Category Archives: Preaching

The Preacher’s Doubts

Preachers are just regular people.  We’re not uber-Christians who never struggle with sin or weakness.  I’ve been preaching now for 19 years and I’ve experienced my share of ups and downs directly related to my calling on the pulpit.  A lot of my downs have had to do with doubts.  Let me share what some of those are and how I’ve been led through them so I can carry on.  I’ll divide them into two categories.

Doubts Before the Sermon

Sometimes as I’m preparing my sermons, I’ll be struck with doubts about the message I’m proclaiming.  It’s not that I doubt the truth of it; it’s that I doubt the congregation needs to have it repeated.  I repeat myself so often.  Yes, I try to frame the old gospel message in fresh and creative ways, but I’m always wondering:  will Sunday be the day someone comes up to me and says, “Can you preach something new for once?  Really, it’s always the same old.  You never give us anything new.”

When I hear these thoughts I need to go to 2 Peter 1:12-15,

Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth you have.  I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder, since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me.  And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.

I know this passage and I have known it since seminary — one of my fellow students gave a memorable chapel message on it.  But, ironically, I forget.  I forget that, in God’s Word itself, the necessity of repetition is laid upon us.  Even for those who know the truth, there is no harm but only benefit from hearing it again and again.

I also need to remember the parishioners who’ve told me about understanding something about the gospel only after I’ve told them ten times or more.  There’s the psychology of listening.  Some people hear something and grasp it instantly.  Others hear it and it doesn’t register until the fifth time, or maybe even the tenth time.  Moreover, there might be children or teens in the congregation who are truly listening to a sermon for the first time — the previous times they may have been present, but weren’t really listening.  What about visitors who might be there for the first time?  Or new members who weren’t there the last nine times you said it?  So, away with you doubts!  I must keep repeating myself.

Doubts After the Sermon

These are the worst.  Sunday evenings after being all preached out I’m often a mess on the inside.   You’ve poured your heart and soul into preparing and preaching and then:  “Was it all worth it?”  “Does it change anything?”  I wonder about the power and efficacy of preaching.

I have two passages that I call my Sunday evening lifelines.  With these words from the Holy Spirit, I get bailed out and I can sleep easy.  The first passage is from 1 Corinthians 15:58,

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.

While that was originally addressed to the Corinthian congregation, it can certainly be taken to heart by preachers too.  Our labour in the Lord is never in vain — it’s never pointless, it’s always worth the effort.

My second Sunday evening lifeline is found in the well-known passage of Isaiah 55:10-11.  God says,

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, and make it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent.

If I’m preaching God’s Word, it is always going to do something.  God always has a purpose behind it, even if it’s not always immediately obvious to me.  My Father promises this and I need to take him at his word.

Moreover, once I get beyond the tunnel vision of Sunday evening, I can see that God’s Word is doing things.  Hearts and lives are being changed.  There is growth in understanding the goodness of the good news in Christ, and therefore also growth in love, joy, and worship.

I’m quite sure I’m not alone in struggling with these kinds of doubts.  In speaking with other pastors, I’ve heard of how Sunday evenings can be the worst time of the week.  If you’re one of those pastors, I hope you’ll find encouragement from the lifelines I’ve mentioned, and maybe others.  If you’re a parishioner, may I encourage you too?  Provide that feedback to your pastor.  Reassure him and let him know concretely how his labours in the Lord are not in vain.  Let him know that his repeating essential truths has borne fruit.  And maybe, just maybe, those moments of doubt will grow weaker and fewer.


FRC Launceston Livestreaming and Video Archive

The Free Reformed Church of Launceston (where I serve) has just recently started livestreaming our Sunday worship services (9:30 AM and 3:30 PM, Eastern Australia time).  You can also find an archive of recent services.  It’s all here at our YouTube channel.

