern. We tend to be creatures of habit and we get lulled into the security of consistent patterns. Unexpected ideas are more likely to stick because they make us pay attention and think. The extra attention sticks the ideas into our memories.

I remember hearing a sermon by a friend, where he began by saying he had two important announcements to make. The first was that someone, let’s call him Tommy, was being kicked out of the church because he’d done a, b, c, f, j, k, m, p, and q. These things were seriously bad and you could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium. This was going to be a heavy time for the church. We’d never faced anything this intense before. How would it be handled? The speaker had everyone’s attention. No one would forget this sermon. In fact, they’d be hanging out to get home and recount it to others.

The second announcement was that there was no such person as Tommy. He’d made him up! He wanted to get us thinking what should we do, what would we do, if these things actually happened. You might argue that the intro was ‘gimmickry’, however I’d respond that it moved me quickly and directly to the weight of the issue. This was more than a trick to get my attention. It persuaded me why I needed to listen. I heard it over 20 years ago, and I think it remains one of the stickiest sermons I’ve ever heard. Because he got my attention and held it, I can even remember the main point and the passage of the Bible being taught.

Getting people’s attention is one thing. Keeping it is another. Too many messages start well, and then deteriorate into boredom. We need to maintain people’s interest. The ideal way to do this is to create mystery, to breed curiosity, to show a gap in the audience’s knowledge that they want filled. It’s this gap that holds people’s attention. This is why people will keep watching a B grade movie to the end. They want the gaps filled and the tensions resolved. This means we need to highlight gaps in people’s knowledge that they want filled. Rather than simply filling their minds with facts, we want them to be seeking answers to their own questions.

To make our communication more effective, we need to shift our thinking from “What information do I need to convey?” to “What questions do I want my audience to ask?”  (p88)

 3. Concreteness

Concrete ideas are stickier than abstract ideas. Aesop authored some of the stickiest stories in history. We remember the message of The Tortoise and the Hare or The Boy who cried Wolf or The Goose that laid the Golden Eggs, far more easily than we could ever remember the abstract messages they portray. Yet because of the concrete story, we also remember the meaning. Here’s an example:

One summer day a Fox was strolling through an orchard. He saw a bunch of grapes high on a grape vine. “Just the thing to quench my thirst,” he said. Backing up a few paces, he took a run and jumped at the grapes, just missing. Turning around again, he ran faster and jumped again. Still a miss. Again and again he jumped, until he gave up out of exhaustion. Walking away with his nose in the air, he said: “I am sure they are sour.” It is easy to despise what you can’t get.  (p98)

If we want our ideas to stick we should err toward concrete ideas rather than abstractions. A V8 engine is concrete, whereas a high performance motor is abstract. A tightrope walker above Niagara Falls is concrete, whereas stepping out in faith is abstract. Engineering drawings are abstract, whereas walking onto the factory floor and showing where the part should go is concrete.

The authors argue that concreteness is the easiest of the six traits to embrace and that it may also be the most effective.

Crafting our ideas in an unexpected way takes a fair amount of effort and applied creativity. But being concrete isn’t hard, and it doesn’t require a lot of effort. The barrier is simply forgetfulness – we forget that we’re slipping back into abstract speak. We forget that other people don’t know what we know. We’re the engineers who keep flipping back to our drawings, not noticing that the assemblers just want us to follow them down to the factory floor.  (p129)

4. Credibility

Why do people believe ideas? There’s a multitude of influencing factors. We’re influenced by our parents and friends. We believe because we’ve had experiences that lead us in this direction. Our religious beliefs have an impact. We believe because we trust authorities on the matter. People develop core beliefs that operate like a set of gates allowing them to accept or reject new ideas. If we want to persuade a skeptical audience to believe a new message, then we face an uphill battle against so many other influences.

External authorities, such as an expert or a celebrity, can add weight to a message. The trouble is we don’t always have access to such authorities. At these times it’s important that our ideas have internal credibility. They must be logical and coherent. They need to stand up for themselves.

