Yesterday, I had the opportunity to do something again that I love— preaching. However, the preparation this week was a little harder and more stressful than I am used to. I don’t fully understand why, but the text I was assigned to preached from, Psalm 40, was a challenging one to me. Maybe it was because it had so many different themes that I didn’t feel like were all connected so perfectly. After all, some people think Psalm 40 was two different psalms that were later put together into one chapter.
But, the amazing thing was that even though I didn’t feel like it would be the best sermon I ever preached, many people told me after service that I did a good job with the sermon, and that my translator and I did a good job with the presentation. I have gotten used to the encouragement that people give over the years after a sermon, and I want to write down a few thoughts about that for anyone else who is in the business of preaching or teaching the Bible.
- Expect encouragement
Over the years, as God has shown me both through experience and through his Word, he has created the church to be a conduit for blessing and encouragement (Read Ephesians 4 for example). This is not always true for every church (if it’s not, I would encourage you to consider finding a new one or working for reform in yours). But, when a church is healthy, this will be a natural thing—people encouraging one another.
However, you have to understand that encouragement often happens first for the people who get the most time on the microphone. This is not necessarily good, and we should always be encouraging and thanking the people who cook the food and run the sound board and projector as well, but because when you are preaching, you are standing in front of a group of people poised to encourage for 30 minutes to an hour, you are most likely to get the full force of their praise. Which leads to my next point:
- Don’t let people’s praise become your motivation
At this point in my life, I think the greatest challenge in preaching is not studying the Bible, coming up with good illustrations, applying it to culture and to individuals, or answering the objections of non-believers. For me (maybe this is not true for everyone) the greatest challenge in preaching is in my motivation for doing so. I love the encouragement that I get from brothers and sisters when I have had the opportunity to teach them, but when those words of affirmation become my primary motivation for preaching, I am in a very dangerous place.
At this point, I stop challenging them, because I want their praise, not their anger. I stop being prophetic. And I stop calling Christians to continual repentance. When that happens, the church becomes stagnate, and we have all but lost any hope of reaching the unbelieving world.
- Let the words of affirmation encourage your heart, but turn the spotlight on others
There is a tension that we have to walk in where we let the encouragement feed our souls without making it an idol or our primary motivation for preaching. I sincerely love it when people tell me I did a good job. It encourages me to keep preaching. (I also love it when people challenge me with feedback of how I could communicate something better). But, I also realize, as I said before, that there are other people who need to be praised too. So, I want to remember to suggest that people should say thank you to the other people who served to make the worship gathering possible, especially those whom most people don’t see.
Because of God’s grace (and the kindness of many pastors in my life), I have had the opportunity to preach from the Bible in different settings for about 10 years now. One preaching lesson I have learned in that time is to preach (and read) the Bible within its entire context.
One of the errors that we as preachers and Bible teachers can make is making our point too strong and without nuance. Anecdotally, I have heard preachers choose their favorite ministry practice or theological topic and say something like this: “Does it say ______? No, it says ________.” I know when I hear that phrase, we are going somewhere undesirable. (Not to say that this particular word structure is inherently bad.)
Think about this hypothetical scene. One pastor– we’ll call him John– is passionately against church marketing. John cringes when churches use a budget to pay for boosted Facebook posts, search engine spots on Google, billboards on the side of the road, and mailers.
John is preaching from Matthew 28:18-20 and he gets to the place where Jesus says, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” He wants to make a point of application, so he says something like this: “Does Jesus say go into all the world and hand out fliers? Does he say go into all the world and put your sermons on the internet? No, he says go into all the world and make disciples. We don’t need to worry about all these other things, we just need to preach the gospel.”
While it is true that Jesus didn’t say this (he’s not lying), the problem is, these are not necessarily in contradiction to one another, and I would be highly suspicious that the churches that use these ministry practices didn’t get them from an application of Matthew 28:18-20. In fact, most likely, they got it from application of a text like 1 Corinthians 9:19-24 where Paul says, “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some (emphasis added).”
So what happened in this hypothetical scene? John made his point too strong. Because he made his point too strong, he actual criticized something that the Bible doesn’t. He became more strict than God.
What did this do to the people who were listening to John preach? Now, some of them believe that churches shouldn’t have a marketing budget and should “just preach the gospel.” Now, they are criticizing brothers and sisters who haven’t done anything wrong, brothers and sisters who have a sincere desire to reach people with their methods. And, John’s listeners are forming a wall in their heart to Paul’s word in 1 Corinthians 9. They are also closing their eyes to the fact that Jesus himself did not just “preach the gospel” but did acts of service as well. By making his point too strongly from one text, John started building walls in the hearts of his hearers that shouldn’t be there.