Additionally, the notes for most of my sermons eventually end up at TheSeed.info


Calvin: Ministers Ought Not to Steal

I’m reading through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.  For the first time.  Yes, shamefacedly, I have to admit that I have never read the work from cover to cover.  I’ve grazed here and there.  I’ve used the handy index to look up what Calvin said on particular topics.  But never, since buying it in 1992, have I had the discipline or desire to digest the whole enchilada.  I’m glad that I’ve finally begun to do so.  Calvin has some remarkable insights, many of which have been noted by others (the law as a mirror, the Word of God as spectacles, etc.).  But frequently you stumble across something which, it seems to me, others may have overlooked.

In Book 2, Calvin works his way through the Ten Commandments.  He approaches them as the guide for the life of a Christian redeemed by God’s grace in Christ.  As part of his explanation of the Eighth Commandment (“You shall not steal”), he points out that this commandment also means that Christians are bound to fulfill whatever duties they have been given, “to pay their debts faithfully” so to speak (Institutes 2.8.46).  He applies this to various callings in society:  rulers, parents, children, and servants.

Interestingly, he also applies the Eighth Commandment to pastors:

Let the ministers of churches faithfully attend to the ministry of the Word, not adulterating the teaching of salvation, but delivering it pure and undefiled to God’s people.  And let them instruct the people not only through teaching, but also through example of life.  In short, let them exercise authority as good shepherds over their sheep.

In other words, pastors obey the Eighth Commandment when they fully discharge their calling.  Particularly, we’re to proclaim the gospel with fidelity.  Anything less is to be considered as theft.  We are robbing God of what he is owed and we are robbing the people of God what they are owed from us.  I don’t think I’ve ever encountered that application before!

But, according to Calvin, sermon imbibers can also be thieves:

Let the people in their turn receive them as messengers and apostles of God, render to them that honor of which the highest Master has deemed them worthy, and give them those things necessary for their livelihood.

When parishioners fail to honor their pastors by listening to them and providing for them, Calvin points out that this is actually robbery.  But by attentive listening and loving support for their under-shepherds, Christians are following the Eighth Commandment.  Have you ever thought about this in those terms?  Didn’t think so.  But it makes sense, right?

 


Serial Expository Preaching

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When I was growing up, if our minister announced that he was going to have a series of sermons on a book of the Bible, we knew what to expect.  No matter the length of the book, this meant a series of 6-8 sermons.  It meant that, in each of those sermons, the minister would take one or two verses as his “text” and then work from that.  Those verses (the “text”) would generally be the thematic launching pad for dealing with other material in the context.  Each sermon would not only deal with the text, but also circle around the text in some way.

In my seminary training, this same approach was encouraged.  Our preaching professor suggested we preach with series of sermons on books.  We were taught to keep the series short (6-8 sermons) because people’s attention spans are limited.  We were also taught to isolate one or two verses as our “text” and then develop the sermon out of that.  If I’m not mistaken, this method was called the “analytic-synthetic” approach to sermon prep and delivery.  To be honest, I just called it plain confusing.  Sermons delivered with this method can suffer in terms of structure, making them difficult for listeners to follow.  I also found it difficult to prepare sermons in this way.  To me, it seemed unnatural, awkward, forced.

When I first started preaching (as a missionary), I largely followed my training.  However, since I was preaching to people who had not been accustomed to our CanRC preaching idiosyncrasies, I soon found that these methods were not effectively communicating God’s Word.  I wanted to be clear, not confusing.  Having done some reading and having heard others preach, I decided to try a more systematic and common-sense method of preaching.  I would take a passage of Scripture and in my sermon work through that passage from beginning to end.  No, it’s not a lecture.  You explain the text, but also throughout apply the text, and above all, demonstrate how that text points us to Christ.

As I finished up my missionary service and began serving a regular congregation, I began thinking more about what it means to preach in a series.  Is it necessarily true that a series on a book must be limited to 6-8 sermons?  I put the question out there on Facebook to gauge the sentiments of congregants and others.  I was encouraged to hear that people didn’t feel that this limitation was necessary.  So I said, “What if I were to preach straight through the Gospel of Mark, verse by verse?”  The consensus was: “Go for it.”  So I did.  I began preaching right through Mark, starting in 2007.  Mid-way through that series, I received a call to Hamilton and, after catching them up, I continued with the series there.  After over 70 sermons, I finished Mark in 2012.  Did anyone ever complain about that series being too long?  Never, at least not to my face or to my consistories.  In fact, quite to the contrary, people seemed to appreciate it.  I’m sold on “serial expository preaching” — preaching that goes through the whole book, verse by verse, beginning to end.