An important way of establishing credibility is to make a ‘falsifiable claim’. You ask the audience to test the idea for themselves. Can they prove it wrong? Will they check it out to seek if it stacks up to its claim? Testable credentials can provide an enormous credibility boost, since they essentially allow your audience members to “try before they buy.” (p157)

This approach resonates with how I should see communication about God working. The external authority is God himself, but if people don’t recognise his authority, they can at least test the claims. They don’t need to begin with accepting the divine authorship of the Bible, but can ask questions of verification. One area of internal credibility has to do with “does it work?” I want to encourage people to check out Jesus. I argue that he makes a huge difference to people’s life. I explain the difference he has made to mine. And I invite people to check him out for themselves. Does he make a difference?

5. Emotions

Believing credible ideas isn’t enough. People need to care if they are going to act in response. Much of this chapter seems to be about appealing to people’s self-interest. People are motivated if they feel they’re going to get something out of it. Appealing to people’s self-interest gets their attention. An old advertising maxim says you have got to spell out the benefit of the benefit. In other words, people don’t buy quarter-inch drill bits. They buy quarter-inch holes so they can hang their children’s pictures. (p179) This is the WIIFY – what’s in it for you – aspect of advertising. The authors argue that good communication needs to include this aspect. People need to have their needs engaged if they’re going to buy into the idea.

There are principles here that are more than appealing to selfishness. It’s more to do with people understanding their need to engage with the ideas. That it matters. To them. This is more than facts and figures. It’s more than analysis and reason. It’s about making things personal, showing how much they matter.

The authors have identified that people care more about the particular than the pattern. Like Mother Theresa’s comment: If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will. (p203) If we want people to act, then we need to do more than get them to make a rational response. They need to take off their analytical hats. We must show how our ideas connect with something they already care about. We appeal to what they value, who they are, and want they want to become.

All this might appear very manipulative, and it certainly could be used this way. We could simply end up reinforcing people’s selfishness by encouraging them to focus on their own desires. However, I think we should reflect on the emotional component of making ideas sticky. The world I come from tends to be very cerebral and doesn’t give much thought as to what moves people. We are emotional beings. Let’s not overlook this fact. We can be very passionate about things that matter deeply to us. Let’s tap into people’s passions as we communicate.

6. Stories

Good stories are very sticky. They can provide inspiration that moves people to action. They can help rehearse situations that enable people to perform better when they face similar real life circumstances in the future. A bit like a mental flight simulator that prepares people to respond more quickly and effectively.

Firefighters naturally swap stories after every fire, and by so doing they multiply their experience; after years of hearing stories, they have a richer, more complete mental catalog of critical situations they might confront during a fire and the appropriate responses to those situations.  (p18)

Stories help anchor important ideas in reality. They could be used to explain the idea, illustrate the idea, or apply the idea. You don’t always have to create the sticky story idea. Sometimes it’s just a matter of identifying them when they come your way.

The beauty of stories is that they naturally embody most of the SUCCESs framework.

Stories are almost always Concrete. Most of them have Emotional and Unexpected elements. The hardest part of using stories effectively is making sure that they’re Simple –  that they reflect your core message.  (p237)

Application

If you’re in the business of communicating ideas that you want to change people’s lives, then read this book. You probably won’t like everything – I didn’t. Some things might clash with your worldview – they did mine. But it’s worth reading. The ideas here are worth considering. Communication is two sided. We can talk and talk, write and write, advertise and advertise, preach and preach… resulting in no visible change. No changed thinking. No resultant action.

There are no guarantees here. You could be the world’s greatest communicator and still no one changes. Isaiah the great prophet from around the eighth century BC had a powerful message to communicate, but he was told that the people would not change. Instead they would be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving. (Isaiah 6:9)

We can’t control who will be changed by our message and who won’t, but we must not hide behind poor communication. If the message matters then so does the medium. If you want everyone to read something in the paper, then you write a gripping headline and put it on the cover. You don’t hide it away in small print somewhere toward the back.