What I would like to see more of in myself and in other preachers and Bible teachers is more AND’s. The Bible teaches this AND that. We don’t want to build a hardness of heart in people for one part of the Bible because we are teaching another part too strongly—we want to be able to say, like Paul, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27; emphasis added).”
I learned one of the most important leadership lessons of my life (so far) as a teenager in a youth worship band. For one, when I tried to join our youth band, someone should have suggested that I be tied up with bands rather than trying to join one. That is not my area of gifting. I can “make a joyful noise” (Ps. 98:4) from the crowd without feeling the need to lead in singing or playing of any kind. (It helps that I married a singer).
Nonetheless, there I was worshiping Jesus with a tribal-looking hand drum in a room full of sweaty teenagers. Not only was I bad, but I knew I was bad, which led me to a crisis point where I had to make a decision. See, the reason I was in that position in the first place is because our band didn’t have a drummer. So, I stepped in (because I have hyper-responsibility issues). However, when it came time to face the facts, and either throw myself into mastering this instrument or quit, I talked with my youth pastor about it, and he gave me a leadership principle that I have used to sift through issues ever since: letting the tension stand.
Letting the tension stand is when there is a role that is not being filled, and a person who is not qualified, trained, or gifted for that role enters it to fill the need instead of letting there be a season where that need is unfilled in order to find the right person.
This kind of situation is a tricky one, and it happens often in organizations (especially in the world of ministry). It’s dangerous because, once someone takes a role or gets into a position, it is hard to remove that person without resulting in some kind of hurt or stress. Even though it would cause tension to let the role go unfilled for a season, that season would be much less painful, and would have a much better outcome in the end, than if an unfit person runs to fulfill that role just because there is a need.
In my own life, I have used this principal to temper myself when I see opportunities to serve somewhere. Whenever I am presented with an opportunity, I almost always ask myself, “Is there a person (or a kind of person) who is better equipped to do this than I am?” If so, even if that person has not appeared yet, I will let the opportunity go, because I know that it is better to leave the spot open so when that person does come, it will be ready for them.
The converse of this can be very awkward. Have you ever been in an environment where there were people who were clearly better at something than the person currently doing it? Maybe it was an area of music or teaching or management or sports. The natural result is that the right people won’t get fit into the right spots because someone else is already there. And if those people have character, they won’t be about lobbying for the other person’s position. Usually, what happens in these circumstances, is the people with real potential leave the organization (church, team, etc.) and go start or join another one where they can be used in their areas of gifting. When that happens, the original place starts the declining process, because they are losing, rather than using, talented and gifted people.
In order to master this principle, we have to be mature enough to be okay with tension. We have to be okay with a type of “pruning,” where we go without something good for a season, so that we can have something great later on.
There are many methods that God uses to grow Christians into fuller maturity (sanctification). I have often thought about, for example, how time is an overlooked aspect of sanctification. You can read every page of the Bible, sing every praise song known to man, and share the gospel with every human on the earth, but unless you are a Christian for a certain amount of time, those events and experiences will not reach their full potential as agents of change to grow us closer to God and to make us more like Jesus. Just like with our physical bodies, it simply takes patience to grow. “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9; emphasis added).
Another aspect that I have been excited to have the opportunity to witness more this year than ever before in the past is reading the Bible with new believers. Have you ever seen a movie, play, or concert–or eaten at a restaurant that was so good that you wanted to take someone else with you and go have the experience again? I think the reason we do that is because when we see someone else experience something amazing for the first time, we get to– in a way– experience it for the first time again.
I have been a follower of Jesus for about 13 years now and would consider myself someone who knows the Bible well. Even though the Holy Spirit very often shows me new application of the truth of Scripture, or new ways that the truths of the Bible fit together, I never gain any new information about it, for the simple fact that I have read it all.
Because of this, I found myself really excited this year when I got to start studying the Bible weekly with a new believer here in Thailand. Like many Christians here in Northern Thailand, he is the first person in his family to become a follower of Jesus, so he did not grow up hearing Bible stories.
Not long ago, we studied about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. He sat there saying, “whoa!” in amazement as we studied through the story. For me, that was one of those moments where I got to see that story through the eyes of someone who was experiencing it for the first time.And that feeling can be addicting.