Over nearly 16 years of ordained ministry, I’ve now preached completely through several books:  Ruth, Jonah, Haggai, Mark, and Colossians.  Some of these are obviously shorter and took less time.  Colossians was 18 sermons, preached over about a year and a half.  Earlier this year I started on the Gospel According to John.  This will be another epic series.  This past Sunday, I preached my 13th sermon and that was on John 3:9-15.

To clarify, when I preach straight through a book that doesn’t mean that I’m going to do it every single Sunday, Sunday after Sunday.  I do take breaks and do some other things along the way.  Sometimes I will insert a smaller series on a shorter book — I’ve also done a couple of thematic series looking what different Scripture passages say about certain issues or challenges.  During the summer months, I often ask congregation members for suggestions on texts that they’d like to hear sermons on.  Besides those occasions, we also have Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Christmas, public professions of faith, ordinations, etc.  So it’s not like a congregation is going to only get a steady diet of one book every Sunday morning.

What are some of the advantages to serial expository preaching?  For a busy preacher, it means that you become proficient (and efficient) in working with one particular book.  For example, there’s the area of canonics when doing exegesis.  Canonics involves familiarizing yourself with the human author of the book, the circumstances in which the book was written, the original audience, the structure of the book, the book’s theme(s), etc.  After preaching through the first five or six passages, a preacher is going to have the canonics down cold.  While you might briefly review it when looking at a new text, it will not take up much of your time.

On another level, following this approach means that you don’t have to spend any time searching for your next passage.  Text choice is already decided upon, saving time.  Moreover, you can purchase commentaries and other resources accordingly.  If you know that you’re going to be spending the next couple of years in John, you can purchase a few good commentaries on John and you’ll have what you need on hand.

In terms of advantages for the congregation, they are exposed to the full-range of God’s revelation in a particular book.  They are not subjected to the minister’s whims in choosing a text, but they will get to hear everything from that book.  That will include difficult or challenging passages that a minister might otherwise want to bypass — for example, in preaching through Mark, I was forced to deal with the thorny question of divorce and remarriage.  This approach also models how to study and read the Bible.  When we read the Bible, we read it in the obvious way, straight through.  Why shouldn’t preaching do the same?  That brings me to another advantage:  clarity for the listener.  When a listener has their Bible open and they’re following an expository sermon, they will know where the minister is at in the text.  They can say, “Oh, we’re at verse 12.  He’s explaining and applying verse 12.”  It then also becomes clearer that the minister is not sharing his own thoughts or opinions, but preaching the Word of God.  Serial expository preaching is more transparent preaching.

There are some limitations to this approach.  One is the acknowledgement that not every book of the Bible is the same.  For example, the Psalms cannot be treated the same way as Mark or John.  While I think there is some structure to the Psalter in its canonical form, it’s not as developed or obvious as in a narrative book.  Moreover, the Psalter is not even really a book — it’s more of a collection.  Proverbs is another example of a collection.  I can’t see myself ever preaching serially, verse-by-verse, through Proverbs.  I have preached on a number of individual Proverbs, but I don’t believe this book lends itself to the method I’ve been describing.

When it comes to the epistles, there are passages where the logical progression follows the numerical order of the verses and you can proceed verse-by-verse.  But sometimes the thought process in the passage requires the preacher to take a different approach.  For instance, in some passages there is a clear structure known as a chiasm.  You can’t work straight verse-by-verse through that.  It’s not meant to be treated that way.  There obviously has to be some flexibility.

Am I saying that serial expository preaching is the only and best way to preach?  No, not at all.  I’m comfortable with it and I’ve benefited from it.  From the feedback, I’ve received over the years, it sounds like congregations do work with it and have been blessed by it.  Really, all I can do is commend it for your consideration.


Sometimes I Still Don’t Get It

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I blew it the other day.  I had an amazing opportunity to share the gospel with people who might not otherwise hear and I messed it up.  Almost a week later and I’m still kicking myself for a bush league mistake.  Before I confess the nature of my goof-up, let me give some back story here.