In my role as a pastor/teacher I want to apply myself to my message, but also to improving my modes of communication. What will help people to grasp and retain the message? What will help people to understand why it matters so much? What will inspire people to take action? How can I make my sermons stickier? How can I communicate our vision in a stickier way? These are all questions worth asking.

Communicating for a change

communicating_for_a_changeCommunicating for a Change by Andy Stanley and Lane Jones is both a joy and disturbing to read. It’s a joy because it’s so engaging and well written. It’s disturbing because it asks serious questions about how well our sermons are communicating with people and what difference they’re making to people’s lives. The book is written in two parts with very distinct styles. It begins with the story of a truck driver training a preacher in how to communicate sermons that make a real impact! This section is both humorous and persuasive. The second half shows the imperatives for good preaching being worked out in practice. This is where the rubber hits the road, so to speak!

Stanley’s philosophy of preaching is this:

Every time I stand to communicate I want to take one simple truth and lodge it in the heart of the listener. I want them to know that one thing and to know what to do with it.  (p12)

He’s critical of approaches to preaching that try to say too much and end up not saying anything clearly at all. Whereas a typical sermon might have three or four different points, an intro and a conclusion, his approach is to keep it to one point. Make your one point, make it clearly, apply it well! This may sound too simplistic. What if the passage of Scripture has three or four separate points? Then, he would say, we have sufficient material for a series rather than a sermon. I seem to remember a certain J. Chapman saying something like this! If the preacher can’t find the one major point of the text, then he has more work to do until the one big idea is clear.

Having one big idea does not constrain you to simple five minute, one point, messages. Presumably, the text of Scripture develops a flow of logic to arrive at the big idea. If so, then this will usually offer the best structure for your message. Follow the flow. You may discover three or four sub points, but they won’t be separate and unrelated ideas. Rather, they will develop the argument to arrive at the one big idea.

Stanley suggests that we see a sermon as a journey:

I’ve always thought of a sermon, or any talk for that matter, as a journey. You start somewhere, you go somewhere, and ultimately you end up somewhere. The question is, did you end up where you wanted to go?  (p38)

With this image in mind, a sermon outline should be like a map. It guides us on the journey to the big idea. We go from here, to there, to our destination. This is the sermon journey. By contrast, some sermons simply put marks on the map and then talk about the different places. They don’t show us the best routes between places or how to get where we need to go.

As a preacher it is humbling to think about how few of my sermons might actually get remembered long after they are given. Most likely, very few. If I was asked what were the four points in my message on Sunday, I might struggle to remember every one (let alone a twelve point sermon I gave once!) But one point, taking things deeper rather than wider, should be different.

Stanley distils seven imperatives from his story that he applies to preaching. And I think he’s made his point, because I can’t remember them all without looking back at the book! His points are as follows:

Determine your goal: What are you trying to accomplish?

If you don’t know what you are trying to do with your preaching then you won’t know if you’ve achieved it. I agree with Stanley that our goal should be much more than imparting information from the Bible. I’d argue that we are seeking to apply the gospel-shaped Word of God to people’s lives, for the purpose of God transforming their lives. This is something we ought to be passionate about. People’s lives hang in the balance. This isn’t take it or leave it theological education.

Pick a point: What are you trying to say?

The point might be an application, an insight, or a principle. We need to find the central idea that holds everything together. This will lead the preacher to address two questions: (i) What is the one thing I want my congregation to know? (ii) What do I want them to do about it? Stanley calls us to work hard in our preparation, digging around until we discover this central idea, building everything around it, and then making it stick. This will mean omitting material and shaping what’s left to make one coherent point.

Create a map: What’s the best route to your point?

Stanley has his own template that he uses on most of his sermons. It goes like this:

Me -> We -> God -> You -> We

orientation -> identification -> illumination -> application -> inspiration

This template ensures logical flow. It begins by raising issues that connect with the hearers. People need a reason to listen. There should be a tension to be resolved, such that they’re eager to hear how God’s word answers their questions and resolves the tension. This leads to the “So what?” and the “Now what?” questions, before finally casting a vision for how things could be when God’s word is applied.

