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.