When I was a university student many moons ago, we had an evangelistic effort at the University of Alberta called the Areopagus Project (named after the place Paul addressed the Athenians in Acts 17).  Part of the Areopagus Project involved a literature table in a high-traffic location on campus.  One day a week, we had students taking turns at manning this table.  We handed out Bibles, but also tracts and other Christian literature.  Being an aspiring writer, I decided to have a run at writing a couple of tracts myself.

Around the same time, the Internet was this brand new thing, and on the Internet there was this Reformed e-mail discussion list called “Ref-net.”  I was one of the early contributors.  It started off as a thing amongst CanRC university students, but eventually morphed to include all sorts of other people.  The Ref-net was a good place to throw ideas out there and get some feedback.  I took the tracts I had written and posted them to the Ref-net and asked for input.  I’ll always be grateful for something Angelina wrote.  She said that we have to be careful with our Christian jargon.  There are a lot of terms that we use as Christians and we take for granted the meaning of these terms.   We expect that an unbeliever is going to right away understand all our biblical and theological vocabulary.  Angelina gave me some concrete suggestions for improving these tracts in that regard — terms that I needed to explain if I was going to use them or, better yet, use words that an average unbeliever will immediately grasp.  I took the lesson to heart.

I also tried to take the lesson to the mission field.  When I became a missionary in 2000, I kept Angelina’s advice in mind.  Whenever I taught and preached, I always tried to remember that I was speaking to people who were not only limited in their English comprehension (as speakers of English as a second language), but also rather biblically illiterate.  I always had to be conscientious of my audience and try to keep things as simple as possible.  Even today as a pastor in a regular church, I don’t expect that every one is going to always immediately remember the meaning of words like justification, sanctification, or propitiation.  Explain, explain, explain.  Try not to take anything for granted.  You could have someone in the pews who’s listening, really listening, for the first time.  It could be a visitor, but it could also be a young member who’s finally starting to listen, or maybe even an older member who otherwise daydreams.  Lay it out for them.

So there I was last week at a funeral facing a large audience made up mostly of folks who rarely, if ever, walk through the doors of a church.  I was asked to preach on Psalm 23.  This psalm presents incredible evangelistic potential and I tried to work with that.  It’s not hard to preach Christ from Psalm 23.  As I was preaching, I had a well-placed source in the audience who couldn’t help but pay attention to some of the reactions around her.  I spoke repeatedly about how David was saying this and saying that.  Audience members were heard to say to one another, “Why is he talking about David?  It’s Bryan’s funeral.  He keeps saying the wrong name!”  Face palm.  That’s my face.  My palm.  My bad.  I failed to say anything about the author of the Psalm as background — I just assumed that everyone knew that King David from the Old Testament wrote Psalm 23.  It wasn’t in the program with the Bible reading either.  That name “David” just dropped out of the sky and it confused and distracted listeners.  I over-estimated the biblical literacy of my audience and it presented somewhat of an obstacle to my presentation of the gospel message.

Normally I try to keep these things in mind, but this time around I dropped the ball.  Now you might say that it’s not a big deal, that the Holy Spirit can still work through a jar of clay even with a less-than-perfect message.  Yes, I believe that too and it does give me comfort.  And have I ever preached anything else besides a less-than-perfect message?  No, even my best sermons are stained with sin and plagued by weakness.  Yet I still want to be as effective a gospel communicator as I can.  After all, souls are in the balance.  I feel the weight of eternity on me every time I preach.  As I looked at all the faces in front of me last week, I remembered that they are all either going to heaven or hell — forever.  It’s ultimately in God’s hands, but I want to be his instrument so that they can know Christ and eternal life in him.  Because he is worthy, I want to honour him with a full-on effort where no one can walk away and say that they didn’t get it.  They might not believe, but they should still be able to know exactly what they’re rejecting.  Responding to the message is their responsibility.  Giving a clear message to which they have to respond is mine.  Should God give me another chance, I’m going to try and remember Angelina’s advice.