Internalize the message: What’s your story?

We’re called to own our message, to internalize it, and to know it personally. Stanley urges us to preach with conviction and passion. There’s something less than persuasive about a preacher who stumbles over their notes, while telling us how important the message is! For the author, this means knowing where he is going so he is not note-dependent. Some things are written in his notes and others are not. The key to knowing the message isn’t rehearsing a text, it’s knowing the map, where you want to get to, and being clear about the key points along the way.

Engage your audience: What’s your plan to capture and keep their attention?

If communication is to be compared with taking people on a journey, then it’s important that they stay on the bus with us! Stanley challenges the common suggestion that people have shorter attention spans these days. He says the key issue is our ability to capture and hold their attention. If people are on board, can see where they’re going, and they want to get to the destination, then they’ll stay with us. It’s up to the preacher to work hard at being engaging, not to blame people for disengaging.

Find your voice: What works for you?

Authenticity communicates volumes. Authenticity covers a multitude of communication sins. If a communicator is believable and sincere, I can put up with a lot of things. But if I get the feeling that I’m listening to their stage personality, big turnoff. I imagine you are the same way. I want to hear you, not your best rendition of your favourite communicator.  (p169)

Having said, “Be yourself”, Stanley won’t allow us to hide behind our bad habits. We need to work to become clearer communicators. If we’re going to improve then we’ll need to listen to ourselves, seek constructive feedback, and make changes. And keep on doing this!

Start all over: What’s the next step?

Preachers get stuck. Sometimes we just can’t seem to get to the big idea. Other times we can’t work out how best to communicate it. This is the reality. It doesn’t always come easily or on time! We are ultimately inadequate for the task of preaching God’s word, so we need to learn to depend upon God. It’s only the work of God’s word and Spirit that will change people. I must never forget this. Clever communication is not enough!

When we get stuck, it should lead us again to prayer. Please God, work through me and your word, by your Spirit, to transform people. Stanley also suggests going back and asking five questions. He finds these questions regularly give him renewed traction:

  1. What do they need to know?   INFORMATION
  2. Why do they need to know it?   MOTIVATION
  3. What do they need to do?   APPLICATION
  4. Why do they need to do it?   INSPIRATION
  5. How can I help them remember?   REITERATION

So what do I make of this book? And will it help our preaching?

To be honest, I found it refreshing and stimulating. It made me think again about the earnest responsibility and important craft of preaching the Scriptures. Preaching is something we should take seriously, keep practicing, keep learning about, and be open to making changes. The creative approach of this book models the passion of the authors that we should do this well. It’s God’s precious life-transforming word we’re handling, so let’s give it the respect it deserves.

13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. 14 Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you. 15 Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. 16 Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.  (1 Timothy 4:13-16)

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.  (2 Timothy 4:1-2)

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.  (James 3:1)

Communicating for a change is a potent double entendre. ‘Communicating, for a change’ is a sad indictment on some preaching. Words are spoken, but the hearers are rarely engaged. Communicating for a change‘ is what we’re called to do. Preach the word so that people are moved to trust God and follow him with their lives.

I believe this book can help us to work at clarity in our preaching. Unless you believe that you should be offering a verbal commentary on every detail of the Bible passage, then you will need to be selective in your handling of the text. Being faithful requires you to let the Bible speak, and this means working hard to understand the issues, the logic, and the overall message. It means speaking in such a way as to reveal God’s word, not disguise or veil it.

I have some concerns bubbling up as I read this book. The author seems to start mostly from human issues and then find Scriptures to address them. The danger of this angle is that we control the agenda. A book-by-book, chapter-by-chapter, or passage-by-passage approach to preaching forces us to deal with whatever issues God’s word places on our agenda. It keeps me from my hobby horses and it helps me reevaluate my priorities.

I wonder also whether it places too much importance on the message being fully memorable. If preaching helps people get into the text for themselves, then as they go back to the passage afterwards (like good Bereans, Acts 17) God’s word should become clearer and more readily applied. Or to put it another way, we don’t want the listener to remember more of what the preacher said than what the Bible says. Surely, the preacher is to fade into the background and let God’s word take centre stage. I think Stanley would agree with me here, and say it’s all the more important we preach with clarity and conviction.

I love the call to passion and engagement in preaching. Great preaching warms the heart. Dull preaching puts people off God – and that is not excusable. I’ve listened to some sermons that sound like a person talking about their PhD. They obviously know a lot about the topic, and it means a lot to them, but it hasn’t engaged me or any of the other listeners, it seems. I’m not quite sure why we need to listen or what point the speaker is trying to make. This book calls us to make a priority of engaging people.

I’ve never heard Andy Stanley preach, so my assessment of this book is not shaped by the talks he produces. At the end of the day it’s not about the right model or technique. It’s about communicating God’s will to the hearts and minds of others, so that the gospel transforms their lives. This must be theologically-driven. It’s the nature and power of God’s Word that will lead me to handle it with great care and to be deeply concerned about the way it impacts others.

Saving Eutychus

Saving_EutychesI should declare my hand on this book. I’ve only met the Irish author, Gary Millar, on one occasion as he and his family sat in front of me at Chappo’s memorial service. I’ve known the Aussie one for over 30 years. Phil and I met at uni, studied theology together, and have partnered together in ministry often over many years. Phil sent me an advanced copy of this book (pdf only – I’m waiting for my published copy!) and invited a review. Here’s a quote from Phil’s email …

If you like it, we’d love a review on macarisms. If you don’t like it, it would be good to just forget you ever saw it 😉

This might sound like a ‘suck up’, but I really did enjoy reading this book! It’s full of wisdom, tried and tested, Biblical, theological and practical. I don’t preach as much these days, but I’m pleased to have been given this book just prior to my next gig. As I prepare this week and next to preach on Matthew 9 and 10, I plan to filter my preparation through the advice of this book.

Saving Eutychus, by Gary Millar and Phil Campbell, grabs it’s title from a popular eclectic blog written by Nathan Campbell. Eutychus was the bloke in Acts 20 who fell asleep, toppled out of the window, and died during a very long sermon by the Apostle Paul. Without criticising Paul, this book is an OH & S workbook to keep sermon listeners alive.

Saving Eutychus doesn’t just mean keeping him awake. It also means doing our best to keep him fresh and alert so he can hear the truth and be saved.  (p15)

The chapter I most needed to read was the opening on prayer. I easily identified with Gary’s temptations to get up and get busy. No time for prayer – there’s too many urgent things to do… like check Facebook, twitter, read the sports results etc. Sad, I know! And I need constant reminding that talking to God about stuff is the most useful thing I could be doing. This chapter encourages us to pray for our preachers. It also encourages preachers to pray that God will work through our words to transform and change people. Even having been struck with cancer, I still have a temptation to self-reliance. I need continual reminding that I might sow, plant, water and weed, but only God gives the growth. These words spoke to my heart:

God doesn’t use people because they are gifted. He uses people (even preachers) because he is gracious. Do we actually believe that? If we do believe it, then we will pray – we will pray before we speak, and we will pray for others before they speak. It’s that simple.  (p21)

The authors want to help us preach faithfully without being boring. This means people being profoundly impacted by what they hear. We should expect to be changed as we hear God’s word preached. In recent times, I’ve heard two words too often when it comes to describing preaching – encouraged and challenged. Now, there’s nothing wrong with these two responses to preaching, but God’s word promises to do so much more. Gary writes: I want to be challenged, humbled, corrected, excited, moved, strengthened, overawed, corrected, shaped, stretched and propelled out into the world a different person. (p27) In short, we want preaching that changes people.

The key to heart-changing preaching is not about tricks of emotional manipulation. It’s about letting God’s message come clearly through the sermon. The Bible is the life-giving, transforming, re-creating word from God. So the preacher can do no better than to let God speak. It’s not up to us to come up with a message. We simply need to put in the hard work to grasp God’s message and then let him speak. Don’t get in the way of what God has to say. This is what expository preaching is all about.

Phil has been banging a drum for a long time now. Clarity, clarity, clarity! It’s so important. If there’s a bushfire approaching your home, then you want the warning to be clear. If you’re taking potent drugs for a serious illness, then you want the labelling to be clear. If you have a message of life for all eternity, then you want the preaching to be clear. It matters! Saving Eutychus gives us a top ten list for making our preaching clearer and it’s good stuff.

  1. The more you say, the less people will remember
  2. Make the ‘big idea’ shape everything you say
  3. Choose the shortest, most ordinary words you can
  4. Use shorter sentences
  5. Forget everything your English teacher taught you
  6. Am I repeating myself?
  7. Translate narratives into present tense
  8. The six-million-dollar secret of illustrating
  9. People love to hear about people
  10. Work towards your key text

Not all these headings are self-explanatory, but together they offer great tips on making things clearer. Many good communicators tend to do these things instinctively. They’re the building blocks of clarity, especially with the spoken word. If you’re starting out as a preacher, or if you suspect that you’re not keeping people’s attention during your talks, then take the time to work through each of these points.

I’d say the big idea of this book is discovering the big idea of the Bible passage. If you don’t understand what the passage is saying, then you’ll simply pass on your confusion and ignorance. Hard work is required. Interrogate the Bible text until you’re clear on the big idea. What does it mean? What’s it saying? What does this have to do with me? If we can’t answer these questions, then we have no right preaching… yet. There’s more work to be done.

big_ideaPhil is a high-tech computer geek, but when it comes to working out the big idea, he goes old school. Strictly pen and paper. Write out the text, work out the logic, create a visual map of the argument, note repetitions, connections, links, and jot down questions to be explored. This takes time, but its rewards are great. You get it in your head to mull over and over during the week. Visual learners are able to see what’s happening. This exercise goes a long way to uncovering the big idea. And once you’ve got that idea, then you can start working out how it applies in the light of the gospel. Application is the goal, but you need to get there via the text, and that takes time.

Both authors are concerned that we produce gospel-shaped sermons. Gary writes: Just about the worst thing that can happen when we finish preaching is that someone will walk out the door of the church buoyed by their own resolve to try harder. (p77) The preacher’s role is to be faithful to the Bible in pointing people to Jesus. This means reading backwards and forwards. Things happened to others in the past that have been recorded for us in the present. I read the Bible as a Gentile not a Jew. This has big implications for how I relate to the Old Testament. I’m also a human being (yes!) and that puts me on common ground with Adam and everyone after him. It’s all about reading the Scriptures with wisdom and care, seeing how things progress towards and climax in Jesus. This book offers some good advice on preaching in a way that is shaped by the big idea of the Bible.

Saving Eutychus also includes practical tips for delivery. Varying pace, volume and pitch helps keep the listeners awake and engaged. How do you know where to put the emphases? Again, the answer is the same. It needs to be shaped by the big idea. If you’re clear on what you want to communicate, then you’re much more likely to communicate clearly!

In the last couple of chapters and the appendix we get to read a couple of sermons by the authors. These are run of the mill Sunday sermons. Phil shares the what and the why of his preparation and we get to see him putting his ideas into practice. Gary and Phil both critique each other, offering helpful insights and feedback at different points. It’s useful to see this modelled and to be offered a framework for providing feedback. They provide a sermon feedback form that can be used to invite feedback on our sermons, or to train others in preaching. When it comes to feedback, I agree with the authors that feedforward is preferable. It’s better to be able to improve the talk before you go live, than to wish you’d changed it afterwards.

So… I want a real copy of this book! I’ll be recommending it to the preachers in our church and networks. I’ll be encouraging those training to give Bible talks to work carefully through this book. I’ll be suggesting they listen to some recordings of the authors to see how they model what they teach. I’ll be critiquing my own preparation and talks in the light of the wisdom here.

But just one question… in a book that says to choose the shortest, most ordinary words you can… what’s with the “illocutionary effect”? Really!!